Her husband’s hands came home on a Friday. Rebecca had received word of the attack, which had claimed the lives of seven other soldiers in his unit and reduced three others to similar, minimal fractions of themselves: One man missing above the waist, another missing below, a third neatly halved, like a bisected man on display in an anatomy lab.
The Veteran’s Administration had told her it could have been worse. The notification officer had reminded her of Tatum, the neighbor’s daughter so completely expunged by her own moment under fire that only a strip of skin and muscle remained: A section of her thigh, about the size and shape of a cigarette pack, returned to her parents in a box and now living in their upstairs room, where it made a living proofreading articles on the internet. That’s no life, the notification officer said. But Bob, he pointed out, was a pair of perfect hands, amputated from the body at the wrists but still capable of accomplishing many great things. And there was always the cloning lottery. The chances were a couple of million to one, but it was something to hope for, and stranger things had happened.
Rebecca had asked her parents, and his, and the friends so anxious to see him, to stay away. It was a personal moment and she could not be sure that she would be able to take their solicitous platitudes. She waited at home wanting a cigarette as much as she’d ever wanted anything in her entire life and stared at the door until the knock came and the two smartly uniformed escorts brought what was left of her husband inside in a box with an American flag on it.
They opened the box and showed her Bob’s hands, resting side by side on a white pillow. The left one lay palm-down, the right one palm-up. The one that was palm-up twitched and waggled fingers at Rebecca when it saw her. The new light-sensitive apertures at the fingertips blinked many times in what she could only assume was excitement. The fingernails had been manicured and buffed to a high sheen. Rebecca’s eyes inevitably wandered to the wrists, which ended in thick silver bands, a lot like bracelets except for the flat bottoms where arms should have emerged. They, Rebecca knew, contained not just the life support—without which her husband’s hands would just be graying meat—but also his most recent memory backup, without which everything he had ever been, and everything he had ever done, would now be gone.
She had not supposed that a pair of hands could be personal enough to be recognized, but she did recognize them. There was a crooked angle to one of the pinkies where he had once broken it catching a baseball and it had not healed back precisely right. And there was a scar on one of the knuckles where he had once cut himself, almost to the bone, on broken glass. She knew those hands as the same ones that once could make her shiver, when they were at the end of strong and comforting arms.
The fingers wagged some more, and the escort told her that her husband wanted to talk to her. She said that she did not know what to do. The younger of the two escorts presented her with a flat black pad with slots for fingers, turned it on, and placed it in the box where Bob’s hands could get at it. As the text display came up, Bob’s hands turned around, inserted fingertips into the pad’s control slots and did … something, not exactly typing as she knew it from the familiar QWERTY keyboard but something very much like it, with subtle and practiced movements that over the next few seconds forced words and sentences onto the screen.
rebecca please don’t be afraid, her husband’s hands typed. i know this is strange & frightening but it’s still me. i can see you & i’m glad to be home. i love you. please i want you to kiss me
There were few things Rebecca wanted to do less right now, but she knew her husband’s hands would sense any further hesitation, and so she reached down and touched them. They disengaged from the black pad and let her pick them up, one hand in each of her own. They were as warm as she remembered, and heavier than she expected. A sick feeling rose in her throat as, driven by obligation, she gave each one a sweet kiss on the knuckles. Each one turned around in the hand that held it and twined its fingers through hers, a grip as tight and as complete as a hug would have been had fate decided to let him come home as a whole man.
One of the escorts said, “We’ll leave you two alone now.”
Rebecca couldn’t help thinking: What do you mean, you two? His hands are now two separate objects; don’t you mean, you three? Or, since they don’t add up to anything even close to the whole man, shouldn’t you be using fractions? Telling me, we’ll leave you one and a tenth alone now? Or whatever? She thought all this but did not say it, as they donned their caps and told her to call if she needed anything, and left her alone grasping what had once been part, but not all, of the husband who only four years before had struck her eighteen-year-old self, sitting across from him in a college seminar, as the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
For a long time she sat with him—with them—in silence. Sometimes, as she closed her eyes and waited for the reassuring squeezes that were as close as he could come to conversation without the typepad, she could almost fool herself into thinking those hands were connected to wrists that were connected to arms that joined at shoulders with a chest and a beating heart and lips and eyes and a man who could lie beside her and arouse her passions as well as her pity.
