“Delicate Flesh” originally appeared in the Brazilian journal Revista Pessoa. It appears here as a part of WWB’s ongoing partnership with Revista Pessoa: Each month, WWB will bring readers new work that originally appeared in Pessoa here in English translation, and Pessoa will publish work from WWB's pages in translation into Brazilian Portuguese.
If there’s an hour heavy with failure, it’s the start of her morning. The uncomfortable, tiresome journey has become preparation: there are bumps in the surface of the sidewalk, and the unevenness frustrates her, almost to the point of making her curse. On the first bus, the seat beside her is occupied by earphones, then by a group of bags. The second bus is full, so she situates herself among three backpacks, stays as still as possible, stares at a spot where she meets no one else’s gaze, and thinks about her life. They say the time she dedicates to this work that pays so little, but that compensates for her imagined inability to measure up—they say this time is wasted, because she is young (still) and capable (enough) of caring for and dedicating herself to (oh, that’s right) the husband she doesn’t have, according to them because she refuses the dates they arrange for her. She makes no effort to recall the past—to object that dedicating herself to a man and having his child did not, against all hope, prevent her from ending up alone and convinced that nothing about her body or personality could attract these imagined admirers. None of them, no longer interested in pursuing just anyone, only to end up sighing in resignation, “Not this time, but I tried”—none of them will convince her that she could be more than acceptable company at events that allow or encourage guests. When she is with them, she recalls the old man’s diapers, the pittance she earns, and she feels that without these thoughts she’d find her dates unbearable. She’d dump their own filth on them.
The final stretch is easy, but it’s all uphill. Arriving, she looks closely at each step as she climbs, and considers the marble floor of the walkway leading to the front door. It’s still early when she rings the doorbell, but so much banality has already left her day looking as exciting as an over-tenderized piece of meat. She stows her bag, changes her clothes, dons her long apron, and walks with her head down throughout the residence, forcing herself to think of the old man whose room she might one day find empty.
In his case, as with a newborn or a recovering alcoholic, the days are numbered for obvious reasons: his relatives see him in the imminence of something—they prefer not to name it. Not that the x-rays or the blood tests give them reason. Except for his dementia, there is only the fragility that comes with age, and it is to this fruitless insistence on lingering that his family takes offense (however unreasonably), their patience exhausted. Her impression is that the old man—spent of the fickle energy that animates younger bodies, who know nothing of chronic pain, incontinence, or fractures—has begun to stabilize, functioning without deficiencies or excesses, and that in this state of low energy, he could go far longer than expected. There are two forces still animating him: his body and his fantasies. The first works against his age, slowing his step, delaying him in the choreography of life, keeping him behind in his march toward the marble tombstones, even though his jumbled mind has long since presented his loved ones with their two options: an invitation to detachment or a certificate of suffering. The other force, fantasy, touches the minds of those who believe cremation or burial to be far off in their futures: the jumbling produces first monsters, then fabulous word-beings that only those—not her—who know how to find beauty in incoherence can appreciate. And so to a simple question—“How do you feel, sir?”—he responds with the story of a memorable horse race in which the longshot to win, Albatross, defeats the favorites Tirolesa, Pontet Canet, Heliaco, and Polux, yielding thirty times what he wagered. Upon the arrival of a fully-grown woman, perhaps his daughter and perhaps his nurse, he intones a delirious, poetic serenade in which skin and stars share of the same texture, neither human nor astronomical.
She never feels offended or flattered by the rare and unexpected words he speaks while she warms his bathwater. He runs his callous fingers over his head, caresses his sparse locks, taking care to block his eyes from the foam, and the realizations come as no surprise to her: that the warmth she feels is like the warmth she experiences with a child; that one, with his miniscule fingers, has the strength to grip her, while the other, despite his enormous hand, does not; that their two tallies do not mirror each other, one counting the days since birth, and the other the days until death. But she wonders if the old man’s gratitude is like her son’s, for the mother who bathes and relieves him of the stinking marks of his dependence on her—marks she takes a secret pleasure in, because when they’re gone, when his filth becomes a private concern, when his waste loses its meaning to the love between them, and when his cleanliness becomes the norm, the last of the birth cord will finally vanish, dividing them from one another until, if she is lucky, senility overwhelms her—brutally, degradingly—and he becomes the one to cleanse her when the excrement of her fatigued flesh ejects itself from her exhausted body and back to nature. Then, a new cord of gauze and cotton will be braided, reuniting son with mother, and this cord will save her—every time but the last—when she stumbles upon obstacles created by her own unstable legs.
It would be difficult for her to know what the substance of any gratitude might be, coming from this person whom she cares for. Perhaps senility, better than philosophy or religion ever could, has given his mind a chance glimpse of the unity shared by all beings, and so it would make no difference if she were one of his daughters, his long-dead mother, some hospital nurse, a childhood girlfriend, or some other invented woman. To her and to the others, any such confusion is just a symptom of his degeneration, and the best thing to do is not imagine other possibilities, since what causes her to suffer when she’s with men she wants to be with is to not feel—and it is in the elasticity of the word that she stumbles—special.
To the old man, the pleasure is like what he experiences when a razor runs along his jaw, his cheek, the nape of his neck—pleasure that a healthy mind does not elaborate, much less enunciate. The sharpened blade glides delicately over his rough surfaces. The bathroom tiles, like the tiles in the hair salon he recalls, are what hook him to this memory, which he holds on to for a time, before losing himself again. His spotted skin, nearly hairless save for a few strands around his crotch, responds to the blade in his memory like he responds to the warm water in the present: with shivers, the faint pleasure that fills each pore still incapable of generating great spasms, complaints, or smiles. Without hesitation, she scrubs the almost mineral-like soles of his feet, his thin ankles, his thighs, his belly, his buttocks, his penis, his stomach, his back, his arms, his neck. Then for the first time since she accepted the job, and without even a blink of the old man’s eyes, fixed upon nothing in particular; without any sudden flash or help from his hands, immobile at the rear like surrendering legions; and without breath, sign, or warning, a fleeting bit of energy stirs the mass of delicate flesh nestled in the old man’s groin, his flaccid member—stripped of any inhibition, intention, or sense—swelling into a poor imitation of what it used to be; and she, knowing this to be nothing out of the ordinary, without any interruption to what she’s doing, will nonetheless find herself attentive, intrigued, a warm wave (not libido, or shame, or modesty, but nearly as imperceptible as her certainty in her failures) flowing through her legs; and for some reason she does not try to understand, that wrinkled bundle of flesh—that unjustifiable appendix, rising with the tenacity of some mindless current—grows into an homage, a secret monument to his persistence, erected above the tiles; and from then on, after the steam dissipates, after soup has splattered on the old man’s pajamas, after his diapers have been soiled, the lights have been turned off, and the doors closed behind her, either one day soon or never, without any glimmer of change in her posture, in the circulation of her blood, in the creases of her frown, in the tessitura of her voice, or in the swaying of her hips, the memory of that fragile pillar will soften her view of the sidewalks that she roams while trying to think of nothing.