by Justin Greene
You go to shake my hand but you don’t because I’ve bled. My nails are dark in random corners but they are not random, these corners, the state of things. I am meticulous. I shuffle a cigarette from the pack like you ask, my two best fingers, right index and middle today, scissoring the filter to pull it out, slow, like a claw in a candy machine dropping it into your palm. You sit next to me, say thanks. You’re welcome, I answer, picking a fresh red wet across my left thumb. How are you doing today? I ask. You tell me you’re fine, but how am I?
Well, this morning I woke up with my flap half fused to the base of my nailbed. That’s a disappointment. I don’t work hard at this sort of thing but I work at it all the time, my thumbs scraping their no-nails against the skin until the flap starts to detach, a bright white nub spiring so long it collapses into a whip I tickle myself with. There are other shapes, too, like the patches with irregular ends that leave the tops of my fingers dull and pink and sometimes burgundy in all sorts of spots. I call these countries. As a kid, I would arrange them into a world, a cartography of skinlands to be traced onto printer paper. I’ve forgotten their individual names. That’s no longer my project.
This flap is important because I have low lunulae. They only peek out of my pinkies, pale slivers thin as my no-nails. But on my left middle finger, I pried the cuticle and pulled it down as far as I could without it fraying or falling and there it was, about an inch and a half of crescent, shining, bloodless. Usually there’s blood when the skin is pulled so far. Some of my scraps look like red velvet crumbs, coated and dried against the clean ones, the dead whites. Of course, the amount of blood also depends on the location, the sides of the bed permitting the longest pulls without carnage. I’ve stretched a whip across my thumbnail before, down to the middle of my fingerpad and then flagellated myself with it. Every strike gives a jolt, a gentle one, a pleasure.
But back to my day. I’ve been rubbing the half-flap back and forth with my index finger. Whenever I look at it it’s clean so I continue, shifting it against the live skin so I can pry inside and see my lunie hiding. When the skin is pulled off and piled with the rest, that spot will be raw. That’s the worst part, not the rawness but the loss, having to work on another piece of skin or even craft afresh on a different finger, the former site little more than keratin, muscle and blood.
I don’t try to bleed but it happens. I don’t try to pick but it happens, has for as long as I can remember. I’ve been told not to and have told those tellers I couldn’t help it until I actually couldn’t. I’d take off the kitchen gloves, only putting them back on when I’ve felt the need to hide my progress.
Now, I am scabby, sometimes wet. Besides the gloves, I used to cover my fingers in Band-Aids until I realized their effects, how they sogged the good skin, stripped its capacity for bondage.
I’d have all these scraps each day, so I started putting them in my front left pocket and bringing them home, settled in a loose dead wad and ready for the jar. It’s a very big jar. After years it’s almost full, but not full enough to make what I want: my project, a palace of skin.
But the walls won’t stay up, you may think, perhaps indignant, your cigarette vised between two pretty pincers. And that’s why I’ve done away with coverage. Sweat brittles the scraps. They will only hold with pressure, spit and blood. (There is glue but I don’t like it. This is my project and I want it to be me.) I wet the new ones while they’re still attached to me, then mash them into the core of reds and whites that have been crusting in the jar. Saliva seeps into the muscle and stings. This is the consequence of enzymes, of having nothing for a border.
My palace has defined borders: walls of callouses bent at angles sharp as nails, curved fingerlings shelling the roof, a patchwork of flattened countries tiling the interior like stained glass without the glass.
But you’ll never have enough skin, you may think and you may be right. But I’ve started toenails, too. Twiddling the hallux against a little vane of skin on the second toe is nice, especially when it peeks out from the duvet to get some air before bedtime. This is also pleasure, but it’s smaller. It’s nice, but it’s no flap.
Your cigarette is almost out so I offer you another. You eye my fingers like they’ve been in your mouth. Still, you accept it, smearing your hand against your pants after you ask me for my light.
But you could never live in this palace, you may think, and you may be right and I don’t care. I care about the ugly collar beneath my lunie, all of the blood I won’t let go to waste.
But why do you care about this flap, you ask, if you’re trying to build something out of flaps and whips and countries and that’s when I go up to you and brush it down your nose, so you will understand that pleasures don’t fight and you too can have them all.
Justin Greene is an MFA candidate concentrating in fiction at Louisiana State University. He currently serves as the editor in chief of New Delta Review.