The way I met her was that I hadn’t slept in three days and she was having a bad night. It was one of those meetings where you couldn’t say, afterwards, “Oh, I hated her,” or “Oh, he was so funny,” because introductions, interactions, just didn’t take place at that level. It would be like asking what a forest fire thought of a lava flow. We were too hot, consuming too much, to pay attention to what we were taking in—we knew each other before we’d formed opinions of each other.
Insomnia rubs the edges off of things, like a fat gummy eraser dragged through pencil marks. Nothing quite vanishes. Nothing’s left unsmudged. Everything gets covered in those grimy, sweaty little worms and beads of eraser dandruff. Everything’s easier to touch, but never quite feels solid. I don’t know if it’s still insomnia if you can sleep, just not often and not for long—pseudosomnia? crappysomnia?—but whatever you call that, I’d had it for months.
Later I’d find out my gallbladder had given out, that what a doctor had misdiagnosed as a strained muscle was gallstones building up like oyster grit. But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was that I couldn’t sleep, and that sometimes I’d get stabbing pains in my side that left me sweating and groaning. I couldn’t take sleeping pills because of the painkillers and misprescribed anti-inflammatories, which left me jittery and restless.
Chronic insomnia’s the kind of thing where afterwards, you talk about it in terms of What I Didn’t Know Yet, like what you’re saying is that you couldn’t sleep because you were curled up on the threshold of revelation, and the light of impending illumination kept getting in your eyes. It’s the kind of thing that tugs metaphors all out of proportion.
The bus to the French Quarter ran most of the night, and there was always something open there, always a safe place to walk around, so I wound up there three or four nights a week, when I was tired of rereading all the books in my apartment, or when I realized I was watching a late-night rerun of Saved by the Bell I’d seen a few months earlier. Tourists don’t take the bus because it doesn’t go anywhere they’ve heard of and the Sheraton shuttles go straight from the airport to the hotel without having to stop anywhere people actually live. In the middle of the night, the buses are quiet and tired—not exactly sober, not exactly drunk, just dazed. Everyone gives you the benefits of doubt and distance, because they don’t know why you’re there any more than you know why they are. Most people get off at the purple-and-poboys end of the Marigny, before the Quarter, or stay on until Canal at the end of the route, where they transfer for parts unknown and unwashed.
I was the only one going to the Quarter itself, getting off at Jackson Square, where a few fortune-tellers were still camped out at their tables around the small gated park, reading magazines or paperbacks with plastic go-cups of beer at hand, redwood-rings of condensation making glass-crack trickles towards loosely stacked tarot cards. Behind the Square and down the street was the glow and clatter from Bourbon, because it wasn’t late or early enough yet for the drunks to have wandered from there to Decatur.
I was a little bit in love with the romance of it all, being “down by the river where it’s warm and green,” knowing that it’s never green there, just humid, almost perversely moist and clingy; there was a romance to being there at three in the morning, before the cleaning crews came out to hose down the streets, empty beer cups and styrofoam daiquiri containers tumbling past cigarette butts, leaving behind swaths of water that would never have time enough to dry in the slow slow air. It was even better than being a local in a city tourists flocked to but never really saw: I was right in the heart of tourism, three T-shirt/camera/bead shops to the block, bars and topless bottomless clubs, forty-six flavors of daiquiris, wrought-iron balconies and giraffe-neck lampposts leprous with broken beads no one ever finished collecting before the next batch got tossed.
Right in the heart of it all, but at three in the morning it was all my own. No Smile Police issuing “fines” to everyone who wasn’t having a good enough time. No one betting me five dollars they can tell me where I got my shoes (“you got them on your feet!”). No one asking where “Chartreuse” Street was when what they meant was Chartres, no one yelling “show me your tits” to the waitresses at Cafe du Monde, no one complaining that the bouillabaisse is better in New York and why wasn’t Emeril in the restaurant anyway.
