I thought I loved a woman once. On our third date, I made this discovery tapping “Auld Lang Syne” on her upright piano, but the words wouldn’t come to me. We were wearing the same dress. She went upstairs to change. There was a framed photo. A muddied shot of a one-armed man, holding a dark green fish upright. The tail almost touching his knee. The pole leaned against the stub of his other arm, like a bent spine.
The good arm held the fish by its gills, fingers thrust through the gills like some primitive autopsy. The other—the nub, just dangled out of the end of a sleeve. Round. Bald. Like a flesh colored egg. Everything about it was wrong.
My father, she said, smiling He lost his arm in Vietnam; she pulled her hair from the hands of the turtleneck. It slid down her back like water, dark brown water. I’m hungry, she said.
Over warm lemongrass and phô she talked about work, the dyslexic kids, the little boy with the cochlea implant. I nodded. What I had thought had been offerings of her professional duties now sounded like complaining. I slurped juice from the ceramic spoon that felt too thick and awkward in my mouth.
I thought about the nub. The picture had been blurry. Was it smooth or did the photograph hide white stretched scars? I tried to picture him, the stitched-on beard. She was his daughter. Those water blue eyes set deep back into her skull. She could have been him.
We stayed at her place the first night. While I slipped her skirt down her hips, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, downstairs on the piano. Holding a fish that has long since been consumed and forgotten. His arm lying in a shallow pool of muddy jungle water. The ring finger too bloated and smudged with black dirt to notice the yellow ring on his finger.
What are you doing, she asked.
Holding your arm back.
I had her arm twisted back over her head, over the black hair the spilled across the pillow.
Each time I pushed my pelvis to hers, her left breast jiggled, echoed the movement. I explained that I liked her breasts. I liked them moving while I was moving over her, their soft response to the aggressiveness of sex. She touched my hip bone, a sign that told me it was okay.
But I couldn’t sleep, not while she was blowing hot curdled breath against my cheek. I pretended to dream. Pretended to be awake. I thought about the arm.
Or lack thereof. I tried to picture him changing his daughter’s diapers. Trying to slice a tomato. Trying to tie his shoes. What it would feel like to make love to a man with one arm around my waist.
After work, I walked to her school. The kids were funneling out through the front gate. The rattling of the chain link sounded like a distant Christmas song. I thought I saw the kid with the quarter-size implant against his blonde hair. Was his name Gregory? No, Anthony. Eric. He turned his face away from me so I couldn’t be sure. I smiled anyway in case he looked back. He would know I was sympathetic.
In the Ralph’s parking lot was a 1/5 scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial, next to the shopping cart return. Next to a sign that said Please Return Here. We held hands and walked close together. Our jackets a tangle of black nylon and black wool.
It was so black it was wet. And it reflected thousands of etched names in its mirror. It was quiet, hollow. Until a shopping cart was shoved between the rails of the rack. An old man kneeled and moved his thick fingers across the symbol of someone he loved. We stood, watched him grieve. I squeezed her hand as he pushed his teeth into his own knuckle. He swept his palm across the name before standing. He nodded to us as he passed, a gesture men our age don’t do anymore. His eyes looked glassy under all the tears.
Tell me about him, I whispered in her hair.
She released my fingers. Shoved her hands deep into her pants’ pockets and sighed as though she had been here once before.
Minus the plum lips and gold hoop earrings, she could have been him. I squinted. Add a beard and she was just like him. Sever the right arm just above the elbow in a rounded shape. She was him, a dead ringer.
What is it with you and the wounded?
A long, white cigarette stuck between her lips, she pulled a match head down the seam of one of the walls.
I don’t think you should do that, I cautioned.
Why not? It’s not the real thing.
Is there a difference between the real and the fake, I asked. She exhaled the smoke straight up into the air, like a chimney, a signal. Her face told me no. No, there was no difference.
He didn’t die in the war, she sighed. His heart gave out fifteen years ago. In the backyard. He was digging a hole to bury my cat.
There he was, breathing heavy, pushing a spade into the soft of the earth. His shoulder aching from its added burden. His foot pounding down on the metal head of the shovel. Over and over. Trying to force the earth to separate from itself.
We shared some Sauvignon down by the pier. Our toes were buried beneath the velour of the sand. It was too cold for walking on the barrier rocks, so we pulled off our shoes and plunged our naked feet into the grains of the beach. At least we were close to the water, even if we couldn’t touch it. She nestled into the crook of my right arm. I could feel the cool air press through the threads of the jacket, down through the hairs on my skin.
I want to love you, she said.
I looked out into the ocean, trying to decide if it was blue or gray. The low slung clouds played tricks on my eyes. There was no more sun, just light from behind the quilt of clouds. I pulled her left hand to my face. The dips and tributaries on the back of her hand made me shiver.
Sometimes, all two people are missing is something small, I said.
After, we broke up. I spent my mornings trying to scramble eggs and shuffle papers with my left arm hanging by my side. It was the closest I could get to her. The closest I could come to loving her.