In a sultry-red room, a stranger dragged a stone, smooth and heavy, across my neck. Worried the heat would escape quickly, I pointed her towards a ropy muscle. I was intoxicated by incense, instrumentals, and oxytocin. And touch. It was an anniversary. Ben and I were spending it in Lutsen. I remember thinking that my muscles must have been permanently changed. I wanted to spend every day in this room, in this routine. It reminded me of reading a book so good it made me want to be a writer.
A woman comes in at nine. A holster holding a bottle of lotion sits on my hip. I usually use the one labeled apricot, grapeseed, and sesame. I spread it on her skin in broad strokes. She tells me I have a good touch. She says there’s something special about it. Some people just don’t have that. I wonder what she means as I knead her legs like dough, losing myself in the motion. Petrissage. I love a calf that fits in my hands. The main muscle, the gastrocnemius, bifurcates into a medial and a lateral head. I spread them apart several times before squeezing them back together. Deep to this is the soleus, which I reach while lifting her ankle. Some scientists believe that the soleus and the gastroc are one singular muscle.
Two years ago I was immersed in touch. In Minneapolis, I didn’t need a license to work as a massage therapist, so I got a job at a day spa while I was still in school, practiced on my classmates and all my friends, and lived with my husband, until I moved to San Marcos, Texas. I had been accepted into an MFA program in creative writing. My husband stayed behind to finish his PhD.
A man comes in at one. His back is hurting, which is not a surprise. He’s built, and his shoulders hunch slightly forward. He lifts weights. Your pecs spend a lot of time contracting, I explain, as I pull his arm to the side, supine, put one foot forward and lunge into him, sinking my weight into the pectoralis minor through my palm. He’s shocked. You’re strong for a girl your size.
Most nights I can’t sleep. Ben would say I have shpilkes. A Yiddish word for nervous energy. At home he always tried to convince me to come to bed early, but even then I wouldn’t be sleeping, I’d be jumping on the mattress or biting him, yipping, wanting him to wake up and play. The only touch that helps my anxiety is a hard touch. Grazing would make it much worse. Push me down, I’d ask. Lie on top of me. I might be up all night. Your full weight, I’d remind him. I don’t know why he held himself up. I always wanted the full weight.
A woman comes in at three. Her muscles ache. I warm her up with effleurage before going for the deep tissue. Deeper, she says, almost immediately. Most people think massage therapy is meant to be painful, but it should never really hurt. You ease your way into it. You use rhythm and routine to teach the body what to expect. You prepare it with heat. With washcloths, hot stones, warming oil. You ask the client to take deep breaths. I ask her to take a deep breath. You’re not going deep enough, she says again. I use my fists, my elbows, my angles, lean on the body like a coffee table, letting it hold all my weight, but still, she complains, you’re not getting deep enough.
Here I’m studying poetry, and there’s nobody to lie on me. There’s nobody to touch. I tried to get a massage job my first year, but I live in a college town, and students can’t afford such luxuries. The closest places looking to hire me were an hour away, and I was already overwhelmed with school. I got a job, briefly, as an editorial assistant for a publishing house, and then I was unemployed, and then I taught composition to freshmen. I stopped getting massages, too; I’m too broke for it.
A woman comes in as soon as we open. She always asks for lymphatic drainage, which involves lightly, lightly stroking her skin to move lymph, a watery liquid made of interstitial fluid and blood cells that carries the body’s waste away, towards ducts by the ears, the jaw, the armpits, and the clavicle. If you feel muscle, you’ve gone far too deep. I barely touch her in this hour-long, routine slow-tickle. It would drive me up a wall, but it’s what she wants. I go slow. Her eyes are limpid. Every week we barely speak, but it feels familial.
In lieu of a human, over a blanket, I pile pillows on top of me every night. The cushions from my couch. My laptop. Textbooks. I cover my stomach, my thighs, my feet. Like stones. Like a paperweight. I’m too flimsy without it. There’s a video game I used to play called Katamari Damacy. The protagonist tries to reconstruct the skies. He rolls and grows his magical ball by picking up anything it will stick to. Bananas, cows, now ladders, whole buildings. The king is always let down by his haul. He wanted something bigger, heavier. In lieu of a blanket, I pile lamps on top of me. My dressers, the fridge. I cover my face, my hands. A mattress, a box spring. A parking garage, a campus. Katamari means “clump” or “clod.” Damacy means “soul.” Bigger, heavier. It’s never enough.
