Touch

I woke, barely half-conscious in the dark. I had been dreaming, but as I grasped for what of, all the details slipped away. There was just a lingering feeling of elsewhere. Pema stirred at my side, digging her foot into the backside of my knee. Was she awake? Quickly, my mind stitched together the completeness of me. I was asleep. That is, I must be awake. My daughter was at my side. A pale block of light came through the open window. Not yet morning. The curtain fluttered, and a cool breeze ruffled my skin. Would Pema be warm enough? Then, finally, like a soft light approaching through fog, it dawned on me that a sound was playing in my ears, a soft falling rain. Following the tether of my ears, my mind climbed out the window and beheld the dark purple clouds, illuminated at the edges by the gibbous moon. I was asleep.

 

*

 

I had been in the kitchen for nearly two hours when Francis and his mother walked in. I was preparing food for the coming week while Pema slept, and a pile of dishes now sat by the sink. The pressure cooker hissed softly at the edge of the stove. It was not quite eight o’clock.

 

“Hi Joe,” Francis said, evidently wide awake and alert. “Where are you going?” This is usually one of his first questions.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” I answered, opening the door of the oven, which produced an off-color, metallic squeal.

 

“You’re going to your room?” he asked.

 

“No,” I said, bending over to pull a hot tray from the oven. I stood up and placed it on the stovetop. “I’m trying to get some things done before Pema wakes up.” I began stirring the contents, a roasted cereal made from ground oats and wheat berries, then looked up at Francis who had been deposited on the counter next to me. “Where’s Pema?” he asked, his next most common question. His mother reached up to rifle through the cupboard. “Did you hear the rain last night?” she asked.

 

“Yeah,” I replied, a soft smile on my face as I recalled the pale moonlight, the breeze. I bent down to return the tray, then grabbed another. I stood up and looked Francis in the eye. “She’s still sleeping,” I said.

 

*

 

I woke again. It could have been hours, maybe minutes. Either way it was still dark and the sound of gently falling rain played through the open window. I listened more consciously. Rain in the desert is rare, but this was the rarest of all. Around this time of year, as anvil-shaped clouds roam the mesas and valleys, it usually comes in torrents if it comes at all. Only once or twice a year do I witness the steady, gentle thrum of a sustained rainfall. I turned onto my back, eyeing the curtain above my head. Gauzy and white, it seemed to glow with a faint blue light. The hem danced slowly across the window sill, adjusting constantly to the shifting breeze. Suddenly, it lifted high into the room and I could feel my skin prickle with gooseflesh. Through the screen, I saw the silhouette of the cottonwood tree out front, its massive branches swaying in the wind. Pema rolled onto her side.

 

*

 

Closing the oven door, I turned to the roving, metal island in the middle of the floor, full of pots and pans, upon whose butcher block counter I had left my breakfast. Dropping the spatula in a mixing bowl, I looked at Francis, who now sat at the kitchen table with a bowl of oatmeal.

 

“I got a big piece!” he shouted, holding up his spoon for his mother and me to see. On top of a thin smear of milky-gray oatmeal was a sliver of sliced date, thick and maroon. He had been picking them out.

 

“Nice,” I said. I picked up my bowl, a breakfast of sautéed veggies with two over-cooked eggs on top, and took a step toward the opposite table.

 

“The dates are mixed into the whole bowl, sweetheart,” said his mother.

 

“Will you sit with us?” asked Francis.

 

*

 

Pema grazed my hip, then fidgeted. A strong breeze covered us as the curtain, hanging in midair, was sucked back into the screen. “Pema,” I whispered, feeling her shift uncomfortably next to me. She didn’t answer. The wind quieted and the curtain fell limp, the hem once again stirring innocently over the windowsill. “Pema,” I said, but again no answer. I felt her arms flail wildly, as if she were angry at something. I reached over, slowly brushing her with the back of my forearm, but she didn’t respond.

 

*

 

Mouth wide, Francis allowed his mother to scoop the last bite of oatmeal into his mouth, then hopped off the chair. He ambled uncertainly for a second or two, swinging his arms, looking for something to do, then stepped directly in front of me and began to say something, probably “Where’s Pema?” But before he could say anything I reached out and gave him a ticklish poke. “Blaht!” I shouted. He giggled and twisted his body, first left then right. His mother laughed and then stood up to wash the dishes.

 

“Bling!” I shouted, firing my tickler rapidly, but at long enough intervals to allow a sense of calm to sneak through. “Blim blam!” Francis laughed joyously, happy to have my undivided attention. I worked him good, a few good jabs around the belly, then soft pokes around the neck and ears, keeping him on his toes. “Blark. Blip. Bim bop!” His arms followed, trying to block my advances, but I was too quick for him. Finally, he doubled over into my lap in a riot of laughter. I snuck a couple final shots on his back, then eased up. Rolling, Francis made his way up my legs and sat, like a king, on my lap.

 

“Where’s Pema?” he asked.

 

“She’s sleeping,” I told him, “but I should probably go check on her soon.”

 

I could feel Francis’s weight shift easily over my legs. Accustomed to my hefty five year-old, Francis felt like a featherweight. I let my hand fall on his shoulder, his leg, and he drifted back into my chest. I began rubbing his head, then his ears. “Pema loves it when I do this,” I said. “Something about the ears.” I pressed each one gently, pulling slightly in each direction, tugging on his earlobes. He relaxed into it, and I could feel the youthful alertness of his body hang limp, as if his whole body was drooling.

 

“Well goodness moodness,” I said, “You’re awfully snuggly today.” But I was really talking to myself. I relished the moment, so rare, to be physical with Francis. “You know,” I said to Francis’s mother, “I hardly get to do this.” I could feel the pressure of his warm body against mine, and I could almost have cried.

