Sunday, July 1, 2012

Phantom Pain

"Phantom Pain," by Lihua Lei
I was born without a thumb and index finger on my right hand, and then my luck got worse. On my 18th birthday, my best friend in the whole world, Dahlia, took me out for burgers and drinks at Andy's Tavern. So far, so good, right? After a pitcher of Margueritas and some shots of tequila I made Dahlia eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle. We decided to leave her truck in the parking lot and walk back to her house. She said, Better safe than sorry.

          Cutting across the field between Richter Road and the highway, I remember the air was so cold it hurt just to breathe. I remember thinking it felt like I was freezing from the inside out, and wondered why I couldn't walk a straight line, if it was because I was too drunk or too cold.

          We'd almost crossed the interstate when Dahlia sat down, kind of squatting, right on the dotted line. There wasn't much traffic that time of night, no cars right at that moment, but her hands were pressed up to her ears like she was trying to block out the sound of semis, or like she was getting ready to sing harmony, which she actually did in our high school a cappella group, and she said, "Why does my fuckin' head hurt so much? I think I'm gonna throw up." Next thing I know, I'm waking up at Memorial with a headache and gauze packed around the stump where my right hand used to be, and Dahlia's dead.

          I blamed myself for awhile, you know? Thought that the drinking might have made her sick, or the tequila worm made her hallucinate, but it turns out she had something from birth, an aneurysm, a cerebral hemorrhage, and her time was just up. Boy, can you imagine? Like she was programmed to self-destruct on my birthday.

          I remember nothing about the accident, but the cops think the car must have hit some black ice, and when it jumped the divider a big shard from the windshield severed most of my hand at the wrist. I hear the driver was dinged up some, needed some stitches, but nothing too bad, and I didn't have so much as a scratch on me, except the hand. Nobody pressed charges. The driver wasn't drunk and no one wanted to put the blame on us, considering Dahlia was dead and I lost my hand.

          The phantom pain started almost right away with a burning sensation where my fingertips should have been, all five fingertips. The doctors said phantom pain was normal, but they couldn't figure out how I could be feeling something in a part of me that never, ever existed. They think maybe we're hardwired to be perfect, like each one of us is born with an ideal map of who we're supposed to be, so I feel pain in a place that only ever existed as an idea.

          The pain comes and goes, but it comes back worse. Instead of burning, I feel like my fingers are being forced into these unnatural positions, all twisted up and cramped. The pain makes me sweat, makes me want to bawl my eyes out, but instead I think about Dahlia.

          She sort of comes over me, like a cool breeze. I can't see or hear her—I'm not crazy—but I feel her presence just as sure as I feel that pain in my fingers.

          Dahlia was, in every way, better than me. She was pretty and skinny, with soft, blond, wavy hair, she got good grades and boyfriends, and could sing like an angel. I'm what my ma calls "big-boned," with mousy brown hair and no talents anyone could name. Dahlia said my talent was my strength, the way I take shit from no one, the way no one can hurt me or figure out what I think. We were friends since the first grade, inseparable.

          Sometimes, when I was hurting, when I just felt bad about myself and no one knew but her, we'd sit on Dahlia's bed and she'd put her arm around me and hum. Like a lullaby, but not a real song, just something she'd make up on the spot. Sometimes she'd kiss me. Her tongue was soft and made me feel like I was melting. Once she put my hand on her, my messed up hand, and she rubbed my three fingertips over the front of her shirt till her nipple got hard. We never talked about it, but she did that for me because she loved me. She believed in me and wanted me to believe in myself.

          The physical therapy they have me doing now is with mirrors. My good hand goes into one side of a mirror box and my stump goes in the other. When I look at the mirror on the good side and see the free movement of my fingers, it looks like the phantom hand is reflected with five perfect fingers. When I spread the fingers of my good hand, my phantom fingers unclench. I guess seeing is believing.

