Touch Us ~ Lee Upton

Iris and Jacob slept with their backs to one another, as if even during dreams they were headed in opposite directions. As they were. She had nearly died. It seemed anachronistic—to be young still, or somewhat young, and to have such a bad heart.

Only a month after her last surgery Iris and her husband argued, which was a hopeful sign. Obviously Jacob thought she could defend herself. She was strong enough to stand up to him in the kitchen with the dishwasher hanging open and shooting steam. It was one of those tone-of voice spats: You sounded irritated and so now I’m going to sound irritated. During the argument she felt as if her ribs shifted. She had to sit down immediately—right on the floor.

She and Jacob didn’t fight after that. And now, how to explain that if she didn’t want to be touched it had nothing to do with him. Her body was a stranger. No, not a stranger. She would not be ashamed of a stranger. Of course it wasn’t logical, such shame. And maybe that’s why logic couldn’t do anything about her feelings.

It was a July morning when Iris’s sister Amy showed up with her twins. Amy probably thought she was on a mission of mercy.

A carnival, Amy said. Just like in the old days, she said. You have to come, Iris. I’ll be a wreck without you. Really. You’re doing me a favor, Iris.

It was hard to disappoint Amy—all that need written on her pretty, big-eyed, insanely vulnerable-looking face. Easier to please her than not to. Amy was the younger sister and wore the role without interruption. Oddly, Jacob never liked Amy and that, somehow, was reassuring. Amy was so pretty with her slow insinuating smile that years ago when Iris started dating it wasn’t at all unusual for anyone she brought home to stare frozen with admiration at her younger sister.

Amy’s boys, Michael and John, were dressed alike in denim shorts and white and blue t-shirts, and you couldn’t go for more than five minutes without one of them shoving his brother or locking his head under his arm. Just being around them you could break a bone. They were nine now, at an age where head-butting was regular behavior. Amy hardly noticed their acting up. Or else she seemed proud of how loud and disruptive they could be.

By the time the fairgrounds came into view Iris was furious with herself. So hard to stop pleasing Amy, although it was the path of least resistance in the long run. If Iris hadn’t come along today Amy would have showed up tomorrow with an even more preposterous idea: laser tag or skeet shooting.

They strolled past at least three double strollers, and Amy had to talk to the infant twins’ mothers, as if they all belonged to a secret society and were obligated to exchange code words. When the sky began to drizzle all the baby twins were tucked under clear plastic in their strollers, as if lodged in blister packs. Then the rain stopped and the wet patches on the walkways evaporated and strollers were unzipped.

The sun was fiercer than ever and Iris’s chest crawled with so much sweat that at first she thought an insect got under her blouse. Most of the carnival rides weren’t like the ones she and Amy went on when they were kids. These were serious. Apparently if you didn’t scream when you were on one something had to be wrong with you.

Amy knew better than to ask Iris to come with her and the boys on any of the rides. But then there was the funhouse.

Why can’t I just watch you guys? Iris asked when Amy invited her to join them. She was beginning to feel like a bad sport—and she wanted to support Amy, given that the twins kept whining, and the bigger one, Michael, asked why it was called a fun house when it didn’t look like fun and the shorter twin began echoing his brother. We can get out of the heat, Amy said.

Amy and the boys blundered ahead of Iris into the trailer. The twins were right, Iris thought. What’s fun about it? She was inside what amounted to a tight maze of glass and mirrors. Between smudged panes she could see children swarming with their hands out. The glass around Iris looked as if milk had dripped on it. Laughter, muffled, rose from somewhere to her left.

In the next channel she recognized one of the twins. He looked close enough to touch before she realized her mistake. His image was blurred behind thick sheets of glass and somehow a mirror was involved.

She set out again, holding her arms like a sleep-walker. She kept finding herself in the same steamy quadrangle with the same tiny handprints smeared over the glass. At last a skinny attendant in blue jeans led her out. There must have been cameras, she realized. The attendant must have seen her lean her head against the glass. Pain is like God, she thought—it’s not visible. Only its signs are, and then only to the faithful.

Outside the funhouse trailer Amy and the boys were waiting for her. Then the three of them went together on one more ride, and Iris hovered in the shade of a sausage truck. She was there long enough to remember one of the strangest summers of her life.

