When I was a kid, I used to have to step between the cracks in the sidewalk, and only between the cracks in the sidewalk. I could only step twice between them. My feet were the exact length to fit two steps between each perfect concrete square that lined my neighbourhood from my elementary school back to my parents’ house.
There was one sidewalk piece that was a long rectangle. It curved around a corner and it had an extra crack running through it, probably from the sewage drain underneath it. Some extra moisture probably seeped into the concrete piece and split it across. It took me months to figure out how I was supposed to step through it. It required three steps and I never stepped on any of the cracks. I somehow rationalized that this one anomaly in my walk home was ok. At least I figured out how to walk through yet. Yet, I’m 27 now and I still think about that rectangle of concrete.
I don’t pay that much attention to how I walk across sidewalk blocks anymore. I don’t have to touch every button on the TV remote any time I change the channel anymore. I don’t have to sit up and lie back down three times and say to myself, “Ok, it’s time to sleep, just relax and sleep,” to get myself to relax and fall asleep. I don’t worry about falling asleep before midnight anymore. I don’t have panic attacks if I don’t fall asleep before midnight anymore.
I’m not as haunted by arbitrary measurements and guidelines as I as when I was a kid. I think I was about thirteen when I stopped needing such a strict routine in order to function. But, it’s not like I’ve been cured of all of my nervous habits either. I bite my nails. And when my nails are so short that pressing my fingers gives me a sharp pain through my hand, I chew on the skin underneath my nails.
I don’t know why I do this. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t taste good. It actually really grosses me out. I catch myself chewing on my nails or on my skin while I’m at my office. Once I notice I’m doing it, I stop myself and look around to see if anyone is staring. The only thing I can compare catching myself chewing my nails in public to is something like burping or farting in public. I look around to see if anyone noticed, unsure if I should excuse myself or just leave the room, I can’t tell if anyone even actually cares or is paying any attention.
Even though all the straight faces around me surrounding my cubicle all show a sign of apathy, I’m still convinced my stench has crept its way into each of their noses and the odour of my shame reeks like a decomposing body lying in the middle of the floor.
As long as I can remember I’ve always fixated on nails. Why cuticles? What was the trigger? Sadly, there was none. I don’t know if that would make this essay any more interesting or not. It’s like Michael Myers in Halloween versus Michael Myers in Halloween 2: is Michael Myers more interesting when his killing spree has no meaning or root, or is the family elimination purpose more interesting? I’m torn either way. But regardless of the possibility of an interesting story arc, my nail elimination fascination has no significant root. I didn’t always chew on them; I picked and pulled them first. But my own nails weren’t enough, I had to pick and pull everyone’s nails. I have odd flashes of memory of lying in my crib and not being able to sleep, so one of my parents would either sit or lie beside me and let me pick at their nails until I fell asleep.
Unlike my nails, I can pinpoint the exact moment when the sidewalk crack fascination began. First, we moved houses, then I changed schools. Third grade. I came off like a happy kid, but I don’t know if I necessarily was. It was around this time when I fully immersed myself into fantasy, comic books, sci-fi, and really started trying hard when I drew. Someone who spends that much time in their own imagination can’t be all that happy.
I was eight years old, I had to deal with these new kids who weren’t my friends from my old school, this was the first year I went to Catholic school not having any idea what the fuck a Catholic was, I was adjusting to living in a new house in a new neighbourhood where I was instantly marked as the weird kid, and I started actually noticing that I didn’t talk very much to other kids. My self-awareness of how I didn’t play with other kids and that I wasn’t involved in any clubs or teams with other kids started around this time as well.
At this very young age, I realized I had no friends, but for the most part it didn’t bother me. Things were a lot more fun in my head. School was boring. Other kids were boring. Part of me wished that I would find friends who appreciated things like video games and comic books. Part of me gave up. I did eventually start making new friends and my fascination with how I should walk across the sidewalk subsided. But I still picked and chewed my nails.
It got worse my second time around in college. My nails took some serious abuse during those years. Especially while I sat in class. I was twenty-three and I couldn’t help but notice that almost everyone around me was maybe eighteen. Those who weren’t eighteen were in their forties. I felt closer in age to the baby-boomers in the room, probably because I had tried the college thing once already. I flunked out, but I still felt like I was some sort of veteran. I knew there were no bells between class blocks, I knew how to search through the bookstore and find the specific books for your specific class section, I knew where had the best coffee and which places stayed open late. But I was also aloof. I existed somewhere between not knowing how to talk to the people I was in class with and not caring to talk to the people I was in class with. I started feeling like I was in Catholic school again for the first time.
I don’t know why I’m instantly scared of people. And that’s really what it is. Sometimes my defenses go up and I come off like I don’t like people or I don’t care about them, but what I’m actually experiencing is fear. It’s probably why I chew my nails. And I chew on pens. And I chew on the straws that come with my fast food drinks.
I used to think that my chewing on pens had something to do with smoking, but I never smoked enough or long enough to form that sort of habit. I haven’t had a cigarette for probably six years now and I’ve maybe smoked a grand total of ten cigarettes in my life. I try to make it look like it has to do with smoking, but it’s always worse when I have to go into meetings, or we have staff functions, or I have to meet someone new. Freud’s oral fixation argument holds no merit, believe me there is nothing sexual about my office. My oral fixation is anxiety based. And being in an open office surrounding by people for eight hours a day is only making it worse.
If you watch people for long enough, you notice that everyone has some sort of nervous habit: they bounce their knees while sitting, they talk to themselves, they tap their fingers on their desk, they twirl pens between their fingers, they chew their bottom lips. Luckily for them, these are all subtle nervous habits. I have unfortunately drawn the highly visual and probably bizarre and inappropriate nervous habits. Looking out for people’s judgemental stares is how I got so good at people watching. When I spit out a nail or a pen cracks while it’s in my mouth, I sometimes wish that I did fart in those scenarios. I could blame that on a sudden stomach virus. Say the sushi we had for lunch tasted funny and run to the bathroom. I might earn some pity points then. But having to explain to people that I’m chewing on myself and anything that winds up in my hands because being around them makes me nervous probably breaks some unwritten social norm that I probably should understand by this point. You’d think watching people the way I do would shine some knowledge of social cues. I don’t have time for that though. I have watch them bounce their knees. I need to make sure that they’re not watching me.