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On the Other Hand

                                    Michael Czyzniejewski


 

It was one of those accidents that resulted in the wrong hand being sewn onto the wrong body. Twice. I have, attached to my left wrist, the left hand of the man whose Buick front-ended my Capri, leaving that guy with my left hand attached to his left wrist. The coolers, they say, got switched on the way to the hospital, or maybe before, everything at the scene a collage of fire, twisted steel, and blood. The hands were just too similar, they explained, and our good, still-attached hands were too mangled to use as guides. Time running thin, they just guessed wrong. 

Three weeks went by before anyone noticed. The bandages had to stay on to keep out infection, and during changes, I was either too doped up or the hand was still too damaged for me to notice. Then I just realized it, the day the man with my hand started screaming. Our rooms were next to each other, and he started yelling that he wanted his wedding ring, that he needed to have his wedding ring, that if he didn’t have his wedding ring, someone was going to get hurt. I figured they’d probably cut it off for surgery, the swelling making sliding impossible. Maybe there were pieces somewhere, in an envelope, his name scribbled on the front. A couple of hours later, the guy resting with a sedative, I noticed a small dish on my nightstand. Inside sat a wedding band, white gold, thick and enormous, big enough for my thumb. I reached over for it, and just to see how ridiculously small my hands were, I tried to slip it on. It fit. My hand was bigger: much bigger. While this could still be attributed to swelling, I couldn’t deny the black stubble on my knuckles; I’m blond, and checking my good hand, my knuckles were bare. At that point, I just knew. 


I didn’t see the man in the Buick again until we met in a lawyer’s office two months later. After I’d discovered the mix-up, they told him what had happened and he became violent, throwing his dinner dishes around the room, pulling out his IV, even grabbing the doctor by the neck and pressing his thumbs into his Adam’s apple. The only thing that saved the doctor was the hand, my little hand, too weak to hold tight. After that, they had to move the guy to another room, on another floor, where they could put a guard at his door, keep him away from other patients. The mix up was irreversible, and since I imagined the guy ripping his old hand off my arm and taking it back, I didn’t want to meet him, for him to know what I looked like. All that was left was the legalities, who was at fault, who could or could not sue. We sat down at one of those big lawyer tables in one of those big lawyer conference rooms, the Buick man and his council on one side, me and my lawyer on the other. The man with my hand was named Rich, I found out. Rich and I were just there to sign papers, everything explained to us beforehand. I’d get a little money, and his insurance company would pay it. Then Rich and I would be done, except for the small pieces of us we’d left with the other. 

After the meeting, Rich and I shook hands and he apologized for drifting into my lane, for causing all this trouble. Then Rich asked if we could hold up each other’s old left hands in front of our faces. Why not? I thought, and did. I looked at my old hand, he looked at his, and for a brief instant, the hands brushed together, palm to palm, my little tiny hairless hand on his arm engulfed by his gigantic hairy hand on mine. On my old ring finger was the wedding band, held on tightly with some white yarn, white yarn that had already been stained a sickening color, like pus oozing out from under the ring.

“Do you beat off with it?” Rich asked, our hands still touching. 

The lawyers looked up; his giggled, mine didn’t. I thought he was kidding and smiled. 

“I love beating off with your hand,” he said. “It feels like I’m cheating on myself.” 

I pulled my hand away, his former hand, and that was that. We’d each have a good story to tell, including a prop, and since Rich lived over three hours away, it was unlikely we’d ever see each other again. 


Distance didn’t keep Rich from contacting me, however. A few days after the settlement meeting, I began receiving e-mails that Rich sent around to people he knew—his friends and family, mostly—e-mails about his wife, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, who was pitching a good fight. Another was about his new vehicle, a Ford Ranger, and he attached a picture of him standing next to it, leaning against the door with a thumbs up. I didn’t respond to these e-mails, or bother to ask him to take me off his list. There was only one message that first week, and what’s one extra e-mail a week? Telling him to take me off the list would only seem rude. Big deal: I’d get an extra e-mail from the guy with my hand. I’d gotten stranger e-mails—from people with none of my parts—so really, what could it hurt? 