After a while, his left hand gently disengaged from her right and climbed up to her shoulder, squeezing that as well before crab-crawling to her face and finding the tear-tracks on the side of her cheek. It froze at the discovery, and she could not help feeling that she’d failed him, that she’d proven herself shallow, that she’d hurt him or what was left of him at the moment he needed to know that she was still capable of loving him.
Some time later his hands withdrew to the table so they could talk to her about the problems they now faced. The left one turned over on its back so the light-apertures on the fingertips could see her face, and the right one went to the typepad and told her that he knew how she felt, that this wasn’t how he had envisioned their future either, and that if she gave him a chance he would still be the best husband to her that he possibly could. Her hesitation, her struggle to come up with words that would not be a mockery or a lie, spoke volumes, and may have broken whatever he now had for a heart. But after a long time she nodded, and it was a start.
He could not tell her anything about what had happened to him. The last backup before the attack that had destroyed the rest of him was only a week old, sparing him the memories of a hellish ordeal under fire, watching the rest of the unit fall away, one or two at a time, in pieces. He typed that he had at best an academic knowledge of what had been in that backup, as he said there were things even then that he chose not to remember, and had preferred to live the rest of his life arrested at an even earlier set of memories, recorded two months before that, and blessedly free of some experiences that would have crippled him even more than his current condition.
He typed that the war had been so terrible that he would have gotten rid of even more, had that been possible; there were certainly vets who backed up just as they were shipped out and came back as parts or wholes refusing to remember any of what they’d done, or had done to them, over there. Rather than recall a single day in-country they preferred to live a life where being strong and fit and whole and on a troop carrier getting their past coded into a database was followed, without so much as a single moment of transition, by being older and finished with their time and back, reduced to a sentient body part on a plate. But there’d been buddies, people in his unit, who had done things for him in that time during his hitch that he would never allow himself to forget, not even if he also had to remember visions out of hell. He typed that the little he could remember, he would never talk to her about.
After that, there was little to say; she made some lunch for herself and his hands sat on the table watching her eat, the palms held upward so the fingertips could see, giving the accidental but undeniable impression that they were being held upward in supplication.
Later, as the silence of the afternoon grew thick, the hands typed, i still enjoy watching you eat. It was something he had said before, as they’d circled each other performing the rituals that connect early attraction to couplehood; he had appreciated her meticulousness, the way she addressed a plate of food as much like a puzzle to be disassembled as a meal to savored. She did not respond that once upon a time she’d loved watching him eat as well, the sheer joy he’d taken in the foods he loved, the unabashed and unapologetic gusto with which he’d torn into meals that were not good for him. It was, she knew, a gusto he could never show anymore, and that she’d never witness, again: Another of life’s pleasures robbed from them, left on a bloody patch of dirt beneath a foreign sky. She could not help thinking of the all the meals to come, the breakfasts and lunches and dinners that for years unwritten would always be reminders of what had been and would never be again.
Conversation lagged. They watched television, the hands sitting on her lap or beside her on the couch showing pleasure or displeasure in the set’s offerings with mimed commentary that at one point, an angry response to an anchorman’s report on the war, included a silent, but vehement, middle finger. Rebecca answered some concerned phone calls from family and friends who wanted to know how the reunion was going, and told them that no, she and Bob were not ready to receive any visitors just yet. More hours of silence broken by intervals of halting conversation rendered necessarily brief by his limited skill at typing inevitably and to some extent horrifically led to dinner, where the discomfort of lunch was not only repeated but doubled by the awareness that all this was still only starting, that the silence of their meals would soon be a familiar ritual, for as long as the future still stretched.
