A Half-Formed Thing
- by Adefolami Ademola -
First, you try very hard to not care too much about it—it is called a willing denial of shame. It’s the first step in the process of acclimatizing to what hurts. You adopt a faux carefree attitude. Only, like a mud house exposed to a raging storm, it never holds firm. Those who know you well can always see through the brittle defences you put up.
I never wear sandals to events or gatherings, especially with friends. Not because I have a thing against sandals, but because the freedom that wearing them promises also exposes my hideous secret: My toenails are black and ugly. They are very hard and difficult to cut, as though the alpha-keratin—the protective protein that nails are made of—is excessively coarse. A couple of years ago, I discovered that wearing covered fuzzy slippers protects my secret, even though my feet have subconsciously learned how to twist at a difficult angle, the toes curling inward to protect my nails from prying eyes.
I first learned this deceit when I was thirteen.
Some of the neighbourhood children and I were planning to play street football. To play, you needed four large stones, two each for a side. These were your goalposts. Then, you needed to select a team. For what we called “monkey post,” it could be three players to a side: a “backman,” one midfielder, and one attacker. Although in reality, it’s difficult to draw a line around each player’s position because, in the end, everybody plays the same position, and the aim is to outscore the opponent.
That afternoon, I was the one with the “felele” we were going to use to play. We couldn’t afford the stronger health ball, but a felele—if properly pumped—would suffice because it had a soft bounce that propelled it toward the goalpost with an unbalanced waddle, better than the more durable health ball. I was holding on to the ball while some other players were arranging the goalposts—in accordance with the unspoken division of labour of street soccer. The remaining players called on me to pass the ball to them because allowing people to kick the ball while the field was being organized was an important distraction, but I ignored them and focused on the goalposts that were being setup. Finally, one of the older boys ordered me to drop the ball. I didn’t. I had a network of much older boys who liked me and always looked out for me, so I couldn’t be scared off that easily.
Perhaps angered by my resistance to his attempts to bully me, he resorted to insults, among which was calling my toenails hideous like a vulture’s. I was ashamed. With that insult alone, my wall of resistance shattered, crumpled to pieces. My feeble brain couldn’t handle such a public announcement of a secret I was trying so hard to make invisible. The jeers and laughter of the other kids was the final prodding I needed to leave the ball with them and run into my house to do something else.
After realizing how ugly my toenails were, I was curious as to how I got them. I discovered that I took that trait from my dad. If we were to compare our toenail misfortunes, I’d admit that I lost to my dad by a serious margin. His are grave hooves that point out of his feet like antennae. However, there was a way he carried himself; a certain dark glory even in his frail, threadbare form that I never could muster. A superhuman ability to damn the consequences and flaunt his most sensitive scar in public. I think it had to do with being elderly. When your best years have left you, you stop caring too much about so many things, especially what your toenails look like.
No part of my body makes me feel as insecure as my toenails do. For someone who has been hailed for his long legs, something I take pride in, it is surprising how a mere extension of that same feature opens the doors to a flood of doubt and anger and bitterness. As much as I’ve tried, I have never been able to gallantly parade that part of my body. Every time I look at my toes, I can’t quite overcome the feeling of being imperfect.
Somehow, you have perfected the art of hiding yourself to project an appearance that blends with people’s perception of you. You have learned to be a lie. Survival was a pretense you learned from a tender age; a lie you had to master to protect your secret.
I am a simple dresser. I believe in neatness, not in ostentatious showiness. Not that dressing loudly is a bad thing, I’ve just never been an adherent of dressing in a way that puts the spotlight on me. Inwardly, I’m an introvert who pretends to be larger than life, which is why I love slippers. Give me covered slippers and I’m good, regardless of what I’m wearing. But the bad state of my toenails took that liberty from me. To cover my deformity, I have had to wear sneakers, shoes, any form of footwear that doesn’t expose the toes. On the rare occasions when I brave the shame to wear slippers around my neighbourhood, there is a subconscious attempt to protect my nails from scrutiny. Even when no one is looking, my brain takes on a protective instinct, always making sure nobody sees my toenails for what they are.
Once in university, I wore slippers to school and a classmate saw my toenails and shrieked. She was surprised at how successfully I had been able to blend this flaw with my long legs, which had been noticed and appreciated by people. How had I been able to cope for so long with nails that looked so ugly? I think a part of me died that afternoon from the shame. It was the last time I ever wore slippers to school.
A friend once suggested that I go for a pedicure, that it would help. I have considered it, but there is a way shame expands itself in the human brain; it sort of balloons so that every thought process ends at the altar of shame. The thought of exposing my nails to people at the spa felt like opening a secret I have buried deep in my person; like confessing something private about me to someone I hardly knew. It has been four years since I received that advice and I still haven’t visited a spa for a pedicure. It is my way of eschewing even the semblance of a shortcut for respite to my pain. The pain demands to be felt, so I try to contain it as much as I can; I hide it somewhere in my bones, bury it deep, deeper than any soothing word can probe.
You hate yourself for something you have no control over. Being this way made you feel like a sorry, slobbering mass of self-doubt. Amidst the pomp with which you carry yourself, underneath the flamboyance you wear like a girdle, you cannot escape the bitterness.
A year ago, I remember reading Socrates Mbamalu’s essay, “Scarred,” about the scar on his head. When he was a couple of months old, it was caused by a nurse’s negligence after a drip was passed through his scalp because his veins were hard to find. What strikes one is not merely the nurse’s lackadaisical disposition to duty and work—a pointer to how bad things have become in a country where corruption thrives—but how this scar, his “dent and shame,” as he called it, has distorted the way he sees himself. The writer admits that, “even when he thinks he is at peace, he finds himself still thinking of the scar on his head.” It has eaten deep into his confidence.
