Steven had a habit of biting his nails. He’d been doing it since he could ever remember. As a child he would bite his toe nails just as often as he’d bite his finger nails which was about once every couple of weeks or so depending on how fast his nails grew between each nail biting session. For Steven, nail biting was more than a habit. It was a compulsion. An addiction. Something he couldn’t resist or stop himself from doing.
Every so often Steven would bite the corner of his nail (finger or toe) and rip it straight down to the quick. This, for most people, would result in excruciating pain. For most people, the pain of ripping a nail down to quick would be downright debilitating. That wasn’t the case for Steven. Steven had ripped his nails down to the quick so many times that the pain was entirely tolerable. For Steven, the pain was minor. He wasn’t a masochist, getting off on the pain, it was just something he could manage. The pain of biting too far down was just part of game. Part of the risk. This was not a problem Steven had to deal with all that often due to the fact that Steven was a nail biting expert. He knew exactly how to bite his nails so it looked like he had just come from a professional nail salon. He had been giving himself professional looking mani–pedis with his teeth since he was a young child. It was something he took pride in. Something he was good at. Really, really good at.
Steven knew he shouldn’t bite his nails, especially his toe nails. His family made it perfectly clear that his nail biting was not socially acceptable, especially in their house. “Ewww,” his sister Renee would say loud enough to alert their parents. “Mom, he’s doing it again. He has his foot in his mouth and he’s biting his toe nails!” Renee would sneer at Steven as he gnawed away at his feet. “Mom, he’s collecting all his nails in a pile and stacking them on the coffee table, again. He’s so gross! Mom, make him to stop!” Steven didn’t mind that his sister was disgusted. He actually liked it. He thought it was funny how she was so repulsed by his nail biting and how he collected them in a pile to be disposed of later. Anything to torment Renee who always seemed to go out of her way to torment him.
His parents on the other hand were a different story. It wasn’t so much that he cared about what they thought of his nail biting, which he didn’t. Steven knew, like Renee, they too were disgusted by him biting his nails- fingers and toes. Rather, his biggest concern was that he didn’t want his parents to catch him in the act, for his parents’ ridicule was regularly followed by some sort of corporal punishment. A swat to the back of the head or smack across the face were the most common means of punishment. “What are you? Some kind of animal?” His father would bellow. “Use the nail clippers like a normal person, you maniac,” Steven’s father would say right before smacking him on the back of the head.
In Steven’s house, there was one single pair of nail clippers. The family’s nail clippers. Old, slightly rusty nail clippers which his mother or father probably owned before knowing each other. Long before Steven even existed. The family nail clippers were never there when Steven needed them. They were always somewhere far. Somewhere far like the bottom of his parents’ bathroom junk drawer which was upstairs, down a hallway, then through one door which got him into their bedroom, then through yet another door which opened up into their bathroom. Once in the bathroom, he’d have to rummage through his folk’s bathroom junk drawer which was always filled with used dental floss, rusty old pennies, tampons, broken cigarettes, mint Chiclets, disposable razor blades and whatever nefarious debris his mother and father would jettison from their pockets after a hard day of doing whatever they did. Further complicating his nail clipper fetching was the fact that Steven was strictly forbidden from entering his parents’ bedroom without asking permission and asking permission for anything always seemed to result in an interrogation of the third degree. Steven knew exactly what his parents (mother or father) would say if he asked permission to go into their bedroom to retrieve the family’s nail clippers. Why? What for? What do you need? For your nails? Let me see your nails. They look fine to me. You’ll cut ‘em too short. Stop bothering me. Go outside. Go play. And whatever you do- Don’t bite your nails!
Why go through all that trouble for stupid nail clippers? Steven would think to himself. Why go through all that trouble of getting off the couch, going upstairs, opening doors, and rummaging through a filthy junk drawer? Not to mention the whole asking his parents’ permission to enter their bedroom thing, which never went well. A bedroom which always seemed to stink of, in equal parts, his father’s cologne, cigarettes, mildew, stale air and a final mystery odor which Steven could not identify until he was few years removed from living under his parents’ roof. (That final element in the tornado of stank which permeated the air of his parents’ bedroom was undoubtedly sex; Steven would conclude years later.) Why go through all that trouble when my mouth is right here? Steven would think. Nail clippers are for amateurs anyway, Steven thought. I am a professional. A professional nail biter.
