That was the year I watched my husband touch a man. Not a light touch nor a deep touch, since the man was totally broken. And that was new to me, since I had not seen my husband touch anyone in this way before since we’d been together, which was already half my life. I found myself observing his touches like small sequences, something very dancelike, like my husband’s hands stumbling upon an open space waiting to get occupied. Something I had come across in an aquatic creature on a dive when my husband, holding a stick and a waterproof Velleda board, poked into an elaborately constructed hole, got its occupant to say Hi, and then wrote quickly on the Velleda, “HE MADE IT HIMSELF!” I was less in awe of the octopus’s den than of the octopus itself, soft-bodied and eight-limbed as it was. I thought of Ashbery’s lines and how they worked just as well if I replaced the word “soul” with “octopus”:
The octopus is not an octopus,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment
I, too, need depth and silence to make connections. Now, a lot of people make excellent connections when in the normal world and not underwater. But the normal world does not look that normal to me. And the noise and attention I get in it has a way of retracting my mind into its tube, like maybe I have a piece of salad in my teeth or a waxed earplug stuck on my forehead.
So my husband is in this dining room with the broken man in his wheelchair and my friend (the man’s wife) and I not too far in the open kitchen. She’s making a toasted ham and cheese sandwich for herself and applesauce in an egg cup for him. And I get to watch all about making a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with precut bread, precut ham, and precut cheese. Which really is not that bad at all, though I really love cutting food in general and bread in particular. Probably since I watched my grandfather cut the dinner loaf in the yard to avoid dropping crumbs on the kitchen floor—at least that was his official reason. The real reason being that it was where he made his own connections, like the bread not only occupied but was my grandfather.
Very much like my grandfather and his loaf: while my friend does her thing, the sandwich has her undivided attention. She doesn’t speak about anything. Which really she doesn’t need to because it is all written on her very legibly, in all caps, with no need for a waterproof Velleda board, how tending to her broken man twenty-four/seven sucks all the aloneness out of her, which in turn kills their togetherness because one doesn’t come without the other, the silver-lining irony of love being to be alone together. Which makes me speechless and motionless, how so articulate she is in her toasted-sandwich-making silence before she excuses herself to go take a nap because that is what we are here for. Though this is not the only reason. More like a collective of reasons: him, her, us. Which makes my husband and me go each and every weekend during that entire weird year, and I think that is the only non-weird thing of the moment. Or perhaps it isn’t weird because anything done on a regular basis feels normal and legitimate, even though its motive is a bit obscure.
Like when my husband and I were switching bed sides every night.
So now my friend is gone to her room with her sandwich, and the man asks my husband to work his most-dead arm (the right), and my husband holds the arm with one hand under the wrist and one hand under the elbow and moves it up and down. It’s clear that he’s going to have to do this for a while, and the man closes his eyes as if my husband’s motion eliminated anything else happening in the room. No. That’s not true. Not just this room. Anything happening in the world. And a lot of stuff is happening in the world, like no one’s allowed to touch anyone unless they live in the same house. But for now it’s just my husband and the near-dead arm and the up-and-down motion. I am ready to talk, not because I have anything to say. Just that when you are in a room with your husband busy fixing a near-dead arm with up-and-down motions, it makes you want to participate. There I am, standing in the kitchen with my back to the window, my breathing a little bit shallow and the sun down my neck. And it’s really something.
So I clear the silence and say, “Do you want something to drink?”
“Yes,” the broken man says and he opens his eyes.
And I say, “Coffee with milk?”
And he says, “That would be great,” with a German accent because he is German.
“Okay. I may need help with your fancy coffee-machine again.”
“Oh, Cécile, I know you can do this,” he says, which is meant to make me feel confident. I am not confident. I feel weird hearing my name, even though he always calls me by my name. Which is affectionate.
“And you?” I ask and I mean my husband.