Jackson Square’s not much of a park—it’s a grassy area the size of a school gymnasium, with iron fences penning in the statue of Andrew Jackson and providing the card readers and portrait artists with a nice backdrop. Proper, ordinary sidewalks form the outermost border, in front of the restaurants and shops, but step down from them towards the square and you’d find yourself on a wide stone area that wasn’t quite street and wasn’t quite anything else. It was like the negative image of the neutral ground that divided Elysian Fields, the street that ran from the river to the lake and whose lanes were separated by a wide, raised platform of grass where people would park their cars during hurricanes.
I slipped my earphones on and lit a cigarette. In the day, this place would be crawling with plastic bags and T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and Louis Vuitton, but at night even the homeless guys had found somewhere else to be. The benches were empty, the stores were closed, the lights were out in the apartments over the shops. With the cigarette smoke on my tongue and music in my ears, I could be an action hero. I could be the guy wandering the city ’cause his girl done him wrong and he’s cruising for epiphany. I could be the modern-day Shane dodging my calling, taking my mope for a spin before facing the inevitable and strapping my guns back on.
In the dark, with smoke on my lips and bass sweating down my cheeks, I could be Ghost Dog. I could be Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Rocky jogging up those steps in Philadelphia. Eminem in 8 Mile. Go long enough without sleep and eventually you go paper doll. Eventually you can walk on the moon if the mood’s right. With the right bassline you can see through God. With the right hook you can pull down the stars. I wandered just close enough to the few stragglers around, or the fortune-tellers gossiping to each other, to catch nonsense phrases of eavesdrop during the fade-out lull between CD tracks:
“Here for it were.”
“Papers in the more.”
The Discman battery died eventually and I hadn’t bothered to bring a spare, and wandering had carried me across the street to Cafe du Monde, where things were quiet enough that I could hear the szzzzzes of squares of dough dropped in the fryer behind the to-go window. I got a bag of three piping-hot beignets, fluffy and mounded up with powdered sugar, and ate them slowly while I wandered along the wide walkway overlooking the riverbank, chasing each bite with a sip of black iced coffee. That’s when I saw the girl, out of the corner of my eye.
She was that age where it’s hard to tell how old a woman is except by what she’s wearing—and her mishmash of pajama bottoms and sandals and borrowed jacket didn’t help any. Maybe 20, maybe 26, hair and lipstick the same shade of everything’s-brown-in-the-dark. “Any luck?” she called down, and I looked around and behind me, thinking in the dark I hadn’t seen someone.
She waved a bandaged hand in the air. “Well?”
She squinted down at me and shook her head. “Never mind. I thought you were looking. Do you have a flashlight?”
I shook my head but held the lighter up. “Lighter.”
She put her hands out in front of her, stumbling down the rocky bank as if half-drunk, and leaned in to peer at me. “What the fuck.”
Another crazy Quarter drunk. I put the lighter in my pocket and started to walk back up the bank, the way she’d come.
“No, hey,” she said behind me, “sorry, you just look just like this guy who was helping me out. Didn’t mean to freak you out.”
I nodded and kept walking. “No problem.” Lit a cigarette. If you get caught up talking to the Quarter nuts, it can last for hours. Sometimes that’s all right, and sometimes you’re just not in the mood. I was thinking maybe I’d get a copy of the paper and read until La Madeleine opened for breakfast, get myself a galette and a cheese danish. Maybe go down to the all-night diner, get a too-juicy burger and too-thin shake. Was I going to need more cigarettes?
Got three, maybe four steps before she did that thing. Oh fuck. This is the part of Who’s That Girl where Griffin Dunne ought to know enough to stay clear of Madonna. This is the part where Jack tells Marla, go ahead, go sell your stolen laundromat clothes, and let’s just not worry about which one of us gets brain cancer, cause it all ain’t worth it. This is the part where Han Solo should’ve known not to fight the princess’s war for her. Here there be dragons, that way lies gunplay.
