It’s fists that make us men. Human fingers curl in on themselves, the thumb folding over the outside. We attack, not with open hands, but with the force of the knuckles. We are advanced. I stood in an apartment over looking downtown Chicago with a woman, Charley, who told me how she used to be a man. She was 6’ tall and wore a tight black dress. I was wearing dark wash jeans and a button down shirt. I’d been asking her about her transition when she turned to me and asked, “Are you— do you want to be a man?” I looked down at my work boots and cracked my knuckles. “I’m happy,” I said. She touched my shoulder and we walked to the balcony. Earlier in the night she asked if I thought anyone could love a woman who had the anatomy of a man. “You’re beautiful,” I told her and I meant it. But it felt like I was telling her, “You’re more of a woman than I will ever be.”
When my brother first moved into the group home with six other men, I learned the power of hands. It was a man named Adam, whose arms were held in casts that went from his wrists to past his elbows. He’d broken his arms when he repeatedly smashed his fists into the walls of his new room. He didn’t stop when the bones broke. He kept hitting until two men were able to subdue him. At least that’s what my mother told me. Adam’s hands were swollen and stained with bruises, I remember that much. And as we unpacked my brother’s things, I couldn’t help but think about how Adam’s fists had withstood the beating in a way his arms could not.
There are 27 bones in the human hand. The first time I ever got punched, I was eight and Keith Durbach was ten. Maybe eleven. There was a rumor that he got held back, but I was never sure if my sister just said that to make me feel better. We called him Keith Dirtbag because he rode a BMX bike and popped wheelies going down hill without a helmet. He wore shirts with the sleeves cut off. He punched me in the stomach because we told him boys weren’t allowed to hit girls.
Growing up my sister, Rosie, and I were scared of our brother. He was mentally retarded and flew into rages over cold french fries or the sound of a baby crying. We learned to shed silent tears, and how to block kicks and punches. We took self-defense classes and were able to use our fists to break boards. On the first day of karate my sister was sparring with our instructor, he was sixteen and she was ten, he dared her to hit him as hard as she could. She pulled her right arm back and hit him in the stomach. He fell down and told her she was a natural.
A closed fist hits with three times the power of an open hand slap. I learned that when my sister punched Keith Durbach in the mouth. She and I had been taking self-defense classes and while I sat on the ground with the air knocked out of me she made contact with Keith’s jaw. He started crying before his teeth slammed together. She and I promised not to tell our parents and Keith didn’t want to tell his, either. He said he couldn’t believe he had gotten punched by a girl.
When I learned about Darwin and evolution, Man was always at the top. My teachers always said it was because humans knew how to use tools, were cunning creatures. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if that meant we killed better than any other animal. I was taught that chimpanzees were the most aggressive species of ape. They physically beat one another, scratch and pull with their hands and feet. David Carrier, a biology professor at the University of Utah believes that humans are more aggressive than chimps. He says that the fist, a hand position that apes cannot make, is an integral part of human aggression. Fists and closed hands punching are more likely to result in injury to bones, teeth, eyes, and jaw.
The eight carpal bones rest in that area we call the wrist. Tendons and muscle fibers connect them to the ulna and the radius. It’s there that a nerve pinches and makes my little finger go numb. My whole palm gets numb too sometimes. When I went to the doctor the first time and told him, he hit my hand with a reflex hammer and asked me what I felt. I told him needles. Thousands of needles. In seventh grade our science class did an experiment on nerve sensitivity. In pairs we each took dulled needles and ran them over our partners’ palm and then up their fingers while they looked away. The exercise was supposed to be in how quickly we felt the sensation. Then with two or three needles we’d place them on the back of the hand, then the palm, and then the finger tips to see if our partner could tell how many needles were touching their skin. The fingertips are always the most sensitive. The palm will tickle. The back will never know what is needling it.
There are 1,500 nerve receptors per centimeter on the fingertip. But I’ve also seen it cited at 2,500 per centimeter. The first time I touched another girl in the way I was told I’d touch a boy, my face flushed and my hands shook uncontrollably. The girl I was with told me I knew just how to touch her, and I didn’t want to tell her that I couldn’t have stopped my hands even if I’d wanted to. She told me that girls are better than boys at touching. She said that girls feel things better than boys as I traced small circles on her skin and I didn’t want to tell her that my hand was numb.
The thumb is positioned lower on the human hand than on apes. This positioning is what makes the thumb opposable, the only digit of the hand that can touch the others. After living with my girlfriend, Emily, she bought me a punching bag. We named the punching bag Barry and filled its base with 200 pounds of sand. I learned how to wrap my hands with cotton straps so that my knuckles were padded and wrists stabilized. For the first few days I hit Barry so hard that his base would lift off the ground and rock back hard against the wood floor. I got used to the rhythm, the way the plastic dug into the floor, the way the cotton wraps pulled tight over my knuckles with each hit. It took a while for the blood to soak through the wraps, and leave little red marks on the bag. But I didn’t really take note of it until I unwrapped my hands and the air hit my split knuckles.
