My friend Alice tells me soon after my husband dies that one day I’ll get out of bed and need to be touched. Skin-to-skin contact. When this happens, she’ll sit on my couch and wrap her arm around my shoulders as we watch TV. She’ll section my hair into the three ropes of a braid. She’ll rub vanilla lotion onto my feet and paint my toenails tangerine. What we do? It doesn’t matter, Alice says. What matters is touch.
Alice, I say, you are wrong. I am so beyond touch.
I develop an appreciation for TV dinners served with a side of green-bean casserole. My favorite is the Swedish meatballs with sour-cream gravy and pasta, which I buy in bulk at Safeway. One week the thumb of the skinny teenager at the cash register grazes my palm as he hands me my receipt. He has severe acne and square glasses. I look at my hand and realize it’s been at least three weeks since anybody—anybody—has touched me.
Week 1: Alice buys me three months with a masseuse, one session a week. It’s a lavish gift, and I’m so furious I go to the salon to ask for a refund. A lot of people feel awkward at first, the woman at the counter says. Her hair is bright pink and she wears thick make-up that doesn’t quite cover the stubble of a dark beard. No refunds, no exchanges. You might as well try it.
So I find myself stomach down in a dimly lit room staring at the carpet through a face-hole in the table. Under my towel I’m still wearing my bra and underpants. It’s worse than being at the doctor’s office, this forced intimacy. And the music? The ridiculous mash-up of flutes and squawking birds and rain? I can’t be expected to take this seriously. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait.
Week 4: Today the room is especially warm. Or maybe I’m having a hot flash. I can’t tell. After two weeks I let the bra go, but I still retain the underpants. Since we met, Tricia has changed her hair color twice. Today it’s a glossy purple, like an eggplant. Her oiled hands are tenacious, and as she kneads my upper back, she answers my questions about what muscles she’s working. She traces with her finger where the erector spinae muscles attach to the upper thoracic vertebrae. I’m an illustrated side of meat in a cookbook. Mostly, though, she’s quiet. I decide I like this about her.
Later, when Alice and I are sitting on my couch eating corn chips and watching Jeopardy, she tells me she has standing appointments with Tricia and also with Ben at Hairworks and Brianna at Forever Nails. She plucks up a napkin from the coffee table and writes down their phone numbers.
Week 8: By now I have learned that sometimes, as Tricia pummels away at the backs of my thighs, I can tolerate a memory or two of George. The first thing I remember are the bottles of strawberry soda he occasionally brought home because he knew I liked them. We never celebrated birthdays or anniversaries, and we bought and wrapped our own Christmas gifts. In more personal matters, George was not big down there, but I had no complaints. I’d been with other men, of course, and I knew the ins and outs of male-female relations. Frankly, I’d found it all a bit ho-hum. But George had imagination. We were never ho-hum.
The night of his funeral I went back to our marital bed. I swapped our pillows and slept on his side of the mattress.
Week 12: At the beginning of our final session, Tricia pours me a glass of chardonnay. She’s never done this before, although I’ve seen it listed on the counter sign as an option. It’s on me, she says, seeing my confusion.
On the table, she continues to focus on a knot deep in my cervical flexors. Today, she figures it out, she finds my trigger point and strums my anterior scalene until the catch in my throat lets go. I’m on my back and I feel as pliant as warm sand. I’ll admit it—the wine and the heat, the music and the touch—it’s all very nice. But my time with Tricia is a luxury, and I’m not an extravagant woman.
Just before our session ends, I peek at her through half-closed eyes. Other than the dye-job and the gold ring she wears in her nose, I hardly know what she looks like. I haven’t paid attention, and I regret this. Now, blurred through my eyelashes, I see a woman with full lips chomping on peppermint gum. A woman with large hands and the plumpness of a rump roast. Lines of concentration score her forehead, and the shadow of a beard blossoms through her make-up.