Jeff clears his throat. "I like your breasts," he says. I am surprised. Not because this is a particularly perverted thing for him to say. We are, after all, buck naked, both of us, in the shower. But Jeff is one to maintain a certain professional distance. He is, after all, my boss. I have had this job for four days.
Jeff has some sort of condition. Medical professionals do not really know much about it or what to do about it, but one thing they know is that it does not usually hurt this much. Jeff hurts a lot. He is on pain-killers pretty much all of the time. I remember being on round-the-clock pain meds. Mornings are very bad, because the meds wear off through the night and you wake up hurting. Hurting is what wakes you up.
So I am there in the mornings. I make the long drive out to the ritzy address in the hills, park in his garage and punch in the code for his door. He is not talkative, especially if he had a bad night. Last night was a bad night. Jeff does not get out of bed when I let myself in the door. I go upstairs and he is naked under the sheets. He opens one eye. "Don't get too turned on," he says.
I laugh and go into the bathroom to undress. In a minute I hear the bed creak, and he joins me. He wraps his arms around me from behind and we rock gently side to side. Ostensibly, I'm here to help him bath and shave and dress, and to call the cable company and the pest exterminators and answer the phone, to look for the things he loses, to do a little yoga with him if he feels well enough, and make lunch and go home. But really, I'm here to touch him and for him to touch because it is touch, skin on skin, that seems to make the pain clear for a little while at a time.
In the shower, I adjust the water a little colder than I like it; luke-warm water is what he likes best. I squeeze a blob of shower gel into my palm and make a lather. I wash him from head to toe. He closes his eyes and lets the water run over his face. "May I touch you?" he asks. He always asks first, which I like. I say yes, and he wraps his arms around my waist. He rests his head between my breasts as I wash his hair, which is coarse and beautiful and thick as bristles on a brush. Today I shave the back of his neck and make the hairline particularly sharp and fine because he has a meeting in the afternoon. Then I shave his arms because tomorrow he's going to the hospital and he doesn't want the IV tape to hurt when they rip it off.
I rinse the soap away and turn off the water. His arms still wrapped around me, he kisses me between the breasts without opening his eyes. He turns his face into my flesh as if there were a place there that he could hide.
I got the job through an ad. That ad just said "assistant" but it was listed in the adult personals. "I'm looking for someone to help me shower and get dressed in the mornings," Jeff said in his e-mail. "It's humiliating enough being stripped down and hauled around like a side of beef. Maybe if a pretty, naked girl was doing it, it wouldn't be so bad."
Made sense to me, although when I try to explain it to my friend Nancy, herself an ex-stripper, the look she gives me says I won't be talking much about the job with anyone.
I notice that when Jeff hurts more, he wants more touch. He distracts himself by flirting, by making dirty jokes, by reaching out to pat my leg, to tuck the hair behind my ear. I don't mind. It makes sense to me. When he's hurting really bad, he just disappears. It looks like he's there, but he's not. It's a good trick. My mother could do it, too. Sitting around the house between chemo treatments with her flower catalogues in her lap and her eyes fixed no place.
I'd go up to her and shake her, saying "Mom. Mom. Mom." Til her eyes came back to me. It never occurred to me she might be happier where she was, with the tulips and the climbing roses, the gladioli and crocuses and lilies of the valley. I wanted her back with me.
Jeff opens his eyes. "Did you wash my hair yet?"
I don't let myself think too much about how much Jeff hurts. I don't think that's my job. I am here to carry on, to make things normal. I am here to hold the space, and the space I hold is that everything is OK, that the pain and the fear and the isolation are just facts about a person about whom there are many other facts.
The next day I drive Jeff to the hospital and we wait in the lobby together. He whispers in my ear, "Please don't laugh when they ask if you're my daughter."
The nurse with the clipboard comes to the door. "You can bring your wife back with you," she says.
He winks at me.
I don't think about how much Jeff hurts. I squeeze his pain into a little ball in my mind and flick it away with my fingers. Sometimes it comes back, though. If I'm alone too long in the evenings, like I sometimes am. Like I am tonight. If I am alone too long, sitting still. Pain, amorphous and un-localized; pain that is not really pain but the idea of pain, which is also painful. I have to get up and move. When I am moving it is not pain, just sensation. Sensation is not good or bad.
The yoga I was trained in -- firm, stoic, alignment-based Iyengar -- does not quite cut it anymore. I have to flow the feeling up and down my limbs and through my joints. I have to make it move like water. I have to dance. At the moment there is no one to dance for, so I dance alone in my room.