Michael Czyzniejewski

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.