The Department of Homeland Security office is in a strip mall.
This seems remarkably unglamorous and remarkably fitting. Everything in Denver lives in strip malls, except for the comic book store on Broadway, but I almost never go there—the journey requires either walking in the hundred-degree dry desert heat or driving on the five-lane one-way road. The Department of Homeland Security office has a great big parking lot, which it shares with a Subway and the Centennial Gun Club and a Starbucks.
You need an appointment to visit the office. My afternoon timeslot is printed out in bold-sans serif font and stapled to a fifty-one millimeter square headshot that was taken at the drugstore the day prior. I resent that I spent the equivalent of four almond milk dirty chai lattes to have this awful photo taken, but I could never hold a grudge against CVS. Wandering their aisles alone and aimless for god-knows-how-long is the most spiritual experience I have each week. Before your appointment, you wait in line outside and watch the security guard in his ill-fitting uniform turn down everyone without a pre-booked timeslot. Before my appointment, I worry that I’ve forgotten to put on sunscreen and that waiting in this line for ten minutes will leave me with a sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst.
Upon arriving inside the building, the signs that plaster the walls demand you turn your phone off, and an employee watches as I struggle to power mine down. “It’s new,” I mumble, certainly incomprehensibly but hopefully conveying a bureaucratic complacency, “and there’s no power button. Something about volume knobs…” I pray my incompetency is not mistaken for insolence; I’d much rather be thought of as stupid than rude. Once the device finally turns itself off, I am told to sit down and I am sure to do so with subservient, pious compliance. There are plastic chairs with scratchy, upholstered seats, like the ones in the waiting rooms of dentists and therapists who don’t have the budget for wood and pleather. I have a headache. Or a stomachache. The headaches come when I think everyone hates me and the stomachaches come when I think I hate myself and right now I cannot tell the difference. Come to think of it, I rarely can.
I don’t really have anything to be nervous about. I should have brought a book. I haven’t finished a book since I was seventeen. I like short stories better. I chew on the inside of my cheeks until I reach the faintest metallic taste, then pop a piece of gum out of its aluminium blister pack and into my mouth. The menthol reaches the open wound I’ve bored into myself and starts to burn, I focus on the pain and turn over the slip of paper with a prime number on it that I was given when I entered. As my legs cross and uncross, my thighs stick to the plastic and produce what feels like a deafeningly loud peeling sound as I move. Do government bureaucrats’ offices and grocery store delis get their number dispensers from the same store? Both machines make me acutely aware of the fact that my body is made of meat.
I used to suck my thumb whenever I was bored or anxious or overwhelmed. My parents would chastise me for continuing the habit well into elementary school and early middle school—my father would rub Tiger Balm, an ointment made from camphor and menthol and clove oil on my hands as a deterrent, but I found that whatever I got out of thumb-sucking was more valuable than the ointment was painful. By the time I was five feet tall, I knew that children were cruel and the world was filthy and as such I should not stick my fingers into my mouth in plain view of the world. Nevertheless, the habit persisted, until one day it didn’t.
I stopped eventually, sometime before I turned thirteen, for reasons I can’t remember. By then, the damage had already been done: the orthodontist’s x-rays of my mouth showed that my teeth were slanted inwards and I would need to wear something called a palette extender. It’s a medieval-sounding device: an expandable piece of plastic glued to the roof of your mouth that requires a twice-daily cranking with a small metal key. The plastic expands, your mouth gets wider, your teeth stand straight. I hated the way the device felt, something so rigid and mechanical installed in such a fleshy and malleable place, but I didn’t hate the cranking. It hurt, but the dull pain served as evidence that I was becoming something new. The day the orthodontist removed the device, the inside of my mouth felt cavernous and lonely.
The chewing gum and the small sores inside my cheeks burn with familiarity.
My number is called by a woman about my mother’s age. She is wearing a name tag that reads ESTER with the last letter half rubbed off and bright blue eyeshadow and her eyeliner is tattooed on. It’s faded with greenish tint that old tattoos get, but it suits her complexion. She has thick black hair and dark brown eyes and two beauty marks and I immediately feel a painful and desperate need for her to like me. I know she’s too busy to care about yet another person with yet more paperwork on yet another Tuesday. The stains in the carpet probably matter more to her than I do, not the result of misanthropy but a byproduct of routine and the dehumanizing cast of florescent lights. I know all of this and I still need her to like me, to think of me, to talk about me or my shoes or my haircut over dinner with her family when they ask how work was. I want attention or recognition or heartbreak and right now I cannot tell the difference.
I hand her my passport and she asks me where I’m going. “London.” I think to continue, to tell her I’m starting grad school next month and I’m technically a dual citizen but I don’t have all the right paperwork and that would be quite the headache and that if I got my British passport I wouldn’t need to be in this office and my tuition would shrink by half and and and and—but I’ve bravely decided I stand a better chance of being remembered if I retain an air of mystery. I can smell her gloves, the blue latex kind that come out wrinkled and stuck together in a big cardboard box, and I am shocked when she takes my hand in hers before I remember that I came to this office to get my finger prints taken. She contorts my left hand to scan of my thumb first, then continues onto my index and middle finger. Her touch is so gentle, and so assertive, and I remember that her name is Esther.
