Portraits of Handwashing

Eric Tran


                                      after Bernard Cooper

Soap the backs of your hands, too. You are a pinwheel of contact points; more than your palms have touched the world today. Flood the fine creases of your wrists, bury the mountains of your knuckles. Each finger is a molting snake, each hand an unbaptized infant. Look: Your forearms end in clouds. The sink is a fresh-made bed, and your hands carry so many weary travelers.


Lasse, my dorm’s health educator, taught us to lather for at least two rounds of “Happy Birthday.” He had a lingering Swedish accent and unironically loved the Swedish fish gummies I bought him for Christmas. Happy birthday to you! he sang. He sang so happily we felt like it was actually all our birthdays; his mimed lathering was our puppet show. When Lasse caressed our fevered foreheads, I imagined him later, at the sink, humming himself bright and clean again.


A nurse visited our class and implored us to be vigilant: When you enter a patient’s room, when you leave. She wanted to say, You could save lives, but she actually said, You could kill people. She waved her arms emphatically, flapped like them a bird in distress, or maybe she was just she was air-drying her hands. Maybe she had just washed them. Maybe her hands, which looked thick and strong even from seven rows back, had just held a pink, wailing newborn or palmed a syringe of adrenaline for another patient’s stilled heart.


In New York, I know three bakers who wash their hands, their counters, their instruments before spinning together white sugar flowers. In North Carolina, my neighbor scoops lumps out of a litter box. Elsewhere, after a potter presses out a wide-mouthed bowl, a 5-year-old picks his nose. A butcher, a barehanded fisherman. Somewhere, someone on a great first date uses the bathroom and lingers in the mirror. Mouths again and again, Oh my god. Oh my god.


Once, as a kid, I tried to make a kite out of chopsticks and printer paper, but it never caught air. When my dad got home from the mechanic shop, he sighed at my attempt. With a small grout brush, he scrubbed the oil from his hands before building me a new one. Once, he cupped a family of crickets and held them near my ear. Once, he slapped me down to kitchen tile and then iced my bruise. His kite flew above our apartment rooftop. He wanted me to hold the string, but I refused, afraid it might slip, even from a tightly clenched fist.