THE ART OF UNTYING A TOURNIQUET
The evening she arrived at Get It Off Your Chest! in a recently vacated elementary school, Masha Lindale was dressed all in black as if it made her more inconspicuous. She had even wrapped her crutches in black electrical tape as if she were suddenly ashamed of them. At the front office, a woman asked Masha to check in and have a seat at the end of a long hallway amidst a few others who were waiting to unburden themselves of their secrets. The hallway was dimly lit as if all the overhead lights had been changed out with low wattage bulbs. The effect was reminiscent of the light left behind after the sun sank behind the mountains near Masha's house.
When a woman carrying a clipboard called her name, Masha followed the woman down the hallway, past former classrooms that were now serving as confessionals. The woman stopped at room 21 and nodded at Masha as if to signal that this would the room she would confess in. For a moment, Masha thought about turning back and telling the woman she had forgotten something on the stove at home. Despite wanting to absolve herself of the secret that had been eating away at her for over a year, knowing she would have to voice it aloud made her feel short of breath. But the woman swung the door open and motioned for Masha to enter, closing it behind her with a click that sounded permanent.
The classroom was lit by two floor lamps on either side of a person wearing a blindfold. This would be the "listener" Masha had read about—an anonymous therapist volunteering to listen to the secrets of those who came to Get It Off Your Chest! in order to have a truly anonymous therapeutic experience. With his or her back to Masha, the listener sat in a chair facing the wall below a blackboard with the words Safe Space, No Judgment written across it in chalk. Masha ambled over and took a seat in the chair opposite the listener and stacked her crutches across her lap.
"Your secret is safe with me," a woman's voice said. "I am here to listen without judgment."
The listener's words echoed the slogan of Get It Off Your Chest!, which had been advertised as being so discreet, the therapists couldn't even see the clients. This is what had sold Masha on signing up for the experience.
Masha swallowed hard. "How does this work? Do I just start spilling?"
"Any time you are ready, you can tell me your story."
"Where do I start?"
"The beginning is usually the best place."
Masha eyed the door and thought of excusing herself, but found the words tumbling out of her mouth instead. "Well, this thing never bothered me before but now, George—my husband—he has to live with this thing as well."
"What is this thing you're referring to?"
"My left leg," Masha said, her voice sounding strained in her own ears. "Well, the absence of it."
Masha looked down at her lap, feeling her pulse quicken.
"It all really started when I was a kid," Masha said, staring at the back of the listener, trying to see her and realizing the woman was so obscured in shadows, Masha could only make out long, dark hair and the back of a white shirt. "In the third grade, a new girl came into our class around the middle of the year. Her name was Amy. She had one leg—she lost the other one in a car crash when she was only five. I remember feeling instantly drawn to her."
Her name was Amy. She had one leg—she lost the other one in a car crash when she was only five. I remember feeling instantly drawn to her."
Masha could see Amy in her mind—her small face, dark pin-straight hair tucked behind elfin ears, and one leg poking out beneath a blue skirt. "I remember my teacher—Mrs. Thomas—was impressed with me because most of the kids in class avoided her. Not me. I wanted to be around her as much as I could. We became friends at school and eventually began spending time at each other's houses on weekends. During this time, I started to borrow her crutches. Sometimes I didn't even ask. When she would be sitting down, I would just take them and hobble around. Something about it felt right. This is when I began to realize I didn't feel connected to my left leg. I don't know how else to describe it. It felt like I was joined to every other part of my body, but not my left leg. Like my soul somehow didn't extend into it, if that makes any sense.
"Over time, I became obsessed with the burden of it. It felt like I was dragging around someone else's leg with me everywhere I went. When I was watching TV or reading, I used to tuck it beneath my body until it fell asleep, so I wouldn't have to feel it. Then one day my sister broke her leg after falling down some stairs at a shopping center. I remember being jealous. I would steal her crutches and when my mother made me give them back, I started using things like broom handles and tree branches as crutches to limp around on in the backyard."
"Did your parents know how you felt about your leg?"
Masha bit the inside of her cheek. She didn't like to talk about her parents, but knew it was unavoidable.
"Never. My father died when I was an infant and my mother raised my sister and me on her own, working two jobs. She grew up in rural Russia and lived a hard life, dirt poor. She isn't especially sympathetic to first world problems like feeling disconnected to one of your two working legs."
