Phantom Limbs
D.J. Thielke

Cindy’s roommate was in love with an armless boy. A nearly armless boy. One arm tapered off mid-bicep and looked like an animal snout. The other arm went a little further down—an upper arm, an elbow, the slightest suggestion of a forearm before a rounded nub. On the very end of the nub was a small bubble of skin, like the head of a tack. Or a kidney bean under cellophane. Or the pop-top of a water bottle.

Cindy was fascinated.

Her roommate had first brought the nearly armless boy to their apartment after work one night. Out of habit, Cindy stuck out a hand to shake. She felt her face drain and looked up at him in horror, but he laughed and caught her in a sideways hug. One nub gave a friendly pat between her shoulder blades. She suppressed a shiver.

They bought Chinese take-away and invited Cindy to join. She watched as the boy nimbly unloaded the white cardboard boxes and her roommate served up plates. Cindy tried not to notice how he used the longer nub to prop up his chin when he leaned into her roommate. She tried not to stare at the efficiency with which he hefted an egg roll. She almost made a comment about her own inability to use chopsticks, but, thankfully, caught herself.

When he left, Cindy turned to her roommate and announced that he seemed nice.

“He is,” her roommate said, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “He is nice.”

But, nice or not, Cindy didn’t understand why the boy kept coming over. He came over with coffee or to watch a movie. He came over to play Monopoly, nudging the little silver hat around the board. He came in a suit coat and took her roommate out to a restaurant or the orchestra. Cindy couldn’t understand why, and found it increasingly hard not to wonder.

How does he manage to press the pause button?

Open a beer?

Tie his tie?

Cindy went on dates frequently but casually. She considered them practice for when she found someone she really liked. Until then, she honed her small-talk skills, faked enthusiasm, and coined several laughs to show her date how the night was going. There was her polite laugh, which signified that she wasn’t interested in anything after he paid the check. Her surprised, delighted laugh–she hadn’t been particularly interested before, but hey, there’s a chance she might change her mind about him. And her full-chested, orgasmic laugh, where she threw back her head, let her hair flutter off her shoulders, and bared the slender, vulnerable length of her neck. When she laughed that laugh, her dates smiled sheepishly, hardly believing their luck.

Her date tonight had dark hair, full shoulders, and light eyes. He flashed them at her all during the car ride and later over his drink. She could tell he liked their symmetry, the way their looks complemented each other. While he talked about his new job for a law firm, Cindy watched his hands. They were perfect. His fingers were long and narrow, smooth and hairless. At the ends were neatly trimmed nails, as flat and round as a tombstone.

He made a joke Cindy didn’t quite understand. She laughed politely.

How many times a day does he think about not having arms?

Does he think about other people’s arms?

Do they look weird to him?

“Have you ever noticed how he gestures with them?” Cindy whispered to her roommate. They were sitting on the sofa as the footsteps of the nearly armless boy died down the hallway. “It’s like you do with your hands,” Cindy continued. “Except he whips his shoulders all over the place.”

“He’s emphasizing,” her roommate said. He had kissed her goodnight at the door, and a small smile still lingered behind her magazine.

“Ok, but still. It doesn’t bother you?”

Her roommate shrugged. “Not too much. No. Why?”

It bothered Cindy. She didn’t understand how her roommate could let such a thing be draped over her when they watched TV, or paw clumsily through her hair when they kissed. The sight of his nubs in action made Cindy shudder twice, first in disgust, then in guilt—it wasn’t his fault he was nearly armless.

“Did he lose them tragically?” Cindy started again.

Her roommate laughed. “Tragically?”

“You know, in an accident. A car accident or something?”


“Then why are they—you know,” Cindy waved her elbows.

Her roommate’s mouth set like cement.

“He was just born like that.” Her roommate shot the magazine page off her fingertips, killing the conversation. Cindy leaned back and pretended not to care, but her brain still buzzed with unanswered questions.

Why? Why him?

