STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 27    March 2008


Back Wash


by Alicia Gifford



Every night since they moved in across the way, it's the same thing. Jake stands in the kitchen of his second floor apartment and across the driveway in the apartment building next to him, his new Asian neighbors turn on the bathroom light in their second floor apartment and get into the shower.

Through their bathroom window he sees them talking and taking turns getting wet, their pale waxy flesh blurred by the frosted glass.

Then she turns her back to her partner and leans with her arms spread against the shower wall with her head back, and he shampoos her hair. Next, he methodically washes her, sliding his soapy hands all around her back, under her arms, down her hips. Then it's his turn. He leans and she washes him the same way. Jake wishes he could eavesdrop on their conversation.

He thinks about telling his girlfriend, Myrna, about them, but he doesn't, afraid she'll put a damper on the voyeurism. He goes into her studio in the apartment they share, where she's working. "Let's take a shower together," he says.

"I don't need a shower," she replies, looking up at him from her drawing board over her reading glasses.

"Come on," he says. "You wash my back. I'll wash yours. It'll be fun." He wiggles his eyebrows at her but she's gone back to her drawing, applying color with markers to an architectural rendering of a new Hyatt Regency.

"You can do me later," she says. "I could use a roll in the hay."

Myrna likes sweaty, strenuous sex. She says it softens her edges, uncoils her springs. Afterwards, she often goes to sleep on the futon in her office because she doesn't like the wet spot. For a long time Jake appreciated her lack of sentimental chicky-shit, but now he wishes they could just slide against each other's skin, lubricated by warm water and fragrant suds.

"Not sex," he says. "Just a shower. It'll be nice. We can wash each other and talk. I'll shampoo your hair."

"I washed my hair this morning."

Jake loves Myrna but sometimes it's hard to grasp it in a concrete way. Love gets blunted and vague after ten years, and what is love, anyway? He's beginning to suspect it might not be anything more than a habit.

Sometimes he conjures a vision of Myrna dead in a coffin, her stubby-nailed, marker-stained hands crossed neatly on top of her flat chest, the slight frown lines between her brows persisting in spite of the mortician's best efforts to smooth them, her small, slim, twitchy body as still and hard as a stone. He can bring tears to his eyes if he works it, proof enough of love, but then, he makes his living as an actor, so his grief could be nothing more than craft.

They're partners who share a bed and expenses, travel to fun places, and agree that marriage and children are not on their to-do lists. They don't have to gush about how much they love one another. Now these new neighbors are shampooing each other and making Jake feel like he's missing something, something vital—an organ or gland that gives meaning to the day-to-day.

On the TV in the living room, Kobe Bryant scores the winning basket in the deciding playoff game with one second left in overtime, but Jake's in the kitchen when it happens, peeking at the showering couple through the mini-blinds and longing for something he can't pin down.

He sees the couple walking in the affluent Toluca Lake neighborhood they all live in, holding hands with quiet, serious faces. They nod politely to him when he offers a friendly hello, their eyes meeting his in synchrony, soft and consoling, and he feels like a pervert.

In their mailbox he leaves his business card with a brief note, a belated welcome to the neighborhood and an invitation to call him anytime for any reason, hoping he doesn't sound needy. While there he sifts through their mail and learns their names: Taro and Seiko Shimohara. There is mail from the Nichiren Shu Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, something from Blue Cross, a cell phone bill as well as a letter from a professional CPA organization and two letters from Tokyo.

Later, he watches Seiko pick up the mail after she gets home from the market. She looks at his card and then reads the note, raising the ivory oval of her face and pursing the fresh, pink flower of her mouth toward his apartment as he peeks behind the blinds.

He continues to watch her as she brings the groceries up the stairs. She lifts a small bonsai pot on their back porch deck and removes a key from under it and unlocks the back door, then tucks the key back under the pot.

That evening Myrna is undressing for bed. "You seem so spaced out lately, what's up?" she says. She lies naked across the bed on her side, propping up her head with her hand and elbow, and then opens her thighs provocatively.

"Sometimes you just want someone to wash your back," he says ignoring her seductive posturing. She's been so hyper now that she's a project manager for her design firm. All that bubbly enthusiasm for her job. Jake used to feel that way. Being an actor is all he ever wanted to do, but the thought of acting has been filling him with dread lately.

"The shower thing?" she says. "I don't like sharing a shower. When we move to a place with a double-headed shower, we'll talk."

