After bugging me for years, my right hand finally decided to kill me. It wrapped around my neck like a python while I slept, then slowly started to strangle me. I woke up coughing uncontrollably, unable to breathe. My left hand had to fight to pry it off. I sat on all 10 of my bickering digits and used my big toe to dial 911.
When the two handsome paramedics arrived, I told them that my right hand had been sabotaging me for years. It occasionally did little things to ruin a perfectly nice day, like spilling black coffee on my white pants, or holding hands with someone long after they were ready to let go. But it had never gone this far before.
As they examined me from head to toe, I tried to look as pretty as a picture. The only one I could think of was the Mona Lisa, who wasn’t that attractive. I had stared at her portrait long and hard in my high school art class and, despite what the teacher said about her cryptic smile, I found Mona’s hands far more mysterious. I couldn’t tell whether the right one, which was perched awkwardly on top of the left, was embracing or restraining it. It looked larger and heavier than its supposed partner.
While I was thinking about the Mona Lisa’s predicament, my right hand made its way toward my head again and hovered in front of my neck. But instead of strangling me, it tucked one strand of my wispy brown hair behind my ear and nestled into my lap like a newborn kitten.
“It’s trying to trick you,” I told the paramedics, who asked me to come with them. I assumed they were taking me to the emergency room, so I was surprised when they wheeled me out of the ambulance an hour later into the state psychiatric hospital.
The chief psychiatrist made me a priority. After we talked for a few minutes, he diagnosed me with Alien Hand Syndrome. I thought he was joking until he explained that it’s part of a family of identity disorders in which the seen and felt are in conflict. He said it would be resolved when I faced some unknown foe. Until then, they’d tie it up at night so I could get some sleep. I was relieved that he believed me. But I was unsure which side he was on — my mind’s or my hand’s.
A nurse escorted me to my room, gave me a pill and fastened my right hand to the bed rail with a thin rope. I fell asleep quickly, partly due to the drug and partly because I felt safe.
“What is going on with me?” I asked the doctor the next morning in our first therapy session. We sat on enormous beanbag chairs, which he said put us on common ground. But he was so tall and I was so short that I had to tilt my head way back to see his face, and then intermittently lower it to check on my hand. It was like watching a vertical tennis match.
“There’s a misfire in the synapses from your brain to your hand,” he said, “giving you the sensation that your arm has a mind of its own.”
“When will it stop?”
“We have to wait and see.” He recommended that I hold something in my hand, like a book, to give it something to do besides bother me.
“I have an idea,” I said.
“Let’s hear it.”
“One time, I think it was on ‘NOVA,’ I saw some amputees who have phantom limbs — a feeling like a lost arm or leg is still there. What if we give this hand to a war hero? Just transplant it. They’d get one and I’d get rid of one.”
“That’s an empathetic thought, young lady, but what would you do without a right hand?”
“Live,” I sighed, realizing that my hand could become a phantom menace to its new owner just as easily. “I don’t want to get rid of it, anyway. I just want to stop it from doing me in.”
The doctor said this was a healthy realization and that I was one step closer to integration, which he said was code for being a whole person.
“I think we can help you figure out what’s really going on,” he said, then took the opportunity to tell me that I was getting a roommate.
I was excited at the thought of having another set of eyes on my hand. Then I got nervous. What if her hand had gone bad, too? We’d be alone with two threats to our lives.
I asked my psychiatrist if my hand had the potential to hurt others.
“Has it ever tried to choke anyone else?”
“Never,” I said, surprised to find myself defending it.
“Has anyone else ever hurt your hand?” he asked.
I shook my head. Maybe it was mad at someone else and was taking it out on me. I remembered how, when I was 4, my mom slapped my hand after I tried to touch a hot burner on the stove. She inflicted pain to stop me from injuring myself. Maybe I was capable of hurting someone else, too, if only to save them from themselves. But currently I was in a state of trying to protect myself from hurting myself.