When she was thirteen Iris was hired to babysit a three-year-old boy during the day while his mother worked. And because the boy and his mother lived thirty miles away from Iris’s home she stayed at their apartment throughout the workweek. The little boy’s right arm was in a cast. He often tried to knock Iris with it. As if that wasn’t enough, she had to sleep in the same bed as the mother because the apartment was so small. The only time she’d been more miserable was two years earlier when her father died. But one day something miraculous happened while she was babysitting that boy. There was a carnival—a larger carnival than the one she was at now. The tents and the rides were set up on the edge of town, on a high hill. She and the little boy walked to the fair to look at the rides. Only to look: she didn’t have any money. Even now she can almost see herself. She must have weighed less than ninety pounds—a tiny girl in white shorts with pockets and in one of the pockets was the empty wallet she always carried. Because of a heavy downpour the hill was slippery with mud. Iris and the little boy kept sliding.

The sky was drizzling by the time they reached the top of the hill. No one was on the grounds except for the men who tended rides. Those men, all of them stringy and scary, wore shirts that looked as flimsy as tissue paper. One of the men—skinnier than any of them and nearly toothless—pestered Iris to buy a ticket to a ride. She stood there, mud splattered up her legs. The little boy was so terrified he clutched her hand. She told the man the truth: she didn’t have any money.

And then the miracle started. The man motioned for her to get inside a ride. She and the little boy climbed in, and the dragon boat rose and Iris and the boy could see off into the suddenly apricot-colored clouds. As they soared, the boy huddled close to Iris. Afterwards the man passed them on to other men who lifted the boy into ride after ride and told Iris to get in beside him. The men’s kindness was so startling and exhilarating and comforting. The thing that surprised her most: the men had treated her like a child. She hadn’t thought of herself as a child ever. She and the boy were together in this, but then, finally, reluctantly, because the mother was due home soon, the two of them began to float down the hill and into the town.

They were only blocks from the apartment when the little boy clambered up onto a stranger’s porch steps. Iris followed him and reached out to ease him away. She knew how he could swing his cast at her and shriek, but instead he turned and smiled up into her face. Just then a door banged open. An enormous man, like a bloated gray frog, rolled his wheelchair onto the porch. His mammoth head was sunk into his chest. He didn’t stop shouting even when Iris and the little boy bolted from the steps.

The boy—shock on his face, his legs trembling—would not let Iris carry him home. Nor would he forgive Iris after that. And then too, within a week, the boy’s mother set Iris up on a date with an orderly who worked at the hospital where she worked. The orderly was nineteen. The boy stopped coming around for Iris only after—his words—she “went catatonic” on him. She didn’t know what else to do, other than to stop moving, to stop talking, to pretend not to hear anything he said.

Amy appeared at Iris’s side, the boys right behind her. She announced that she wanted them all to go into the silly old-fashioned freak show. She and the boys had passed it when they went on the last ride. It looked cute, she said. Just one more thing. For the boys. Iris told herself, This is it. No more after this. Not even for Amy. Who was Amy these days, anyway? What made Amy kind and yet spoiled, tolerant and yet a busybody, vain and yet sloppy and late and smart and capable and self-deprecating and wildly in love with herself. Some women had a certain sort of power. It didn’t matter how they looked. They could be ninety years old and you still felt it. They’d joined forces with their own power. They might be surprised they had the power when they were girls, but after a while they learned how to make that power work in their favor, and to enjoy it. After a while they didn’t even feel separate from that sort of sexual power. They thought they and their bodies were one and the same. They didn’t recognize that there was a difference between themselves and their bodies, or if they did recognize the difference it was subtle enough to ignore. When Iris’s boyfriends looked at Amy all those years ago those boys thought they were seeing all of Amy. And Amy thought so too. But Iris knew that what they saw was separate from Amy-ness, the way a door isn’t the room it opens into. Or at least that’s what Iris hoped. Because if we are our bodies what is Iris? Hasn’t everything she’s endured taught her that her body has a life of its own and that she had the right to hate that fact?

Amy was actually remarrying her first husband in August. He knew what he was getting and wanted to get it again. And Amy believed he was the lucky one. For how long would Iris’s husband accept what Iris wouldn’t allow? He knew what he wasn’t going to get, and he still wasn’t going to get it. Gorilla Boy, The Cow with the Transparent Heart, The Three-Headed Pig, Snake Girl. The canvas signs were faded. Whole words were missing as if someone took a wire scrub brush to them.

