ELAINE by LJ Pemberton

ELAINE by LJ Pemberton

Still unknown to James, Elaine was a person of sordid and secret desires. Although she gave an impression of joy to most who knew her, she had chosen James because she had recognized in him a volatility and destructiveness that she could use to her own ends. As a young woman, she had taken pleasure in rope bondage and the prickling stimulation of kitchen utensils, a practice she still maintained on her own, and of which James was not aware. With past partners she had goaded them to run their nails down her back while fucking; and when together, she would intentionally annoy them—misplacing their things, spilling wine on their favorite clothes—to test the limits of their rage and cultivate resentment. Above all, she wanted her partners to hate, and yet feel obligated to serve, because this made it easier to use them without feeling guilty for an ultimate, and totalizing, disregard. When James had asked if he could amputate her leg, he had been prostrate on his knees before her, his teeth gnashing at the line he wanted most to cut. She had been impressed by his naked confession, and, she had realized, she would never be presented with a more perfect exchange. If she did this one thing, this one impossible thing—she would never have to feel guilty again. She could use him, freely, because she gave him her leg when he asked. Besides, what was a leg to her? Nothing, she reasoned, at all. 

Her yes had been a whisper. He had put her under with a cocktail of drugs ordered on the dark web, and in the manner of his music, he had improvised—first using a tourniquet above the slice line, and then clamping her great saphenous vein after the initial cut. He sliced and then sawed, until the whole of her leg came free at the mid-thigh. The moment was ecstatic, and he wanted most to be near her leg, but he knew also that he needed to finish what he had done. Carefully, he tied off each vein with thread. And in the manner of the Civil War surgeons that he had read about, he polished the end of her broken bone until it was soft, so it would not break through the skin cap he intended to fashion from what had been severed. Delighted to hold the leg, to scrutinize it, he considered where he should remove the skin further to make the flap, and he left her asleep a while. The area above the knee, he decided, was supple and large enough. He cut a large flap to seal the wound, and then wrapped it around her bloody stump, sewing it in place and standing back to admire his handiwork. 

Not wishing her to wake up, just yet, he drugged her further, and then turned towards the leg that was now his. He determined to preserve it in the freezer—as he had no knowledge of embalming (yet) and knew no other alternative. Yes, she had given him her leg. He had asked, expecting nothing, and yet she had offered it to him. She had trusted him to maim her and believed that she would be fine. He knew no greater gift. After wrapping and putting the leg away, he returned to her and cleaned the sutures of skin. Knowing that she would wake soon, he injected her leg with a more local anesthetic, and waited for her eyes to open. She did, and found that her hands were shaking. He helped her sit up on the table and she looked at her new body and decided that she loved it, almost more than before. 

You can’t wear a prosthetic, of course, until it fully heals, he said, and she nodded. In a great rush of feeling he carried her to the bed and brought her food and drink. She was heavy, and he stumbled, but did not drop her. She asked him about the leg, what he would do with it. It’s in the freezer, he said, and she smiled. 

It was done. 

By the time of Ana’s arrival, or return, Elaine had resumed her life. When people asked what had happened, she told them she had been in a car accident, and no one questioned the when or how. Faces folded into understanding and moved on. Elaine took new pleasure in caring for what remained of her left thigh. In the mornings, she wrapped the end before fitting into her new peg leg—an anachronistic choice that made her walk with a disarming and capricious gait. She wore skirts and pants, selected specifically for their coy reveal of her thin, wooden ankle. James enjoyed introducing her to colleagues, gesturing as she approached, this is Elaine. 

This is Elaine, and, he would think, I have her leg.

No one knew their secret, but on the night that Ana and James met in a subterranean bar near Canal Street, Ana suspected. She recognized at once the twitch of James’ eyebrows as he introduced his lover, an unconscious declaration of extreme pleasure, and she saw also Elaine’s contempt of his adoration. After an hour, then two, Ana extended a hand and rested it lightly on Elaine’s shortened thigh and Elaine did not reveal, nor refuse this new attention. James was oblivious to their overtures. As they left, Elaine walked James to the subway and then made an excuse—she needed to get a few things from the drug store before going home. He said of course, he could see her this weekend, and disappeared below.  

Elaine, then, did not go to the drugstore, but she turned the corner and immediately embraced Ana, who was waiting for her, their lips meeting as hungrily as if they had not just eaten.

Come to my hotel room, said Ana, and Elaine told her she was counting on it. They hailed a cab, hand-in-hand, and rode to the Bowery Hotel in silence. The other guests watched them enter, speculation on their faces. Alone, they undressed each other, taking the time they had often wished other lovers would offer. The night was torrid.

