J’s skin was soft and smooth. The cuticles of his fingers hugged his nails tenderly. There were no tags, or callouses - he used gloves to lift weights. There were no jagged edges. His fingers never snagged on threads like the hands of laborers, though he had worked as a framer in his youth. He looked well manicured, though he didn’t actually get manicures. J’s body cooled quickly when things got hot. His sweat rose readily when he thrashed about in his sleep. He had no scars on his face or body, just a bad tattoo on a fleshy part where no one could see. Occasionally his skin struggled to contain the turmoil within and you could detect the slightest hint of an eruption under flesh-tinted cover-up. For a man who never seemed to be able to tell me what I needed to know, his skin sometimes spoke volumes.
I wake up predawn with a heavy heart. My vivid dream is replaced with Ethan Hawke’s lean torso on TV as his “de-gene-arate” character, Vincent Freeman, vigorously scrubs away his shame in the opening scene of Gattaca. I pull my pillow closer and sigh. The tears are there, backed up behind my eyes. I know this story well. And, while the hopeful ending of the movie promises to console me, the recognition that J did not share Vincent’s strong, brave heart finally pushes a solitary tear over the bridge of my nose.
In my soporific, subconscious mind, J’s bedroom door was open and his bed, big and white, sat in the middle of the floor, inviting me in. But, between the open doorway and his bed, the floor was cluttered high with furniture from his mother’s house. It was piled too high for me to climb over and too tangled for me clear away by myself. If only he could have helped me.
I catch up on a few hours of sleep after the movie ends and get up for work, I perfunctorily put my clothes in the washing machine, but the heaviness in my chest weighs me down. It is a bright, sunny day in June and I have every reason to be cheerful, but, in the shower, I break out into sobs. This is so unlike me. I don’t understand. I have no reason to cry.
I sometimes get visions, premonitions, calls for help in my dreams or in the hours just before I fall to sleep. I feel like someone is trying to tell me something, but who, and what?... It can’t possibly be J. He’s moved on. He spends his time with his new girlfriend on the king size bed in the apartment we shared two summers ago.
After my shower, I pace the floor of the laundry room, waiting for the spin cycle to finish so I can put my clothes in the dryer. I stare distractedly at the notices on the bulletin board. There, next to the notices, someone has pinned a coupon for the vitamin store where J works.
It was June when I called my mother to tell her I would not be coming home - that I would be staying at a friend’s house in Framingham. It was June when J, for the first time in the twelve years he shared a house with a woman, invited another woman to spend the night. J had two beds: one that he slept in, and one that he bought and couldn’t sleep in that he kept in the guest bedroom.
His bed was an extra firm double pushed into the corner of an overcrowded room. His pillows were flat. He needed to sleep on the side near the door, and he slept with the door locked. As a teenager, he had been awoken from sleep and drug from his bed in the middle of the night. It was one of many traumas. He slept lightly and locked the door securely.
That meant that I had to sleep on the side pushed against the wall. His austere, hard bed and flat pillows were uncomfortable. But his broad chest and shoulder were perfectly situated and smelled sweet and musky. I nestled into his shoulder and fell asleep quickly.
In the pitch-black darkness of his room, I was awoken from a deep sleep with a heavy blow to my face. I turned to J and saw his shining eyes staring back at me. J’s knuckles had slammed into the bridge of my nose before he pulled his hand into his chest. Eyes tearing, I looked at him reproachfully. “What was that!” I moaned, rubbing my nose. With barely contained laughter he answered, “I’m so sorry! I forgot you were there!” I turned my face into the wall. After that night, I slept on his soft bed in the guest bedroom with the TV. At night, J would join me there for conjugal visits, tuck me in, and schedule the timer on the television. It became our nightly ritual.
A year and a half later, in early December, J sat in my studio with my other students waiting for me to start the yoga class. The temperature outside had dropped enough for the heat to kick in and by the time we sat up from savasana, the radiators were hissing and clanging loudly. As I walked around to turn the lights back up I saw J look up in anguish. He was scratching his arm furiously. “My skin is so itchy” he complained. “Oh, the air is so dry.” I answered, “I don’t have enough humidifiers to fill the space. I’ll be done soon and we can get out of here.”
When we got to the house he shared at the end of the cul-de-sac, we stood in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil for a cup of tea. “I’m going to take a shower,” he said, “my skin is driving me crazy!” “Ok, I’ll meet you up there after my tea” I said, pulling out my iPad to catch up on my newsfeed. As J climbed over the boxes to his room, I scanned the crowded kitchen counter for a spot on which to place my cup. Giant plastic jars of “muscle” powder, various combinations of dried protein, were crowded on the kitchen island. His housemate’s bag and clothes were piled on the stools. No place to sit, so I sipped my tea leaning on the inside of the counter and surveyed the jars.
