Four-Handed Dentistry | Eva Langston

Andrea Chang can’t sleep. Her wrists hurt. It’s a throbbing ache, deep inside her bones, that reminds her of growing pains from her adolescence. But it isn’t so much the pain that keeps her awake as it is the worry. The last time her wrists hurt like this, the doctor told her it was the beginning of carpal tunnel syndrome. “Take it easy,” he recommended. “Try not to do so much with your hands.” He gave her two splints that immobilized her wrists and made it difficult to maneuver her arms and fingers properly. “Whenever you feel the pain, wear these,” he told her.Andrea can’t remember what she did with the splints. She wore them once or twice then tossed them somewhere. Plus she moved two weeks ago; all of her belongings are currently crammed into unlabeled boxes, scattered throughout the half-empty rooms of her house. Even if she does find the splints, her alarm is set to go off in a little more than an hour, and she can’t wear them during the day. Her work depends on her hands.

Andrea takes a deep breath. The doctor also said that carpal tunnel can be brought on by stress, and she’s certainly had enough of that lately. Buying a house, renovating it, moving in – all by herself. Then, in the middle of that, flying home to L.A. for a long weekend to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding.

Staying at her parents’ house in Pasadena was stressful, too. “Thirty years old,” her mother said. “Where is your husband, Andrea? Where are your babies?”

“That’s not really something I can control, Mom,” she said. “I can’t just grow a husband in my back yard.”

“Maybe you spend too much time in the back yard,” her mother said with an eyebrow raised. “Maybe you need to go in the front yard. Or walk down the street to the store.”

“Maybe I’ve been to the store and there was nothing there I wanted to buy,” Andrea countered. Everyone in her family liked to talk in metaphors.

“Maybe you’re too picky,” her mother said. “Maybe you have to buy the generic brand.”

Lying in her bed, Andrea thinks that in theory she’d like a husband and a family, but honestly, when is she going to find the time for more than just casual dating? And how could she take care of a child when she often forgets to feed herself? She keeps waiting for everything to click into place, for her to feel comfortable in her own skin, but it never quite happens.

Sometimes it seems she’s full of something thick and viscous that presses against her internal organs, that makes her feel like she’s about to burst out of her body.

Andrea closes her eyes and tries to relax, but she feels a burning sensation moving up and down her arms. She rubs at her wrists with her thumbs. They seem swollen all the way around. She feels large, hard knots underneath both wrists, in that soft, veiny place where she still has scars from high school.

She listens to the minutes tick by on her clock. Sometimes the pain subsides for a moment, like a wave being sucked back out to sea, but other times it pounds against her joints in a violent storm. The swelling increases, the knots grow larger, and her fingers begin to go numb.

Finally, Andrea reaches over, and, with some difficulty, she turns on the lamp next to her bed. In the light she notices that her wrists have grown to an alarming size. The skin below her palms is stretched tight and thin over lumps the size of golf balls. Andrea wonders for a moment if they are ant bites, or, like in that old urban legend, if two mother spiders laid eggs beneath her skin. She’s worried. Something is seriously wrong. She throws back her covers. Never mind the splints, she needs to go to the hospital.

As soon as she stands up, she feels a sudden, explosive pain in both wrists. The blood drains from her head, and hazy dots white-out her vision. She feels a ripping sensation, as if those old scars are opening up, and she’s reminded of the release, that powerful moment before the pain, when she used to slice through her skin and watch a line of her own blood bloom and grow.

When she comes to, she lies on her bed with her legs dangling off the edge. The throbbing ache is gone, but her wrists feel strange and heavy, as if weighted down by metal bracelets. She sits up, and the first thing she notices is the blood. It spots the thighs of her cotton pajama pants and has dried into brownish red scabs on her comforter. It takes half a second more for her to register where it came from. Her wrists are caked in dried blood, and through these gashes, on the insides of either wrist, have sprouted two small, child-sized hands, each with five perfectly-formed fingers and translucent white crescents of nail.

As a child it was Andrea’s legs that were prized, not her fingers. Her older sister, Robin, had the long, lovely fingers of a concert pianist. Their mother took a look at Andrea’s hands at the age of six and pronounced them too stubby for piano, so Andrea began ice-skating instead. Fingers aren’t important in ice-skating, though the rest of the body is. Andrea needed to be small yet powerful, precise yet graceful. And she was. She worked hard, and she became quite good. By the age of twelve, her parents started talking about the Olympics.