There was only one sign of real trouble before bedtime. Bob’s wandering right hand encountered a framed photograph of himself in uniform, on an end table next to the sofa. Rebecca happened to be watching as his hand hesitated, tapping the glass with a fingertip as if somehow hoping to be allowed back into the image’s frozen moment of time. It looked like he knocked the photo over deliberately. She was almost a hundred percent sure.
That night she lay on her habitual side of the bed, the ceiling an empty white space offering no counsel. His right hand burrowed under the covers and settled at about waist level, while his left sat on his fresh pillow, preferring the sight of her to any warmth the blanket might have provided. When she turned off the lamp, the pinprick red lights of his left fingertips cast a scarlet glow over everything around them, making that pillowcase look a little like the aftermath of a hemorrhage. The fingers caught Rebecca looking at them and waggled; either a perversely jaunty hello, or a reminder from Bob that he could see her. She forced herself to lean over and kiss his palm, somehow fighting back an instinctive shudder when the fingers curled up to caress her cheeks.
Rebecca called Bob’s hand by his name and told it she loved him.
Under the covers, his right hand crawled toward her left and wrapped its fingers around hers. She had already held that hand for hours, on and off, and would have preferred freedom for her own, now. But what could she say, really, knowing that to reject the touch now, in this most intimate of their shared places, on the very day he’d returned to her, would have amounted to rejecting him? She had to give him something. She had to pretend, if nothing else. So she squeezed him back and whispered a few loving words that sounded like fiction to her own ears and let him hold her with one hand while the other watched with eyes like pinprick wounds.
She slept, and in her dreams, Bob’s hands had still returned to her, but without the nice sanitized bands that allowed them his memories and mind and hid the magnitude of the violence done to him behind polished silver. In her dreams his hands returned to her with the wounds ragged and raw, strips of torn and whitened skin trailing along behind them like tattered streamers. Each had a splintered and blackened wrist bone protruding from the amputation point, like a spear. The fingertips of these Bob remnants were blind and useless instruments, incapable of leading him anywhere except by touch; as they crawled across the polished kitchen floor in search of her, while she fought air as thick as Jell-O to stay just beyond their reach, they left a continuous gout of blood behind, more than mere hands could have possibly bled without becoming drained sacks of flesh. The kitchen became a frieze of twisted blood-trails, which only continued up her bare legs after the chase ended and she found herself standing as paralyzed as any dream-woman with her feet nailed to the floor, while the disembodied hands climbed her.
She might have screamed herself awake, but she couldn’t breathe in the dream, as the air around her was not an atmosphere a woman could breathe, but a thicker substance that refused to pass her lips, no matter how deeply her chest labored or her ears thundered or how desperately she struggled to draw anything capable of sustaining her into her lungs.
Then she woke up and knew it was not a dream. He was strangling her. His hands had tightened around her throat, the two thumbs joining at her windpipe while his coarse and powerful fingers curled around the curve of her neck to meet, as if in terrible summit, at the back. Even as a man with more than hands he had always possessed a strong grip, and the hands that were all that remained of him seemed to add the strength of his arms and back as well, all dedicated to the deadly impossible task of compressing her throat to nothingness.
A woman being strangled by a complete man might have died clawing at his chest or grasping for his face or even going for the hands themselves, which would have possessed the advantage of being anchored to arms and shoulders. Rebecca had nothing to fight but the hands, and they provided a focus for her resistance. She reached for the sharpened pencil she kept beside the book of crossword puzzles that had been her only companion since Bob went to fight that goddamned stupid war, and jabbed at the back of his hands until his skin broke and his grip went soft and the two little pieces of Bob fell away, freeing her to breathe again.
She might have screamed and continued to stab her husband’s hands until there was nothing left of them but torn flesh, but something in the way they now lay on the bed, ten glowing red lights staring up at her, halted her in a way that crazed or uncomprehending eyes might not have.
She flipped on her bedside lamp and regarded Bob’s murderous hands in the glare of harsh light.
All things have faces even when they don’t have faces; the human eye insists on putting faces on them. Even hands have faces, and expressions, that change depending on how the fingers are held in relation to the palm. Hands can look calm or agonized or desperate. They can look gentle and they can look brutish, sometimes while remaining the same hands. For no reason at all that made any sense to her, her husband’s hands looked lost. She didn’t understand, but she could sense that there was something she was failing to see, something she could almost see that was just outside of her field of vision.
