Three years after Wendy Tsai loses her right arm to a southbound Mustang on the Pacific Coast Highway, she hears two reports ring out through her townhouse in Costa Mesa, and upon answering the door, she discovers that the arm has returned. It is free of glass, the bone unfractured—it looks better than ever, in fact: bronzed, oiled, coconut-y from an island vacation. Where it ends above the elbow, flesh has been cauterized into violet blisters.
—Surprise, sweetie, says the arm, fingers moving in an arpeggio across the welcome mat. I came to wish you a happy birthday.
—Thank you, says Wendy. Happy birthday to you, too. She tugs on the hem of her extra large UC Santa Cruz shirt, oddly ashamed to be caught with a flaking banana slug across her chest. Her undergraduate self bought it as sleepwear, but now it’s one of the few shirts that still fit. She pivots to let the arm through and says, I’m baking a tres leches cake.
—Need a hand? The arm skitters into the house, nails clicking on the pale floorboards. The sound reminds Wendy of the ancient, weak-hearted Pekinese she rescued with her husband Daniel. He never woke after the accident; the dog was put down shortly after; and some days, Wendy prefers not to get up, either.
Tufts of flour and baking powder dust the dark Formica countertops in the kitchen. The arm sends tiny avalanches of powder onto the checkered linoleum floor as it parades around. Wendy falters, detecting a density and brininess in the air. She remembers the wind blustering through the open window on their way to the Rusty Pelican that night, how it unpinned strands of hair and fanned them over her eyes like the languid tresses of a sea anemone. She remembers switching off the radio, resting her hand on his thigh, the dark tide reflecting nothing.
—Sister, it feels good to be home, the arm says.
—Let me just finish up here, says Wendy. She lowers the hand mixer into a froth of butter, sugar, and eggs. Saved from conversation by its mechanic whirr, Wendy appraises the arm, which is squeezing droplets of vanilla extract into the bowl. She admires its bright, muscular presence. A strange envy overtakes her—she wishes she were amputated, preserved at thirty-one, the type of woman who begs for the coastline en route to dinner, the fact of her husband intact behind the wheel. She says in a measured tone, You look like you’ve gotten some sun.
—It’s all thanks to Bali, baby. This time last week, I was riding an elephant through a tropical canopy with a hunky islander named Budi at the reins. But that’s nothing, the arm adds, wielding the spatula as Wendy shakes in the dry ingredients. Try soaking in a Nordic hot spring, snowflakes falling on the water—you’ll start shedding the years faster than you can put ‘em on. I’m telling you: feels good to be unattached.
The arm taps the ring on Wendy’s finger. It says, Speaking of which. Hasn’t this gotten a bit small for you?
Wendy glances at the thin gold band, the austere stone that they chose together. Pain gathers in the stump of her right arm like someone gaining consciousness from a kind dream. She reaches to massage the purple suture. She says, grimacing, Would you grease a pan for me, please?
—Whatever you say, sighs the arm, clanging a metal pan on the burner rings. It runs a pat of butter across the pan in quick sweeps, seeming contemplative.
Wendy maneuvers the mixing bowl against the counter with her hip and stirs the batter. The past few years have taught her self-sufficiency, but they’ve also taught her how to stay home. Contorting to zip and unzip herself, guiding the wheel by one hand—she prefers her private pains to these. She feels the arm watching her with its eyeless gaze.
Then it bursts out, I can’t believe you’re baking. That was always Daniel’s thing, wasn’t it? Remember the lemon bars he used to make? Wowza! Well, maybe you do, it adds, gesturing to the group fitness schedule on the refrigerator door. It’s posted with the words patience and horses from a magnetic poetry set.
Wendy has long since stopped going to her weekly spin class. If only the room wasn’t outfitted with so many mirrors, reflecting from every angle her thick calves swinging over the pedals, heat rising like a rash across her face. She’s embarrassed to see her body labor over imagined hills, to see surprise register on her classmates’ faces, and then their stony determination not to look again.
She pours ribbons of batter into the pan, saying, I like to feel close to him.
—It’s gotten a bit self-indulgent, don’t you think?
—That’s enough! Wendy winces, massages the stump.
—You’re not helping yourself, says the arm hotly, lifting the pan and wiggling it to even out the surface of the soupy cake. It points at Wendy with a buttered finger: And as far as I can see, you’re going to die in this kitchen.
Wendy heaves the oven door open, its hot breath and her frustration coaxing sweat from her pores. She doesn’t expect the arm to understand. It may have gone cliff diving in Acapulco, toured the swamps of Louisiana, but it hasn’t experienced the house without Daniel, brittle as any wind-shorn tundra under her bare feet. She’s about to express this, but as she turns, the arm hops off the counter and saunters out of the room.
—Where are you going? demands Wendy.
—Forget it, says the arm. It’s bad vibes in here. It taps its fingers against the wall in farewell before disappearing around the corner.
A thrill of anger sends Wendy after it, heels thumping on the floorboards. I need you here, she hisses, though it wasn’t true a moment ago. You don’t know what it’s been like. She snatches the arm by its wrist. Surprised by the heft and dimension of her severed flesh, she hoists it in the air, tightening her fingers around its wriggling cords of muscle. The arm strains and gropes at air. Let me go, it squeals. Its tendons row over the knuckles, small crustacean movements that remind Wendy of an overturned crab with its pale plates exposed.
She screeches, drops the arm. It thuds and rolls across the floor before righting itself and scuttling away.
—Wait! She lurches forward but suddenly crumples in pain, reaching across her shoulder to clutch her stump, which feels like it’s burning. No—not burning—tearing, as if teeth of glass and metal were stripping her flesh, splintering the bone. Wendy moans, and something wet, something warm like blood and salty like the sea, seeps through the empty sleeve.