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Betrayed by the Matrix
“People don’t even need toenails.”
This was either intended as comfort or justification from Dr. Fleischer, who had just ripped the nail off the big toe on my right foot, using what I can only call a pair of pliers. (“Isn’t that a form of torture?” my husband asked later. As much as I wanted to play up the trauma of the day’s events, I had to admit that Dr. Fleischer had numbed the area first—using a needle that I swear was longer than my foot—and the nail was already semi-detached.)
Technically, the doctor was right. Fingernails serve an actual purpose—they help us grip things like pens or spoons or pliers—but there seems to be no biological reason for toenails to exist (though they come in handy when you need to scratch your opposite leg or punch holes in your pantyhose). So it’s easy for a podiatrist, especially one with all ten of his nails intact, to pronounce them obsolete. But as someone now in possession of an incomplete set, I could think of at least one very important use for toenails. They make toes look like toes.
Without glancing down at your feet, picture the tips of your toes. Whatever image you conjure in your head, I can promise you that what you’re envisioning is not your toe. It’s your toenail.
Using my recently revealed phalange as a guide, I’d say a toe more closely resembles the back of a fingertip. For starters, it’s bright pink, verging on fuchsia, and rounded, almost bulbous. And fleshy, with an indentation running down the center, like an imprint made in wet cement, marking the borders of where a nail should be. More than anything, my toe strikes me as naked, in an almost unseemly way, particularly with its fully-clothed companions standing by to serve as a constant reminder of what’s wrong with this picture. Imagine if you left the house and forgot to put on pants. That’s a toe without a nail.
Toenails grow at a glacial pace. Where a fingernail can replace itself in a comparatively speedy three to six months, a toenail takes a leisurely twelve to eighteen. Best-case scenario, I was facing an entire sandal season with my freak show toe on display. Of course, it had to be the big toe—the one that sticks out, pardon the mixed metaphor, like a sore thumb. It couldn’t be one of the smaller middle toes that barely has a nail to start with and merits so little attention that it doesn’t even have a nickname, like index or pinky. I was stuck with the equivalent of having a giant zit on my nose instead of hidden behind my ear.
Normally I look forward to warmer weather and the chance to free my feet from their winter bondage of SmartWool and boots. Now I could just imagine the scene at summer street fairs, as I stepped out in my beloved flip-flops. The furtive glances of adults, the whispering behind my back, children screaming in horror and running for their mothers—or, even more mortifying, pointing and laughing. Maybe I was being a tad obsessive and self-absorbed, or maybe I know how I’d react if I saw my toe on someone else. I mean, I get weirded out looking at it on me.
I headed to Walgreens and bought a jumbo box of Band-Aids, determined to keep the offending digit under wraps. But after a few days, the bandaged skin started to pucker and peel, creating a whole other mess I didn’t need. Besides, have you checked the price of Band-Aids lately? Permanently covering the toe for the rest of my life was going to cost me a bloody fortune. Because—did I mention?—there was a worst-case scenario.
I lost a thumbnail, years ago, after slamming it in the door of my hand-me-down Oldsmobile. With morbid fascination, I monitored the progress of the nail’s decay as it gradually shrank away from the base of the nail bed, the bottom curling up into a sort of crescent shape that appeared oddly fang-like, while the top stubbornly adhered to my fingertip. I was in college at the time and would jiggle the nail during lectures, popping it open and shut like a clamshell. If only my professors knew that while they were expounding on American government or iambic pentameter, I was sitting in the back of class intent on squeezing out the dried blood caked under my injured nail. One day, the thing just fell off, pushed aside by the shiny newcomer that had been creeping up all the while behind its back.
Once you’ve lost a nail, you learn that what I thought was a unique experience is actually a fairly common occurrence. Everyone, it seems, has their own version of the car-door story, which, when they’ve seen the black-and-blue evidence of your accident, they will insist on sharing. One old codger, in particular, freaked me out with the news that if too much blood pooled under my nail, a doctor would have to use a drill to release the pressure. I pictured my nail being punctured by something from the Sears Craftsman collection and vowed to steer clear of power tools. Ultimately these stories, however varied or gruesome, all came to the same conclusion—the hero gets a new nail and lives happily ever after. Dr. Fleischer had already thrown me for a loop when he insisted on forcibly removing my toenail; I had been looking forward to a repeat of the thumbnail performance. Now he was hedging on my happy ending.
