The very tender man was so called not for his kind spirit, though he was not unkind, but for the sensitivity of his skin. As a child, he had been loved but never held. It took his mother a second son to understand the fuss over a baby's feel.
The man found few ways to ease his pain. He burned no more easily than others of his complexion, but a strong sun was as distressing to him as touch. It was only in water, lukewarm, that he felt anything like how he assumed humans are supposed to feel.
He preferred to go without clothing, though he was not proud of his body. Clothing, while bearable, was a constant reminder that he would never be any other way than this. His nudity necessitated a certain degree of isolation. He rarely left his house. He received deliveries and telephone calls and in this way made his life.
The man earned his money from a distance, directing the movement of currency thousands of miles away. He was the only member of the company granted special dispensation to work so far from the office. The man was so distanced from the entire operation that he had no feelings about it whatsoever and was soon promoted well above his original rank. Within a few years, he had acquired enough money to be elsewhere.
What the man knew of women, he knew secondhand. He had guesses about their skin, the muscle underneath. He wondered at secret places not carnal but unknown—the armpit, that spot not quite neck, not quite jaw. He feared their embraces.
His doctors prescribed medications the best way they knew how. The first pill numbed his skin, which one doctor claimed a solution of sorts, but this seemed to the man the very definition of unwell, and he threw the pill away. With the pills that followed, his bodily fluids diminished or were present in excess. Hair loosened from his head. Lights made him dizzy and the dark made him afraid. What he saw did not quite correspond to the corporeal world.
Despite his salary, he had trouble covering his medical expenses.
Each time his doctors determined a particular medication to be ineffective, they advised him to toss the pills and start over with something new. The man knew he would take half a pill, then no pill, and his body would look for something it no longer had. Inside of him would grow the strangest of weather. He would lie on the couch and do nothing but continue to lie surrounded by blinks of light and sound and time, and time would pass as though it were nothing. He could perceive in front of him the stretch of days in which he would be very little at all.
When it became too arduous for the man to make calls or to answer the door, his doctors found a woman to deliver his groceries. With time, she began to know him. She knew that he was separate and that sometimes, when he lay in the dark in the day, he was not a man. She knew not to touch.
Soon she had a key and would without asking walk through the house to set the groceries on the kitchen counter.
Once, she undressed, though he never saw.
Such a little man, shrinking from every surface. How he had weakened her heart.
She sat with him afternoons. She told him stories she would one day tell her children, and he, moving toward sleep or wake, but not yet at either, did not know the difference. She once spent hours trying to describe to him the pleasure of a caress. That she could never know his body as he knew it, not really, not from the inside, that he could never understand touch, was to the woman something unforgiveable.
She got into the habit of buying her groceries at the same time as his, buying for two, and wondered if the cashiers thought she was married. After some months, however, the man began eating less, and her purchases dwindled until she once again appeared to be shopping for one, albeit one who ate perhaps a bit more than necessary. It was only when she stopped worrying about appearing heavy, the items in her cart having dwindled still further, that she began to worry about him.
Soon there were no groceries to buy, and the doctors let her go gently. As the woman gathered her things, the doctors arranged themselves on the arms of the couch, some crouching at eye level, to tell the man about his body. She heard them say something about contraindications and the disrepair inside of him. "No more pills," they said. "To clean out your system." Now it was just a matter of wait. The woman started to leave her key on the front table, thought better of it, and left.
The man had first taken the feeling for indigestion, the result, perhaps, of an overly indulgent meal, but it had continued for days, weeks, until it was no longer mere discomfort. The doctors came, explained, sent the woman away, but all the man knew was the devastation of his stomach, and then what was surely the dismantling of his other muscles, fiber ripped from fiber. His blood was made of glass and burrs and everything that stabs. He could sense the reach of his veins.
The very tender man wanted to live. He too carried grainy photographs. His niece. His mother, once. There was a woman he was trying to learn.
The light followed a pattern he did not understand, and sometimes she was there, the woman, wandering in and out of it. A shadow on her face, or the sun.
He maybe heard his doctors. He maybe felt a hand checking his pulse or his glands, but the pain of that touch was subsumed by the razing inside of him.
He tried once to ask about her, but he did not know if anyone was there.
Then the woman was whispering to him about the weather, the annoyances of her day, letting him lie there and say nothing. Through her whisper, she pulled her shirt up along her stomach, her chest, over her head, like he had seen in films, but who knew it could be this quiet, this slow, and when he saw all of her, what could he do but touch.
He felt her flesh, and it was not what he knew, not wood or fabric or porcelain, but skin. She hesitated, but he touched her again—the pain was somewhere else now. She brought his finger to the softest part of her, held him in the gentlest way she knew how.