By: Molly McConnell
The parts of the nail are the nail itself; the nail bed, the skin underneath the nail; the nail folds, the skin around the nail; the cuticle, the strip of skin at the top of the nail that protects the base of the nail from infection; the eponychium, the skin of the cuticle and part of the nail folds.
Eponychium, from Greek: επί [epi] + όνυξ [onyx], which means “on the nail.” On the nail, that expression in English used when someone has said the exact thing they were supposed to say: you hit it on the nail.
I used to pick my cuticles. Used to, because I stopped two and a half months after my twenty-second birthday, which was the turn of the new year. Pick my cuticles, the act of scraping at the skin around my nails, most often my thumbnails, so much so the thumbnails began to grow in slanted and ridged. The skin would flap and gape open and sometimes bleed. There was always a new area or piece of skin to pick at.
Skin: dermis and epidermis, the outer layer of your skin, the part that protects and keeps out and in, the part that gives your skin color, the part made of sensors. Epidermis, from the Greek επί + δέρμα [epi + derma]. The epidermis is made of keratinocytes, which are made from keratin, a protein. Keratinocyte, from the Greek κέρας + κύτος, which means horn [of an animal] and cell or basket.
Keratinocytes exist in 5-week cycles. The new ones make their way to the surface around 5 weeks after being made, and the older ones fall off the body, dead. Before they fall, the layer of dead cells is called the stratum corneum, Latin, layer + horny sheath. It’s the tough part of skin that builds up in places like your feet. Picking at it is called onychophagia, from the Greek όνυξ [onyx] + έφαγον [efagon]: eating one’s nails.
When I stopped picking at my cuticles, picking, as though each small action was a choice, not just something I did repetitively and without thinking, thoughts took the place of cuticles, or perhaps thoughts had been picked at all along, my cuticles serving only as a physical manifestation of what happens in the brain.
When I stopped, I chose to make something about myself different. It was six months and counting into a breakup that would last. It wasn’t exactly a symbol or commemoration, but I’d gotten a tattoo already and still wanted an ending I could control. I wanted a change.
Change, like cuticles growing in and being picking and regrowing, my nail beds healing and offering themselves up again, fresh and whole, ready to be torn open. Torn open, like my heart each time I thought about what happened: what had happened, what would have happened, what could have happened.
It was as though the reaction to thoughts became a constant motion; instead of something triggering my thoughts, they became normalized. While picking at my thumbnails, I could be sitting, reading, watching TV, a movie, my friend’s face as she spoke to me. I could be sitting in class, in the car, at the dinner table, waiting, not waiting, not bored, bored, all of the things I could be and picking my cuticles depended on none of them. You could say that cuticle picking became the constant in a constant of change. To stop picking my cuticles was to accept that I actually had no control.
Control. Control of the present, of the future. Control of what could happen if that happened. Control meaning I could do something about it. That was what I picked at most. Still do, and even now, I find myself inching my middle finger toward my thumb, feeling up the lines of skin around my nail like a shy boy running his hand around the outline of a chest, over the shirt, hesitant. I do it even as I look down at them, smooth, growing back in level. Growing back in, the past and the present and the future all coming together, right there in a nail.
The past is what happened. The present is happening. The future is what will happen, what could have happened, what would have happened. Those last two aren’t really the future. They’re type 3 conditional sentences and mixed type conditional sentences.
Type 3 conditional sentences aren’t real sentences. Not real because the conditions in them are impossible: an impossible past condition + a result in the past. It’s not real because it didn’t happen and so will not happen. Mixed type conditional sentences are also not real. Not real because the conditions in them are an impossible past condition + a result in the present.
A type 3 conditional sentence: if he and I had stayed together, we would not have broken up. A mixed type conditional sentence: if he and I had stayed together, I would be with him now. But we didn’t. So we did. So I’m not. So I stopped picking at my cuticles.
Stopped, in the past. The past, what I pick at now, not the future. The surface of things, then, the dead layer of cells waiting to be picked off, is the thoughts I set myself up for, the conditional ones, the if this then that. Once those are gone, the dermis is revealed, the part the cuticle protects from infection, and what will protect it once the cuticle is gone? Nothing.
Once it’s gone, it takes time to grow back. But while revealed, I know that the conditional sentences change: if he and I had stayed together, I would have been unhappy.
And then my keratinocytes grow back. And my epidermis closes up over it. And I ask myself again. If I had not stopped picking my cuticles, I would not have fingernails left. If he and I hadn’t broken up, I wouldn’t have stopped picking my cuticles. They would have remained as they were, torn and broken, the skin ragged around my thumbnails: askew.
Molly McConnell is a writing coach in Thessaloniki, Greece. Her work can be found in Bad Pony Mag, Wraparound South, Roads and Kingdoms, and elsewhere. She thought writing in English was challenging until she began learning Greek.