by Thea goodman
Hand in Marriage
During the ceremony, we held each other’s hands as we said our vows and the judge said her words. I was aware that the judge who was very powerful but short was blocked behind us. In the pictures, you can barely see her and you might mistake her for someone in the background instead of the officiant. She was once famous for hiring illegal help to care for her children. She was nominated for attorney general and then investigated and removed. Other people’s hands, hands of so-called “aliens,” cared for and fed her children, and we didn’t have a problem with this. We liked her. But with our joined hands we formed a circle and she was not in it. I had a fleeting vision of her inside the circle of our arms how we might rock her between us like children do singing London Bridge Is Falling Down. It was all a dream. We were standing up and promising our whole lives to one another. Standing up while speaking is usually a posture reserved for fights. The kick of adrenaline makes you pop to your feet to mark a particularly salient point. Conferences about love are usually seated or prone. And they are usually private. But here we were having a standing conference about love in front of a hundred people, sanctioned by the state.
I felt his hands, damp and trembling inside of the cup I made of mine even though mine were much smaller. I could hold him and I intended to. His hands had become familiar and identifiable to me after two years together. They were large with rounded fingertips. The nails, like mine, showed no white moons at all. They were a tan color with very little hair on top. Sometimes their flat, paddle-like shape, and their width, amazed me. I imagined my husband could be a great swimmer or ceramicist, that he’d hold a baby in the palm of one hand. The inside of the palms were leathery and thick although he didn’t work with his hands. I put this in quotes because it implies he did not do manual labor, but in reality, he did work with his hands every day when he typed.
When the rings came from the tiny, brownish hands of our nephew, the ring bearer, we took them and then suffered a moment of confusion between left and right. We decided to both wear rings. I’d read different theories of the ring finger: here was one. The ring was worn on the left hand of the woman because it was the hand that was more passive. The left hand was taken in marriage like a woman was once taken from her father, passed from one man to another. When I heard this, I decided I wanted to wear the ring on the pointer finger of my right hand as if to say I wanted to do this, to wed proactively. He said that the ring didn’t really look as nice on that finger. I shrugged, unsure whether I cared more about the symbolism of it or how it looked. Then I heard the other theory. The ring was worn on the finger that had a direct nerve line to the heart. We decided that he would wear a ring too and that equality felt better. We both ended up wearing them on the ring finger, one of the many examples of an instance where, although we didn’t consider ourselves traditional, tradition prevailed.
At the reception, I had a strange realization. I kept looking at my hand with the ring on it, but I couldn’t see my hand; I couldn’t tell what my own hand looked like. I thought I’d have to look for my hands in a photograph or perhaps in a mirror to see their true nature. But when I looked at his hand, I could see it perfectly well. His hands were unmistakably his, with or without the identifying ring.
His hand felt lighter and on my back than his father’s hand had when we danced. His hands were a feeling I was so accustomed to already that they were like a part of me. His father’s hands were huge and heavy and felt comforting on my back. They’d collected all their strength through work and gravity, hanging down by his sides and working for over seventy years. Over the years his father’s hands had accumulated all the sand of divorce and death all the detritus of an older man’s life. He did work with his hands so they were callused and even wounded. Once he sawed off the tip of his finger while working in his woodshop. He referred to the accident obliquely, not in a macho way and not in a humble way either. He accepted that this loss was a natural part of doing manual labor. Then I danced with my father. My father’s hands were more cardboard-like (he worked with paper all day at a desk). His hand on my back felt stiffer.
My husband’s hands were a lot like his father’s with their leathery interiors and nothing like his mother’s tapering yet fat lady fingers. (She is from the south and grooms meticulously.) My hands, I have been told, are like my father’s in length but like my mother’s with their large knuckles. The one of our eight grandparents still alive was at the wedding and she has elegant, long, thin hands, with perfect proportions. I had never seen her nails unpainted. They were always a bright red. Her hands were covered in thick blue veins, their skin as thin as eyelid and etched with millions of little lines. But their basic shape had not changed. I used to marvel at them as a child, sitting with her in the front seat while my grandfather drove and pressing down the thickest worm-like vein over and over again to see it flatten and refill with blood. I asked her why her hands were like that, why the skin wasn’t smooth and all one color like mine. She laughed because I was a child who couldn’t understand imperfection.