"We should talk," he says.

"I have other things in mind," she says, cupping her small breast in her hand.

"I feel a little tingly," he says, pointing toward his groin. "Might be a herpes starting." He doesn't like lying to her but it would be exhausting to try for an erection and undertake the athletic task of satisfying Myrna right now.

She narrows her eyes at him. "You're not screwing around are you?"

"Are you happy, Myrna?"

"Happy? What's wrong with you?"

"I'm not screwing around."

Jake's agent, Mickey, phones to tell him he got the part he auditioned for six weeks ago, a movie starring Russell Crowe that's to be directed by Ron Howard. She tells Jake to pack his bags and get ready because they're to start shooting in Vancouver in a week.

Jake should be elated but instead his heart sinks. He tells her he has to think about it.

"Very funny you rat bastard. Ha, ha."

"It's a bad time for me to go on location right now," he says lamely.

"I sucked Opie to get this part for you. I've over-nighted you the script. Pack your bags and be on that plane Monday morning."

"Mickey, it's hard to explain—" Christ, he's never been one for improvisation. How can he explain it when he doesn't understand it himself? Is this the mystery of life? A downward spiral of engagement so that by the time you're ready to die you're perfectly okay with it because you've long ago lost your will to live?

"Don't get wacky on me Jake. Is Myrna there?"

"No," he lies. "Let me think about it, okay?"

"There's nothing to think about. Tell me you're going to pack your bags and be on that plane. You're giving me chest pains."

Jake sighs. Maybe the apathy will pass. "What's the weather like in Vancouver?"

"That's my boy. Bring your galoshes and stay away from the pot. They say it drops your IQ like a sack of mud." She hangs up.

When Jake tells Myrna she throws her arms around him. "Oh my God," she squeals. She gyrates around the room, shaking her little ass. She shuts down her CAD program on the computer. "Let's celebrate!" He shrugs his shoulders. Sure, why not? He does feel a little hungry.

They go to Mistral in Sherman Oaks, their favorite restaurant and a biz hangout. Myrna tells everyone at the bar, and Henri, the owner, sends a bottle of Veuve-Clicquot to their table so they can toast each over duck confit and roast chicken studded with garlic cloves. Jake calls on all his acting chops to show just the right mix of diffidence and pleasure as his back gets patted and drinks are raised in his honor.

"Who's gonna get laid like a sailor?" Myrna coos drunkenly in the car, going home. "Who's gonna get blown like the wind?"

"Christ, that champagne's given me the worst headache," Jake says because the last thing he wants is to fake sexual ardor. He can't use the herpes excuse anymore because Myrna will insist on inspecting his penis to see the state of his vesicles, and his dick is clean.

Myrna falls asleep while he undresses down to boxer shorts and a t-shirt. He takes his time in the bathroom, trimming his toenails and nose hair, and then cleaning up the snippets. When he hears her snoring he tiptoes to the kitchen. The apartment across the way is dark and he imagines his neighbors asleep and smelling of soap, their limbs intertwined as they breathe in each other's vapors. He opens the kitchen drawer where he and Myrna keep miscellaneous odds and ends and pulls out an orange utility knife. Sitting on the kitchen stool at the butcher-block table, he fiddles with it, sliding the blade in and out by using the retraction button. He's thinking about a Lifetime Movie he was in last year where he played the hard-working-but-oblivious-widower father of a young woman named Allison who was addicted to cutting herself with razor blades.

Jake shoves out the triangular blade and holds it over his bare thigh, wondering if he's too numb to feel it.

In the movie, Allison goes to a psychiatrist who hypnotizes her to remember a female babysitter who'd been her caretaker after her mother died. The caretaker had sexually molested Allison, but Allison had blocked it out. The psychiatrist convinces Allison to confront the molester-babysitter, now living in a halfway house for recovering addicts. Allison's anger dissipates when she sees the beat up, babbling old woman, and finds the forgiveness that ultimately brings her peace and fills her with hope.

He sinks the blade into his thigh.

And it hurts like a motherfucker.

He pulls it out and stanches the oozing blood with paper towels as he limps to the sofa to lie down.