So, undeterred by his sister’s heckling and the threat of violence from his parents, Steven continued gnawing away at his nails with the precision of a professional manicurist, pedicurist.
As the years passed and Steven grew from a child to a teenager, he learned it was best that he hide his nail biting from his family. It just made his life easier. His sister Renee, no longer was reacting to him as she once did. Renee, now nearly an adult, would just stare at him with fiercely angry, cold eyes and say, “You-are-vile,” before leaving him to gnaw away at his nails, alone. That hurt Steven a whole lot more than the tantrums Renee would have thrown years earlier when she caught him, in the act. Steven’s parents’ reaction stayed about the same throughout the years. A verbal dress down followed by a smack to the face or a swat to the back of the head. But now he was older and the smacking and swatting hurt more than ever. Not physically. It never really hurt physically. Rather, emotionally, psychologically- it hurt. It made him feel like a loser. A failure. Inadequate. It made him feel like he wasn’t normal and that really, really hurt. So, in the privacy of his bedroom, or bathroom, or when the family was far, far away from the house, Steven would bite his nails- fingers and toes. Still in earnest, but now, always in private.
Two days before Steven’s first day of his senior year of high school, he was at it again. His old habit. Gnawing away at his nails. He was home alone on a summer day when his parents were both at work. Renee, now out of high school but still living at home, was also away doing whatever it was she did. Steven knew he had at least three, maybe four hours before his parents returned from work and ruined the tranquility he was feeling as he watched television and did nothing. Well not, nothing. There was the nail biting.
Steven always started with his fingers. Thumb first, then he would work from his index finger down to his pinky. Slowly, meticulously biting. This wasn’t a race to the finish. Rather, it was an art project with which Steven would take his time and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Can’t go into senior year with long nails, Steven thought to himself, half joking, half serious. He always started with his left hand which now was about complete. As usual, he stacked his nails in a neat little pile to be disposed of later. Now for the right hand. Right hand, right thumb. Then, right hand, right index finger. Middle finger, ring finger, pinky finger. His fingernails were now finished. Steven put his hands out in front of him; fingers extended straight out, so he could take a gander at his handy work. Not bad, he thought. A bit jagged though. Jagged nails were not something Steve tolerated but they were an easy fix for a pro-nail biter like himself. Steven put the jagged nails between his teeth and, like he always did, used the sides of his lower front teeth to file down the jagged edges of his fingernails until they were perfect. Again, like every woman at every nail salon in the world has ever done, Steven put his hands out in front of him; fingers extended straight out, and examined his handy work. Perfect, he thought. Not too short, not too long. Absolutely, perfect.
Now, to his toes.
Much like his fingers, Steven always started with the left side and then worked his way to the right. But, instead of working from big to little (thumb to pinky) which he did with this fingers, he liked to work little to big (pinky toe to big toe). He thought the pinky toenail was the most difficult and least rewarding so he preferred to get that one out of the way first. The big toenail was the easiest and most rewarding. All this was just part of the routine. So, like countless times before, Steven contorted himself and pulled his left foot up to his mouth. The repetition of doing this over the years made him quite flexible. Flexible enough to put his foot entirely over his head. He could even put his foot far enough over his head to rest it on his shoulder, behind his neck. But that was a parlor trick, and he wasn’t practicing any tricks here. He was giving himself a world class pedicure… with his teeth. Once the left one was completed he stretched out his foot, extending the toes straight out so he could examine his work. No bad, he thought. Not bad at all.
Steven thought his right foot had better nails than his left foot, which it did. The nails on his right foot grew strong, straight and healthy. They looked to have a natural gloss to them. Steven’s nails on his left foot were okay, but the nails on his right foot were excellent. He began with his right foot the same way he did with his left. First the pinky toenail. Then the fourth toenail. Followed by the middle toenail, and then the index toenail.
It was at this time when Steven’s father walked into the room. He entered through the garage and unintentionally snuck up behind Steven without Steven hearing him. He watched Steven on the recliner, television on, with his foot pulled up to his mouth for just a few seconds. At first Steve’s father thought his son was stretching. That was a natural conclusion anyone would make when watching someone with their foot pulled up toward their face. It only took those few short seconds of watching Steven for his father to realize that his son was about to chomp down on his own big toenail. “Steven, that’s disgusting!” Steven’s father roared as he smacked his son in the back of the head, hard. Harder than ever before. Hard enough to whip Steven’s unsuspecting head forward toward his foot. Hard enough for his foot, which was already in Steven’s mouth, to knock out his front two teeth.
