Arm Wrestling – K. Gene Friedman

Back at my place, I microwave a pouch of precooked lentils, pour the velvety stew over a bowl of sticky rice, try to settle my stomach with the cement sludge before I set in for sleep, tonguing two Benadryl and a touch of Trazodone. Under my dining room table, our seepage stresses the double-paned cotton crotch of my fresh pair of panties. He’s just driven off and I’m already squirming in my chair, my meal increasingly hopeless. I shove the clunky ceramic bowl to the other side of the table, leaving the lentils to crust over. Everything that happened after I came is playing on repeat. 

How he’d bunched my knotty hair into his fist, drew his body into mine, a springboard absorbing his shock, my features submerged in bulldog-patterned bedsheets snowflaked in crumbling drywall, his landlord too lazy to scrape and spackle, he unschooled in the imprecise art of putty knife. How he’d putzed around, one side popping up as he pinned the other, until he settled in like the top of a Tupperware bin snapping into place. How we’d stayed sealed and silent, wishing to return to our regularly scheduled roles only in my struggle to imbibe the basic elements, weight and heat synergizing into suffocation. How I’d always dreamt of being transfigured into an indolent cum receptacle, and my wish had become his command. How I left my soaked panties entangled in his dusted bedding on accident, a fresh pair for the road prepacked in my purse.

How much wet until the center won’t hold? I wonder, dabbing the saturated fabric with my fingertips. I think of paper grocery bags leaking into a trunk, lifting them out by their handles, their origami bottoms parachuting open. I snap cell phone pics of our breakthrough glistening—the blot’s irregular borders aching like a bruise—from the perspective of him on bended knees, supplicating; send one off into his slumber with the caption, “Already spilling through this pair.” By the time I fall asleep, my leftovers in the fridge, a third pair of underwear is encasing me, this pair clean and dry.

The next morning, I wake up devoid of endorphins, estimating the 13-ish days until my next hit. Mid-afternoon, I make the executive decision to crawl back into bed, wedge a support pillow between my legs and immobilize my neck with the travel pillow I’d purchased to prevent my mid-life crisis cartilage piercings from knocking around in my quarrelsome sleep. Eons later, I emerge from the nap disoriented, and discover my right arm is dead. ‘Dead’ dead, not like pins-and-needles shake-me-out languid. I do not understand how this could have happened: I’m on my left side; right arm untethered. Logically, I know my dog’s the culprit, insistent in her affection, unobservant of boundaries. She’d fallen asleep curled up in the crevice between my thigh and elbow, now stretched out beside me, her face blank and innocent. But I’m an unusually light sleeper—eye mask, earplugs, Benadryl, prescription meds, and yet my insomnia persists. How could she have climbed on top of me without my noticing?  

It’s surreal: My arm doesn’t feel attached, like it belongs to me. And I don’t mean like when you’re on mushrooms, and everything is annexed on everything else, one love one world, baby, just free flowing currents. I tell my brain to move it, a reality test: my arm flails in the air, flops down on me, startles. As if someone had waved one of those door draft snakes filled with beans, or whatever Beanie Babies are made of, pretending it was real—aaaah! The only thing that surprises me more than my arm being dead is that it responds to commands, my motor nerves unsevered. I think about how I’d had spinal surgery, and a patch of my butt was left numb, like someone had spanked me and it never came back; only it did, over time. 

I think about Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse. How he’d overdosed in his London hotel room, opening up for Radiohead on their OK Computer tour, and collapsed on top of his own legs, cutting off circulation for 14 hours. When the paramedics finally arrived and straightened him out, an abrupt surge of potassium to his heart caused him to go into cardiac arrest. Aided by a wheelchair, and later leg braces, he never fully recovered—persevered in chronic pain and misery. I remember being turned onto Vivadixiesubmarine when Mark was a guest on LovePhones, the call-in radio show on Z-100 featuring Dr. Judy and Jagger’s sex and relationship advice. No record of the radio before the internet archived civilization, the veracity of this memory can neither be confirmed nor denied. Unless a fan kept a cassette tape recording in their parents’ attic, plastic tabs punched out for posterity.

What if the oxygen supply to my arm has been cut off for too long; like Mark’s legs, cannot be rehabilitated? Worst-case scenarios snowball, as they do for the clinically anxious. What if I have to lug this useless thing around forever? Will I tuck it into my lap on the subway, as if a backpack’s straps, lest it swerve, taking out the person I’m elbow-to-elbow and thigh-to-thigh with? Not that I’m planning to take a subway during the pandemic—but still, what if? Years after emerging from his drug-induced coma, Mark went to an alley out back of a friend’s house in Nashville and shot himself in the heart, leaving behind the most delicate and devastating discography, though lesser known than Elliott Smith, Needle in the Hay. Still no pins and needles, just numb, I confirm, pinching my skin. What if it’s too late for me, my right arm already gone, and I won’t even be able to shoot myself? No way could I clutch and aim with my less dexterous left hand; regardless, I’d have no idea how to get around the ribcage, would need to Google instructions, shame shame for a healthcare professional. Do they even make guns for lefties? I wonder, having no idea how guns operate. How am I going to walk my dog? My mind ricochets back to the immediate. Only 12-lbs, but a real puller. What time is it now, anyway?

