It was raining horribly when I walked to her apartment. The sky spitting angry sentiments down the back of my collar. As soon as I stepped in, I felt like I was slightly drowning. Water fell in sheets down her windows outside, the view obscured. She was watching a shadowy educational program on TV about the ocean. After letting me in, she curled back into the couch like a cat and I perched awkwardly on one of the arms. Mannequins leaned against each other in the corners like Saks Fifth Avenue ghosts. Their flesh-colored paint was chipped away in spots, revealing the red underneath.
It was one of my compulsive habits that brought us together, by chance. We might never have met if it hadn’t been for my strangeness. I was checking on my bookmarks at the old stone library downtown. I liked to leave plain paper strips in the pages of archaic medical texts. I left a dozen each two weeks or so, returning to check on them like pets. See if they’d been moved or, I hoped most of all, if someone had written a message on one, the ultimate jackpot. Finding nothing, dejected, I sat down in the reading room. It was my favorite place for quiet; upholstered parlor chairs from a hundred different dead book-enthusiasts. I believed in osmosis, breathing in the old book smell.
“Did you know a living fish in the open sea never stops growing?” Below, on the couch, her voice swam at me, the weight of it hitting me in the chest. She spoke in a completely non-lyrical way. Flat-lining. I doubted her fact was true but liked the sentiment all the same. I glanced around the apartment shyly when she went back to watching the program. I felt like a trespasser on a shotgun-owner’s land. A small record player sat on top of a pile of 45s. I considered the impracticality of this. A sagging bookshelf hugged all-white spines with medical titles. Her kitchen and her living room were not separated, the wood-floor gently kissing the tile. She saw me looking over at her stove and asked if I’d like an egg on toast. She explained she’d been craving one all day and needed the protein.
In the library, when I first saw her, she had been noisily flipping the pages of a magazine in the chair across from me. The swish-swish sound fluttered echoes down from the high ceilings, accompanied by other patrons’ soft throat clearing. I had an open book on my lap, my face angled towards it, but wasn’t looking at it. Her face was in the shadow of my upper lashes. I focused on her small red-grape colored shoes. “Whatever you’re reading has got to be more interesting than my feet,” she said. I jolted, stared at her mouth. “No need to stammer,” she softened a little, “I’ve dated a few guys with a thing for feet.”
She rose from the couch like a snake in a basket and floated over to the cupboards. Pulling out a silver pan and spatula, she set to work. I stood, unsure, swaying from one foot to the other, a boat in dock. I watched her hands to keep myself steady. She wore a lot of rings, silver mostly. She cracked four eggs into the pan and broke their shiny yolks. “I want you to do something for me.” She wasn’t looking at me, her mouth pointed at the stove. I waited. “I want you to help me remove one of my fingers.”
“I…uh…” I looked down at myself. “I’m not a doctor,” I said. I wondered how she got this impression. My face instantly flushed and sweat popped fresh from my upper lip. She calmly flipped the eggs and moved to the refrigerator.
Still not facing me she said, “I know you’re not a doctor. This procedure doesn’t require one.” The term “procedure” set my hands shaking. “After we eat,” she explained, “I’ll go over it in more detail.” She slid two pieces of toast into the toaster and went back to the eggs. Her bangs shifted forward, covering her eyes from my view. I glanced at her hands again, rings like armor.
After eating at her tiny kitchen table, red Formica with yellow chairs, she led me down the hall to a closed door. “This is my clean-room,” she explained. “We have to take off our shoes.” I stooped down to one knee, unlacing slowly. She slid her shoes off and stood barefoot, wiggling her toes. I glanced over at the motion and stared. On both feet, the toes next to the smallest ones were gone. My stomach wrapped itself uneasily around the toast and warm egg. “Oh, that.” She held up her hand, palm facing me, and wiped the air, dismissive.
She opened the door slowly. It made a rustling sound, sliding over plastic visqueen on the floor. From wall to wall, it covered the carpet completely. We made a soft padded noise stepping into the room. There were windows but patterned sheets were tacked up over them, hiding the rain and the view from the neighbors. She had placed two stools side-by-side in front of a small table with drawers. She watched me look around and then held my gaze firmly when I finally settled my eyes on hers. “Now, listen to me,” she said carefully, “we are going to do this today, right now. Don’t consider it, just follow my instructions.”
