How I Know Bruce Springsteen Wants To Get Fisted by Jaz Papadopoulos

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, May 13th, 2019

"Splinters of memory come out in my teeth as I pass the time with my hands in my mouth."

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Personal Essay by Jaz Papadopoulos

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1. Usually, my nails are short and scabbed. Sometimes I chew them, nervous. I scrape them along the ridges of my incisors, spitting out grime of mysterious origin, tasting all the places I’ve been, all the things I’ve grabbed. Splinters of memory come out in my teeth as I pass the time with my hands in my mouth.

2. My mom had nails. She still has nails. We look similar, me and my mom. When I look at my hands, I see hers. Especially when I’m nervous, and my nail beds become sore, bloody, puffed up mounds. When I was a kid, my mom had scabs all around her nails.

3. Excoriation disorder: a mental illness related to obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by chronic skin-picking. I see people do it all the time. Especially women. I remember watching my mom pick and bite around her fingernails, digging in at the top corner of the nail and peeling back towards herself. The pain becomes more acute the closer to the knuckle you get. I didn’t understand why she did it, but now I do it, too. I do it all the time.

4. In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the main character pares the skin off the soles of her feet. She especially does this at slumber parties, coping with the tragedy of girlhood. I devoured these scenes with simultaneous voracity and nausea.

5. The summer I turned 26, I decided to grow out my nails. I associate dead-tissue-growing with mourning. I was in mourning, perhaps preemptively, because the person I was in love with was sick, and I feared the worst. The last time I saw them was in the hospital.

          My nails were filthy, sporting at least a week’s growth and more than their fair share of dirt. I hadn’t showered in over a week. I was wearing a ridiculous outfit, trying to both lift the mood and escape the heat wave: black shorts fitted with spikes up the crotch? Walking to the hospital doors felt too-slow, laborious. My limbs were burdened with worry, and swung with the same weighted cadence as they do in dreams where you need to run or fight, but you just can’t get your limbs to do it fast enough.

6. Pinching the nails is one of the first things I learned to do in Wilderness First Aid. Check capillary refill. It indicates blood flow: You pinch someone’s fingertip, the nail goes pale, and then when you let go, the colour should promptly return. If not, you know blood flow is restricted. A saturated nail shows you’re still alive.

7. I felt extremely out of place in that hospital. I compulsively tried to clean my nails with the corner of my Visitor tag, scouring my memory for the best stories to tell about what I had been up to since my last visit. I made promises—big promises, promises that I kept, but they don’t remember.

8. After this visit, I imagined I would grow my nails as long as I could and I would get a manicure. A shellac manicure, where they put your hands under a heat lamp, and the nail polish gets really hard and doesn’t chip for weeks. That’s the problem with manicures, they chip. You pay to have this thing done, and as soon as you reach for your wallet to pay, you smudge the polish and it was all a waste. Why would anyone invest in anything so fragile? But this time would be different. This time, I was in mourning. This time, it would be shellac.

9. Femme-flagging is a code worn on the fingertip. It touches everything we touch, a mediator between us and the physical world.

          Flagging, borne of 1970s gay male culture, was a way to find others like you without outing yourself to the world. A handkerchief worn around the wrist or hanging out of a back pocket. Left for top, right for bottom, two choices reinforcing the inescapability of the binary even in gay subculture. Different colours meant different activities: grey for bondage, navy for anal, light blue for oral. Cue Bruce Springsteen’s album art for Born in the USA, where he accidentally told the world he wanted to get fisted with a red bandana in his back right pocket.

          Femme flagging is a flicker of the hand that catches the eye. Two nails painted off-colour, a code only other femmes know. Maybe two nails cut short on the dominant hand: Fucking fingers. Freedom fingers.

          In classic fashion, flagging nails were co-opted by the mainstream and “accent nails” were in.

10. Dry, brittle nails that frequently crack or split have been linked to thyroid disease. Whenever I go through a phase of nail painting, the top layers of my nails begin to peel off. I keep getting tested for thyroid disease, but the tests always come back negative.

11. How to protect nails:

          Apply a nail hardener.

          Moisturize.

          Soak the fingertips in castor oil.

          I rub salve all over my body, homemade with roses from the Peloponnese. I soak in olive oil baths while watching Netflix comedies. I grow my nails.

12. The summer I turned 26, I didn’t know about freedom fingers yet. I was afraid of what my nails would do to my sex life. Queers are cut away from so much of society because of how we fuck, but if we’re not fucking, then what?

13. I’ve since learned there are lots of solutions to this dilemma. One of them is wearing gloves and stuffing the fingertips with cotton balls. The friend who taught me this really loves nail fashion. They have four full size Rubbermaid containers full of nail polish, all impeccably organized. They have never paid for a manicure, but their nails are always perfect.

