Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth. —Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
I traced my finger along your trails
And your body was the map, I was lost in it
—“Your Rocky Spine,” Great Lake Swimmers
He writes, I’m curious about hands. They mean something to you, I can tell. You study them and make maps on them.
I’m in bed when I read this email. Milky winter light filters through the blinds. We’re miles and states apart, but his words whisper over my skin. Computer balanced on my lap, I flip my right hand and stare at my palm.
Down the center, only a few nights before, I’d drawn an invisible line, and then I’d looked into his relentless eyes and said, I won’t cross this.
But we had, only a little while later, breached the boundary I’d set down.
It didn’t feel wrong.
My partner calls up the stairs, Do you want some chicken soup?
I close the browser and say, No, thank you. I’m not very hungry.
She doesn’t climb the stairs; water runs in the kitchen sink. I reopen my email and tap out a response: You’re right, they do mean something to me. No one’s ever noticed before.
I see us standing on a street corner, bright sun, hidden in plain sight, and I see my hand reach for his—and the hesitation before he allows me to turn his palm upward—and right there, where anyone might see, I draw an X upon him.
I see myself, tucked into fresh sheets, signing my message, Thank you. x
Certainly there’s not much original in XO—it’s been a salutation since the early 1900s—I’ve been using it since my pen pal days; my coworkers and bosses use it; I sign messages to friends, family, even my catsitter, with it. A hug and a kiss, a simple, warm sign-off, familiar, almost naïve in its sweetness.
And maybe it was naiveté, or the fact that he wrote back, Thank you. o, that propelled me down a path I knew better than to embark upon. But no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is.
I’ve deleted every single one of our emails. I didn’t need to—my partner left me and married another woman—no one cares about the riptide of words that dragged he and me from shore; no one really cares about the undertow unless they’re caught in it.
He’s gone now, from my inbox, from my days, from my body. But some mornings I wake to feel the ghost of his arms wrapped around me in bed or while I boil water for coffee. I hunger for our exchanges—if only to copy them here to show the exact truth of our love, to prove its eloquence, its existence, knowing proof means nothing.
When he asked about hands, some seed planted inside me however many eternities ago split, unfurling a tender green shoot.
What I remember telling him: Our hands are our maps.
Touch is our most intimate sense.
Our fingertips are laced with Merkel cells—the same sensitive receptors that help bats maintain altitude, stick to a flight path, and catch prey midair.
We use our hands to caress and kill, to soothe and discipline, to hold and hurl. We offer our hands to babies to learn trust, to the dying in solace, to our lover in solidarity. We adorn them with rings to lay claim, we link pinkies in promise, we raise open palms in helplessness, in surrender. We pass rosaries and mala through our fingers to count blessings, to pray.
Our hands set us apart from all other species—those odd opposable thumbs responsible for the structure of our world as we know it, without which the buildings we live in would not exist, the food we eat would go unharvested and unprepared; our ablutions would become mere baths, our love letters would remain unwritten. Without our hands there would be no maps to unroll, no cartographer’s exquisitely rendered terrain, no X marks the spot.
On Valentine’s Day, I draw a red Sharpie heart on my palm, snap a pic and send it off. Downstairs, my partner makes coffee and laments the foot of snow piled on our walkway and car. I’ll shovel, I call, deleting the photo from my camera and computer, logging out of my email.
Post-shoveling, pouring a second cup of coffee, I open my email on my mobile to find his response: For you—
My partner sits five feet away at the kitchen table. I face her, so the back of my mobile does too, careful to shield the screen.
She says, Thanks for shoveling.
I say, Good exercise, which is my stock response any time obligation is my main motivation.
She says, Do you have writing you need to do?
I say, Yes.
Later that night we attend a V-Day party. We have been tasked with sharing a poem, and on the sly, my partner brings one of mine. Everyone claps when she finishes reading, but they clap in my direction. I drink too many Paper Airplanes, and slide down the icy stairs on our way out.
I’m not a sleeper—not a good one anyway, even with four drinks in my belly—and by the time I make it to bed, my partner snores lightly, the lamp turned down to the dimmest setting. I pull up my email—habit, desire, fear, craving—and see a new message from him, sent only minutes before. I open it.
On documents, X is how an illiterate person claims possession. Perhaps it is crude to say so, but really, what better way to mark ownership than two slashes? The clash of two lines intersecting gives life meaning. Tip the X ninety degrees and you’ve got a cross—the shape of the human body when outstretched—our entire history contained in a symbol. The X is innumerable on maps: all those crossroads, all those crashes.
X never goes it alone—maps are also riddled with O: poles, lakes, capitols, islands, their edges ever evolving. An O, no matter how imperfectly shaped, signifies a wholeness unto itself; a seed containing the entire cycle, from birth through destruction. Seeds are tenacious bastards, adapted over millennia to propagate at any cost. I think of fate this way, not as predestination but as eons-old stamina propelled by unseen forces into foreign territory. Seeds don’t give a damn whom the property belongs to.
In the airport, waiting to be picked up after a trip to Miami, I pull up my email—a thing I do hundreds of times a day, my face backlit by that sickly screen. I’ve been waiting hours, impatience and anxiety like a virus coursing my body, to hear from him. And there it is, his name, the subject line blank as they always are. I read the email the way a person crawling through Death Valley might gulp water. Maybe that’s the message where he told me of an acquaintance’s death, or of his daughter’s recent stomach flu, or of how deeply he loves his wife—I don’t remember. I only remember the blank signature. No initial, no xo. As if interrupted, an abrupt and thoughtless end.
Time turns circles around us, makes mockery of linearity. What is a map but a one-dimensional representation of our multidimensional topographies? Like language, maps evolve as an art form, whether we care for it or not—Google lacks beauty, but it lays out the land: Point A, Point B; the myriad ways to journey. And when all is said and done, with the click of a button, we collapse the maps we no longer need and we tuck them away.
The street corners where we met, the spots where we kissed with only the moon as witness, where we refused the wan reality of goodbye, where I finally traced an O atop the paths of his hand—these collisions of longitude and latitude, of fate, recede into foldable squares, to be stored alongside my other journeys.
Can we find the truth in the cartography of a person’s palm? Maybe, if we know how to read the Line of Heart, the Line of Fate. Or maybe the scores our palms bear are little more than creases and wrinkles formed over years of grasping, and of letting go.
About the Writer
Sara Rauch lives in Western Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Hobart, So to Speak, Prick of the Spindle, Lunch Ticket, Luna Luna, Bartleby Snopes, and more.