I’d always thought words were subordinate to me, until my left arm
Even though it was painless, just a tingling sensation and R pressing
against my armpit hair, I remember locking myself in the bedroom.
Sam said something like, “Even if it’s a word, I won’t mind. Come
outside. Talk to me. We never talk.”
It has been a few years. We’re still seeing each other and live in the
same rent-stabilized apartment. There are no mice. No bed bugs. Just
roaches. I don’t know why she never left. She was probably thinking, if
I leave, then it would be like turning my back on a writer whose body is
entwined with language and that’s totally indicative of a toxic
relationship where there’s no support, not to mention he does laundry,
dishes, cleans the apartment, and takes the garbage all the way to the
curb on the correct days.
When it was all new to me, I had a high deductible health insurance
plan, so I convinced myself this Polish-word-arm was just a
circumstance, not so distinct from other circumstances such as a
twitching eyelid or a migraine from caffeine withdrawals.
At some point, many months after it happened, we were at my
grandmother’s apartment. She had heard about my condition from my
parents, who forwarded a photograph of me resting the word on Sam’s
shoulder while on the tallest peak of Bear Mountain. My parents
mistakenly told her it was in Russian but emphasized that a suit they
had bought me had been custom designed by a tailor to hide the problem
in case I secured interviews.
After we ate a plate of my grandmother’s latkes, she wanted to know what
language Sam dreamed in, since her mother had always dreamed in Polish.
The strange thing was that Sam, ever since we moved in together, had
been dreaming in English yet once my appendage became Ramię, she
realized that her dreams were only in Chinese. My grandmother smiled,
dentures wobbling into place. Then she nodded and told us that when my
now dead grandfather first found out that her big toe had been amputated
when she was a teenager, he said, “Just a toe? That’s nothing.”
She said he would have spoken in the same tone to me now if he were
alive, confronted by this Russian arm of mine. Agitated, I corrected
her, saying Ramię was not Russian but Polish and means something like
arm. My grandmother stammered, fidgeted, and put on her thick glasses
before moving in close to inspect the word’s charcoal-like texture.
“I would’ve wanted to learn Polish,” she said, “but my mother wanted us
to only speak English in the house.”
Then my grandmother reminded me of the story of my great-grandmother
Anna who ran with her younger sister through the snow toward the train,
escaping Poland. Soldiers were firing guns. Explosions shook the ground.
A bullet passed through her wool dress that her mother had sewn before
disappearing. It flew between her legs. She felt the scorching heat
against her flesh, but it did not enter her body.
As my grandmother paused, trying to unearth details that had faded over
time, I wondered what the story sounded like in Polish, whether it
contained some vital detail that would explain me, lettered like this.
She then said that she wrote about this story in middle school using
straight-forward English. Her teacher thought it was either a lie or
plagiarized, given how well it read and the physical improbability of
the sequence. Therefore, it didn’t happen. Then she recalled a story of
my great-grandfather from Kiev, who was on the ship to New York. When
someone attempted to steal his cot, he said, “Do you see these hands?
I’ve crushed men’s skulls with these hands.”
I asked her what language my great-grandfather was using when he spoke
of crushing skulls. She said it could have been Polish, Ukrainian,
Russian, or Yiddish. When I asked if any of them had complications with
their limbs becoming words, she chuckled and said that I’ve always had a
sense of humor.
Over the next few months, when I wasn’t looking for a job, I often
contemplated the implications of words and all their dimensions. I
reached out to intellectuals, professors, and writers who had considered
the limitations of language. Most of them were responsive and offered
their sympathies but said they dealt mostly with theoretical abstraction
suitable for well-researched essays but didn’t know what to say about
this particular, physical dilemma.
Soon, I turned my back on obscurity and theories that situated my body
amidst allegorical classics and performed at spoken word events, where
raucous crowds stomped their feet and cheered, encouraging me to show
the word, show the word, be the word, as if words I spoke only existed
in relation to Ramię and did not exist for themselves. I learned it
was best to hide and stay inside the apartment, only emerging out of
absolute necessity, like for mail, garbage, or jury duty.
Every now and then we had sex, pretending nothing had changed. She would
let me move around to be on top or bottom, behind her, but when I
inadvertently clobbered my leg on the corner of my m while trying to
contort my body, lacerating my skin to the point where I needed to go to
the emergency room to get a row of stitches, we decided it was best that
I refrain from moving in the same ways. Since our insurance didn’t cover
inadvertent injury due to letters, we decided not to take such risks.
In bed I became completely subordinate and passive, motionless like
driftwood in her current. I’d stand up while the letters would be on an
angle downward, the ę pressing against the corner of the mattress.