She started to cry. No, not the pity-me-oh-so-much crying, not the give-me-what-I-want-and-I’ll-go-away, but these breath-hitching shudders like she was holding in more than got out, this last-straw crying, this end-of-the-day crying. You get to be about 19, 20, and you realize that most of the social situations you run into are the ones etiquette’s never covered, and all you’ve got for models is television and movies. You spend most of your twenties in a state of constantly realizing this, building a new catalog of broad generalizations and rash assumptions with which to face the rest of your life. We were both in one of those situations now, and we realized it independently and talked about it a few years later—a little wistfully, and a little resentful that neither of us could claim the observation was ours alone.
“Can I get anyone for you or anything?” I asked.
She kept walking back and forth slowly between the rocks, nudging the gaps with her sandaled toes, and shook her head. “It’s been a long night,” she said, strained voice. “I’ll be fine, thanks.” I turned to go again, took a drag, and she said, “Actually, could I have a cigarette?”
Easy enough. I came back down the rocks, and she winced when I came too near, watching my feet. “What?” I looked down. “Did you lose a contact, or . . . ?”
She held her bandaged hand up, with a hospital bracelet on her wrist (or was it on the other wrist?), as I gave her a cigarette, which she lit with a lighter I didn’t remember giving her. “Finger.”
I just looked at her.
“I lost my finger, few hours ago. I’m trying to find it.”
“Uh. So they can reattach it, or . . . ?”
“No, no. Too late for that, I’m already sewn up.” She wiggled her fingers near the missing one, which I’d missed the the way you miss an extra word in a sentence sometimes because you just don’t expect it to be there, and her shoulders tensed up at the pain. “But my ring was on it, and I really, really need it back.” She sighed around the drag of smoke. “Thanks for the cigarette?” She made it a question but there really wasn’t an answer, so she was closer to 20 than 26.
“Sure.” Didn’t quite turn to go. “How’d you lose it?” She shook her head, and I waited. It wasn’t the kind of question that you can ask and then just leave.
“If you help me find my ring, I’ll tell you,” she said finally. “How about that?”
It’s hard to say no when someone asks you to help them find their severed finger. You just can’t beg off, especially in the middle of the night when it’s visible that you aren’t doing anything else.
We never found the ring, but we found the finger. And you know what’s weird? I don’t remember where. I don’t remember what we talked about in the meantime, but I think we must have, because by the end of the night I felt pretty comfortable with her. By then, we were so tired it hurt, and whatever it was we said, it was to keep us awake.
It took until dawn to find it, and it turned out we needed the sunlight: in the dark, it lay just in the right shadow to disappear forever. “Well,” I said, and I felt pretty comfortable with her now because we’d been talking all night, “So I get to find out what happened now, right?”
She grinned a little and shook her head. “Uh-uh. I said if you helped me find my ring. We didn’t find my ring.”
“You did not!—” I stopped and thought back. Fuck. “Okay, you did. But come on. How can you leave something like that hanging?”
She shrugged and started to walk off, and when I started to follow her, she turned around. “Tell you what. You can either ask me what happened, or you can ask me out.”
“And you’ll tell me what happened?”
“Yeah, cher.” She wasn’t local. Nobody local says cher. She was probably a Tulane student. It was one of those nights where I was incrementally more confident of a Tulane student losing a finger than a Loyola student. Lose enough sleep and you can make those calls. “Or say yes when you ask me out. But not both.”
Things took a long turn down Inevitability Parkway, and later on, maybe weeks and maybe more, I told her—I didn’t need to, but I did, because making explicit the implicit is one of those ways you bond, just like leaving things unsaid is—I told her, “That was really cruel, you know. The way this worked out, I’m just going on and on and on not knowing what happened to your finger.”
Her name was Marci now. I’m not saying it wasn’t Marci before: but I didn’t know it was Marci, so in memory, that first night I met her, when she was a mismatched haze at the corner of my blurry sleep-deprived vision, she didn’t have a name. Maybe it was all downhill from the moment she got one. “If I’d asked about that instead of asking you out, I’d know,” I said, “and that’d be the end of it.”