“Juice and water?” my husband says with an upward lift at the end of the word “water” like it is a question while he continues working the arm.
“Juice and water,” I say back to him with a downward drop so it is no longer a question.
And I move to the fridge to pick up a bottle of milk and a bottle of juice. Then I start thinking about how to make coffee with milk with the fancy machine.
Which is not so fancy as it is discouraging. And that’s when I realize that just about anything in life requires so much work. That most of the work is in thinking about the work. Yet I cannot stop thinking. I don’t even remember where the on-button is. The more I think, the less I know where it is. And the broken man and my husband are looking at me. Both are smiling like they’re about to see something amazing. Only I don’t move at all. I hold my hand in my other hand. Meanwhile my husband changes the near-dead arm motion, which becomes left to right.
“You okay?” the broken man asks.
“Yeah. The on-button is…?”
“In the back.”
“Oh,” I say, “it was on all along.”
So I make the coffee and I froth the milk, and I more or less mix them both. Then I pick a straw from the sink, and I bring it all to the broken man, who is now groaning with his eyes closed. And I feel really out of place standing in front of them with the hot coffee cup in hand. Immediately obvious is the burn on my fingers. Maybe I spill some coffee as I put the cup quickly on the counter. I don’t know. Eventually I hand the juice and water to my husband, who says thank you. And I am really thankful for his thank-you.
“I love you,” the broken man says to my husband, who just switched to the other, less-dead arm, and there is a tear that pools in one of the man’s eyes. I don’t know what I think. About anything. Which doesn’t take any effort. When you look at a broken man declaring his love to your husband, you don’t want to get in the way or out of the way. You’re just there. In the middle.
Like when I was a child and my brother tried to coach me to be a goalie. And all he’d throw at me were penalty kicks. I was there in the middle of the net, waiting to get punished. With balls about to crash in the center of my face. Full force. And puree my nose into a mash of blood. When he kicked I just jumped wherever. And mostly failed. But sometimes I caught the ball. My brother laughed hysterically no matter what. That’s how I was coached to be a failed goalie but a successful person at being suspended in the middle of something. Which comes in handy.
So I bring the straw to the broken man’s mouth, and I tell him to be careful. Because it’s hot. And while he sips, I am ready to get out of this house, not because I have anything against it. Just that I need air. Because the air inside this house is stale from all the stillness and the brokenness. Even with the windows open.
“Do you guys wanna go out for a walk?” I ask.
Which they do.
My husband wrestles a loose jacket sleeve up the most-dead arm and then around and up the less-dead arm while I try to help by holding the rest of the jacket in the back. But no, because that’s not how it works, and so I just go and fetch a cover for the man’s legs. Which is when his small, shorthaired dog hurries between my legs. The broken man looks as excited as the dog, even though his excitement shows in a way that is really slow.
“The leash lies on the floor by the entrance,” he says and he talks really slowly. Always has. Even before he was broken, which was not that long ago.
“This way he won’t be alone.” He is the kind who could be recorded and played back at twice his natural elocution and that would still be slow.
“He cries sometimes.” Each word a drop in the ocean of his sentence.
“He’s the only dog I know…” and he leaves that last sentence suspended.
Now, I have this annoying tendency to finish everyone’s sentence. So the two of us really make a pair. But that day he is not just slow. He is on-drugs slow. Drugs that my friend crushed into the applesauce fed to him from the egg cup. And the effect is that he gets slowly excited. Or he’s excitedly slow. And it’s not something you want to complicate. So I shut up and I keep the other half of his sentence to myself.
“…that cries,” he ends up saying.
The dog and I almost trot. My husband walks fast. Because the broken man’s wheelchair only has three speeds, and two is too slow but three is a little fast.
Which kills me. All of it. The speed. My husband pushing the wheelchair’s joystick, driving the broken man around like a toy. My husband’s torso hunched slightly to the side. His stride forward and confident. Conquering even. Me holding the leash. The leash pulling me. The dog peeing a tiny bit everywhere. This here a pomegranate tree with split, dried-up fruits. The moon hanging in there. Huge: the moon, and here in the middle of the afternoon.
