We were young, creative types with promising careers and pairs of children. We moved into old homes with old yards, and we put a new face on things. We opened a bakery and planted a community garden. We went to parties and planned picnics. We taught our children to be polite and allowed them to have messy hair. We walked with them to their music lessons and to the library for story hours. We taught them to ask before petting dogs and to never talk to strangers.
He was native to the neighborhood, and he stood in our way. His house was incomplete and leaning. His lawn was unkempt. He was foul and his jokes were dirty. His shirts were commercial giveaways and ratty hand-me-downs. He was old and oily. He unnerved us and we were not to be out nerved.
There were other longtime residents, like him, but they appreciated us and we appreciated them. Their yards were tidy and their evenings were spent quietly in front of the TV. They enjoyed the new life we breathed into the community. We incorporated them into our lives and they invited us into theirs. We thought of them as our elders. We asked them about the neighborhood, about its history, and then we asked them about him.
“Don’t bother with him,” they said.
“He’s foul,” we said.
“Let him be,” they said.
And for a time, we did. We went on with things as if he wasn’t there. If he said hello, we’d say that’s okay. If he offered a hand, we’d insist we were fine. But this was unfair. We were being unreasonable. We were idealists, not elitists. This collective avoidance was wrong. We decided to stop ignoring him, if only for a while. We told ourselves he was not so foul. We told ourselves we were being unfair.
We laugh about it now, but we were caught off guard then. It happened when we came into contact with him. A handshake, eventually a hug. His touch carried a mysterious warmth, a knowledge. It left us feeling understood. Something like a high. We couldn’t explain it. We didn’t try. His touch understood us and we were desperate to be understood.
His handshake became our pursuit; his touch, our elixir. Its effect, though potent, was ephemeral. We felt whole and understood with, and alone and anxious without. We began greeting him with long handshakes, then leaving him with long and affectionate goodbyes. He was aloof, if not thrilled. Imagine his good fortune.
We no longer cared about what had seemed foul and obnoxious before. We laughed at everything he said and asked him to tell us more. We invited him to our parties and to stop by for a beer in the evenings. We told ourselves it was important to look past his clothes and foulness. We spoke of our efforts as a sort of charity and we thought of his touch as getting something in return.
We went on like this for months, never directly acknowledging what was happening; never saying, explicitly, a word about his touch. Until one day, just like that, it slipped out. A conversational misstep in the narthex after church, in the park, in line at the bank, on the phone. It came out, then out again, and again and again. As intentionally as we once hid it, we now were proclaiming it. Self deprecatingly at first, then proudly. What was there to be ashamed of? Now we knew we knew.
We said, “Have you ever noticed how warm his hands are?”
It was with a sense of relief that we all began to agree.
We said, “God, yeah. Unbelievably warm.”
We said, “Not just warm.”
“In an unusual way.”
We were excited to be talking about it, but also vulnerable and embarrassed.
“I’m just glad I’m not the only one.”
“I didn’t think I could be alone in this, but then you never know.”
We had to try to keep it to ourselves. There was no sense in having it get out.
“Can you imagine?” we said.
“We’d be laughed at.”
“It’s so funny.”
“It’s just such a silly thing.”
“Not the sort of silly you want getting out, however.”
“Our little secret,” we said.
“It really is.”
Throughout that summer, we caught each other in the act. We’d smile sheepishly, then whisper about it over lunch. We told ourselves it was our interest, to be fascinated. We were merely—finally—being understood.
Over coffee, in the garden, at the park, on the phone, we said, “I gave him a hug.”
Late fall, the weather turned cold, we stood wrapped in sweaters and hats, waiting for our children outside of their school. We were griping about this and that when we said, “How old do you think he is?”
His age had never crossed our minds before.
That there might be a finality to him had never crossed our minds.
“Not that old,” we said.
“But he’s not young,” we said.
We kicked the sidewalk and looked off.
“He will live a while longer.”
“But he does seem frail.”
“His hands are thin.”
“They were always thin.”
We went on like this until our children came out, then we quietly walked and drove away. Something had changed. We had discovered the endpoint. We couldn’t be sure when it would come, but there it was, inescapable. Our naiveté had been displaced—our perspective, blurred. We were left with no other option. We had to get closer, to absorb his touch as much as possible—before our time was up, before we no longer could.
We stopped waiting for him to pass, or for him to reply. We stopped waiting for him to come outside. We abandoned casualness and began knocking on his door. We presented simple requests and asked trivial questions. We planned functions he would attend, beer things and things outside. But he grew impatient with our flattery, with our frequency, and he began pulling back.
“Stop that!” we said.
“We’re trying to help you!”
We told him he needed to take care of himself. He needed to stop smoking and to clean up his life. Our efforts made perfect sense to us. This was of importance. This was us helping him.
“It’s for your own good,” we said.
“Walk with us,” we said.
The more we came around the more he stayed in. We smiled and pretended it was nothing. We decorated our homes with lights and our front doors with wreaths. We shoveled and watched movies on TV. We set up trees in our living rooms and filled shopping carts with presents. And then, only because we didn’t want him to miss out, we arrived at his house and did the same for him.
“A wreath for your door,” we said.
“Look here, a Christmas tree.”
“When was the last time you had a tree?”
He didn’t want the wreath or the tree. He wanted to be left alone.
“Surely you don’t mean that,” we said. “What about presents? How about we bring you some presents?”
“Who doesn’t like presents?”
We had become obnoxious. Our actions were highly noticeable. The others were disgusted with us.
“What are you doing?” they said. “We warned you to let him be.”
“We’re trying to help him,” we said.
“What did we tell you about him? We told you to never mind him.”
“But it’s Christmas,” we said.
“Pay no attention to us,” we said. “We can do as we please.”
We sincerely wanted to help him. We just needed to know how.
“Tell us what you need?” we said.
“Anything at all.”
We weren’t being unreasonable; he was the one who had changed.
“Here, let’s handshake,” we said. “A truce.”
“We’ll leave. We’ll walk away. Shake.”
He said a truce was unnecessary. He thanked us and closed his door.
“Tell us about your life!” we shouted. “Tell us about Vietnam!”
“I was never in Vietnam,” he shouted back. “Please, just go away.”
We knew we needed to listen. We were crossing a line. We knew it would get worse if we didn’t.
“He deserves space,” we said.
“We can afford him that much,” we said.
“All we can do is let him be.”
“No way around it. We need to walk away.”
We retreated into the cold of it all. Holidays became winter. Snow fell, thawed, froze, then thawed again. Everything looked trampled upon and driven over.
Weeks passed without seeing him. Our conversations became abstract and wishful. We were disgusted without ourselves. We stopped caring. Then, early one morning, while we were in our pajamas, in our kitchens and living rooms, still in bed, feeding our kids, listening to the news on the radio, getting ready for work, reading the paper, buttering toast, our phones began to ring.
We could not believe what we were hearing.
“This can’t be.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s over then.”
One of us broke into his house, climbed under his bed.
“It could’ve happened to any of us,” we said.
“We were all capable.”
The reports suggested she might have wanted him to find her, but did not speculate on why. The reports didn’t understand.
“We will be fine without him,” we said.
“It’s for the best that it’s over.”
There was a service to remember her. We sang hymns and listened to a reading. The priest gave a reflection in which he talked about the tradition of The Thin Place.
“Yes, yes,” we said, “we know this place.”
We looked at the priest, and then at the others. We saw what they saw. To them, she was a community member and friend. To them, she was a victim. They did not see what we saw. To us, she had sacrificed her life for his touch. To us, she had won.