I’d always thought words were subordinate to me, until my left arm became Ramię.
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 or punctuations.
“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 cute car.
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 be?
“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 different.”
“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 Riverside Park.
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 disgusting.
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.
by Michelle Champagne
... I knew I was haunted by the time I left college ...
THE FOGGY SEA.
by Shane Jesse Christmass
... My hoarse voice—nothing here to please me—contact lenses in the dust ...