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

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