Transitions (for Jason)

by Jeff Oaks

One morning I woke up and wanted to be touched again. It was perhaps even more simple: my skin wanted another man to touch it. Specifically, the request came from my right side, the little area where ribs stop and waist begins. That skin wanted a lover’s hand on it again. Even more specifically, I was lying in bed on my left side, facing the windows at the front of the house. It was light out because I remember looking at and seeing that part of my body where I felt the request. I may have touched it myself to make sure it wasn’t an itch, the dog, a rash decision. It was the beginning of winter in Pittsburgh, around Thanksgiving, 2013. My skin was as pale as ginger ale. The request to be touched was Adamic: an urge in the ribs to seek connection, to not be alone anymore.

It didn’t startle me. It was more like a memory reappearing than a ghost or a phantom limb. It was not like the time, long after the two dogs I’d grown up with had been put down, I woke up (I think) to the feeling of them stepping up on my bed–the weight of them, the quiet settling down of their bodies. I was so struck by the feeling that I rose up immediately to see if they had indeed rematerialized. I would have given almost anything to have them back then. But there was nothing. Not even the cat. They’ve never arrived so physically again; it may have been the flaring out of an old muscle memory I didn’t realize I’d stored in my legs or feet. If I believed in ghosts, I’d say they were ghosts.

What I felt wasn’t memory but desire. It was like waking up from a nap on the couch to find your foot unexpectedly warmed by a square of sunlight. Maybe it was a ghost of hunger, if a ghost. Maybe a hope. It’s hard to know what the skin conducts other than electricity. We name it other things–ghosts if goosebumps rise, danger if hair, desire if heat.

After eight years of living alone, of not having the desire to be touched– indeed enjoying not having to think about desire at all–the arrival of such a request from a place so distant from my usual life that it might well have come from a supernatural source, a metaphysical one, the signal was clear. As clear as any line for a poem I’d heard in my head. It was of a class of feeling that required a response, or maybe I mean that it was the kind of feeling I’d trained myself to respond to–something else needed to happen, in other words. It was the kind of response that wouldn’t stop until it had been attended to, considered, given an airing, a chance to speak. Something in my body had bought a ticket to the future.

This was the first sign I remember. It was very simple on one hand. I think I might even have fallen asleep afterward but the days afterward were all changed by it, by the signal that my body was interested in living again, of being loved.

My mother had been dead for about nine months. It’s probably not a coincidence that it took me a full gestation period before I could allow myself to be alive again, return from the underground chambers where I’d been writing and rewriting poems about the process of her dying.

What is it that moves the cicada up from the roots? What is it that tells the bulb it’s time to shoot upward a flower? Or birds to mate or sing? A touch on the shoulder, a tickle in the ribs, a brush or pressure on the ankle from ghosts, loss, memory? A door opens. The metaphors are many for that experience. “Then, suddenly–” the writer writes.

The state you are in must change. You can change your life, writes the poet. I have no better explanation for how I knew I was ready.