Bob’s right hand mimed a typing motion.
She was reluctant to leave them alone long enough to get the typepad. She had read too many stories about people who turned their back on monsters. But they made the motion again, insistently. She went to the other room, returned to see that her husband’s hands remained where they had fallen, and, not trusting them to keep their distance, tossed the pad onto the bed.
i am sorry so so sorry i would not hurt u for anything i was having a nightmare i have been having them for a while i didnt know it was you i was hurting pls understand pls forgive me pls
Rebecca was not ready to forgive him. “You could have killed me.”
i know. it was not the man you married but the man who lived through hell over there. when i know where i am im all right. maybe we cant sleep in the same bed for a while. please understand. please
She wanted to die. But after long minutes standing there feeling her fury churn inside her she went to her husband and told him it was all right, that she would set up another place for him in another room, and that they would sleep apart but see each other in the morning. She kissed him on the knuckles and went to make his new bed, a pillow stuffed into an unused drawer of a bureau in another room. He allowed her to carry him there, without argument. And they parted, though the sound of frantic thumping continued in the night and she was reduced to lying sleepless, her eyes fixed on unseen bloody carnage in the darkness.
The VA man said that she should take Bob to the first available support group, and even specified a local chapter that was meeting the next day. They went. It amounted to five sectioned veterans and their spouses, sitting in an approximate circle on folding chairs that must have known happy occasions as well as sad: christenings, religious meetings, political rallies, maybe even amateur theatre productions, all dissipating in the air as soon as the chairs were put away and stacked and returned to the anonymity enjoyed by furniture. The idea that somebody might sit in the very same chair she sat in now, a day or a week from now, and sip fruit punch while discussing plans for the decoration of the school prom, seemed almost incomprehensible to her.
There were five fragmented veterans along with spouses and other family members at the meeting, some of them arguably better off than Bob, others so much more reduced that it was impossible to know whether to scream in horror at their predicament or giggle uncontrollably at its madness. There was a boy of twenty-two who had been in-country for less than a day before a bombing reduced him to a thin strip of face that included one (blind) eye, two cheeks, a nose, and part of his upper lip, all now mounted on the very same silver plate that kept him alive, which his mother had attached to a plaque suitable for mounting on a wall. Another was just a torso, devoid of limbs, genitalia, or head, and plugged at all the stumps by more silver interfaces. Another was a shapely woman with delicately sculpted nails, a short skirt designed to show off a killer pair of legs and a top designed to accentuate her cleavage: Her every move reeked of sexuality, which may have been the way she carried herself before being drafted or the way she now compensated for losing the front half of her head, which instead of a face or a jaw or a pair of eyes now displayed a plane of mirrored silver before her ears. A fourth had not been salvageable as anything but a mound of shredded internal organs but had been gotten to in time and was now completely enclosed in a silver box about the size of a briefcase, with a screen for communication and a handle for her grim husband’s convenience.
The last was, like Bob, a pair of amputated hands. He was the one who made Rebecca want to run screaming, because his lovely blonde wife had dealt with the problem of maintaining a relationship with him by amputating her own hands and having his attached at the end of her own wrists. The silver memory disks marking the junction points on her arms would have resembled bracelets had his calloused, darker-skinned, hairier, and disproportionately larger paws not resembled cartoon gloves at the ends of her smooth, milk-white arms; and had her husband’s hands not usurped much of the control of those arms, which now gesticulated in a perversely masculine manner as his loving wife described at length how much this measure had saved her marriage. More than once during the meeting, Rebecca caught those hands resting on the other woman’s bare knees and caressing them, the arms stroking them back and forth with a lascivious energy that the other woman clearly recognized and appreciated but otherwise seemed wholly removed from. She could only wonder if that’s what her own husband wanted, if that was something Bob could ever ask of her, and whether she could ever come to want it herself.