My other grandmother, my father’s mother, also had nice hands and also painted the nails red and they were more conspicuous because she smoked and so was always using her hands. Both women were vain and never had to work. My mother’s mother with the wormy veins eventually sewed costumes for community theatre but let her husband work full time, then cook, care for the kids and wash dishes. My father’s mother never worked, never cooked, never washed dishes or made clothes, but she smoked cigarettes and painted with oil paints. She used her hands a lot to gesture and tell stories.
Both of my grandmothers were considered great beauties at one time in their lives. Since I knew them only when they were old this was always a legend and never fully verifiable. They both had pleasing faces and bright eyes but it was really their hands that connoted beauty, hands that were a symbol of the whole, a reminder of their old status. They both had dressing tables that I thought of as desks, equipped with drawers on each side and small portals for their knees. For each of them, although there were the costumes and a sewing table for one and the oil paintings and an easel for the other, the dressing tables were where they had perhaps the most focus. These tables were where they went every day of their lives since they’d married. They went to these tables and set their hands upon the surface. They picked up their jars and tools and went to work on their faces. They were industrious and practical, their perfect hands sharpening a lip pencil down to a nub, their red nails moving carefully through their supplies, their sterile cotton, golden tubes of lipstick and perfume atomizers. I watched them work, careful not to interrupt. These tables were where they became themselves.
Every table implies a set of hands and an action. A dining table, dressing table, drawing table, a desk. At the time of the wedding, I sat at my desk every day and put my hands on it. I said I was a writer but when it was not going well, I often thought of myself as a typist. Sometimes I wondered if I liked writing or if it was actually typing that I liked. A writer implied being a thinker, whereas a typist transcribed the thoughts. I was transcribing my own thoughts, so had to conclude I was both. Maybe I had it backwards. Maybe when it was going well that I was most likely a typist, because then I didn’t feel the effort of my thoughts, only the pleasant clicking of my hands over the keyboard. Either way, my hands and my manual effort were essential.
But since the wedding and the improbable move to the Midwest, my hands and I began to suffer a period of self-doubt. Not only could we not see ourselves with clarity but we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Soon my discomfort became physical; the pain was generalized at first, like the ache of depression, but then it became localized and lodged in my hands.
The doubt started creeping in just before the wedding. I had just finished a novel which people had read and commented on. Sometimes they would mention my “deft handling” of this or that, and sometimes they called it “heavy-handed.” Sometimes they said they knew they were “in the hands of an accomplished writer” but that for one reason or another it didn’t work. I felt ashamed, as if my real hands, my very body were in every page of the text. I put my hands into the book and shaped it the best I could. I could pick up any page of the book and recognize it as mine, in a way that was different than the way I looked at my hands and could barely see that they were mine. Yet it was my hands that had typed that book. In effect, I’d been seen through the most identifying and expressive part of myself.
I held onto the positive reactions I’d received from some other writers I met at the artist’s colony. One man said, “You really do hands well.” I hadn’t noticed it until he said it, but the passage I read was full of detailed descriptions of people’s hands. It had happened accidentally. When I was trying to know a character, their hands would come to me first. Hands and eyes seemed like the only identifiable features people had. They age, but they retain their expressions, their ways of moving and looking.
At the wedding, I still had hope about the book. I had hope about my hands and what they had wrought, about giving my hand in marriage, about the joining of our hands, and they idea that my hands could affect his.