But then, late at night, she began to feel a dull ache in her shins and around her ankles, a throbbing in her chest and wrists. She started to grow.

Andrea feels a wave of nausea rise from her stomach, and her face prickles. She stares down at the red hands protruding from the insides of her wrists. They are half the size of her own hands, and face in the same direction so that the knuckles rest slightly in her palms.

Another wave of fear and adrenaline pumps through her veins, flushing her face and loosening her bowels. She stands up shakily and moves towards the dresser where her cell phone is plugged into its charger.

She reaches out her arm, and as she does so, the fingers on the tiny hand open and spread, making a move to curl around the phone. Is she making them do that? Does she have control over these alien digits?

“Stop that,” Andrea says out loud. Feeling like a puppeteer, she tries to move the new hand, but instead her regular, stubby fingers wiggle. It’s like trying to move her middle toe but only succeeding in moving the big one. Finally, she hits upon the right pathway, and with concentration she brings the small fingers together slowly, back into their resting position.

Andrea picks up the cell phone gingerly and holds it with her regular fingertips, avoiding the new hand. Her heart beats heavy against her chest. Who should she call? 911? One of her friends? She moves her fingers towards the keypad and feels another shudder of revulsion at the sight of the second hand curled inside her palm. She begins to scroll through her list of contacts. She doesn’t have Dave in mind at first, but when she sees his name, she pushes call, feeling a rush of relief. Dave will know what to do.

Dave was Andrea’s first boyfriend, her first love. Sophomore year of high school, when she fell out of her triple axel and her skating career came to a final, yet imminent, end, Dave was the only person who could make her feel better.

“You better study hard now.” (Her mother.)
“You were getting too big anyway.” (Her father.)
“God, that’s so awful for you.” (Robin.)
“You’re amazing and beautiful.” This was Dave. He knew what she needed to hear.

Andrea remembers him sitting beside her in the hospital, her leg in a cast and suspended from a white hammock. “What am I going to do now?” she asked Dave.

“Lots of things. It’s not like being an ice skater was ever your decision.”

“But I liked it,” she murmured. She felt woozy from the pain medication.

She did like it, she thought. Racing around the rink, the icy wind against her cheeks, the sound of her skates cutting the ice. And the jumps! Like flying. When she skated, Andrea felt graceful and free. She felt a release from her body, and in a moment of perfect form, it became something separate from her. Her spirit soared above the rink, looking down as her strong legs and tight torso performed jumps by pure muscle memory.

Before the accident, the coach had talked to her about her size. At five foot four and 118 pounds, she was getting too big for competitive figure skating. She’d been doing everything she could: dieting, extra exercise, a bit of bulimia here and there, but her body wouldn’t obey.

“And what bra size are you wearing?” he had asked. Andrea had been ashamed to tell him she’d moved to a C cup. “You need to tape them down.” He’d flicked his eyes towards her chest, annoyed. “They’re throwing off your balance.”

And, obviously, he had been right.

In the hospital, Dave reached out and touched Andrea’s arm above where the IV needle pierced her skin “Now you have a chance to do what you want for a chance.” He smiled. His front incisors were square, and his canines pointed drastically. His mouth was a large, devouring one, but his brown eyes seemed soft and kind. He was also hairy for a teenager, already able to grow a beard. He wasn’t all that attractive, but Andrea felt safe with him. Like he could scare away her foes then curl up with her in a long, hibernating sleep.

“What else do you like?” he asked.
“I like science,” she said.
Dave smiled again. Andrea knew he wanted to be a physicist. He was probably imaging them together at some university lab. His teeth gleamed, straight and perfect. He’d recently gotten off his braces, but Andrea remembered the snaggled mess they’d been before. She liked the idea of shifting things around, improving them, making them fit together like puzzle pieces.

“And teeth,” she said after a moment. “I also like teeth.”