There was a large black jar with red, silver and yellow lettering of High performance whey isolate in chocolate flavoring, and another large brown jar with a green leaf motif containing vegan hemp protein, and another black jar with silver lettering in “birthday cake” flavor, and white jars with blue lettering. These were massive jars - more protein powder than any one person could use in a year, and they were all open. “What is he doing?!” I thought.
The health coach in me was appalled. Everyone trying to lose weight was obsessed with protein powders and ignorant of how these powders work - or don't - to achieve sustained weight loss. It’s hard to convince people obsessed with a lean body that there is no magic pill or potion. It takes careful mindfulness, dedication and a healthy attitude about food.
But, more upsetting than any of that was that nagging feeling I had of what lay beneath J's smooth outer layer. He had lashed out at me for suggesting we make cookies with spelt. His irrational anger and predictable hanger told me there was much more brewing beneath the surface. My instincts screamed silently. Studies have shown that men using supplements are more likely to feel an underlying insecurity about their masculinity. This bothered me. I didn’t want to believe that the man of my dreams had such insecurities. “Give him time, Paulina.” I thought, “you’ll help him.” I had a firm belief that love was the consummate healer. I was convinced that his insecurities didn’t stand a chance against my own resilient strength and the love I had for him.
I was rinsing my cup when J came back down after his shower in the blue robe I gave him. “How was your shower?”, I asked. “Good!” he exclaimed, “I took such a hot shower it almost burned my skin, but it's the only thing that works. I feel so much better!” “Did you moisturize?” I asked. He nodded. “J, what are all these jars about?” I asked pointing at the stash of protein powders. “Oh, people buy them and then return them, sometimes when they’re barely used. I’m supposed to throw them away, but, they’re really expensive and still good.” He started to explain their benefits until he saw the look on my face and changed the subject.
“Are you going to take a shower, Paulina?” “I’m a little tired,” I answered, “I was going to wait until morning.” “Um, could you not use the body wash and lotion I gave you?” “Why not?” I asked, confused. Apparently his housemate believed the smell of my lotion was causing her boyfriend to have coughing fits in the morning. “J, I’ve been using it for months. Why would he suddenly be allergic to it now?” J shrugged. “That’s ridiculous. But, fine. I won’t use it.” “Thank you.” J said.
Annoyed, I climbed the stairs to the guest bedroom. The clothes that I left on the chair had been moved to the bed. “That’s odd” I thought. His housemate had many rules and rituals, one of which included entering the guest room after I left for work each morning to check the drawers of the nightstand. She would unplug any appliances I might have used and remove items I might have put in the drawer to make room on the nightstand top for things like the flowers or cards J gave me. I wondered sometimes if she went as far as going through my things, so I made it a point to place used condom wrappers on top of my notebooks or toiletries in the nightstand drawer before throwing them away when I returned at night. I noticed they were never moved. But this was the first time she had actually moved my clothes from the chair to the bed. When I put the clothes back, I saw that she had covered the chair with an old sheet. “She’s as mad as old Havisham!” I thought.
J came in to say good night and I told him about the clothes and the sheet. “She’s so passive aggressive”, J said, "she watched me go crazy looking for your pink towel and didn't say anything. When I looked in her closet, there it was. When I confronted her about it, she accused me of going through her things.” He shook his head. “She was convinced that the dog was sick because he swallowed your earring.” J said looking at me. “What did she say when you found the earring?”, I asked. “nothing”."You mean she didn't acknowledge that she was wrong, or apologize for her accusations?" J shrugged, turing back to his tablet. “I guess it’s time for me to find an apartment.” I said, "She clearly wants me gone. I’ll start looking tomorrow.” J looked up from his iPad, “do you want a roommate?” I stopped what I was doing and looked at him. “I didn’t think you were ready for that.” He smiled at me. “Sure!” I said, surprised. “I’d love it!”
Having spent every day together for 18 months, I thought our commitment to each other was strong. I was certain of my love for him. I was certain that the odd problems with food were insignificant. I thought his use of the word, “roommate” was figurative. No red flags popped up to make me hesitate. We made love that night to celebrate. We would start looking for an apartment together the next day. "We'll get a king-sized bed so you won't punch me in the face again", I teased. J laughed. I was happy. I nestled my head on his shoulder and traced the curves of the muscles under his skin.