Pretty soon, though, I started getting more and more e-mails, one every day, and eventually, more than that. My sister in Las Cruces was like that, sending along everything she found on the Internet, every video, every joke, every odd or cutesy picture. I just erased all that stuff, keeping an eye out for family photos, but for some reason, I started opening Rich’s and reading them, just to see what inspired his proliferation. Rich’s e-mails weren’t like my sister’s, no cats in cowboy hats and spurs, no warnings about cell phone numbers going public. Rich sent personal messages to his list of loved ones, and they were mostly just soapbox rants, an ongoing diatribe against everything that irked him. Some were about gas prices, others were about his sports teams losing, and one was about a pizzeria putting canned mushrooms instead of fresh on his pizza. Others were more intense. One was about a drunk woman in his apartment complex who called him a fag every time he walked through the hallway. Rich described the woman as a “… redneck maladroit who proves we need another Civil War,” then detailed how he climbed her outside wall that night—to the third floor—and shit on her balcony. Another e-mail was about how he fried a sponge up in butter and put it on his complex’s lawn, just to kill a neighbor’s dog who was crapping there all the time. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the redneck woman would fry up a sponge of her own for Rich.) I was more intrigued than weirded out, and before long, I started forwarding the messages to people I knew, just because they were so crazy. My friend Adam from college posted the one about the shitting on his blog, as Adam was fascinated by reports of public defecation and had to report all news to his readers. If anything, I was starting to enjoy Rich’s messages. He was a colorful guy, a colorful guy who just happened to have one of my hands. 

When I got a message with the Subject line reading, “My fucking hand,” however, I felt some unease. Inside, Rich told the story about how our hands were switched, beginning with “Did I ever tell the story of how I ended up with some other cowboy’s hand instead of mine?” With all the sick shit he’d written about, it was only natural that he’d tell the tale of our accident, so when I read that first line, I wasn’t even bothered. I’d told a million people since then, especially when they saw the scars, the hugeness of the hand, etc.—just not on e-mail. Of course Rich was going to tell that story. Why wouldn’t he? 

But the tone of the e-mail got more and more accusatory as it went on. In the first paragraph, Rich’s account was for the most part accurate. After that, he drifted from reality, explaining to his list that his little hand would keep him from returning to work, that even if he ever got it to respond the right way, my hand was too small to pipefit. He’d have to collect worker’s comp for the rest of his life, or maybe, to quote, “Be some faggot accountant like the guy who has my real hand.” I was gay—that much he’d nailed—but was by no means an accountant: I wrote grants for non-profits. Still, a line had been crossed. 

For whatever reason, I didn’t ask Rich to take me off his list until I got the pictures, the pictures of Rich looking like he was going to maul my old hand. There were about a dozen, and all of them were pretty messed up. One had my old hand on a wood chopping block, Rich posing with an enormous hatchet, poised to bring it down. Another photo dangled my hand above a pot of boiling liquid, something green with an ivory film on top. My hand was placed into all kinds of precarious situations, like almost grabbing a white-hot log in a camp fire, lying underneath the tire of a semi, or reaching into a cage at the zoo, a tiger just inches away. Rich explained to his list that sooner or later, he was going to rid himself of my pussy little girl hand, and he was just trying to figure out how. He even asked the list to write back and vote, claiming he would take their recommendation under serious consideration (though it was not a guaranteed democracy). 

I responded immediately. Instead of voting, I sent Rich the following message:

          Dear Rich, 

               Greetings. In case you don’t recognize my name, I’m the other person from 
          the accident, the guy with whom you’ve exchanged hands. While I appreciate 
          the passion and creativity you display in your e-mails, I think my address has 
          been added to your list by mistake. My company employs a strict policy 
          concerning profane or disturbing images being displayed on its computers, 
          so I believe it is in my best interest to be removed from your list as soon as
          possible.

          I hope all is well with you.

          Sincerely, __________

I was on my way out to lunch when I sent it, but before I could get to the door, I heard my computer beep, telling me I had new message. It was from Rich and it read: 

          Dear ________,

               Greetings yourself! I can’t believe what an incredible ass I am! Wow! You 
          must be completely bugged out by me. Me and my friends have been 
          exchanging these weird e-mails since before e-mails, just trying to gross each 
          other out, shit like that, see how much like a crazy person we can sound like.
               I think I know what happened: My e-mail migrated to another system, and 
          your address—why do I even have that?—must have been thrown into my 
          contacts box somehow, the box I make my list from. I am so very sorry that 
          this happened. You must think I’m some sort of nutcase!
               I will remove your address immediately. Don’t worry: I’m not crazy! You 
          won’t get these anymore.

          Apologies,

          Rich
          P.S. Now I REALLY regret that line about masturbating at the lawyer’s office!