***

It isn’t until Dave answers the phone, sounding groggy, that Andrea wonders if he has a girlfriend. She hasn’t talked to him in a year, maybe longer. They see each other from time to time: holidays, when they both happen to be home visiting, or once when he came to New Orleans for a conference. One of the first questions they always ask each other is “are you seeing someone?” If the answer is yes, the visit goes down a sober, friendly path. If the answer is no, which it usually is, there is a suggestion of drinks, followed by a drunken make-out session. But they never sleep together. The fact that they remained virgins throughout their two years of high school dating seems sacred, and neither wants to ruin the buzz of sexual tension that would certainly disappear if they gave in to it.

“Dave,” Andrea whispers into the phone. “Can you talk?”
“Well I can,” he says. “Obviously.”
“I have hands growing out of my wrists,” she says. She thinks maybe

saying it out loud will make them go away, like when she takes her car to the mechanic and it suddenly stops making strange noises.

“Everyone does, Andrea,” Dave says patiently.

“No, I mean extra ones. I woke up, and my wrists hurt, and now all of a sudden I have four pairs of hands.”

Dave is silent for a moment. “Is that some kind of metaphor?” he asks. “Look, I’d love to talk philosophy with you, but it’s three o’clock in the morning here.”

Andrea holds up her left hand and squeezes the tiny fingers into a fist. Sometimes she forgets until she talks to him how annoying Dave can be. He never really takes the time to listen to what she’s saying.

Like with skating. He didn’t understand, or even try to understand, how much she loved it. She explained how it became a part of her, as natural and necessary as breathing. He complained about the time she spent training and lectured her about her eating disorder. He didn’t realize that skating was a part of her, no matter who had first made her do it. And without it, she wasn’t quite herself.

After the accident, Dave didn’t understand her withdrawal symptoms, depression, her need to find something else that would let her feel both a connection and a release from her own body.

“If only I hadn’t grown,” Andrea remembers moaning to Dave on several occasions. “I hate my body.”

“You know, it is strange.” He took a deep breath, gearing up for one of his careful, scientific responses. “Often times the body compensates. It reacts to stressors. That’s why so many gymnasts and figure skaters are short and flat-chested. All that extreme exercise stunts their growth. You’re lucky that didn’t happen to you.”

“Lucky?” Andrea stared at him. “I wish it had. I wish my body had compensated.”

Dave wound his arm around her back. “You don’t mean that.” His fingers brushed the side of her breast through her t-shirt. “You’ll be glad later, I promise.”

Andrea hated the way he always thought he was right.

And there was another time she remembers, too. The beginning of senior year. They sat in his car after school, and he ran his finger across the puffy white marks on the insides of her wrists.

“This is why I’ve been wearing long sleeves,” she explained.

Dave shook his head and looked at her with those eyes that used to seem kind but now seemed cloudy and arrogant. “Why’d you do this to yourself, Andrea?” he asked. “If you’re trying to kill yourself – ”

“I’m not,” she answered. “I told you that! I just wanted to open myself up. I don’t know.” She pulled her arm away from Dave and pushed her sleeves back down. “Sometimes I feel like I have things inside me that need to be let out.”

“That’s weird.”

Andrea thought of the razor, so much like the blade of an ice skate. The silent beauty as it sliced her skin, trailing a ribbon of bright blood. “It’s my body,” she told him. “I can do what I want with it.”

She broke up with Dave a few weeks later.

On the phone with Dave, Andrea has the sudden urge to hang up. But she takes a deep breath and tries again. “I know this sounds crazy, but I actually have tiny hands growing out of my wrists. Below my regular hands. I mean, maybe I’m hallucinating, but they feel real. Should I take a picture of them and text it to you?”

She hears Dave sigh heavily through the receiver. “I don’t know, Andrea. You’re not making any sense. Are you drunk?”

“No.”

“Look, I know I’m your go-to guy whenever you have a problem, but I just can’t do this anymore. And honestly, I don’t know what you want to hear. You need to get a boyfriend or a therapist or something.”

“OK, then.” Andrea looks down at her double left hands. She practices wiggling each finger in turn: first one pinkie, then the other. She holds up both her middle fingers and keeps them up for a moment. “Never mind, then,” she says, trying to sound cheerful. “I’ll figure it out on my own.”