          When that cool-breeze feeling comes over me, I never fight it, even when it feels like I'm about to freeze solid. I just breathe Dahlia in, drink deep and let her in. Sometimes when it hurts, I picture myself as her mirror box, where she can be whole again. Instead of seeing Dahlia on the highway at night, hunched over with her hands on her head and the white dotted line splitting her down the middle, she fills me up and reaches my farthest points, further than I can imagine. When the pain goes away, I feel washed out, empty. To be honest, I feel guilty, like maybe Dahlia wasn't ever real.

Inspired by this article Phantom Finger Points to Secrets in the Human Brain

Monday, January 30, 2012

God's Pocket

          God’s Pocket was as far as possible from the sea, about 15 minutes by car to the crashing breakers of South Beach or 20 minutes in the other direction to Lambert’s Cove where there was barely a ripple. In the meadowed heart of the island our clothes hung, like crisp flags of conquest, blowing on a clothesline strung between two scrub oaks.  Pressing my face into a rough towel, I had expected a scent—soft, fresh, perhaps sweet—but smelled instead some musky mixture of pollen and sea air.

          The house was just a short walk from the duck pond and Alley’s General Store, where we picked up our mail, a newspaper and an occasional can of Habitant pea soup that had come all the way from Quebec.  A little further on was The Grange, a grand post-and-beam structure built in 1859.  That’s where we paid for our beach- and dump-stickers, where, on Saturday, we would go to the Farmer’s Market and where, in the evening, we shared the task of opening out folding chairs to watch old black-and-white movies, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Some Like it Hot.” 

          Sitting on a hard chair with my ass asleep, hypnotized by the droning oscillation of fans that didn’t so much cool the air as momentarily relieve the heat, I would feel my sunburn flush in the dark, stinging my cheeks and shoulders.  My fingers were greasy, plunged inside a paper bag of homemade popcorn.  I liked to lick the salt from my fingers.

          I was a young girl, maybe 12 or 13, observing Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino for the first time.  In that quaint room they were as mouthwatering as tomatoes warm off the vine, as exotic as the scalloped edges of a pattypan squash.

          We’d walk back to God’s Pocket after a double-feature, in the dark, through the stars and under a moon that glowed like the afterimage of a fresh thumbprint, bright now but soon fading, past banks of orange tiger lilies, withered at night, and towering mounds of shadowy hydrangeas that would be bright blue again at sunrise. The grownups trained the slim rays of their flashlights down at the road ahead of them, as if they were inscribing a map of the island’s potholes. 

          When I held the flashlight, I aimed it up at the moon and waited for my light to reach it and return to me.  Instead, the thin beam dispersed just over our heads and lit the hovering fog that was quietly descending.

          What was inside God’s Pocket?  A wide-plank floor, pumpkin-colored, sensuous and gleaming from more than a century of footfall.  A lovely round window, like a porthole, by the staircase.  A narrow bed beneath a dormer window, my child-body sinking with relief into a too-soft mattress, the sheets lightly scented with mildew and bleach. 

          Lights out meant no light at all—no difference between open eyes and closed, just blinking black.  Wide-eyed, I would imagine the nearest lighthouse and its revolving beam, illuminating the spent flower heads and blue hydrangeas, routing out from its hiding place every earwig and earthworm, its spotlight penetrating straight down to the bottom of the sea.  

          Sleep came quickly, sweet and childish.  Most mornings the wooden floor was bathed in sunlight, foretelling a day that would be spent at the beach.   Or rarely, when rain lashed at the window and the floor boards were cool and dark, a day curled up on the couch with a book and a mug of tea, or patiently adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to get reception on one of the three channels.

          I would have been delighted to spend every sunny day at Lambert’s Cove.  To get there required a 10-minute walk along a narrow, gradually rising forest path, dark and sun-dappled, and punctuated by random clouds of gnats. To get there was to emerge suddenly in open sunlight above the sea, with white sand beneath, shimmering sky above, beach plums and tall grass around a little pond down below the dunes, almost behind you. 