I can’t explain how relieved I was when I read this. It was strange, how Rich was able to type such a long message in less than five seconds, especially with only one good hand. I couldn’t type yet. But the important thing was that this was cleared up. Rich wasn’t in my closet at home, wasn’t the the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house guy. He was just a bit odd, a bit beyond eccentric. And besides, looking back, the jerking-off comment was funny. Especially since it turned out to be true. 


The next day, I got another e-mail from Rich, sent to his list, this one much, much worse than anything I’d gotten before. Instead of any rants or photos of my hand in fake danger, what I got was a photo diary of Rich doing real, awful things to my hand. To his hand. The first few showed Rich cleaning it, first with soap and water, then with isopropyl alcohol. Then the photos positioned the hand next to some cutting instruments, scalpels of all shapes and sizes. And then the photos got downright disgusting. Rich took one of the scalpels and traced the surgery scars, cutting right into the keloid, bleeding all rather profusely, risking extended damage to the nerves. I was afraid that the photos would get worse, lead to the hand’s amputation, but they did not. Rich made some small incisions, but not anything that would cause permanent damage. It’s nothing any sane person would do, but Rich wasn’t hinged anymore, no matter what he’d said about his friends and their ongoing gross-out contest. I remember going through a period in my life where I’d call friends up, tell them to turn on channel 46 as soon as possible, leading them right to the Surgery Channel, some poor bastard’s insides up on the screen. But I was 19, and I’d only done that three or four times. Rich was cutting into his body, taking pictures, and showing them to people he knew, including his mom, sisters, and other people he knew. I was a practical joker. Rich was fucked up. There was a difference. 

I called my lawyer right after I received the photo diary. He’d been pretty happy with the settlement I received, from both Rich’s insurance and the hospital, and told me if anything ever came up concerning the hand, really stressing the “anything,” to call him without hesitation. When I explained what was going on, my lawyer seemed confused. I told the story slowly, even forwarded the photos, and all he said was, “But you feel fine, right?” He told me there was nothing I could do except tell Rich to leave me alone, clearly explaining my desires, and if that didn’t work, file for a restraining order. My lawyer didn’t handle cases like that, he clarified, but offered to refer me to someone who did. I thanked him. He was not going to help me. 

I did take my lawyer’s advice and send Rich another message, emphasizing how I really needed to be taken off that list, lying and saying that my boss had been monitoring our e-mail, that he asked me to cease all personal contact on company time. I told Rich I could be fired, but erased that line before I hit Send, as Rich seemed like the type of twisted asshole who would find that funny, me being fired; he’d lost his job as a pipefitter, so maybe that’s what he was going for in the first place. I just sent a message reminding him to take me off ASAP, and left it at that. 

For some reason, I was confident that this would work. 


The next day, the police arrived at my office to arrest me. They entered my cubicle as a gang, the lead officer asking me to stand up and hold out my hands so he could cuff me. Once secured, he pushed me through the mob of policemen—five counting him—past my coworkers, to the elevator, out to their cars. They weren’t gentle, weren’t careful with my head as they pushed me into the back seat. On the ride to the police station, the officers read my rights and told me I was being charged with breaking and entering and arson. In the interrogation room a couple of hours later, I was told that the Dunkin Donuts on Second had been robbed and burned to the ground. Then they asked me to explain how my fingerprints found their way onto the crowbar that broke through the door and the gas can and cigarette lighter that were found just outside. For a second, I couldn’t say a thing, couldn’t account for how that was possible. 

Then it hit me. 

It only took three minutes of explaining to convince the police of what had happened. Even without checking a computer or running any tests, they could see the hands were different, that Rich’s fingerprints did not match the ones on my good hand. A newspaper story had run after the accident, making light of the mix-up, and one of the detectives remembered it. “That was you?” he said. All the recovered prints were from a left hand and I obviously didn’t have that hand anymore. They even started to treat me well, apologizing for being rough, buying me a coffee and a Twix bar, asking me to help them find Rich. They ran some tests on Rich’s old hand, taking his prints and a fingernail sample for DNA. They set me up at a computer and I showed them the e-mails, including the surgery photos, which caused even them to wince when the scalpel broke the skin. I told them Rich had a handle bar mustache, shaved his head bald, and had a yin/yang tattoo on the back of his neck. Once they had everything I could offer, they warned me about further repercussions, as it seemed like Rich had a vendetta out on me. They asked if I wanted an escort back to the office, but I only accepted because the officer would apologize to everyone I worked with, explain they’d made a mistake, that I wasn’t a robber or arsonist. Right before I left, a different cop stopped me at the door and said that she’d tried writing to Rich’s e-mail to see if he’d respond, but no dice. She also said that the other fifty or so addresses on Rich’s family and friends list were fakes, that the providers had no record of any of those people, that those other e-mail addresses never existed. Rich had been sending messages to me and me alone the whole time. 