A woman comes in at four. I look over her intake form. So much is missing. I try to get the answers; she lies down on the table. I tell her I’ll let her get undressed. To your level of comfort, I add, like I always do. And get settled under the sheet. After washing my hands, I knock on the door, and enter. She appears ready, but her sheet is down at her waist. I pull it up to her neck quickly, but she doesn’t seem embarrassed. People want to be vulnerable here.
Carmen Gimenez Smith says in one of her poetry collections, “I silence the brain with language play.” I don’t know if silence is the right word.
Spasms, deliriums: madness is such a female world, but that’s just my take. –Milk and Filth / Clouds are almost entirely made up of milk; that is why they are white. We too are more than 90 percent milk. –The Melancholy of Anatomy / And at that moment our embrace was broken by our fall to the Moon’s surface, where we rolled away from each other among those cold scales. –Cosmicomics / A paragraph is a time and place, not a syntactic unit. –My Life / ] for me away from –If Not, Winter
A woman comes in at noon. Her daughter is with her, running circles around the table. The woman takes off her shirt while I interview her about her aches, with the door still open. She’s wearing a black bra with no underwire. Her daughter is unfazed by the familiar sight. I hear footsteps in the hallway and shut the door. They don’t speak English, so I hold up the sheet to give to the mother. She sits and presses my hand into her back. She moans. Contrary to popular belief, this job is not sexual, but it is intimate. The daughter is drawn in by her mother’s pain. She climbs onto the table and presses her hand over mine. She smiles at me shyly. I show her to push with the bottom of her palm, not her fingers. Good, her mother says.
The beauty of fragmentation in poetry, defined by Edward Hirsch as having “a part broken off, something cut or detached from the whole, something imperfect,” is that it reflects the mind. My mind, divorced from a body, craves shape. Constraint. My thesis adviser, Cecily, asks about my philosophy on fragmentation—I ask if she’s referring to lines that are disjunctive in style/thought (does Prufrock dare disturb, etc.) or fractures created by white space, ungrammatical breaks on the page, and she says either or both—and I don’t have one, or at least I don’t think I do. It just feels right. I see Ben once a month. I’m not citing that as an influence on my poetry. Like I said, I don’t shy away from—can discursive be used as a noun? The MFA is like a cerebral summer camp for dysfunctional adults. The day is split into reading, writing, workshopping, and reflecting. I feel no obligation to participate in the physical world.
A man comes in at eight. He’s in town from Portland, recently divorced. He tells me right away. She cheated, he adds, as I work on his triceps. He’s lying face up, with his arms hooked behind the head of the table. And then flaunted it on Facebook. He asks me if I’ve ever been with a woman. If I’m single. If I have plans that night. I dodge his questions, rub his attachment points. Where muscle connects to bone by tendon. He tells me he has a hotel room. I tell him I have a husband and move on to his biceps. The primary muscle moving in an action is the agonist, the other the antagonist. He says she won’t let him see his children. He asks for my number. I work down the arm, squeeze my hand around his.
I’m always dividing my life into segments. In this essay:
when I worked with bodies with thoughts
when Ben was a body a voice
when I dwelled in my body dwelled
when I was touched & wasn’t
A friend comes in at four. She leaves her sheet off too. People want to be vulnerable here. She leaves me a note: “You are a goddess.”
Writer and translator Jennifer Scappettone says, in the introduction to Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, that “we would be mistaken to conflate the difficulty of this poetry with psychic difficulty.” It would be an easy leap to make, since Rosselli, along with many other poets of difficult work, committed suicide, but that would overlook her skill in creating such an unnerving body of work. Scappettone says that Rosselli was outspoken in “recommending that writers subject themselves to analysis early on rather than passing confused individual neuroses off as art through confessionalism,” as I am most likely doing here. I’ve been to therapy (six counselors, at last count), I’m on medication, and still I know I run that risk. The first time I submitted a poem to be discussed in workshop, a classmate said, “this woman [“the speaker,” he probably meant to specify] is obviously crazy.” And it’s true—I am. My thoughts branch too quickly, preparing for the next possible danger(s), embarrassment(s), conflict(s). But that’s irrelevant; everyone’s thoughts are nonlinear. I fragment because I can’t willingly dismiss the friction.
A woman comes in at five. I start on her scalp. Her face is down in the cradle. Her hair falls towards me, slightly tangled, but more wild than messy. She’s had a lot of headaches lately. I make circles around her skull and move my fingertips down her neck. You can’t isolate a single part of the body. My teacher used to compare it to a sweater. When one thread is pulled, the whole garment gets slightly warped. The knots in her neck are causing tension in her head. I spend a long time with each one, working them loose. I get her to turn over. She doesn’t ask what I’m doing. It takes a lot of trust to put your neck in someone’s hands. I slip my fingers under her back, slightly cup them, pull the tips up the erector spinae, the long thick muscles on each side of the spine, and when I get to the bottom of the head, the occiput, I hold it, using my fingers as pillars, and I feel her let something go. I remember Lutsen.
