Katie Darby Mullins: Down to the Quick
Photo: Joanna C Valente

Photo: Joanna C Valente


She doesn’t bite her nails anymore, which is good: once, when she was eight and trying to ice the pitcher in a softball game (right handed, but she batted left when they were behind), she chewed through a leather batting glove. I mean. Come on. Some of those had to be baby teeth. And yet: she hit it out of the park and brought enough people home to win the game, blood pouring down her fingertips.

That’s not the reason she’s been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but she knows it’s a part of the package. (Secretly, she loves the disorder: it’s what makes her function. She hates that people loop that in with all the other disorders, malfunctions, illnesses, and syndromes she could rattle off, but OCD: she’s pretty sure that’s not an issue, it’s a personality.) She would tell you about the real problems, the list of conditions (mental and physical), but that would be boring for you and for her. So instead, she just wants you to know this:

She stopped biting her nails when she was 25, after her six week stay in the hospital but before the tornado. This is a huge point of pride for her: who quits cold turkey during that much trauma? She did. She was that strong. She can survive pain, she tells herself. There was— what was that lyric? Did it matter? Elliott Smith, maybe. “I can deal with some psychic pain if it’ll slow down my higher brain”— that’s all the nails were. She bit them because sometimes it slowed things down. But she didn’t need it.

She didn’t need any crutches.

Still, though, when some people would go out and smoke, she was so jealous: why couldn’t she have a five minute break to burn all that anxiety, to make those repeated thoughts go away? Why couldn’t she just pick up smoking, or go chew gum?


Some people use booze or razors to shut those voices up, but she could just...bite down past the quick, hard. No scars, no permanent damage, but damn did it hurt. And as the cliche goes: she wanted to feel anything, as long as it wasn’t numb.

That’s not why she’s thinking about all this, though. Sometimes she wakes up at night and her nails have found their way to their home in her mouth. It’s more and more common these days— not chewed off, just hanging on the edge of her teeth. But tonight, she didn’t catch it, and when she heard her wife gasp, she realized the angle she had her fingers bent at gave off the shadow of a woman swallowing a gun. What a thing to wake up to, she thought. I haven’t bitten my nails in a decade. Alyssa must be so concerned.

Concerned. Even she realized that was a cold word to use. Alyssa must have been so much more than concerned. But, nails still in her mouth, she just couldn’t think of a better word.

“I’m not anxious, you know,” she said, even though when she locked eyes with Alyssa they both knew: this had nothing to do with her bloody fingers, and maybe it never did.

“I thought that was a gun,” Alyssa said.

“We don’t have a gun.”

Alyssa shook her head, as if to say ‘no,’ and then: “But what if you’d bought one? Then what?”

“With my history…” She trailed off. She could feel her thumbnail, and it was long enough that it was out past her fingertip. She wants so desperately just to take it back down, all the way. “I don’t even like guns.”

Alyssa turned the flashlight on on her phone. “Are they really still in your mouth?” Alyssa reached over and gently pulled the hand out of her mouth.

IloveherIloveherIloveherIloverher, she thought, trying to ignore the softness of the tip of her thumb, the way she’d soaked the nail, the way it would be so easy to just shave off a layer, no one would ever know. But Alyssa was trying to help. It was kind. She quietly decided to wait until Alyssa turned her flashlight off and was gently sleeping, the evenness and sound of her breathing covering up the little micro-sounds of the teeth on nails.

“Go to sleep,” Alyssa said, running her hand through the woman’s curly hair. It stretched and bounced and was frustratingly peaceful.

The woman did not want to go to sleep. She didn’t want Alyssa to be maternal, she wanted her to just be her wife. A kiss on the cheek, rolling over toward the wall in the dark. Alyssa began to give in to the darkness, though, as she always did: Alyssa wouldn’t ever let her go as far as she wanted to— as far as she needed to, sometimes.

She lied to you, at the beginning. She bites her nails. She just bites such small parts, or splits layers, and you can’t see her nail biting. It’s not as satisfying, sure, and it doesn’t hurt, but at least she is in control, she has something just for her. Sometimes she bites in the shower. Sometimes she waits until no one is near her at work, or on her way home in the car. But she can still slide her bottom incisor all the way down to the quick, and on a good day, she can still push it back and make it bleed, all without biting the entire part off.

Alyssa was stable. Her smell, some kind of earthy kindness, always seemed to invoke somnolence in the woman, and most nights started with her falling asleep, listening to breath and smelling her wife. But the truth was, neither of them were ever fully sure how far she would go. She tried to hold her eyes open, because she knew Alyssa wasn’t going to sleep anymore that night— she’d seen her own shadow on the wall, her thumbnail in her mouth and the fingers sticking up like she had turned a gun upside down. She would never do that to Alyssa. Not right next to her.

But as she slipped off, just for a moment, she tried to imagine tearing the whole nail off her thumb, out all the way from the cuticle. She drifted, though, and by the time she was out, her thumb and the salty taste of the blood had become cold, metallic.

Katie Darby Mullins teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville. She is an editor with both Measure Books and the University of Evansville Press, and has work forthcoming or printed in The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Iron Horse, BOAAT Press, Harpur Palate, and Prime Number. She is also the executive writer for Adam Duritz & Friends’ Underwater Sunshine Fest.