Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained

I need you.

This is a confessional moment. It’s been three weeks with you fitted against me, flush against the place where I now abruptly end. They cleaned me up, neatened and straightened, gave you to me, but it was a while before I could look at you and longer before I was willing to allow what’s left of myself to be present when you were in use.

You’re not me. They made you to look like me; you have skin, you have what feels like bone, and I can see the shift and flow and extension of muscles inside you, but all of these things are comforting lies that don’t comfort me in the slightest. I don’t like you. We’re stuck with each other, but I don’t like you and I don’t like that everyone is expecting me to. Like you’re a favor that was done for me. Done to me—I never asked. I knew that was the policy now, because why not do everything you can do for someone, do no harm via the neglect of good that might be done, but I never thought about it in connection with anything that might happen to me. They assumed. You know what they say about assuming.

I don’t like you. But I do need you.

Keep that between us.

It itches. That’s the first thing I’m really aware of, besides the burning and the ghostly pins and needles that come to me in the twilight hours between sleep and waking and sleep again. Drugs used to prolong those hours, but now they’re mercifully short, and for the most part the ghosts don’t come. So the itch I feel is a real itch, my itch, and separate from the tight pull of the new skin that covers my face and neck and half of my chest.

They replaced my breast. They didn’t ask me about that either, but I did want that, at least.

It itches, and I look down at the seam where you end and I begin. The flesh tone is an almost perfect match. Unless you look close, you can’t see it at all; it looks like a T–shirt tan, like something anyone might pick up after a summer outside. I even had one, before I lost what you’re meant to replace. It’s on the other side, too. Not really the same, but close enough.

This near–perfection is meant to protect me from the stares of others. It’s meant to hide me. It’s meant to lie to them as well.

It’s not a great foot to get off on.

I lift you—I send the signals that would move those muscles if I still had those muscles to move, and you move exactly as they would. I turn you in the sunlight and I imagine our joined neural net, yours and mine, the way they now interlace. You’re not just against me, you’re inside me, and when my skin starts to crawl, I see goosebumps prickle into being all over you.

And that just makes me start to cry. That stupid little detail. It infuriates me that they got that much right. That they were so careful when they made you, just for me. They’re probably so proud of the job they did.

That night I dream about cutting you off with a meat cleaver. I don’t just stop at cutting you off; I chop you to pieces, watching clear fluid well around the cuts and drip slowly out of you, out of the things that look like veins and do the same job as veins but aren’t veins at all. I look at the delicate carbon fiber core. I pick you up and throw you away from myself, and it feels like the right thing to do.

Then I look at the part of me that’s missing, where I used to displace the air, the very atoms that make up everything around me, and I don’t feel whole. I don’t feel better. I’m just broken, and now you’re broken too.

Even in the dream, I know I shouldn’t feel broken. I know I’m not broken. That’s a poisonous way to think. It seeps into everything like bad groundwater and it makes a person feel wrong and bad forever. But I can’t help it. Another, weaker part of me knows that I am broken. And so are you, and nothing is ever going to fix either of us.

I wake up in the dark and I can’t even feel the ghost of that limb anymore. All that’s left is you.

I have to learn how to touch things again. Or rather, you have to learn, and I have to be patient while you do.

In physical therapy, they hand me different objects and I let you explore the texture, file it away. Your software is meant to grow and develop with me, as opposed to coming pre–programmed, so we’ll be a perfect fit. It’s also meant to help me learn about you by using you, but of course I’m being resistant, as the therapist says. She hands me a rubber ball covered in flexible spikes, a piece of sandpaper, a chunk of wood, a strip of silk. You’re not very strong yet but I’ve been told that in time, if I work with you, you’ll be double the strength of the arm I had. Your grip will be able to crush someone’s hand.

You know, if I wanted to.