She nudged my shoulder with her forehead. “Yeah. Exactly.”
“Is this one of those ‘girl’s gotta have a little mystery’ things?”
“Maybe it’s just not something I want to talk about.”
She’d always get quiet when I asked about it, and exasperated. I’d never promised not to ask, just accepted that she said she wouldn’t tell me. I don’t think she wanted me to promise. Me promising would be like I was giving something to her, and it wasn’t mine to give. “Whatever I imagine is going to be worse than what the truth could be!” I’d explain. “And maybe it’s something I need to know for my own safety. Was it a gang thing? Mob-related? Did you have a psychotic break?”
I made a joke of the questions, but at the same time I was worried. I couldn’t think of many situations resulting in the loss of a finger in the middle of the night, and most of them reflected badly on her or on her background. Did she have some kind of psychotic ex-boyfriend or brother, was she depressed, was it some kind of slow-motion suicide?
We dated for a long time. We moved in together. We had sex, and then for a long time we didn’t, and she taught me to better condition my hair by rinsing the last of the conditioner out with very cold water, as cold as I could stand, so the humidity outdoors wouldn’t make my hair go to frizz. I’ll always associate the feeling of steam-hot hair suddenly drenched in cold water, that prickly scalp-tightening clean feeling when some of the water on you is hot and some of it is cold, with her.
Sometimes when we argued I’d glance at her hand. I didn’t ask, but she knew I was thinking about it.
Sometimes when I was angry with her I told her it embarrassed me, because people would ask me what happened to her finger and I didn’t know. “Don’t you just tell them I was in an accident?” she asked.
“Yeah, but they know I’m lying.”
Sometimes if she wasn’t in the room, if I was picturing her in my head, I couldn’t remember which hand was incomplete.
One day I found her in the backyard with a small box, a nice box like you’d buy a tennis bracelet in. She had dug a hole in the ground, a neat square hole with all the dirt piled to one side and the trowel on the other. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was burying her finger.
“You kept it?” I asked. “All this time?”
She shrugged, and put the box in the hole. “It was a good finger.” She paused, still crouched next to the hole. “When my grandmother tried to teach me to cook, one Thanksgiving when I was too young to pay much attention, I cut my finger while chopping celery for the stuffing.” She fell silent, head wilting towards the ground, until she thought of something else, and raised her neck again. “The first time I came from masturbating—not the first time I masturbated, but the first time I came—it was with that finger. It was the finger I’d use to hold the bottom of the lighter against my palm while lighting a cigarette.” She pushed a trowel’s worth of dirt into the hole. “It was a good finger.” She didn’t say anything else until the hole was fully covered and she’d patted it down until it was even with the grass around it.
We broke up maybe a week, two weeks after that. She’d been sleeping with a classmate. I’d been lusting after a neighbor, and hadn’t done anything about it, but would have an awkward date with her a month into my new status as a single man. When we had sex, my hand kept finding hers, kept feeling awkward, pushed up against too many fingers, recoiling.
Over time, I kept reliving it all, that strange period of time that had started during the worst of my insomnia, the worst of my wanderings, and telling it to myself like a story. On some level, I’d always be that guy who’d lived with that girl who’d lost a finger. It was a story that would come up, in those Getting To Know You moments, when My Grandmother Comically Misunderstood The Word “Lesbian” or This Friend Of Mine Had A Drinking Problem didn’t suit the occasion, or had already been played. Everyone I became really close to, they heard one version or another of the Finger Story. By the time I met Jackie, the next girl I lived with, I was actually tired of telling it: but I had to tell her, because there was no way to live with someone without them finding out you had a history with a missing finger, even if the finger wasn’t yours. I had to tell her, but I tried to keep it from being interesting.
Sometimes when I told the story, I couldn’t remember what color Marci’s hair was, like the color had gotten washed out with the retellings. Sometimes I couldn’t remember her last name, not confidently. These were details I had no qualms about filling in myself, if anyone asked.
