Undone

When I grabbed at her hand to keep her from going again, a tiny tip of her pointer finger came off. I clasped it tightly as she ran in velvet high heels down 42nd Street, almost tripping over her hair. It was still warm against my palm, and I could almost feel a rhythm, like a tiny fleshy drum—a hint of heartbeat. I pocketed it and forgot it was there until I picked up the slacks from the cleaners two weeks later. I discovered it when I slipped my wallet inside the neatly pressed pocket on my way out the door to work. I pulled it out, studied it. It was a bit gray in color but it was odorless and the fingernail polish was still a bright orange. I threw it into the cheap china dish on the small round table by my front door where I kept the neighbor from 4A’s spare keys. I forgot about it there, crooked edged and solitary, until I managed to get the rest of the finger.

She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends.

I wasn’t expecting to run into her again, not since the way she split the last time I called out her name from across 42nd, standing outside a small doughnut shop, a bit of powdered sugar speckling my chin. Her hair was dragging on the floor then, sweeping the streets, grabbing up old newspapers and empty water bottles with its tentacle-like ends. She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends. Her eyes were so white that I lifted my hand to block the light of them. That’s when I yelled out her name, dropping my doughnut and falling into a sprint to catch up to her, just to speak to her one more time.

But then there I was, just a few weeks later, at the DMV when I heard a familiar clattering, a clinkering, a jingling, and I knew it was her hair. This time, I didn’t call out her name. I didn’t even breathe. I stayed as invisible as possible until she slowly clambered past me, a bit of her hair sweeping across my face, locking itself into a trembling eye lash. That’s when I grabbed her hand. She recoiled, immediately recognizing the touch of my skin, but I held on to it fast. She didn’t say a word, just yanked her hand backwards, and that’s when the entire finger came right off. This time, we both noticed immediately. She stared at her finger, alive and pulsating in my hand and held her four fingered hand to her chest. I didn’t mean to, I started, but she turned, wounded and afraid, her hair running after her.

When I got home, I tried to glue the tip back to the finger, but they no longer fit together as one whole piece. They were two parts now, and I had to accept that. So I kept them together in the cheap china dish and checked on them each day before and after work to be sure they were both still there. Until once, in middle of the night, when I was tossing and turning, imagining her hair rolling me up into a blonde cocoon; I heard the finger tapping, but it was a blunted sound without the tip of the finger. It tapped out a tune on the edge of the china bowl, and I found myself waking hours later from a dreamless sleep. After that night, I moved the bowl to my night stand.

I hugged the end of that braid like a life saver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers.

A year went by before I saw her again, and this time her hair was in a braid: one very giant and lengthy braid. It was a whip of fine hair that slapped any innocent passerby in the face if she turned her head too excitedly to get a glimpse of a store front or quickly-moving advertisement on the side of a bus. When it hit me, the wind from my chest blew off the leaves of the tree next to us. It knocked me to the ground, and I saw stars in the sky, but I grabbed on fast. I hugged the end of that braid like a lifesaver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers. I felt myself bleeding, felt scrapes gaping and widening, but I climbed up that braid and grabbed on to her shoulder, resting my lips close to her ears. Please. I was losing breath and holding on too tightly. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of an intersection, trucks screeching to a halt, engines burning, horns blaring, with the length of her arm from the socket of her shoulder to the tips of her four remaining fingers, tightly clasped against my chest.

The fingers on the arm twitched the whole walk home. At one point, I thought, they were trying to pick-pocket me, but then I realized that was someone else. I came home and used the third arm to slam the door shut. I tossed the arm on the couch and went to address the cuts and bruises in the bathroom. By the time I was done with the shower and ordered and devoured a whole pile of Thai food from up the block, I noticed that the fingers were no longer twitching, but had managed to ball themselves up into a fist. I took out the other finger and tried to glue it back on, but it stubbornly refused to curl like the other so now I had three parts of her: the tip of her index finger, the whole of her index finger and the entirety of her left arm. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted her.

