Edmund Garson awoke earlier than usual. He shuffled in a fog toward the bathroom to relieve his burning bladder. The mirrored medicine cabinet door above the sink hung ajar, moving slightly. Shaking his head, he yanked it open. Edmund’s heart jumped and he blinked several times. Normally, the cabinet held three sections. The base area stood a foot high, then two glass shelves sat propped above. A bottom shelf held toothbrushes in a cup, shaving cream, and a Hydrogen Peroxide container. Instead, today that space lay empty, except for a human hand extending through the wooden back of the cabinet. A back that now looked gray and porous. Anything beyond the wrist was invisible. The hand flexed and signaled before waving at Edmund.
He recoiled and tried closing the cabinet but the hand formed a fist and resisted. Edmund pressed his weight against it until the door finally clicked shut. Jesus Christ. He shuddered and trembled, teeth click-clacking together. Back in bed, he dozed off and twitched awake an hour later. Reentering the bathroom, he brought a hammer along for protection. All appeared normal. His toothbrush awaited and Edmund went through his morning ablutions. Thank god, only some weird dream, he thought. I don’t need this now, just as my relationship with Meredith has turned serious.
Edmund took the subway to work, a cubicle in a crowded office above Grand Central in Manhattan. He sold renter’s insurance for home possessions. A new employee approached him during a break.
“Are you Edvard?” The rangy man sounded distinctly German.
“Edmund, but just Ed is fine.”
“Ed-mund? No, no, no. You don’t look like a Mund.”
“And your name?”
“Klaus.” He smiled, widening his beard. “I am your superior.”
Edmund let out a sniff of laughter. “We’re all managerial assistants.”
“I wasn’t speaking of ranking, just that I’m your—”
“Got to get back to work.” Edmund rushed away.
On Friday morning, Edmund saw the hand inside the medicine cabinet again. He rubbed his eyes but that didn’t dispel the odd apparition. The hand squeezed a daub of toothpaste onto the blue toothbrush then extended it toward Edmund. He felt confused. Did it want to brush his teeth? He snatched the toothbrush away and shut the cabinet. Once finished spitting out, he grabbed his razor and Barbasol cream to shave blindly over the kitchen sink.
He thought about the graceful hand. His older brother Arthur had long artistic fingers. He painted and played classical piano, along with show tunes. Both of Edmund’s parents doted on Arthur, clearly favoring him.
“Don’t worry, Edmund,” his mother confided. “You have strong hands like a lumberjack, a plumber, or a dock worker. You’ll always have steady work while your darling brother exhibits at major galleries and performs in concert halls. The arts are so risky.”
Arthur perished, swept overboard on a cruise ship that had hired him as a pianist for a season, and still years later, Edmund’s parents never failed to mention those damn perfect hands.
Klaus sat in Edmund’s cubicle when he arrived.
Klaus stood. “Did you cut yourself shaving? You really hacked up your neck, Sigmund.”
“My name is Edmund, not Sigmund.” He turned on his computer.
“Okay, Siggy. We talk later.” The German man waved.
Meredith dined with Edmund and spent Friday night at his apartment. She worked as a sensitivity reader for Penguin Books USA, so their dates often involved her correcting his word choice before a lecture followed. Edmund didn’t have much luck with the opposite sex, and since Meredith slept over on weekends despite him being 48 with a rather meager salary, he endured her comments.
Waking before her on Saturday, Edmund slouched into the bathroom and panicked when he saw two hands flexing inside the medicine cabinet. Feeling dizzy, he tilted forward in a near faint. The hands caught each side of his face and pushed him back upward. He then realized they were quite beautiful, and upon noticing the slender forearms, wished them to be female. The hands rubbed his cheeks with a soft caress. One splashed water on his face and sprayed lather onto the other’s palm, which spread it across his jaw. Finally, the first hand delicately shaved Edmund—while both rinsed him and applied a soothing aftershave. Before he could refuse, the hands brushed his teeth, being firm when necessary and soft in delicate gum areas.
Afterwards, Edmund retreated to the warmth of bed. He would say nothing until Meredith awoke and confronted the floating extremities herself.