But right now you’re not very strong, and while I want more than anything to hurl the ball against the side of the therapist’s head, to tear the silk, to break the wood into chips, I’m good and I do what I’m told, and so do you. After about an hour, I start to feel those rubber nubs bending under the soft pressure of your fingers, the grains of the sandpaper, the rough bark of the wood, how slick the silk is, like it’s been oiled. Very faint but there. Like being numb, except I can move. More like a sleeping limb waking up.

I’m doing very well.

We’re supposed to think of each other as a team, while we integrate. You already think of us that way, to the extent that you think at all, so most of the work there is on me. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for that to be a somewhat bumpy road. I’m told all sorts of reassuring things.

Eventually, they say, I’ll think of you as just another part of me.

Okay. Sure.

My first day at home, I move around the apartment just picking things up and putting them back down again. You’d be amazed at how much time I can fill doing this.

Well. Not you. You already know.

It’s not that I can’t do it. It’s not that we didn’t cover that in therapy, and we’ll be covering it for a while to come, and there are all kinds of strengthening exercises that I’m supposed to be doing. It’s more that this was my space, my space from before, and this is now my space after, and what demarcates and defines the difference is what isn’t there anymore and the new thing that is.

I am picking up pieces of my life and putting them back down again, because now they’re in slightly different places than they were before. I need to rearrange everything. I need to do it with you, otherwise I don’t know how you can fit here.

A coffee mug, chipped on the edge in two places, because I had it in my very first place out of college and I’ve moved twice since then.

A tube of lotion, mostly empty.

My tablet, charging on the side table.

A book that I was in the middle of, that I’ve been in the middle of for a month now, because I never came home from work to finish it.

I can almost feel them. But something about them still isn’t quite real. Everything is… Well. At arm’s length.

There are all kinds of bad jokes that are available to be made, and I make them to myself, because I suppose that I’m hoping that humor might break the ice a little, like at a party where you don’t know anyone. But I’m not laughing.

I make dinner. A couple of friends have offered to bring something over, but I’ve made it clear that I don’t really care to be social right now, and anyway, I’m supposed to be using you more. But as I cook—mac and cheese out of a box—I mostly stick with my left hand.

That night, lying in the dark, I start talking out loud to you.

Here are the things I say to you.

I tell you why I have you—the car, the crash, the fire, and my arm trapped between two warped pieces of metal, cut and burned and shattered into a tube of bone gravel. I think it’s important to know about one’s origins.

Like a stream of compliments, I tell you about how advanced you are, about what’s come before you, hooks and awkward movement and no sensitivity at all. I know these things because I looked them up while I was still in the hospital, because during downtime things could become crushingly dull, and anyway, I wanted a better sense of what I had been thrown into.

I tell you about what all the brochures say, that now I can be normal, that I can lead a normal life, that in fact I’ll be better than before, and isn’t it uplifting, isn’t it an inspiring thing to see, and aren’t we a great society that now we can help broken people do such great things.

I tell you about how I’m really, really pissed off at the fucking doctors, and by extension how pissed off I am at you.

I tell you that I’m really not sure that things are going to work out between us.

And I tell you that I need you.

I say this last in a barely audible whisper but I hear it echoing against the walls. I feel ashamed and I’m not even sure why.

I’m glad people can’t easily tell just by looking at you. They don’t stare and then look intently away, like I’ve heard people used to. I don’t get awkward non–questions, the first few times I go out to the store or to get coffee or just to walk. But I still feel like I’m getting stares when I’m not looking, and I wonder what people would say if they could see you for what you are.

What I am. Part machine, part not real. We talk about it like that. Still, even with everyone walking around with their phones slotted into their ears and their glasses on. Turn all that shit off and go to the wilderness or something, reconnect with real life. Leave it at home and have real contact with real people. This is a generation that grew up with this stuff, and we still talk about getting rid of it like it’s something admirable. People are very proud of themselves, getting back from vacation and excited to talk about how much better they feel long after everyone else stopped being interested.

That’s always sort of bugged me. Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time now, because I’ve heard that a lot of people with your kind of artificial limb are perfectly happy.