I woke up to Jackie’s fingers prodding at me, not quite shaking me awake but almost, as if she were too timid to actually do that but still determined to wake me up somehow. I grunted and rolled over instinctively, with my back to her, mumbling the nonsense you mumble when you aren’t awake. We’d been living together six months, maybe seven, long enough for nonsense.
“Hey,” she said, and prodded me again, nudged me. “Hey.”
“Hm?” I woke up a little. My eyes felt hot and the room was so much formless black, but I could feel her hair against my neck and the implication of her shape on the mattress. “Hr?”
“Why do you think she waited so long to bury it?”
“. . . Hm hr?”
“Oh, come on. Wake up.” Sounding petulant now, irritated, like it was my fault that it was the middle of the night when she suddenly couldn’t sleep and wanted to have an unfathomable conversation. This was one of those things about her that were quirks when I was in a good mood and bizarrances when I wasn’t. Except bizarrances wasn’t a word. But it was the middle of the night.
I dragged myself into a sitting position because I knew it would make me feel more awake, and I rubbed around my eyes with the heels of my palms, and reached across her for the bottle of water she always kept on the nightstand. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m having trouble sleeping again. I was thinking, why do you think she waited so long to bury it?”
“To bury what?”
“Oh. I don’t know, baby.” I leaned against the pillows wadded up against the headboard and drifted south halfway across Slumberland.
“Hey!” She reached down and squeezed my thigh, something I’d always really hated when I wasn’t expecting it. “Come on.”
“Hr okay okay what?”
Stabbing hot idiot white pain bursting like the crackle of pine needles tossed in a blazing fire. “Fuck!” She’d turned the light on. “Ah fuck oh Jesus, remind me to buy a new lampshade. I can’t believe I keep forgetting. And what, did we put 300 watt bulbs in that when I wasn’t looking?”
“C’mon, grumpypants. Awake yet?”
“Why do you think she waited so long to bury the finger?”
“You’re talking about my ex now?”
“You know anyone else who buried a finger?”
“All right, so we’re talking about my ex. Middle of the night, decent people are all sleeping, and you wake me up to talk about my ex. I never should have told you that story.”
“You would keep something like that from me?”
“I’m not saying that, I just mean—”
“Because you don’t want to breach your trust with your ex-girlfriend you never talk to anymore, or because you don’t trust me enough with your confidences, or because I’m annoying?”
“Which is it?”
“None of them. How about ‘because I’m just a big ol’ dumb MAN boy, that’s all!’ How about that?”
“I like that one best of all.”
“Yeah. Okay. Look. Why did she wait so long?”
“Hrm.” I shifted my head on the pillows, the down feathers clasping themselves in new shapes.
“Don’t go back to sleep, dammit.”
“No. No, seriously, I’m not. Honestly, I don’t think I’d thought about it much before.”
“Oh, please. You date someone who lost a finger and wouldn’t tell you about it, how do you not think about it?”
“Because, baby, there were always other concerns. It’s not like I dated her because she lost her finger, right?” She didn’t answer. “Hey!”
“Seriously, you think I dated her because she lost a finger?”
“I think it’s like people who meet at funerals or plane crashes—”
“People meet at plane crashes?”
“—or other intense times. I think the fires are hot enough to form bonds from material that wouldn’t ordinarily bond. The bonds maybe don’t last. Maybe when the fire’s gone, things die down. Or maybe it’s a bond like any other and just needs to be maintained. But yeah, I think you dated her because she lost a finger. I think she dated you for the same reason.”
“But I didn’t lose a finger.”
“She had your fascination, sport. As long as she refused to let you know about that two-knuckle part of her, that little diddle secret, she had you. Like soap operas, how they’re always showing ads for things that they imply are going to happen right away, but really nothing ever happens except on Fridays and Mondays? If you watch Fridays and Mondays, you never miss a thing.”