It was cold in Chicago right away, even in September. I positioned my desk facing a window. The window would get frosted, and occasionally icicles would form on the inside and then melt into fat drips of condensation along the sill. We lived in an industrial loft. The heating vents blew loudly like a hair dryer and only warmed locally which meant near the top of the very high ceilings. I longed for a pair of fingerless gloves but I didn’t know my way around the new city and wasn’t good at navigation. Most of the time when I was in the car I got lost. I was in my early thirties and I had never driven regularly in New York City. My hands felt light and airy on the wheel as if I was not controlling the car, but it was controlling me. It would drive me in circles and loops, it would send me out to desolate, remote places, dead ends, dull cul-de sacs and unfamiliar neighborhoods. It would send me to roadside ditches beside banks of dirty snow. I was scared and cold most of the time. I wrote most of the time just to keep my hands moving, just to type even though nothing very rich was coming out of me. It was definitely typing and not writing. In fact, it was more like knitting than typing, a physical business that kept me away rather than connected to my true thoughts. I was making something with my hands and it would thread along, but I did it very absent-mindedly. The “smythy of my soul” remained untouched. I didn’t read back what I wrote, I just very mechanically did it, like one would a workout or a jog, and I didn’t look back. I felt that with the book I had made a big mess from holding it too tightly and that with this one I would succeed by working organically without a plan. But secretly, I worried that all I put my hands to would fail. I thought about how we were here for my husband’s job and I thought about how my grandmothers lived their lives as adjuncts to my grandfather’s lives. I thought about their beautiful hands and the rich cream one of them used that smelled of paraffin. I had a flapper dress from one of them, from when the community theatre did Guys and Dolls and I had an oil painting, a moody purple and orange landscape from my father’s mother. They were both creative but not terribly prolific women. For each of them being beautiful was a job. I was aging irrevocably as I sat there typing. I looked at my hands shivering over the keyboard and wondered about my fate. All I could see of my own hands was dryness around the cuticle and an ashy-ness in the web like area between thumb and forefinger. I would get up from the keyboard and apply some hand cream and think about my grandmothers and their “desks.” Sometimes I would put the hand cream on my desk but then I would move the hand cream because it made me feel like I had mixed motives. This was my desk not my dressing table.
I was a wife who typed. I was a woman who applied hand cream. Yet I had married for love in the twenty-first century. This fact alone made me luckier than most women in history, including my grandmothers. I tried to remind myself of this to boost my morale when the temperature dipped below zero.
Because of a need to type more than anything else I was writing a long rant about my first marriage. It had been a quick disaster and this was the first time I had been settled enough and far away enough to unravel what had happened. Writing about it seemed to assure a kind of credit, a sort of talisman warding off the same mistakes in this real marriage. The motion of my fingers moving over the keyboard got me through many days when I was looking for a job.
As the months passed my hands changed. I dropped things: glasses, the plastic remote control, a book. I washed dishes and all my nails broke one by one from the frigid weather. Did we, me and my two grandmothers, do what we did with our hands out of need, talent or consolation? I was beginning to think it was just need. Or was it done because nothing else could be done, done because joining the world in any other way did not seem possible?
What to Touch
I did get a job that first year but before that I started doing other things with my hands to keep busy. I cooked a lot, and typed searches on Mapquest in order to get places without losing my way and I did yoga with my hands on the mat. At night I would cook an elaborate dinner and try to be good-natured. I was usually restless at night, having been alone all day and my husband was happy but tired from his new job. I felt the strain of all marriages throughout the ages, the senseless call of gender roles. I wondered if I would have felt this way in New York. No, there was something about the stripping away of all that was familiar, something about the paring down and the isolation that had created my crisis. In New York I had worked at home. Here I was a wife at home. It was a different paradigm entirely. I called strangers who knew friends of friends and met random people for coffee and shook hands with them. I acted confident and used a firm shake. I started to make a friend, an artist, who I really liked and the first night I had her over for dinner I injured one of my hands.
It was November and the next day we were flying to Austin to see my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. I made a dinner of fish en papillote with herbs, roast potatoes and an arugula salad. I was nervous around our guest and my husband teased me that I had a crush on her. She was a Mexican artist and teacher at the university where he worked. When we met she referred to me as another artist which I liked but when she got here, I suddenly realized that in some ways she had more in common with my husband since they both taught at the same place. They were talking about people they both knew and I started to drift away.
By this time my sense of entrapment at was enormous. It was the coldest day we’d had and her visit meant a great deal to me. After dinner I asked if anyone wanted tea. She did, so I put on the hot water. When it boiled I went over to get it and instead of pouring it in the kitchen I walked the kettle into the dining room and holding the cup in my left hand (for some reason I did not put it down on the table where it would have been steadier) I poured the boiling water over my left hand. I missed the cup. I was looking up and talking as I poured, not wanting to miss any of the conversation.
Tears immediately came and I ran to the sink. The pain mingled with a surprising shame. The emotions and the pain didn’t alternate, they coexisted and enhanced one another.
