In the examining room, I rub my right ring finger. It is crooked and in pain. When the doctor comes in, he takes my hand in his, and as if proposing marriage, claims he can straighten it. I wonder how much experience he’s had, personally, with broken bones.
This is the second fracture for this finger. I was playing football with my boyfriend, his brother and nephew. Men like to play rough. I’m used to that.
But finger bones, so small and fragile, don’t easily realign, and it’s an occupational impairment. As a writer, I require the use of this finger every day. While healing, I try to avoid it, but when I accidentally hold a pen in my usual fashion, or inadvertently use that finger to type an “L” or “O” on the keyboard, it throbs. Somehow, it feels appropriate, to be made to hurt.
The first time I broke my finger was against another woman’s face. It pained me to know I was capable of such a thing. I didn't have much experience hitting a woman, not like my father. When I told him about the fight on my routine call home, he scolded and asked if I struck first.
No, I lied, same as I told the cops.
When I came into the gym, I had placed my equipment for step class toward the front and went to grab some hand weights. When I came back, a woman had moved it. “I come here all the time,” she said. “This is my spot.”
I was there all the time, too. Sometimes, I managed to get there early enough for good positioning; other times, I could barely squeeze in the back, and a few times, with no space, I simply went home. What made her think she had earned a permanent place?
I had no recourse. I could not rat her out to the front desk or tattle to the instructor. That would make me look petty.
It happened to be my 30th birthday. I had come to the gym in desperate need of a workout before my celebratory dinner. I was working 60 hours a week at a job I hated, dating a man I didn’t love, and had written a novel rejected so many times disappointment had become my way of life. I was carrying extra weight due to the stress of it all. Of course, I didn’t expect to burn it off in one class, but the exercise would make me feel better — an outcome this woman now threatened.
We started class, and each time I’d get a look at her, she was struggling through the routine. When class was over, I went to put away my weights, and we walked next to each other.
“Looks like that spot didn’t help you much,” I said, hoping to convey in my tone that I thought she was disgusting and wretched and didn’t deserve to live.
“You don’t want to mess with me,” she said. “I can be a real bitch."
“Yeah, a big, fat bitch,” I said.
I stand a little over 5 feet, and this woman loomed over me. She lunged for my arm, digging her nails into my skin, but before she drew blood, I balled up my fist and punched her. I felt a brief moment of sweet, gratifying triumph before we became a jumble of bodies wrestling on the floor. The long scratch she had given me bled; her right cheek was swollen and bruising, but the feeling of victory was immediately replaced by shame and remorse.
My dad scoffed over the phone. “There’s really never a reason to lay hands on someone.”
But when I tell him about the broken finger, he grows sympathetic, gives me pointers on how to hold my hand, what part of my fist to hit with, so next time, I can hit someone without hurting myself. If we were together, I imagine we might face off so he could demonstrate — me, the opposing mirror image of him — as he raises hands to spar. Even in my imagination, I freeze up as his knuckles close the distance on my face, my heart stricken with fear.
Sure, he’s hit me, but he’s taken a shovel and struck it against my stepmother’s face. I was astounded at the strength of her bones. They did not break. The shadow of the shovel, the sound of metal on flesh — it’s nothing like in the movies with a cartoonish effect. The actual sound is duller, more devastating.
My real mother was even more violent. I hired a private investigator to find out what happened to her. No one in my family claims to know or likes to talk about it. The P.I. sent me her rap sheet, and that’s how I learned she had been convicted of kidnapping and attempted murder.
My parents were the type of people who would say things like: Never hit, use your words. But when the time came, usually clouded by alcohol or drugs or just plain anger and wounded pride, they always chose to hit.
My father’s favorite saying as I grew up, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
To love people like my parents, a mixture of forgetting and remembering is required. I tell my friends I try to go home to visit family once a year. In truth, I go back when I’ve forgotten how bad the last visit was.
I’m proud of my parents, though — not of their bad behavior, but of their attempts to improve. Two years ago, visiting at Christmas, my father threatened to hit me. But he didn’t. He’s gotten into so many car accidents due to drunk driving, wrecked three vehicles, but somehow managed not to kill himself or anyone else. I’m proud that he’s gone to AA, failed. But he’s trying again. It’s been four months since his last drink.
I’m proud that my mother, whose rap sheet is now my only means of knowing her, has been released from prison for her original charges. She’s been back in and out, but not for any other violence act, and she hasn’t been arrested in over a year. That’s progress.
I return to the doctor’s office six weeks later. He unveils my finger with dramatic flair, as if he expects it to have straightened out. But the shard of bone that chipped off the top distal is still a large, swollen lump at the knuckle. I cannot imagine how long it will take to heal, or if I ever will.
These days, the damaged finger is shy and weak. It was lazy to begin with. The ring finger feels privileged, expects a life of leisure, wants nothing more than to be jeweled and anointed. And it’s lazier now because of its bentness. I try to rehabilitate it, using an exercise ball for the hand, but the finger becomes inflamed, an angry, bloated man that sits upon my hand.
The woman I hit did not deserve it, and when I remember her now, I recall the honey color of her hair; the natural, beautiful flush in her cheeks after a workout; and her body, eye-catching across a room. She was no more a “big, fat bitch” than I was. I hate that I ever painted her with a bruise or slung a careless derogatory remark her way. The insult had been at the ready because I constantly replayed it on my own playlist of self-loathing for being in a life I wasn’t happy with and not knowing how to change it.
Living in Los Angeles, rage is an everyday occurrence. Some people say it’s like a switch that goes off, but I always knew it was there. Violence got seeded in me early, sprouted like a vine, wrapped around my heart, until it lodged deep.
That’s why I welcome the pain. When I load the dishwasher, close the shower curtain, hold my pen or do any number of things to hit my finger in just the way that draws the old hurt. I remember why the pain is there and what I am capable of. And I appreciate the memory, because hurting someone cannot be taken back, and should not be forgotten, lest I might be capable of it again.
It’s been 10 years since I hit her. Now 40, I know there are only a few years left for me to bear children. It’s good that I have waited. It’s good that I have this crooked finger to remind me because I would never forgive myself, never recover, if out of anger, I ever raised a hand to hit my child. I am not my father or mother, and perhaps I might be a better parent with broken bones.
When I write these days, the ache is still there. But I hope the sentiments flushed through the pain of the bone shard grinding against bone and tendon might build up to that desired happy ending; the "L" and "O" letters so hard for me to type, can be finished by the parts of me still left whole, a “V” and “E,” because aren’t we all trying to get that.