He wore a simple plain band around the ring finger of his left hand, flouting the requirement of marriage the habit traditionally supposes. It did not look like a wedding ring, seeming too thin and delicate. Nor was it gold--soft, radiant, and of great value, an appropriate symbol of the institution at its best. No, it was a low grade of silver, purchased at discount or stolen outright from an unknown shop or display case somewhere in Manhattan, with the approximate resale value of a paperclip, but the emotional weight of platinum.
She had given it to him four years ago, slid it onto his right index finger, for which it was just slightly too small. Hyperextending the digit flattened the joint, allowed the ring to be pushed back over the formerly smooth skin between it and the knuckle, skin that now, to his great private chagrin, had a sparse covering of tiny hairs. It made him self-conscious when holding onto rails in crowded subway cars, nervous when he lit a female stranger's cigarette. He felt simian, unevolved, and in the bizarre but not uncommon combination of egocentricity and self-disgust, presumed every part of his person to be the focus of judgemental scrutiny, but no parts moreso than those which were so visibly flawed. Of course, no one had mentioned this development of age, but then who would; to do so would be unsconscionably rude of a stranger, or even a casual acquaintance. Only friends, great friends, close, personal friends, had the right to remark freely upon one's flaws. And even then, such a thing is better left one's lover, with whom other boundaries of intimacy and closeness of flesh had already been broken down.
No one had remarked upon his flaws for over a year.
"Hm," she chewed her lip, seeing the ring, her ring, on his finger for the first time. "I don't like it." He didn't either; it pinched, made the flesh around it look puffy and fat, added a daintiness to the entire hand he felt certain did not flatter him.
"It doesn't really go on this finger," he said.
"It's too round."
"It's a ring."
"Not too circular, stupid. Too round."
She laughed, and pulled the ring off with enough effort that he could feel, see, and hear his finger separate from the joint. It made the pop of a tiny suction cup, the kind at the tip of a novelty dart being yanked away from glass. The skin shifted over the straining of ligament and bone.
"That finger always did that, right?"
He grimaced and nodded his head as if the experience were entirely new, and entirely her fault. She knew it was not, and smiled again at his comical, exaggerated faux-stoicism. She laughed a lot when she was with him.
Holding his left hand by the wrist up to the level of her mouth, she kissed it, made it all better and better and better, kissing in succession each digit the ring was tried on and did not fit. Lifting her eyes to his, and pulling him close, it ended up loosely around the one he wore it on four years later, still an imperfect fit, though now additionally scratched, beaten, and dull.
Cold weather contracts the flesh. Metal, conducting that cold directly to the skin, becomes a constant reminder of its own presence, sending bolts of iciness through the nervous system whenever it touches. Intermittently full contact, the result of the body's shrinking away from it, prevents the body from acclamating, accepting the ring as a permanent fixture. Every time he felt it, he felt it freshly, and remained perpetually aware of its hardness, its temperature, the fact that it didn't belong on his person.
He had never been married.
"You can't wear it there," she looked down at the hand curling over her shoulder, the ring pressing on the soft, naked skin below her collar bone and above her breast.
"Why not? You put it there."
"So? You're not married. It's bad luck."
"It doesn't go on the other fingers, though."
"Then put it on your other ring finger on your other hand."
"I don't think I can. Doesn't that mean I'm in a gay marriage?"
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."
"Doesn't mean it's not true."
"Suit yourself. When I'm swept off my feet by some random guy, don't come crying."
"You'd have to get a divorce from your imaginary husband first, you idiot. Take it off."
She grabbed the ring, put it on the nightstand.
"It's bad luck."
He fiddled with it in restaurants. Rocked it back and force with this thumb in elevators, tapped it against the arms of his chair at work. Occasionally--no, frequently--he would touch his hand to his face, feigning an itch or displaying a weariness he truly felt but which was always attributed by people to something else, some lesser problem they could feel comfortable discussing, even if they suspected more. He had started his life over while wearing that ring; met his new friends, took a new job, made certain it had been seen. Popular opinion held him married.