Artificial, though. There it is again.

I want you to be real. I want to be real. But I just wish the choice had been mine, and it wasn’t, any more than the crash was. I’m not out for a run this afternoon, but I do start running out of nowhere, not in my track suit and wearing the wrong shoes, but suddenly in a panic, tearing through the park with my arms pumping—my one arm and you. You do the job. Maybe I’m running from you but you’re helping me do it.

I run until my lungs burn and every part of me aches, and finally I stop because I have to, breathing hard, braced over my knees. I hurt, but for the moment I don’t care who’s watching me.

After a few moments, I realize that you hurt too, in perfect concert with the rest of me, allowing me to feel complete pain. Gratitude flushes through me and I don’t even entirely hate it when it does.

Something changes after that. Pain has a way of reordering the world. I know that, because pain and I are on intimate terms by now, but maybe you can still teach me something new.

I go home and I read more about you. I’ve done that already, but now I’m giving a new kind of attention to the project, like I’ve just met someone fabulously interesting and I’m tracking down everything on the net that I can find about them.

About how they use nanotech to create you from the ground up, growing you according to the specs provided by my own flesh and blood and bone structure. How they synthesize compounds in a fabulously complex process in order to build a covering that feels like skin but is a hundred times more durable. How they use quantum computing to give you a kind of brain, learning and sensing and reacting in ways that a born limb can’t.

And at the end of it, I feel like you’re so close and at the same time even further away.

I put the tablet down. I sit in the lamplight—low, I like it low—and I look at you. Lift my other hand and run my fingertips along your skin–that–isn’t–skin. I feel it prickle in response. Sensory input is still a work in progress but I feel it well enough, feather–soft caressing down to the slight knob of your wrist.

My wrist?

God, I just don’t know anymore.

I need help, maybe.

I need you.

I direct you to touch me, next. It’s a very strange experience. I feel it from both ends, subject and object, active and passive. I run you down my throat, up and over my lips. Breasts, covered by thin cloth; I’m dressed for bed.

Then I’m not dressed anymore.

It happens quick. I don’t stop to think. I don’t bother to drag myself off the couch; it happens right there. You make your way down over my belly—soft and always bigger than I really liked—over the tops of my thighs, up their insides and between them. It’s like I’m not even controlling you anymore. You learn, so maybe you already know what I need.

I bite my lips against a little cry when you push into me and it pretty much goes downhill from there.

But later I don’t dream of hacking you off. That’s something.

What I do dream is that I have three arms. I have the one remaining that’s fully me, I have you, and then I have what I lost. Somehow we all fit together and we’re all perfect, one big happy family. I’m happy. I’m not hurting anywhere. I don’t feel wrong or broken and I don’t feel deformed; I’m not bothered by having more than most people because I’m whole again.

I’m whole with you.

I wake up crying. You wipe away my tears.

After the loss of a limb, some people experience bereavement. Some people are angry. Some people adjust perfectly well. Some people have a hard time working with your particular family of prosthetics. Fewer than there used to be. The majority of people are fine with you, grateful for the advances that have produced you.

But I read the testimonials and I don’t see all that many people talking about it like it’s them. Theirs, yes. But not them.

A very few people experience a curious crisis of identity, falling into a kind of internalized uncanny valley. They start believing that they aren’t human anymore. They have panic attacks, nightmares. They claim that not only are you not part of them but you’re a separate mind trying to take them over. A tiny minority actually engage in what’s being called re–amputation.

Footage of a man who hacked off his new leg with a meat cleaver. It took him fifteen minutes to get it all the way off. The pain was immense until he rendered the sensory apparatus inoperative. He has permanent nerve damage. The other leg doesn’t work now. He says he doesn’t regret it. He says incomplete but real human is better than the alternative.

