When they slept she had gotten into the habit of resting both her hands on his arm. Now that his arm was gone, what was she to do?
Before, they had had a good arrangement, or had come to have one once she had sorted through matters. She had begun with splints, using them first for just one hand and then for both. They kept her from waking in the middle of the night with stabbing pains. But still, even with the splints, her hands would eventually start to throb, and that was enough to awake her. More than enough. She tried drugs, but they did nothing but make her groggy. What you need, a friend told her, is better drugs. The doctor she approached for a prescription told her instead that it was simple; she just had to keep her hands elevated. So she had tried to keep her arms bent at the elbow and the elbow planted on the bed, to sleep with her hands waving in the air on the stalks of her forearms. Either they fell down as soon as she fell asleep or she awoke with her arms locked and sore. She stacked pillows next to her and splayed her hands onto them, but it didn’t elevate them enough. Nothing worked, nothing at all. But then one night, his back had been turned to her and he was sleeping with his arm hemmed to his side and she had simply reached out and placed her hands on his arm and he, sleeping, had let her, and then she had slept the sleep of the dead all the way through to morning.
It had gone on like that for many nights in a row: she lying awake, restless, until he rolled over and pressed his arm along his side and then she could wriggle her way toward him and lay her hands upon his arm. Then sleep. She had grown not only to like it but to need it, and the few times he had been gone at night and not in the bed, she had not been able to sleep at all. Those nights, the stabbing pains had been worse than ever.
For better or for worse, she had promised. She knew that was what she had promised, but how was she to have known that worse meant that there would one day suddenly be less of him? It had been like that: One day he was whole and complete and the next day his arm was three-quarters gone. When he first came home, with it wrapped in gauze, she had of course understood that she couldn’t touch it, that it would hurt him to do so. She had respected that, kept her distance. But then the wound had annealed, the scar tissue had thickened and then hardened, and the stump became just that: a stump. By that time, it felt like she hadn’t slept for a year. It hadn’t, of course, been that long, but that was what it felt like, and that was what she meant when she’d said it to him. But, touchy, he’d misunderstood. The tragedy here, he’d claimed, is not whether you can sleep. This, he said, shaking the stump in her face, is the tragedy. Stump, he claimed, trumps stabbing hand pain.
But did it? Were they really playing at some game that had trumps? A game in which only the person with the missing arm, the three-quarters missing arm, was allowed to feel pain? She hadn’t thought so. And indeed, with a little time, a little patience, as his own pain lessened and he learned not to try to pick up, say, a glass with his missing hand, he went from feeling offended to saying—quite sensibly, he believed—But I still have a good bit of my arm left: Use that.
But no, it wasn’t the same. When he turned now, as he always did, to sleep on his side, and she scooted across the sheet and closer and rested her hands on him, she could, true, fit both hands on what remained of the arm. But one hand always slipped off the stump to fall lower, against his ribs. And if she scooted higher in the bed so that that hand wouldn’t slip off, it was the other hand that did so, spilling off the shoulder and down against his neck. Either made it too low. Admittedly that meant that she was throbbing in just one hand instead of two, but she still couldn’t sleep. Can’t he just wear his prosthetic through the night? she found herself sometimes wondering at two or three or four in the morning. But this, she knew, would be asking too much. If he wore his prosthetic during the night, the doctor had told him, had told them, he wouldn’t be able to wear it through the whole day without having aches and strain and even, potentially, shooting pains of his own. No, despite their closeness she just could not ask—and even if she did ask, she felt, he would almost certainly say no.
So, for months she was sleepless. She placed one hand on her husband and then held the other there in the air, over the place where the arm used to be. She held it up as long as she could, or placed it on a pillow balanced on her husband if he was asleep enough that she could get away with it. But it was not the same. The best she could manage was a kind of grumpy torpor. And it was not, she became more and more convinced, enough.
And so, late at night, listening to her husband breathing beside her, one arm already tingling, sleep refusing to come, she found herself imagining what it would be like to be in bed with a man who had not one arm, but two.
From this, everything else followed, inexorably. It was a simple thing to take a lover. Not because she was sex starved, or to find passion, or for anything of that sort—for indeed, so she told me as she again pulled the sheet high enough to cover her breasts, she loved her husband passionately and desired him and always would.
No, she did it for afterward. For the moment when, both of them spent, her lover would roll away.
As he perhaps dozed a little, she would stealthily slip on her splints and then, carefully, place both her hands on him. And then, finally, if all was just right, if he stayed there on his side, if he didn’t move, if he didn’t mind having her there pressing on him, then she, at last, would once again be able to sleep.
Brian Evenson is the author of eleven works of fiction, most recently Windeye (Coffee House Press) and Immobility (Tor). He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes, an ALA/RUSA prize, and an IHG Award, and has been a finalist for an Edgar Award and a World Fantasy Award. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife, Kristen Tracy, and his son, Max, and teaches at Brown University.