I spent the next week wondering if Rich was going to do something crazy, or by this point, something much crazier. It was a week of looking over my shoulder, adding a lock to my apartment door, of sleeping with a carving knife on my nightstand, an aluminum softball bat next to it on the floor. When I came home I wondered if I was alone or if Rich had somehow broken in, and at every noise I heard, I would jump, reach for another knife, cower behind the kitchen counter, hoping Rich wasn’t hiding in the cabinets behind me. I crossed my fingers every time I started my car, as if Rich was suddenly a mob assassin. Little by little, when nothing happened, I started to relax, moving back into my routine. Rich had probably left town, the cops looking for him, and he wouldn’t want to risk getting caught. Destroying a Dunkin Donuts was a serious offense. If anything, I’d get another e-mail, maybe an anonymous postcard, but nothing that would expose him, make him too vulnerable. 

The cop leading the investigation called me once a week, asking if I’d heard from Rich, if I could remember anything else about him that I’d forgotten. I hadn’t. The third week, the cop told me that they were able to find Rich’s apartment through his auto insurer. When they tried to pick him up, they found that the address didn’t exist, that the numbers didn’t go that high on the street that he’d listed. His lawyer couldn’t help, either, as he had the same address, and the hospital said that the bills they’d been sending to his insurance provider came back, the company never having heard of Rich. The cop had found out that Rich had never been married, so the ovarian cancer was made up, too. God only knows why he had that ring. Rich was also absent from every pipefitter union in the state, but he had mentioned to someone in the hospital that he worked as a grant-writer for a non-profit, my exact job description. I started to wonder if maybe Rich had planned the whole caper, targeting me with his big, old Buick Skylark, for some reason wanting our lives intertwined. But that was crazy—we both could have been killed as easily as we weren’t. Besides, there was nothing distinguishing about me, nothing that would make me a likely victim, including my tiny hands. My mind was playing tricks with me, I decided, and was determined not to think about it too much. 


In the meantime, I started getting full use of my new hand, the fingers bending at my command when at the beginning, it didn’t feel like I had fingers anymore at all. I started by picking things up with the thumb and pointer, sort of propping stuff between the two, but before long, I was able to get a hold of larger items, grasp them and actually feel them against my skin. The real barometer was picking up a paper clip, and once I’d done that, I tried typing. That took time, but eventually, it was like Rich’s old left hand was my hand, doing exactly what I’d wanted it to do, when I wanted it, no limitation that I could see. It was as if the accident had never happened. For vanity’s sake, I would wax off the black hair from the knuckles, trying to match the hand with mine, and was sure to keep my fingernails trimmed, Rich’s growing at an incredible rate. Someone who knew what had happened could tell I kept the hand out of sight in public, placing it in my pocket, underneath the table, or even behind my back. Anyone who didn’t know would never be able to point that out. It was a gesture, not a sign of insecurity. 

I was also growing more and more confident in my personal life. I returned to the gym, and soon after, registered for an online dating network. Since the accident, I was moving in this direction, trying to convince myself that being alone was no longer a choice, maybe more of a bad habit. I didn’t receive that many responses to my posting, and after rereading my self-description, I could see why. I took out the information about how long it had been since I’d dated, and what should have been obvious from the get-go, I removed the anecdote about the accident, how I had another man’s hand instead of my own. Who would respond to a personal ad that said that? Even better, who would write that? I added a picture and used my whole first name instead of my initials, to seem more friendly, more like a person. I wasn’t an underwear model, but I had good photos of me, taken for my company’s website. I looked dignified in a tie, had just gotten a haircut, and since the photo was taken a year before the accident, I looked much younger, the tiny burn marks and other scars not yet in existence. It was a complete me, a place I wanted to get back to. 

This new ad generated a more positive response, though any response at all was a step up. Several of the replies included a “wink,” which meant the guy was interested, but only one wrote an actual note, going so far as to ask for a date. There wasn’t a picture, and he was seven years older, but we’d both majored in English lit in college, neither of us pursuing careers in teaching or writing; he worked in human resources, for a very large company, and made a comfortable living. I set a time and place, a sports bar chain that featured light beer specials and cheap chicken wings, hoping we’d keep things casual. What was less seductive than beer and wings? 