In the morning, they met James for breakfast, and he could smell the sex on them, and he was mad, but as he ate his eggs, he settled into himself, and the inevitability of the three of them at this table, himself neither important nor discarded. A pressure that he had not known he felt was suddenly lifted. Ana pleased Elaine, he could see, in a way he could not—would never be able to—and yet they had invited him to breakfast. He was wanted, still. It was the closest to love he had ever been.

*

Later, when James’ apartment was opened by authorities because of the smell coming from under the door, they found it empty except for the now thawed and rotting leg on the living room floor. The three of them had fled the country to Uruguay with no intention to return. It was James’ money that enabled their escape, or his father’s, more accurately. But it was Ana and Elaine’s cunning that made them untraceable. A cash-buy of the property. A tin roof that was decades from rusted. Impeccable accents; the women were, above all, masters of projection.  

In the evening, they sat on the porch of their home and Ana carved Elaine’s peg with scrolling and verdant jungle motifs. She moved the small knife slowly, staring into Elaine’s eyes as she dug into the wood. When Elaine looked away, Ana drew her gaze back, taking her chin in hand. James masturbated as he watched them. In the yard, overgrown with cockspur coral trees and Humboldt’s willow along the creek bed, a nutria dug and swam beyond their attention. Snakes settled into their night coils. They forgot time and lost whole months to the small rituals of their desires. The moon was their only witness. 

Who ever has such freedom?

Elaine, of course, eventually had a child that Ana called her own. The child was happy and precocious, and it delighted in the attention of the adults who loved it. Some mornings, when James could not sleep, he would get coffee and watch the child dreaming. He wondered at the life they had made, and how, in his youth, he had not understood what days could hold. One summer morning, when James was still in his early contemplations, Ana woke too and they went together into the brush to find more wood to carve, more legs for Elaine. The day’s heat was rising. Their steps settled into the soft earth and Ana spoke between swipes of the machete. You know, she said, when we were young, I hated you. She turned to face him and James looked at her, and she was strong and full and had, still, the face that he had wanted so badly to kiss in their teenage years. 

I thought I could own you, he said. And Ana appreciated his honesty. She remembered his presumptions, and the boring arrogance of his money. She had never imagined he would be capable of such self-knowledge. He had always seemed to her too full of need to know himself. She resumed the stepping and slicing rhythm of their progress. He walked, carrying a water bottle, behind. 

The grass swished at their ankles and the dew rose from the earth. A bird called from ahead, and they smelled of labor, and Elaine. Suddenly, Ana stopped and veered towards an old and quiet tree. Large branches lay around it, felled by a recent storm. She kicked at a long one and asked him if he thought it would do. We could probably make two or three pegs from that, he said, and she nodded, then used the machete to swipe off the small, leafy branches. Together, they lifted it onto their shoulders, and began the procession home, their steps syncing unconsciously beneath the weight of the wood. Ownership is always a lie, said Ana, resuming.  

James nodded behind her. The more of Elaine he had had, the less it felt like she belonged to him at all. Besides, he said, I have learned that even possession is a kind of disappointment. 

Ana laughed at this because it was true. They continued home, but they had walked farther than they realized, and the path was long. At a small clearing, Ana paused and set down the small log. James took a break as well, and they sat on the branch together, passing the water between them. Insects crawled near and around them, and the clouds faded into blue. 

She will leave us someday, you know, said Ana. 

Yes, he said, I’ve always known. 

They listened to the earth and cried. 

*

Elaine left when the child was seven. It was James who found the carved legs stacked neatly by the door and her hat gone from the hook outside. He picked up the original peg, so identifiable because Ana’s skills at carving were primitive at the first, and he went to the couch and sat. His callused hands twirled the peg before him, and he remembered who they had been. She had given them years and years of herself. And the child, he thought, and the child. 

Ana found him like this. The child was still sleeping. Her toothbrush is gone, Ana said to him, and he nodded. She settled onto the couch beside him. The floors did not drum with Elaine’s step. The bathroom door did not latch with her push. They waited, in the silence, for a new habit, for the pattern of the morning to resolve. 

I don’t think I can walk, said James, and Ana put her hand on his thigh, like she had placed it on Elaine’s all those years ago in New York.

You will, she said. The room was empty, and they were alone together, without her, for the first time. 

James set down the peg. By the bed, Elaine’s dirty clothes were still piled in a corner. Her favorite juice, still in the fridge. She had taken the essentials, no more. He looked at Ana, and she saw in his face the man he had become, his eyes surrounded by lines that matched Elaine’s own smiling. They were different people than they had known was possible. Elaine had given them that. 

I wonder if she got what she wanted, he said. 

I don’t think it matters, said Ana, and he knew she was right. He rose then, to make them eggs, and Ana went to wake the child. 


LJ Pemberton is a writer / artist whose essays, poetry, and award-winning stories have been featured in numerous literary magazines and online publications. Her novel, STILL ALIVE, is forthcoming from Malarkey Books (Feb 2024). Pre-order here.

Art by Levi Abadilla

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