Ever notice how different people like doing certain household chores and loathe doing others? I hate the vacuum, like many a wise cat. Its insistent whir sounds like the breath of an angry beast—though many people, I'm told, find it soothing and satisfying. Putting out the recycling only makes me feel guilty when I see how many paper bags I've accumulated in a week. But I love doing the dishes. By hand. In hot, soapy water. I particularly look forward to this after breakfast when my hands, dry and constricted all night, lust after moisture. A skin difficulty called ichthyosis—from the Greek for fish because both fish and I have scales—dries my body beyond what nature intended, making the top layer brittle. And because my epidermis doesn't slough off normally, extra layers of dead skin thicken my fingertips and palms. By morning my hands feel as tight as if they were gripped by cheap leather gloves that have cracked with age. The nerves in my fingertips strain to sense the fibers in my white sheet.
Hot water changes that for a short while. After fragrant tea and toast in my Philadelphia garden, admiring the ferns, I go into the kitchen. As a seventy-three-year-old single woman I scorn dishwashers—except for when I've thrown a dinner party, but even then I relish a pile of dirty plates. No matter how steep the stack, I turn on the hot water and plug the sink. Blue detergent squirts onto my porcelain cup and saucer. I let my hands skitter across the steam for a moment. Then I clasp the sponge and start soaping my grandmother's dessert dishes gritty with last night's chocolate cake. My hands are like a diver at first, only sliding into the warm deep but not at one with the water. Gradually, as the brittle outer layer of my skin absorbs moisture, I begin to move my fingers more easily. The porcelain feels slick as I slide my thumb across the bottom of plate. My hands swim as easily as a fish.
I look around for other things to wash. A vase that held yellow zinnias, now gone gooey. The broiler pan. Wine glasses are a particular delight because I swirl them directly beneath the stream of hot water, slicing the bubbly detergent around the rim of each glass. When there's nothing left to wash, I dry my hands on a French cotton dishtowel, feeling for those brief moments the weave of the worn fabric. Soft Aquaphor cream soaks into my fingers and keeps them flexible for about ten minutes, long enough to go back into the tiny walled garden at the back of my house and feel the edge of a magenta coleus leaf, its tiny ribs as perky as a cat's tongue. But soon enough, ichthyosis claims my hands again in its tight, dry clasp.
At every family gathering for the last forty years or so, I've admired and envied my sister-in-law's hands. They spread wide from pinkie to thumb. Her skin is workmanlike and supple. A gold bracelet slides up and down her arm with abandon. She holds her knife thoughtlessly between her long index finger and her sturdy thumb, cutting into her meat in happy anticipation of the next succulent bite. She absolutely never worries about the knife spurting out of her hand. She brags that she brought mechanical skill into the intellectual Kaier family, where no one can use a hammer with any confidence. For a Christmas stocking present last year, she gave me a nifty orange jar opener—though she twists slippery bottle tops off with one turn of her powerful wrist. Man, I wish I could do that.
As you can imagine, I don't do technology well either. My thick skin interferes with the mysterious current between the blood in a fingertip and the nerves of a phone screen. Texting takes forever. Words jump in my head like salmon trying to leap falls, but I censor them, stopped dead by the thought of how bloody long it will take to type each one in. My tight hands stumble beyond bearing when I'm working on a keyboard. Every line on my screen is sprinkled with pepper-red typos.
Touching other people is more complex still. On the 4th of July this year, my two little neighbor kids, now seven and five, knocked on my door. They often come by. They like to hunt for slimy slugs under terracotta pots in my garden. They also like to see how many quarters rattle in the pink pottery piggy bank they cleverly gave me one Christmas, guessing, correctly, that I'd slide dimes in there and then dole them out when little hands opened in front of me. On July 4th, Saylor and her older brother Deegan came in with hand-made flags to sell. Naturally, I bought two at a dollar a piece. Then we went out into the garden and the kids wandered around looking for the right places to put the flags. Having made their decisions about this—Saylor stuck hers in a wire rooster and Deegan put his next to a pink geranium—we chatted for a while. After about ten minutes, they heard their mom calling at my front door. For years, these children have happily thrown their arms around me and given hugs, mainly to my legs because legs are the right height for small children. My legs are usually covered in denim or cotton, but since these kids have known me for so long, my skin doesn't seem to bother them. It certainly doesn't get in the way of hugs. Which I treasure. But I think twice about touching them back. On a hot July day, Saylor shimmied around in her bright red sundress. Standing in my orange hallway, I was afraid my scaly hands would scratch her if I rubbed her soft back, so I bent down and kissed the top of her brown head.
It's probably because touch is so compromised for me that I relish those moments when hot soapy water makes my hands feel free.
Just now, I got up from my desk, went into the bathroom, opened the tap, and waited. It's a long way from the basement water heater to my third-floor sink. When the water turned warm and then warmer, I began to try to flex my hands. For a moment or two they resisted, but after a while, under the stream, cloudy with chlorine, the nerves in my palms started to tingle and I began to spread my fingers out, fanlike. At this peak moment, I shook the water off, dried lightly on a cotton towel, scooped up a plug of Aquaphor, creamed both hands, came back to my desk, and put my fingers on these keys. Now the words in my head—every frisky vowel and consonant—somersault from my mind to the screen. Thinking what to write next, I massage the back of my neck. Even the lace of flaky skin behind my ears feels good.