Iris lowered her voice to warn Amy, The boys don’t look too impressed by the signs.

I know. We should have stuck with basic cable. They think they’ve seen everything. But it will be cooler in the tent.

And it was. The sides of the tent beat softly, buffeted by wind. The light was like what you’d find under a pink and orange parasol, and there was a smell of cut clover. Amy and the boys walked toward a raised platform while Iris paused just past the tent flaps, the shade calming her. For once, Iris had to admit that Amy’s idea was a good one.

She caught up with her sister and the boys yards ahead of her. They were alone in the tent—except for a middle-aged woman on the stage in front of them. The woman was turning in slow circles. Iris had seen a face like hers many times—at the pharmacy, touring through the mall, waiting in the doctor’s office. Even the haircut, the cropped helmet sprayed into place, was familiar.

What was different: the woman wore a lacy too-short dress that looked like an amputated bridal gown, and the backs of her giant thighs were rumbled and orange, like rind on expensive cheese. Gator woman, a sign said. Her skin didn’t look like alligator hide, not really. More like tree bark.

The taller twin—that was Michael—was staring, his face hardening. Iris followed his gaze to the woman’s sandals, the purple paint on the woman’s toenails.

When Iris looked up she felt the woman’s eyes on her, as if a fly stickily crawled over Iris’s face and traveled across her blouse and then down to her Capri pants that pinched Iris’s waist. Iris shook her head as if to make a fly go away, when what she wanted to do was to shake the woman’s eyes away.

Amy was busy brushing something out of one of the twin’s hair, and so at first she didn’t see that Iris took the brunt of the woman’s glare, took the full force and couldn’t look away. And it was Iris who could not keep from thinking that she herself was a cartoon monster, her body patched and sewn sloppily, her veins shining through her skin. It was as if Iris’s soul was being searched for by that woman—and her soul was in hiding, hiding from this woman on the stage. For Iris knew it. Someone loved the woman and desired her too. How else would this woman have the strength to stand, on exhibit, and yet to pour her stare, willful, unconquered, defiant, out beyond her body?

Jacob. He deserved better. Even before her first operation Iris was never accustomed to her own body, never entirely comfortable with it. Passing herself in mirrors on the street and not recognizing who she was. And she and Jacob—avoiding one another so often. What was the problem? She could not imagine what Jacob saw when he saw her body now, or she could imagine, and could not forgive her body.

If it would make a difference somehow, Iris was thinking, she would punish her own body for being weak, for making her breathless and stupid, for surprising her with failure, for establishing an agenda of its own—for not ever being beautiful, for being too slow and for being full of pain. For shattering and then shattering again. For never giving her a child. For making her husband draw back. For making her see him draw back.

It’s part of the act, Amy whispered. She told the twins it was time to leave, Aunt Iris is looking tired.

To her sister Amy whispered, I thought it would be—cuter? Fire swallowers. A bearded woman. Fat Lady. Cuddly types. Old fashioned. Like a drawing on a bag of cough drops. I’m stupid. I’ve scarred the boys for life. Stupid me.

At Applebee’s one of the twins shoved his head at his brother. Iris couldn’t even tell which twin it was. When the boys sat, they were the same height.

You hate my hair, don’t you, Amy said.

No—I just noticed how long it is, Iris said.

You think it looks funny.

I didn’t say that. It just—it looked like you must be hot when we were outside. I couldn’t stand long hair in this heat. Your hair looks really nice. You always look nice.

A grimace crossed Amy’s face before she said, I should just chop all of it off. Like yours.

The boys’ lemonade arrived. Crushed strawberries lined the glasses. Hairy livers, one of the twins said. The other twin pulled the straw from his drink and dribbled red liquid into his napkin.

Amy was talking: There’s a woman I work with—you don’t know her—she’s pregnant and she’s forty-three. Translation: there’s still time for you, Iris. And then Amy said, Are you all right? We shouldn’t have come. I’m really sorry. Stupid. I’m so stupid.

Gator woman, Iris said, laughing. Amy, picking up the cue, laughed too.

