I lay in the dark with my eyes closed as my beloved rubs his hand lightly across my back. We are silent. The room is silent, save the steady rustle of fans on low that shift the edges of the sheets. The house is silent, save the occasional pacing of a dog on patrol.
A film begins to play on the inside of my closed but awake and alert eyelids: like a home movie re-discovered, it flickers. It’s my dad.
As my beloved’s hands travel down my spine and up my side again, I suddenly recall a day, not unlike others, in the bathroom at my parents’ home. There is an infinite intimacy in families sometimes. It isn’t the same from family to family, but most have some sort of … thing. My mom and I would take turns, oiling each other’s scalps, using the tines of the comb to scratch and detangle. One or the other of us would sit on the floor while the other went to work. We usually did such in my parent’s bedroom as we squinted at the 13” color TV they kept on the dresser. We might talk or not, as words aren’t necessary in the midst of intimacies.
My dad and I didn’t so much as share such times on a regular basis as we fell into them. As I lay in the dark with the light of the past playing inside my eyes, I was suddenly there, in that bathroom. My dad was leaning over the sink, his t-shirt raised in the back. I was to examine the flesh for pustules, ripe for popping. He worked hard then; the Keuffel and Esser plant was always hot. After an accident where his arm had been pulled part-way into a machine — the flesh was light, smooth, yet ragged for the remainder of his life — he wore long-sleeved shirts over a t-shirt. He often came home, dirty and sweaty after a day of managing the machines that made the world’s slide rulers and other fascinating instruments. His back was the war map of such workings and sometimes, the bumps — the pores — were so filled with debris that they hurt and so had to be handled.
I was an expert. I would rub my hand across my dad’s back, since he didn’t often have raised pimples. They were hidden and hard beneath the surface, much like him. When I found one, I would give warning and begin to manipulate it until it gave up its seed. Sometimes, there would be a need to free the head of the offender; my dad would heat the tip of a needle to sterilize it and hand it to me, at which point I would poke and prod until I felt the thing let go. I would give the needle back to free my hands for manipulation.
As I lay there, feeling my beloved’s hand on my back, I recall that one day: there was a large bump on my dad’s back. We’d worked it several times and nothing. But that day, he encouraged me through grinding teeth to press the needle deeper. I did and felt a shift beneath the skin. I pressed, and it popped everywhere, releasing fluid, blood, puss, and stink. I lay in the dark, smelling-not-smelling it again. The explosion left a crater that I daubed with a few squares of toilet tissue as my dad reached for the bottle of alcohol and a cotton ball for me to clean it properly.
My beloved runs his hand down my spine and the film flickers show my dad’s face. I see his glasses, his crooked smile, and realize I’ve lost the sound of his voice. September will mark 26 years since I last heard his voice and the mental home movies have degraded. The film flickers again and I see him, laid out and partially covered by a sheet in the mortician’s workroom. It is bright. I see his hands, his fingers. Mine have some of the same crooks as his do. Did. I look through my closed eyelids and into the flickering mind-film, watching through those memory-movie eyes: I’m bending down to look beneath the side of the sheet they don’t want me to lift and see the bloody straggles of hair hanging from the damaged side of his head that could never be made whole. It is from that side that mystery death fluids flow onto the silk pillow of his casket. The fluid my mother never sees in her grief and that I don’t tell her about for many years. She believes me without seeing or knowing that the casket must be closed, as no one else must be privy to that last intimacy.
My beloved finishes rubbing my back and removes his hand as the film slowly fades. My dad’s face, the crooked smile, silently flickers to sepia and is gone.
I don’t cry until today.