Women Writers: Excerpt from “The Terrible Girls” by Rebecca Brown

from The Terrible Girls


When I said I’d give my right arm for you, I didn’t think you’d ask me for it, but you did.

You said, Give it to me.

And I said OK.

There were lots of reasons I gave it to you.

First of all, I didn’t want to be made a liar of, (I had never lied to you.) So when you reminded me that I d said it and asked me if I really meant it, I didn’t want to seem like I was copping out by saying that Id only spoken figuratively. (It is an old saying, after all.) Also, I had the feeling you didn’t think I would really do it, that you were testing me to see if I would, and I wanted you to know I would.

Also, I believed you wouldn’t have asked me for it unless you really wanted it, and needed it.

But then, when you got it, you bronzed it and put it on the mantel over thee fireplace in the den.

The night you took it, I dreamt of arms. I slept on the couch in the den cause I was still bleeding, even through the bandages, and I knew I’d stir during the night and need to put on more bandages and we didn’t want me to wake you up. So I stayed on the couch and when I slept, I dreamt of arms: red arms, blue arms, golden arms. And arms made out of jade. Arms with tattoos, arms with stripes. Arms waving, sleeping, holding. Arms that rested up against my ribs.

We kept my arm in the bathtub, bleeding like a fish. When I went to bed, the water was the color of rose water, with thick red lines like strings. And when I woke up the first time to change my bandages, it was colored like salmon. Then it was carnation red, and then maroon, then burgundy, then purple, thick, and almost black by morning.

In the morning, you took it out. I watched you pat it dry with my favorite big fat terry cloth towel and wrap it in saran wrap and take it out to get it bronzed.

I learned to do things differently. To button my shirts, to screw and unscrew the toothpaste cap, to tie my shoes. We didn’t think of this.

Together, we were valiant, brave and stoic. Though I couldn’t quite keep up with you at tennis anymore.
In a way, it was fun. Things I once took for granted became significant. Cutting a steak with a knife and fork, or buttoning my fly, untying a knot around a bag, adding milk while stirring.

After a while, I developed a scab and you let me come back to bed. But sometimes in the night, I’d shift or have a nightmare, jolt, and suddenly, I’d open up again, and bleed all over uncontrollably. The first time this happened neither of us could go back to sleep. But after a while, you got used to it and you d be back asleep in a minute. It didn’t seem to bother you at all.

But I guess after a while it started bothering you, because one day when I was washing out the sheets I’d bloodied the night before, you said, You sleep too restless. I don’t like it when your bleeding wakes me up. I think you’re sick. I think it’s sick to cut off your own arm.

I looked at you, your sweet brown eyes, innocent as a puppy. But you cut it off I said. You did it. You didn’t blink.

You asked me for it, so I said OK.

Don’t try to make me feel guilty, you said, your pretty brown eyes looking at me. It was your arm.

You didn’t blink.

I closed my eyes.

That night I bled again. I woke up and the bed was red, all full of blood and wet. I reached over to touch you and to wake you up and tell you I was sorry but you were not there.

l learned more. To cook and clean, to eat a quarter pounder with one fist, to balance my groceries on my knee while my hand fumbled with the front door key.

My arm got strong, My left sleeve on my shirts got tight and pinched. My right shirt sleeve was lithe and open, carefree, like a pretty girl.

But then the novelty wore off. I had to convince myself. I read about those valiant cases, one-legged heroes who run across the continent to raIse money for causes, and paraplegic mothers of four, one-eyed pool sharks. I wanted these stories to inspire me, but they didn’t. I didn’t want to be like those people. I didn’t want to be cheery and valiant. I didn’t want to have to rise above my situation. What I wanted was my arm.

Because I missed it. I missed everything about it. I missed the long solid weight of it in my sleeve. I missed clapping and waving and putting my hand in my pocket. I missed waking up at night with it twisted behind my head, asleep and heavy and tingling.

And then I realized that I had missed these things all along, the whole time my arm had been over the mantel, but that l’d never said anything or even let myself feel anything bad because I didn’t want to dwell on those feelings because I didn’t want to make you feel bad and I didn’t want you to think I wanted you to feel bad.

I decided to look for it. Maybe you’d sold it. You were always good with things like that.

I hit the pawnshops. I walked into them and they’d ask me could they help me and I’d say, I’m looking for an arm. And they’d stare at me, my empty sleeve pinned to my shirt, or flapping in the air. I never have liked acting like things aren’t the way they are.

When I searched all the local pawnshops, I started going to ones further away. I saw a lot of the country. It was nice. And I got good at it. The more I did, the more I learned to do. The braver ones would look at me directly in the eye. They’d give me the names and addresses of outlets selling artificial limbs, or reconstructive surgeons. But I didn’t want another one, I wanted mine. And then, the more I looked for it, the more I wondered if I wasn’t looking more for something else besides my severed arm. I wondered was I really searching for you?

It all came clear to me. Like something hacked away from me; you’d done this to me as a test. To show me things. To show me what things meant to me, how much my arm was part of me, but how I could learn to live without it. How, if I was forced to, I could learn to get by with only part of me, with next to nothing. You’d done this to me to teach me something.

And then I thought how, if you were testing me, you must be watching me, to see if I was passing.
So I started acting out my life for you. And then I felt you watching all my actions. I whistled with bravado, jaunted, rather than walked. I had a confident swagger. I slapped friendly pawnshop keepers on their shoulders and told them jokes. I was fun, an inspiration they’d remember after I’d passed through.

I acted like I couldn’t care less about my old arm. Like I liked the breezes in my sleeve.

I began to think in perfect sentences, as if you were listening to me. I thought clear sentences inside myself. I said, I get along just fine without my arm. I think that I convinced myself, in trying to convince you, that I had never had an arm I’d lost.

Soon I didn’t think the word inside me any more. I didn’t think about the right hand gloves buried in my bottom drawer.

I made myself not miss it. I tested myself. I sat in the den and stared at the empty space above the mantel. I spent the night on the couch. I went into the bathroom and looked in the. tub. I felt nothing. I went to bed.
I thought my trips to pawnshops, my wanderlust, were only things I did to pass the time. I thought of nothing almost happily.

I looked at my shoulder. The tissue was smooth. I ran my fingers over it. Round and slightly puffed, pink and shiny and slick. As soft as pimento, as cool as a spoon, the tenderest flesh of my body.

My beautiful empty sleeve and I were friends, like intimates.

So everything was fine.
For a while.
Then you came back.
Then everything did.

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theterriblegirlscoverThe girls on the prowl in The Terrible Girls are indeed terrible-relentless in love, ruthless in betrayal. These thematically linked stories depict a contemporary Gothic world in which body parts are traded for love, wounds never heal, and self-sacrifice is often the only way out.

The Terrible Girls¬†comes from one of the fiercest, most potent, original writers around: a bloody flayer of skins, both other’s and her own…a work of possessed and persuasive visionary power.” —The Listener
“The Terrible Girls¬†is a powerful account of erotic love which exchanges the comforts of illusion for more complex and less certain rewards.” —The Times Literary Supplement


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