I didn’t mention these observations to the doctor for fear he’d renege on my roommate. What I really wanted to tell him was that I feared for my own life more than anything, but I couldn’t say it for some reason. I was too embarrassed to admit that I was frightened. Besides, I can never convey what I’m feeling. Maybe my right hand had the right idea. Shut me up for good.
“Can I borrow a big book?” I asked, hoping that I could use it later to distract my hand.
He stood up and pulled one off the shelf. “Leonardo da Vinci: On the Human Body,” he said. “His work is extraordinary because it depicts an inner life as well as an outside persona. That’s da Vinci’s genius — proportion, perception and paradox. Just when you think you know what his subjects are thinking, something about their position or expression changes your mind.”
I took the book with my alien hand. I had seen the drawing on the cover before — a naked man, who looked like he had four arms and four legs, inside the lines of a square which was inside a circle. I turned the book over to read the blurb on the back. It said da Vinci believed the workings of the human body were an analogy for the workings of the universe. We’re all connected, I thought, whether we like it or not.
I walked back to my room, cradling da Vinci’s book under my right arm. When I opened my door with my left, I saw someone with short black hair looking out the window.
“Are you my roommate?” I asked.
She turned and stared at me. She had neatly trimmed bangs that framed her freckled face and big, green eyes. Her mouth was tightly closed, but her outfit made quite a statement. It was as if she were wearing shorts on the left and trousers on the right. The frayed ends on the side that had been cut off hung down like the fringe of a cowboy’s jacket. I didn’t want to put her on the spot, but you can’t let a thing like that go without question.
“Is that on purpose or by accident?” I asked in the most caring tone I could muster, pointing at her jeans with my left hand. The right one tightened its grip on da Vinci.
“I prefer myself this way.”
“Yes, it’s a very unique style.” I tried to sound supportive. I didn’t want her to think I was insensitive just because I was in a mental hospital.
She looked around at our barren little room. Both beds were made up with stiff white sheets and pink quilts. She stripped the top sheet off her bed. She tied one end to the top of my bedpost and wrapped the other around the foot of her bedpost. It diagonally split the space between us.
“Don’t cross this line,” she said. “It’s our DMZ.”
“What’s a DMZ?” I asked, trying to be pleasant, although I sort of knew already.
“Didn’t you ever watch ‘M*A*S*H’?” she barked at me. “It’s the Demilitarized Zone, which divides North and South Korea.”
“Which one am I?” I asked, thinking that I posed the greatest threat but unsure of which country that was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she shrugged. “The point is that we’re on opposite sides. And if you cross over, I’ll declare war.”
I decided to give her some time to unpack her uni-pants, or whatever those things were, and flashed a peace sign with my left hand on the way out.
When I returned a half-hour later, my roommate was sound asleep on her bed. Her exposed leg dangled off in what looked to be a very uncomfortable position. I straddled the DMZ and tried to hoist it back up with both hands.
She opened her eyes at my touch but didn’t look at me. She lay still. A huge smile crept across her face. My hands froze on her leg.
“Are you here to cut it off?” she said very softly.
“Is that what you want?”
“Yes, from the knee down, please.”
“Will you feel better then?”
“All better,” she said, pronouncing the words like a little kid.
“You hate this leg?”
“Has it hurt you? Has somebody hurt it?”
“It shouldn’t be there, that’s all.”
“Can’t you just live with it?”
“I’d rather kill myself.”
Her state of mind troubled me. I dropped her leg, stepped backward and stumbled over the DMZ. My fall startled her out of the stupor, and she looked down at me, fiercer than ever. I held my right hand up like a crossing guard.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said. “They say I have a rare body identity disorder called apotemnophilia. That means I want to get rid of my leg even though there is nothing clinically wrong with it. I obviously disagree. My future hinges on getting this leg amputated.”
