PLEASE, I'M BEGGING YOU: don't take umbrage when I ignore you at one of the two or three shows WIT MEMO attends each year. Don't take it personally when your salutations win just a half nod half-hidden by a pint glass, before I turn away. I'd love to talk with you, but I can't. I mostly can't talk at all, because I chew my tongue. It's a habit. And of all the vile habits humans practice, this is certainly the most despicable.
And I know a thing or two about habits. I bite my fingernails, spitting the offal to all corners of the room and saving vast quantities of cash otherwise wasted on clippers and files. I pick my nose constantly (when no one is looking) and revel in drawing breath through unclogged airways. I'm a virtuoso knuckle-cracker, a practice that extends to my elbows, knees, toes, neck and back; if it bends, I'll crack it. Upon arising I sound like the Chinese New Year, and I've even interrupted the act of love to explore a skeletal articulation that craved relief.
None of those common practices compares with tongue-chewing, either in severity or the degree to which a habit can influence and dominate one's life. I don't just chew my tongue, I bite it. Hard. Whenever I'm feeling pressured, nervous, or stressed (or, for that matter, when I'm especially relaxed), I clamp my tongue between my teeth and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until my mouth is suffused with the flavors of saliva, blood, and some other substance I can't quite identify but whose taste and texture has become essential to my satisfaction and well being. When that coppery elixir fills my mouth, and, so it feels, my entire system, I experience an inner peace and contentment which puts me in mind of certain writers' descriptions of the effects of opiates and other narcotics. This sense of satisfaction only kindles an immediate, more urgent craving, and without thinking or trying I proceed to chew my tongue even harder.
The doctors, who note that as a child I was given to eating dirt and sucking on bits of metal, claim my depravity results from a shortage of some mineral, I forget which one. The vitamins and dietary supplements they prescribed provided no relief at all when the tensions of the daily routine overwhelmed me, as they often do. Strangely, I have no desire to eat the beef tongue served in delicatessens, and the sight of an entire steer's tongue in the refrigerated display case is enough to make me nauseous.
Unfortunately, tongue-biting, of which I am the world's foremost practitioner (there may be others, but they haven't come forward), is not without its costs. My tongue is constantly covered with an array of cuts, scabs, sores and infections. It is an anatomical model of the various stages in the development of wounds and suppurations. Naturally, these lesions are extremely painful. Even just speaking entails unbelievable agony, and an accidental taste of any food that is bitter or acidic can send me into prostrating convulsions. I can't go near an orange, and the sight of a ketchup bottle makes me shiver. Sometimes my tongue is so raw and macerated I'm forced to cease chewing it altogether, but, like a seafood eater picking over the disintegrated remains of a lobster, I usually manage to find a tiny, freshly healed patch with which to indulge my sickness.
As strange as it may seem, my precious habit sometimes works to my advantage. Recently, an appealing woman I'd met by chance grew quite fond of me. Or, more accurately, she was too absorbed in her own neuroses to be aware of, or care about, my various personality disorders. I could sense her affection strengthening, and when we retired to her rooms after a long walk one afternoon she decided to put it to words.
"You're not like any other man I've ever met" she began awkwardly, but gaining conviction as she continued. "Most guys are so full of themselves. They talk on and on and it's always about themselves, and it's not about themselves then it's about their friends or their band or some band their friends are in. But you, you're different. You listen when I talk. You're so confident, you don't say a word unless it really means something."
I smiled and swallowed blood.
"And you haven't been all over me, either. Not like most guys." From the kitchen I heard cabinets and the refrigerator. "As a matter of fact, I even have trouble getting you to kiss me. I mean, really kiss me. But you want to go slow. I appreciate that. It's different." She returned from the kitchen with two tall glasses on a tray.
"It's so hot out, I made you a cold drink. This is a special treat; it's not for just anyone."
It was fresh-squeezed lemonade.
"These lemons are from my mother's tree in California." I began to sweat. I knew what would happen if I tried to drink that lemonade.
"That lemon tree was over one hundred years old. Last spring the power company knocked it down by mistake. My mother and I cried and cried. These are the last two lemons from that tree. Here." She handed my a glass. I took it, but my hand was shaking. There was no way out. Because of the emotional bond that apparently entwined her, her mother, that tree, those lemons, and, it now seemed, me, there was no way I could refuse the lemonade. What's worse, at that particular time my tongue was so entirely blanketed with sores and cuts that there was no way I could spare myself pain, as I often had, by allowing the beverage to slide down only one side of my mouth. I smiled grimly, raised the glass to my lips, and took a brief swallow.
Instantly my tongue was bathed in the most searing pain imaginable, as though plunged into hot coals, the skin stripped bare with flensing knives. The pain rocketed through my body; I felt it in the pit of my stomach, and in my groin. My legs wobbled and my vision contracted to a dark pinpoint. Through a phenomenal effort of which I had no idea I was capable, I managed to remain standing. She continued talking from miles away, but I barely heard her and had only the faintest perception of what she was saying. It was, I could dimly tell, some childhood event, something intensely personal and traumatic. When at last daylight returned and I could again comprehend her fully, her tone had changed.
"Why. . .you're. . .crying. Yes, you are! You care that much!"
Through tears of agony our eyes met, and, despite my inability to repress some severe residual quivering, I nodded. Then, with every ounce of strength I could summon, I managed three barely audible words:
"I love you."
She fell into my arms, and I soon discovered that her own tongue was
moist, unblemished, and astounding in its prehensility. As I lay back and
felt the pain in my tongue ebb like a tide, I was surprised to find a small,
unmarred area beneath my left bicuspid. I bit down hard.