The man sitting across from her had massive, knotted hands. Susannah first noticed them when he had grasped the handrail on the train ceiling to steady himself as he scanned the half-empty train for a seat. They clasped the cold metal like bear claws. The train had lurched, and the old man nearly lost his balance before settling heavily into the seat across from her. Now he was seated with his gnarled, leathery hands folded gently in his lap, staring blankly ahead, as if he was cradling something precious and fragile between his palms.
She looked down at her own hands, thick palms and short fingers. She had never liked her hands; they were too stubby and masculine. She fidgeted with the sleeves of her sweater, pushing them back down her forearms and attempting to stretch them further over her wrists.
Just last week she had gone with her fiancé Robert to look at wedding rings, and at the end of the day, exhausted and frustrated with herself, she had simply told him to surprise her. She wasn’t sure if she trusted Robert’s judgment when it came to jewelry, but the truth of the matter had been that she didn’t really like any of the rings she tried on. Behind the pristine crystal of the glass they were elegant and shining, with slender gold or silver bands, but when she slipped them on her fingers they became garish and gaudy, like the costume jewelry her grandmother used to let her play with as a girl. She hated the way the flesh of her fingers looked against the hard refined metal. Robert told her that every one of them was beautiful and she had smiled at him, thankful for the words. Of course Robert would say that.
The train rattled noisily along the track, leaning slightly with the turn. She stole another look at the old man’s knotted hands. She saw that he was not wearing a ring, but upon closer inspection, she noticed a stark white tan line on his left-hand ring finger where his wedding band should have been. She found herself wondering incongruously how he managed to get the ring over his swollen knuckles.
She recalled the hands of her grandmother—delicate fingers and thick knuckles, covered in thin, almost translucent skin. Her joints had swelled with arthritis as she aged, while the meat of her fingers seemed to melt away, allowing the rings to shift haphazardly from side to side. She was constantly twisting her engagement ring around to make sure that the diamond faced the right way.
The month before Susannah’s grandmother died, she had been so thin and sick from the cancer that walking to the bathroom unassisted had been impossible. Susannah could still see the thin angles of her body and the pink cloth she wore around her bald head. Susannah and her mother came to visit her often, and Robert joined them when he could. Her grandmother loved Robert, and would always ask after him when he didn’t come. One such day, when Susannah and her mother were the only visitors, she had looked up at them from her hospital bed with those happy, but profoundly tired eyes, filled with unusual determination. She made some joke about the pain killers and then asked after Robert, as she always did. When Susannah told her that he was working, her grandmother tried to take the rings off her fingers. She told Susannah that even though she had worn them all these years after Susannah’s grandfather died, she wanted Susannah to have them for her wedding day with Robert. But, no matter which way she twisted the rings, she had not been able to pull them over her swollen knuckles. She called for a nurse to bring some soap, but Susannah and her mother insisted she keep them. Neither wanted to admit the truth of the situation. Taking the rings would be like saying she was already dead.
When she did pass away, after months of pain and chemo, Susannah’s mom asked the undertaker to collect the rings, but he told her apologetically that he would have to remove her finger to get to them. Her mother, ever a superstitious and squeamish woman, had glanced at Susannah with pleading eyes as the color drained from her face. So Grandma had been buried with the rings still on her hand.
Susannah knew that her grandmother had wanted more than anything to live to see Robert put those rings on Susannah’s hand at the altar, but she hadn’t made it that far. Susannah felt a pang of guilt. She and Robert could have pushed the wedding forward, as her mother had suggested, but it all had felt too rushed. The world was tightening around her and she couldn’t quite force herself to push forward. It was selfish of her—the wedding would happen anyway. It was going to happen soon, very soon. What had been the point of waiting?
Soon she would be married without her grandmother’s rings and without her assuring gaze in the audience. Someone could probably remove them now, Susannah thought gruesomely.
She briefly studied her own hands again before glancing across the aisle of the train. The old man was gone. She hadn’t noticed him leave. She hadn’t even noticed the train had stopped. She looked down at her hands again, and supposed that, though they were very plain, they were still young and capable. She opened and closed them carefully, flipping them over and bending them again. She hoped her wedding rings would get stuck on her fingers too.