Overnight my burnt thumb grew to the size of a hotdog bun. I stayed awake most of the night icing it. As soon as the ice melted, or I began to drift off, it would begin to throb. Sometimes, after a good icing, I would cavalierly go to the bathroom without the ice pack. By the time I was peeing it would start to throb again. The pointer finger and top of my hand also throbbed. I was constantly refilling the ice. Despite my vigilance, by morning I had blisters covering the burned portion of my hand. In the morning my husband washed my hair for me in the shower and helped me get dressed. My eyes were puffy from crying but I was happy to be leaving town for a few days. When I asked my husband how I could be so stupid, he said I was not stupid, that it was an accident. But here I was, helpless as I had feared I was, becoming as a wife in this new place. It seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I couldn’t see my hands at all before, somehow I could see them better now. The right one which was not burned appeared lithe and smooth by comparison. I admired it coolly for the first time. The left hand was grotesque. I couldn’t stop comparing them all day as we traveled. “Look,” I’d say, “look how much bigger this hand is than the other one.” But he was only vaguely interested. The blisters from the burn lasted for three weeks. I learned how to care for my burnt hand, holding it up out of the bathtub, lubricating it with a special vitamin E oil. The swelling was more significant than the blisters, the sheer size of it. I lovingly watched it shrink back to match its mate. I appreciated for the first time all the things that the two hands could do together. And how one wasn’t really complete without the other one.
I realized, after some time, that what being married really meant was deciding who you wanted to eat your dinner with for the rest of your life. We looked forward to seeing each other at the end of the day and sometimes talked on the phone to discuss what we wanted for dinner. I usually called. I thought of dinner. We acted like we would do it together but I thought of it, or bought the ingredients, or told him what to buy. I managed it and usually cooked it because I liked to. But even though I liked to I was disconcerted by how continuous this was. Dinner, dinner, dinner every night without end.
Then in December I was cutting onions and I sliced the tip of one finger so fast that it didn’t hurt. I put it under the faucet until the bleeding slowed down. Then I dressed it with some gooey stuff and a bandaid. For a few days, because of my wound, I didn’t have to wash dishes. I felt free and also a bit too light, airy as I sat on the sofa and watched my husband wash dishes. I lifted the bandaid to examine the wound. I remarked how lucky I was I hadn’t lost the tip of my finger like his father. “You were just chopping an onion,” he said. And I could see how chopping an onion wasn’t really that dramatic. In time, it healed.
Just before Christmas I was taking out the garbage. The plastic bag sounded jingly; a few days before I had broken a glass and swept the chards into the garbage. When I was taking it out of the container, something scratched my left palm. When I looked at it the glass was still there, a tiny prism, embedded in my life line. I plucked it out and washed my hands but still it hurt.
It hurt when I was writing by the icicle window and it hurt when I held a shopping bag in that hand. It hurt if I leaned my palm against the banister or pressed it too hard around the steering wheel. Sometimes I thought it hurt and I would look at it, as if to check. And then it wouldn’t anymore.
My husband said, jokingly, but also to test his hypothesis, that I was becoming one of those people who always gets hurt.
“No I’m not. These were accidents. You said so yourself.”
“Ok then, be more careful.”
“I am careful.”
“Well, just take care of yourself.”
“I do.” And we went on like that. What kind of person always got hurt? I wondered. I didn’t want to be that person.
About a week later my palm only hurt if I touched it, yet underneath the skin there was a faint gray triangle right where the glass had been, like a shadow. It bothered me. Being stabbed in the life line didn’t seem very auspicious. Neither of my grandmothers would have had a scar like this but of course neither one ever took out the garbage either.
The Body Knows
In January, we went on a sunny vacation with my parents and sister and her family. On the first day my hands started to itch. The next morning, they were very itchy and covered with tiny red bumps. The third day the bumps were blisters. The island doctor gave me a steroid and told me it was an allergy to the sun. The sun was everywhere, inescapable, there was no place to go beside the closets (and even those had white lattice work doors pricked with light) that was dark enough. I wore long shirts and tried to cover my throbbing hands in the cuffs. They stung as I walked on the beach, like two hot coals, two glowing red mitts. I pictured them shining through my long white shirts announcing themselves as the embers they were. We are hot. We are in pain, they would say. At night my hands cooled down but itched. The beauty of the place and the fact that I couldn’t be happy in it, among such vibrant turquoise and bright green, was distressing. I remarked to my husband about how well I was getting along with my family and how I wasn’t reacting to any of the usual things that got under my skin. I was perfectly calm.
