Because I have my father’s proclivity for drinking and my mother’s lack of grace, I trip on a loose stone of the homemade fireplace while cleaning up after the party, and land my right hand, dominant, in a nest of glowing coals.
It’s a nasty second-degree burn. So bad, in fact, that I have to deny how nasty it is, turning away from the silvery spot of raw, exposed flesh. “It’s fine, I’m fine,” I say while my husband quickly fills a bowl with cool water. Jason is an Eagle Scout. Everyone thinks he can do anything, and mostly, they’re not wrong. Need curtains hanged? Call Jason. Air conditioner on the fritz? Jason can fix it. Car making a funny sound? Jason will diagnose the problem. His cooking is restaurant-delectable, he plays the guitar, he gardens, he does woodwork and yoga and laundry, if I ask him to. Sometimes, his capability, his accident-fucking-free existence-to-serve-others, pisses me off. The last time I injured my hand, a few years ago at yet another party, I showed him the deep cut I got from falling onto a wood pile. He asked what happened in his concerned and only slightly exasperated southern voice. “None of your fucking business,” I told him, wheeling away.
But we’re married now, and in truth, I love the way he wants to help. So, I’m resigned to let him mend me. “Is it bad?” I say, hand turning numb in the water, white bits of skin skimming the surface. I can’t decide if I want an answer.
“We’ll know tomorrow,” he says. His face betrays no worry or optimism. He knows better than to set up any expectations. He knows I will blame him if things don’t happen exactly as he said they would. I’ve stopped believing in God, but I believe entirely in my husband.
The Latin word for left is sinistra, meaning “evil” or “unlucky.” Black magic is sometimes called the “left-handed path.” Joan of Arc is said to have been left-handed. My father is left-handed.
I wake up in the middle of night in agony. The burn is a puffy mass of red and white, blood thumping visibly. In a four-inch patch from thumbnail to wrist, there is no skin on my right hand, just a shriveled rim of char that used to be skin. The whole hand shakes when I try to move it, so I don’t.
Jason helps me clean and bandage the burn, which we will do three times a day for three weeks, a bathroom ritual that begins in tears and ends in hugging. I can’t think of a single thing I want to eat, so we get McDonald’s, and I eat my cheeseburger with my left hand, pickles and shredded onions falling into my lap. “Dammit!” I say every few minutes. Jason wordlessly peels open the straw for my Diet Coke.
I sleep most of the day to forget about the pain, hand elevated above heart-level. We order pizza for dinner, which I can eat left-handed, and watch The Tudors on Netflix. Jason doesn’t like the show as much as I do–it’s not historically accurate and gratuitous nudity makes him uncomfortable–but he knows the sex and violence and period costuming will distract me from my throbbing hand, make me a more manageable patient.
On the show, Henry VIII has named himself head of the Church of England. Christianity is fucking everything up. Thomas More burns suspected Lutheran authors at the stake, like Joan of Arc was burned for claiming God had spoken to her in her commoner’s tongue. I have to turn away when the fire catches the condemned’s rags and he begins screaming, howling really. I’m usually fascinated by this sort of thing–crime scenes, forensic science, any documentary about serial killers–but the burnings trouble me now that I know what a real burn feels like, how the pain persists with astonishing strength, rolling and pitching, disappearing, then raging. I was raised Protestant and have a flair for disobedience. With my love for colloquialism, I probably would have been a Lutheran during Henry VIII’s time, a reformer with a forbidden English bible, a left-leaner, like I am now. I imagine being tied to the stake, the ragged pyre lit beneath me. I imagine the flames reaching my calves, tonguing the hem of my skirt. My thighs would burn at the same time as my hands.
In Tantric Buddhism, the left hand represents wisdom. I prefer Buddhism to Christianity, except for that whole karma thing. I don’t like to think about my karma. I held my too many rum-and-cokes with my right hand and landed that hand in the campfire.
It’s time to get back to life. Jason goes to work early, and I attempt my first left-handed shower. I use a Ziploc bag and rubber band to keep my right hand dry, and use my left hand to lather shampoo and body wash. I drop everything at least once and don’t dare try shaving. The shower takes forty-five minutes of me cursing the God I don’t believe in, but after I’m dried and dressed, I text Jason victoriously.
“I showered all by myself!”
I refuse to stop texting, even though I have to do it with my left thumb. The English professor in me still corrects the typos, still finds the tiny ALT key on my phone to make commas and apostrophes. But I shorten my notoriously long texts to their bare minimums. I type “Yes, come,” instead of, “Oh, absolutely! Come on over!” Friends keep asking if I’m mad at them.
My hurried nature slows to a crawl. I’m usually covered in bruises and scrapes because I do things too fast, yelping periodically throughout the day. I bump into doorways trying to get to my ringing phone. I bite my tongue because I rush through chewing. But now I have to think about everything, think through each motion I make. My left hand has a gravitational pull on the rest of my body–I lean into my movements like I’m riding a motorcycle around a curve.
Growing up, I worried I wasn’t unique enough. I hated my brown eyes and brown hair–shit brown, I used to say–when my mother was blond and green-eyed. And like 90% of the world’s population, I’m right-handed, whereas my father is a leftie.