I’m reading four books this weekend, three of them for my thesis meeting. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Victoria Chang’s The Boss. I write to my adviser: “Can we talk more about fragmentation? Does it appear in all three? I’m losing my grip on the word.” I could make a case for everything as broken.
A woman comes in at three. She tweaked something. She tells me to get closer to the spine. Closer. She puts my finger on bone. I’m nervous I’ll break something. My teacher always said that the bony protuberances on each side can snap off with too much force. I place my hands laterally and move in slowly until I find the trigger point. She lets out a sound of relief.
Bob Perelman refers to Stein, in an online course through Modpo, as an “active difference-making machine.” Not in the sense, I think, of her overall impact, but in the room she makes for multiplicity. Tiny splits through semantics. Disruption. My poetry professor recently said, “We must love disruption to create something.” To want to disturb the blank page. In Tender Buttons, Stein writes, “If the centre has the place then there is distribution. That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally returning there comes to be both sides and the centre. That can be seen from the description.”
A man comes in at eleven. He has spent the morning in the sun. As I move my hands across his body, dead skin cells peel off of him like a grated gray cheese. Not all intimacy is pretty.
I can guess at tender but I wonder why buttons makes it into the title. My adviser said she’s heard a theory—I already forget from where; Google pulls up Joshua Schuster quoting Kathryn Kent (2003)—that the title is a play on words, tend her buttons, a secret nod to her lover. In a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1971, Paul Padgette states that “tender buttons” are obviously nipples, and the reviewer, Virgil Thomson, shouldn’t beat around the bush. Thomson objects, noting that, for one, although the title may be “a bilingual pun from the French tendres boutons,” it could refer simply to “the early buddings of a tree or plant,” framing it in terms of “a natural force” and “new development.” However, he also notes that “there is another erogenous zone in female anatomy that could just as easily be called a tender button.”
A friend comes in at seven. When I get to his quads, I tuck the sheet around his legs and place the bony edge of my hand at the top of his thigh, as high as I will go. He relaxes as soon as I mark the boundary.
In my undergraduate neuroanatomy class, we’d all giggle when my professor talked about axon terminals, the tips of dendrites which send out neurotransmitters like serotonin (too little, in my case). Terminal boutons, she’d call them, in her French accent. Tender, terminal buttons. The message goes out across the synapse; the neurons don’t actually touch.
A woman comes in at six. She has pain between her ribs. I slide my fingers along each one, dipping into the spaces between them. There is nothing more intimate than contact with the intercostals, the muscles that help us breathe and cough and laugh, a part of the body that rarely knows touch. It takes trust. I want to have this experience with everyone I know.
In Jane Hirshfield’s “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” she says, “only when looked at from a place of asideness and exile does the life of the world step fully forward.”
“I write for the still-fragmented parts in me, trying to bring them together.” – Adrienne Rich
And fragments can’t help but remind us of loss. When we read Sappho, for instance, we have to reconcile with the gaps where her words were burned. Anne Carson’s translations emphasize those chasms:
A man comes in at eleven. He wants a full-body massage. He tells me partway through that his feet are killing him. I massage feet the same way every time. I lay my thumbs, from tip to carpometacarpals, flat on the sole of the foot and cup my hands around it. I stretch it apart and hold it there. Wiggle, pull, and warm the toes, trace around the ball of the foot. I push my fist down the sole, from toes to heel, to prevent calcium from building up into spurs. Knuckle the heel, which gets beaten up throughout the day. I move on to the top of the foot and press between the metatarsals. Soothe the ankles. It’s amazing how much our feet can take. I approach his, but I’m blown away by the stench. I need to sanitize. The switch from lotion, infused with calming scents for aromatherapy, warm from my hands, which are warm from the body, the movement, to Purell is harsh. Sterile.
I can’t stand to look at another book, so I pick up my phone, scroll through my contacts, judge them harshly: do not let in / does not let in / studies in breath / dearth / monogamously alcoholic / the third degree / the ordinary side of a glacier / wants to touch me / might actually try to / disguise as error / error as personality / unwilling to unravel / the talent in seeing / the smell of the ocean / my therapist / by interesting I mean messy / the amplification of embarrassment / years beyond a tune-up / the spin cycle / a plosive / and only seeing / always being a little bit scared / living in a body vs. everything else.