The man lugging around the briefcase told all the other spouses at the meeting that he considered them lucky. Their loved ones had returned to them as parts that could be touched, skin that gave off an undeniable if largely artificial warmth, flesh that evoked the memory of what had been even in those cases where it could manage little else. But his wife? He produced a picture of the woman she had been, a plump little chubby-cheeked thing with a premature double-chin, but a smile of genuine warmth and eyes that seemed to express genuine mirth at some hidden personal joke. He said that she could see him through the interface and even communicate with him through the typepad, but words had never been a major part of her, not even when she was whole; she had been more a creature of silent gestures, of accommodating smiles, of kind acts and expressive glances and sudden stormy silences. Now, he said, she was a sack of nonfunctioning organs containing just enough meat to qualify as alive. And though she would occasionally answer direct questions, she more often remained silent, telling him when pressed that she just wanted to be left alone, put on a shelf, and forgotten. It was getting harder and harder for him to argue otherwise. “My wife is dead,” he told the group, and after a moment of shocked silence repeated himself, with something like stunned wonder, “My wife is dead. My wife is dead.” The wife whose arms ended with her husband’s hands just pawed herself.
Gallows humor intruded, as it always does among survivors of extreme loss, when the man who was just a strip of face said that he’d met a guy, back in the hospital, who had turned out to be nothing but an asshole. The wife of the torso said that she’d met one guy who was a real dick. Somebody else said that his lieutenant had always been a little shit and probably still was, and the variations only went downhill from there. There were a few little flights of fancy involving the prospect of sectioned people who had been reduced to nothing but their sexual organs and how their chances of making a living after the service were so much better than anyone else’s, but by then the shocking jokes had started to trail off, replaced by uncomfortable silence.
The meeting broke up with ten minutes of internal business involving when the next one would be held and who was going to get the word out to others who might benefit by attending. Rebecca went to the table where the coffee and the cookies were laid out on a plastic tablecloth and stood there not wanting any of it but needing to do something other than return to a house and a life now dominated by silence, and found herself shaking until the woman with a flat silver mirror for a face came up behind her and, speaking through a voice synthesizer, said, “You’re not alone.” Rebecca broke down and accepted the hug, feeling the warmth of the other woman’s arms but also keenly aware of the how cold the mirror felt against her own cheek. She wanted to tell the other woman, of course I’m alone, and my husband’s alone, and you’re alone, and we’re all alone; the very point of being in hell is that there’s a gulf between us and all our efforts to bridge it for even a moment give us nothing but a respite and the illusion of comfort before those bridges retract and we’re left to face the same problems from our own separate islands. She wanted to say it, but of course she couldn’t, not if it meant embracing despair in defiance of this sectioned woman’s kindness, and so she wept herself blind and took the hug as the gift it was meant to be.
By Saturday night, the answering machine was filling up with calls from family and friends, eager to know how it was going and wanting to know when they could enjoy their own happy reunion. Following her husband’s wishes, Rebecca called them all back to thank them but put them off, saying that there still adjustments to be made, and accommodations to be arranged. Again, many wanted to know if Bob was all right. She wondered how she could possibly be expected to answer that question but said, yes, he was all right. They asked her if she was all right and again she gave the answer they wanted, that yes, she was all right.
The two sat together, watching the latest reports from the war for a while, not reacting to the news that a hundred thousand more had been called up, and how this would not be enough; or, afterward, to the feel-good assurance, delivered by a smiling red-headed anchorwoman, that actual deaths that counted as deaths were at an all-time low. Bob’s hands tapped at his pad, producing a string of lower-case profanities that Rebecca supposed were now his angry equivalent of embittered muttering.
She fingered the bruises on her neck and decided that maybe they shouldn’t be watching this. She turned off the set with the remote and sat with him, feeling and tasting the oppressive silence as if it were the very air, rendered so thick that every moment felt like an eternity spent underwater.