I used to love watching my father write out checks. His handwriting slanted the opposite way from mine, and he made these broad, powerful marks that seemed to appear magically from beneath his hand. I have a cousin who is left-handed, too, and after my parents divorced, my father moved into the apartment above her and my aunt. The left-handed thing didn’t come up often, but sometimes it did–borrowing scissors and whatnot–and I always felt excluded then, like Katie was my dad’s real daughter, the one he saw much more than me.
The body is amazing. A goopy layer of plasma seals off the burn, making a cushion of healing fluid to encourage new skin. Jason still helps me keep it clean and bandaged, and I watch him develop a routine with the gauze: thread between thumb and index finger, loop twice around hand, thread back through thumb and finger, loop three more times around hand, tape. He is a systematic person, hurrying through nothing. He perfects every process he learns–how to cook an egg over-easy, how to tie his tomato plants, how to bandage his wife’s hand. If he were God, Earth would be as efficient and steady as a watch.
Jason never injures himself. To repay him for all this, I will have to break his legs.
Some doctors say that to understand what it’s like to lose a limb, try using your non-dominant hand to do everything for a week. Eat with it. Drive with it. Pet your dog with it.
I’ve gotten pretty good at using a fork and wiping my ass with my left hand. It’s fine motor skills that still give me trouble. Unscrewing the cap on the toothpaste. Hooking the dog’s leash to her collar. Taking my clothes off. Taking Jason’s clothes off. But I’m learning. I brush my teeth without help now.
The French word for “left” is gauche, but it also means “awkward” or “clumsy.” Some might say I fell in the fire because I have “two left feet.” Jason even has a look he gives me when I drop or break something because I’m not being careful. In flip-flops or ballet flats, I trip over every shift in the sidewalk.
But put me in the highest heels, and I glide.
Since I started eating with my left hand, I have not bitten my tongue once, and I’ve lost three pounds because I eat slower, feeling full before my plate is clean. Every time I take a shower or get dressed by myself, I feel as proud as when I first learned to tie my shoes.
I have learned to tie my shoes again. The day is a string of small, meaningful accomplishments.
To clean the burn, I use an antiseptic wash that stings on contact. I actually look forward to this now because I like what happens to me in those few seconds of intense pain. When I was having panic attacks in college, my ex-boyfriend took me to meditate at the local monastery. I tried to breathe like the tiny, red-clothed monks and obliterate my racing thoughts, but all that silence would overwhelm me, and I would forget how to breathe and start hyperventilating.
But as the stinging of the antiseptic climaxes and then subsides, I count my breaths in the bathroom, watching myself in the mirror. One, two, threeeee. In pain, I am fully present, a superhuman dominating evil. Godly, like Joan of Arc focused on the crucifix held before her as the flames drew near.
Four out of the five presidents of my lifetime were left-handed: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Only George W. Bush was right-handed, but I have a hard time calling him a president. I wonder if Karl Rove is a leftie.
I’ve always thought my father could be president, the way he loves U.S. history and commands a crowd.
Michaelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci were all left-handed. So was Hans Holbein, who painted the famous portrait of Henry VIII. I’m pretty sure my first boyfriend was left-handed, and he, too, was an artist, the first thing that attracted me.
When we were kids, my cousin Katie and I sometimes did art projects together with her impressive collection of colored pencils and acrylic paints. I loved spreading the supplies out on her living room’s hardwood floor, rolling the pencils around with my palm, searching for the perfect green. But I could never make anything as beautiful as Katie’s work. I tried to copy her delicate flowers, her faces that looked like faces. But I would always end up disappointed, embarrassed even, and rip my projects up. Sometimes my father would hang Katie’s pictures up on his refrigerator, but he never saw any of mine, just like he hasn’t read a word I’ve ever written.
The scabs are beginning to itch. That’s a good sign.
My doctor takes a look at the burn and says Jason certainly earned his first aid merit badge. “I wish I could call his Scout leader,” she says, admiring. She says I’ll be back to normal soon.
But I don’t want to be normal. I’m thinking about trying to become ambidextrous. From the lack of grace that lands one hand in a fire would come new grace, a whole new way of being in the world. At the coffee shop where I buy my americanos, I sign my credit slip with my left hand. It doesn’t come out too bad.
Not long before I burned my hand, Jason and I went kayaking on the lake. It was a windy day. The water was choppy. We paddled against the current, hurtling over the fast-moving waves that rocked us side-to-side. Jason told me to place the flat of my oar on the back of the waves, to use them to propel us forward and pick up momentum. It was hard at first, but I got the hang of it, and soon it became fun, mastering those waves. Later, over beer and oysters, Jason said it made him proud to watch me acquire a new skill. I felt great for days, a different person. A person who could kayak.
Ambidexterity would be a cool party trick, a motor skill even Jason doesn’t possess. My father would show it off at the bar. Maybe I’d earn a little mystery, a mark. I could take control of my body, my earthly-godly body, stepping into fires just to prove I can endure.