Masha paused, remembering her mother's story about the time she had nearly frozen to death outside of Yarsloval in a snowstorm after her parents had sent her into town to pick up milk when she was eight years old. Her mother had told Masha it had been a trying experience, but only served to make her a grom baba, which translated into "Thunder Woman.” Throughout Masha's childhood, her mother often told Masha and her sister that they needed to be Thunder Women when times were tough. "Thunder Women don't complain. They stick a fork into the back of their hand beneath the table while wearing a smile," she would say.
Masha cleared her throat. "Anyway, once I got to college, I began perusing medical books in the library and read up on the art of tying a tourniquet. I found out if you cut off the blood supply to any limb for long enough, it can require amputation. So I started with my left arm, just to test it out, using a pair of old stockings. By doing this, I learned just how painful it was. Luckily my roommate at the time had chronic ear infections and usually had some codeine lying around, so when I was ready to try my leg, I popped a few beforehand.
"I got down on the floor of our dorm room when my roommate was in class and tied the stockings above my left knee—right where I wanted the amputation to take place—keeping my leg propped up against the wall. I stayed like that for two hours, but even with the codeine in my blood, the pain was too much and I stood up and took off the tourniquet. I later found out that I could have unwittingly killed myself by doing this. Apparently, with a tourniquet tied long enough, the muscles below it are starved of blood and filled with toxins. They've been isolated for so long. Untying the tourniquet releases the toxins into the body and the result could be fatal. While I remember feeling sick to my stomach and having to sit on my bed for a while, I was okay."
Masha paused, catching her breath. It felt as if a magician were pulling a long colorful scarf from her throat—a painful scarf that had been crammed inside of her for too long.
"Did you ever seek professional help for this? I believe you were suffering from BIID—Body Integrity Identity Disorder."
The remark reminded Masha she was talking to a therapist and not just some anonymous stranger.
"I know. I was," she said. "Anyway, by then the obsession with losing my left leg had become so overwhelming, it was all I could think about. Day and night I was consumed with it. It finally forced me to seek help from a professional."
"How did that go?"
"It didn't. I was put on loads of medication and told that I was suffering from having a warped view of my body—like anorexia—which is ridiculous. It's like comparing butterflies and roadrunners." Masha swallowed. She hated to remember the way the therapist had stared at her like Masha had been some sort of puzzle the therapist needed to work out—like she was some type of special challenge. "Anyway, nothing worked. I eventually stopped the drugs and going to therapy. I knew I had to get on with it. I started poking around the internet and doing research, visiting message boards, and connecting with people online who had the same obsession. We traded information and gave each other tips. One woman who had her leg successfully amputated told me about putting her leg in dry ice for eight hours until it had to be amputated."
"Did this woman say how she felt once her leg was gone?"
"She said she felt free at last. I remember she said that not having to stand on both feet was a liberation."
Masha thought of an expression her mother used to use whenever company came to the house: V nogakh pravdy nyet, which translated into "There's no truth in standing on your feet." Of course her mother meant for her guests to have a seat, but when her mother said those words, Masha always fantasized she was saying them to her. It was the closest her mother would ever come to understanding her.
"Anyway, I went to the supermarket and bought fifty pounds of dry ice. I came home and filled the bathtub with cold water and put ice cubes into it. Then I took a couple Percocets I had left over from a root canal. I put my leg in the cold water and numbed it as much as I could, then added the dry ice. After that, I waited. I listened to music. I even called my sister, who had no idea what I was doing during our conversation.
"Soon enough, I no longer felt my leg—just pain that luckily the Percocet helped to dull. But I started to get dizzy and sleepy. Luckily my sister shouted into the phone when I nodded off during our conversation. That's when I realized I needed to get out of the bathroom. The woman who had successfully frozen her leg had warned me that I should submerge my leg outdoors because the dry ice would begin to emit a lot of carbon monoxide. But there was no privacy where I lived, since at the time I lived in an apartment building. I had opened the bathroom window to the widest, but it wasn't enough. There was too much dry ice and too little ventilation. I had to hang up with my sister and abort the operation."