Did he have the credibility of an adult, he wondered? Did people have more understanding, more sympathy, because the ordinary troubles of a single man were now thought of as more serious 'troubles at home?' Even unimportant people could have important problems. Was that the message of the ring?
He didn't like that idea of himself. Too desperate, too small and scared.
Doesn't mean it's not true.
"Do you love him?"
Half the apartment was already in the rented van
downstairs on the street
. He sat in sickened stillness on the side of the stripped bed
(the bedclothes were all hers) while she flitted from drawer
to drawer collecting the last remnants
of her time
"If I did, would it change things?"
He'd surprised her at home. She'd wanted to do this while he was gone, and be gone by the time he was back. Intuition had him take a long lunch. He saw the silhouette of the van, a black shape double-parked precisely where a week's worth of sleepless nights had told him it would be, from three blocks away. He expected--or hoped for--a sensation of calm to come with finally knowing, with the end of waiting for her get around to leaving him.
Instead, he felt fear and disbelief, compounded by the anxiety of his emotions having taken him by surprise. She betrayed him; he betrayed himself. This was the sickness he sat with on the bed, sat with until she'd gone, and wasn't coming back.
Her ghost filled the room. He could feel it prickle his skin, push on his chest when he walked through it. It laid on her side of the bed, kept its things in empty drawers, jumped out at him from the closet, moving on a lingering perfume he'd one day later smell on another woman and not be able to place.
It led him to the ring.
Crowned by a layer of dust and hiding beneath the nightstand, it had not been touched for the last four years. It had not been touched by the last four years. It was the same ring. It didn't know.
It's bad luck.
Once in a while, he met someone new, went on a date. The women varied in age, character, history, but all saw a finger bound to someone or something else. He claimed he was separated or divorced, even widowed--said this or that. To some it made a difference, others didn't care. If he went home with someone, it was always one of the others; until he could care, he didn't feel he deserved a woman who did. Or so went the self-sacrificing story he told himself.
To the woman he wanted, though, the woman who looked into his eyes, touched his hand gently, and glanced with a sympathetically thin smile at the dented, bruised old ring, he was unavailable.
You're not married.
He wore it because it saved him. It gave a reason for his pain, his suffering, and his cowardice. Made it acceptable to be alone, just by being on a certain finger of a certain hand. It made a choice.
It doesn't really go on this finger.
Stepping off the N train at Union Square, he saw her. She stood gracefully in heels and a long skirt, longer than she'd ever worn when they were together. A short denim jacket, collar turned up; brown hair in long pony tail at the back. He'd seen a million backs just like hers, he thought. But this one, somehow, he knew.
In the split-second he had to move on, he did not. The ring burned with his desire to vanish it. His fingers twisted around to protect it as she turned around.
"Oh, hi...how are you?"
He was fine.
"And how's work?"
It was fine.
She'd seen the ring. Seen it, and did not remember; forgot she'd given it to him, perhaps forgotten everything--and in a moment of rage, or despair, or shock, it fell to nothing. Without moving any part of his hand, he felt for it. He groped with memory and sadness, searched with a year long expectation. It was not there.
A laugh she could not understand escaped his lips as he looked down to the ring, still visible on his finger, but otherwise impercetible. With ease he'd never thought possible, he slid it off his finger and flipped it like a penny he'd found on the sidewalk.
"No, no. I'm just an unwed husband."
He smirked, and pushed the ring into a deep pocket.
"It was too round, anyway."
She smiled through her confusion, holding up as best she could to a gaze that wasn't looking for anything as much as it was asking her to see. It was fearless and intense, reminding her of a man she used to know and had loved.
Of course, he kept it, because a person keeps things. But as he rubbed the skin from white back to the color of living flesh, and remarked that the indentation had not in fact gone down to the bone, he thought of something gold and soft that fit.