The night of the date, I decided to get there early, have a drink to calm my nerves. I sat at the bar for a half an hour, sipping a gin and tonic, and smoked a cigarette, which I only did when I drank. The bartender grabbed my arm at one point when he noticed me ashing onto a pile of cardboard coasters instead of into the tray. I apologized and settled up, moving to a table in the back of the restaurant area, the best seat at a place like that for two gay men meeting for the first time. I perused the menu and watched the games on the flat screen TVs, marking the scheduled start time of the date with another gin and tonic. My boy was late, and I feared I’d been stood up. 

As I stared out the window at the passing traffic, a much, much worse fear came over me, the fear that I wasn’t meeting a charming ex-English major who worked in H.R.: I could very well be waiting in the restaurant for Rich. Worse, Rich could be waiting in the parking lot for me to stumble out, angry and embarrassed, my guard down. I started to think, how could it not be Rich? I’d put up my picture. I’d put up my occupation. I’d even used my name. Rich was either going to walk through the door, have me trapped in the back of the restaurant for something nefarious, or he was in the backseat of my car, waiting for me to sit down inside so he could pull the wire over my head and into my throat. I was going to die or Rich was simply going to prolong my torture, reveal the new way in which he would torment me and his old hand. 

Just as I was thinking this, a man’s voice interrupted, announcing, “You must be _________.” The man standing before me had his hand on the chair opposite mine, and for a second, I stared at the hand, his left hand, not saying a word: I fully expected to recognize my hand there, my old hand, attached to the rest of Rich’s body. 

“Aren’t you _________?” the man said again. 

Standing in front of me, begging to be acknowledged, was a man fitting the description of my planned date. He was handsome, he was dressed sharply, and most of all, he wasn’t Rich. 

“Can I sit down?” the man asked. 

I apologized for my spacey reception, blaming it on the gin and tonic. My date apologized back, saying he didn’t blame me since he was nearly fifteen minutes late. 

“I got confused on the way,” he said. “I went to the one on Tallmedge instead of this one.” 

A waitress came and took our drink order, and since I was drunk enough, I ordered a water, insisting my date have something alcoholic. He ordered a gin and tonic, and we told the waitress we’d be ready in a few minutes. I perused the menu even though I knew I was going to get a salad. I was still embarrassed about ignoring him when my date first came in, and could only imagine the look on my face as he stood there, me thinking I was about to die, that something horrible was about to happen. I sat with my back straight, my bad hand, Rich’s hand, under the table and in my pocket, the double whammy of disguise. Sooner or later, if things went well, this man was going to see my hand and I’d have to explain, but I was hoping we’d hit it off before that happened, that he’d decide to like me or dislike me based on something besides the hand. Telling him about Rich would come later—much later—like when we were in Hawaii, walking up the aisle at our wedding, and we’d already bought property together, much too late for him to change his mind. Then would be a better time. 

The waitress came back much longer than a few minutes later. She put the gin and tonic in front of me and the water in front of my date, an easy mistake since I’d already had three. My date then ordered what I’d wanted, a sesame chicken salad with carrots and walnuts, and not wanting to get the same thing, to seem patronizing or pathetic, I for some reason said, “A dozen wings. Hot as they come.” 

We spent the time waiting for our food talking about our jobs, each of us glancing up at the screens when the rest of the restaurant cheered, a big play interesting to even me, the most casual of sports fan. I was having a good time, my date was having a good time—as far as I could tell—and it seemed like we’d perhaps be able to extend this past dinner, past domestic beer, hot wings, and big screen TVs. It was one of those things you could just tell, no matter how long it had been since you’d been on a date. This was working. We had a connection. 

When our food came, the waitress put our meals in front of us, complemented by silverware, extra napkins, and ketchup. She gave me an extra dish on the side for my bones. She told us to enjoy, asked us if we wanted another round of drinks. We did. As she turned to leave, her apron, filled with change, pens, and straws, twirled around with her and knocked over my water and the bottle of ketchup, sending them tumbling off the edge. As the items floated in mid-air, both my date and I flinched, but neither of us moved—they were falling to my left, and even by instinct, I couldn’t bring myself to pull my left hand out, for my date to see it. My date couldn’t move, either, though, his right hand, much like my left, frozen under the table. It was as if we both had something to hide. 

The ketchup and the water shattered to a smatter of glass, ice, and red paste on the parquet floor. It looked like a horrible accident, like someone could have just died, right there in front of us. Like something much worse than what it really was.

 


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