In an instant, blood was everywhere. It came flooding out of the two holes in Steven’s mouth that moments before contained his two front teeth. Suddenly Steven felt himself choking. The teeth which were just knocked out of his head were in his mouth trying to make their way down his throat. The tickle of teeth on the back of his throat made him gag. Then more choking. With blood streaming out of his mouth and down his face, Steven began to panic. “Oh, Son-of-a..!” Steven’s father exclaimed as he grabbed his son and began giving him the Heimlich maneuver. As his father pulled up against Steven’s abdomen in proper Heimlich fashion, more and more blood gushed from his mouth. “Cough, Steven. Cough!” His father shouted. Steven tried to cough as his father performed the Heimlich. More blood. Steven’s coughs were more gagging than coughing. Gag. Gag. Then finally, as Steven’s father pushed on his son’s abdomen, Steven swallowed the source of his throat blockage. Steven swallowed his two front teeth.
With tears running down his face, blood flowing out of his mouth and breathing as hard as ever before, Steven turned to his father. While father and son were in the same place physically, they were miles apart emotionally. Steven was trembling. He was relieved to be alive. Relieved to not be choking on his own teeth. He was embarrassed to have been caught with his foot in his mouth. And he was angry with his father for smacking him so damn hard. Steven cried.
Steven’s father stared back into his son’s eyes with raw furious anger. He was as mad and more embarrassed with his son than any time before. He was livid. Of course he was relieved Steven was alive and the choking had stopped but now he wanted nothing more than to choke Steven himself. He, like Steven, was embarrassed to have caught Steven with his foot in his mouth. And he was angry with himself about how he smacked Steven. Not angry that he smacked his son too hard. Angry that he didn’t smack his son hard enough. Steven’s father did not cry, like his son did. He just stared at him. Ashamed.
After a few moments of staring at each other, Steven’s father let out a deep sigh, and said, “Okay. Let’s go.” Steven knew he meant to the hospital. His father may have smacked him in the back of his head for biting his toenails but he was still a good father and Steven knew it. Steven wiped his tears, calmly grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen to help stop the bleeding, and followed his father out to his car.
Not a word was said between father and son, going to or coming from the hospital. Fortunately for Steven, the emergency room doctor was able to stop the bleeding and gave him something for the pain. Unfortunately for Steven, the ER doctor informed him and his father that if the teeth were retrieved within the next few days, most likely, the teeth could be saved. This news made Steven’s father very happy for he had convinced himself on the drive to the ER that the cost of replacement teeth would bankrupt him. Steven on the other hand, shook his head in silent frustration knowing for the next few days he’d be stuck trying to fish his two front teeth out of his own shit. The ER nurse was kind enough to give Steven a box of latex gloves on his way out. He shot her a goofy toothless smile in appreciation which made her laugh.
Steven’s senior year of high school started and Steven still hadn’t retrieved his two front teeth. After three days, still nothing. After a week, still nothing. He couldn’t bear to go to school another day without his two front teeth. This was supposed to be his big year. His senior year. This was the year Steven was going to come out of his shell. This was the year he was going to go to parties. This was the year he was going to get a girlfriend and with any luck, this was the year Steven was going to get laid. Now Steven was convinced none of this was going to happen. Now he was convinced he would never come out of his shell. Never go to parties. Never get a girlfriend, and never get laid. Now he was stuck in a nightmare. A big toothless nightmare. Every day that passed made Steven panic just a little bit more. After two full weeks of digging through his own shit, still nothing.
After three toothless weeks and countless piles of shit, still nothing. For the first time in his life, Steven was depressed. Truly depressed. Clinically depressed. His mother was concerned. She called their family doctor who informed her that his teeth, wherever they were, were long dead and useless. The doctor told her that the only course of action was to get Steven some nice, fake, permanent, replacement teeth. When the doctor told Steven’s mother the cost for the good, nice, fake, permanent, replacement teeth, she gasped in horror. She didn’t have that kind of money. She then looked over at Steven, who was looking as depressed and pathetic as ever. Her baby boy. Steven was now a senior in high school, nearly a man, but still and forever her baby boy. Her depressed, toothless, baby boy. She told the doctor they’d be in tomorrow to get Steven his replacement teeth. Good, nice, fake, permanent, replacement teeth.