Once she used the bathroom and they lay spooning in silence, he asked, “Did you notice anything strange?”
Meredith opened one eye wide. “In your bathroom? Besides that men have much worse aim than women, no.” She caressed his shoulder. “There’s a Ukrainian Folk Festival out in Williamsburg today. Want to go, Ed?”
“Sure. Any gypsy violin music? I love that stuff.”
Meredith sat up straight in bed. “Never ever use that word.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “It’s insulting. You mean multi-ethnic transient music.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Talking to Meredith required concentration, but Edmund’s mind remained focused on the medicine cabinet hands. He could never have shaved so well, being impatient, and what with his own large, clumsy mitts. Perhaps the appendages only showed themselves to him. This gave Edmund satisfaction, a sense of specialness, along with the lurking suspicion that collegiate days of drinking and drugging had finally returned to haunt him in visible, tangible hallucinations.
Meredith slumped down and stroked his chin. “What a smooth shave. You look younger, for a fiftyish man.”
“I’m forty-eight. Doesn’t ‘fiftyish’ imply over fifty?”
“Aw, look who’s super-sensitive now.” She pinched his cheek and tickled him.
Edmund kissed her neck and even tongued her ear, but she soon lurched out of bed to dress. “Need to get going. It’s after 10. Maybe breakfast before catching the L train out to Brooklyn? Or we can Über it.”
“I have to go into the office for an hour and—”
“Fine, whatever.” She hustled about the studio apartment collecting her things. “Meet me at the festival around 2, okay? And please, try not to look so… white male.”
“Dress appropriately.” Meredith darted back into the bathroom, dashed out to give him a kiss on the lips, then exited his apartment.
Edmund hated going into work on Saturday, even for a single hour. Just entering the office gave him a hangover the one beer he’d drunk on Friday night could not have provoked. Deserted. Except for Klaus.
“Hello,” he yelled. “Glad to have company.” He strode over. “I must say, Eddie, your girlfriend Meredith is quite attractive. Lucky man.”
“What?” Edmund said. “How do you know Meredith, and that I’m seeing her?”
“We’re friends on Facebook,” Klaus replied. “She posted a photo of you together. Facial recognition identified you.”
“Oh.” The news rankled Edmund. He wasn’t even Facebook friends with Meredith. Since their meeting and relationship had occurred in rapid succession, she insisted they date for three months before friending each other. Just in case things didn’t work out. “I haven’t read the post. What did she say?”
“Something about seeing a new man, a ‘fixer-upper’. I’m not sure what that means, but she mentioned a festival in Brooklyn today…” Klaus paused, waiting expectantly. “I’d love to join you two.” He possessed a gaunt bike racer’s face with sandy windblown hair.
“I’m not going.” Edmund sighed. “Not to be rude, but I need to finish here so I can head home.”
“Don’t mind me.” Klaus remained hovering with a quivery smile.
“Look, I can’t work with you standing there. Please, okay?”
Edmund waited until Klaus left at 1 p.m., then hurried outside. Remembering what Meredith said, he ducked into a touristy store packed with T-shirts, baseball caps, and Halloween masks. After scanning the merchandise, he purchased a wine red fez and descended into the subway, the hat’s tassel buffeted by the wind. He texted Meredith: On my way.
The festival resembled a block party; a side street connecting to Metropolitan Avenue had been cordoned off to vehicular traffic. The enclosed area was thronged with people among the clashing sounds of three bands performing on tiny stages. Booths ran along one side of the street displaying art, selling clothing, ethnic food, jewelry, and handbags. Outside information tents, earnest millennials held clipboard petitions protesting Russian aggression against Ukraine. The air came scented with borscht and cornbread stuffing; vapors from steel pots of potato dumplings and pierogis inhabited Edmund’s nostrils.
He noticed Meredith talking to a young man and woman by a food booth. She spotted Edmund and her head spasmed before she raced over.
“What are you wearing?” Meredith yanked the fez off him and tossed it into a trash barrel.
