WINTER / SPRING 2008
P. 127 - 130
IN THE SUDDEN and silent eye of an eddy in the frantic hiss of a city in the rain, Mitchell met a woman who had once been a lover and saw that she had lost her fingers.
Not all, but the ones which had touched his lips and traced his chest and twined between his own. The last two fingers of her left hand were gone but for a swelling of the knuckle, and her middle an abrupt single phalanx which ended at the joint. The skin, taut over the stumps, oddly slick in the light and smooth. Her name was Catherine, and in the three years which had intervened between their short love and this sudden reunion in the rain, he had thought of her often, even as he thought he would never see her again.
But here she was, amid the density of the London streets in the frenetic bustle of eight million, there on the pavement in Mile End, each staring in shock and silence. And the remainder of the world fell away as if the city had been abandoned. “Mitchell,” she said. “What…how are you here? I don’t believe it.”
He answered simply, with a story wet with the sundry details of a life less romantic than he had dreamed it would be. Of a dull job and a failed romance. He thought as he spoke that the time he had spent with her had been the best yet of his life, and that things had been harder since she’d been away.
Catherine told him a story much the same but in brief, beginning on the day she had taken the southbound train for London, and ending here, with two familiar strangers in the East End, all the while tugging on her dog’s leash with one hand and gesturing with the other As she spoke, as if the ruined fingers were little more than a blemish.
She scratched the tip of her nose and the scarred skin of the abbreviated middle finger brushed her chin. “Seems our lives have run in parallel,” she said.
“Give or take. What happened to the one you were living with after me? Jeff was it?”“How did you know that?” “You sent me exactly one letter after you left.”
“Hm.” She pulled her dog’s leash. “Well, things changed. Hard times here and there which he didn’t care to weather. You know how it is.” “I’m sorry.”
She twisted the leash with her index finger, looped it around her thumb and the stump of her middle and held it this way. The gesture was practiced and precise. The dog dragged at her arm but her hand held steady, stumps out and away, nothing at all self-conscious in her posture.
She could have wrapped them under, could have made a fist to hide them and he never would have seen. But he had, and the shudder and hum of adrenaline came over him as he did, like a car crash averted by inches, the spark and flare of narrow disaster.
He wondered about the pain as she spoke, if it had been quick and numb, or terrible. He wondered if she had been scared and wanted to ask, and so without tact and only the slightest forethought, he said, “What happened to your hand? I couldn’t help but notice.” “What about it?” The dog pulled for a lamppost. Her arm bobbed. “Your fingers.” “What’s wrong with them?” “Well, you’re missing a few.”
She held her free hand in front of her, counted to five and looked at Mitchell as if he might have been speaking in tongues. “Your other hand,” he said.
She switched the dog’s leash, held her left hand up, palm out, as if to inspect manicure fingernails. She twisted up a look of terror, eyes wide, the edge of a scream. “Where are my fingers?” she said. She held this pose for a moment, then smiled, whole and round with brilliant white teeth. Too white, maybe, and changed. When he had known her, she’d had a cute little gap between her incisors, but it was gone now, and they had become Hollywood perfect. “Sorry,” he said. She held her palm out, twinkled her fingers, and the stumps and truncated muscle twitched in spasms. “Don’t be,” she said, and passed the leash back to her right hand. Her dog began to growl.
“We should go out sometime,” Mitchell said. “We can catch up. Life and love and all that. I’ll be in London for a month at least.”“Are you staying nearby?” “Near Queen Mary.” “Well, I’d like that.” She switched the dog’s leash, dipped into her purse and came out with a blue business card.
She handed it to him and pressed it into his palm with her thumb, dragging her stumps down the back of his hand . Her smile never changed. He went hot. Her dog bared its teeth and growled. “Call me later,” she said. “I will.”
She walked on, dragging the dog that refused to turn, looked back once and waved.