“It will probably grow back,” he said, his back turned toward me as he scribbled notes in my chart.
Well of course it would grow back—because what other outcome could there be? I thought he was simply playing a game of “cover your ass,” so I pressed him for a more definitive answer. “What you’re saying is that there’s, like, a 99.999 percent chance my nail will grow back?”
“Probably. Give it four or five months,” he said, “and we’ll see what happens.”
I was starting to not like Dr. Fleischer. In his favor, he had a thick thatch of anchorman-worthy hair, but in the negative column, there was not only the needle and the pliers but the fact that my toenail was boring him. He kept leaving my exam room to check on other patients, who I pictured with abscesses in their feet, likely in need of amputation. I don’t think he appreciated that, to me, my nail was just as important.
“Then what?” I wanted to know, panic creeping in as he refused to back down from “probably.” “What if it doesn’t grow back?”
“You could always get an acrylic nail,” he suggested. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or offering a legitimate professional opinion. For some reason, I found this tossed-off response more offensive than having my nail torn from its foundation. I do my best to ingratiate myself with doctors so they’ll see me as, you know, a human being, but I had obviously not made much of an impression on Dr. Fleischer. I wanted to grab him by the lapels of his lab coat and shout, “Do I look like an acrylic-nail kind of person?”
Instead, I asked if I could wrap up the remnant of my nail and take it home with me, as if it were a slice of leftover pizza. I don’t know what I was planning to do with it—glue it back on? Bury it in the yard like a newborn’s placenta? Travel with it to my parents’ house and add it to the box of mementos where I keep my baby teeth? A former co-worker of mine had his mother’s kidney stones (or maybe they were gallstones) made into a paperweight, the tiny yellowed nuggets suspended in some sort of gel-like goo. I wasn’t quite that cuckoo.
With my scrap of nail tucked into my purse, I walked out of the medical building, more mobile than I had anticipated, and marched up North Avenue to the J. Crew store, where I bought myself a long-sleeve T-shirt. I don’t know that I even wanted the shirt, but as consolation, it would have to do.
It’s not that I’m a particularly vain person. Trust me, I’m well acquainted with my physical flaws, which I’d be happy to catalog for you, starting with my stubby thighs. Part of my quarrel with my toenail, or lack thereof, is that I already have enough imperfections and insecurities and wasn’t in the market for a new one. Mostly I felt blindsided.
Not that I’m inclined to defend Dr. Fleischer, but truth be told, I hadn’t taken the nail all that seriously myself. Even though my toe had, at times, throbbed enough to keep me awake at night, I figured the problem was an ingrown nail—hardly worth a twenty dollar co-pay. So I opted to self-medicate, applying a layer of bright red polish to the nail, which allowed me to remain oblivious to whatever was happening underneath.
I only broached the subject with my regular doctor after I’d accumulated enough complaints to warrant an office visit. At the time, I was more concerned with a lump on my head, which I had diagnosed as a brain tumor, and a suspicious mole on my back, which I had diagnosed as skin cancer. Both of these proved harmless, but now I was minus a toenail and I hadn’t been prepared for that.
Mountain climbers probably lose toenails the way the rest of us shed skin cells and don’t give it a second thought. They’re too busy rappelling off ice cliffs and dodging avalanches and making the rest of us feel inferior for watching television. Hockey players spit out teeth like chewing gum. Football player Ronnie Lott, now a hall-of-famer, famously opted to have the tip of his pinky finger cut off rather than undergo a series of surgeries to treat a nagging injury (though he did not, as legend has it, perform the operation himself in the locker room).
Me, I’m not a professional athlete or an adrenaline junkie or a risk taker in general. I’m careful and cautious, and the older I get, the more effort I make to keep all of the various bits and pieces of my personhood intact and in working order. I slather on sunscreen—rather belatedly as the mole scare might suggest—but all the same, I do my best to block the UVA and UVB. I try to eat healthy and exercise regularly in a bid to keep my arteries from clogging and my heart from attacking. For my bones, I pop calcium tablets like candy. I floss every night, and that’s not just a lie that I tell to the dentist. All this and still I was sabotaged by a toenail.
Tough as nails. My husband insists this cliché actually refers to the metal variety, but I always took it to mean finger and toenails. Turns out, I wasn’t that far from the truth.