Over the span of a week, I put into my body: 280 fluid ounces of Coca Cola; 16 ounces of Lone Star; 15 milligrams of edible marijuana; ear plugs; ear buds; $60 worth of groceries, including those that make it hardest for me to breathe (dairy, wheat)—but also brussels sprouts, celery; a too-large vibrator; 14 doses of Advair; 12 contact lenses; a minimal amount of water; toothpaste meant for children; 140 milligrams of Citalopram; my fingers; more words than I can process, more words than I produce; 600 milligrams of Advil; images of ceilings, floors, faces; dust; few smells (too congested); tissues; no lotion (though my hands are cracking); cat fur (an accident); an unthinkable amount of germs; more blue light at night than doctors recommend; am I using into too liberally?; what about radio waves?; what about the 90-degree heat?; the ecolect of my cohort?; there is no word precise enough—eco meaning environment or house, idio meaning self, dia meaning through, between, across, and dialect referring to the language of a group, but never a group this small, and ethno meaning exactly what it sounds like, so I settle on eco, though I know what family feels like and this isn’t it; though the tension here—based on ambiguously dirty looks, prosody, and what-they-meant-when-they-said—is easier than the more obvious aggression of my actual family; and I’ll take what I can get anyway; do you still talk to Ben? my mother asks, as if a long-distance marriage isn’t a marriage at all.
from Stein, “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso”:
Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.
Sometimes language can press down, too.
A coworker comes in at four. It’s common for us to do trades on breaks, and I helped her out yesterday. I ask her to start on my lower back. She warms me up, sets down her ulna, the sharp edge of her forearm, and slides it off my iliac crest. She outlines my sacrum as if to teach me where it is. Through the sheet, she loosens my muscles by jostling me back and forth, and digs into the gluteus minimus. I flinch. There are parts of the body that are almost never touched. As I get more comfortable, she slides her elbow into gluteus medius, a relief I can’t express in words. Most people are hesitant to get this part of the body massaged, but they clench it and sit on it and work it out all day. She moves the bottoms of her palms and then her knuckles along gluteus maximus. It’s common to cry when tension is released. I know I’ll feel phantom fists still relaxing my muscles as I fall asleep tonight.
It reminds me of what my friends and I called, the year some of us lost our virginity, ghost dick. That’s a crass play, if you can’t tell, on phantom limbs, which amputees can reportedly feel long after the limb itself is lost. The first time I had sex, I felt it hours after it ended. The barrier between public and private disappeared suddenly as I ate my Frosty at Wendy’s and tried to disguise my confusion. This is not an essay about sex.
Stein on “loving repeating” from The Making of Americans:
As I was saying loving repeating being is in a way earthly being. In some it is repeating that gives to them always a solid feeling of being… Loving repeating in some is a going on always in them of earthly being, in some it is the way to completed understanding. Loving repeating then in some is their natural way of complete being.
About once a week—at times, once an hour—I still wonder if I should quit. Every time, I land on the same decision: no matter how much I miss my husband, there is something here worth exploring.
A man comes in at two. Agitated. But quickly his breathing becomes thick and steady. I’ve lulled him calm. Someone more mechanically inclined might work on the body as if it’s a car. I work on his body like it’s a poem. I’m hypnotized by the process. He’s in pain, but he doesn’t know where it’s coming from. Referred pain shows up somewhere other than its source. There’s something pleasing about a problem, not knowing the exact way out, but being confident in your ability to find it. About turning down the sound and getting out of your own way. You trace his scapulae, drawing two large triangles. They’re riddled with knots, mostly lined up along the insides, with a few strays right below the inferior angle. It feels good to sink into them. To get lost in the rhythm, the manipulation of muscles, body on autopilot. When you stop thinking, you know what to do.
If loving repeating is complete being, what is loving breaking? I am not a self-destructive person. There’s something about ambition that makes you split into smaller and smaller pieces. I don’t regret being here. There’s something about growth that makes you split into smaller and smaller pieces.
but the ghost of touch
language where hands should be
that I’m already disjointed
Messages Ben sends while I’m away: hi feeling any better today? / remember moofus and doofus? / ok nice woman / number one best woman / actually, do you have any extra danielleys? not to eat but to have as a friend here / im sorry about your day / that’s too much for one good woman.
Danielle Zaccagnino is a poetry student at Texas State University. She was the winner of the Sonora Review‘s 2016 Essay Prize, and her writing appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Day One, Word Riot, The Pinch, and The Butter. Danielle is from Queens, New York.