Gbolahan Badmus’ essay, “Like Rambo’s Bullet,” fromSelves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, talks about how the author’s lips have learned to jettison the idea of a smile, contorting into a stretch wide enough to cover any show of his teeth. This is because, paraphrasing his description, his dentition is scattered and ugly like Rambo’s (Sylvester Stallone) bullet—an allusion to the character’s fast-paced gunshots in his movies. Reading that essay, I could feel the tension and angst that the writer must have felt during all those years of trying to perfect the act of hiding his most feared flaw from people. For me, it felt like a convergence between me and these two authors, three millennials plagued with deformities housed deep in the crevices of our skin. Even though I have never met either of them, we shared a similar grief.
Your heart always breaks. You are at the mercy of what you think is wrong with your body; the hurt holds you close, clenches you in its fist and squeezes, hard, threatening to break every bit of your pride.
How do you deal with grief? How do you trick your skin to see your flaws as an extension of your perfection and uniqueness? Do you drown your skin in booze, make it inebriated, groggy? I hear that after one too many bottles of alcohol the body is like a malleable metal and can be easily deceived into seeing something that doesn’t exist. Or do you crush it smooth, roll it into a rizzla and smoke yourself to temporary peace?
The best way to deal with grief is that you don’t. You deny it and let it hover around the precipice of your thoughts. But it grows, spreading deep down until it kills you inside, slowly sapping away your confidence and happiness and joy. Eventually, it reduces you to nothing but a mass of bones and flesh. By then it no longer hurts. You find you’ve developed a thick skin over where it hurts most. That is how you contain grief.
There is a way that pain ties itself around a single detail, this time a body part. The scar that remains is not one of victory, but a dolorous reminder of how perfection, if tainted, becomes an allusion to something that hurts, that reminds one of how ugliness and beauty stem from one source.
The inability to manage the pain that comes when a part of your body—rather than being a symbol of beauty and confidence—points to how you will never be perfect is not the fault of the recipient of the anguish. In Socrates’ case, where his scar was an alien entity and not something that came with him from birth, it becomes almost impossible. When you see pictures of yourself without the blemish that now haunts you, you begin to wish it away, even though wishes never make any difference.
Just recently, a friend told me what she does when a part of her body makes her feel inadequate. She makes a joke about it, continuously mocks herself until the pain eases, recedes into the fringes of her memories. For her, healing comes from consciously talking about that which hurts the most; a reverse therapy of a sort. The idea of making the object smaller than it actually appears, hoping that it fades away, seems appealing, but then therapy doesn’t really end grief. It just thins it out, dousing it with a tinge of powerlessness, so that it dissolves into memories that intermittently recur as nightmares. In the end, we are never perfectly healed from our traumas. Never. We are always closer to the edge, to relapsing back into the cold embrace of depression, than we care to admit. When we wake up each day looking at what stares back at us in the mirror, we do not know how deep we will fall into the hopeless abyss of the empty wish for a perfect physical appearance.
Your body is riddled with scars, but you take each one, inspect them against the light of your soul, dust them off, and wear them proudly in all their deformed glories.
I remember once Segun, my best friend and one of the most open-minded humans I know, was insulted for his yellow teeth. Even though he took it on the chin, without resorting to insults or fisticuffs, I could see the hurt he carried in his belly like wildfire, the pain that threatened to choke him. But he held them in, and learned to breathe again.
Not all of us can weather such bad storms; some of us cave when invectives are spat at us, when someone points out something unusual in our appearance. I have never been one to fight when people call me out for my toenails. I never even try to explain anything, I just let it go. But that is why it hurts so much. The repulsive silence and the mental turmoil afterwards, the self-hate all boiled down to an inconceivable desperation for perfect toenails.
Humans are a fickle, experiential compendium of flesh, blood, and cartilage. At most, we are at the mercy of our mind’s erratic nature. Bitterness becomes angst, angst metamorphoses into pain. Most of the time, we struggle to banish this gloomy feeling to a faraway past, but the past catches up with the present, eventually, so we are left to weather the brooding storm of misery.
This weariness is a universal concept for anyone who has a scar or flaw or blemish that they strive to hide from the public. More often than not, people see us as those things that hurt us. As much as we try to stay strong, it is okay to rip your clothes off and cry, because healing, even if not complete, comes from making a conscious effort to experience that which make us cry. Pain demands to be felt—we are never fully different from the scar. It is our identity. The symbol of our connection to a certain truth we will never be able to escape.
We are the scars we carry.
© 2019 by Adefolami Ademola
Adefolami Ademola is a writer and social commentator. His poems have appeared in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Prosopisia, New Orleans Review, BlackRoom, Poetry Potion, Prachya Review, and Arts & Africa among others. His non-fiction pieces have been published or are forthcoming in Akoma, The Nerve Africa, The Afro Vibe, YNaija, Newshunter, Ebedi Review, Brittle Paper, Entropy Magazine, and KTravula. A 2016 PIN (Poets in Nigeria) Poets Residency Fellow, his poem “Memories, regurgitated” was a finalist for the 2016 edition of the Korea-Nigeria Poetry Fiesta. His personal essay "Dying in Installments" was recently published in the print edition of Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. He is Marketing Manager at Ouida Books.