* * *
Two days later, he could think of nothing else. Of her fingers, the shape of her hand, the soft skin, the tiny missing bones. He had dreamt of her, of her body, of her hands, and in the dream she had all of her fingers again, like they had been, hands that he remembered now more clearly than any other detail of their meeting or romance. The smooth white elegance of delicate hands and skin, a refined Victorian perfection in the angles of her tapered fingers as she touched him. And in the dream, they were together again, and always had been, and she had never run to London. He phoned her from his office. “I didn’t think I’d hear from you,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you?” “No reason. I’m just glad you called.” “Are you free tonight?” he said. “Let’s meet up.” “I’d like that.” “Have you been to Cadwell’s? It’s near where I saw you the other day.”
“The pretentious basement? With the unfriendly staff?” “So you’ve been there.” “Of course. What time?” “Meet me at eight. Is that alright?” “Fine.”
And she did.
* * *
Mitchell found her at the street-level door. She wore a long-sleeved linen shirt, hair tied back, make-up that sparkled, and a skirt that fell to her knees and exposed a thick pink scar that began at her ankle and slipped up into the shadow of her thigh. “You look wonderful,” he said. “It was the least I could do, with you offering to pay.” “Did I?” “I’m sure you did.” “Alright, then,” he said. “We’d better go inside.” “Yes, we had.”
At the table, she drank her gibson with the stump of her middle finger extended, and after Mitchell’s second vodka tonic he stopped making a show of looking at anything but her hand and stared instead. “You never told me what happened to your fingers.” “No, I didn’t.” “I’m curious.” “I can tell.” “It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it.”
He waited. She looked up.
“Tabs, my dog.” She pulled the onion out of her drink on its cocktail skewer and ate it. “Once, when he was younger, I went to pet him but I tripped and stepped on his tail.” She held her stumps out and clamped her teeth together. “I had to follow him around for a few days to get the bones back.” “A keepsake?” He smiled.
He knew she wanted him to. “I made a nice pendant out of them.”
The waiter shuffled up, unhappy and unfriendly. They ordered without forethought. Catherine settled on blackened prawns. Mitchell had an unusually expensive species of fish. They discussed seafood, the state of the world, the state of reality television, but never got back to what had happened to her fingers, though late in the meal they did touch on love. “Bit of a dry spell,” she said. “It’s been hard for me.” “Why?” She scratched her nose. “Easy come, easy go.”“You always had an expert way with double entendre.” “Thank you.”
“You know,” he said, and knew that he shouldn’t, but did just the same, “I never wanted to lose you. We never ended, you know. Not really. We just sort of… faded out. I’ve been thinking of you ever since. I’ve loved you all this time.” “Mitchell…” “I mean it. Seeing you again this way seems too much to be true.”
“I know. I’ve thought of you too. Lately. Especially in the last year after Jeff. When he left me, you know, he was quite cold about it. I just thought that I deserved it because that’s the way I left you.” “You don’t deserve to be hurt, Catherine. Others, maybe. Not you.”
“Yes, well. That doesn’t make any difference at all, does it?” She dipped her eyes to the last prawn, drifting on a slick of cabernet sauce. “I suppose not.” “Since I saw you, I’ve been thinking about what we had. Do you still feel that way?” “I never stopped.” “But you’ve loved other people.”
“I’ve tried, but it’s never quite been right. I’ve been absolute rubbish in love since you. Dating, romance, all of it.” “Well, you’re going pretty well tonight,” she said. “I wasn’t trying.”“It’s working, anyway.” “I meant I wasn’t trying to get you into bed or anything.”
She looked at him with glass eyes, suddenly heavy, suddenly mirrored. “Well, I wish you were for god’s sake.”
He held his breath and waited for a laugh which didn’t come. She laid her arm across the table instead, palm up. He put his hand over it, felt the severed fingers, her skin against his and his blood ran hot. He slid his fingers down her wrist and their hands locked. “It is nice to see you again,” he said. “And it’s nice to see you.” “So…” he looked for the waiter. “Should we go?” “I’d like that,” she said.
* * *
They laughed for most of the ride to her flat. Mitchell hoped she wouldn’t change her mind. It was the delicate natural pause which comes at the end of most good dates, between “your place or mine” and the nudity.
They were silent on the path from the street to her stairway, only brushing hands. She fumbled for her keys and Mitchell turned her by the shoulders and kissed her. She smiled and went back to the lock.
