First touch, seventeen years ago. A hotel room in Hangzhou. 102 degree heat and a tiny baby in a striped split-pants outfit who has just been handed to you. Diaper rash. You take off her striped outfit and diaper and pull up your t-shirt and lay her down, stomach to stomach.
She sticks two fingers in her mouth and crinkles her dark eyes at you. You trace her sweaty little spine with one finger. Both of you are limp from the summer heat.
Hi, baby girl, you say.
Your skin and her skin, getting to know each other.
* * *
First kiss. The middle of the night. Rain drumming on a big tent in the woods by a river. Everyone asleep but you and the boy next to you. His hand silently smoothing your hair. The thrill of his skin-that-is-not-your-skin on yours. A quick smile the next morning, the brush of his fingers against yours under the picnic table.
* * *
Your elderly friend. The first time he’s left the big city in 37 years, the first time he’s been on a plane in 40. The first time he’s seen your house, sat at your kitchen table. He’s telling you how his mother used to rub the skin off boiled beans. He shows you with his fingers, rubbing them against his thumb.
“Like that,” he says.
You look at him, your shy and quiet friend who has lived his entire life in the same house, the one he lived in with his parents until they died, and suddenly you wonder if he has ever, even once, held a girl’s hand.
You reach across the table and hold his hand.
“You are precious to me,” you say. “Do you know that?”
He bends his head and nods.
* * *
“I was born in a body entirely covered and held together with skin,” writes your student. “And when I grew, my skin grew with me.”
You read her words and skin strikes you, for the first time, as alive. Of course it’s alive, you think, it’s an organ. It’s the largest organ in the body. But why did you never think of it as alive until just now?
You look at your hands, typing these words. At the veins like noodles just below the surface. At the scabs and scars and freckles and lines, none of which were there when you were born. You think of everything –the blood and muscles and bone and hidden organs– that your skin is protecting right now. Equal parts strength and fragility.
* * *
Your boy texts you a photo of his new tattoo. It takes you a while to comprehend it. Then: Wow, you text back.
It’s from the last lines of Book One of Paradise Lost, he writes. The most beautiful book I’ve ever read.
You imagine a long line of years stretching ahead of the skin that now holds his favorite words. You wonder how much it hurt, all those words, all those needles, all that ink.
The devil emerges from hell, he writes, and must pause to behold pure beauty for the first time.
You picture the scene, the devil, forced to stop and acknowledge the beauty of this world. You study the photo of your boy’s back and you remember it as it was the first time you saw him, when he was born. You carried him inside you while his skin was forming itself over that tiny, perfect body. You cried in fury and sorrow the first time a mosquito bit him. That first wound.
That is amazing, you message back. You amaze me.
Nothing for a few minutes. Then a small red heart appears on your screen.
* * *
Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.
Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers–silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.
(Two Countries, by Naomi Shihab Nye)