The Nail Biter

A prose poem

It starts with an anatomical marvel: the perfect combination of the smooth surface of hardened nail and the rough whorls of softened skin. At the base, there’s a crescent shaped curve of white. This is a thumb. Your thumb, in fact.

But your thumb cannot remain perfect forever. You see an infinitesimal outgrowth of excess skin peeking out from under the nail. You could get off your chair and go to your sister’s room and use her tweezers to pluck it out. You could do that, but you’re too lazy to perform such an elaborate action when the solution is right in front of you. So you use your other thumbnail. And you dig and you pull and you dig and you pull, but skin wasn’t meant to be extricated at the slightest intervention. Skin was made to wrap around blood and hold your eyes and nose and mouth together. Skin was made to brave needles through injections and tattoos and piercings. Skin was made to take on bruises and scars. Skin was made to make us human. It wasn’t made to be stretched and extracted at a moment’s notice.

When you can’t open plastic packets of chips, Oreos and shampoo (side bar: why do you buy shampoo in packets again?) with your fingers, you use your teeth. Because your teeth are the cavalry, the big guns that get the job done. So you bring your imperfect thumb to your mouth, angle it correctly and start chewing. You clamp and pull and clamp and pull and clamp and then yank that outgrowth out with fierce menace, because you can’t really concentrate on anything else until you get rid of that minor annoyance. And get rid of it you do, but then in the process a bit of nail gets removed. Your teeth aren’t precision shots, they’re machine gunners. There was always bound to be some collateral damage. No matter, you bring them back to get the job done fully this time because you can’t have three quarters of a nail can you? All or nothing, that’s what your subconscious knows deep down inside and so in goes your nail. Again, there’s clamping and pulling and twisting and turning, and slowly the calcium white extension is removed from its moorings in the main dock. But when you get to the other end of the nail, spasms of pain shoot through your nerves from uprooting the base of the nail itself. So you cut off the majority of your haul and leave the rest be, but you can’t really leave it alone, can you? It has to be finished, the entirety of the nail must be removed, no blemishes can remain.

Back goes the rest of the nail, and you don’t care how much it hurts. You were built for this kind of pain since you were small, you’ve been biting your nails all your life. Everyone you know has seen your fingers and commented on how ugly they are. You’ve masked the ugliest one, your right index finger, as the remains of a horrific encounter with a mangy mutt; the skin around that nail is now yellow instead of the usual whitish pinkish brown. Whenever you meet someone, you hide the messier fingers from sight in a casual manner, because you don’t want to be explaining that side of you as a first impression. The pain of shame is greater than any physical pain.

But you pull too hard and then arrive at the base of the thumb, at the root, at the source of the nail. This is an impasse that requires patience and persistence, you have to ease the entire nail out. Slowly but surely, progress is made, until one final pull finishes it.

Tell that to the blood spurting out of this exit point. Suddenly your nail is flecked by red, and you rub it off on your jeans. But rub as many times as you want, there’s more where that came from. You can see different pieces of skin sticking out of your thumb now, you have to respond to them by biting them off. You chew nail and skin and swallow, not particularly enjoying how it tastes, but you’re not the kind of person who spits out parts of himself. But when your thumb comes in contact with the outside world, you are reminded of the sensitivity of the freshly bitten area with its unpredictable stings from touching spicy food and hot water and grasping objects tightly.

Recently, to combat this habit, which arises in anxiety and nervous situations and ennui, you’ve started chewing gum continuously to keep your teeth preoccupied because the idea of sticking your fingers into your mouth as you move a sticky substance around irks you. This strategy has worked for the last couple of years, but its now starting to wear off because your mind has adapted to accommodating sticky foreign substances in your mouth alongside nails that beg for some restructuring. Maybe its destined to be, you and your nails going to cycles of growth and death (by teeth), and finally at some point accepting the hidden truth.

That this is who you really are, a nail biter.


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