Since it could not go directly inside her without damaging her insides,
we wrapped it with a paper towel, cloth, athletic tape, and then at
least two condoms. When she discovered the ogonek’s potential, how it
can rub against her clitoris while the end of the e is inside her,
there was a renewed vitality to our sex life.
Sam tried dragging me to concerts, museums, film screenings, parks, and
dinners with friends. Invariably, I was shoved into predictable
conversations about how it impacted my writing or how I showered,
whether I could still drive a car or if there were any other words that
were not in plain sight, or if I had encountered other people with words
“There might be a sentence among us,” someone blurted, crumbs erupting
from the volcano of their mouth.
I’ve been bombarded with requests for meetings from people all over the
globe, many of whom long to be comprised of words themselves. Some
contractors have even explained that they’d be willing to offer me a
competitive rate to advise them on how to convert prisoners into words,
preferably small enough to fit onto a spare piece of paper.
“What if we can transform them into ink upon verdict,” one wrote. “Just
imagine the possibilities. A filing cabinet instead of a max security
facility to house them.”
Earlier this week, I received two emails. The first asked if I’d be open
to experiment with some kind of kinky, erotic game that had been
designed by ambitious and innovative individuals. It would require my
hardened protrusions, lubricant, ropes, chains, handcuffs, a thin layer
of plastic to cover the letters, and an assortment of oddly shaped, high
voltage gadgets. The process would be fully funded and take place at an
immaculate estate in the Hamptons. They’d have a driver pick me up and
drop me off. The next email was someone officially offering to fund a
procedure that would remove the word, for they wanted to acquire it in
full and keep it on display in their personal gallery. They even
promised to allow me two visits per year free of charge, when I’d have
private access. I rejected both offers and stayed in the impenetrable
fortress of our rent-stabilized apartment that had no mice or bed bugs,
only roaches and me.
When Sam comes back from a lecture she had given about twentieth century
East Asian feminist movements, she asks me if I heard back from any job
applications. It’s clear she has become increasingly fatigued and that
I’m the only word among us. Feeling guilty, I tell her I hadn’t heard
from anywhere and show her the emails. She calculates that she’d be able
to take a break and we’d have enough to purchase a townhouse in Brooklyn
with a garden, exist without worry about our credit scores, and buy a
Dejected, she makes a bowl of spicy noodle soup. The apartment smells of
burning rubber and chili oil. If I say anything, in a word, phrase, a
quote or pathetic cliché, I know she will hear its tone, how it rolls
off my tongue with or without rhythm, and she will think that’s a word
he just said that I’ve heard before and understand, have learned, but
what should I say to him now that he has said it here in this room at
this point in time, given his proclivity for being impossible to talk to
for extended periods of time, the lack of savings and terrible credit
score, and no responses on any job application.
I can’t endure saying a word that’s a word to her, for I want it to be
the word that’s beyond the words given and assigned to us, so
impenetrable and undeniable in its wordness that she begs me to never
speak again so that she can wrap herself continuously in that
intoxicating something. That’s what I want. I’m sure of it. To utter the
perfect word that brings me to the edge, where I will have no choice but
to plunge into the abyss, or where she will climax and only climax
because of this word that’s so relentlessly distinct from all other
words, a word which endured every sensation I’d ever felt, that
navigated the maze of my vocal cords, reached my tongue and escaped my
big teeth, colliding with something, anything. But what word would it
“What?” Sam says.” Did you say something?”
“I don’t know.”
“I thought you said something.” She slurps glass noodles with bean curd,
seaweed, tofu, scrolling through news articles.
“If I said something, then I said something. If I didn’t, then that’s no
“I’m eating. Tell me later, when you remember.”
“You won’t what?”
What a relief that she didn’t hear the word, only sensed its presence. I
don’t know why I injected a word into the precarious assembly line of
sound. I don’t even remember the word itself. Later, she says something
or doesn’t. We yell at each other. She cries and screams, throwing a
clay pot against the ground.
When she leaves, I’m not sure if she’ll come back. I think she will. She
has before. But what if she doesn’t? Should I tell myself it’s not
possible? I usually wait a few minutes, and then find her wandering
Once, I found her beside a tree, staring at the bark. When she saw me,
she waved me to come over, upon which she explained that she had spotted
two beetles having sex and smashed them. Then she rubbed the remnants of
the smashed bugs against my letters, saying all that pasty stuff is
Now, when I reach the park, past the graffiti and netless basketball
hoops, I find her plucking something like grass from the ground. She
brings it to my nose. I smell fresh garlic. I know she found garlic
here. I tell myself she found garlic here. We can name it garlic. Or we
can name it after us, even though we’ve left roots behind.
Andrew Felsher is a writer based in New York City. His fiction and essays have appeared in São Paulo Review, Fiction Writers Review, Action, Spectacle, and elsewhere. He's also the Editor of 128 Lit, an international print and online literary magazine.