“What’s with the moon?” I ask.
Which makes everything stop at once.
“What do you mean?” my husband asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe what’s it doing up here so big at this hour?”
“I like it,” the broken man says, “when it’s up here during the day.”
And no one says anything. All of us just look at the giant moon real intense, like our mind is a perfect blank. Like we just landed on some weird land in the middle of the afternoon and are looking for clues, and there is no one to ask except for the moon. Like nothing is simple. Really. Just random.
Like that young guy on a bike passing us. Who could die then and there. Out of any moment. Picking this one. Picking us. A pothole catching him on the fly, lifting his weight off the bike and into the air, all the way over the handlebars cartwheel style. Drawing a complete sun in the air with his body. His limbs agreeably limp. Like a first-time baby bird, free-falling until he’d figure things out. Because time would get suspended. Paused. Our upside-down, worried faces would pause in the background too. He wouldn’t figure things out, however. And time suspension would get lifted. Because the ground would join his head or because his head would join the ground. He wouldn’t spread his wings in the last moment. Because he doesn’t have wings. He’d lie there. Spread out and heavy.
But there are no potholes on this road.
“Shall we head back?” the broken man asks.
“Is it right or left here?” my husband asks, which really is a question.
“Left, I think,” the broken man says.
“I think it’s right,” I say, “because we just passed the school, and this street has no outlet.”
“Maybe you’re right,” the broken man says kindly.
“Maybe it is right,” he says to clarify which right is directional.
That’s when the dog slips out of his collar and runs to the middle of the road, which makes him a target for a fast-approaching pickup. And I don’t do anything. I don’t yell, Careful! I don’t wave my arms madly. Nothing. Yet the pickup stops. Inches from the dog. Who just sits there in the middle of the road as it starts to be all teary-eyed, and now I know what the broken man means by the only dog that cries. It’s right there in front of me. A tear that falls from the dog’s eye. I hear my husband in the background say, Phew. And I see the man from the pickup get his head out his window and say, Oh God Oh God are you okay? And thank God you’re okay and I’m so sorry I just didn’t see this little guy Oh God Oh God. I don’t know how many Gods can find their way into a sentence, although I kind of know, if I’m really honest. I say it’s okay without really saying it, just with an edgy smile and a shaky hand signal. Good God, the pickup man says once again by way of absolution, and I pick the dog up, and I take it to the broken man, and I put it gently on his lap.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
And I mean it.
I place the most broken hand on the dog’s back. Like a safety belt.
“It was just an accident,” the broken man says. “Nothing you could have done differently.”
Which kills me once again. I don’t know how many times I can die this afternoon. But it sure seems like many. Perhaps as many as the things I can think of that I could have done differently. The things I have said that I could have said differently or not said at all. Or better yet, the things I thought of that I could have thought of differently or not thought of at all. Jesus.
I never say Jesus, only I feel like saying it now.
“Jesus,” I say.
And my husband says nothing. Which is most uncomfortable. Because when you say Jesus, it’s supposed to trigger something. Like the beginning of a new millennium. But my Jesus starts nothing of that kind. My Jesus gets crucified on the silence that follows.
“Voilà,” I say as we arrive at the house, when I meant to say sorry one more time but I couldn’t find the courage. That sorry just slipped away from me. Like the dog. And I’m barely holding by a thread. Which the broken man is noticing. While my husband slips the jacket out of his dead arms, he says three things:
“You are my best friends.”
“I’m so happy you’re here. It changes everything.”
And I mumble something. That I’m happy too. That it changes us too. Something like that. Which is true. Or perhaps it just feels true.