I felt a sudden surge of sympathy for her. My mother suffered from a similar double bind. She died of breast cancer a few years ago after refusing chemo and a mastectomy. She might have lived a full life if her breasts had been cut off.
My right hand pointed at my roommate’s leg and started shaking uncontrollably.
She pushed my hand away. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“I. Am. Not.” I tried to speak and control my hand at the same time. My words came out choppy, and my arm flopped like a fish out of water. “My. Hand. Has. A. Mind. Of. Its. Own.”
“What’s the matter with you?” she said.
“I feel like my hand is trying to kill me. It’s a real disorder. Alien Hand Syndrome. They have to tie it up at night. You’ll see.”
She stared at me for a long time. Her eyes moved from my head to my hands and down to my feet. I was afraid of where her mind was leading us. She looked me right in the eye and said, “That’s why we’re roommates.”
“To mix us up?” I wondered out loud.
“No. Fix us.” She grabbed my right hand and put it on her left leg. “I have a job for your Alien Hand.”
My hand twitched.
“Your hand should cut off my leg.”
“Why would it do that?”
“Get the anger out of its system,” she said, staring right through me. “Are you game?”
I was afraid to defy her; afraid she’d take her anger out on me. Agreeing could be my best defense.
“I have to think about it,” I said, wondering how I would reach a mutually satisfying conclusion. The plan certainly would benefit my roommate. She’d get the life she wanted. What I’d get was less clear. But maybe she was right. My anger would find an outlet.
“What if I said yes?” I asked.
“I’ll take care of the details,” she said, then ran out of the room as fast as those legs could carry her. I couldn’t imagine her without one of them, and couldn’t figure out where she’d find anything nearby to cut it off. But she probably looked for sharp objects wherever she went, the way I looked for something to hold wherever I was now.
I sat on the floor on my side of the DMZ and thumbed through the da Vinci book. I looked at his “representation of the hand” and searched for clues to my own predicament. Then I studied his renditions of “the lower extremity,” sizing up the best place to cut a leg in half. It would be tough to cut through the bones, veins and nerves without a chain saw.
I tried to decipher da Vinci’s calligraphic notes in the margins, but I couldn’t make sense of his strange scrawl. I scanned the introduction to find out more about him.
Apparently, da Vinci wrote backward from right to left. He was left-handed — and so fond of this appendage that he often included it in his sketches. Perhaps he had replaced one of the Mona Lisa’s hands with his own. It would explain the awkwardness of her position as well as her uneasy expression. She knew exactly what he was doing, but was far too modest to protest.
When my roommate came back, she pulled a small ax from the cuff of her long pant leg.
“Where on Earth did you get this?” I asked, picking up the hatchet.
“The shrink’s office,” she said. “I saw it when I got here. It was hanging on a hook next to a glass case with a fire extinguisher inside. Seems to me the ax should have been in the glass case. And the fire extinguisher should have been out and ready to go.”
“How did you get in?”
“He stands at the window when he’s talking on the phone, and leaves the door wide open. I dashed in and out. He never knew I was there.”
“I’m still not sure we should do this,” I said.
“Look, I’m going to do it with or without you. Your hand can get in on the action or not. Do something or do nothing.”
She was right. I always waited for things to happen to me. Now I was waiting for something to stop happening to me. For once I wanted control over the events swirling around me. Besides, the doctor had said to keep my hand busy. Here was the task it needed, and a chance for me to change course.
We shook on our agreement, and she started dismantling the DMZ. I told her it was funny that things between us were better now that we had a war plan instead of a cease-fire.
The turn of events made me hungry. I marched into the dining hall, pausing every few steps to hop. I wanted to see what it might be like to have one leg. Once inside, I helped myself to a large portion of chicken. My right hand cut the breast with great conviction, as if practicing for what was to come. But when I looked at the layers of the wing closely — skin, fat, muscle and bone — I lost my appetite.