Some time later, her husband’s hands released hers and went to the typepad.
do you want me to leave or do you think there’s any future for us
She didn’t know. She didn’t know but she thought of her husband in better times, that strong man, that smiling man, that occasionally petulant man, the man with the naughty streak who sometimes became the child who treated her as the authority figure who mischief needed to be hidden from. She remembered him pulling one form of foolishness or another, peering at her out of the corners of his eyes to see whether she thought it maddening or funny. She remembered the shape of his head in the middle of the night, when the lights were out and it was too dark to see him as anything but silhouette, when he was awake and looking at her, not knowing that she was awake and looking at him, this shadow of him that was to her every bit as revealing as his features viewed in the full light of day, because she knew him and could fill in the darkness. She remembered what it was like to let him know with a touch that she was awake too, and how sometimes that led to whispers and sometimes to more. She remembered his lips, his teeth, his touch, his gentleness and his passion. She remembered sometimes not letting him know that she was awake, instead just continuing to feign sleep, and thinking that this was her man and her lover and her friend and someday the father of her children. She remembered, once, feeling so proud to have won him that her heart could have burst.
She didn’t know if there was anything to say. That was the thing. She didn’t know but she was proud. She was proud and she didn’t want to be the one to fail. She knew that it didn’t speak well of her that this remained the chief motivating force in her current relationship with what had become of her husband, the stubborn refusal to be the one who failed; to be driven not so much by an instinctive, unquestioning need to support him in what he had become, but the drive to be the better one, the strong one, the one who did the right things and held on when it might have been easier to just be the bitch who gave up. Maybe, she thought, that was the way back; not through love, but a fierce, unyielding pride. Maybe if she could stoke that, the other would return. But how could she, when it was so much more than she could make herself give?
Bob’s hands had gone back to typing.
becks, i lied
She looked at them, and perceived something ineffably tense about the way they sat against the typepad. “About what?”
whatever happens i need you to know that i remember more than i told you. its worse than the news reports say, its dirtier and bloodier and nowhere near as simple. it’s the kind of place that makes you forget that theres any good anywhere in the world. its why so many of us choose to forget. but i backed myself up for the last time only two days before the attack. i remember everything terrible that happened to me over there, everything terrible i did. afterward when they downloaded me they gave me a choice of keeping it all or going back to some earlier recording. i almost threw out the whole damn war. but i decided to keep it all because i had to.
She stared. “Why?”
the only thing worth remembering about any of it was how much of it i spent wanting to return to you
That, at long last, destroyed her. For the first time since his return she gave in to her sense of loss and howled. She buried her face in her hands and didn’t see her husband’s hands disengage from the typepad or return to the couch. But she did feel the weight of them on her shoulders, the strength they still had when they squeezed her there, the gentleness they still showed as the index fingers brushed the tear-tracks from her cheeks.
She found his touch both familiar and alien in some ways, like he had never left; in others, like he was a stranger, returned from a war with nothing but gall and a vague resemblance to seduce the widow with dire lies of being the man who had left. She missed the weight of him, the solidity, the sound of his breath. And she still hated the cold feel of the metal attachments at the ends of his wrists, so much like chains. But for the first time she was able to feel the presence of the boy she had fallen in love with, the man she had married, the husband who had been with her at night. It was him; against all odds, at long last, it was him. And for the first time, irrationally, she wanted him.
She told him she needed a minute, and went to the bathroom, where she ran water over her face, damned her red nose and puffy eyes, and made herself presentable, or at least as presentable she could. She knew that it was not the best time. She was terrified, a wreck. From what he’d typed, he wasn’t much better. But there would never be a best time, not if she just kept waiting for it. In life, there were always thresholds that had to be crossed, whenever they could be, if only because that was the only way to get to whatever awaited on the other side.
When she had done everything that was possible she returned, kissed her husband’s hands, and carried what was left of him to bed. After she undressed and got under the covers, his hands hesitated, with a sudden shyness that was almost possible to find endearing, then slipped under the covers themselves, and crawled through the darkness to her side, one heading north and the other heading south. The sheets rustled, and she allowed herself one last analytical thought: how lucky she was, after all, to have him come back as a pair of hands, and not as some useless strip of flesh in a sealed silver box. How very much they’d been left with.
She closed her eyes, grew warm, and let her husband love her.