I brought my hands up and backed away a step. She came forward, caught my wrists. Her voice was soft, barely audible. I had to lean towards her to hear it. “I’ve been looking for someone that could help me do this. The toes were easy, I had both hands free. I’m out of toes, and I can’t work on my own hand with only one hand.” She pulled me gently towards a stool and I sat, feeling dizzy. “I’ve seen you in the library,” she continued. “You have a strange hobby involving lost-and-found bookmarks, so you can understand a person’s unexplained obsessions, can’t you?” I nodded and she smiled slightly, the cat that caught the mouse. “Okay, so…”
I hadn’t really agreed, I was too stunned, but she went on to explain the process in her even tone. First, we’d have to break the finger, in between the middle and first knuckle. She brought out a diagram of the anatomy of the human hand. It was worked over with pencil markings and the corners were dog-eared. The human hand has twenty-seven bones. Fourteen of those are in the fingers and thumb. “We only have to break one,” she offered, “the proximal phalanx.” She pointed to where she meant, in between the first and middle knuckle.
Rotating the table, she revealed a vise attached to one side. It was the old-fashioned red kind, rusted and squat. She scooted her stool in close, facing me. Sliding one knee in between mine, her right knee pressed on the outside of my left. “The breaking will be the hardest part. After we’ve done that, removing the finger will be effortless.” I nodded and pressed the inside of my knees to hers. She slipped her ring finger between the jaws of the vise, covering her middle knuckle but leaving the portion closest to her hand exposed. She had removed her rings, pale bands striped her fingers.
I focused on the necklace swinging at her chest. A small glass heart, pink and red. The skin between her collar bones was flushed. Looking up into her face, I noticed her mouth was slightly open, her lower lip shiny with saliva. She was excited. She slid a small piece of two-by-four out of a drawer and held it against the palm of her hand in the vise. “I want you to put the heel of your hand on the wood. With the heel of your other hand, strike it.” Her voice came quickly, her anticipation was thick. The sound of rain overhead became stronger and I looked towards the windows.
I shifted my weight forward to my feet and pressed my warm palm into hers. Without counting to three, I put all my force into breaking her finger. There was a pop, which I expected, and then her body started vibrating, starting at her knees. It reached her face and I could see her lips slightly quivering. She took a few shallow breaths. “Okay, good job, that was good. Now, un-wind the vice for me. In the middle drawer is some plastic. Spread it on the table.” I did as she told, my ears filling with her hoarse voice and the rain pelting the roof. “Hurry, before the swelling starts.”
She rested her broken hand, palm up, on my knee. I could feel it throbbing and the heat of it penetrating my pants leg. Her finger wasn’t bent at a funny angle like I thought it would be but the swelling had begun, slowly. I hurried to the next step, my ears ringing with the clarity of fear. “In the top drawer is a knife, some gauze, some medical tape. We'll be using a knife instead of a scalpel because a large blade is best. A large blade with some force behind it. I think you know what to do from here.” As I reached in to retrieve these things, I noticed my hands were steady. I could clearly feel my bird-heart beating, fast and rhythmic. She placed her hand on the table, gingerly, and held the wrist with her other hand. I felt the weight of the knife in my hand, pressed the tip into the table-surface on one side of her finger. “You only have one try. Be purposeful. That knife is very sharp, you shouldn’t have any trouble.” Slicing down, it felt like cutting through the gristle of a steak. Without the bone there was very little resistance. Just a soft wet crackle shimmying up the knife’s blade. A soft whimper crept from her lips and I looked up into her eyes. They were bright and wide, looking down at her finger, apart from the rest of her hand. “Blood,” she said weakly, a thin ribbon of sound. There wasn’t any spurting, just a smooth and uniform gush. The heavy red smell of it smacked me in the face.
She was taking deep breaths as I fumbled with the gauze and tape. Small whimpers accompanied the hollow air sound. With her good hand, she touched my forearm after I was finished dressing her wound. My senses were heightened and I could feel the spirals of her fingerprints. “You’ve done a good thing for me. Thank you.” She pulled a ziplock bag out of a drawer and placed her finger in it. Squeezing the air out, she gently rolled it up. “Let’s sit awhile in the living room.” She rose, shaky and unsure. I put my hand above her hip, guiding her out of the clean-room.
Back in front of the TV, the ocean show was still on, the narrator’s voice soothing and low. The rain came down steadily outside the windows, blurring the street. I sighed and she placed her bandaged hand on my knee. She hunkered down in the cushions, small and snug. Her head rolled to one side, resting softly on my arm. Her breathing soon deepened, dipping into sleep. I relaxed my limbs, listened to the rain, and waited.