Variations On Numbness

Stranger- Nance, Jenni

Jenni Nance

  It’s 3 A.M.

I pick up my arm, but it’s a piece of wood. Waterlogged heavy. Novocaine numb. I try to throw it across the bed, this mannequin arm. I wave my dead left hand with my feeling right one, as it says hello to the headboard, slaps away the pillows, waves goodbye to my able body.

Phantom Limb

I stopped panicking about my arm going numb like this months ago. It’s nothing serious. I’ve gotten used to this body part dying on me every night. This one arm, whose sharp alarms—those glittering nerves, those bright needles of pain—rouse me from my dreams. The pain soon dulls though, burns out like a star, becomes nothing. I only know that my arm is still alive when it starts twinkling again, electric sharp, stinging like frostbite.

And I hate cold weather. In cold weather—Heck, even in cool weather—I’m a Floridian—my fingers go white and numb. It’s like Jack Frost nipping at my toes—literally—or being slowly petrified by Medusa’s stony stare. My fingers blanch down to the second knuckle; my hands stripe red and white like Christmas candy canes. And no thickness of Thinsulate or heavy gauged wool can warmly glove them.

They call this strange phenomenon Raynaud’s Disease. But I’d still like to know why my arm is stepping out on me each night.


St. Charles Hospital

It is forty degrees the day I take the ferry from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson, Long Island. I am heading to St. Charles Hospital to visit my second cousin, Lauren, who has been suddenly struck down with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. She is four-years-old.

Lauren’s only memory of me is swimming with her in a big resort swimming pool in Sanibel Island, Florida, and fearful—the whole time—of the river rock mosaic of a giant sea turtle embedded on the marcasite floor beneath us. Despite everyone’s efforts to show Lauren that the big turtle wasn’t real—swimming down to touch his macrocephalic head, rubbing his rough belly, shaking his fore flipper—we never could go into the deep end again that summer. So we floated like jellyfish. Motionless. Silent. Careful to dangle our limp limbs like listless sea grass as we passed over the fearsome monster at the bottom of the pool.

In her therapy sessions to regain use of her legs and arms, Lauren’s only task—the day I observed her—is to walk five steps. Five. Short. Steps. But not alone. Her legs are banded with metal braces, her body is nested on rolling knee crutches, and three pairs of adult hands are touching some part of all three things: Lauren, wheelchair, brace.

Later on back in her hospital room, we press stickers onto a blank “sticker by numbers” page: Mermaids, clown fish, and sea turtles, naturally. I have to lift Lauren’s little hands, which hang like rubber chickens, and press them—hard—against the page. She wants to fill in the entire sticker book, but I do not have the energy to finish the collage. I am emotionally exhausted from watching this small child try to lift her big toe for what felt like two hours.

And I am deeply ashamed.



You never think about the possibility of it until you have a near miss. The day a drag racer grazes your motorcycle in a near collision. The second when a junebug smacks you hard and fast on the cheek, driving you nearly topside over the bike. Or the time when your dog tangles himself under your feet while you’re in a full sprint, and you fly five feet into the air, crash-landing on the asphalt. You do not think in these moments: I am going to die! You think: Am I paralyzed?

But you will never think about it until you have this near miss. Like when it takes your arm three minutes to “wake up” in the middle of the night. At first, it feels like a dream: one of those nightmares where you think your teeth have fallen out of your face, or you have failed high school. But the panic doesn’t end when you wake up. It’s a long dark moment when you’re sitting upright in your bed, cradling your left arm in your good right one, and rocking it back and forth like a dead baby.


A Stranger

“You should give yourself a stranger,” my boyfriend jokes.

“What’s a ‘stranger’? I ask.

“It’s where you rub one out with your numb hand. Guys used to do it all the time back in high school. They’d sit on their hand until it got numb and then jerk off with it.”

My mind races to middle school games. Like when a girl would ask a boy what a blowjob felt like and he would answer her by jamming her thumb in his mouth.

“Like that,” he’d say.

Or at a slumber party when you’d close your eyes and a giggling friend would circle her fingertip slowly, slowly, slowly up to the crook of your arm. You had to call out when you thought she’d reached that bending line.

But I could never feel it.


Broken Men

In the book Celebration, Harry’s Crews’s main character, Stump, rubs his girlfriend, Too Much, into an orgasmic frenzy with the nub of his arm. In Coming Home, Jon Voight plays a paraplegic, a Vietnam Vet who gives Jane Fonda’s character—a wife waiting for her own husband to return home from Vietnam—her first orgasm through oral sex. My favorite writer, Andre Dubus, was a big, sexy man who was condemned to a wheelchair at the age of 50 after being hit by a car while assisting two injured people on the side of the road.

The relentless images roll over in my mind: The deaf, blind, and mute quadriplegic WWI vet in Johnny Got his Gun, Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan, Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. All of them have gotten under my skin.

Just like the beveled head of a hypodermic pin or the pin needles in my phantom limb.


One Fall

I once dated a man in a wheelchair. He used to come into the bookstore where I worked and he always seemed to end up in my register line. I’d ask him questions about his Goddard T-shirt, the Jon Krakauer book he was buying, his Ironman watch, but never about his two limp legs.

“Did you go to Goddard?” I’d ask enviously.

“Nah. But I ski up there.” I’d blink back, thinking to myself, Ski?

When we ran into each other years later and he asked me out on a date, I got the full story: He was helping his mother fix her roof when he fell off a ladder.

No near miss for him. It was a perfect hit.