Andrea bought a house for her thirtieth birthday – a present to herself for pursuing something challenging and excelling at it. She’d done four years of dental school and the additional two years of orthodontia training at LSU. Then she’d gotten the coveted spot as resident at a well-established father-son orthodontic office in New Orleans, where she’s been practicing for the past year and a half. The father is now only working part-time, and the son, forty-seven-year-old Dr. Jeremy Sikes, seems to enjoy having Andrea as his young, pretty protégé.

Jeremy is married with two children and has never made any overt advances, but Andrea wonders sometimes if he has an Asian fetish. Andrea is three-fourths Taiwanese, and four out of the five chair-side assistants are young Vietnamese girls, first-generation Americans from East Orleans. “It’s those long, thin fingers,” she overheard Jeremy say once to a friend. “Normally they’d be doing nails. I give them a better option.”

Andrea flushed with anger when she heard that, and yet she wondered what he thought about her own stubby fingers. She sometimes watches Anna Nguyen, the newest girl, and is amazed at how quickly Anna has mastered the techniques of lacing, tying ligatures, activating posted wires: all things that took Andrea and her chubby fingers three times as long to learn.

Theoretically, Andrea is a good orthodontist. She’s smart and she studied hard in school. She understands forces: what forces to apply in which directions in order to move the teeth where they need to go. But when it comes to placing brackets, or pulling down impacted canines, she feels clumsy. How is she supposed to keep the patient’s mouth open, hold a mirror against the palate, keep the suction tube in place, and still do the delicate and precise work she needs to do? An assistant always hovers near her, adjusting the light and waiting, in case Andrea needs something. “Use them,” Jeremy always suggests. “Have them hold open the mouth, secure the suction.” Andrea knows this, of course. It’s called four-handed dentistry. But she doesn’t like being dependent on Anna Nguyen’s slender fingers. She wants to do it on her own.

Andrea hangs up the phone and glances at the clock. Five-fifteen. She was planning on getting up at five-thirty to go for a run. And maybe she should. Maybe she’s hallucinating and the fresh air will do her good. She carefully pulls off her pajamas and throws them in the hamper then begins putting on her sports bra, a long-sleeve t-shirt, a pair of shorts. At first she is careful to only use her normal fingers, trying to keep the little ones balled up and out of the way, but then she realizes that they want to help. Without her telling them, they know what to do. She lets them tie her sneakers, allowing herself to marvel at their dexterity.

Outside, the light is blue with the coming dawn, and she runs down to Frenchman and then up Esplanade. She circles back through the French Quarter, which is always quiet at this time of day. It’s a cool, spring morning, and new green buds are on the trees, the cars dusted with yellow pollen. Andrea runs past the candy-colored shotguns and houses embellished with wrought iron balconies. She keeps both hands tucked inside her sleeves, but as she nears her house, she lets them peek out just a bit, feeling the cool, damp air on all twenty fingers.

Back home, she gets ready for work, trying not to worry about how she will hide her new hands. She’ll figure it out. She’s beginning to even enjoy them a bit. Washing her hair is amazing with the massage of twenty fingers. Making breakfast, putting on her make-up, fixing her hair, everything is new and exciting. Some things are easier, some are more difficult, but in each task she feels a bizarre thrill of giddy pride at what she can accomplish with the help of two extra hands.

She decides to put her heavy, black hair into a French braid, something she’s never been able to do on her own before. She closes her eyes and does the braiding by feel. The fingers move deftly through her hair, separating it into sections, weaving it together tightly. When she finishes, she almost doesn’t want to open her eyes. But she does, and she sees her own face in the mirror.

A feeling in her stomach grows, a balloon of excitement, making her light and bouncy. Think of what an amazing orthodontist she could be with four hands! She imagines herself holding back the lips and tongue with one hand, steadying the mirror with another, while her new, tiny hands squeeze into those dark, hard-to-reach places, tying ligatures around back-molar brackets, clipping distal wires that even Anna Nguyen can’t reach. The only trick would be using her new hands without anyone noticing.

Andrea begins to think of all the things she could do better with four hands. Even, she blushes at the thought, things with men — an area in which she still doesn’t have much experience.

