By the time we got back to the car, my fingernails tasted terrible. That little brown bottle with the bitter polish had done its worst.
I was five. My mind was as open as the Toys “R” Us parking lot sprawled beside the highway. In a desperate effort to kick my nail-biting habit, my mom had purchased some sort of disgusting translucent gloss at the retailer’s outpost off Bluemound Road. It looked like Rubber Cement.
By the time I unlatched a door to the backseat of our teal Ford Explorer, my nails were sufficiently coated. It was dusk, and it was exciting.
It was not effective. The urge to bite was stronger than the gloss was gross. The excursion is all a hazy childhood memory—a blue checkout counter and roadside asphalt under the slowly setting sun—but my nails haven’t been normal since that week in 1999. Not for lack of trying.
Not for lack of trying once, I should say. A therapist challenged me to quit in the summer of 2012. I did alright. But as soon as my nails grew barely past the tips of my fingers, an electric need to bite coursed constantly through my hands, a ceaseless dull tingle that made them twitch. My new nails lasted about a day. They’ve been perpetually snagged and stubbed ever since.
That first bite brought relief like orange slices at halftime. Like a cold shower after the beach. Like the inaugural sip of a chilled Miller Lite after a hot, frantic Friday.
Sometimes it’s mindless. Sometimes it’s very purposeful, a soothingly familiar exertion of physical energy to maintain control. It feels so, so good. A clean bite, a smooth tear. The pierce, the rip. Bitten to blood in the worst of times, and often in the best.
I shouldn’t be thinking about it, the profoundly satisfying pulls. A pandemic changes things. I took a clipper to my fingernails for the first time in my life last week. It’s detestable.
As I type, the feeling of my nails on the keyboard is intolerable. Each tap brings an urgent itch. The clicks disgust me. My stomach clenches. I ball my hands into fists to relieve tension from the ugly sensation. Nail-on-nail violence rages. I clench my teeth. Blink my eyes. I pick. I clip.
It’s funny. Here I am learning to trim my fingernails as an adult, no thanks to Toys “R” Us. (The Bluemound location closed in 2018.) That’s just nature, I suppose. It has a way of putting things in perspective.
Whatever middle-class anxieties drive me to bite have lost their power to the pandemic.