Unknown by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

CW: anxiety, unraveling

Estefani’s phone vibrated. The screen read “unknown” and she declined the call. By then, she knew “unknown” usually meant debt collectors. 

She noticed the hangnail on her middle finger only after she dipped her nail in acetone. The burning sensation was quick and sharp. She sucked in air, teeth clenched, and let the pain pass. Estefani wiped the crimson polish off her nail, pressed tightly to steady the throbbing. She brought her middle finger to her mouth and found the soft dangling skin and bit down. The taste of iron and acetone coated the tip of her tongue. 

The phone vibrated again, rattling her wobbly side table. She sucked on her bleeding finger as she rushed to check her phone. “Unknown.” 

There was barely enough money in her bank account to pay rent next week. She’d have to find more dinner dates soon. She’d have to cancel her internet again. Probably pay half the light bill and ask for a payment plan for the gas. Was there anything she had bought that she could return? 

When the last layer of pearly white polish had dried, ready for her date that night, she checked her phone to read a missed text from her mother: 

¿Mija, me prestas dinero? I’ll pay you back next week. 

“If I work five more hours this week and donate more plasma, it should be fine,” Estefani said to herself.

She added her regular work hours plus the five and multiplied by $7.25 on her phone calculator.

“Fuck my life.”

Her mother texted again, ¿Andas enojada?

The bleeding had stopped but the hangnail was still there. 

I’m not mad. How much do you need? she replied. Estefani nibbled on the hardening skin and tugged, well aware she wasn’t going to get that money back. The tearing along her finger pricked but she didn’t stop. 

Estefani got her first credit card at eighteen, to buy things for her dorm. Even after maxing out the card, it was obvious by how little she had on her side of the room, that her family didn’t have much. Maxing out credit cards during Christmas became a regular habit too. She put groceries, bills, and sure, purses, shoes, dresses, and trips on her cards. 

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way! Go to college, they said. When she couldn’t find a job afterwards, they said go to graduate school. When she was unemployed after that, they said get a different degree

The phone vibrated again. Estefani gasped and held her breath, afraid to exhale too hard as if in doing so she might release something that needed to stay inside. It was like buzzing bees, her phone. She sent it to voicemail, not wanting to read the screen. Estefani scraped at her stubborn hangnail with her thumb, chipping her nail polish. 

She turned on the TV and nestled on the couch to calm herself. When she heard her phone buzz again, she raised the TV volume. After not being able to hear her own thoughts, she grabbed her phone to turn it off. She had a missed call from her mother. A text that read: $100. Estefani shoved it underneath the couch cushion. She looked at the TV screen but she couldn’t make out what the characters were saying or what was happening. But did it even matter? She stared and scraped. 

By the end of the show, she had managed to pull the hangnail to her knuckle. She left a line of raw skin along the side of her finger that reminded her of a hiking trip from long ago. Her tender flesh, the pinks, reds, and browns of a canyon. 

The buzzing returned—as screechy as a drill, at the dentist, and her teeth ached. “What is that?” she thought, holding on to her jaw. “Is that my phone?” Buzz buzz silence buzzbuzz. It couldn’t be!

Estefani noticed the blood on her hands when she reached for her phone one more time. She placed it on the bathroom sink, letting it vibrate while she cleaned up. Her body shivered as if the buzzing was inside of her. She considered answering but the thought only made her heart bang against her chest. Trickles of blood dotted the porcelain sink. Estafani plucked the hangnail until she reached her wrist. 

            “It’s okay,” she whispered to herself. 

After bandaging her hand, Estefani reached for some leftovers in the fridge and tossed her phone in a kitchen drawer. She didn’t get too far before a jackhammering startled her, linguini flew in the air and then plopped on the floor. She covered her ears with her hands and she felt her warm blood dribble down her forearm. The sound of the clanking drawer consumed her.

           “Stop!” She yelled, slamming the kitchen drawer over and over until the only sound was her heavy breathing. Her hangnail, the length of an untied shoelace, was caught in the closed drawer. Estefani jerked her arm, but the hangnail wouldn’t snap off. She yanked harder and harder and split her skin up to her shoulder, across her chest, down her belly, down her leg. 

The buzzing returned, the blood flowed, and tears streamed down Estefani’s face. 

“It’s fine. It’s fine,” she sobbed, as pieces of flesh fell off her. The hangnail, a thin rope of skin, laid in a pile on the floor, surrounded by brown and red pieces of herself. 

Even as her phone continued to vibrate, and the blood dripped, Estefani searched the drawers for a sewing kit, emptied every one until she found a needle and thread. It was her drooping shoulders that made her look tired, not the pieces of skin that clung off her like laundry on a line. She picked up a piece of flesh, softer than she’d imagined, and stitched it back to her forearm. Her hand trembled. “Push and pull. That’s life, mija,” her mother had said when she taught Estefani to sew. She sewed quickly, because her date would arrive soon. 

Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez has published stories in Hispanecdotes, Everyday Fiction, Acentos Review, Newtown Literary, So to Speak, Longreads, Lost Balloon, Reflex Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nurture Literary, Okay Donkey, and elsewhere. Sonia’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. She lives and teaches in Queens, New York.

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