The next day while at their family doctor’s office, Steven passed his two front teeth. He stared at them, contemplating whether or not to fetch them from the bottom of the toilet bowl. He knew the fake teeth were expensive. Very expensive. Too expensive. He stared at his teeth for a long while, thinking. Thinking of his father smacking him in the back of the head. Thinking of how cheap his father was and how his mother was probably paying for his new fake teeth out of her own savings. Thinking of his sister teasing him for his habitual nail biting. Thinking of his senior year of high school and how he hoped it would be his best year ever and how it was turning out to be his worst. He wondered if he should grab them and keep them as a souvenir of sorts. Alas, Steven flushed the toilet and watched his real two front teeth swirl around the bowl and go down the drain. Now, truly, gone forever.
Steven’s new fake two front teeth were good. In fact, they were perfect. A perfect fit. A perfect color. They even made his teeth look straighter than they were before.
Months passed. The kids at his high school forgot that Steven didn’t have his two front teeth for the first few weeks of the school year. The truth was they didn’t care. His social life was just about as good as it would have been had he not started his senior year with his two front teeth missing. That is to say, it was pretty bad. The unfulfilled expectations; failed dreams of what he hoped his social life would be his senior year of high school, started to wear on Steven. He was hardening. He was constantly cranky. Angry. Bitter. To Steven, all his male classmates were dicks. All his female classmates were sluts. Steven knew, starting his senior year without his two front teeth was not to blame for his lacking social life. Steven blamed the truth, which was that coming out of your shell your senior year of high school is hard. Unless you’re a slut, Steven thought. Steven always envied the sluts. So easy having a good senior year when you’re a slut, Steven would think to himself. Almost too easy.
The night before Steven was to take his senior yearbook picture, while lying on his bed, flipping through his pre-calculus book; his addiction reared its ugly head. After months of being on the wagon, he was off. After months of not biting his nails, he was doing it again. At this point, he had nearly forgotten the misery he experienced just a few months prior. At this point, it was a distant memory. A memory, faded. So, unconscious of his actions, without really even being aware, Steven started biting his nails, again. Same routine. Left hand first, then his right. Perfect. Then, his toenails. Left foot first. Perfect. Then, his right foot. His good foot. Pinky toenail, then the fourth toenail, middle toenail, and then his index toenail. All done with the precision of a professional pedicurist. Then a crunch, followed by pain. Suddenly all the forgotten memories of knocking his two front teeth out of his mouth came rushing back. Suddenly the memories were no longer faded. It was deja vu. Suddenly he was in a panic. He knew what he did without even seeing it. He knew he had chipped one of his new fake front teeth on his right foot’s big toenail.
Steven rushed to the bathroom to inspect the damage. His fears were confirmed. He chipped the bottom corner edge of one of his good, fake teeth. It wasn’t major, but it was definitely there. His fake tooth, once good, once perfect, was now chipped. Steven started to tear up. What an idiot, he scolded himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, idiot! Steven took a few deep breaths to calm his emotions. What’s done is done, he thought to himself. What’s done is done.
The next morning while at breakfast, his mother noticed the chip in one of Steven’s once perfectly good, fake teeth. She asked him to show her his teeth to confirm what she thought she just saw which he did without any hesitation. Overnight Steven had gone from tearful remorse to callused indignant acceptance. He simply didn’t care. His mother didn’t say another word. She was furious, but she was silent.
Steven took his high school senior yearbook photo that day. When the photographer asked Steven to smile he stared straight into the camera. No smile. All attitude. Steven looked more like a hardened criminal taking a mug shot before going away to prison than he did a high school senior about to graduate.
The chip in Steven’s tooth, gave him a chip on his shoulder. He accepted his imperfection. He owned it. It gave him character, he convinced himself. In college, Steven told some people he chipped his tooth on a beer bottle which he thought sounded cool. Other people he would tell that he chipped his tooth in a fight. A bar room brawl. Steven never, ever told anyone the truth. And he never, ever bit his nails (toes or fingers) ever again.
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