But my hands were screaming.
I got back to Chicago in February and on the day of my birthday I drove to a dermatologist who was alarmed at the sight of my hands. At that point, I couldn’t hold a pen and could barely close my hand around anything. Even driving was difficult. I was listening to David Sedaris on the way, laughing and weeping. I put two swollen, crusted, oozing paws around the wheel and drove in zero-degree weather and ice. The difficulty of the drive, the unfamiliar roads, the pain and isolation on my birthday seemed like the peak of misery. The doctor gave me an antibiotic for the staph infection that had developed—there was dark blood pooled inside the blisters- and a huge dose, beginning with twelve pills a day, of steroids. People called that afternoon to wish me a happy birthday but I couldn’t feel happy and I kept telling them about my “rash” but I could tell no one could understand how bad it really was. It’s really severe, I would say. But they’d only change the subject. It is an unusually empathic person who understands someone else’s pain. I don’t know what I’d expected. I was rendered inarticulate, consumed with the burning in my hands.
When the blisters dried up, the skin was thick, reptilian. A few days later the leathery skin cracked and peeled away, revealing pink raw skin beneath that was just as painful as the burned skin had been originally. For the first time since the burn I could actually see my own hands. I could see them because they were not really mine anymore. Maybe I could see them because I had changed. I could see them because they were monstrous. In their monstrosity they held the truth and also distorted it. They held all the loss involved in moving, the pleasure involved in writing and typing, the fear of being married, the indignation and despair of rejection, the difficulty of learning drive in a new place. They swelled all of this out of proportion. I could see my hands perhaps because they weren’t engaged in the act of doing something, in which doers lose self-consciousness. My hands and I had lost our utility.
For a few days, I did as little as possible because it hurt to bend the joints. I did not type, or write or hold plastic bags of groceries, or do yoga, or wash my hair. I did not chop food or cook. I watched TV. Eventually my hands healed.
By April the weather thawed; fragrant wisteria and lilies bloomed in the park. I rode a white bicycle my husband had given me as a wedding gift. I went to parties and some exhibitions downtown. I had some good interviews for teaching positions and started writing some new stories. I began therapy. I started going out around the time my husband would be coming home, because the exact time of his arrival was uncertain and I didn’t like the feeling of waiting for him. Of being a wife at home, waiting for a husband. So if he said he’s be home at six, I would assume that meant seven so I would go out to do something very active and intense around five thirty and get back either just before he would arrive or just after. I started reading more. Life improved. I had become a better driver and had become oriented with the city. I made plans with my artist friend and a musician to do a multi media project, an installation in an old static elevator in The Fine Arts Building which used to manufacture horse carriages. I wrote a piece that was exhibited outside of the elevator like a painting or sculpture. I got a job and would begin teaching in the fall.
One day the Mexican artist who was my new friend, the musician and I were in the Fine Arts Building looking at the elevator and talking about the project when one of my hands began to itch between my thumb and forefinger. I now recognized the feeling of the rash creeping into being, tingling deep underneath the skin. It was June and rainy. My therapist had talked about patterns of trauma, about repetition. We must suffer the same scenarios over and over again until we recognize it and if we are lucky, learn something from it. How could this pain be a good teacher? It was not as if I could simply avoid my hands. They were me. I could not avoid myself, as one would apricots or strawberries if allergic to those fruits. I couldn’t avoid my hands.
The musician said maybe it was the apricot I’d eaten that morning. He was allergic to all stone fruits and would get a violent reaction on his hands and feet whenever he came in contact with them. But I knew this wasn’t it. I talked about allergies with my husband and he said maybe I was allergic to him! I assured him I wasn’t. He persisted with his theory and asked what he could do to help me. I was trying to conceive and he said maybe I was allergic to his sperm. The thought made me afraid for a second, but then it lost power. Pain and fear in general were losing power. It was amazing.
The bumps of the rash did come. They came and soon turned into painful blisters similar but less severe than the ones I had in the Caribbean. I became stressed trying to treat them because I thought I might be pregnant already and the normal treatment was steroids which could be dangerous to ingest if I were pregnant. I spent hours on the phone with different doctors trying to figure out what to do. Finally, I got some non-invasive solution to soak them in and some topical cream that helped a little bit. They started to fade away in their usual mysterious manner.
