Separate

My father has no left hand. He lost it in an accident when I was an infant, leaving him a rounded stub dark and as rough as bark. Growing up, it’d terrify me. I hated him tucking me into bed at night, his stump jabbing at the sheets and cover like a nightstick. Even now, at twenty-four, I’m creeped out by it. Whenever he’s in short sleeves, I can’t help but think of some alien cricket leg, the way his handless arm bends and fiddles about.

I don’t know how it happened, how he lost it. He won’t tell me, at least not the truth. I’ve often asked. “You want to know?” my father says, holding out his arm to refresh his memory. I’ve heard twenty-five different tales of how it happened, all equally credible. Rather, they’re all equally incredible. It was a pint of bourbon and a band saw, he’ll tell me. Or it was a fight with my mother and a meat cleaver, or it was an otter bite turned gangrenous. Razor wire caught in a boat motor’s blades.

The story’s never the same twice.

I’ve asked my mother, but she’s no help. She’s disgusted by the whole affair. “It’s his story,” she says. “He has to tell it.” Even now, nearly a quarter of a century after it happened, I don’t know the truth.

***

To blame my parents’ divorce on my father’s missing hand is to blame a fire on the wood and not the spark that blazed it. True, my folks stopped sleeping together soon after the accident, but that was because my father took to rubbing his stump against my mother’s thighs as she slept. “It frightened the holy bejesus out of me,” she said. “I’d wake to find this bumpy, fleshy thing digging and digging at me. It’s like it had a life of its own. Like it was trying to steal something from me.”

Their lives didn’t change much. My father took up residency in the den. My mother still did his laundry.

My parents still live together, though not as man and wife.

It’s only since I left Hackersville, Indiana, four years ago, and moved to New York City that I realize the strangeness of my parents’ arrangement. When a couple divorces, they’re meant to separate.

***

Growing up in Hackersville, there was little to do. The one movie theater in town closed the year I was born. There was no video arcade or roller skating rink or town swimming pool. My house had no television, my folks believing it bad. What I had was a bike, a pocketknife, a few friends, no siblings, and acres and acres of woods that surrounded my house.

Summers were my season, with the sun slow to cross the sky and the heat clean and pressing. I’d spend the long days by myself down at the creek imagining epic battles raging all around me. Clouds of dragonflies darted and jagged the humid air while cicadas called loudly for love from their hidden places in the trees and grasses. I’d toss large rocks into the creek to make for brilliant explosions. From morning to evening, I’d skirt about, hunting frogs and other small animals I could stab with my knife.

People, I’ve found, are happiest when they have only a few options. Too many choices and the process of deciding kills any joy in the event. New York City has taught me this first hand.

My ex-wife Lynn taught me this.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Lynn grew up on the Upper West Side in a building that had a doorman, a fitness center, and a fountain in the lobby. Older than me by fifteen years and once divorced, Lynn and I should have never gotten together. But I liked the color of her hair, the thinness of her neck, and sound of her laugh. I liked that we had sex within an hour of meeting each other at a party.

Later, on our first official date, she admitted that she didn’t know how to do laundry. It was something she’d never done. Always, she sent it out.

As she drank a gin martini with an oyster in it, she spoke of the accoutrements of her childhood. She had everything, she said, yet was never really happy. She had all the things a child could want and yet she felt there was a void.

After, in a stall in the women’s restroom, I lifted her skirt. She took my kiss.

That night, after our date, I broke out the dictionary.

Accoutrements mean accessories, trappings. It means bits and pieces.

***

When I told my father that I was moving to New York City, his face turned slate. He pushed back from the table he was sitting at and left the room. It shouldn’t have surprised him, my decision. I’d been talking and planning it for some time, over a year, saving the money I made from working at the butchers, which I’d been doing since my sophomore year in high school. I manned the display case, weighed and wrapped cuts of meat for the customers. Occasionally, I’d help with a slaughter.

My father came back into the room a few minutes later, a dirty manila envelope in hand. Holding it out for me, he said, “We’re each allowed one big mistake in life. Just make sure you learn from yours.”

I took the envelope; it was filled with money, over two thousand dollars. I didn’t know what to say. I asked, “What was your mistake?”

My father only glared at me.

Each guy at the shop had his own personal style when butchering an animal; no matter how it was done, though, there was always blood.

***

At my divorce proceedings, Lynn stated I was naive. She seemed to say it out of concern; it’s what she believed.

My mother told me the same thing at my wedding three years ago.

Our reception took place at a high-ceilinged restaurant that overlooked the Hudson River. A string quartet played and everyone wore gowns or tuxedos. Lynn’s parents covered the event, felt it vital their daughter be sent off in style. It was a once in a lifetime event, though for Lynn, this was the second time.

“Understand that I love you, dear,” my mother said to me, her plate stacked high with shrimp. It was all she ate that night. “But you’re naive.” She, too, said it out of concern. Exactly what this was in reference to, I don’t know. Lynn, I suppose. My marriage. My thinking things could work between us.

My father ate nothing that night. He didn’t speak to anyone, either, including me. He hovered near the bar, lifting his stub every now and again like it was a torch lighting his way. His bourbon and Pepsi never slipped below the halfway mark.

Like my parents, Lynn and I lived together after the divorce, but only for three months.

Finding affordable housing in New York City is something awful.

***

I’ve no reason to stay in New York. My job is a job that matters little to me, working for a direct mail service. My days are spent doing things I rather not do. It’s a job that could be a solid career, but an unfulfilling one. I told my father this and he said, “What the hell do you expect from it? It’s work.”

I have difficulty with the concept of time; it crowds my brain. How did I get to be the age I am? When did this all happen?