When my sister hit Keith Durbach, I was scared of her. She learned early, from our brother, how anger and strength work together. When my sister moved out for college, I went into her room and saw small indents in her wall from where her knuckles hit. She always hit close to corners where the sheetrock was layered over studs. I’m not sure why she did it, or what she got out of it. When my mother asked me to help paint the room a lighter shade, I woke up early to fill in the dents but first I put my own fists in the impressions.
In the winter, my knuckles split open. It is as if my skin ages years as the cold dry air does its damage. I never use lotion, or at least not with the frequency that would do me any good. They are rough hands, giving off the impression of being important. Hands that feel busy, hardened over time with work. They’re not. The callouses settle around my middle and index finger from holding a pen, a bit of toughened scar tissue at the tip of my left pointer finger from a knife accident in the kitchen. A skidding rip in the skin covers my knuckles from where I let them bounce off the brick walls of apartment complexes. I am always walking with my hands dragging against the facades of buildings.
I suspect I am not a terribly good woman. Or man. Too weak probably to fit into either category. I’m always too concerned with how other people read me to have any idea of who I am. I bite my cuticles and nails until I bleed. I wonder still what makes a man a man, a woman a woman, and where I fit. There are days when old men call me sir, when women call me beautiful and correct to say handsome. I smile and nod at all of them. I worry a day will come when someone will hate me for what I am on the outside, if maybe I will look like something they fear or hate.
There is a provocative nature to hands—fingers—finger. The act, the placement. On a Tuesday afternoon in college my roommate asked me how lesbians have sex, asked if it was anything like the smashing movement of her two ‘V’ shaped fingers crashing into one another. I told her no and said it worked better if you kept your fingers together or used your tongue. She blushed and I gave her the finger that begs of people to leave one alone.
In middle school, my group of friends would compare the lengths of our index and ring fingers because there was an article that said those fingers could predict penis size. A longer ring finger implied a more endowed male, and being a group of girls with nothing better to do, we took to doing evaluations of our hypothetical penis lengths. I have a long ring finger. A team of Dutch and Spanish scientists studying the difference of those two fingers noted that men typically have longer ring fingers, while women have longer index. They write of masculine and feminine traits and the presence of estrogen and testosterone in the womb. I think my fingers may have known something about me before I’d ever let them wander. But then it’s all undermined, all my deep symbolism. They say a layperson cannot accurately know the lengths of their fingers without x-rays.
When Charley asked me if I wanted to be a man, I touched my knuckles. My right hand has a faded scar between the first and second knuckle. I’ve never punched someone outside some self-defense training, but even then there was a thick foam pad between us. When I said I was happy, she told me that was an admirable thing to be. We were standing on her balcony looking at the lake. She told me that every payday she goes to a jewelry store in Evanston and picks up a new ring. She said that wearing big rings makes her hands look smaller, and that it’s always the hands that give her away. Then she laughed and said that sometimes she worries about people coming after her because of who she is and that it would probably hurt getting hit by a fist full of rings.
My father has the hands of a doctor, soft and cold. His skin is that of an old man, that near translucency that happens as the fat wastes away form the top of the hands. He tells me how easy it is to track the way hands age by pinching at the skin on the top of the hand and seeing how quickly it snaps back. I pinch at the top of my hand, pull at the skin until it hurts and release. It lays down fast, perfect. When he pinches his, it freezes. A ridge, a peak of skin remains. He makes a fist and the skin goes taut.
When I was a dishwasher for a summer job in high school, my hands were red and raw from the cleaning solution. I realized that my hands were weak, that the combination of hot water and soap made them crack and split open. Today my hands are worn. Dried and cracked, but always wet underneath. Once a woman at a fair read my palm. She had a sign that said see into your future and when will you find true love?. She said that there was water in my lifeline and I asked her what that meant. She said I should wipe my hands on my pants more, so I do.
I’ve always wanted to be old, to wake up one morning and have lived a full life and be able to tell stories about my marriage and kids and broken down cars and getting through hard times and good times. Hands age fast, scar easily, wrinkle. When I look at my hands, they are the only part of my body I have no complaint about. When I stood on Charley’s balcony, I gripped the railing and felt a cold sting. I asked her what it meant to be a women and she said she wanted to be seen as beautiful, sexy, to be desired. I forgot in that moment that there are many ways to be a woman, and felt very small.
Fingers curve. The metacarpals are flat on the top, but curve on the bottom, helping us form a fist. Our fingers are never perfectly straight. They hug inward towards the middle. I have small fat fingers with light brown hairs on my knuckles. My middle fingers curve outward, leaning over my ring fingers. I see my hands, understand them perhaps, only when I stare at them. But I am not sure if you were to show me a picture of my hands that I would recognize them as a man’s or a woman’s. I am not sure I would know them as my own.
Michelle Cabral is a writer living in Chicago, IL. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program. Her work can be found in Gertrude Press, Paradigm Journal and various other small outlets.