“Hands” by Sam Martone

Issue 16 / Winter 2019


Hands” is excerpted from a fictionalized memoir in the form of a video game player’s guide, a kind of manual instructing you how to play. Like in many games, as in the real world, there are clear choices you must make, but the consequence of those choices—and the extent to whether there’s any real choice at all—is much murkier.



Return to the town with the tower towering beside it, where the wealthy man awaits you. Your childhood friend, she accompanies you. You look at the red ring on your finger, the blue ring on hers. The wealthy man will want you to give him these rings, recovered from dangerous caves. He’ll want you to marry his daughter, the one with the kind smile. In town, there are rumblings of a wedding ceremony already in the works. Go to the wealthy man’s house, find the whole family seated in the dining room. Your childhood friend is getting nervous. The wealthy man tells you preparations are underway. The rings you have acquired hold no special powers: they are to be wedding bands. Your childhood friend takes off the ring and drops it in your palm, but the girl with the kind smile sees something in the pixels of her face and asks her if she loves you. Her response is silence, like your response might be, if you were able to proceed without answering Yes or No. The wealthy man gives you the night to think things over. He doesn’t want you to make a wrong choice. You’ll only live to regret it. Do you understand? It is not fair, you want to say, it’s not fair to place this power, like a magic ring, in your hands. It’s not fair because what if there is no wrong choice to make, what if any choice leads to a happiness overshadowed by wondering what another happiness could be. But you can only respond Yes or No. Answer No and he repeats everything, word for word for word. Do you understand? Answer No and you can stand here forever listening. Answer No and everything begins again.



The distance stays distant, but you find ways to shrink the world smaller, from planet-orbed down onto beach ball, until it feels like nothing but a pea beneath a mattress between you. Focus on her voice in the earpiece, in the voicemail messages. Focus on her face tiling into pixels on your laptop screen. Point to the map hanging on your wall, press one finger to your desert city, one to hers in the humid South. See? Not that far. You visit her every couple months. It’s hard but you make it work—this is something you could’ve done. You are there when the pipe bursts in her room, ruins her clothes, drenches her books. Notes you wrote her in college fall apart in her hands—but it doesn’t matter in this life, because you are there, because you write her new notes as you help her move out of the dilapidated house, into a new apartment. You go on bike rides, dodge gridlocked traffic. She takes you to a summit, where a statue of Athena overlooks the city. The smog turns the sunset a brilliant pink. You hear the smoky hint of music coming from the headphones hung around her neck, the tiny tinny snap of a snare drum. You talk about what would’ve happened had you broken up in those early days of distance, all those power lines sutured between you, but beside her in that moment, there is nowhere else you’d rather be, no one else you’d rather be beside.



Answer Yes and you are put up at the inn. In the middle of the night, you wake, unable to stay asleep, dreaming dreams about lives you might have lived, hands you might’ve held. Rise from the bed, go for a walk. Everyone in town is awake. Talk to everyone. If you miss what they say, talk to them again. But you won’t miss what they say, because every word is about you. There is no mystery for you to solve, no monster to defeat or curse to lift here—you, now, are the talk of the town, the man behind every rumor. They are excited about the morning, when you’ll decide, as though it’s so simple. They all have opinions about how you should choose. Go to the villa, where your childhood friend is staying. She wears the yellow ribbon in her hair. She is unable to sleep, too. She tells you it’s okay if you don’t want to marry her, but does not tell you what she’d prefer. Go to the wealthy man’s mansion, because you can go anywhere, enter any door unimpeded—unless it is locked, and even those you will one day have the keys to barge in, snoop through drawers and treasure chests. The girl with the kind smile is sound asleep, peaceful and unworried. Go upstairs to her older sister’s room, the girl with a sharpness to her eyes. She will sneer at you, at all the fanfare. Gazing at you, she won’t understand why everyone is making a fuss. She won’t believe you retrieved the magic rings. Go to the church to confess, to record your travels. The priest warns you, You will not be able to change your mind. Isn’t this what you wanted? A choice you could make, a choice to change your fate. A way to answer a question beyond Yes or No.



After you help her move her things out of her apartment, you have sex on the floor of her emptied-out room, just a record player plugged into the wall, its needle stuttering in time with you, and her pet bird warbling in its cage. As you lie naked together, out of breath, you say it: I’ll come with you—it’s something you might have said. When she moves away from the desert city, you move, too. You find an apartment together in a city with buildings that pierce the sky. She gets a job at a software startup, you work as a bartender. When she gets off work, she comes to your bar, and you tell her about the celebrities that came in that day. You make new drinks every evening, all named after her. Weekends, you both get day drunk and fall into each other on the subway ride home. You make out in the backs of cabs. You sit on rooftops and look out over the snaggle-toothed skyline. When you think about that desert you deserted together, when you talk about it, you’re surprised at how small it has become, a whole year of your life, three years of hers, reduced to a single sentence. Pictures of the desert city engulfed by a sandstorm show up on the news and you both point and tell your friends, I used to live there, and that’s all it is, a story, a story that ended before you even gave thought to what it’d be like to tell. You look to her, her hand on your knee under the water-ringed table, and you’re glad you didn’t let her leave alone, that she did not become a sentence, a story, a time you talk about, a beginning that arrived at an early end.