“You told me to blend in and not look…”
Her mouth opened in amazement. “You’re not from Morocco or Egypt.” She jabbed his chest with her fingers. “That’s cultural appropriation.” Meredith took a deep breath. “Look, I’m really glad you came, but please don’t embarrass me in front of coworkers.” She crooked her arm into his elbow pit and led him along like an errant child towards her friends.
“Yoshi, Naima,” Meredith said. “This is my, uh, the person I’m dating, Edmund.”
“Nice to meet you.” Naima smiled. “Are you the fixer-upper?” Yoshi chuckled. “Meredith didn’t mention you were so…mature.”
“I said a work-in-progress, not a fixer-upper,” Meredith interrupted, tousling Edmund’s hair.
“Uh-huh.” Naima nodded, her features contorted in disbelief.
“Meredith says you live in the City,” Yoshi said, pressing his dark brown bangs flat against his forehead. “So what’s your apartment rent for?”
Edmund hesitated, feeling interrogated. “My studio is $2,500 a month.”
“Wow, that’s pretty good for Manhattan.”
“Where do you work?” Naima asked.
“Just a crappy job at an insurance company,” Edmund said. “I’ll save money for eight months then take next summer off.” He glanced at Meredith but she looked blank—neither positive nor negative. “I’d love to ride the trains, head out west like an aimless hobo.”
The trio frowned in unison.
“Excuse us, we want to sign that petition.” Meredith pointed somewhere vague in the distance before pulling Edmund away. “Jesus, everything was going so well,” she said, hissing into his ear. “You can’t use the word ‘hobo’ anymore, it’s a pejorative expression.”
Edmund detached from her. “Hobo is not negative to me. Sounds like an old movie. If I actually was one, I’d have no issue with being called that.”
“You don’t understand, they have no choice in the matter. They got termed that by the ruling class.” Meredith almost shouted to be heard over the musicians strumming guitars and balalaikas. A bearded hipster cranked a hurdy-gurdy and a cherubic blonde sawed mercilessly on her violin. “If you must invoke such a man, then ‘economically challenged wanderer’ would be less offensive.”
Edmund felt a slight smile curl his lips. “You said ‘man’. It could be a male or a female. And your friend called me mature. Isn’t that a micro-aggression?”
Meredith’s face drained of color and her mouth trembled before she regained composure. “Yes, yes.” She stared at the pavement. “See, we can both help each other say the right thing and become better people.” Meredith embraced him. “We’re both flawed—you especially. I’m so glad we shared this teachable moment.”
In the warmth of their clench, Edmund kissed her. She softened, kissing back, until an elderly man in Ukrainian garb blew a piercing note on his Pan flute.
Meredith covered her ears. “Let’s go sign that petition now, for real.”
Later, Edmund caught the L Train west to Manhattan, while Meredith took the G Train to her Queens apartment.
Edmund hoped their relationship would start off wild and passionate, something to recall fondly during the boredom and arguments phase. Instead, Meredith wanted to take things slow. She claimed to have jumped into past relationships too fast and hooked up with losers who were emotionally unavailable, secretly married, or playing the field.
After suffering the crowds in Whole Foods on 14th Street for a prepared meal, Edmund drank himself into a beer stupor while binge-watching Ozark. He studied his graying hair in the mirror remembering Naima’s “mature” comment. At 48, he was 11 years older than Meredith, but her coworkers looked like recent college graduates.
On Sunday morning, Edmund brought his light brown hair dye into the bathroom. The medicine cabinet’s door swung open and one hand immediately snatched the box away.
“Can’t I try it?”
Both hands rubbed his head, slowly giving him a scalp massage. Then they brushed the dye into his hair. Five minutes later they shampooed him in the sink followed by a conditioning rinse. Edmund noticed how powerful the feminine hands were, how happy they seemed, benevolent. Would they become jealous of Meredith’s touch? He felt a queasy intestinal sensation. Was he cheating on this pair of hands?
When they finished washing and blow-drying his hair, the results pleased him. The dye hadn’t removed all the gray, just muted it. He felt younger.