“She was a good-looking girl, and smart. I think she could’ve had lots of guys fascinated with her for lots of reasons, and let me preface that by saying that I mean it in a way that makes it obvious that you are more fascinating, as well as more good-looking, and more smart.”
“That’s not so much prefacing, that’s post . . . facing.”
“You’re undervaluing fascination. She had you wrapped around her finger, and that isn’t a pun, it’s literal, she had you wrapped around a finger that wasn’t even attached to her anymore. So I’m thinking she buried it when she realized it wasn’t enough for you.”
“So why not just tell me what happened, then, once it got to that point?”
“Why not just stop fighting and put out?”
“Ye—no. No, that’s not how I mean it. Goddamn, Cosby was right about these middle of the night talks.”
“Why, what’d he say about them?”
“I have no idea. But I’m sure he brought them up.”
“She buried her finger when it no longer reminded her of how sweet you were to help her that night—the middle of the night, I might remind you, Mr. Mundane Grown Up Gotta Sleep At Night Now Man. You really should have realized she was going to leave you. And how did she eulogize it?”
“Uh, she said—she said it was the finger she cut when she was learning to cook, and the finger that held the lighter when she first smoked, and the finger she first came with.”
“Exactly. She learned from it. She indulged vice with it. And she took pleasure from it. When it had nothing left to give her, it gave her you, and eventually it couldn’t do that anymore.”
“So she buried it.”
“Wait, and you’re wondering why she waited so long?”
“Well, I guess I’ve figured it out now. I just had to talk it out.”
“You’re sure you’re not just saying ‘Why’d it take her so long to leave me?'”
She punched me in the arm, turned out the light, and settled her head down into the pillows. “Don’t be such a girl, sport.”
She fell back to sleep quickly, and after listening to her breathing plateau for awhile, I got up, restless. I couldn’t sleep now, after that conversation, so I got up and poured myself a glass of water from the Brita-filtered pitcher in the downstairs refrigerator, and stood in the kitchen, watching errant headlights sweep across the backyard garden, and the lightning bugs flicker in and out in the interstices of shadow.
I had wondered about it before—why she’d waited so long to bury the finger. It wasn’t just the “the finger represents our bond” thing, I didn’t think, although maybe that was part of it. That might explain why she buried it; did it explain why she kept it, and yet never looked at it?
I think it reminded her of the ring she’d lost. Like somehow, if she kept the finger, if she ever found the ring again, she could “try it on,” and everything would be okay. It was thinking like that, of course, that doomed our relationship: I kept seeing her as someone for whom everything wasn’t okay, while she was trying to form a bond with me, a man she would always associate with the dramatic and bizarre. Neither of us could live up to that. No one could.
So how much were relationships defined by their first scenes, then, by their first fifteen minutes of film? Was it only the ones that burst forth in drama that way?
Quietly, I opened the silverware drawer all the way—the secondary silverware drawer, where we kept oddities like corncob holders shaped like corn cobs, and blunt-tined serving forks for ragged or twisted pasta, and pie servers. Sure, we had pie all the time, but who ever thought to use the pie server?
In the back of the drawer was a small black box that a knife or something had come in originally. I pulled it out, trying not to jostle the silverware, sat down at the end of the table that was catching the most streetlight through the window, and opened the box with a small sigh. I’d dug the finger up after we broke up. It was just—I don’t know. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think it was that strange to dig the finger up. I mean, it was my home, she buried a finger in my backyard, and then we broke up, so sure, I dug it up so I wouldn’t have to think about a piece of my ex-girlfriend decomposing every time I looked out the back window.
I think that’s pretty reasonable.
But as for why I’d kept it . . . well, who knows. What was I going to do with it? Throw it away? What if some garbage man found it? What if a bag fell open at the dump, and this human finger rolled out, with its decomposed fingerprints all over my credit card statement or my solicitation from Playboy, right? It could happen.
It just—you don’t throw people away. Not even parts of people. Sounds cheesy, but . . . what was I going to do? It was a finger!
Well, and there was the ring.
I’d maybe found the ring.