The following morning, you are summoned to the mansion. The wealthy man says he will plan your wedding even if you decide not to marry his daughter. You do not understand this charity, but that is the way the world works sometimes. Sometimes, the world does not make sense. As you look from one girl to the next, his older daughter comes downstairs, announces that you will be her husband. You want to ask the wealthy man what will become of the legendary shield he will pass to his heir, but you cannot. Speak to each of the women before you. They will tell you something about themselves, something that defines the kind of person they are: the strong-willed and adventurous best friend, the quiet caregiver who is honest and kind, the cruel socialite who everyone thinks you’d be crazy to marry. You imagine this also reveals what kind of partner they will be, how they will contribute to the team: with brute physical force, a wielding of weapons, with a mastery of magic, spells that shock or dazzle or set ablaze, with unshakable will, a wall-like protection enveloping you. But in your dreams, that’s not how it works, people cannot be so discreetly categorized, there are not a limited number of skills, of expertise, of vocations. You cannot guess at someone’s talents just by looking. In your dreams, you have fallen in love with so many different people: the computer programmer with the callused fingers who sailed along white-sanded coasts, the chemist with the nervous eyes who played her flute breathlessly beneath a spotlight, the dancer with the chipped smile who could make you believe anything, the artist with the laser-removed tattoo who told you secrets on a metal roof. The girl with the stone ring on her finger, who collected animal bones, who brought you fresh-squeezed orange juice when you were sick, her eyes like suns. The girl with the angles cut in her hair, who drove you around in her car, voice and music loud, who drove you crazy, who mussed your hair when you made her laugh. The girl you wanted to marry, once, who taught you about the tug of pheromones, who marched through blizzards with you, whose touch alone could make you shiver. Think: this is not love here—how could it be? You barely know any of them—but you need a companion who will be with you until the end. This is the construction of a bigger structure. This is the dismantling of the word alone.



You weren’t with her long enough to imagine a future, but she is with someone else now. You see them walking her giant dogs around the neighborhood. You see them out at bars, sitting close so their knees meet, so their arms blur into one as the night goes on. You see them in photographs together, an endless stream of images cataloguing their love. There: they are sunglassed, sitting by the shore, palm trees groping the sky behind them. There: they are in the desert in that moment before a kiss, her eyes sidelong at the camera, at you. You know the face beside hers, his face, it could be yours. There are alternate timelines, parallel universes, where you take her hand at the Christmas party, where you kiss her under a dusty blink of snow as a bull is released from its pen, a man on its back waiting for eight seconds to pass. Less than eight seconds could have changed everything. There could be photos you take together, infatuated looks between you captured on camera. The way she loves this desert city, you would probably stay here forever, your skin darkened by the sun, your nights filled with coyote song, with fever dreams, with a heat that dips its nails between your shoulder blades. But maybe not. Maybe not. Maybe no matter what choice you made, you’d always be ducking out of the frame, driving home before falling asleep next to her, and everything would end up as it is: with you, looking at the lives other lovers lead and wondering how it happens, how it is everyone but you can relinquish all those possible futures that might be careening toward you and instead embrace the certainty of one.



You are standing in front of your childhood friend, your best friend, the girl with the yellow ribbon in her hair, a woman now. She asks you if you want to marry her. If you say yes, she will ask if you are sure. You can still answer No. You can stand in front of other lovers, you can hear them ask you the same question. Be sure of what you want. You will not be able to change your mind. You could stay here forever with them, go back and forth, save the world by ensuring its survival in stagnation, and maybe that would be some form of happiness. Maybe. But don’t be a fool: you are not the end-all be-all, not for them, not for anyone. Love does not work that way. You should know. The women you do not marry, they will find love in other people. There is a farmer who loves the woman with the yellow ribbon in her hair, a pub owner who loves the woman with a sharpness to her eyes. The woman with the kind smile spent every day you were gone at the bedside of the young man from the volcano, who returned with seared skin, his hand empty of any ring. My heart… It burns for you… he says in his delirium. You know all this, you know love can spring from anywhere, you know there are lovers who appear like flashing screens, lovers in Southern swamps, in desert cities, in Midwestern college towns, treading water in snowmaking ponds. And even if there weren’t someone else, an infinite number of someone elses, they do not need love the way you do. To have a future, you need this love. To move forward. To save the world. The woman with the yellow ribbon in your hair asks if you are sure, and even as you prepare to answer Yes, there is another choice you imagine, one you cannot make no matter what you do: a world where you walk away, away from all of them, leaving them to other lovers who will not connive to leave their sides, a world where you tell yourself it is because you have to keep searching for your mother, you have to stop unearthly darkness from seeping into this world. You have to find the descendant of the legendary hero. Those are the excuses you have, the excuses you give, but really, you fear you are good for no one, that you will never be able to fully give yourself over to a certain future, a present now. You want to feel devoured by love. You want to wait, to see if there is another out there, who sings to you, who swings off trees and into the wide mouths of silt-filled rivers. Her face is blurry, obscured. There is a fog surrounding her, a mist off some unseen body of water. You cannot tell who she is. She may not even exist. She may just be a dream. Focus on being certain. Answer Yes. Focus on what you know for sure. There is no way to leave here without telling someone Yes, yes, you will marry, you will marry her. Focus on the certainties. There is a church in every town. There is a store that sells weapons and armor and items. There is an inn where you can rest your head. There is always a demon lord waiting at the end, always with multiple forms, new shapes he takes after each defeat. Don’t celebrate your victory yet. He has yet to reveal his final form, his true self, and you, you are still searching for your true form, the one you will reveal to the woman you love. In your dreams, you love everyone or no one, and you can’t tell which is worse. You can’t keep your eye from wandering. You can keep everyone’s secrets but your own. Answer Yes. Yes, you know this love is real, as real as the yellow ribbon in her hair, but your dreams won’t stop cycling through memories like a list of spells, trying to find one that works. Stone rings ringing fingers. Angles shaped in hair. Headphones held close to ears, listening. A song like a harp strung against the back of your neck, the sharp kiss of ink upon your thigh, the wanting to say Yes, the weight of a thumb that won’t yet come down on the button, that won’t trembling press. Beckon yourself, now, to finally—and finally—speak.



Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.

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