Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The escape artist

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.


DC Discombobulated said...

Huh... wow.

Laur said...

Checked your shoulders lately? There might be wings sprouting there already...

Gi99lepunch said...


thank you.

Laura said...

You are an incredible writer Grace. Every time I read your blog I feel wistful but centered at the same time. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Big Mark 243 said...

This was a very good read. For real, thanks for posting.

machinelf said...

Thank you, Grace.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the fact that I loved the way this post was written, I have to say: wow. I am so amazed by what you do. I didn't even know that such a job could exist but I think there should be more, lots more, of them. I know I would do it in a heartbeat if the opportunity came up. Thanks for the inspiration and opening up my horizon a little more.

Rock on!


Victoria said...

i don't think i've ever read anything as beautiful as the words you write.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you could understand how excited I was when I saw there was a new post!


One of Your Lurkers

John W. Ratcliff said...

Grace, as entertaining as it is to read about your work I have to say, it is finally time for you to make writing your career.

You are one of the most gifted writers I have ever encountered. Perhaps you don't want to write a book, all I can say is that many, many, people would read it.

Thanks again for sharing.


Pause said...

You do write well Grace. You are an inspiration to those of us, like you who have blogs about nothing and everything at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I always like your posts. I wish you updated more often.

Anonymous said...

So beautiful, Grace. I wish you'd publish these vignettes in book form....

Pamela said...

There's a physiological reason we feel the pain of others. It's called mirroring, it causes our brains to mirror the feelings of others and makes empathy possible. (People who don't have this ability are called sociopaths and they tend to become snipers or politicians.) This is why it hurts more sometimes to hurt someone than to be hurt, or to watch people suffer than to suffer.

But pain is everywhere, and if we internalized it all, all the time, we'd be paralyzed for no good reason. But I know how hard it can be to tune it out to keep yourself healthy. (By the way, thanks again for coaching through my breakdown during the summer 2006 assault on Lebanon.)

All I can say is, your man is very lucky to have found you to take away some of his pain. Take it away, but don't keep it, k? We're lucky enough to live in a world where love can increase without bound while pain can be drained away, if only we'll remember.

Grace said...

Thanks, Pam. Have I told you you're one of the smartest people I know?

Anonymous said...

Grace, since you are apparently too modest to post this, I just wanted to say that we've published a non-fiction piece of hers at our new online literary magazine:

And yes, Grace, you really are an amazing writer.

Jessica Pauline Ogilvie said...

i gave you an award!

Anonymous said...

@ John - have you ever tried to establish a 'career' as a writer? It is no mean task. Particularly when most publishing houses and largely all newspapers are dead broke? Ever had a check from a magazine bounce the week before the rent is due? Making a living from one's art is a tough trade, as those paying for the art tend to get nosy about what that art contains.

Great piece, Grace. I commented about a year ago that you'd jumped up a few levels. You've solidified that jump, gotten more comfortable there. I think you've mastered a voice of melancholy in a way that is quite rare. Few people can build castles in the air with words, but even among those who do, not many can outfit their castles with windows drizzled wet, fog in the morning, and lovely but fraying furniture. You're getting Larkinesque, which is high, high praise indeed. But remember that Philip Larkin his own bad self paid quite a price for being Larkinesque and died a lonely, sad man in Hull. Melancholy is hard to sell while, mysteriously, Tom Clancy is the easiest sale anywhere. Those of us who trade in melancholy have to remember this.

Keep up the great work, I love reading your stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hi Grace - been lurking for a while, love your blog!

As an English girl who's also worked in a similar job, just wondered if you'd recognise any of the following people (taken from a recent post on my own blog)

Lap Dancers Of The British Isles - A Spotter's Guide

The Psycho On Coke. Volatile, aggressive, unpredictable and convinced that she's the only dancer in the club who knows her job, the Psycho can perform a complete 360-degree mood swing in the time it takes to say 'no, sorry, I've run out of cigarettes.' So it's quite a lot like sharing your backstage changing quarters with a manic-depressive mongoose on crack. 'Girl Most Likely To Punch A Punter For Refusing A Dance.'

The Sinister Tall Thin Russian. Called Natasha or Natalya or Nadya. Seems to have inexplicably close and secretive relationship with the equally sinister club manager. No close friends in club. Veers between scarily loud and unrestrained laughter (with Sinister Manager and punters) and glacial, haughty froideur (with everyone else) Only marginally less scary than Psycho. 'Girl Most Likely To Have Mafia Connections.'

The Why? Plumpish, plainish, can't dance for toffee. Nobody's ever seen anyone buying a dance off her, and she never seems to earn any money whatsoever. But she's still there. Apparently she can still afford the bus ride there and back. Who knows. Maybe it's a vocation. 'Girl Most Likely To Have Freckles.'

The Blanche Dubois. Says she's 29. See her in a half-decent light, and you will realise this is highly unlikely unless she's spent the last five years of her life doing hard labour down a Siberian salt mine. The Blanche apparently believes that several regular customers are in love with her, and are attempting to make her jealous when they buy dances from other girls. It's hard to fathom how deeply her self-delusion runs - but chances are, not very. When drunk, the Blanche will reminisce about her old job in a bank ten years ago, before she got made redundant and turned to dancing to make ends meet. Deeply pitiful. 'Girl Most Likely To Commit Suicide.'

The Millwall. No one likes her - she don't care. She's the best looking, the highest earning, snooty as all hell and less popular than a rattlesnake in a lucky dip. Constantly undercutting the other girls' prices and doing more for less. Only one in the club who doesn't socialise with the others at all after hours. Probably French or Eastern European, the Millwall speaks with a heavy and put-on-sounding accent that makes men go 'mmmm' and girls go 'bitch.' 'Girl Most Likely To Be Murdered.'

The Banal Junior Secretaries. Three or four of them. Virtually interchangeable. Prettyish, blondeish, twentyish, always smoking and gossiping together. To listen to their constant conspiratorial whingeing about annoying customers, stroppy bosses and mental shift patterns, you'd be convinced they were working in a call centre. 'Girls Most Likely To Be Released Successfully Back Into Their Natural Habitat (aka office life.)'

The Disaster Waiting To Happen. Not to be confused with the Psycho, as the Disaster is much more likeable and even rather sweet. She's just wandered into totally the wrong job, in which she's unlikely to last more than 2 weeks. Takes far too much alcohol or other proscribed substances, which is glaringly obvious. Unlike Psycho, she doesn't show this via manic mood swings and hundred-mile-an-hour tirades against other dancers, but in more tell-tale ways like walking wobbly and being sick. 'Girl Most Likely To Fall Off Pole Drunk And Break Ankle.'

The Grumpy Old Bag In The Toilets. Bears startling resemblance to Les Dawson in drag. Supposed to oversee the perfume-and-cosmetics tray in the ladies, but generally just sits there glowering at anyone who comes within five metres of it - whether you take any of it or pay for any of it or not. You won't see her unless you're a girl and work in the club. Quite frankly, you're not missing much.

Do you get these girls outside London?? Or is it just us????

J x

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Your writing is stunning.

Pdrisc said...

When the water was warm and with eyes closed being touched and cared has he found true happiness transformed back to a child being touched by his mother groomed coddled when there were no days of the week only warmth and love

Raquel said...

This is beautiful, Grace. I'm a fan of both your writing and your soul.

Anonymous said...

This is just beautiful! Thank you for sharing. You may want to look into getting trained in Reiki. There's a lot of wacky new agers out there who "do reiki" that charge hundreds for a weekend workshop to learn it. Watch out for them. I can't really say how to find a good reiki master but I think you'll be fine if you go with your gut.