The week we broke up was terrible. One of the worst in my life. And I wound up in the Quarter again a lot, late at night, only now it was tainted, now I couldn’t be there alone after dark, with nothing to do and no one to see, without remembering back to the night we’d met. I didn’t look for the ring, but one night, I just—found one.
There was no reason to think it was her ring.
I found it at Cafe du Monde, wedged between two twists of metal that formed the leg of one of the chairs. Maybe it had been there all along, maybe. Maybe it was a completely different ring. Maybe finding it was one reason why I dug up the finger. Who knows. Things like this, you can think too much about them, and they make less sense the more you piece them together. Sometimes there’s an intuition to these things, a rhythm, a melody, that you can follow better than an equation.
The ring fit the finger, is the thing, and I don’t know, I don’t know the spectrum of women’s finger widths, I don’t know how unusual it is that this ring fit this finger so perfectly. I have no real way of estimating that.
And the thing of it was, it explained nothing. It was a plain silver ring, not a band, not a wedding or engagement ring, although it could certainly be somewhere in the realm of rings men give to women: the ring had three strands woven together kind of like a wreath, with a small red stone—a garnet, I thought, not a ruby, or maybe not even a stone at all—trapped between them at what was presumably the front.
I had the ring and I had the finger and I had nothing. I had no more explanation than if I had had neither. All the explanations, all the solutions, all the answers, were in a girl who left me and fucked some damn twenty-two-year-old from South Florida, a girl I couldn’t even decide if I’d really loved. I didn’t dislike her, and she was smart and pretty and kind and fun. But had I loved her, or only been intrigued? Had mystery outweighed love? Had curiosity overtaken chemistry?
I couldn’t begin to answer.
But being reminded of all this, and of the girl I was with now, with all ten of her fingers and a mind that was almost unfathomable to me sometimes, but in the best possible way, being reminded of all this, I guess that’s why I spent a good minute and a half opening the back door as slowly as I could, because there was a creak to the hinge and you could only keep it from creaking by opening the door so slowly it didn’t “wake up” enough to realize it was open.
I went outside, with a pie server as a trowel, and I went to the back of the garden, where the tomato plants were. I didn’t like raw tomatoes, but I loved cooking with tomatoes that were garden-fresh: how strange was that? Raw tomatoes had that green smell, that smell from the vines, which hit me like hot acrid vinegar. I kneeled down between those smells, and I dug a deep, narrow hole, almost more of a trench, with the pie server, and I shoved the finger and its ring down deep in there. I kept the box—because she might notice it was gone, and because I wanted the finger to carry on with its ashes to ashes and its dust to dust as quickly as possible—but everything else was buried deep.
Someday, someone who moved into this place after me, someone breathing my air who had no idea who I’d ever been, would find a silver ring in their backyard and wonder what the story was.
It was the kind of realization I liked to share with my girlfriend, but I couldn’t tell her about it without telling her that I’d found the ring—maybe—and dug the finger up, and what would that reflect, based on her close reading of the finger incident an hour earlier? Maybe I should anyway, maybe she’d not only appreciate my point of view, my feelings on the matter, but would enjoy the fact that I had thought about it to begin with. Maybe that would bring us closer.
But it didn’t matter: when I got upstairs, there was no sign of Jackie, except some scattered dirt on the floor on her side of the bed, and this smell, this green smell in the air that I might’ve imagined or brought with me, because it wasn’t there for more than a single inhalation. Even her water bottle was gone.
So I’ve got this story to tell now, this All About Me story, this I’m The Guy Who Lived With The Girl Who Lost A Finger story, this Burying A Finger story, this Disappearing Girlfriend story, and I don’t know, I’m trying to figure out, who do I tell this to? Is this a story I tell, and mark myself with it, or a secret I keep, and put up a wall?
It’s questions like that that keep me up at night, keep me from sleeping, and sooner or later I end up down by that river again, where it’s warm and green, down in the French Quarter with all my edges rubbed off.