I’ve lost two toenails to running, both on my right foot, and that foot’s big toenail is about to be number three. Beneath the two littler lost nails there was a smaller, runty-looking toenail, and the experience was rather like the reverse of losing baby teeth. The big toe’s nail is not like that. It has been black for many months without showing any signs of falling off—until today. After a ten-mile run, I took off my shoes and socks and noticed that the big black toenail looked askew. I touched it. It was clearly loose. I lifted it up much as one might lift the hood of a car. Beneath it was not a small, runty-looking toenail but rather a big disgusting mess. I stared at it, much in the same way I tend to stare uncomprehendingly at car engines, and closed the hood.Hey, I warned you.
I wasn’t especially grossed out. I doubt many of the hard-core distance runners reading this would be either. That said, I didn’t find it particularly fun to look at. My surgery scar, on the other hand—that thing absolutely enthralls me. I love that scar; I’ll be sad the day it fades to a mere ghostly white line of its former glorious ghastliness. I love showing people the scar, watching their faces contort in shock and horror. It looks about a thousand times less horrific than it did a month ago, and it still makes people cringe. Sometimes when I’m sleeping I’ll have my arm up next to my face, and when I wake up staring at that thing even I scream a little. Then I remember: oh, right, that thing is on me.Part of the shock of the scar comes from the fact that it really does look like I got it in a knife fight or a motorcycle accident—two of the answers I like to give people when they ask me Woah what happened? Sometimes I say knife fight on a motorcycle. Nobody believes this, of course, but they do admit the scar makes me look like a badass mofo of the toughest degree. This pleases me so much I may have to get a tattoo of the scar once it does fade.
I’m only partially kidding about that. I’ve often wondered what kind of tattoo I’d get if I were so inclined to get one. There’s nothing I can think of that I consider significantly symbolic to me, so usually I think of something fairly random. A schwa, for instance. You know, that upside down “e” that’s meant to signify an unstressed vowel sound? I’m not a linguist, and I don’t play one on TV; I just think “schwa” is a fun word to say and schwas themselves look neat: something so ordinary, so commonplace, turned upside down. That said, I’m sure the fun and neat qualities would fade a lot faster than the ink itself would, plus there’s the fact that if I, say, got it on my arm, every time I looked down it would just be a plain old boring letter “e.” I’d rather have my gruesome scar, thank you very much.
Several years back a friend of mine got a tattoo that she was very proud of. She described it to me over the phone in great detail—she had designed it herself—but I had a hard time picturing it, or maybe I just didn’t bother picturing it given that other people’s tattoos, like their cars, pets, and children, don’t tend to interest me all that much. When she finally showed it to me, turning and lifting her shirt so I could see her back, I was horrified. I had been expecting a dainty little thing no bigger than a half-dollar. This thing was monstrous, the approximate size of a salad plate, and very darkly inked. As she explained to me how long she had to be in the chair and how much it hurt and how much she loved the results, I just stared. Then she asked my opinion.“Wow,” I stammered. “It’s…big. And…dark. Wow.”
“Do you like it?” she pressed.I was so stunned I couldn’t even be polite. “I wasn’t expecting that. Uh…wow.”
She stood there a little longer with her shirt pulled up (we were in a bar, by the way) while I mentally implored her to cover the atrocity. I knew she was disappointed, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pretend to like something that awful, something that made me want to ask her why in the hell she would do that to herself. Self-mutilation is never the answer. Help is available.Of course, people ask me why in the hell I run these crazy-ass distances, and they’re not likely to stop asking this once that big toenail comes off for good. Despite the fact that one chooses a tattoo and not a scar or a black toenail, there’s a common denominator here. Maybe the real appeal of all these bodily aberrations is the way they hint of what depth lies beneath without revealing it outright. Black toenails are cool; missing toenails are horrifying. Nobody really wants to see what’s under there. Likewise, few people are comfortable witnessing someone else’s raw pain. A scar after the fact, though? Cool. The tattoo is a way for people to say, this is a glimpse of who I am; the scar says, hey, I’ve been through stuff. I have stories to tell. I’ve suffered, and I’ve healed. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve ridden my Harley through a plate glass window. While fighting ninjas. With a knife.