On the drive home the boys wrestled and got their seat belts tangled. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, Amy twisted around and shouted so loudly that Iris turned too and cried out to the boys, No, and then, Stop it! She swatted at their thrashing legs. The twins stared, their eyes goggling.

Iris could have slapped their faces. She could have bent over the seat and clobbered both of them. How dare they wrestle like animals when Amy did everything in the world for them? Then too, Amy could have plowed into the car in front of them when she turned to scream at the boys before Iris herself started in on them. What was wrong with the twins—so rowdy and loud—and not so very young that they shouldn’t know better? A three-year-old would know better. Iris felt the way she did years ago when a group of kids on the bus picked on her little sister. Except now she wanted to swat Amy’s own children.

Her forehead was hot. Poor Amy, she thought, I can’t take care of you anymore.

She wouldn’t let Amy or the boys into the house. She assured her sister she was fine—she just had things to do before Jacob got home. Amy nodded. Poor Amy, whose eyes darkened, holding back tears. Iris almost missed the more annoying elements of her sister’s personality.

Iris lay on the couch. She pulled a blanket over her legs. She hoped she could make herself rest before Jacob got home. Try to be refreshed enough to be a good listener. She could give him that much, at any rate.

From where she was lying, Kippers’s rubber bone was visible under an armchair. Iris and Jacob had given up the dog—temporarily, supposedly, until Iris recovered. They both knew better. Jacob delivered the collie to one of his colleagues who had children. She and Jacob would never get Kippers back. The idea was idiotic to begin with. Kippers would be a loaner dog—to see if the colleague’s kids could be responsible for an animal before they got one of their own permanently. The real reason the dog was gone: Kippers kept jumping on Iris. The longer her recovery was taking, the more anxious Kippers had become, tripping her on her way into the kitchen, hurling his paws against her chest. Jacob was working such long hours that he was dead tired when he got home and didn’t feel like walking the dog. In other words, they’d come to the point where even a dog was too much.

The entire house was too much—the rubber bone looked furred with dust. When Iris and Amy were girls their mother made them get up before eight on Saturday mornings to help her clean the house, top to bottom. How Iris hated it. She wound up doing the dusting for Amy who always cried long enough to escape the ordeal. The experience had bred into Iris conflicting emotions—a distaste for housework and a heightened attentiveness to disorder. These days just putting dishes into the dishwasher got her panting.

As if from a distant planet the phone rang. It must be Jacob. He would be the only one likely to call at this time—if he was going to be late getting back. He must have taken the first-floor phone out of its charger and forgotten it on the second floor.

She threw back the blanket and headed up. It felt like there were several more steps on the stairs than she remembered. Maybe it was an illusion, but telephones did sound different if something was urgent. By the time she got to the dresser and picked up the phone no one responded to her breathless hello. The phone felt cold in her hand. She was tempted to lie on the bed, but she wanted to be in the living room—to come immediately to Jacob when he let himself into the house. She made her way downstairs, leaning into the banister.

She lay on the couch again. She drew the blanket over her legs.

The sensation started: an electric wire under her lungs. Every time she breathed she felt sliced. Like a diabolical force from outside herself, like some crazy stranger bending over her with a hot electric wire. After an eternity the torture passed.

A breeze lifted strands of her hair from around her forehead, fronds of hair shifting with the breeze. She could feel herself climb a hill, her legs wet from the grass, her dress tissuey with moisture.

She was climbing higher and higher. She wasn’t even aware of her breathing. How easy it was. Her feet didn’t hit against gravel or slide. There was no pain in her legs, no strain. Rain streamed around her—like no rain she had ever experienced. The wetness was soft, and then she felt as if her skin was being gently pulled and folded back. She was pushing her face into a warm towel that appeared out of nowhere and then the towel fell away to nothing. The lids of her eyes closed, and yet she could still see.

Her dying was precious, a secret. She wasn’t pitying herself in any manner she could have imagined. Instead, her clarified spirit mourned for her body—her body lying on the couch where the blanket had fallen away, her hands cooling, her faithful body that had only asked for her love in return—for its own life too. Her lonely body. She mourned, too, for her husband’s body. His lonely body. She mourned for her husband’s living body and her own body as if she were the villain newly aware of and repentant for an unforgivable crime. She wept for how she had kept two lovers apart.