She fastens a string of pearls around her neck. The normally complicated clasp is a cinch for her twenty fingers. She stands in front of her full-length mirror and looks at herself. She wears her white lab coat over a pair of brown slacks and a tucked-in pink button-down. Normally, she rolls up the sleeves of the jacket, but today she wears them long, letting only the tips of her regular fingers hang out. Something bulges in one of the side pockets, and she fishes around to find a pair of green gloves. She holds them in her big hand, the smaller fingers reaching out, pulling at them curiously. With a sinking feeling, she puts them on. Her tiny hands ball into fists to accommodate the gloves, and there they are, lumps beneath the latex just like they had been lumps beneath her skin. The balloon in her stomach begins to deflate, and she sinks down onto her bed.

Who was she kidding? They don’t make gloves for four-handed people. And furthermore, did she really think she could live with four hands? Patients would never let a four-handed woman inside their mouths, no matter how good she is. Men wouldn’t be interested in her, no matter what kind of pleasure she could give him. She stares at her hands, and the little ones curl up tight, scared almost, or ashamed.

“I know you were just trying to compensate,” she whispers. She feels tenderly towards them, like they are her own tiny children. She curls her big fingers down to meet the little ones, touching each wrinkled knuckle, each thin, baby fingernail.

She stands up and walks to her phone, dials her doctor’s office. She’s going to be written up in a journal, cataloged forever in books of medical mysteries and surgical triumphs, a picture of her four hands on the same page as the photos of pre-separation Siamese twins.

A recording picks up. “This is Andrea Chan,” she says after the beep. “I’m having a very strange emergency.” Her voice sounds funny in her own ears. High-pitched, and wavering with suppressed giggles. “Please, um, please call me back as soon as possible.” She gives her phone number then hangs up. She knows she should go to the emergency room, but she can’t stand the idea of all those frantic nurses gawking at her. This is something private, and she wants it to be taken care of discreetly.

What she really wants to do, she thinks, what she really, really wants to do right now is skate. Her leg has been healed for years now, but she never got back on the ice after her fall. She does, however, have a pair of rollerblades, and she remembers which box they’re in.

Andrea doesn’t bother changing. She finds the rollerblades and sits down on her couch to put them on. She carefully makes her way onto the porch and down her front steps. The sky is lighter now, the world is waking up. She nods to a neighbor getting into his car.

Andrea still wears her lab coat, and she keeps her four hands tucked inside the long, white sleeves. She takes off down the bumpy sidewalk, enjoying the sound of the wheels. She hasn’t rollerbladed in a long time, but the memory of the motions comes back to her: the way to stride forward, shifting the weight in her hips and pumping her arms for momentum. She goes down a driveway and into the street, racing along the pavement. She wonders if she should call in sick to work. Maybe she should never go back to work at all. It took her so long to get where she is, but is this really what she wants to do? She thinks about the way patients were before: the little gaps and overlapping teeth, the endearing overbites. Even Dave’s old mess of a mouth. When their imperfections are removed, do they become a little less human?

Andrea decides to think only of gliding through the air, of feeling the rush of wind against her face. She checks for cars then does a few figure eights, followed by a spin. She gains speed, racing down the empty street. She does a lutz, digging the front of her right rollerblade into the pavement as best she can. She flies into the air and then comes back down, the wheels making a satisfying clunk on the pavement.

Smiling, Andrea picks up speed again. This time she wants to do a double axel. She takes off from her front foot and spins into the air. Her right leg whips around her body, propelling her orbit. She lands.

And then she knows she can’t stop at just two. She has to try the triple axel. She skates fast down the pavement and leaps into the air, spinning high and tight. But there’s something wrong. On the second rotation, she can feel herself losing balance. She tries to hold it together, but she can’t. She falls towards the earth.

She reaches out to catch herself, and her hands open to protect her face. They hit the pavement hard and she feels the impact through her arms, all the way to her teeth.

She sits up and looks at her palms. Her normal hands are fine. The small hands, the child-sized hands, broke the fall. They are raw and bleeding in places, little black pebbles of pavement sticking into the flesh. Andrea looks at them and begins to cry. They tried so hard to save her, and she’s going to cut them off. She’s never appreciated her body and everything it’s done for her.

With her right hand, Andrea brushes the little rocks off her tiny left- handed palm then holds it tight. She does the same with the other hand. And then she sits there in the middle of the street, watching for cars and holding hands with herself.

—–

Eva Langston received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her fiction has been published in The Normal School, The Sand Hill Review, and the GW Review, among others.

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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