I found out I was pregnant and for a spell everything was wonderful. I couldn’t even remember the pain in my hands. It was as if it had never happened. I had within me a new beginning, a clean slate. My hands seemed smooth and graceful. I could type again and hold the handlebars of my bicycle. I could do with my hands what I wanted them to do. I had once thought that I was perhaps allergic to typing or writing, allergic to working with my hands or to my own capability. I had been in a way. From the failure of the old book, I was ashamed. My hands could not be trusted. But when they healed completely and I was pregnant, I felt powerful and alive. No one knew what I was working on at my desk and surely, at least for a few years while I made it, it would be free of criticism.
Then a few wifely things happened that changed my mood. We went to visit my mother-in-law. We got to her house and shortly after she greeted us, she saw me stifle a yawn. She then insisted on putting me to bed in her own bed for a nap. Next we went back east to spend the summer and my husband got involved in writing an academic book for deadline. He was stressed about it. I was feeling nauseated. We fought. He said, We are just on very different wavelengths. I’m on a deadline. You’re pregnant.
I’m on a deadline too, I said. A few days prior he said, This is perfect for you, to be tired here by the beach. You can expect to get about half as much done as you normally would. Not necessarily, I said as a wave of nausea gripped me. I was becoming very tired. Yes, he said, just be here and relax.
That comment really tipped things over for me. I was a writer who happened to be pregnant, not a pregnant woman who happened to write. My pregnancy was compounding my wifehood. Of all people I expected him to keep seeing me as I was, or as I wanted to be. My thumbs burst into a severe rash of blisters. But love persisted. My hands healed but nausea accelerated. My body had never felt so foreign to me. I was convinced there was something wrong with the air in our friend’s house, that the atmosphere itself was making me sick. My husband started holding my hand as we fell asleep, cuddling it at times like it was a stuffed animal he cherished.
In March of 2005 our baby, a girl, was born. My hands were healthy. I knew how to navigate the roads of Chicago, I had been writing and publishing and teaching and I was busy and well. I held the baby and washed her carefully and diapered her. I was in awe of her perfection, her singular smoothness. My hands were instrumental to everything I did. I was useful and adept. I felt awed at my own quick adjustment to mothering, startled by happiness. I walked her around the neighborhood tightly snuggling her inside a fur pouch in her stroller, my hands comfortable on the handlebars. Indeed I walked almost everywhere with her. The stroller supported me and my stuff, coffee cup, extra jackets in the wet spring, books slung in the basket below for the moments when the baby fell asleep. My hands were capable, sunburnt with a white line where the ring was, wind burned, red-knuckled, steering, holding, patting, zipping, caressing. Every once in a while, before I taught, I’d get a manicure and gesticulate wildly with my hands while I spoke to the students of the books I loved. Was I out of the woods? I thought I was.
But the blisters emerged, tingling, searing, crippling me, nine more times. We became blasé about my ailment and simply stopped seeking the sun. In summer, I avoided the beach. I slathered my hands with a mineral sunblock and stayed indoors most of the time. But I lived in the world, and each time I lapsed in my diligent self-protection—like once when we had margaritas on a summer night on a hill in high sun with no sunblock—the ailment reigned. Life continued. I wrote many stories. At times the ailment roared and I treated it with steroids. My daughter grew, we moved out of the freezing loft and she attended school. I saw no fewer than six dermatologists and none knew what ailed me. But we were happy in the cold of Chicago. We made friends, hung pictures, found new restaurants, read books, went to the Gene Siskel, and ice-skated. We were even happier. When I had the blisters, I soaked them in a milky solution and wore bandages and cotton gloves. I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
Then I had two miscarriages back to back. Heartbeats had thrived and then mysteriously stopped at ten weeks’ gestation. She wasn’t supposed to, but both times the sonographer told me the result before the doctor came in to verify it. I remember her immense gentleness, her light brown hair falling in a wave over one of her sad eyes. I had known something was not right because I felt a chemical shittiness that was new to me, even worse than morning sickness. I wanted to grieve openly but didn’t know how. I made my husband sit and light a candle with me and say goodbye to the first one. With second one I yelled at him because I felt he didn’t want to light another candle in the dark. He did it anyway. Biology had made this much more significant for me than for him. When I was able to admit that, I stopped feeling angry. No one else could tell that anything had happened to me.