         Before me lies Lambert’s Cove:  its white shore curves to embrace the ocean, calms any turmoil.  The water glimmers in an abundance of light.  If there are people, I don’t see them.  This is my place, all the way to the horizon and beyond.  All I see and feel is mine.  The wind blows for me, the sun warms me.  I take off my flip flops to run better over the scalding sand, drop my beach bag, pull off my t-shirt and run straight up to the frothy lip of the water's edge.  Stepping onto a margin of pebbles in the shallow water, and taking step after step beyond them, my feet will sink slightly, into the soft, creamy sand and stop in just the place where the water laps at my breasts. 

          Mine was the perfect spot, between waving tentacles of seaweed and a domed boulder—the rock was round and heaving, black and slick, almost submerged at high tide, exposed and nearly golden when the tide was out.  I could find that particular spot with my eyes closed.  Find it and just give up everything:  give up gravity, lose the connection, just tip back and float.  Close my eyes and make of myself an offering.  The urgent call of gulls, the heat of the sun, all loose limbs supported by the living presence of water, solid and yet not, a body suspended above the earth, rocking gently, back and forth, like the rhythm of breath. My eyes are closed, gazing at a translucent red vista that is neither light nor dark.  Salt on my tongue, sea salt, sweat.  

          This is a place I once loved.  When I grew up I used to dream, on fitful nights, that I was on Martha’s Vineyard, driving by the red clay cliffs belonging to the Wampanoag Tribe, past Aquinnah Light and on to Lobsterville, across from Menemsha, where the roseate terns come every year to breed.  Only when it began to rain did I realize there was no place for me to stay. I understand those dreams as the thrashing of small hopes.

          Now in middle age when I dream of Martha’s Vineyard, I’m on the upper deck of the ferry headed toward Vineyard Haven.  I see the harbor in the distance, and further on is the lighthouse, where the shoreline sweeps around to the mansions of West Chop, structures whose elegant white columns, at once gracious and forbidding, stand sentinel.  My hands grip the ferry’s cold metal railing and I peer over the edge into the churning wake, until I open my eyes.  

          God’s Pocket has seen another generation of footfall, and more, since I was last there.  The post office moved years ago, and Alley’s now sells shiny blue-and-white mugs imprinted with their logo.

          My father and my uncle are buried in the West Tisbury Cemetery and my mother will be buried there, some day.  There’s room enough for me, if I want.

          It’s not just that I can’t go back, or that I can’t turn time back—I don’t want to return.  I feel claustrophobic when I remember my longing for solitude. I feel imprisoned by solitude when I recall my singular desire for the island’s beauty.

          My island is my unrequited love. I’d been so certain it was just a matter of time. Just as it is when you love a man who won't love you—when you think of him constantly, when you know what is best about him and you cherish him as much for his faults, when for so long you have believed in him, believed that this secret love will be returned—love as real and solid as a boulder, constant as the sea—you yearn for your heart’s home, and you wait. You’re sure you will find a way back, a way in, till you notice, as if by accident, that you’re all  alone, and you always have been.

                                  *                              *                                 *

A friend of mine shared a writing prompt she was given in her Creative Nonfiction class: Write about a place that has tremendous significance for you; begin from the point of view of innocence and end from the point of view of experience. I was surprised where this took me; I'd set out to write about a place I've loved and longed for my whole life. What emerged was quite different, almost sinister at times, and led me to an unexpected conclusion...a contemplation about hope and disappointment, the journey from youth to aging and death. Try it. See where it takes you.

                                 *                              *                                 *

Twenty-four hours later, and I'm thinking, "Hmmm.  What if people don't know what pattypan squash is?"

For those of you who've never seen or tasted it, pattypan squash is round and flat, with rippling edges. It tastes great when prepared simply:  lightly fried in olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with a little kosher salt, or if the squash is on the large side, halved and then fried, and served with a dollop of homemade tomato sauce (using some of those mouthwatering homegrown tomatoes).