It all started out as a game, okay? A challenge. It was never meant to be a serious trespass into Sinistrae. Some places are defined by hereditarily determined boundaries, others, by long-standing custom. The troublesome ones are those occupied by usurpation alone –metastases from neighbouring states. Pretenders to the throne. Forced, not invited.
I refer, of course, to how it all started. An aging friend, Jeffrey, said he’d read somewhere that his brain was plastic and could be reshaped. For some reason, he felt it was a good idea; he’d never liked the one he’d been issued, and was anxious to change it before it was too late. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant -and I don’t think he had read all of the instructions either- but apparently it involved using the other hand to brush your teeth. This simple act, he assured me, would reprogram my brain and develop new and really helpful pathways. In his case, it was probably a good idea.
I have always been satisfied with my neurons, though. They’re pretty standard-issue, I suppose, but I wear them comfortably. They’ve always been fairly good at following orders, and although they’re getting a little yellow in the teeth, and doze off on occasions, all things considered, they’re good fellows. We get along.
But I have to say, curiosity got the better of me one morning when I was staring into the bathroom mirror, neurons set on auto pilot. One of them obviously hadn’t yet bothered to connect with its neighbour –probably a clogged synapse, or something- and I picked up the toothbrush in my left hand. It felt delightfully naughty, like I was getting on a plane to New Zealand on a whim. Unpacked. Unprepared. Open for adventure…
The first thing I noticed was the direction of my teeth –I’d never really thought about them like that before. I mean, I knew they were all lined up like fence posts, but so many…? I found myself struggling to scrape the brush in parallel lines, and with just enough force to be able to stop in time to avoid damaging adjacent organs. Lips, I suppose, are used to stuff like that from eating large nuts, but they still seemed a tad surprised at the blood.
Although I persisted in the reverse-brushing, I have to say I never really got very good at it. And if the intent had been to improve my neural pathways, I must have been training them incorrectly. There was no statistically demonstrable improvement in their accuracy at identifying just why I had opened the fridge door, and I don’t think they were they any better at finding the inevitably missing sock in the dryer. However, in fairness to the study, I did notice that I was getting better at putting the toothpaste on the brush and I was quite pleased –until I realized that I had assigned that hitherto demeaning task to my right hand. And no, it wasn’t particularly happy with the job either, and went out of its way to make it feel awkward, but it’s work, eh? We all have to survive.
Anyway, the whole exercise made me realize just how dependent I am on dextromanuity, and I decided to change all of that –push the limits. I began to drink with my left hand, pour with my left hand, and reach for things sinistrally. Like the word, it felt fresh and exciting; I loved the new me. It was almost as if Retirement had finally allowed me to wear a different identity…
Allowed? Or was it forcing me…? The thought occurred to me in bed one night. I got up for a glass of water, I think, and had ended up eating the hard, fuzzy remnants of a pizza my left hand found on a bottom shelf -just after it discovered a pile of cookies I’d hidden in the butter compartment for safe keeping. And as I lay in bed, heartburn threatening, I suddenly realized that my right hand would never have found those things. It grew up with the rules and didn’t have to extemporize all the time. I had inadvertently unleashed a monster. The new me was becoming increasingly sinister, and alien. I couldn’t shake the thought that I had become a disease –three AM does that to me sometimes, though: thoughts are stochastic; solutions are evanescent.
First thing in the morning I phoned Jeffrey, the tooth-brush apostate to check how he was coping. He dropped the phone on the floor –but I put that down to the time. He probably wasn’t walking around like me at 5 o’clock. Anyway, at first I could only hear him gumming his way through several fine curses, but then after something tinkled like glass, and the heavy sound of a bed being scraped roughly over a floor, his enunciation improved somewhat and he agreed to meet me at Tim Horton’s at seven. He made me promise to pay, though.
As soon as I saw him, I could tell that we were both sizing each other up. He carried his coffee cup in both hands, and I was deliberately eating my breakfast sandwich with both hands, too -opening salvoes. Simple shots across our respective bows.
“So how come you phoned so early?” he said, placing his cup equidistant from each edge of the table in front of him.
I noticed that the buttons on his shirt were in the wrong holes and he had one left over at the top. But given where he buys his clothes, I thought maybe he’d got it on sale. “I guess I was just up then,” I hedged, unwilling to admit anything before he did.
He reached for the coffee with both hands again, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world; pretending as well, that he wasn’t at all concerned that I was watching his every move. “Boy, they’re really making this stuff hotter than they used to.” He put the coffee back down and blew on his hands as if he’d just sustained a third degree burn.
It was a weak excuse. “So how are you doing Jeffrey?” I said, so he wouldn’t overdo the alibi. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” That, too, was weak, but we were both so busy skirting the issue that we were reduced to the most basic of banalities.
He straightened in his chair and mounted an almost beatific smile that I’d never seen him use before. “Never been better, actually.” But the strain of even saying that wrinkled his mouth and a tiny smudge of tooth peeked out, then quickly dipped back into the shadows as if it had disobeyed instructions.
In fact, that all too brief glimpse of enamel made me realize that he’d been hiding stuff in there. I pretended not to notice, but I’m terrible at subterfuge, and I think I pointed. Of course, I pretended my finger was aimed at somebody walking by, but now he knew I knew. I could tell, because he abandoned all pretence of using both hands, and grabbed his cup aggressively in his right.
And I could tell I was witnessing an important and long overdue catharsis. The blissful expression segued seamlessly into a snarl. Then a chuckle followed by a shrug. “It seemed like a good idea when I read about it…” He sent his eyes over to interrogate my face. Gently, though -self-consciously- and I could barely feel them land. “Made me really confused.” His eyes took off again and flitted about the ceiling, hunting desperately for a roost. “I kept swallowing the toothpaste.”
I nodded. Some things were universals.
“And pretty soon my left hand tried to take over things it wasn’t designed for.” When I smiled in sympathy, he took that as an admission that I, too, had been forced to reign mine in. “Damned things are so competitive, eh?”
I nodded and was about to tell him about the fridge when he suddenly leaned across the table and opened his mouth. One of his front teeth were missing. “When you phoned this morning, it beat my right hand to the glass and dropped my teeth on the floor.” He shook his head angrily and stared at his left hand. “Clumsy bugger…”
I smiled in sympathy. “I’ve decided to cut mine off…”
His eyes locked on my face and his left hand involuntarily reached for mine.
I felt the grasp and laughed. “No, I mean if I keep using it, I’m gonna end up with diabetes.” I told him about the fridge.
We both laughed and then he stood up to leave. He apparently had been so busy looking for the tooth that he hadn’t had time for a shower. We were both relieved that we’d had a chance to talk -had a chance to see the folly from each other’s perspective. I didn’t feel as bad at abandoning the experiment as I’d thought, and hope that it would be easy for us both to undo glimmered like the first hint of dawn… Until he extended his left hand to say goodbye, and mine, without the slightest hesitation, shot out to greet it.