The Fine Art of Thumb-Biting // by Benjamin W. (April 2016)

I am ready for my close-up.

Or at least, that’s the impression I’m trying to give the woman taking it. The truth is, I’m not. Playing one of the two servant boys who are only in the first scene of the first act isn’t what I’d be doing right now if it were up to me. But my parents wanted me to. They thought I needed something to take my mind off Andrew coming home tonight, when the truth is nothing will.

We go backstage after everybody’s gotten their picture taken, and I’m sweating in my blue robes. Blue for the Capulets, red for the Montagues. I’m glad I only have to wear mine for less than fifteen minutes.

“Two households, both alike in dignity,” reads the senior on stage, “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

Mr. DuPont made us read Romeo and Juliet in class last year when I was a freshman. I’m a sophomore now. We’re reading Hamlet in class, and I still don’t like Shakespeare.

I struggle to hold my copy of the play from last year, the sweat from my hands drenching the pages and blurring my highlighted lines. I didn’t memorize them last night like Mrs. Hale told me to. Tonight when I’m on stage my name will be Sampson, and the other boy’s name will be Gregory.

Me and the other boy enter from behind the set as I struggle to remember what I’m supposed to say.

We walk down the stage together, which just for tonight has become a street in Italy. I tell him how terrible I think the Montagues are. Then me and the other boy – I recognize him now, he sits behind me in trig, his name is Charles off-stage – talk about physically and sexually conquering them.

I try not to think about the audience. The thousand-plus people in this auditorium who have looked forward to this night for three months, the family members who forgot to turn the flash off and the friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends who spent an absurd amount of money on popcorn and lemonade. All of them are watching me, not even taking a fraction of a second to consider what’s going on inside my head.

As Charles sees two servants from the other family approaching, we try to come up with the best way to provoke them into a fight without breaking the law. I know I’m supposed to do something next, but I don’t remember what.

Andrew’s coming home tonight…

My head starts to ache.

Mom and Dad will be waiting with him outside…

All my limbs go numb.

He won’t be the same…

I have a heart attack.

No, no, no…

I remember what I’m supposed to do.

I bite my thumb, my eyes fixed on the other two servants as they watch.

I taste the blood in my mouth as I look down. There’s a pretty deep wound. It throbs and swells as I continue to bleed, feeling like it might fall off at any moment. Drops quickly fall on the planks below me, turning them a perfect shade of crimson.

“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” asks my chemistry partner Tony, clothed in robes the same scarlet hue as my right hand.

“I do bite my thumb, sir,” I reply, feeling my energy slipping away and quickly setting up a trap for it in my brain.

“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”

I turn to face Charles, me and the urge to pass out still locked in heated battle. “Is it the law of our side, if I say ay?” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me.

“No, sir,” I say to Tony as I try my best to hold on to the present moment with a desperate strength and everything in me, “I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb, sir.”

“Do you quarrel, sir?” Charles asks Tony.

“Quarrel sir! No, sir.”

The next few minutes pass by in a series of blurs my brain is barely able to register. A boy from our family and a boy from theirs draw swords. A group of citizens brandish their clubs and try to keep the peace. The lords of both houses enter, and the only reason why they don’t join in is because their wives stop them. Finally the prince comes in and breaks up the fight, imposing a death sentence on anybody who dares to break the law from this moment forward.

I leave the stage with most of the other brawlers as the play continues on without me. I can feel the oxygen returning to my skin after Mrs. Hale congratulates me on a job well done. The sweat dissolves into vapor as I change from my stuffy blue Capulet robes into my everyday clothing. My headache vanishes and my heartbeat returns to normal as all the numbness in my body subsides. I try the backstage door to the hallway before I walk out of the school building and feel the cold night air.

Mom and Dad wait for me inside the car, and that’s when the painful emotions that have only just now started to elude me return with a vengeance.

The taste of blood returns to my mouth. My finger throbs and pulses in the early March wind, even though it’s stopped bleeding. I shiver. My heart starts pounding again, my head is aching, and my bones fill up with pins and needles.

Andrew is in the car. They were just at the airport and they picked him up.

I think I’m about to cave in under the pressure. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to walk over to their brand-new cherry-hued van they bought last weekend and open the door.

“Zach?” Mom asks, sitting at the drivers’ seat. Her face is a traffic light illuminating a few fresh lines of tears. She stares at me with a blank expression, and she’s probably noticed that I’ve accidentally mastered the fine art of thumb-biting. “You don’t look well.”

“Did something happen at the play?” Dad asks. His cheeks are just as red and splotchy as Mom’s, and there are a few luminescent puddles of mucus around his nose. His eyes are tired from having lost sleep last night.

I don’t answer. Andrew’s body is a scene from one of his pictures from the Middle East, a sight so horrible you can’t help but just stare at it. And I feel all of the emotion inside of me that I’ve built up over the course of the last few days, weeks, months, and years come together inside of me and explode, just like the bomb that blew off both of his legs, took out his left eye with its shrapnel, and added a new series of scars to his face, arms, and chest.

When I learned he was coming home, I wanted so badly to be waiting outside the airport as Mom and Dad pushed him through the sliding glass doors of the terminal in his new wheelchair, him recognizing me as I ran toward him, me kneeling on the ground as we hugged for the first time in forever.

My parents spent years supporting Andrew’s love of photography. They were glad he had found something he really loved doing and proud of how great an artist everyone thought he was. But since he decided to go to Afghanistan to document the war, they’ve lived the past four years deep in regret for letting him choose this life for himself. And since they heard about the bombing in the village where his team was stationed, it’s like my parents have been replaced by clockwork automatons, unable to see anything apart from their own guilt, not even me.

And that’s why they went to the airport alone to welcome him back, forcing me into this minor role in this stupid play that left me with a thumb that’s hurting more than ever.

I slide in next to him, and I try to remember all the things I’ve wanted to say to him since I heard the news two weeks ago. I want to tell him I missed him, and that I’m proud of him for following his dreams. And I have a million questions for him, all burning up inside me, but I’ve forgotten what they all were. It’s like I’m on that stage all over again, only this time there are no lines I should have memorized, and there’s no one else to notice if I mess up.

“Andrew?”

He doesn’t answer.

I say it again, but he’s just looking out the window, a blank expression etched onto his face. It looks as if all his memories of me have been erased, or maybe just replaced by the horrors he’s seen from the edge of the battlefield.

So I turn away towards my own window. After we’ve been on the road for a while, I hold up my thumb to the moonlight and take a look at it. It’s not hurting nearly as much anymore, but it will be a very long time before it heals. I wonder if by then I’ll have my brother back, or if he’s gone forever just like his legs. Maybe my parents will finally remember that they have another son.

As Mom pulls the car into the garage, I turn to look at Andrew, but he’s already looking in my direction.

Fear is written all over his shrapnel-pierced face, but there’s something else there too. His mouth opens a few times, as if the words he’s looking for are buried deep within him and he’s still trying to find them. Out the corner of my eye, I notice Mom and Dad also staring at him.

Hope begins to surface inside me, but I let it pass. The thought of wishing for anything more than what I have now stops me dead. This is the small infinity that exists between one moment and the next, in which the line between what could happen and what will happen is completely blurred.

Color returns to Andrew’s face, and his expression loosens. For the first time all night, he looks human. I feel the throbbing in my thumb return as his mouth opens again and he says the only thing he can bring himself to say.

“Zach?”