In My Hands
At age eight I receive the award Entertainer of the Year Runner-Up for a jazz-gymnastics routine that I perform to the disco song, “Give Me the Night.” My hair is short and I’m barefoot and bare-legged in a pale blue leotard with a red and white zigzag down the side. I do disco dance moves and cartwheels, front flips and round-offs. My small hands land firm on the mat and shoot up in the air, fingers spread in jazz-hands. I am exuberant and fearless.
I visit my mom’s family in Virginia in the summers and spend time with my favorite uncle who smokes pot and meditates in the locked basement bathroom of my grandparents’ big house. He has long hair and a blue and green pet parakeet we play with. He’s an artist and photographer and shoots beautiful pictures of us. He tells my sister and I fun stories at night before we go to bed. When he becomes a fundamentalist Christian, he prays with us and his stories become religious. When I am diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he lays his hands on me, speaks in tongues, and prays to God to heal me. When my arthritis doesn’t go away, he says I’m not letting God heal me. This doesn’t sound right. I’m fine with God healing me.
I stop making red blood cells when I’m twelve because of gold shots I get for my arthritis. My mom sits with me in little white hospital emergency rooms where I receive blood transfusions over the course of a year. She brings our little black and white television with an antenna. When the screen turns into horizontal lines, we just listen. We eat ice cream sandwiches together. During this time I have bone-marrow biopsies to determine why I’m not making red blood cells. These are extremely painful. When the doctor inserts the long needle into my thighbone, my nurse JL holds one of my hands and my mom holds the other one. My dad can’t stay in the room because it makes him sad to hear me scream in pain. I squeeze my mom’s hand hard.
When mom picks me up from school to take me to see my doctor in Indianapolis, she always brings McDonalds as a treat. I am eleven and in the hospital, and my friend P visits me and we share Chicken McNuggets. I eat more of them than he does and feel bad about it. We play Dungeons and Dragons on my hospital bed. Later when we are twelve and at a basketball game and sit next to each other at the top of the old Indiana gymnasium, he asks me softly if he can hold my hand. I tell him I’m not allowed. This isn’t totally true. Mostly this just makes me nervous. But my older sister recently got in trouble with my dad for holding a boy’s hand at a football game, so I think that this is somewhat true. A few minutes later, P asks, are you sure? And I say yes I’m sure. The next four years I have a crush on P. During our sophomore year, he’s my Biology partner and this makes me nervous. My arthritis has done damage to my hands, and I am told I need hand surgery to clean out the joints and cut and straighten the tendons. When the surgeon describes the splint I will need to wear after the surgery, I cry. All I can think about is how weird this will look. At age fourteen in a small town in Indiana, looking weird is the worst thing. After the surgery, my hand is encased with a big white splint with rubber bands holding each of my fingers up and out. In Biology class, mortified, I hide my monster-hand from P under our table.
I’m in my mid thirties and am at party where I meet and flirt with a young man art writer. Afterwards, he drives me to my car a few blocks away. We end up making out. He says, will it offend you if I ask you to come over to my house? I almost laugh but then answer very seriously, to match his tone, no, it will not offend me. I go to his little house and we stand in his dark living room and each take a shot of whisky, and I say, let’s go to your room. We have sex and talk and have sex and talk. We hold hands in the messy bed. I say your hands are nice. They’re delicate and feminine. He tells me that when he was a little boy he thought his hands didn’t look tough enough so he’d hit walls to give them scars like his brother’s hands. I wonder how many women he has told this to. He asks about my hands and I say I have arthritis. He says, I didn’t notice them at first. I say I’m kind of self-conscious about them. He tells me, I think you used misdirection to keep me from noticing them. He tells me a story about a Pilates instructor who uses misdirection to keep people’s attention away from the fact she does not have legs. This doesn’t sound right to me, but he sounds sure so I entertain it for a minute. He says your hands are beautiful. He writes me a vague text the next day—let’s do that again sometime. This reminds me of the young man poet who told me my hands are like the hands of the women in Egon Schiele paintings. One of these women is tattooed on the bicep of his poet arm. I had fallen for this young poet man in a graduate poetry class where we close-read Emily Dicksinson poems together. He kissed me sweetly on my sofa and wrote me the next day he wanted to do that every night forever. He did not write or call me after that. I have come to understand the ways that the young man art writer and young man poet are skilled at performing intimacy, not at actual intimacy or sustaining intimacy. My hands are of momentary interest to them; their words are of no real help to me.
At Target I am at the register and a large box of cat litter is in my cart. I struggle to pick it up and put it on the conveyer belt. I always buy this particular kind of cat litter, even though it’s heavy and difficult for me to manage. I never think about my struggling being difficult from someone to watch. An older woman behind me, without saying anything, reaches into my cart and picks it up and puts in on the conveyor belt. After I pay for it, her daughter picks it up and puts it back in my cart. I say thank you. I cry when I get inside my car, touched by their immediate and unassuming help that asks nothing of me in return.
