Saturday, April 17, 2021

Soap by Gilles Talarek

 He was getting used to the smell. On himself, that is; he’d always loved it on Michael. That moment when he slid into bed, smelling sudsy clean, always with the same caution and with a greedy look on his face; as if he was sneaking up on you, but for something you’d both enjoy. It wasn’t the promise of sex. Sometimes it was, but not often. No, it was his absurd and loveable lust for beds. He’d get in, stretch, in what he thought was a supple, feline way, but wasn’t –hard to be feline when you’re rocking a 6”2, 15 stone structure. Then, he would screech like an excited little girl who’s just been told that the pretty pony with a pink bow was indeed hers to keep; high pitched and ‘yeep’ sounding. 

  That meant that Michael was in bed and when he was in bed, boy was he happy to be there. He would even, on colder evenings, get right back out just so he could slide back in, sometimes adding a ‘Whoever invented the bed is a geeeeeeniuuuuus!’ to his routine. To this day, he still didn’t know who had invented the bed. He, however, did know that when Michael left it, the sheets would have soaked up his smell. So, who gave a shit about the inventor of the bed, when you were married to the alchemist who, without even trying, with a little soap, a little sebum and lingering notes of his woody aftershave, had created the smell of home?

    But now soap was just soap again. And when he used it every day, his skin was dry and taught. Michael’s was always soft. The alchemist. 

  For years, he battled the very basic tastes that his Massachusetts-born husband had dragged all the way to San Francisco like an unfashionable boulder. In a city where any sentient being thrived on choices and luxury, Michael was a ‘black coffee, soap and single sheet kinda guy’. How tedious to hear him complain, over and over again about the abundance of choice for coffee in Starbucks. ‘What even is a dry latte?’. How predictable to see him dart straight to reception, in every hotel they visited and ask for a single sheet and a cover, ‘none of those Egyptian thread-something “doovays”’; he could lip-sync Michael’s spiel down to the inflections. From above, as he fought hard to keep his 600-thread count cotton duvet covers and duvet, Michael’s side of the bed must have looked like the raw side of some puff pastry dish. Worst of all was his almost epidermal hatred of shower gels which ‘didn’t lather properly, didn’t rinse out and…what the hell was neroli or cardamom?’ 

   He started travelling with an emergency bar of Dove in the side pocket of his backpack, just in case. The cheap smell of it pervaded Michael’s documents, neck cushion, gym clothes…even the food he schlepped around in that bag became infused with a ‘combination of white flowers, rose, lily of the valley and Tunisian sandalwood’. 

   And yet here he was now, cradling a Dove against his chest. How could this common household staple have become his most prised possession? He wasn’t one for crying in the shower, too cliché, yet being lost in a stream of water made it less conspicuous to cry or pee. He was down to his last Michael bar. The other ones were brand new. Anonymous. This one had lathered his husband’s body, but it was getting thinner; already the carved bird and letters had faded, from Dove to ov, to nothing. Now it was flatter in his palm and against his heart. Now he just struggled into bathtubs; each of them white, nondescript units with varying hues of mouldy grey, hugged a bar of soap and wept, like the sad widower he’d become. 

   Married at 35. Widowed at 35.

   They’d married in Massachusetts. ‘The first ever state to legalize gay marriage!’ Michael would boom, his big Bostonian heart bursting with pride, ‘And we live in San Francisco!’ Voted in May, married in July. ‘Why wait?’ Michael would say, staring him straight in the eye. No blinking. 

   He proposed on May the 17th, as soon as legalization was announced.

   ‘Marry me.’ No question mark. ‘I don’t have a ring, but who needs props?’

   ‘Michael’ was all he’d managed to say, tears flooding his throat like a neglected grandmother being promised another visit before next Christmas. ‘Yes’

  ‘But we’re doing this right. We’re going to drive through the ten, twelve states it takes us to get from Massachusetts to California and make it our honeymoon. 30 days of driving and shitty motels, like two red-blooded gay Americans.’ 

   He did his best to conceal his apprehensions and rain on Michael’s parade. Who could say no to him when he steam-rolled you with his enthusiasm? Something about Michael made the years of bullying he’d suffered growing up in small-town Missouri seem trite. 

   So, they flew to Boston, got married there in quasi-monastic anonymity. To his surprise, only a handful of anti-gay-marriage picketers had set up camp in front of the town hall; their inbred looks and poor spelling making it obvious why they could afford to protest at 3 pm on a Thursday. 

   He let Michael’s unbridled bliss wash over him. So, what if they encountered a few bigots along the way, or had to sleep in double beds instead of king-size; they’d just huddle up closer. He started to ignore the sensation of free-fall that had always reared its nasty face each time a glance in Michael’s direction caused a wave of warmth to tsunami up inside him. 

   But not for long.

   In a motel just outside Poughkeepsie, Michael ran out of soap. The motel didn’t sell toiletries, but there was K-Mart across the road, the mousy receptionist announced with pride. Michael just ‘nipped’ across the street; ever since he started watching ‘Nigella Bites’, he ‘nipped’ a lot. 

   But he never nipped back. 

   An hour later, fuelled by his free-falling feeling, he left the room and found the mousy receptionist at the door. She hadn’t knocked, but just stood there, her face contorted under the weight of responsibility, her fingers twisted into uncomfortable-looking yoga postures. 

  ‘Your friend…had an accident. Please follow me.’ Her tone was robotic yet chocked, her beckoning hand-gesture, synchronised with the word ‘follow’, was the clunky motion of a game show assistant.

   He knew Michael was dead. Straight away. He’d been too happy. There was too much love. He’d let his guard down. He’d discarded the free-falling warning. Of course, it couldn’t last. 

  He identified the body, which had been moved to the motel parking lot and walked back to his room. He didn’t want to be with any of them, Michael wasn’t there anymore; he’d seen it in his face. 

  Not so fast.

  A policewoman knocked on their door, escorted by the receptionist.

  It was a hit and run. No witnesses, but they’d investigate. It was a busy road to cross on. Was he drunk?

  No

  What was his relation to the victim?

  ‘He was my husband’, he said, a sense of pride flowing out of him like rainbow-coloured gas. Could they see it?

  ‘Pardon?’

  ‘He’s my husband.’

  She must have read the yearning for battle on his face.

  ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’

  He was on the road again after only 2 days –Pennsylvania crematoriums worked fast- with the little metal urn that housed the love of his life. Such a big man, such a big heart, in such a tiny space. 

   He continued their honeymoon alone, with his metallic companion safely buckled on the passenger seat. That’s what Michael would have wanted. 

   Driving gave him purpose, but, come night-time; no slope on the right side of the bed, no light truffle-hound snore and no 15-stone mass of warmth to diffuse the scent he craved so much. 

   The soap had eroded to the size of a mango pit. With every shower, Michael was fading a little as well, thinning. After only 10, 15 days. His voice was the first to go. That weirdly comforting voice, who had talked him out of so many rash decisions and had known just when to cushion a crisis. He tried to conjure him as often as he could, but couldn’t hear him when he wanted, only in bursts. What kind of husband did that make him? 

   He tried not to blame himself, just as he had tried not to lash out at the mousy receptionist; ‘Your husband is dead’ is not the same as ‘Your friend had an accident’. He swelled up with anger at the thought of it. 

   He should have stopped Michael when he found a used bar of Dove wrapped in cling-film, in his own toiletry bag. He’d checked just in case, and there it was. He could have run after him. Then maybe he wouldn’t have crossed the road. 

  But somehow, he knew that someday, he’d need that soap more than Michael had. 

© Gilles Talarek

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