The Kind of Touch You Have to Pay For

This girl told me it was Rock Paper Scissors, with a twist. Winner slaps the loser.

“In the face?”

We were already in summer school; trouble was written all over us. We would never have gotten away with that game.

“No,” she said. “On the back of the hand.”

She took my left hand in hers, thumb locked to thumb. With her right, she made the one-two-three fist bob of the game. I caught on. I chose scissors and she went rock. Without hesitation, she let go the rock and made like paper, slapped me hard against the fleshy back of my freckled hand.

The tingle of it, the hot and cold shock. I was hooked. We played for nearly an hour, our instructor was late and most of the class had gone out to smoke. I discerned her pattern and lost, lost, lost. I couldn’t get enough of her heavy palm accelerating to land against the back of my hand, which grew hot and red in hers. I gave as good as I got, though far less often.


A legion of manicurists, all of them skilled with Dremel and file, most of them with a sharp eye. Nearly every time, with salt or with sugar, they’ve scrubbed me raw from knee to toe, from elbow to fingertip. It’s an alarming sensation, though I can never really think of it as pain.

All my life, I’ve thought of these intense sensations as shapes. As hills and valleys, as the waves upon the sea that rise up and crest and crash. Not pain, because I don’t have the compulsion to end it. I have been in pain; I have sat with a cracked molar and prayed for death. This isn’t that, and it feels important to make the distinction. It’s the edge of a shape, some very different shape than the hole of being in pain. It’s worth having, and I only crave more.

Manicurists and spa techs, their strong hands and nimble fingers kneading the muscles in my neck while the UV light hardens the lacquer to something indestructible. Spa techs, hands clad in gloves, sanding off the dead skin that I have duly softened in hot water soaks, rubbing me past raw and into newness. They sink their palms all the way to the seams of my body, the hidden folded places of my fatness where even lovers fear to make contact. They carry away all the gray old fears and isolation I store there, leaving me with new cells that are ready to see the sun for the first time and believe in the immortality of pink meat.


The Russian banya in San Francisco is named at Archimedes; the Greek scientist who discovered water displacement. I displace water in the steam room, watching the thick air swirl in white vapor around me. There are herbs in the hot wet of it, today it smells of eucalyptus and mint. I breathe it as deep as I dare, as long as I can. The heat curls inside me and the cold burn of the glaucus leaves traces my bronchial tubes, making me feel green and blue in all my red blood. Primed thus, I move to displace even more, walking into the tub that reads 119 degrees and sitting beside two naked men who take no notice of me. Take in their black chest hair, their gold medallions. When they rise and make their way to the next step, I wait.

After they’ve gone, I’m sure that no one will be able to tell how much this scares me. It isn’t pain to go from the very hot water to the icy plunge, and I don’t dread it as one dreads pain. It’s shock, and it goes from hardening my skin to freezing my core. I can’t describe the processes of my own physiology, but I know from books that my veins expand and then contract. My blood pressure spikes and then drops. My pores open and then shrink closed. I feel endangered, and then invincible. I wait for the crest to pass, and then I do it again. Hot and then cold. Boil and freeze. Die and live again.

I’ve been offered all manner of drugs in my life, and despite the Bush-era bullshit fed to me by public school and public service announcements, I said yes to most of them. The intensity in them is real, and I know they can ward off pain. But it seems that each and every one of them carries me far away from these waves, from the immediacy of the body into the dreamy untethered nether realm of the mind and all its expansive boundaries.

Not knocking drugs, but the kind of touch you have to pay for beats them, gram for gram, moment for moment, every time.

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