My luck was running dry. Two years passed since I secured her left arm. Since then I have stored it beneath my kitchen sink, right behind the water pipe. Sometimes weeks go by and I forget it’s there and when I open the cabinet to pull out another sponge or some Windex, I jump back as it falls forward to shake my hand. But then I laugh, remembering it was only her arm and tuck it back behind the pipe and continue on with the dishes.

It was my thirty-third birthday when I saw her next. I almost didn’t recognize her with one arm less and her hair now gathered up and balancing on her head like a magnificent golden beehive. It was a karaoke bar and I was already four drinks in. The Led Zeppelin song I was singing with my friend was milky and sweet and drifting when I spotted her in the crowd, holding her glass of purple wine with her right hand. Two eyes peered out from the center of her hair and I noticed a baby bird had gotten itself trapped in her locks.

I stepped down from the stage, beer still in hand, and walked towards her. She must have forgotten me momentarily because she spread those licorice lips of hers, thin and ropey and red, and smiled. I’ve been waiting a long time for you, I smiled back, and blushed because I forgot what it felt like not to be chasing her. But then her smile dropped and her eyes sunk and she remembered. Please don’t go. She tried to run but the bar was thick with the breath of alcohol and sticky with the sweat of swaying bodies. I fell to my knees to beg. I grabbed hold of her leg, and she tried to shake me like a disease, and I clung, from so much practice, from so much want, I clung to her. She pulled at the bodies next to her, trying to swim her way out, but I wouldn’t let go. At first she moved slowly, stretching forward like taffy, but then she began to rush like water, and I was left with her silver boot and her entire right leg with it.

I didn’t know what to do with the leg. There was no way I could attach a right leg to a left arm. So I hung it up in the coat closet next to the ski jacket I never wear. For a few nights, the leg kicked at the door. The noise was louder than the tapping finger, so by the end of the week I had to remove the closet door completely and was forced to look at a gaping closet stuffed with winter wear, broken umbrellas, beach chairs and lopsided cardboard boxes filled with forgotten junk. I didn’t like the naked closet, but I disliked the kicking more. It didn’t take long to realize the leg was lonely, and so was I.

The day after I got engaged to a sweet girl who sat at the front desk at work, I saw her again, feeding the birds at Central Park. This time, I watched her a little while. Her hair was loose and in the breeze it would lift upwards and ripple like water. I had an intense urge to sit and brush it with nothing but a plastic comb. Instead I ran my hands through my own short hair and bit nervously at my fingernails. A gentleman passed her and the birds, commented on the weather, and she stood up to embrace him. That was enough to get me to move from my hiding place behind a tree. I ran to her and tackled her. My shoelaces got tangled with some of her hair and we rolled over the leaves making a pulpy mess of fall. This time I didn’t say anything. I wanted to hear her speak. It was time for an explanation.

I grabbed at her mouth, and with barely a scratch of my nail, her lips came off. If she wouldn’t speak, I’d have her listen. I clawed at her ears, and they slipped off like clip-on earrings. No, I yelled. We rocked and rolled and tumbled, and the earth was melting beneath us. The dirt turning sodden and runny, like a child’s nose, and her right arm draped across me. I wasn’t sure if she was embracing me or choking me, but with one swipe of my hand the arm rolled off into the distance, the birds fluttering towards the palm, hoping for more food. Now I didn’t know what to grab at, she was coming undone. Her leg was kicking at me and I remembered those kicks, remembered the sound against my coat closet door those nights, and I was driven mad by the memory of that lonely sound, and I grabbed at the leg to reunite it with the other. By the time we were through, there was nothing left whole except those long weeds of hair.

Talya Jankovits, a Los Angeles native, holds her MFA from Antioch University. She has been published in The Citron Review, Recovering the Self, 52/250 and other literary magzines. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, where she balances motherhood, a full-time job and writing. Currently she is seeking representation for her novel.