Read More: A brief interview with Matthew Purdy
I was at a job interview when my finger fell off. It had been going well, up to then. My potential boss asked me about my interpersonal skills and what I’d done since graduation. At the end of it, he shook my hand and told me they’d let me know in a few days. The finger was just my left-hand pinkie, so I didn’t notice until I was halfway across the parking lot. I don’t know how many times I walked from my car to the curb and back, debating whether or not to go back inside; I was afraid I’d lose something else. But I finally decided to go in, thinking I might not get my finger back otherwise. I wrote a note on the back of a deposit slip and gave it to one of the tellers. “He’ll know what it’s for,” I said, gesturing toward the office.
A few days later a padded manila envelope arrived in the mail, no letter or anything, just the finger. I sighed and pressed it to the nub on my hand, then rubbed the skin until the finger took hold again. I went to the kitchen for some lemonade.
I’ve been falling apart all my life. One of my clearest early memories is collapsing into a heap in the third grade approaching my teacher’s desk to ask if I could go to the bathroom. I remember staring up from the floor as my classmates gathered around me, their faces turned mercifully into silhouettes by the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Their voices sounded very far away. My teacher shooed them all back to their seats and called the nurse on the intercom, afterward resuming her seat without a word. The nurse took my head and the larger piece of my torso. My teacher asked a dozen or so of my classmates to carry the rest of me, good kids, the ones who always did their homework and never had to go home after head lice inspections. The nurse didn’t know what to do. She borrowed some paste from a kindergarten class and let me stay in her office until my mom came to pick me up. The paste was cold and smelled funny, but it held me together until I recollected on my own.
My mom was worried. She was young, in her mid-twenties, and I was her first. So, understandably, she was over-protective. Still, the expression on her face when she came into the nurse’s office stays with me. Concerned, sure, but ashamed. This had never happened to me before. It hadn’t happened to my sister or any of my friends. She didn’t understand it, and neither did I. We rode home in silence. The only thing she said to me about the whole incident was, “Don’t get any paste on the couch.”
But I still talk with my mom. She called me the night I had the job interview. I told her it went well, even though I knew I’d left my pinkie in the bank and once they found it that’d be that. It’s a real occupational hazard. Could you imagine leaving a finger or an ear or a whole hand in one of those translucent plastic tubes they use in the drive-thru? Or leaving a foot in the vault or something. People are stressed out enough when it comes to money. They don’t need to deal with me.
When I got my pinkie in the mail, I called my friend Janet. She didn’t get off work until nine, but she said she’d meet me at a coffee shop afterwards. It was just a few blocks from my apartment, and it was a mild night, so I walked. All the way, I kept dropping pieces of myself. First some toes came loose in my shoe, then the whole foot, then the leg. My arms slipped from their sockets and my ears began to sag. Halfway there, I sat on the curb and pressed everything back into place, quietly begging them to please, please, stay put just a little longer. That was something I’d been doing for a while, and it actually seemed to help. After a few minutes, I carefully stood up.
Janet arrived twenty minutes late, still in her Subway shirt. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to change a soda thing.”
“It’s cool,” I said.
She sat down across from me and smiled wearily.
“Did you get my message?”
She nodded. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m really sorry.” I tapped the side of my glass, making ripples in my lukewarm tea. “I just thought I had a real shot at getting that job, and if I hadn’t done that I would’ve gotten it, I know it. I mean, why couldn’t it have come off in the car or in my pocket while I was walking out the door or something?”
Janet nodded again, more slowly this time. She’d heard this before, or close enough. I’d been calling her a lot lately. It was an uncertain time, and since she also graduated the previous May I knew she understood. We defined ourselves by what we were and what we were going to be; what we were now wasn’t that clear.
Janet and I had been friends since our first year of college. During freshman orientation, she helped put my head back on when it rolled off during a game of Ultimate Frisbee. I was embarrassed. I’d been doing so well; incredibly, nothing had fallen off since I left home. But she was fine, just laughed and tried to screw it back on my neck. She liked me then. It is one of my greatest regrets in life that I didn’t like her back.
“It just wasn’t meant to happen, I guess,” she said. “A bank sounds so boring.”
“But it’s something. My parents won’t leave me alone.”
She nodded, her attention drifting out over the coffee shop. “I saw an ad for the fund raising office on campus,” she said, wrinkling her face. “It’s horrible, but at least no one will be able to tell if you come loose.”
I sighed and took a sip of tea. “What the fuck is wrong with me.”
“You’ll find something, don’t worry.”
“No, I mean…” I extended my pinkie. “This. What the fuck is wrong with this.”
“This isn’t you.” Suddenly emphatic, she leaned forward, hands flat on the table, fingers splayed. “I’ve told you this so many times. This isn’t you, it’s something that just happens to you.” Her phone rang; she reached into her purse, glanced at the display, put it back. I asked who it was. “Just Ron,” she said. “I’ll call him back. But you know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I know.” And I did, or I wanted to. I knew it, but I didn’t feel it. Whenever I tried to believe it with all of me, it seemed like there was always less of me to believe with.