Cindy’s roommate wasn’t gorgeous. Her eyes were a little small for her nose. Her ears stuck out. She wore limp, nondescript blouses and had some extra weight around the thighs. Sure, she wasn’t like Cindy, but her roommate’s hair was a nice color, her skin freckled in a pleasant way. She would be attractive to some people. She could have gotten someone else, someone more complete. Choosing a nearly armless boy to love was unnatural; it was like buying the semi-crushed peaches—orange goopy insides exposed—from a pile of shapely, firm fruit.

Would he have rather been nearly legless?

Or have one entire arm and one entirely missing?

Which would he choose: an index finger or a thumb?

The nearly armless boy started sleeping over. First, understandably, on a Saturday after a party. Then on a Wednesday after working late. Then the nearly armless boy was spending almost every night at their apartment. Cindy lay in bed and leaned into the wall separating their rooms, listening. Their words were bleached out, but the tone was distilled to its most potent—like honey, amber colored and viscous. The drone of their contentment unsettled something in Cindy. Sometimes she thought she heard her name turned over between them.

Does he dream he has arms?

Or are his dreams peopled with the nearly armless?

One morning he ran into Cindy while she was in the kitchen pouring coffee. He rubbed the side of his head, his shorter nub just long enough to reach.

“Morning,” he said.

Cindy nodded at him and sipped. She tried not to think about the phantom hand that should have been scratching his ear; she tried not to imagine it as an inflated medical glove.

The boy looked around. “Mind if I grab some breakfast?”

Grab, Cindy thought.

“No,” Cindy said.

The boy shuffled past her. Cindy took a seat at the table. She watched as he delicately opened cabinets, hooking the nub-bubble along the edge and pulling. He brought down a box of cereal and a bowl, popped open the refrigerator door, hefted out the milk carton pinned between both nubs. He opened the silverware drawer and froze, considering. He looked at Cindy. Some coffee dribbled down her chin as she quickly took another sip.

“Would you mind?” the boy said. He shrugged, his nubs jumping out good-naturedly, and gestured at the drawer. “The slots are too small.”

Cindy hurried over. She fished out a spoon and blushed, embarrassed by her chewed nails—and then by her hands, her arms, her wholeness. She held the spoon before her and eyed him for instruction. He smiled.

“Just set it on the counter.”

Cindy put the spoon down. He moved toward the cereal box. Before she could stop herself, she stepped forward to help, both hands outstretched.

“Thanks,” he said, “but I’ve got it.” He pushed open the box top with a deft flick. “I’ve been doing this a while.”

Cindy returned to her seat and listened to the cereal hit the bowl with a musical clatter. Half-hidden behind her coffee mug, she watched. It wasn’t just the arms. His torso was bulky, his walk bouncy. His hair fell limp in a short, uneven trim. His skin was bad. There were acceptable reasons, normal reasons, to find him unattractive.

When he was done, the boy started for the hallway with the bowl balanced in the crook of his longer nub.

“See you later,” he said without turning around. She realized the nearly armless boy never looked at her for longer than a moment, never lingered over her collarbones or hips or jaw line.

Does the nearly armless boy masturbate?

Well…does he?

And, I mean…how?

Cindy stopped laughing on dates. She studied them instead. If the boys had sandy hair and long lashes, or long legs and tan skin, she cut their conversations with monosyllables and sighs. She closed their car doors without inviting them in. She tromped past her roommate and the nearly armless boy on the couch without a hello, limping as she tugged off the straps on her heels.

But the other sort of boy—boys with ticks, boys prematurely balding, boys with back hair tufting out in the space between their shirts and jeans—this sort of boy she suddenly had time for. Floppy, unwashed hair. Floppy, overweight middles. Floppy, awkward conversation. These she took home, marching them proudly past the couch.

After the boys fell asleep, she watched them carefully. She waited for something to sink in, waited to feel something different. Invariably, she only heard the whispers from next door; she only felt tired.

Does he run his longer nub over her stomach and thighs?

Does the bubble of skin search out her navel as delicately as a record needle?

Does he fall asleep with his nub nuzzled in the palm of her hand?

Cindy had just said her goodbyes to a boy with a long forehead and the slightest of speech impediments when her roommate walked in the kitchen. They smiled, their bare feet flopping between fridge and counter as they dodged one another.