I wandered back to our room, thinking about the phrase “cost an arm and a leg.” According to the introduction to da Vinci’s book, Renaissance portraits were priced according to the number of body parts included in the frame. A head was the standard rate, more than most commoners could afford. The cost increased as arms and legs were added. Would the fee be the same if your portrait featured the painter’s hand instead of your own? Was there a discount if you had missing limbs?
“What do you think a picture of your amputated leg might be worth?” I asked my roommate, who was in the tub when I returned.
“Worthless,” she said, shaving the leg she was keeping. She explained that she liked the feel of smooth skin against her trouser’s fabric. Besides, she noted, a hairy stump would attract even more attention.
“So you want people to see your stub?” I asked.
“Actually, I want them to see my prosthesis.”
“Why do you want a phony leg? I thought the point was to have no leg at all.”
“The point is not to have this leg. I still have to get around, you know.”
We got ready for bed. She had pajamas cut to suit her one-legged style. I wore a nightgown straight out of “Little House on the Prairie.” The same one I was wearing when the paramedics had arrived. The same one I wore every night because my mother had given it to me.
“Sometimes you have to keep up appearances,” my roommate announced as she flopped down on her bed. I had no idea what she meant.
“Do you think you’re pretty?” I asked.
“Certain parts are.”
“That’s not really a part.”
“Actually, it’s the dead part.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked, lying back on my pillow.
“After I have sex with someone I usually break up with them,” she answered. “What about you?”
“I never like them enough to do it with them in the first place.”
“So do you masturbate with that Alien Hand?” she asked.
“Try now; see if it still works.”
“Won’t that make you feel weird?”
“No. I feel nothing anyway. I think I’ll like sex and people more when this leg is out of the way. In fact, I think I’ll do it with as many people as possible. Just to see if I’m real.”
Thinking of her with a lot of guys turned me on. I covered myself with the sheet and put my right hand down my underpants.
“I want to do it with other amputees,” she said. “I heard of a veterans’ hospital that secretly looks for women who want to fuck men without legs. Not that I want to do it with an old guy, but I do want to try it with someone who lost a leg in war. Maybe a recent war. That must be intense, to get your leg blown off. I could love a man who has suffered like that. A real hero. I’d sit on top of him in his wheelchair and we could roll down the hospital ward while we humped. Or, if he wanted, I’d let him stick his stump inside me.”
I tried not to moan, but I let out a gasp.
Afterward, I asked her about the veterans in her fantasy.
“Don’t you think they might get mad at you?” I said.
“Why would they be mad at a pretty amputee who wants to have sex with them?”
“Because you ruined a perfectly good leg on purpose, and they would probably give their lives to have their limbs back.”
She shrugged. “Fuck ’em, then.”
The nurse knocked right on schedule and proceeded to tie my hand to my bed with the same thin rope she’d used the previous night. I was beginning to feel like a ship that needed mooring.
After the nurse locked the door, my roommate jumped up and undid my line. She refashioned it as a tourniquet above her knee, tying it as tightly as she could. She let it dangle off her bed, far away from the rest of her body. As her leg began to turn blue, she closed her green eyes. She was adrift now — lost in her own civil war. I was pretty sure she’d never come back completely. Regardless of what happened to her body, her mind would not stay intact.
I left the hatchet hidden under my mattress and opened da Vinci’s book to the chapter featuring a skeletal depiction of a bent knee. “Note the proportion of the bones to one another,” said his backward words. “And what purpose each serves.”
I looked at my roommate’s legs askew on her bed. Their dual purpose had been to propel her steadily through space and to connect her to the universe. One of them had failed her somewhere, or she had failed it at some point. Now the course of her life was coming to a halt.
I untied the rope and gently laid her unwanted limb back on the bed next to its valued companion. I lay down, too, but with my head at her feet. I pushed my left hand under her legs, and my alien hand reached over them. My fingers laced together.
“Hold on,” I whispered. “Hold on.”