Masha looked out the window through the half-drawn blinds where the sun had set and left a wash of pink on the horizon. Cars whizzed by unaware of all the dark confessions taking place inside the old school. For a moment, Masha wondered if all the secrets being released could haunt the place. She imagined them like small ghosts, bobbing out in the dim hallway.
From the train tracks across the way came the wail of a freight train—its fuming whistle seemed to shake the windows of the school. Masha looked out at the now-dark street, thinking of the evening last year when she had driven out to the west side of town, gotten out of the car, and walked onto the train tracks. She had tried to determine a way to position herself so that the train would hit only her leg. She had read online about people who had been successful with this method and also people who had lost their lives doing it. She had liked her life, but knew it wouldn't be complete until she lost her leg. It was at that moment as the train had rounded the corner—its white headlight like a meteor hurtling toward her in the dark—that Masha had realized just how desperate she had become. She knew then that she had to do something and do it soon.
She had liked her life, but knew it wouldn't be complete until she lost her leg.
"And then what happened?"
"Right," Masha said, shaking off the memory. "A year later, I got a job as an assistant at the downtown library. That's when I met George. He was looking for books on local hikes. The one book he really wanted was checked out, so I told him I'd call him when it came back in. Once the book was returned, we ended up on the phone for an hour and a half. We were married only ten months later."
"Did he know about your obsession with your leg?"
"No, he had no idea. I've never told anyone apart from one guy I thought I might marry back in college named Lennie. One night after I got trashed at a party, I told him about it. He broke up with me two days later. He said I needed professional help. I said, no, I needed a good surgeon."
Masha gripped the handles of her crutches, remembering the alarm in Lennie's eyes. She had realized then that no one could ever truly know her.
"There are surgeons that do that sort of thing. Not here in the U.S., but in Asia and South America. I had seriously considered it, but could never really do anything about it because by then George and I ended up having two kids—two boys. They're seven and nine now. Then one night two years ago, I found out about a surgeon in Russia. Someone on one of the message boards said that this surgeon—Dr. Anastasia Molova—had amputated her leg for her."
Masha paused, remembering that evening—how George had been making dinner in the kitchen while she had been on her computer doing research. When she had gasped at her luck over finding a surgeon in Russia, George had asked what was going on. In response, Masha had said she was just excited to find out that her co-worker had had her baby. That had been the start of all the lies.
"I finally had an excuse to leave. To go and do it."
"What was so special about the doctor in Russia?"
"Because if I were to tell George I was going to Asia or South America, it wouldn't have added up. But my mother was born in Russia and I have relatives still living in Yarslovl, so telling him I was going to Russia would seem plausible. Anyway, I sent the doctor a long email, pleading my case."
"Did you hear back from her?"
"Not right away. Each time I checked my email and found no reply, I grew more and more depressed. George couldn't understand what was wrong with me. I told him I wasn't feeling well, which hadn't been a lie. But it marked the beginning of all the dishonesty. I moped around and checked my email incessantly. I withdrew. I stopped eating. I started drinking. George took over the cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to school, to soccer and appointments while I laid in bed and watched Bettie Davis movies and drank scotch."
Masha swallowed back her pain at the memory. She had thought George might leave her and take the boys. He never said that he would, but she could see the frustration in him building. He had stopped asking her what was wrong, which had been a clear indication that he was unhappy. Normally he had doted on her, trying anything to please her.
"And then one day when I wasn't expecting it, I got the email. By the time it came, I had given up hope. But there it was in my inbox—my original subject line in bold staring back at me. When I opened it, my hands were shaking so hard I could barely scroll through it. Dr. Molova said she would do the amputation and that it would cost $5,000. In the grand scheme of things, that's not that much. I would have paid four or five times that amount. Hoping this day might come, I had been saving money—money I could have put towards the boys' college funds. Needless to say, I kept the bank account a secret from George. A week later, I withdrew all the money and told George I had to go to Russia with my mother to see my aunt who was gravely ill."
"Did you worry that your mother might find out about this?"
"She lives in New York. She's become too old to fly out here and I've been too busy with the kids. We occasionally email, but it's not like George sees her or speaks to her. Besides, I decided in advance that I would tell my mother after I returned that I had been to Russia and lost my leg while there."
