You discover one day—while everyone else is doing whatever it is that makes them happy—that you can almost pop one of the bones in your hand right out of the skin. It’s awesome. First, you practice in secret, when you’re bored or exasperated by school. But one day, you are practicing out in the open when someone notices the little bit of white sticking out, and they say, Wow, how cool, and they ask you to do it again. Look at this guy, they say—when formerly you were ignored or marginalized or made to feel you were odd or would at any rate never to amount to much—and it occurs to you: maybe you’re on to something.

You get good at it, the bone popping, and in college you realize there’s a whole department devoted to the study of it: how they did it in the old days, how it became different when the boats came to North America. Yet, on the musty college campus, everything seems safe and no one’s trying hard enough. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone doing a good or brave job of bone popping.

Eventually, you find places in the big city—loft buildings, various dark cafés—where people gather. Most can pop one or two hand bones, but a few can do their whole arm bone or an entire leg. Some of these people are actually making a living doing this. They get contracts to spend years on one big bone popping. Some win awards, or fellowships. But no matter how good you get, one old timer says, never remove your heart. Then you’re dead.

So you practice, getting good, refining your technique. You can artfully remove one or two bones whenever you want, in almost any setting. Sometimes you rig up a webcam, so people on the Internet can watch. It takes more time to remove your rib cage or your entire hip and all of a sudden you realize you’ve been trying for four or five years to remove your entire lower body, just once, but the market is tough and your agent is trying and maybe this year you’ll get a contract.

Even with various modest successes, your wife—not a bone popper—is becoming tired of all the talk: about other bone poppers, how much they make, how this one guy you know has a yearly deal, doesn’t matter how many bones he pops, the people who pay him just think he’s that good, he pops a bone once, maybe while he’s in Cuba, and bam! That’s enough for a year’s pay. Why can’t you do that? your wife says one night, after some wine. You admit to her: every time you pop a bone, it takes something out of you. You both get quiet.

Weeks and months and years go by: oh, sure, when you’re on a roll, you don’t feel pain, you can spend an entire day just working on one little facet of a good bone pop, practicing over and over to get it right. But you have less time, are a father, and you look at your little girl, and you find yourself hoping she aspires to something else. Her skin covers her tiny bones and you think: anything but bone popping for this one.

Because it takes its toll. You try to remove a bone from your body, and the hole gets a little ragged, and then you start breaking off pieces of yourself you didn’t mean to share, things don’t always heal, pieces won’t go back in, and maybe all these years, you’ve been doing damage for the sake of what?

You do a good pop, and it’s over. Just an entertainment, a little amazing moment, when people saw you could do something they couldn’t. You took the time to focus, to reveal a part of yourself that maybe should’ve stayed unseen.

A lawyer friend laughs: I could probably pop any time I want, he says, but I’d rather make three hundred dollars an hour doing some suing.

Sometimes you do a pop that is still great, one that reminds you why you started, why you kept at it, but on bad days you compare yourself to friends who have real jobs. Younger, you thought they were crazy. But, oh, to be a doctor or a nurse or maybe an X-ray tech. Nothing personal, just real stuff, you know?

It’s so bad lately, you find yourself getting a little jealous of the people who merely study or are out in the field, looking for evidence of the first pop. You’re even thinking of giving it up altogether, getting a Ph.D. or something, becoming that guy who doesn’t really pop anymore, who does a conference now and then, where you don’t even have to do a real pop, just talk about a great one you did back in the day. (That poltergeist feel of a room filled with people who want nothing more than to learn to pop a bone out of their skin.)

Bone popping: if you really commit your life to it, it’s mostly pretty lonely, all that looking inside yourself, trying to find the weak spot where something’s loose, where you can get it out, if you try hard enough. Don’t think about the consequences and you can put bone popping above all other things. Some people do it well, for their whole lives. Most of us struggle. The whole thing can be gross, honestly. Yet it’s not clear if I can ever stop.



Nathan Deuel‘s first book, Friday Was the Bomb, is a collection of essays that will be published in May 2014.