During the subway ride to work, Edmund considered Meredith. He wished she had something like his disembodied pair of hands, dedicated to her happiness and asking nothing in return. A Daily News story about the Senate Judiciary Committee provoked him to imagine inglorious comeuppance for various senators. Sex scandals, drownings in septic tanks, slow-acting diseases.
Meredith felt nauseous waking in her Queens apartment on Sunday. Too much Ukrainian food, she thought, and stumbled to the bathroom. Before showering, she posted on Facebook about a problematic relationship between two unsuited people, and how hard it was to connect on a deep emotional level with anyone in a vast, crowded, and uncaring city. While washing her face, Meredith noticed the medicine cabinet door ajar. She gasped. Inside the deep enclosure sat a mass of hair. It resembled the back of a wig propped on a beauty salon’s Styrofoam mold until she touched it. Then the head revolved, showing a bearded man’s face.
Meredith wanted to shriek, but froze, unable to voice a sound. The man looked Slavic, like a Russian writer with a high forehead and spectacles. He opened his eyes and Meredith felt calmed, her heartbeat slowing. She spoke, revealing her problems and doubts, how constricted she felt around her coworkers, how she struggled to make Edmund talk correctly, how unhappy she was over her parents voting for the current President.
The head nodded in sympathy, sometimes smiling or frowning. His eyes would go wide in alarm or the lids might droop as he meditated on her words. If the man disagreed, he shook his head or scowled. Not once did he speak, nor did it matter. After she sealed the cabinet and took a shower, Meredith felt high, almost floating through the rest of her weekend.
When Edmund left work for lunch on Monday, Klaus button-holed him. “I saw Meredith’s Facebook posts.” He gripped Edmund’s shoulder. “Sorry things are not working out.” He moved his mouth around. “Listen, after your relationship goes kaput…” his voice trailed off, “do you mind if I ask Meredith out? What is her number?”
Edmund brushed Klaus’s veiny, unattractive hand away. “Enough.” He exited the office.
Meredith visited Edmund unexpectedly on Thursday evening. “We need to talk.” She stared at his studio’s carpeting and fidgeted. “I’m seeing someone else.”
“We’re not sleeping together or anything. I’m not even sure… It’s complicated.”
“I see. What’s his name?”
“Uh, Serge, I think.” She gazed out the window. “I’ve been searching for someone who would listen without interrupting, who wouldn’t mansplain. Someone who never says the wrong thing and won’t judge.” She twisted a weft of hair around her ear. “It’s early. He just sort of appeared in my life. So until I figure things out, can we be friends? I value you’re—”
“Okay, fine.” Edmund went back to alphabetizing his jazz CD collection.
“Wait, you’re not upset?” Meredith let out a snort. “I’m breaking up with you.”
“Right. Maybe I’m in shock,” Edmund replied. “I mean, dating you is like tip-toeing around—”
“More like broken glass. Either I need to evolve or you need to relax, but neither is happening, so I’m good with your decision.”
“Relax? I need to relax?” She stamped through the tiny foyer. “I am not uptight!” Meredith slammed the apartment’s door behind her.
He heard a percussive, slapping sound from the bathroom. The hands were applauding.
Edmund felt strange the next morning. He wasn’t depressed that Meredith had dumped him, and his lack of emotion troubled him. Staring at the bathroom mirror, he no longer recognized the reflected man. The cabinet popped open and both hands extended on long slender arms, massaging his shoulders and scratching his belly. Then they spider-walked downward, slowly descending into his pajama bottoms. Edmund tried to pull them out, but his effort was half-hearted. They had taken control now. He felt numb and content.
Later, Susan in the next cubicle said, “Klaus got let go after making improper advances toward female coworkers. He sent me creepy texts.”
“Never liked him.” Edmund remained transfixed by the New York Times on his desk. “Eighty-five-year-old Senator Chip McWattle found strangled to death in his locked bathroom. Police have found no fingerprints, DNA, or forensic evidence. No sign of a break-in. A complete mystery. The public is urged to call a tip-line with any information.”
“Do you need a hand with anything?” Susan asked.
“No, I’m good.”
Image Credit: Apparatus and Hand, Salvador Dalí (1927)