"When you eventually told her, how did she take the news?"
Masha couldn't help but laugh when she thought of her mother on the phone the day Masha had told her. She could almost see her mother shrugging on the other end of the phone as, true to form, she had said, "At least you have your health. At least two arms, two eyes. Two legs? Who knows? Do I need two legs anymore? No. I sit all day. You will be old soon, too."
It was one of the few times she had been thankful for having such a taciturn mother. But thinking of her now in the Mechta Home for the Aging, Masha frowned. Since she and her sister had moved her in, Masha had been to visit her mother only twice. It had always been a relief that the place was quiet and quaint, filled with people from Eastern Europe. Masha also took solace in the memory of her mother's response after Masha had asked her if she was sad to be living there now. Coupled with her usual unaffected gaze, her mother had said, "I am grom baba. Thunder Woman. You know I will be fine." However, it made Masha cringe when she really thought about how alone her mother must feel sometimes. While her sister lived nearby, she had a family of her own and a demanding job as a head nurse at New York Presbyterian.
"How did you explain the leg to everyone?"
"I told everyone that I had been on my way to visit my aunt in Yarslovl, but was in a cab accident and lost my leg. In reality, I met Dr. Molova in a Russian hospital north of Moscow. When I walked into the hospital, I remember the whole place smelled like iodine and something sweet. I kept thinking it was the smell of medicine and hope."
"Was it a legitimate hospital?"
"Yes, I researched it beforehand. And the woman who told me about Dr. Molova in the first place had assured me that it was all on the up and up."
This was partially true; however, the part about researching it outside of that wasn't. Masha had merely crossed her fingers and hoped she would come out of it alive. It had become that important to her that she part with her left leg.
Dr. Molova had been younger and prettier than Masha had anticipated. There had been a softness to her she hadn't expected and when she had squeezed Masha's hand across the desk during their consultation and said, "I know how much this means to you. I am married to one of you," Masha had relaxed a little and also crinkled her brow. Dr. Molova seemed to recognize Masha's confusion and said, "My husband suffered from BIID also. I blinded him five months ago."
Dr. Molova seemed to recognize Masha's confusion and said, "My husband suffered from BIID also. I blinded him five months ago."
Even Masha had gasped at the comment. "Blinded him?"
"Yes, he had wanted to lose his sight since he was a child. I saw firsthand how he suffered. So I did it for him. I intubated him and poured bleach into his eyes. That is how much I love him."
But Masha didn't tell the listener any of that. How could the listener ever understand such a thing? Only someone in Masha's or Dr. Molova's husband's position could ever truly comprehend such a particular suffering.
"So I had the surgery. One day I was consulting with the doctor and two days later I was waking up in the hospital minus my left leg exactly two inches above the knee the way I requested."
"You were alone?"
"They kept me for two nights and then I was released."
"No one helped you recover?"
"Honestly, I was so elated, I hardly noticed the pain. Waking up in that recovery room was the experience I had waited for my entire life. It was that one moment that I believe we all strive for on some subliminal level—that one crystalized point in time when everything comes together as it should and for that moment you are your true self. Nothing else matters. Only that moment."
Masha shivered, remembering the artificial light and antiseptic smell in the room, and also the weight that had been lifted, making her surroundings feel as if she were lying in a cloud.
"So I returned home with one less leg, feeling like I was whole."
"And how did your husband react?"
"I called him ahead of time and told him that I had been in a wreck. Naturally, he wanted to come to Russia and get me, but I told him not to. He needed to be with the kids and I would be home soon. But I'll never forget his face as I met him at baggage claim."
"Tell me about it."
"It was like he was looking at someone else—like he couldn't comprehend who I was. The funny thing is I felt he was seeing who I truly was for the first time."
Masha remembered the silence that followed them home. George could barely speak. His eyes had filled with tears as he stared hard out the windshield and gripped the steering wheel.
"That's quite a story—quite a secret," the listener said.
Masha checked her phone, realizing their time was almost up.
"But that's not the worst of it. I could have lived with all that if it wasn't for everything else that came afterward."
"What else happened?"
