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Long fingers MAG
As a child, I wanted to write a story about a short-fingered genius. She would have red hair and green eyes like me, of course; I could not bring myself to betray my vanity enough to avoid the clichés. She would possess the ability to loop one leg behind her head, and would run and wear contact lenses. In short, she would be a stylized version of me. (I was not very imaginative as far as characters went at that point.)
I was driven to this admittedly peculiar desire by the force of the tidal wave of fantasy and espionage novels that swamped my childhood and adolescence. One element of these youthful enthusiasms kept me awake at night out of sheer annoyance: all the smart people in them had long fingers. Plotlines everywhere appeared to be governed by a bizarre palmistry; long digits signified a surplus of neurons.
As someone who had ceilinged out on two IQ tests and graduated first in my high school class, I found this unbearably irksome. “One day,” I swore, “I will demonstrate to the world the intellectual power of the short-fingered.” I seem to recall that I was looking down at my own hands when this thought popped into my head. Youthful pads of subcutaneous fat rounded the knuckles, the nails displayed a sort of organized cuticle chaos, and the fingers, although not stubby, would never permit a career as a pianist. In my childhood novels, these would have been the hands of a minor character: a dairymaid, perhaps, or a mildly talented midwife, or even a simple, spoiled child. Whenever I remembered this later, my hands clenched around whatever object I was holding at the time as I silently renewed my vow to topple the long-fingered from their cranial pedestal.
You may well ask why the lack of short-fingered geniuses in literature bothered me so much. Why, you wonder, could I not simply live securely in the knowledge that the short-fingered could be intelligent, rather than doomed to mediocrity?
For one thing, I was a natural redhead, buxom and narrow-waisted. While I had never been explicitly discriminated against, I fancied that the world at large did not take me seriously because of my appearance. At the same time, my body thrilled me, and I was well aware that I could use it to my advantage. This only magnified my fears; if I leaned on my looks, my brain would rot. When my youth inevitably faded, I would be left with sagging breasts and an empty head. At any rate, I woke up every morning feeling like I had something to prove.
Aged 17, I departed for college, my novel still unwritten. I had toyed with a number of ideas, but they had all struck me as trite and been transformed into hamster bedding.
The specter of my insecurities was not so easily dispatched. It peered over my shoulders as I labored on organic chemistry, hitchhiked on the laces of my brand-new running shoes, and coiled snakelike around my tongue in debates. College, I discovered, contained an exponentially higher concentration of smart people than high school. No longer was I the intimidating nerd, always the first to be called on in class and the last to enter a conversation. I had thought that this would be refreshing. It was terrifying.
Six years later, I was finishing up a masters in astrophysics but felt no happier than I had as an undergrad. “The doctoral program will be better” became my mantra. Surely, I told myself, I would feel more intelligent once I was on track for a Ph.D. in physics. Afraid to converse with my classmates (they would doubtless see through the mask to my inner unworthiness and stupidity), I took to rereading fantasy novels in obscure corners of the campus.
I spent the summer interning at an observatory, scribbling fragments of self-indulgently literary prose, the products of a revived novelistic ambition, during the long stretches of the night shift when nothing happened. Having no hamster to sacrifice the copious fruits of my boredom to, I stuffed them into a small wooden chest on my desk. On weekends, I took long hikes in the state park and read self-help books.
The first semester of doctoral work was a living nightmare, a four-month-long fever dream unchecked by ibuprofen. Constantly plagued by lack of sleep and future job prospects, I grew increasingly harried and furtive. My roommate, whom I'd known since college, moved out and got married. Chronically dateless, I took up cooking as a distraction from the sudden emptiness of the apartment.
Time passed, and cooking eventually became what I did when I didn't want to work on my dissertation. I tried anything, so long as it was relatively low-calorie and cheap. Since I stayed in nights and used the library religiously, I had the financial means to accumulate a range of cooking tools: graters, measuring spoons and cups, vegetable peelers, a small but feisty food processor, and a set of cheap supermarket knives. I treated them with a respect bordering on reverence, like my favorite equations.
One blistering late May morning, I awoke at a late hour, having stayed up too late with an uncompromising aspect of my thesis. My irritation at its intractability was only compounded by sleep deprivation and the prospect of another day alone in the apartment, my only ventures out being to the track and library. Still half-asleep, I clambered out of bed to make an omelette with the last foodstuffs in the refrigerator.
As I chopped spinach to the sound of sizzling eggs, my wandering gaze lighted on the wooden box perched at the edge of my desk, unopened since the summer at the observatory. Abandoning the cutting board, I walked across the room and lifted the lid, sifting through the bits and pieces of more hopeful days. Here at last, lurching across the untidy pages, lay the evidence I had simultaneously sought and avoided my entire life. Here, in the great banality of the unfinished novel, sat confirmation of my mediocrity.
I looked down at the hands that gripped the box. Surely they were not mine. They are ordinary, a part of me wailed, while the rest of me is unique. It was the hands that constituted my problem, their pedestrian short-fingeredness holding me back from greater things. I flung the box against the wall. It cracked apart with a bang, the contents mixing with last night's work on the dirty carpet in a sort of wood-pulp speed dating event.
I stalked back to the counter, blinded by tears, and resumed hacking at the spinach. Except I missed.
My first wild stroke painted the knife red and spattered the cutting board. The next sent syrupy drops flowing down the steel blade to soak the wooden handle. I chopped, sliced, and minced, my years of practice finally coming to fruition. I only stopped when the sound of crunching bone broke through the burning egg noises and choking sobs to my roiling mind.
So blinded by pain and tears was I that I could not see the phone to dial 911. I staggered out the door and down the hall, screaming in agony. Somehow I found my way down the stairs and into the lobby, where I collided with the mailman, who called first on heavenly powers and then for an ambulance.
At the hospital, I used the painkillers to shield myself from questions. Mostly, I kept silent and tried to will myself into unconsciousness. When the anesthesiologist set up my IV, I could have kissed him, except that my eyes were already shut. My last thought before the effect became total was that you should close your eyes during a kiss and not before.
Many days later, I returned to the apartment to pack my things in preparation for an extended trip to therapy – both talk and occupational. On my way out, I passed the bank of mailboxes. Pausing to open mine, I fumbled the job of getting the pile out and clamping it to my stump, and the wad of envelopes tumbled to the floor. As I bent down to gather them up, one in particular caught my eye. Fat with promise, it bore the address of the small university to which I had applied for a job.
Writing this in my office now, I look down once more at my prosthetic hand. I lift my left arm to admire the hand's shine and sleekness from another angle. As I turn my false hand, sunlight from the open window catches on its long, tapered fingers.