The Adjustment Period
I woke up one morning with no arms. I don’t mean the kind of waking up where you can’t feel them, where blood has caught somewhere and is now a steady thunder under your skin. I mean my arms weren’t there at all. The down comforter clung to my legs as I kicked at it, frantically rolling out of bed. Standing shakily, I looked at myself in my floor-length mirror, expecting blood, or oozing flesh in danger of gangrene. In place of my arms, however, was nothing. Just smooth nothing.
I had a boyfriend who used to call me monkey-toes. In response, I’d pinch his feet and pull his coarse leg hair with them under the sheets at night. He would have laughed if he saw me reaching for my phone, saw my claw-toes clamp on and lift it up to the nightstand, biting my tongue in concentration.
“Hello, police?” They understood immediately, a girl with no arms was no laughing matter, no matter how thick her toe-knuckles were.
“Hey, Tony?” Work was a little slower to understand.
“What do you mean, gone?” Tony asked, but he heard the ambulance sirens and let me go, which is good because I realized that it’s difficult to hang up without arms.
The hospital was a dead-eyed, leery place, and in the waiting room a man with a sore like a squashed grapefruit gaped at me as I walked by. Everyone did, though. Not that the EMTs had wanted me walking, for some reason any major trauma they try to strap to a gurney, but I kept trying to tip it over and they let me stand. It took a while for the doc to come in and see me, even though several others politely excused themselves from their patients to walk into my room, scratch their heads, and nod, “Extraordinary.” When she did finally come in, she just looked at my shoulders and shrugged.
“Could you come back in a few days? We might have something for you then,” she said, although I didn’t know what she meant.
“My arms?” I asked. “Are the police looking for them? Can you put them back?” But she shooed me away, muttering about how lucky I was, that some people wished that all they had to worry about was not having any arms. In a way, she was right. Survival became a game, a puzzle to solve and then sit back and admire.
I wore dresses for the next few days. I pulled the closet doors back with my toes and slinked up into the cool fabric, blowing warm air from the bottom to create a small cave that I could slip into while they still hung on the racks. I’ve always been confused about the term “breathing life” into something, because the only things you breathe out are what your body cannot use. In that way, I made a path for myself into the folds of light cotton and dark satin. I used my chin and nose to press buttons on the microwave, having soup for three (sometimes four) meals a day. I used my teeth, and sometimes just my tongue, to turn the pages of the newspaper, letting my saliva cling to the gray fibers. In the mirror I saw words stained onto my pink tongue, things like “transparent” and “alleged,” always cut off at the corner of a page. I hoped my search would turn up something like this: “Twenty-something, reliable humerus seeking a long-term bond relationship with scapula of her dreams,” or “Pair of young and exciting arms looking to add a body to the mix,” but I don’t know if body parts would go under Personal or Employment.
Survival became a game, a puzzle to solve and then sit back and admire.
I went back to the hospital when they said they had “good news.” The good news was waiting for me under a white sheet on a cold metal gurney, and the doc was only too happy to pull the cloth back. When she did, I saw two arms crossed over each other, as if they were deep in thought.
“It was all we had with such short notice, but we think they’ll work.”
The hands were enormous. The knuckles were pink and dotted with small, white scars. Past the wrists, a thick coat of brown fur enveloped thick muscles, and the skin at the tip of the gnarled elbow was the only sign of bone, of something frail beneath the flesh. They were certainly not my arms. But what could I say? Check the dumpsters, I’m sure that’s where mine are? Or better yet, just wait for some young girl to die, some beautiful, slim-wristed thing? I conceded that, yes, they might work, and the doc took care of the rest.
The first thing I noticed was that the fingertips brushed my knees when I walked. The second was the new strain on my shoulders. At least I could open doors normally, but now I slammed them all the time, and sometimes I would pull too much out of the cabinet for one person, as if the arms were conscious of their original hunger. In fact, the arms did many things like this. I would turn on the water for the shower, and the hands would instinctively crank too far. I would try to clip my bra and the fingers would fumble, no muscle memory associated with putting one on.
Sometimes I would yell at them, you idiot, that’s not how you do that, and try to get one hand to punish the other. They didn’t cut bread, twirl spaghetti, or even punch numbers into the microwave the way I wanted. And at night I slept with arms atop sheets. Like a snow angel, I stretched them out so they could not touch me.
One day, they reached for the sugar, remembering that this was how I drank coffee before they came along.
Another day, one cranked the shower slow while the other stuck itself in the stream up to its wrist. I felt the heat through them, and let them know what temperature was just right.
Like a snow angel, I stretched them out so they could not touch me.
I still didn’t like the way they picked up popcorn, crunching it all into a fist, but I started to see the efficiency in it. And they were learning that I took smaller bites as we cut our food.
I was staring at the veins on the back of the right hand when my phone rang. Shy and soft (strange), the left hand raised the phone to my ear. The doctor spoke, but I didn’t pay attention. I was thinking about the veins, about whose blood traveled there. Did we have shared custody?
“We think we’ve found something a bit more appropriate,” the doc repeated, sneering as if the current limbs were not, in fact, her idea.
So I went back. I drove myself. The arms drove me, I suppose, but we had an understanding. As I got out of the car I banged an elbow and cringed. Sharing pain, I remembered that first sign of frailty I saw, their elbows pointing to the ceiling from the metal gurney. So little separating bone and flesh. I held the elbow, or the left hand did, as I walked through the still-dead halls. This was a place where people got better once they left, I thought.
The doc showed a new table, a new sheet, and two new arms. They were supple, pale, but flimsy. As I looked at them, I unconsciously traced a hand through the fur on my arms, and clenched a hard-knuckled fist. The arms on the table were smaller, and wouldn’t brush my knees or cause a second look. Reaching across my body, I felt the knobby elbow, and tried to sooth away the sting. And then I left.
That night, I fell asleep cradling myself, arms heavy, warm, and mine.
Carleton Whaley is a graduate of the University of Connecticut. While there he was the Creative Nonfiction Editor of the Long River Review, and also lit his beard on fire while frying plantains. The two are unrelated.
Illustrated by Leigh Luna.