Esther pauses at my ring finger. “You know—” she says, in a voice that is soft but not a whisper, “my hands look like that too.” She says this like it’s nothing. She isn’t looking at me when she says it, either, just keeps rolling my fingers across the touchpad as I watch my fingerprints generate on the screen in real time, a mirror made out of government data and binary code. I know that she’s talking about my fingernails, or rather, my lack of fingernails, short and chewed down and surrounded by torn-up, picked-at skin and half-healed scabs from hangnails I can’t stop pulling at.
I don’t know how to respond, I feel a lump of guilt in my throat and she’s made it to my right-hand index finger before I respond, “I get nervous sometimes.”
Esther doesn’t say anything. I don’t know if she heard me, or if she cares. She wasn’t talking to me, just to herself, and my proximity as subject was purely coincidental. She is so precise with taking these finger prints, I wonder if she ever wanted to be a surgeon or a cello player or the person that paints the faces on those expensive wooden horses. She said her hands look just like mine and so I glance to search for a point of comparison, but my gaze is blocked by her impermeable blue vinyl gloves. She’s made such an innocuous yet utterly penetrating observation about me and has offered nothing about herself in return. Maybe she was lying, just entertaining herself by inventing conversation. I don’t think she was. I feel like I’ve been hit by a train.
Esther and her computer have collected all ten of my fingerprints and returned my paperwork and drugstore headshot. As I pack my things to leave, she offers me a salted caramel. I accept. I know she won’t ever think of me again. She probably wasn’t thinking of me as she held my hand in hers.
Salted caramels make my teeth hurt because I grind my teeth because I have nightmares when I sleep because I have an awful lot on my mind. I hold my jaw tight in the waking world, too, and I’ve come to learn that this is has led me to develop a condition called temporomandibular joint dysfunction. I would assume I’ve had this problem for as long as I’ve had an awful lot on my mind, which is to say as long as I can remember. Last month, I learned that temporomandibular joint dysfunction causes your masseter muscles, the muscles in your jaw, to become large and overdeveloped. I’ve always had a very round face.
You can get Botox in your masseter muscles to relax your jaw and stop the tension and grinding. The Botox itself doesn’t change the way you look, but when your jaw stops clenching, your masseter muscles shrink and your face looks slimmer. The effects wear off in a couple of months, at which point you must decide if you want to continue paying two hundred dollars a session for Botox or if it’s better to just grin—or rather, clench—and bear it. I’ve come very close to booking this Botox appointment, because I have pain in my jaw caused by teeth grinding and neurotic jaw clenching. That’s not true. I’ve come very close to booking this Botox appointment, because I have always been deeply self-conscious about my very round face and I feel like I could tell myself that this semi-cosmetic procedure is not an act of vanity and thus not a betrayal of my politics. I wouldn’t have to keep it a secret, like last year when I took the money my mother gave me for Christmas and spent it on a cryolipolysis (Cool Sculpting, in layman’s terms) treatment that I got in the back of a North London pharmacy from a beautiful twenty-something woman with eyelash extensions and a thick Slavic accent. I told everyone I was going to get a massage. It never made me look any thinner.
I am incredibly self-conscious about my chewed-up nails and my perennially puffy face. They are the noticeable, screaming cracks in a façade of normalcy, the biproducts of possessing the disposition of a prey animal, a jackrabbit hiding in the weeds. Like the burning of menthol and blood in my mouth, these things are intimate, familiar. For better or worse, those stout fingernails and overdeveloped jaw muscles are just as much myself as much I see reflected in the rear-view mirror, the same flesh that has bore witness to everything my eyes have. I don’t want to let my perpetual and unyielding anxieties define me, but I can’t define myself without them—they are the same things that make me sensitive and empathetic and thoughtful. My aversion to relaxing my masseter is not a wholly political or aesthetic problem; it’s a crisis of faith.
If I were to stop biting at the rocky coastline of my fingernails or to lose the softness in my face—the same softness that makes me cry every time I see a sign for a lost cat—I would be casting off the most dependable, reliable parts of myself. It feels important to know someone that well.
I had my fingerprints taken a year and a half ago in Denver. I spent one hundred and fifty dollars trying to freeze my fat off a year ago in London. Three weeks ago I looked down at my hands and noticed something I had never seen before: ten tiny, white tips growing undisturbed at the end of my fingernails. ❦
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Apologies for the long time between posts! To be honest, I’ve just been feeling a bit down and uninspired recently. Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to write about—I’d love some inspiration! But I’ve also got a paid post lined up for the very near future, and if you’re looking for more of Charlie’s World, you’re in luck! I have a longread in the upcoming issue of the Dry River which you can pre-order here. It’s about digital personas, markets, and self-fictionalization and contains bits of interviews with Eliza McLamb, Dove Clarke, and Alex Goldman. With love, Charlie <3
This was such a thoughtful and sensitive piece about a potentially mundane topic - you made it beautiful ❤️
“the dull pain served as evidence that I was becoming something new” 💫🤍😭