Masha breathed a discreet sigh of relief, realizing the listener wasn't in a rush. "Well, at first I felt great, but I had to feign depression over the loss of my leg. George pushed for me to get a prosthesis, but I kept saying I wasn't ready—that it was all too much to take on. The truth is, I like having nothing below my knee. A prosthesis would feel too much like a leg in some way. But the worst part was the horror in my sons' eyes those first few weeks I was back home. I vowed to myself that I wouldn't be a burden on them or on George. I would learn to get around as easily as I had with two legs. But then I developed the infection."
Masha recalled the dull, painful thud that had been creeping below her knee for over a week before she told George about it. By then it had been almost too late.
"An infection cropped up at the sight of the amputation and I had to be hospitalized. Meanwhile, George's mother fell and hit her head at her house in South Dakota. Luckily, George's brother lived nearby and could be with her after she slipped into a coma and had to be hospitalized, but it shook George. Obviously he wanted to go see his mother, but he refused to leave my side. The infection in my leg had become dire by then. They were worried about Sepsis. And we have no one here to look after the boys. And then it just got worse," Masha bit her lip, feeling tears prick the corners of her eyes. "His mother died. George never even got to say goodbye to her. Because of me."
For months the guilt had intermittently snuck beneath her skin to take up residence between her bones at the most unexpected times—when she would be at the library, at the boys' soccer games, doing laundry. The feeling ripped at her and exhausted her. Now, she clenched her jaw as she felt it creep back into her again and tie itself like a tourniquet around her heart. She had thought that by telling someone her secret, she could release the guilt, but it was still there, tight as ever, dividing her from the outside world.
"I can feel the guilt physically," she put her closed fist against her chest, feeling her heart pounding beneath her shirt. "It feels like something is squeezing me inside—like I can't breathe. I know how dramatic that sounds, but it's true."
There was a pause before the listener said, "You can't go back in time. There's no use in regretting what cannot be changed. You can only move forward."
Outside, Masha could see a few people returning to their cars in the parking lot. She could see two women hugging one another like they were friends who were congratulating each other on releasing their secrets. She wished she could feel their relief.
"If only I could have been stronger and lived with my left leg. If only I had been a Thunder Woman, as my mother would say."
"If only I could have been stronger and lived with my left leg. If only I had been a Thunder Woman, as my mother would say."
"Don't be so tough on yourself. It sounds like you've been through a lot and have been pretty brave throughout."
"You're only brave if you're afraid."
"You were never afraid?"
"I wasn't afraid going into it. It was only afterwards that I was afraid. I was afraid that George would find out. That the kids would find out. That I'd lose them."
"Do you think you'll ever tell your husband?"
Masha had often thought of telling George after the boys were in college someday, but knew it would inevitably get back to them and they may never forgive her for what she had done to them and to their father. It was too risky.
"Probably not," she said. "It's a shame that nobody can ever really know who I am. George probably knows me better than anyone and there's so much I never share with him… or with anyone."
"Nobody can ever see all sides of us at once," the listener said. "Nobody but ourselves. And even then sometimes we don't really know who we are entirely."
Masha sighed. "It's a lonely feeling."
The listener turned around for the first time, signaling that their time was up. She was merely a dark shape with long hair in the low lighting. Masha stood and tucked her crutches beneath her armpits. As if she could hear Masha getting up to leave, the listener rose and gave what looked like a slight bow. "Thank you for sharing your story with me," she said. "Your secret is safe with me."
Outside in the empty parking lot, Masha wondered if anyone's secrets were ever safe. Once they were released, they were no longer ours—they now belonged to someone else as well, and in that sense, they were no longer truly secrets.
From out of the dark, another train emerged, racing past the parking lot, hurling its earsplitting whistle into the night. The rattle of the wheels on the tracks as the train sped past reminded Masha of the listener's words: There's no use in regretting what cannot be changed. You can only move forward. She imagined the tourniquet untying itself inside her chest. She took a slow breath, watching the train run away into the opaque distance, its red tail lamps flickering above the tracks. She imagined her secret running away with the train. Telling it hadn't killed her like she thought it might. She straightened her shirt, watching the last of the taillights on the train fade and wink out. Then she took in another long breath, got into her car, and drove home.
Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Arizona. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, 2 Bridges Review, Pamplemousse, The Heavy Feather Review, and others. She lives in Tucson, Arizona where she teaches English to adult refugees.