So because I can’t bear to remove you, because I’m not sure I want to anymore, because I’m not sure what else to do, I work with you. I strengthen you. I do my prescribed exercises and I do them again. I get used to the feeling of you flexing and contracting and extending. I can feel you learning, feel you thinking—in your way—about everything we do together. At night when I sleep, you become meditative. Rather than grow to think of you as part of me, more and more I think of you as something separate. But I don’t think that you’re trying to take me over. We’re trying to understand each other. We’re trying to create a smooth working relationship.

I’m not sure that I like you yet. But it no longer seems outside the realm of possibility.

When I go to physical therapy, my therapist talks about how well I’m doing. She watches in admiration as I crush an aluminum container. Superhuman, she says, and I don’t think she’s entirely joking.

I don’t want to be superhuman. But I’m not sure I can be human, either.

But I’m also not even sure what human is anymore.

They contact me a week later.

It’s just a phone call. It’s not a long one. They don’t speak to me personally; they leave a message that I listen to later at night by myself, sitting in front of a glass of white wine and nothing else, listening with my whole self because none of me wants to be thinking about what I’m hearing.

About what I’m feeling and whether I should be feeling it.

You hold the phone. So I know you know.

The gist of it is simple. You’re very new; this is newer. This is so experimental that before they’ll let me take part in it I’ll have to sign at least one non–disclosure agreement, and more than one waiver. But they got to me early enough, they say. They can take you away and regrow me. They can give me back to myself.

It’ll be slow and painful and it might not work, but if it does, at the end of it, I’ll be whole again.

Fully human.

It might not work, but if it does, it’ll be the first step toward phasing all of you out entirely.

I should give them a call if I’m interested and they’ll set up a time for me to come in for an evaluation. Who? Them. It’s a cliché, but they really are faceless in this moment, a force of nature rather than anything recognizably human. The intelligent, all–powerful entity that gave me to you. Now they’ve changed their minds.

At least this time they’re asking for my permission.

I don’t drink my wine. I put the phone on the table. I put you on the table and I look at you for a while.

This is what I wanted. No learning. No sharing. Just having. No one ever has to know.

Later I go for a run. I jog down the steps of my building and onto the sidewalk, running between pools of light, feeling all of me pumping myself forward. A smoothly–running machine. You working in tandem with the rest of me, so much a piece and a part that there might be no difference at all. But if I feel exhilaration, I can feel that you have your own. My companion. You’re coming along with me, and I have no idea if what’s inside you is complex enough to make its own decisions or whether I’m engaging in a kind of delusional anthropomorphization, the opposite of the man who removed one leg and ruined another, or if this is really real.

All of it, real. There might be no difference. There might be none.

I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

A mile in, you start to hurt me, and I recognize that it’s not strain or malfunction but a gentle prodding in the form of an aching throb, you letting me know that you’re here. I listen and it’s like you’re speaking, you’re putting in your two cents, whatever they are.

And I think that you didn’t choose to be here any more than I did.

And I think that maybe you’re just doing the best you can.

And I think maybe all those people who are spending all that time and energy and lying awake nights and writing and writing and talking and worrying and making claims about what’s really human are sort of full of shit.

I stop and I breathe hard. I lean against a lamp post and you hold me up.

It’s their problem. I’m tired of letting them make it mine.

“Let’s go home,” I say, and I think I can feel you agreeing.

And yeah, maybe this is the wrong decision. Maybe I’ll regret it later. Maybe it’s my problem after all. Maybe I’m betraying something, maybe I’m not even qualified to make these kinds of choices. Maybe I’m sliding down a slippery slope and maybe I’m shallow. Maybe it’s all a delusion, but hey, whatever gets you through the day.

I’m real. So are you. I need you, but I’m not sure I need to be human. I’m not sure any of us is equipped to make that call.

So this is life, now. This is what life is.

I think I can be okay with that.

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Sunny Moraine

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novels Line and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy, as well as A Brief History of the Future: collected essays. In addition to authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometimes college instructor; that last may or may not have been a good move on the part of their department. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

3 Responses to “Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained”

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