The first thing they noticed was the arm. Not the one he had, the one he was missing. He knew what they were going to do well before they did it, because he’d had years of experience watching the changes in people’s faces. He followed their eyes as they darted nervously from his face to his shoulders, avoiding looking directly at the sleeve he wasn’t filling. Sometimes the bold ones traced the contours of where his arm would have been, curving at the elbow that wasn’t there. They were trying to materialize it, trying to will it to appear. As if he hadn’t tried that before.
When they realized he was following their gaze, they widened their eyes and shook their heads as if waking, startled, from an unpleasant dream.
People felt bad for him, but not bad enough to leave him alone. Their sympathy was often misguided. He kept a tally of how many times people offered “it could be worse” or “at least you still have one arm.” This never consoled him. He knew their intentions were good, but it really wasn’t a comfort, and usually only reminded him that he was incomplete.
He often got to wondering if the deaf and the blind and the starving and the mentally deranged dealt with this. If people asked them, “How does it feel?” or if it was only the limbless, if they were the lucky ones. He had all five senses. He was emotionally sound. He was not impoverished or malnourished. It was just an arm. He had one, and so he could do almost anything everyone else could do. Maybe this was how people rationalized him in their heads. Maybe it comforted them, allowed them to look at his shoulders and not feel their stomachs tighten at how sad he must be, the poor dear. It allowed them to offer their bizarre consolation. This, he guessed, is how people with both arms must think.
He never told the same story twice.
He had to keep a notebook full of the lies he told, check it every once in a while to make sure he didn’t repeat a story and remember which stories he told to which people so he didn’t get tangled in his own web of lies.
His greatest joy was meeting new people. They would invariably ask him how it happened, and he would invariably oblige them, indulge their curiosity with a wonderfully crafted story of bravery or tragedy or both. It was rare that they questioned him. What reason would he have to lie? He was disabled. Crippled boys don’t lie. His favorite part of telling each new story to each new person was the way they pressed one hand to their heart, like they were reciting the pledge of allegiance. Their heads would lower, fall to one side, their eyelids growing heavy from his bullshit. He was wonderful at what he did. He would have made an excellent criminal, but the thing he loved best was lying. Lying was his only crime; he detested the truth. It was boring and disappointing. He wished he’d had false memory syndrome so he could believe his own lies, but he didn’t. Just regular old pseudologia fantastica.
Only two people knew the truth, apart from himself. His mother and his older sister Vivian knew, because they were both there when he was born. His father had known, too, but his father was dead, which means he forgot, or he took the truth to heaven or to hell, or perhaps his perception simply stopped and he neither forgot nor remembered. Neither of his parents had siblings, so he grew up without aunts, uncles, or cousins. Holidays were lonely, and only got lonelier after his father died. The family stopped celebrating them, and eventually, stopped acknowledging them completely. It made things easier for the three of them.
The only other living relative he had was his father’s mother. He never called her grandmother because he’d never met her. She didn’t know that he and his sister even existed. She was a racist, old, white woman, and his mother was Cuban, so the two never spoke out of a mutual understanding that they had no kind words to share. His father’s mother didn’t recognize the marriage, and would have denied her own grandchildren, had she been informed that she had any. None of them felt any sadness over her absence in their lives. However, they all recognized that something was missing. It was a gnawing loneliness that each of them felt in their bellies. The only way his mother could think to remedy their sadness was to move far away and to move often. Each time they felt the holes inside them begin to ache and spread, they packed up and left. It was unsatisfying, and it was potentially more harmful than staying ever would have been, but starting over was the only therapy any of them could admit they needed.
His habit began in elementary school. Just before he started first grade, his father died of Pancreatic cancer. Before school, he hadn’t needed to explain himself to anyone. At home, he didn’t feel out of place. His family never spoke of his handicap, simply because it didn’t matter. He didn’t grow up thinking of himself as handicapped, but school was a new world. He felt intimidated and alone, a fatherless cripple. The other children were brutal. They were hurtful. In school, he was a leper.
So, to cope with the ridicule and the pain of losing his father, he decided to make up wild fantasies about himself. He knew that after a short time, he would move and never see these children again. His stories were outlandish and unbelievable, stories only a five-year-old could think up, so other five-year-old’s tended to believe them. In a way, these stories became just as much their lies as they were his. Just by knowing him and whatever wondrous story he told them, they were a part of something greater than themselves. They eventually went on to tell their version of his story later in life. “In first grade, I knew a boy who lost his arm on a safari fighting off a lion to save his sister’s life!” A lie so implausible, it had to have been true.
Each year, he had a new audience with fresh ears that were ready to be filled with his brand new fantasy of his missing arm. Some days it was a shark attack. Some days it was a factory accident. Some days it was a bone tumor.
He told the truth just once, in a high school in Arizona to a boy named Collin. Collin was deaf in one ear, which was the ear he whispered it into. Collin was able to catch sounds, muffled and muddled sounds that probably combined to make words, but he never tried to combine them. He told Collin the truth because Collin told him the same story. “I was born deaf in this ear,” he explained, motioning to the side of his head. “I’ve only ever known half my mother’s voice.” So he leaned over, and confessed, “I was born with one arm. I’ve only ever been able to hold things half-way.”
Although Collin never heard what he said, he guessed, because of the honest look on his face, that they had this in common. He felt okay knowing that Collin probably understood what he’d whispered. There was something about sharing the truth with someone who was damaged that made him feel like he had just told another one of his stories. He still felt that his secret was safe, hidden in Collin’s deafened eardrum.
His mother named him Emory. It wasn’t Cuban. She almost named him Oscar after her father, but she found Emory in a baby book and she thought it was a good name. He looked into the name when he was sixteen. It meant home strength. He also found out that someone named Emory Martin was a one armed banjo player. Perhaps it was because of this name that his arm never formed. Or maybe it was because his arm never formed that his mother gave him the name. Maybe his mother never knew about the banjo player. She just liked a name that meant home and strength because they seemed important, and they seemed like good things for a name to mean. As Emory grew up, his mother began to realize that home and strength were both things she couldn’t give him. They moved too often to ever feel at home, and her children had both inherited her loneliness and her penchant for giving up. So she gave him a name that would carry for him all the things their arms never could.
Sometimes he lied about his name to strangers at the deli or at coffee houses. He called himself Oscar, the boy he would have been if he had two arms. He pretended he was Oscar the Normal. It felt wrong in his mouth; it wasn’t his. It was a privilege he wasn’t born with. A second arm protruded from the name. In his mouth, Oscar tasted metal, felt like sucking on a silver spoon.