We were there for an hour, during which time her boyfriend called back twice. She picked up that last call and said she’d be home soon. I walked her to her car. “Thank you,” I said, and she said, “Anytime.” We hugged, a good long hug. I waited for her to let go first. Whenever I felt her arms around me I felt solid and whole, like I would never fall apart again.
I didn’t hear from Janet for another week. She sent me emails saying she was busy and tired. I filled out more job applications and went out with my handful of friends who hadn’t graduated yet. But I always felt so jealous, hearing them talk about classes and papers and tests. I was jealous, too, of how sturdy they were, how easily and recklessly they strode up to the bar and settled against it, how they punched and jostled each other. They never had to worry about falling apart, which was inevitably much worse than actually losing some part of me. Those nights I usually left early, saying I wasn’t feeling well or I was tired. Scott, whom I met in my required math course sophomore year, laughed.
“You don’t sleep til noon anymore?” he asked.
I laughed him off. But I did, of course, when I had the chance, and lately that was often. I went home to watch the History Channel until I fell asleep.
Finally, Janet called me. It was well into the afternoon, and I groped for the phone amidst the sheets. I’d fallen asleep a mess, my parts scattered across the bed or rolled onto the floor. But, somehow, as usual, I woke up intact.
Janet was in the car. She asked what I was doing.
“Not much,” I said. “Just cleaning the apartment. Reading. Stuff like that.”
“Any luck with jobs?”
“Got called in for another interview,” I lied. “We’ll see how that goes.”
A snarl of static, then, “Do you mind if I come over?”
I sat up. “No, that’s totally fine, when will you be here?”
Fifteen minutes. I washed my face, combed my hair and put on the cleanest clothes I could find on the floor of my bedroom. I hid the most egregiously dirty dishes in the cupboard and put out the overflowing bag of trash. From the dumpster back to my apartment, my feet kept slipping off, but I couldn’t dawdle. Janet hardly ever came over to my apartment, and I wanted to impress her. After I gave the bathroom a quick wipe, I stood a moment in the living room, patting myself down. A divot from my cheek, a chunk of my shoulder, my left calf, some knuckles. My right ear. I found everything and just barely got myself fitted and set when she knocked the door.
She looked as though she hadn’t showered either. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, tufts of hair whiskering around her face. She didn’t say anything to me at first, just stood up on her tiptoes and hugged me, setting her chin on my shoulder. Then we sat down on the couch.
“Thanks for letting me come over,” she said. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“No,” I said. “It’s cool, it’s totally fine.”
She hunched forward, her elbows on her knees, her fingers knotted. “Ron and I broke up. He said he was tired of never seeing me, with work and all, but that’s bullshit. He wants to know where I am all the time and what I’m doing. I just got sick of it and started yelling at him last night.”
“I asked him to buy orange juice after he got off work. He forgot, and I don’t know. That was that.”
She sat on the middle cushion, I sat against the right armrest. I didn’t know if I should run my hand up and down her back or something. To comfort her. We were close enough. I could almost feel the knuckles of her spine passing under my hand like beads. But instead I said, “This didn’t have to do with me, did it?”
She sat up straighter. “That night I met you last week, he was asking me why I didn’t pick up my phone. And I told him I was talking to you. He got mad, he was saying, ‘What, is he more important to you than me?’ And…” She shrugged, still staring at the floor. “He was kind of right.”
“Crap.” I settled back against the couch. I could feel cracks crawling up from deep inside of me. In a minute I could be scattered across the floor. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“No.” Janet turned to me, looked me in the eyes. She put her hand on my knee and left it there. “It’s okay. I knew this was coming for a while. It was going to happen sooner or later.”
I looked at her hand, then back at her eyes.
“Thanks for listening,” she said. “I really appreciate it.” She squeezed my knee, pulling up some skin like a loose patch of sod. She shouted, “Oh my god!” and slammed the skin down, though that jarred my shin loose; it slid right out of my pant leg onto the floor, while the skin at my knee began to ooze. She fell to the floor and grabbed my shin and jammed it back up my jeans, saying, “Oh god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, I wasn’t thinking…” She held the shin in place and began to mold the skin down. It took me a moment to get my bearings. I normally just flaked or cracked, never oozed. But then I put my hand over Janet’s and guided her fingers over the skin, waiting for it to harden and settle. […]
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Matthew Purdy’s work has appeared in journals such as One Story, the Mississippi Review, Quick Fiction, the Iron Horse Literary Review, the Mid-American Review, and Best New American Voices 2005, guest edited by Francine Prose. Purdy is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award and received a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. Currently, Purdy lives, writes, and teaches in Boston.
Read More: A brief interview with Matthew Purdy