With my left thumb, I swipe my phone open and tap out the 4-digit code. Phewww, I’ve just been asleep for about an hour. “Jesus Christ, Genie,” a text message starts. “This pictuuuure. Between waking up to this and your wet underwear in my bed, I got off before anything else today.” A photo of his underwear is appended: a scribble of milky streams and trailing dots on navy boxer briefs, an ellipsis to our next encounter, framed in the white comforter I’d urged him to return to Target, destined to become a crime scene chalk outline of sweaty bodies. I recall our conversation about Ryan McGinley, one of countless examples of our divergent taste: he finding the handsomely executed photos, from the organized trips Upstate, too contrived; me finding his earlier, scrappier work too derivative of Nan Goldin, artistically unremarkable. As a photography assignment my Freshman year of college, I’d seen The Kids Were Alright at the Whitney. Felt smug about the subject matter until realizing I had to submit a paper about my two true loves to my gnome-like professor who, at the time, was so uninspiring he had photos of the MASS MoCA staircase on display at the MASS MoCA. Standing in an upscale museum, well-lit with white walls: viewing a waterfall of puke, projecting out at the viewer, less than a year into recovery from an eating disorder; mesmerized by cum, splattered over slate blue pants, the smooth texture of Elmer’s glue overlaying the fine grain of fabric. Had he remembered how magnificent I’d found “Cum, 1999” and reproduced it? 

Can I masturbate with a dead arm? becomes my quagmire, a hilarity of timing and misfortune reminding me of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”—the wife selling her hair to buy a pocket watch chain, the husband selling his pocket watch to buy a set of combs, both gifts rendered unusable. “Mmm, thank you. I love it,” I manage to bang out with my left hand. I roll over on my right arm, unzip my cerulean and white onesie that makes me look like the bunny in Goodnight Moon, hump my hand as if I’m a teenager and it’s a cooperative pillow, keep at it until my entire body tingles from overuse, the interior of my onesie muggy like a greenhouse. 

Months later, I’ll get the phone call that I made it off the Moderna vax waitlist at a Federally Qualified Health Center—need to come in immediately, the dose expiring imminently—as if I’d won the freaking lottery. Still moping in my pajamas at 2 p.m., I throw a winter jacket and scarf over them, gather all the insurance documents I can scrounge, stuff them into a purse that’s been out of service for months, and order an Uber. Along the half hour ride to a building that resembles a McDonald’s PlayPlace, in its whimsical lines and primary colors, I have ample time to worry that I hadn’t stocked up on orgasms in anticipation of my arm being taken out of commission, swollen molehill radiating red like a heartbeat. 24 hours later, I’ll learn that all these years I’d been doing it wrong: a flick of the wrist was all it took to plunge a toy inside, no need to engage my entire arm in a diagonal bicep curl, like some kinda showoff.

Once my right hand is nimble enough to clutch a leash, I take my dog for a walk. My phone vibrates in my pocket. Swiping open the screen, I’m jarred: the photo is loitering, brightness cranked all the way up. Quickly, I close the window, shove it back into my pocket, survey the scene furtively to make sure none of my neighbors saw. Then laugh, realizing no one else would register the platter of bright squiggles and spots on a dark background—a reverse Rorschach—as anything obscene; if they did, they’d already been corrupted. It’s another message from him, this time a double smiley face, pleased that I enjoyed his masterpiece. I imagine him gloating at home like a kid whose mom posted his fingerpainting on the refrigerator door. 

“How long was your arm dead like that?” he asks when I recount the story—the improbability of waking up to a dead arm and the first solicited sext I’ve ever received, my panic about Mark Linkous and the possibility of permanent damage. He can’t quite envision the timeline: it sounds like I’d thought about a lot in between waking and walking. I’m embarrassed to account for the four orgasms I had in the interim: immoderate at practically a climax per spurt. “I don’t know,” I say, maybe convincingly. I mean, who can keep track of time when they’re immobilized and half-conscious? The real answer is timestamped in my texts.

“Do you normally cum into your underwear?” I ask, switching the subject. “Or, like, tissues?” “I don’t cum into anything,” he says. Just lets it happen, like a free spirit. He’d been thinking of me, looked at his crumpled underwear, and the image came to him. Confident I’d enjoy the stark visual, he prepared the thoughtful gift especially for me. In his portrait, I feel seen: like, this person really gets me. I can’t explain why hair caught in the bristles of a hairbrush is no longer beautiful, no longer human, but semen jettisoned onto an inanimate object is electrifying. Months later, I can’t believe a photo of fluid begets more fluid, like that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode where The Gang inserts a cat into a hole in the wall to retrieve another cat… and so on, and so forth, until the cats accumulate.