Like this, the man says, smoothing a dollop of salve across his wife’s shoulder blades, over the rashes blooming there like teacup roses. With two fingers, he works the cream in circular motions down her rib cage, along the row of black stitches lining the curve of her spine. Look here, he says, and here. He pauses at each new sore – every petite scallop, hot and red and raw – and his fingers linger.
Morning May. Clouds hang low and thick, rain steadily. The bedroom is dim, curtains slightly parted. The woman lies in the center of the bed. She’s in her early eighties. Her hair a mass of silver curls, bare legs tangled in the top sheet.
His fingers are clumsy and stiff in his ninetieth year, but he is gentle, careful around the incision.
The woman sighs.
Then he sits down beside her on the edge of the bed, and the circles he traces widen. A minute passes. I know that he’s forgotten about me, the young nurse’s aide hired to bathe his wife three times a week. He brushes his palm over her spine, as delicately as he would a petal, over each wound, flushed from the shower.
His hands move down the arc of his wife’s hips, as if it were the first time they touched. Five years earlier. Their wedding night. Both spouses dead for years, exploring the dips and secret places of each other’s bodies. Now the woman lies on her stomach, head in the bed linens, and the room is soft in the morning light. The May clouds, the rain. And she is calm. Her eyes close.
I could almost sleep, she murmurs. I don’t want this to ever stop, she says. To ever move again.
If only for this moment, she no longer worries about the things she says keep her awake at night – the surgery, the diabetes, the knowledge that something could happen to either of them at anytime. What would they do? Thoughts that cause her heart to beat 150 times per minute, that send her to the emergency room in the middle of the night, because she thinks she’s having a heart attack.
The cream on the sores on her back is white and cool. Like summer frost.
Her husband purses his lips and blows on the nape of her neck, cool breaths along her shoulder blades and down her spine, soothe the stinging, hot sores. His breath barely a whisper. There now, he says.
And the May shower thrums against the windows.
She breathes deeply and stretches, curling her fingers around the edge of the mattress, before letting go.