We had our son in 2009. I was happy in a way that felt universal all over again. It didn’t feel related to being a woman, but to being human. I couldn’t believe my luck.
In 2011 I sold my first novel. I had a four year-old and a toddler. I knew I was a writer and not a typist. I was really busy all of a sudden and often overwhelmed and I tried to type only when motivated by a pressing need, not simply to move my hands, since my hands needed to move for so many other activities.
That year we were invited again to the sunny vacation. We considered our options. But it was cold in Chicago from late October through the end of April. It felt insane not to go. When we got there, we all discussed strategies for me and my sun avoidance. We would go to the beach before 10:00 a.m. or after 2:00 p.m., only avoiding the sun’s strongest hours. My father gave me white gloves he’d found that were meant to protect hands from newsprint. My mother provided SPF 100. Every day we convened in the living room where a bar was set up with bottles, glasses, an ice bucket and a small cutting board with a sharp knife and a lime. The first night I cut the lime and squeezed it into my seltzer. The next day my hand tingled after only an hour at the beach. A feeling of dread seized me. I went to my room and took a long nap; when I woke up it was worse, the tingling had turned into a fine spray of minuscule pustules, too many to count, that itched with a ferocity I hadn’t remembered. That night I had a margarita or three, letting the drink and its salt splash over the rim as I hastily gulped them wanting to numb myself, and just not feel.
I was hungover of course the next day. I retreated back to seltzer with fresh lime that was so nicely arranged on the little cutting board at the bar in the living room. I cut the lime each night and squeezed it into my seltzer. Both of my hands, but the left worse than the right, continued to throb and swell. The blisters multiplied and joined one another, some popped and oozed, others took on a dark maroon tinge as they filled with blood, some were more orange and crusted. The pain intensified in the heat and I only forgot about it when I was asleep. I wouldn’t hug the children for fear that I was contagious. The sores resembled herpes simplex one, which periodically imposed itself on my lip in one simple bump, not this hideous array. Was this hand herpes? I couldn’t diaper or bathe the baby or put lotion on my daughter’s back. My arms felt empty and strange and I missed the feel of their skin.
The internet didn’t help; I was sure I had some incurable, chronic autoimmune disorder or worse, an unusual cancer. The island doctor was English but had lived on the island for twenty years. He examined me carefully and massaged his chin. We surmised that this was my chance for a good diagnosis, seeing as he’d lived all his life in the sun and it felt like a severe burn, or at least sun-related. It was definitely some kind of contact dermatitis he said but he didn’t know what contact had caused it. I sat with him knee to knee in his cool clinic while he looked at me and improvised. He suspected a chemical reaction to sunblock, the very thing I had been slathering myself with for years. He gave me some ibuprofen.
My husband and I had sympathetic, co-dependent freak-outs when I returned from the doctor crying and went to the darkness of our room while the others played at the pool. The world, being outdoors, was not mine anymore. My hands throbbed like a third degree burn and only being in cold water soothed the pain, so I filled the sink and stood above it dipping them in as I stood in the shaded bathroom. The sores were despair, every kind of it; fear and loneliness, the ache of lost pregnancies, every childhood slight I had endured—a certain helplessness, a powerlessness and immobility. A childish longing for comfort pervaded me and made me weep in the dark bathroom. I heard my own children outside the door. Where’s mommy? Where indeed?
The next day I left the island. I needed to see another doctor; it was an emergency that the doctor here, however charming and sparkly-eyed—he looked like Hugh Grant—and frankly blasé, didn’t see.
The leave-taking was tearful and somber. My five-year-old pretended to be engaged in her game of checkers, my one-year old clung to me and cried. My husband was worried about me but I feared not worried enough, and we’d had a bitter fight the night before about why he wasn’t coming with me.
Because you’ll be fine and the kids want to see their grandparents, their cousins.
But you just said you’re worried I won’t be fine.
We’ll be back in five days. You go and take care of yourself.
I felt so alone in this. But I understood too; there was no reason to ruin their vacation as well as my own.
