Many years ago, my wife and I were living in New York City together making landscape drawings. We were squatting in this abandoned apartment, so whatever money we made we spent on movies and food. We had a friend who worked at an art house cinema, and she gave us free popcorn—we saw lots of foreign movies and bad student films. We ate out mostly because we knew some good, cheap restaurants in our neighborhood. Most of those places don’t exist anymore, and the ones that do are no longer cheap.
One time, my wife got a package from an ex boyfriend—a birthday present, I think. She opened it up and found a cooking knife—a very expensive looking Japanese santoku knife, to be precise. We laughed about it because it was so useless to us. We didn’t know how to cook, and we hardly ever used our kitchen. I’m not even sure our stove worked. So we sat around drinking beer and poking fun at her weird ex boyfriend, the knife positioned between us on the table.
After drinking a few beers, my wife pushed the knife toward me and laid her arm down on the tabletop. “Cut me,” she said. I laughed because we’d both been drinking and joking and it seemed like just another joke. “Cut me,” she repeated. “I want to know how sharp it is.” I tested the edge very gently with the calloused pad of my thumb. I told her it was pretty sharp. “Good,” she said, “then cut me. I want to know how sharp it is.” I told her again that it was pretty sharp, but it seemed like my word wasn’t good enough for her, so I picked up the knife and I cut her arm.
I cut her just below the elbow, on the soft flesh of her inner forearm. I lowered the knife gently. I didn’t even really push down, but the skin seemed to part before the blade without even touching it. We both stared at the cut on her arm for a minute. It was a perfect fissure. It didn’t even bleed at first. It’s strange to say, but it didn’t look like a wound at all. It looked more like a craft project, like when you cut moist clay with a string. But then it started bleeding a lot, and then it did look like a wound.
My wife knew some first aid, so she put a fistful of paper towel on it, bound it up with masking tape and raised it above her head. I asked if it was okay, and she said it didn’t even hurt, so we kept drinking beer. After an hour, she had changed the dressing three times and it was still bleeding. We kept saying things to each other like, “Do you think it looks deep?” I thought it looked deep, but I didn’t really know anything back then. Finally, when it had been bleeding for almost two hours, we decided we needed to go for help.
One of our friends knew a nurse who lived alone a few blocks from where we were. It was late and we were drunk, but, when we explained through the intercom what was going on, the nurse let us in. She looked at my wife’s arm and said we should go to the hospital. She said she’d never seen such a little cut produce so much blood before. It was a beautiful cut, she said—she’d never seen anything quite like it. My wife and I both surged with pride when she said that because, being artists, we enjoyed being exceptional. We asked the nurse if she could maybe stitch it up for us at her apartment because neither of us had health insurance, and we were nervous about the county hospital. She seemed like she genuinely wanted to help us, but she said she couldn’t because she didn’t have the necessary equipment.
We had to take the bus to this county hospital on the Lower East Side—I forget the name. For some reason the subway didn’t go there. We were still pretty drunk when we arrived at the ER, and we had to wait for a long time because the place was full of emergency cases worse than ours. One lady was so sick she was just stretched out on the floor of the waiting room, moaning. Every so often, her young son stooped over her to see if she needed anything, but she never did. Another fellow had lost his finger somehow. He had it there with him in a plastic bag full of snow. Meanwhile, my wife’s arm was still bleeding, and we needed to keep going to the little bathroom for more paper towels to press on the wound.
When they finally invited us into the doctor’s office, the nurse looked at my wife’s arm and asked if it was an accident. My wife hesitated. “Not really,” she said. The nurse asked if the wound was self-inflicted. “Not really,” my wife repeated. The nurse asked if someone else had cut her arm. My wife glanced at me; “No—not really,” my wife said. We all laughed nervously for a few minutes. “So it WAS an accident?” the nurse said in this hilarious way, like this interview might be some type of performance art she was game for but didn’t quite understand. “Not really,” my wife repeated, her voice full of regret. They went around like that for a while. Eventually, the nurse got frustrated and left.
When the doctor arrived, he didn’t say much. He looked at the arm—which my wife admitted she was getting tired of showing to people—he took some surgical supplies from a drawer and stitched it up. It couldn’t have taken longer than a minute. I think all three of us were very drunk and tired. We thanked the doctor, but he didn’t say anything back. I offered him my hand to shake, but he pretended not to notice me there.
About the Writer
Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature and PANK, and he has been featured on Wigleaf's (very) short fictions list. Kaj is the nonfiction editor at BULL. He tweets @othrrealppl.