I still don’t love you; my arm fell off.
I see my ex at the grocery, pecking at fruit, those new mini-watermelons. I catch the back of her head, her red hair, from the automatic doors, her purple tee from two years ago’s 5K for dystrophy. One change: Her left arm is gone, the short sleeve tied into a knot at the shoulder. I hope it isn’t her any more, but know it is, her way of leaning against the cart, her hips caddy-wampus but still in charge. I hover between onions and yams, wanting to see her face, but she won’t turn around. A boy in a smock asks if he can help me and I bolt, abandoning bananas, sprinting to my car. I drop my keys four times before I can get inside and twice more inside and drive away.
For three hours after the grocery, I try to remember Jackie’s number. She has the same area code and prefix as me, which leaves four of ten numbers, forty percent. I know there’s no nines in it, because I have three nines in mine and I’m certain her number was nothing like mine. I can picture a five, so there’s a five. When I can’t think of the other numbers, I begin to call my area code plus my prefix plus 5555, but don’t. I will call in an hour. In an hour, I give myself another hour. After that hour, I call: I reach a carpet-cleaning business’s voicemail. It’s not Jackie’s business, unless she is now one-armed and a carpet cleaner. I try to remember Jackie’s number again but can only picture her without her arm, try to imagine her stump. It might be purple. Then I remember Jackie changed her number, several times. I still want to remember Jackie’s old number, just to see if I can. I cannot
I have hope: The one-armed Jackie-looking woman in the store wasn’t Jackie, but her sister, Violet. Violet’s not a twin, a year younger, but close enough. It’s wrong to hope it’s Violet, the one I never loved, who never rejected me, but I can’t help it: I hope it’s Violet that tragedy has befallen. I consider dropping a card, telling Jackie I’m sorry about Violet losing her arm, see if she bites. My sister’s a reporter and the way she gets politicians and police to talk is to say something untrue, have them correct her. Sister: So, the mayor’s used coke for five years, three of those in office. Deputy Mayor: It was crystal meth; it was one time. I don’t have Jackie’s new address, but I know Violet works at the Target by the airport. I could visit that Target, buy paper towels, maybe a dress shirt to wear to my cousin’s communion party, but what if I saw Violet with two arms? Then it would had to have been Jackie. I might never shop at Target again–not any Target–in case Violet’s been transferred, which happens all the time. Target’s not worth the risk.
What bothers me more: Jackie losing her arm and not telling me, or me thinking it’s my fault? Jackie hasn’t called since changing her number the last time, and what a conversation to break the silence: I still don’t love you; my arm fell off. Worse, I half-believe she sawed it off herself: My left arm features a heart tattoo with “Jackie” scrolled across. I sent her photos and imagine she’s gotten one to match, “Shawn” in place of “Jackie.” Once I recall it, I can’t shake the Brando monologue in Apocalypse Now, when he tells Martin Sheen about the Viet Cong hacking the arms off their own kids right after Americans vaccinate them for small pox. Jackie and I watched that movie together on our second date, her saying Wow! at that part, impressed. Do I truly believe she severed a limb to spite me? No. Do I think about it? I can’t shake the possibility. It keeps me up three days.
I call my lawyer. Since I can’t talk to Jackie I want her to check on Jackie for me, tell me if she has two arms, find out how it happened if she doesn’t. My lawyer’s secretary tells me my lawyer’s not my lawyer, she was my public defender, that she’s not on retainer. She hangs up. I call again and offer $300 and again, she hangs up. I call back, she doesn’t answer. I walk out to the garage, count to ten, walk back out, call again. No answer. Back to the garage, another ten count, and this time, the secretary answers, says she’s sending a police car. The cop arrives after my eleventh trip to the garage and back. I can barely breathe or think or stand. We talk, he threatens to put me in cuffs and shove me in the back of his cruiser. This is all it takes to convince me I no longer have a lawyer.
I think about meeting Jackie now, a one-armed Jackie, and wonder if I’d feel the same, want to be with her as badly. It’s shallow, but most men are, meeting new people, and at our age. Even with one arm, Jackie could be special: gorgeous, smart, funny, and until recently, compassionate. And those hips. Would I see those traits if we were stuck together in an elevator, her with one arm, or would I focus on what was missing? Every date she has must start with an explanation: how she lost her arm, how she copes, who tied the cute little arm knots in her shirts, why she’s declined the prosthetic. I suddenly can’t remember if Jackie’s left-handed or right-handed. I picture us playing tennis–fourth date–and am convinced she lost her good arm, the one she used for everything. She’s had to relearn so much, missing her mouth with her fork, smashing food into her nostrils. Signing her name like a second-grader, brushing her teeth for the first time. How would she open a jar? A bottle of wine? Backhand? Wipe? Masturbate? I’m sad when I think of her masturbating, failing at it, almost hoping she’s found someone new.
Jackie and I began as a blind date. My sister and Violet were in the same sorority at NIU. I’d been in a hospital, but Jackie was divorced, her first husband in prison, lots of abuse, lots of drugs, an enormous mustache; two months in the ward was a step up. We went on five dates before she told me we weren’t compatible, three nights and one afternoon, some of the best times of my life, save that last one, the dinner at the Italian place where she insisted on going Dutch, told me she wasn’t ready for what I wanted, then offered to pay for my dinner. Halfway through her explanation, I got up and went to the bathroom. She wasn’t at the table when I got back, our bill paid, both our dinners waiting, penne and a combo platter. I paced in the waiting area of the restaurant for an hour, hoping she was in the bathroom, too hoping she wasn’t very sick, but not wanting to enquire, find out, not wanting to know for sure. I gave myself an hour after the restaurant closed, standing on the sidewalk outside, then went home, lots of cold Italian food in a doggy bag.
I’d just like to hear Jackie say it, tell me she has two arms. Or that she lost it and didn’t think I deserved to know. Aside from tattooectomy, how does someone lose one arm but stay otherwise intact? Faulty grenade? Tilt-a-Whirl? Loan shark? Actual shark? I can’t stand her feeling that pain. Did she see it happen? Did it come off all at once or in pieces? Maybe it’s cancer, wrist or elbow cancer, and the doctors caught it in time. Thinking of Jackie enduring any of these traumas wears me out. My therapist once explained–when I asked about a separate, unrelated incident–that people who lose limbs never feel the pain because they’re either passed out or in shock. The hard part is coping with the loss, adjusting to the change, the handicap, that’s never pain and loss. I remember this and feel consoled: Jackie’s lucky, one-armed or not, as I’ve had to endure both.
Michael Czyzniejewski teaches at Bowling Green State University, where he serves as Editor of Mid-American Review. He is the author of two story collections, Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009) and Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012). In 2010, he was awarded a Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.