He imagined her fingers on his neck, on his chest, clawing at his back, all over. He followed her in. The apartment smelled of potpourri and dog. She laid her keys on the countertop and Tabs came running from the bedroom. He saw Mitchell and growled. He thought of the dog’s appetite for fingers. She said, “It was a joke, you know. Don’t worry about the dog.” “Was it?”“Yes.” She wrapped her arms around Mitchell and locked her hands behind his back. Tabs retreated.
They kissed, hard and full. She pulled at his shirt, opened it, cold dry hands on his chest. They moved to the bedroom in the half-light through the window. In the dark, there came the impatient dance of indelicate male fingers over buttons. Mitchell switched on the lamp.
“Turn it off.” “Why?” he smiled. “Are you shy?” “No,” she said. “It’ll make it easier.” Mitchell held one of her buttons between his fingers.
“What will?” “The dark.” “What’s wrong?”“Nothing.” “Tell me.” “Please turn it off.” “Alright,” he said and was nearly to the lamp when she whispered, “Wait.” He turned. “I’ll tell you. Come back.” “You don’t have to.” “Please. I’ll show you. Just come back.”
She stood and paced once, to the closet and back. He sat at the edge of The bed and watched. “I know I can’t make you promise,” she said, “but I don’t want you to leave. Even if you don’t want to sleep with me, please don’t leave.” “Why wouldn’t I want to sleep with you?” “You don’t understand,” she said and came closer. “Things have changed. I know I can’t make you promise.” “I won’t leave,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that.”
She unbuttoned her shirt and parted it. The glow of the lamp against her body in strange ridges of shadow and light.. She shrugged, the shirt dropped to the floor and he saw that her skin was composed of burns, pink smooth swaths down her left side, a jagged dark gash high on her arm. Her face had gone tense, her eyes narrowed. She reached to her back and unclipped her bra, which fell at her feet. Her left breast was scarred and burned away, only soft gleaming flesh over the place where it had been. “See?”
He leaned forward, reached out with light fingers and ran the tips over her scars, the skin drawn tight. He traced their edges, from her hip to her breast and lingered there. “Oh my God,” he whispered. “You’re disgusted,” she said. “I’m not disgusted.” “You are. I see it. I know the look, Mitchell. Just like everyone.” “Catherine,” he said, and promised as best he could with his eyes, “I’m not like everyone.”
He leaned forward, kissed the ruined breast, the deep and jagged gash under it, a vaguely medicated scent.
“I can’t feel anything there,” she said. “The skin, I mean. Not anymore.”
Mitchell stood and met her lips, the strange tense pressure of the scar tissue against his chest. She brought her hands to his cheeks and held him that way for a moment, the way she used to, her missing fingers across his jaw. “I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I want to stay.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.”
Mitchell put what was left of her finger to his lips, let it part them and kissed it. “I can feel that,” she said, but tensed again and drew back. “What’s wrong?” “It isn’t pity, is it? Don’t sleep with me out of pity.” “I wouldn’t.” “It’s so ugly.”
He wanted to tell her what he really thought, which was that he wanted things to be the way they had been, before the years between, before whatever terrible thing had changed her. He wanted the woman he remembered and the days he missed so badly, and so he lied and said, “No, it isn’t,” and let his shirt fall and stood with her scars pressed to his body, naked in the light, the new and tortured skin smooth and soft. She let him touch her without shame, perhaps because she was lonely, or perhaps because she believed.
* * *
The night had cooled, and Mitchell pulled his jacket together as he walked in the hollow orange glow of the street. The sky was something strange, burning with city light, and of the billions of stars and planets, only one shown through. Venus probably, or Mars. Mitchell would call her. He hadn’t lied when he left. He would call and they would see each other again. He would call her soon, but not tomorrow. She hadn’t cried when he left, only turned and buried herself in the sheets.
He came to the street where after a few blocks he would be able to find a taxi. Perhaps it wasn’t right. Perhaps it had never been. Maybe once it had, or only in his mind. But things had changed. Everything changes. He still felt the smooth stumps crawling across his back.
He listened to nothing, to the vacant sound of distant tires and wind. He watched the star, he turned to his right, he walked, hands held tightly under his arms, wishing just that the night were warmer.