14. When I look down at my hands, the flesh in front of me, I imagine a ghostly overlay of my mother’s hands. I used to lay in her bed on weekend mornings while she slept in. I would hold her hands and look at her nails. I would sneak into her bedroom to do this. I would run my own small finger pads over the crests of her nails, which were impossibly smooth and clean. The scene lives in my memory in the aesthetic of an idealized, movie-version of heaven—women in white dresses drifting through pillowy white clouds, all french tips and soft focus and golden light.

15. I would get a shellac manicure, I thought, and get my long nails cut and filed to a point. Talons. I thought of condors, giant vultures who mate for life and scavenge the dead. I thought of Harpies, hybrid, hated bird-women from Crete who guard the underworld. Greek high femmes. My kin.

          Condors seem like mythical creatures to me. With a wingspan of over three metres, they are the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere, making them inherently romantic. They often live past 50. The world’s oldest documented condor died at 100 in Algeria.

          When I think of condors, I think of Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. Mainstream stories tell that he rides across the sky each dusk pulling the blanket of night behind him. I imagine that when a condor dies, it keeps soaring across the sky, just behind Morpheus’ blanket. Its widow soars too, but on the earthly side of the blanket.  The two will continue to soar together, until the mortal bird inevitably returns to the ground and forgets.

16. My full-grown fingers. My basketball fingers, my piano fingers. Adults had so many names for my hands, but none of them told me, “You will love well.”

17. My mom’s hands on a pillow. I would touch them with my own little fingers, and from my first-person perspective it would look like a baby animal and a mama animal piling their paws. The creases on her knuckles were elephant knees. Elephants, the wisest, most caring animals. Newborns walk right underneath their mothers, cushioned from the wider world. My mother’s knuckles were knobby, wider than the rest of her fingers, elephant legs that I could maneuver my tiny body between. This is what my fingers look like now, too. When I think about it now, I’m still holding my breath, touching her hands while she’s sleeping, trying not to wake her. Just wanting to get close to her, reaching to be closer and closer, slowly becoming too old to be close the way kids can be. My little fingers lightly brushing her ancient hands. She was probably in her thirties then, not ancient at all—just the thing that I had known the longest in the whole world.

18. My lover’s hands, the one in the hospital, can only be described as “lithe.” They had worked on farms for years, but their hands maintained this willowy quality. I felt like they could ease their whole hand into me, show me how delicately they could hold me.

19. In my personal myth about condors, the real reason the mortal condor forgets its beloved dead is because it gets thirsty, lands, and drinks from the River Lethe.

20. When fantasizing what a person might be like during sex, I look at their hands.

21. Three days before my planned manicure, I am driving someone to the airport. She is visiting her fiancé in prison. It makes me think about all the days I went to visit the hospital, thinking how the hell is this going to work, promising to move to their city, trying to envision a life together with one foot already toeing towards, “Visiting hours are over.”

          I pick her up at the prison and drop her off at the airport. As I lift her luggage out of my backseat gasp! my thumbnail snaps off. Fuck. Three days away from getting my shiny, tough, unbreakable manicure.

          It takes me all day to decide what to do. The anxiety is impossible to manage, especially without reverting to nail-biting. I look at my nails, I think about my mom. I think about the hospital. I wonder about the future of my sex life. The world is an airless void without gravity, tilted by vertigo, unbearable pressure freezing my lungs in place.

          I could just get my nails done anyway—who even looks at thumbs? I could cut the other thumbnail to match, and maybe it would look edgy. I could wait another month and grow it back—but could I go on with this mourning ritual for another month? It has become so important, my nails, my shellac, and in that one moment gasp! all the power I feel evaporates.

22. I cut off all my nails into my parents’ bathroom wastebasket. I tried to make it into a ritual about letting go. Letting go of excess, of the dead parts of myself, of old stories that I didn’t need. It didn’t really work.

          In retrospect, I could have sung one of those woo woo songs that make anything into a ritual, but revised to be about nail-cutting:

                    trim it all away, spirit
         
          trim it all away
         
          if it doesn’t serve us, spirit
         
          trim it all away

I felt silly, trying to find vindication on the bathroom floor next to my parents’ trash can. But hell, I was trying. As an old friend says, blessed be your best. This was the best I had.

23. My mom’s hands. Her movie-heaven-hands, elephant-knee-hands.

24. My lover’s hands, their long-distance-runner-hands.

25. My hands. My blessed-be-your-best-hands, trying-not-to-pick-hands, waiting-room-hands.

26. You will love well.

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Header image courtesy of Joshua Zirschky. To view his Photographer Feature, go here.

Jaz Papadopoulos is an interdisciplinary artist working in experimental writing, installation, and video. They are interested in diaspora, bodies, place, memory, grief and ritual. A graduate of the Cartae Open school, Jaz is also a 2018 Lambda Literary fellow, and a current MFA student at the University of British Columbia. Jaz lives on Coast Salish land. Follow their work at tzazart.com or vimeo.com/jazpapadopoulos

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.