The true truth is that I want my husband’s hands on me. That’s what I want. The same exact hands that touch the broken man. In the same exact way. My husband’s hands, which look small and warm. His fingers a little bit bigger at the base and then narrowing down all the way to the nail, which is sun-pink and at an outward angle. It’s not so much his hands I want. Although it is a little bit them. But mostly it’s the way they work. Like they’re scared and they’re decided. Both things at the same time. They’re loose and they’re precise. They drive and they wait. They hold and they release. They try to feel what’s on the other side of the skin they touch: the nerves. But of course they can’t do that, the hands. They can only guess what goes on the other side. Sometimes they guess right. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they pull a little too far or not far enough. And the nerves on the other side say something. And the hands don’t always get it. Because the language of nerves is very spiky. While the language of the hands is mostly round.
They won’t stop. My husband’s hands. They only stop to work the other arm, the shoulders, the fingers. The more they work, the more I want them to work me. It’s a cycle. No. Not a cycle. A spiral. Something that constantly escalates. Which leads straight to the impasse of where it ends. Which it doesn’t. The hands are onto the broken man’s fingers now. Which is excruciating and heavenly. Because there’s so much work to be done on these fingers. Clenched up and pudgy. Elongating them. Relaxing them. Spreading them away from the palm. The thumb is always tucked under. Like a stray cat under an old car. Which makes you want to get to that cat. Lure it from under the car. Into the sun. Which basks in my husband’s caress. Which I want. If it’s the last thing I get.
There’s a drop of sweat on my husband’s temple. Which doesn’t roll.
“It’s hard work,” the broken man says and he smiles a little.
There comes my friend out of her room, gray-eyed and woozily gracious.
I say, “We gotta go.”
And my husband acquiesces, squinting from beside the wheelchair and looking at me in a way that interrogates. Only I don’t add anything. I’m not able to say anything anymore. If I try now, I won’t make any sense. It won’t be words coming out of my mouth. But something else. Something without substance. Like bubbles. The only thing I can do is feel weird and full. And squeeze that feeling. Like it’s one thing I can hug in a year when that’s forbidden. Hug it real tight. While it inflates. Disproportionately. Onto the edges of this room.
“Yeah, we gotta go,” my husband agrees.
And the broken man looks back and forth at us like we’re on either side of something enormous only he can see. And I’m aching or I’m beaming. Which is more or less the same. I can sense that I am becoming red in the face while my friend opens the door for us.
We get in the car.
I don’t say anything. And my husband doesn’t say anything. So I look up. Through the sunroof. Where the sky is slow and overcast. With a bunch of clouds, unmoving, undecided, unbearable. That’s when it forms. In my head. A wave. Is it something I remember? Or a film? Or a mix of both? Anyway, I see it. A wave that is about to crash on a rock. I see it coming from far and swelling and foaming at the top. I see it hollowing its center like it’s taking a deep breath and sucking its stomach in. And when the wave crashes, it doesn’t hurt the rock. And the rock doesn’t scream. Nor does the water. My husband steps on the gas. Which makes my chest press into the backrest. I’m tearing up and dissolving into the seat. And my husband says hush and steps on the pedal even more.
Cécile Barlier was born in France and received her master’s degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Her short stories “A Gypsy’s Book of Revelations” and “Forgetting” have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. “Forgetting” is featured in Epiphany’s 30th Anniversary Anthology. Her work is featured or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bacopa Literary Review (first place for fiction, 2012), Blue Lake Review, Clare Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, Cerise Press, Delmarva Review, The Emerson Review, Euphony Journal, Gold Man Review, Gone Lone, Knee-Jerk, The Lindenwood Review, The Meadow, New Delta Review, Penmen Review, Red Savina Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Serving House Journal, Sou’wester, Summerset Review, Streetlight Magazine, Sweet Tree Review, The Tower Journal, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Whistling Shade. Her short story collection “A Gypsy’s Book of Revelations” won the 2019 Grace Paley Prize for short fiction.