“It wasn’t even a bad fall,” he said. “But I knew, as soon as I hit the ground, that my legs were gone.”

I knew nothing about the feeling of “gone” back then. My arm wasn’t touch and go in the night like it is now. Otherwise, I would have been filled with many more questions than just asking him the obvious things like: “How do you drive your car?” “How do you go to the bathroom?” “How do you make love?”

We only went out on a few dates, but we had fun. We rolled around Ybor City and he joked around with my friends, “I like a woman who pushes me around!”


St. Lauren

Back at St. Charles hospital, Lauren and her mother say goodbye to me as I leave to catch the 4:45 ferry. Lauren gets wheeled down the hospital corridor as we look out the windows at the beautiful view of Long Island Sound and the Port Jefferson Harbor down below. We talk about sea turtles (or “tuttles” as Lauren likes to call them) and plan our next vacation together in Florida. We say our goodbyes, the elevator door closes, and I am alone once again.

I call the Afghani taxi driver—the same woman who had picked me up at the harbor that same morning—but her number is busy. So I decide to walk back down the hill.

Because I can.

Winding down the road in the freezing cold, I think of my mother and grandmother and how all of the “Islanders” on my mother’s side of the family have long ago migrated down to Florida. I think of my grandmother now—92 with Parkinson’s—and her body coiled up into a tight skein. My mother practices her own brand of physical therapies on her ailing mother: unfolding her crabbed hands as if prying open a clam or extending her brittle thin legs, like trying to bend back a corroded hinge.

Lauren looks like my grandmother with her big, brown eyes full of confidence and intelligence. I think of them both as I able-body bound down the hill towards the harbor, a little winded and breathless from the cold, from my own feelings.

The ferryboat sounds its horn as I realize that little Lauren is the last blood relative who remains on the Island. She is all alone.


Basket Case

I often call myself a “basket case.” But I know I’m not one. Not really. My grandmother corrected me on that misnomer years ago. As a psychology major at Queens College, NY in the 1930’s, she used to tour the insane asylums and sanitariums of New York City and Long Island. In the sanitariums she was first introduced to real “basket cases.”

They were usually WWI veterans. Quadriplegics who were nested in big wicker baskets: the trunks of their bodies potted snugly like stout shrubs.

“And that’s why they called them ‘basket cases,’” she had told me.

I think about my own body. I imagine the cruel arborist of fate trimming my trunk, limb by limb. Without them, I wouldn’t know who I am. Anything I am good at, feel any confidence about doing, requires them: tennis, kayaking, fishing, strumming a guitar, plucking a violin, wrapping my long wingspan around my two baby birds, my two tall sons.

What would be left for me to do? Only the thing which brings me the most anxiety in life: communicating. (That is, if I could even write a book in the same way Jean-Dominique Bauby did, by only blinking my left eye.)



My cousin-in-law blew off his right hand with a stick of dynamite. I can’t remember the story. Maybe he’d been lighting fireworks at a party? Or maybe he had been tossing sticks of dynamite into the Mediterranean. The explosions would break the fishes backs and, paralyzed, they’d float up to the surface. Either way, my cousin drew the short stick. A short fuse. A misfire. Or maybe he got what he deserved? Maybe the fish below tapped their pectoral fins together in applause? No. He certainly didn’t deserve this. He was just another stupid kid playing with fire.

My cousin was supposed to get married a few months after he had blown off his right hand and two fingers off his left. Everyone told his fiancée to leave him. Everyone said he wouldn’t be able to work, wouldn’t be able to support his young wife. But his bride stood by him and, together, they proved everyone wrong.

Today, he wears prosthesis: a plastic hand stitched to the end of cream medical support hose. The first thing he does when he comes to your home—after he commandeers your TV remote, that is—is pull off his sock arm and toss the thing, and himself, onto your couch.

When my mother first met this cousin of mine through marriage, she leaned into him, patted his arm sympathetically, and said, “Ooh, what happened? Did you hurt your hand?”

“Yes,” he replied, pulling off and waving his sock arm, “fifteen years ago!”

My mother—for once in her life—was speechless.


No Spark

It’s three in the morning. The house is quiet. The dog is dreaming. The children are asleep. I pick up my left hand and drag it across my lap. Nothing. No sparks. No fireworks. No midnight stranger.

And so I wait for those familiar electrocutions to kick in. Those bright flashes of nervous lightning. Those intravenous illuminations. Those little steel pulses that signal my Frankenstein arm coming back to life.

And I feel so lucky to be able to feel anything at all.


  1. Jenni, I really enjoyed reading this. Brilliant, incandescent images. Bravo!

  2. Great job, Jenni! I love this piece so much – and the tiny sections really make this mysterious and whimsical 🙂

  3. Jenni, this is really fantastic. Gives me a lot to think about and be grateful for. Beautifully written. Love the different angles from which you approach the subject.

  4. Mysterious and whimsical–such interesting choice of words for Variations on Numbness. But you are correct- the arm’s numbness is whimsical, coming and going whenever it pleases. The mystery is in every section. Why does it physically happen? Why do bad things happen to such young children?
    Great words, Kim.

  5. Oh, the burden carried by the thoughtful, considerate and caring ones among us. Ah, the freedom from worry for the careless. Lovely weaving of these two here.

  6. Lovely. My favorite passage: “Lauren’s only memory of me is swimming with her in a big resort swimming pool in Sanibel Island, Florida, and fearful—the whole time—of the river rock mosaic of a giant sea turtle embedded on the marcasite floor beneath us. . . .”

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