After my neck surgery three men doctors come into my hospital room to tighten the screws of the metal halo that has been drilled into my skull. They surround me and three pairs of doctor-hands simultaneously tighten the screws—a team effort. My cries of pain become louder and louder. They give up tightening the screws, at a pressure, they tell me, is less than desirable. They turn and leave, seemingly disappointed with me. Later, one of them comes back alone. He’s dressed meticulously; his pointy shoes are shiny brown leather; under his white coat, he wears a white pinstriped dress shirt. I notice his purple tie has a pattern of little white diamonds. In contrast, I’m a monster; my hair is matted with blood and iodine, my drugged-up body is a disheveled mess in the hospital gown and bed sheets. This doctor resumes the job of tightening the screws, and I cry out in pain. He explains to me the pressure of the metal halo around my head—the tightness of the screws—needs to be more. He tells me, you have a low threshold for pain. Most patients, he explains, can tolerate more pain. I try to stay quiet, but can’t keep myself from emitting more cries. He stops. He says I’ll come back later. Then he asks do you have any questions? This makes me angry and I half-yell this isn’t a good time for me to think of questions. He looks surprised and walks out of the room. No one tries to tighten the screws again.
After the surgery at home, I sleep in the halo neck brace, which is difficult. In the middle of the night, L helps me sit up in bed because I can’t do it by myself. The halo is heavy, and I’m in pain and on drugs. L, L, I whisper, waking her up, I have to go the bathroom. She wakes up, leans over, puts her hand on my back, and gently moves me forward and up.
Each day L reaches her long slender brown hand with a white washcloth inside the plastic and wool vest connected to the metal halo around my head in order to wash my skin. She cleans me so carefully that when the doctors remove it from my body after three months there are no stains on it, no evidence of the sweat and suffering of those difficult months. L says this is evidence that she has taken good care of me, and I say yes it is.
When are L and I breaking up and still living in the same house, I sleep alone in our bed and she sleeps on the floor in her little office. I’m writing my dissertation that has to be finished in two months. I have panic attacks alone in bed. One time, hearing my breathing and crying, she comes in and holds my hand until I calm down. She goes back in the other room to sleep.
Later I look for photos of L on Facebook. It feels like she’s dead, and I want to see that she’s still living. In one photo she is watching a performance and touching her lips in the way she does when she is thinking hard about something. I find a video of her; she is rubbing her eyes with her long fingers the way she does when her contacts are bothering her. I would ask her, are your eyes bothering you? And she would say yes. These gestures and her hands in the photo and video are so familiar that they feel like they’re mine—like they also belong to me. Like my body belonged to her. I miss this and try to process and accept the loss of L and her hands.
Three of my best friends take turn putting henna in my hair. I make us tea and sit in a chair, and my friend stands behind me, and we talk as she saturates strands of my hair with the earthy green mud. The process takes about two hours; our conversations cover alot of ground. Each friend has her own way of putting the henna on my head. A is careful not to get any on my face or neck. S takes pleasure in it and is deliberate about not missing any of my hair. M is messy. My hair comes out shiny and the red of my hair—my grandmother’s red hair—is brighter. It is comforting to frequently have my best friends’ hands in my hair.
I am a hand-holder. My mom holds my hand all the time when I’m growing-up. I hold hands with my first person, N, easily, without a thought. My second person, S, doesn’t like to hold hands when we are in public. Affection is uncomfortable for him; his family isn’t physically demonstrative, so holding hands makes him feel embarrassed. He’s a gentle person who wants to be stronger, so I think that holding-hands makes him feel weak, not masculine. If we run into people when we are holding-hands, he quickly drops my hand. This makes me sad. I feel disappointed by him, and this turns into a difficult conversation. L and I hold hands all the time. This is also new to her. She’s never done this with a person, but she likes to hold hands with me. Her hands are beautiful; she uses them to fix bikes and cook and draw. I love looking at her hands and feel lucky to get to hold hands with her. I do not think about how people might feel seeing two women holding hands in public. Hard to imagine never holding hands like this with someone again.
My sister and dad are concerned about my hands. I find this out at Christmas. I am at the store, and they talk with each other about my hands. My sister reports the conversation to me later—starting with the sentence, this will make you mad. They wonder if I should have reconstructive surgery. I realize my hands look bad to them. My sister asks, what will happen if you can’t type in the future. I say I can type now—I use them fine. I also say I live alone and who will help me if I have hand surgery. We start talking about dating and what people might think is wrong with my hands and with me when they first meet me. My sister thinks I should explain my hands to people on the first date and tell them immediately that I have arthritis. I tell her I do this if it comes up. It isn’t something that I lead with. The last person I explained my hands to on a first date said oh I thought you’d been in an accident. I wonder what kind of accident this would be. Soon after, when a different woman and I kiss, she touches and holds my hands without hesitation. I feel encouraged.
I sometimes go to sleep clutching rocks—maybe because I live in Los Angeles. In one hand I hold a Green Calcite stone, which helps me let go of what is “familiar and comforting and that is no longer needed.” In my other hand, I clutch a Rose Quartz crystal, “which heals one emotionally.” It helps to release “unexpressed emotions and heartache.” Whether any of this is true or not, I’m not sure, but in my bed at night when I hold them tightly, they become warm in my hands and I fall asleep immediately.
Adrienne Walser has lived in Los Angeles for eleven years, almost as long as she lived in her first-love city, Tucson. She got an English Ph.D. at USC and became Literature Faculty for Bard College's MAT program in LA. She's also taught literature and writing at USC, UCLA and ELAC. In her position at a non-profit organization, she works with public school teachers in Los Angeles. She writes about modernism, art, film, poetry, and bodies and has published work in Jacket2, Art Book Review, Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles (Carla), Entropy, and Pastelegram: Projects Exploring Archives and Artistic Process.