The flight back to the states was macabre. Not because of my hands. In fact the trip gave me distance and perspective I badly needed. My traveling companion was a woman whose husband had dropped dead during their vacation. She was traveling back to New York by herself. She was not tearful. She was almost serene, already dressed in black, although that must have been coincidental. Her eyes were vacant and she was spacey. Who knows what drug the charming English doctor had given her? She latched onto me while we waited for our flight eager for some word about the gate. Then she asked me for some water, which was odd but I gave her my whole bottle. She didn’t notice my hands wrapped in gauze. She told me succinctly about her husband; he’d had a heart attack at a cocktail party. He was there one minute accepting a rum punch, she said, and then he collapsed on the dock and was dead. She glanced at the Vogue in my lap and asked me if I had anything to read. I gave it to her. She waited near me by the gate, then on line to board, looking up at me frequently, like a child with a mother, gauging all my moods and reactions, looking to me for cues about how to live in the world. Coincidentally, she was seated next to me on the plane, but didn’t say a word. Instead, she read that Vogue intently, even reading all the advertisements and small print, like she was deciphering code, and offered no more conversation. The cool, dry air of the plane made my hands feel better right away. I fell asleep and pictured myself holding her in my arms. When I woke up she was leaning on my shoulder, the fuzz of her gray hair against my cheek.
In Manhattan, I went to my parents apartment and felt a shock of liberty as I walked in alone. But as I took one of my mother’s sleeping pills that night, despair was back and I was sure I was dying. The response I got the next day at Mount Sinai from the head of dermatology was comical. He unwrapped my hands in silence and said, Mike, get in here!
A young resident ambled in. Woah, he said.
Go get your camera, the doctor said and they snapped some photos. For a journal, you don’t mind, do you?
No. Then he said, Touching any limes lately?
Yes, I have been actually. Why?
You said you were in the Caribbean, right, drinking margaritas?
Just one time.
But touching limes?
Yes, in fact every day I was cutting limes. I was squeezing them.
He nodded sagely then began to painlessly lance all the large blisters, some the size of a quarter. Clear and yellowish liquid glistened on my hands like they were being washed. Next he drenched them in iodine, which made them very red, then yellow, an Indian bride powdered in tumeric. I had a staph infection so he prescribed an antibiotic, rewrapped my hands in a sterile fashion and showed me how to do it at home. Next, he took a chunk of skin for a biopsy of a blister that had traveled up to my outer wrist to confirm his suspicion of “margarita dermatitis.” Or phyto-photo-dermatitis. We waited while the lab conducted the test. It only took a few minutes on a slide. Yes. That was it, a topical allergy to a certain type of plant compound, commonly found in limes and lemons but a long list of other things too like Queen Anne’s lace and lavender, bergamot and carrots, combined with exposure to the sun. Unusual, but not that unusual. Bartenders in warm places often get it, but my reaction had been a severe one. Text book. The juice on the skin combined with the sunlight caused the blisters and pain. A chemical reaction turned my skin into ceviche. There had been ten vicious outbursts over ten years, each increasingly worse, he’d explained, because the skin had permanently lost some of its natural protective layers with each reptilian peeling. My skin was literally thinner than it had ever been.
But with an answer I was elated. I had control. I bolted out into the almost spring thaw of New York in late March. I rambled through Central Park while the painkillers worked magic, my hands became light, and cool, so free of pain I could forget about them. I made my way all the way to the west side to get lunch at a Dominican place on Amsterdam. I smiled to myself and at times I ran with joy. That night I re-wrapped and treated my hands and took myself to a movie downtown. I hadn’t done that—gone to a movie alone at night—since before I’d had children. On the subway people looked at my bandaged hands and then looked away. They didn’t care why my hands were mummied, they didn’t know me, and that basic insignificance—the world is big and filled of people with their own unique trouble—thrilled me. How many times had I burned and molted? How much mystery and derailment and confusion had filled that decade? Now I ran freely, the pain there but a mere shadow, a fish swimming underwater, recognizable, but reasonable. Understandable. Soon the pain would end forever, never to return in the same guise.
Thea Goodman is the author of a novel, The Sunshine When She’s Gone. Her short stories and essays have appeared in New England Review, Columbia, The Huffington Post, Catapult, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s just completed a story collection, Evidence, and is at work on a new novel. Born in New York City, she lives in Chicago with her family.