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When I was ten and still dysfunctionally in love with my mother—and she with me—she accidentally slammed my finger in a folding chaise lounge. I was screaming and she was freaking out, so horrified she’d inflicted tangible harm on her only son that I wound up comforting her. When I finally got myself into the house—left her there by the pool, apoplectic as a first-time father-to-be waiting outside the delivery room—my fingernail was hanging by a thread, like a tooth ready for yanking. Mom paced the deck outside, her robe flying out behind her like the train of a bride fleeing for her life from the chapel, spinning around every few steps and doubling back, rent with indecision. I could see her from the window of the bathroom where I sat on the linoleum floor gripping her eyebrow tweezers in my one functional hand. In the end I had to clamp my hand under the toilet seat like a piece of plywood in a school shop vice. I tore the nail from my finger fast, the way you’d rip a band-aid—ssstttt—the pain concentrated in that one second, not spread out like fever or sorrow.

I swaddled my finger in paper towels; the whole hand was throbbing, as if a nurse had gotten distracted while checking my blood pressure and forgot to stop tightening the arm band. I thought my finger might blow like a smokestack. It felt like it could explode—shoot a deadly ray straight from its tip as I metamorphosed into a laser-fingered superhero seeking my revenge against the beach chairs of the world. By the time I got outside my mother was sitting at the edge of the pool, her feet in the water. She stared straight ahead, as if the pool were an ocean and she a lonely lover gazing out on the sunset horizon, and not just through our chainlink fence into the Rothstein’s yard, and through their chainlink fence into the Siegel’s yard . . .

My mom had stopped crying but her face was tear-streaked and wounded-looking, the way it was after a fight with my dad when she’d stand at the kitchen sink, a container of yogurt in one hand, a spoon in the other, not eating, just poised there like she’d forgotten what yogurt was. Couldn’t remember what a spoon might be for. She’d just stare out the window above the sink like it was a porthole and she’d been stranded a long time at sea.

I held my finger before me, like a choirboy’s candle, and sat down, silent, beside my mom. She didn’t say anything either, just reached over without even looking and took my hand. She pulled the towels from my finger, afraid of what might lie beneath, like an artist tentatively unveiling her latest sculpture, new and chiseled and raw. My mother balled the towels in her fist and drew my finger to her mouth, which was wet and warm, and she sucked my finger insistently, panicked, as if I’d been bitten by a snake. As if the pain were venom she could suck from my body and spit out onto the ground.


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