Nails are made from a protein called keratin, which is also found in the shells of turtles, the beaks of birds and the quills of porcupines. Some people even speculate that the armor of certain dinosaurs was made from keratin. It’s one hard little substance, second only, in terms of biological matter, to the stuff that makes up the exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters.
Dig one of your nails into another. You don’t feel a thing. That’s because nails don’t have nerve endings—they’re impervious to pain. Now dig a nail into the back of your finger. Hurts, doesn’t it.
I came across this guy on a tattoo message board—oh, the places we’ll go in the name of research—who wanted to file down his fingernails so that he could have letters inked on his nail beds, which is the skin under a nail. (There are several parts to a finger or toenail; what we commonly think of as a nail is actually called the nail plate.) His primary concern seemed to be whether the letters would stay in place once the nails grew back over them. My primary concern was whether to report this clearly budding sociopath to the authorities. (I didn’t imagine he was planning on spelling out “I ♥ MOM.”) A professional tattoo and piercing artist—The GYPSY—replied with surprisingly sensible advice from a man who refers to himself in all caps: “The finger nail [sic] bed is made up of millions of little nerve endings and the pain factor would be off the scale…. Not a good idea!” He refrained from adding “you nut case,” but I believe that was implied.
I know a little about what The GYPSY speaks of. I was trying on the cutest pair of ballet flats when I discovered another use for toenails. Without them, wearing shoes is uncomfortable, especially if you’re not also wearing a buffer layer of socks. The material chafed at my bared digit—a sensation I wasn’t experiencing on the other foot—and it occurred to me that in all my life, I’d never felt a shoe rub the top of my toe. A nail had always been there to act as a barrier, absorbing all manner of hurts and scrapes and shocks. Without it, I was vulnerable and exposed.
When you think about it—and I’m willing to concede that I’ve probably given the subject more thought than most people—nails are pretty amazing. They’re the lone body part we can count on to continually regenerate throughout our lifespan. Skin wrinkles and sags, hair turns grey or falls out, bones harden, eyes weaken, and hearing fails, but nails just keep on renewing themselves. I could live to be 110 years old and this one tiny piece of myself would retain its original vitality, almost as if it were immortal. (It’s not true, by the way, that nails continue growing after we die, but I’m going to pretend I never read that.)
A nail’s fountain of youth resides in something called “the matrix,” which has nothing to do with Keanu Reeves and everything to do with the production of keratin cells. The matrix is hidden from view, protected against bacteria and other enemies by the cuticle and things called nail folds, which is the technical term for the skin that curves inward along the sides of and below each nail. Dr. Fleischer didn’t bother to tell me any of this, but I’m guessing, thanks to Wikipedia, that the matrix on my big toe was damaged, interrupting the keratin supply chain or perhaps cutting it off for good. (How this happened is unclear and largely irrelevant at this point, though a vacuum cleaner has emerged as the prime suspect.) I didn’t know this sort of injury was possible because I didn’t even know the matrix existed.
What else am I not aware of? I tick through the list of all the fatal diseases that I can name, all the ways my body can betray me. And then I look at my denailed toe and I’m reminded that there are so many more things, like the matrix, that I’ve never heard of, that I can’t predict, that I can’t guard against. All the things going on under the surface, all the things I can’t see. An attack can come from any quarter, unlooked for and unsuspected.
I thought we had an agreement, my nail and me, though it was by its nature an unspoken one: He—and the big toenail is definitely a he—was supposed to be on my side, both of us playing defense, both of us ever vigilant against assailants. He was supposed to be my turtle shell, my porcupine quill, my dinosaur armor. And then he turned against me.
Maybe he thought I had taken him for granted. Maybe he didn’t appreciate being manhandled by a Hoover. He’s remaining tight-lipped, as usual, but his nakedness tells me all I need to know; whether he grows back or not, he has shown his hand. So it has come to this: “Et tu, Brute?” We are no longer allies.
Patty Wetli’s work has appeared in Brevity, I Ate the Spider and 630words; she blogs at allisnotluminous.blogspot.com. She lives in Chicago, where front porches are rare, but grew up in Ohio, where her parents’ front porch was the safety zone for games of tag and served as the launch pad for hurdling over the shrubbery. Most memorably, it was the site of an exuberant “woo-hoo” to the universe on the morning of her wedding day.