“What a night,” Cindy said.

“So I heard.” Her roommate tried to shoot Cindy a playful look, but there was a heavy, damp squeamishness underneath. It made Cindy feel bolder.

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” Cindy said.

“About what?”

“About why you don’t have sex.”

Her roommate gave a startled laugh and busied herself with the loaf of bread. Cindy waited as the cellophane crinkled.

“That’s…personal.” The roommate tried to push the bread into the toaster on “personal,” but their toaster was old and finicky and popped the bread back up immediately.

“Come on,” Cindy said. “You can tell me. I’d know if you were, you know?”

“I know. Believe me, I know,” her roommate continued to struggle with the toaster and sighed. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no. We haven’t…we don’t.”

“Yeah, ok, so why?”

Her roommate stared at the submerged bread.

“So it does bother you.” Cindy scooted onto the counter, her bare legs swinging, her heel striking the cabinet door with a dull thud.

“No.” Her roommate sounded annoyed. “It really has nothing to do with that.”

“Honestly? Then why?” When her roommate didn’t answer, Cindy softened her tone. “Look, it’s natural that you don’t want to when he’s like that. I mean, I never could.”

Her roommate laughed—short and bitter. “No, I don’t suppose you could.” She looked Cindy over, lingering on her exposed thighs, her braless breasts. Her gaze landed on Cindy’s bed-crumpled cheeks with unmistakable pity.

Cindy’s mouth went dry. She was still speechless when the toast popped and her roommate snatched it, carrying it back to her bedroom and the nearly armless boy.

Does he wonder? Does he ask?

Would he begin, Are you scared to be with me because…?

Would he be able to finish?

Would her roommate answer?

Would she say, It has nothing to do with that?

Would she say, I love you just as you are?

Would it be a lie?

Cindy didn’t care that her date had left. It wasn’t her fault he had debilitating acne, and she didn’t think he’d get so mad when she pointed it out. She also didn’t care that the waitress had looked at her like she was a bitch, or that they had asked her to go to the bar because they wanted to seat a couple at her table, or that the bartender had cut her off a half an hour ago. Cindy didn’t care because she knew—she knew—she looked beautiful. Everyone was probably thinking how beautiful she looked right now, how perfect she was, how complete.

She laughed an unprepared, unpracticed laugh. She laughed at all the limbs around the room, jerking and dancing as though on puppet strings, barely attached to whatever ugly body sprouted them. She laughed at the nearly armless boy and her roommate, laughed at the very idea, the very outrage of them pitying her. She laughed, and it was a bit more shrieky than she had intended, a bit higher and louder, a bit rough coming up her throat. She laughed harder, laughed until she couldn’t breathe, laughed until there were ashy mascara tracks collecting under her chin and someone was pulling her up and out, wanting to help her home. She would have laughed at that, too, but she had exhausted her repertoire.

Would he say, How can you love me like this? Would he say, How can you choose the half-squashed peaches?

Would her roommate rest her hand on his cheek? Would he close his eyes to better feel the miracle of her fingers? Would he reach for her again? Would she stop him this time?

What am I missing?

Cindy stared at her reflection in the dark. She tugged at her hair, stood straighter, pushed at the planes of her face with two probing fingers.

What am I missing?

Her roommate had it. The nearly armless boy had it. The scarred, the disfigured, the elderly, the obese, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the unusual, the ugly! Everyone seemed to have this body part, this birthmark, this stretch of skin. Everyone seemed to have this thing that made them worth loving, but where was hers?

What am I missing?

She peeled off her socks.

What am I missing?

She eased out of her jeans.

What am I missing?

She twisted her back out of her t-shirt.

She stood in front of herself—naked, bright in the moonlight, her skin the glossy color of scotch tape. She counted the right number of fingers and toes. She paired off each set of arms and legs and eyes and ears. She tallied her teeth—all straight, all white. She laid her fingers in the shadows between her ribs, measured the slope and definition of her muscles, felt goose flesh rise along the length of her abdomen. She cupped her breasts and then her sex and still found nothing, felt nothing but an absence, a tingling void, a sensation as impossible to ignore as an unanswered question.