First, you think of summer, not the sweet one with the sun slanting towards the curtains in graceful breathlessness and fullness as if someone had breathed air into the wombs of the fabric. Instead, you think of the scorching one in which, on the swath of dried plains, the wind funnels into tumbleweed of dust. You imagine the sheets as women in white dresses, floating, no ground to land upon. Beneath them, only the pliant blades of grass sprout – and the dew drops that crown them take the sheen of the beads of broken glass. How they burst like tiny fireworks and simmer down under the heat.
And now, hands knead on your muscles and bones. You lay face down on a mattress, in the darkness, naked. Your skin glistens from the veneer of lavender oil. Spa music – birds chirping, crickets, Vivaldi, a cascading stream – pulsates from the speakers. A small towel covers the mounds of your hips, and when the chains of strokes travel from your shoulders toward your torso and the unbroken sequence of pressure trails between your legs, shin, calves, inner thighs – you think of pleasure. How it laves the human body and arrests one’s spirit. How the body becomes water and the slight contact of the fingers and skin spurs it to ripple and dissolve. How bliss is a current, electrically charged. How it stretches out rapture, the body becoming a still scaffolding of an ocean, every thread of its membrane sprouts out, like raised hair. And how it seizes and slows heartbeat and pulse, every tendril of nerves. And from them flowers the joy of surrender. How it borders between joy and sin.
And when pleasure is about to erupt into iniquity you think of her. You think of love as a petal, manifold and multidirectional: how at one moment love can make you respond to the color of one’s lips and face, the flushing of skin, the heat of the body, and fifteen years later, they’re left bereft of meaning because she has turned into a friend and you think of the time when you’ve forgotten to treat her like a wife, a lover. When did it begin? Was it at the orchard? When the mangos turned ripe for the picking, the trees needed care, then a child to whom you and Ruth both wanted to offer a better future? Maybe, it began with harvest, the fruits, like tiny gibbous moons turning gold, dangling from the trees and with Ruth beaming with pride looking up to them and their perfection, their being free of blots and blemishes, saying ‘you know what Jim, harvest should be like this every year’ and you nodding in agreement. Year after year, from that time on, both of you never looked back and you began to forget how it feels to be touched. There was a time when her fingers took the shape of desire, a wedge of fruit that one could bring to their mouth, so that they could relish on its diffusing honeyed sweetness, the whiff of pungency, the tincture of bromelain in it.
Other times, when your body arches from euphoria, from the fingers brushing against the dampness of your inner thighs, you think of a bountiful harvest. You were skip-hopping across the grass. The sun about to set, the reed had the trimmings of gold. You were so small on this field adjacent the mango orchard that your father used to manage with his bare hands. And when these diversions don’t work, you think about the callow fields of browning clumps of crops one season during drought when you were ten. This was how you began to understand failure and you promised yourself you didn’t want it to happen to you.
But here you are, turning to a kind of a puppet in the sleight of the boy’s hands. He tells you, he just turned twenty-one. You make out and discern the leanness of his body in the dark, the shaved head, the scent of his floral soap that stuck to him like second skin. You think he’s merely a boy with the gracefulness of a cat manifest in the way he quietly tips his toes to shuffle his weight from one side to the other and the way he crouches to feel the lump in your muscles, to offer you an even, unbroken stroke that starts from your shoulders and ends on your loin. How the boy tells you the story of your body: The beer and wine nights, of the feast on weekends, the myriad of indulgences that have turned into a habit. How your lean muscles turn to flesh, drooping like catkins in winter. How you’ve grown thick around the waist. How your belly protrudes and your hairline recedes. How all these betray your success and growing wealth. These are what you offer in exchange of luxury and it feels almost like a fair trade. He tells you the story of the bones you’ve forgotten the shape of. How they rise into arches and fall into hollows. He reminds you that you are alive, that your tissues, tendons and nerves still remain intact. He shows you the shape of your ribcage, the run of bone on your spine, traces and presses them with his thumb. His touch reminds you of who you are. His touch, tender and at times wild, must carry meaning.
There’s history written on your skin, on the pleats of your face. He learns of this too. Yours are the rough hands of the farmer. Your skin darkened from years of toiling in the fields and the orchard. The curve of your back molded from crouching too often, always fingering the lumps in the soil, like a hypochondriac looking for tumor among the folds of their body. And the boy does not make judgments. Herbal oil is his holy balm and you feel its blessing on your skin.
There are innocuous conversations you run in your mind which you know may lead somewhere and even nowhere. He may ask you where you live and if you are married and one rejoinder could lead to another and the next thing you’d know, you’d brought him to the ocean, in this place called Easy Adventure, a campsite overlooking the mangrove-fringed river that snakes out towards the Pacific. Where the ocean knows only violence but shows kindness to the driftwood which it sculpted, scattering on the shore, driftwood taking the shape of strange animals in grotesque equipoise, ones with too many limbs.
When you’re alone in the view deck watching the ocean froth along the jagged rocks like the foaming mouth of an alligator, you reach for his hands. A bottle of wine and a balloon of silence wedge itself between you and you’ll spend hours holding each other, listening to the waves crashing, looking at the spawning clouds breaking into bulbous and tenuous shapes. At times, you turn your gaze towards the couple on the stand-up paddle-boards and how they gracefully cut across the surface of the river. Their shadows blur and ripple on the surface of the current. In the distance, a fisherman does not tire swinging repeatedly his fishing rod behind him and over to the water.
By nightfall, by the bonfire, a bottle of beer in each of your hands, he tells you a bit of his life story. The usual, almost cliched one. Of poverty. How he came to the city by ship. How he traveled during the typhoon season. How the ship tilted to the waves. How he feared death. How he dropped out of school because he is the eldest. How much money he sends to his parents so that his three other siblings can attend school. Above you hovers a ribbon of fireflies which have strayed from their fold, blending in with the kindled ashes and wood splints that break free from the blazing pile of wood.
When you sprawled down on the grass and placed your arms under his head to cradle it, you tell him to look up the sky and study the constellations. You run your fingers on his cheeks and neck. He continues with his life story. He tells you he’s been working since he was nineteen. He’s touched and explored too many bodies. That he’s becoming impervious to touch. He no longer reacts to it. That he feels no pleasure when someone touches him and most of the time, he doesn’t want to be touched. He won’t tire touching you, he says. He says it again since you turn quiet. The smell of the ocean buffets like a basket of salted laver. He asks about your future together. You don’t know. You’ve never really thought about it.
In bed, while he is asleep, you search for his hands and you wish you can guide them somewhere, anywhere, in any part of you – where there dwells some kind of release and then it is over and a happy ending will dangle before you like a ripe fruit and you only need to reach for it and pluck it for keeping. But then again, you know nothing like that exists.
Scott Platt-Salcedo has been awarded three national writing fellowships in the Philippines. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Bull and Cross, GNU Journal, Folio and SAND Journal. He is currently working on his first novel and a collection of short stories.