When I was first hired at my job, my annual salary sounded quite good. Then I divided it out into fifty-two weeks, further broke it down to an hourly rate. Then down to the minute. It didn’t seem such a good salary after that.

I never had this problem at the butcher’s, this way of thinking. Sometime, when I buy a coffee, I can’t help but think of how many minutes I had to work to pay for it.

***

After my divorce, I move into a room in an apartment on the Lower East Side. Allison, the apartment’s leaseholder, is in grad school for media studies at NYU. She’s slightly overweight and somewhat sloppy and very pretty, in a California way. We’re roommates, nothing more. Women, I’ve found, are vicious. Allison’s vicious, though fortunately not to me. At least not to my face.

Nights, when neither of us can sleep, we sit in the cramped kitchen at the wobbly table and talk. Or rather she talks and I listen. She’ll drink two or three glasses of red wine and tear into her parents, her sister, her friends, and her boyfriend. She tells me terrible things about them, things I find embarrassing to hear.

With her teeth stained red with wine, she asks, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

I tell her I think she’s pretty, and, for the first time ever, don’t feel self-conscious in stating my feelings to a girl.


***

There wasn’t much to split between Lynn and I. Most of the stuff was hers. I got half the savings, which I used for a deposit on the room I rent.

Lynn and I never really argued. Maybe that was our problem. Neither of us ever really got heated over anything. I remember her saying, “These are the best years of my life.” Then she asked for a divorce. Instead of me saying, “Why?” I said, “Okay.”

I thought it was love I felt for Lynn, but now I can’t say I loved Lynn. I felt something I mistook as love. I did have feelings for her, though. I felt that everything would be fine as long as we held together, as long as we backed each other up. I felt the loss in happiness would be repaid tenfold in security.

When I told my mother I was splitting with Lynn, she handed the phone to my father and said, “It’s for you.”


***

Allison starts sleeping with me the nights her boyfriend isn’t over. She’s an entirely different person when he’s around, harsh, loud, and cruel.

She’s a person I don’t like.

I like her boyfriend, though. He’s a good guy. Always brings over imported beer. Occasionally, he’ll bring a bottle of whiskey. “We need to find you a woman,” he once said, pouring out shots.

I told him not to trouble himself.

I’m saving my money to get my own place, a studio. Probably have to move to Brooklyn or Queens, a part of the city that really isn’t the city. Studying Allison in the frail morning light, her chubby face calm, and her breath soft and slightly sour, I can’t figure out what her boyfriend finds so special about her.

***

Things would have continued on as they were forever. It’s one of the few things I remembered from school, the law of inertia. Something will remain at rest or remain in motion until something else, some outside force, interferes.

Allison’s boyfriend is the outside force. How he finds out about us, I don’t know. My guess is Allison told him.

The fight isn’t much of a fight.

He and I wrestle about the kitchen a bit, rolled a couple rolls on the floor. A chair’s knocked over, the coffee table’s bumped. He gets a solid box to my ear; I catch him with a kick to the shin. Neither of us is really hurt. Neither of us really wants to fight.

Allison stands to the side, enjoying the festivities and egging us on. “Is that all you’ve got?” Allison’s boyfriend yells at me, swallowing air. He’s hunched over, ready to attack. We’re some feet apart, eyeing each other.

“Yeah,” I say, out of breath. “I guess it is.”

He stares at me a long moment, then snorts. “Ah, shit,” he says, standing up straight. He runs his hand over his forehead, wipes the sweat on his shirt. “What are we doing?” he asks.

I look to Allison, then I look to him. “I really don’t know.”

“You’re fighting for me,” Allison says. “I’m the reason you’re fighting.”

Both he and I look at Allison.

For nearly five minutes, neither of us can stop laughing.

***

Allison moves me out by tossing my things into the street.

The St. Marks Hotel takes only cash, a hundred and ten dollars a night. The room smells like a mixture of Clorox and foot powder, and the sheets don’t seem fresh.

I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in New York.

I make a decision.

It’s not yet 10 p.m. when I call Lynn. We haven’t spoken in some time, in over six months. I still think of her often. “I’m thinking of heading back to Indiana,” I tell her when she answers the phone. “Regroup, figure out what’s going on with my life. I don’t know, the city, it seems to be killing me.”

I wait for her response. There is a clicking noise over the phone line, like a playing card caught in the spokes of a bike wheel. I don’t know what I expect, a comforting voice, reassurance, I suppose. Though we’re no longer together, she remains a part of my life. We spent three years together.

“I’m sorry,” she says after a moment. “But who is this? Who’s calling?”

***

I don’t tell my folks I’m coming home, I just come.

I close my bank account, change my mailing address, and quit my job on the spot, which elicits an “Oh. Well, okay,” from my boss. The things I leave are things that don’t matter.

The sun’s setting when I finally arrive, the last threads of light, strong and full, striking the front of my childhood home. Dusk is coming. Then night. Nothing has changed, or the things that have changed are things that don’t matter.

As I walk our long pea-gravel drive, I see my father pass through the living room. Pausing, he glances out the window. Looks directly at me.

He doesn’t seem surprised. It’s like he’s expecting me.

Slowly, he lifts his stubbed arm, that monstrous, terrifying cricket leg of his. A greeting. A welcome home.

I wave back, then drop my hand.

But he keeps holding his arm aloft before him, not moving, and I realize he’s not waving to me. He can’t even see me. The brightness of the day’s last light catches him directly. Blinds him to all that’s in front of him.

My father’s stubbed arm is raised to shield his vision. It’s raised for reasons other than me.

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