 

*

 

My whole life I have been a bit awkward. I am the kind of person who sits at a table and knows where everyone’s knees are - in order that I don’t accidentally touch them. Most people don’t notice, because why would you? And, of course, I’m pretty good at covering it up. But if I’m sitting next to someone on a bench, there’s a surprising amount of conversation I miss because my attention is focused on where my thigh is, my elbow, and where theirs are. I am excellent at not touching people.

 

There are probably several good reasons for this, not least of which is that my mother died just after I turned one. I was passed around from family to family for the next two years until my dad finished school and remarried. I don’t have much conscious memory of that time, but as I’ve watched my own daughter at age one, two, three, I’ve begun to sense how deeply that must have affected me. And, who knows, maybe I’m just genetically predisposed to this kind of thing. I’m a bit stuck in my head.

 

The fact is, my marriage broke apart pretty much over this exact issue. My wife, Pema’s mother, wanted vastly more touch in her life, ranging all the way from holding hands to sexuality, but I was unable to really meet her. It’s not my tendency. I can push myself, and compromise, and we talked about this and explored to great length, but in the end there was no escaping the fact that my natural tendency is to withdraw. In fact, I often loathe touching people. It makes my skin crawl. The internal atmosphere in my mind becomes toxic, hyper-aware, until I can’t take it anymore and I withdraw. It is a very childish feeling, all-consuming, and I’m not proud of it. It saddens me, because I see that I am incapable of some of the simplest gestures of intimacy so common to any species of ape. Touch.

 

To most people my awkwardness is largely invisible, because I’ve trained myself to hug people in a greeting, to hold hands at a meal blessing, to calm my mind. I’m not just some incapable robot, and I value these subtle displays of intimacy, but still, after all is said and done, there’s no escaping the fact that my tendency is to keep to myself, and it’s the people I’m the closest to that really notice, including the children in my life.

 

*

 

I awoke to the feeling of Pema shifting uncomfortably in the bed next to me. It was still dark, but the rain was quieter now, accentuating the sound of the drips falling off the gutters and downspouts. The curtain hung over the window, still as ice. I reached over and brushed Pema with my arm. “Pemalina,” I said, “you awake?” No answer, but I could sense her arm reaching down her leg and scratching. Bug bites, I thought. “Pema,” I whispered, “you’ve got to stop scratching.”

 

“No, daddy,” she whined, finally acknowledging me.

 

“I know, pup,” I answered, “It’s hard.”

 

She turned onto her side and backed into me, pushing a little forcefully. I wrapped her in my arm and held her. The curtain shuddered and a cool breeze descended over us. “Do you hear the rain?” I said.

 

*

 

After his ears, I began slowly massaging Francis’s head, then neck. I tugged gently on his hair, then released. His mother was rummaging in the cupboard again. She is training to become a massage therapist.

 

It’s not that I don’t like touch, or that it’s always awkward. It’s mostly that I don’t like it with strangers, or when it’s sudden. I like to ease into the familiarity, the intimacy. There is a certain barrier I have to cross, like a river, but once peaceably on the other side, I can relax into the gentleness like anyone else. There are some things that can’t be said with words, and I understand how deeply important this sense is. I once feared that my awkwardness would pass onto Pema, but I don’t believe that’s happened. She and I are intimate in almost every imaginable way, and she has plenty of other healthy adults around her too. She strikes me as a wonderfully healthy child. Still, I wonder.

 

I began rubbing Francis’s shoulders, then slowly each vertebrae down his back. I could feel the heat of his body, the alertness in his limbs. He was relaxed, but poised. I rarely get to do this, not only because of my own awkwardness, but because Pema will usually nudge her way in. She doesn’t like seeing other children cuddling with her dad.

 

*

 

I awoke. The rain had stopped and the curtain hung limp. Behind the curtain, the pale block of light was growing brighter, and I no longer felt the hazy uncertainty of night. Day was beginning to creep in. I lay for a moment, listening to the sound of drips falling off the gutters and tree branches. During the rain, the noise had been a sort of gray wash, but now I could hear the individual tones of each drop landing on the gravel, the dirt, the rain barrels. Tchahnk. Plunk. Dwoip.

 

I picked up Pema’s hand, which lay idle over my hip. It was limp. She was fast asleep. Placing her arm gently over her own body, I turned and reached my foot for the floor.

 

*

 

I love Francis. He knows this. Still, I regret that I’m not able to express that more completely. As I looked around the kitchen that morning, I knew I had made a small advance.

 

*

 

My mother, god rest her soul. This isn’t her fault. I have to remind myself of that.

 

*

 

The oven door squealed shut and I set down the spatula. The cereal was done. It was almost 8:30 and I was surprised Pema hadn’t woken up yet. “Ok,” I said, grabbing a bowl of fresh cereal with raisins and milk. “I’ll see you guys in a little bit.”

 

“Joe, where are you going?” Francis shouted.

 

I rolled my eyes and laughed. He knew where I was going. As I walked out of the kitchen, he turned to his mother and asked, “Where’s Pema?”

 

*

 

I opened the door gently, stepping over the raised threshold. Pema, still in bed, reached over her head in a big stretch, then rested her drowsy eyes on me. “Hey pup,” I said, setting the bowl on the table. “I made cereal.”

 

I walked over to the bed, Pema following me with her eyes. Usually I hold my arms out and she climbs up. Then I carry her over to the couch, where we read books and eat breakfast. But for whatever reason, I reached out in a feigned stretch and nudged her gently with the back of my skull, my shoulders. I climbed onto the bed and pushed her gently with the broadness of my back. She responded by dragging her leg over my side and then tucking under me as I shifted the bulk of my weight into my hands and knees and rolled over top of her.

 

“Look pup,” I said, spying the open window. “Did you know it rained?”