The movie was terrible but looking at his bleeding wound Jake thinks seeing a psychiatrist might be a good idea, so the next morning he calls the office of a doctor whose name he remembers from TV; a Los Angeles psychiatrist who'd discussed male menopause and depression with Regis Philbin on Live! Jake says it's urgent and gets an appointment for the same day. The office is on the 26th floor of a Century City high-rise, and has a panoramic view overlooking West L.A., from the snarled traffic on Little Santa Monica Boulevard immediately below, to the silvery gleam of the Pacific Ocean.

Jake sits in a suede, wingback chair and tells the shrink about spying on his Japanese neighbors as they bathe together, and how it makes him feel like he's missing something, how it fills him with yearning.

"Sukinshippu," the doctor says. "'Skinship.' The idea that human touch is necessary and beneficial, and that getting naked and bathing in the same water is the great equalizer that strips away all our masks and social barriers. Interesting," he says, "I wrote a paper on it."

Jake tells him about his numbness, likening it to systemic Novocain, and how the phrase, is that all there is? runs through his brain relentlessly lately. He tells him how it feels like he's an actor in his own life, playing a vacuous and meaningless role. He mentions the stab wound in his thigh, which looks like it's getting infected.

The psychiatrist tells him he's describing feelings of isolation and alienation. He gives him a prescription for antidepressants and they make an appointment for next week, even though Jake is supposed to be in Vancouver by then.

He gets the prescription filled at the drugstore in the psychiatrist's building and goes home. He takes a pill and waits to see if it does anything, even though he knows it takes a few weeks to get an effect. He takes another one. He wonders if taking a whole month's worth, all at once, would be fatal.

Is that all there is?

He goes into the bedroom and takes off his jeans. The skin around the stab wound is shiny and hot, and bright red streaks run up to his groin. He feels feverish. He squeezes the wound and pus and blood burst out of it, thick and foul smelling. In three days he's scheduled to fly to Vancouver Island for his breakout role into the Big Time.

All he wants to do is sleep.

He mops up the drainage with Kleenex, and then he falls back on the bed.

The telephone wakes him. It's Myrna, calling from Hirsch-Bedner. "I'm tied up with this presentation for Hyatt. Are you okay?" He'd told her he was going to see a urologist today because he'd been having urinary frequency and urgency.

"I'm fine. Just have to hold off on sex for a while. Minor irritation," he says, sitting up and dabbing the oozing wound.

"What kind of minor irritation?" Myrna asks, an edge to her voice. Jake realizes the time.

"I have to pee," he says. "Urgently." He hangs up the phone and dashes to the kitchen. Just in time. He can see them undressing, tossing their clothes. The water is running; he sees her stick her hand in the stream, testing its temperature. Jake feels his own skin on fire and a feverish delirium. Through his swimming vision he sees the little bonsai pot, a tiny Japanese maple, and remembers the key. He blinks.

He walks out of his back door in his underwear and Polo shirt, down his stairs and up theirs, the soft breeze fanning his blazing skin. He retrieves the key but discovers the door is already unlocked, and he takes this as an affirmation.

He enters their apartment through the kitchen. His heart accelerates as he sees his business card lying near an altar where incense burns lazily with a cloying perfume.

He turns to where he can hear the shower water running. He sheds his boxer shorts and shirt on the floor, and stands outside the bathroom naked, a thick trickle of blood and pus still oozing from the puncture wound on his thigh.

He pushes the door open and sees their bodies, the dark geometry of their hair, ethereal amidst clouds of fragrant steam. He watches them a moment in front of the obscured glass of the shower, listening to the susurrus of their voices.

He slides open the shower door and confronts their startled faces. He knows his own face must be a sight—all his acting abilities fail him and he has no control over the way it works with emotion. He doesn't know if tears are streaming down his cheeks or if it's the moisture of the shower.

"If you could just—wash my back," he says, supplicating his hands. "I haven't been feeling so good—"

They stare at him and then at each other.

"We don't want any trouble," says the man. "If you don't leave we will call the police."

"He looks ill," says the woman, her face soft.

"And—a shampoo, if it's not too much?" says Jake. He steps in slowly, vaguely aware that the animal sounds echoing off the shower tiles are his sobs. The couple steps aside as he leans up against the shower wall, his arms extended as he's seen them do.

The woman looks at her husband and then lathers her hands and begins to massage Jake's back. The husband watches his wife a moment, and then pours shampoo into his palms and works it into Jake's scalp.

Jake presses his forehead against the cool, white surface of the tiles. He is filled with hope.


Copyright©2008 Alicia Gifford