Hands On My Back

by Judith Ford

It’s dusk and I’m at the beginning of a four-mile run. I’m half-listening to songs by Enya through my Walkman headphones. I’m running beside a busy road but I barely hear the cars above Enya’s voice.

It’s 1987 and I’m thirty-nine years old. Today is Christmas Eve and I’m trying to shed my Christmas depression. I’m missing my nine-year-old daughter Jessie, who’s at my former mother-in-law’s house with her dad for Christmas Eve dinner and gifts. My ex-husband and I have shared our little girl equally since we divorced eight years ago when Jessie was a year old. I used to cry in my car after every time I dropped her off with her father but I don’t do that anymore. I’ve learned to appreciate having free time, for my work, for evenings with grown-up friends, for my once-a-week evening modern dance class, and for my daily running. But I still feel sad leaving her with her father on Christmas Eve. And right now I’m also sad about Christmas itself. When I was growing up we had huge piles of presents under a big tree that dripped with silver tinsel and seemingly endless colored lights. Two stockings, bulging and heavy with secrets, hung on the fireplace mantel. All this mysterious wonderfulness waiting for my brother and me to wake up and run downstairs. My grandparents and my aunt and my Jewish best friend would arrive for a midday turkey dinner. Now my Christmas Eves feel lonely and threadbare with Jessie gone and me alone in my house with a gangly Christmas tree decorated with cheap shiny balls from the drugstore, the balsa-wood Santa my dad carved years ago, a few candy canes, and Jessie’s homemade Styrofoam and paper ornaments.

Light snow begins to fall. I smell it before I see it. The air suddenly comes alive with white vibration. I run past the Christmas tree on the bluff above Atwater Beach. I glance at it as I pass and my eyes fill with tears. Its branches hold strings of large colored lights as if for me to admire. (See how glorious I am in my Christmas clothes. Everyone, look at me.)

I keep running south, past the mansions that line the bluff above Lake Michigan. Why do I keep hungering for things that no longer exist, I ask myself. I hear my friend Anne’s voice in my head; Anne leads workshops on how to survive Christmas. “Take responsibility for creating the Christmas you want. New rituals. Different foods. New people.”

I can’t do it, Anne, I silently protest. I need more than just new rituals.

I run a little faster, pushing away the urge to cry.

Kathleen, my former boss at the Counseling Center and a runner herself, told me once that it’s impossible to cry and run at the same time. Which was why, whenever she was sad, she’d go for a run. Banish the blues. Run away from sorrow.

Kathleen is right, I realize now; it is hard to cry and run at the same time. I’m crying now and I’m getting winded. I stop and walk, tears hot on my freezing cheeks. The snow continues to fall, coating the sidewalk with slippery white, sticking to the trees. I take a deep open-mouthed breath and two snowflakes tickle the back of my throat, melt there, and are gone.

I usually don’t take walking breaks when I run; it feels like chickening out. So, despite my tears, I start running again, pick up speed, and run down the hill to the sign that announces the southern border of my suburb, the northern edge of the city. My feet slip a little from time to time as the new-fallen snow cakes on the bottoms of my running shoes.

I’ve stopped crying.

As I head back toward my empty house I think about how I stopped calling the dating service in November. I joined it because I didn’t much like the men I was meeting in the mental health world. The psychiatrists were stuffy and full of themselves and the male MSW therapists were too soft, too New Age, for my taste.

The few men I met through the dating service were strange, immature, unreliable, or otherwise not a fit. I realized after a year of dates with these guys that I’d rather stay home with Jessie or a good book or both. I don’t think I ever really believed the dating service would amount to anything anyway; those things never do.

I don’t need a partner in any case, I tell myself now. I’m doing really well in every visible way. I’m healthy and strong and there’s a waiting list for my therapy appointments. I get asked to do talks at meetings, schools, and conferences. I am a shining star. But I don’t feel shiny. I feel tarnished. Worn out and empty.

Do I need a partner? I ask myself again. Yes, of course, I do. I am aching for a partner. I start thinking about what the next month might hold. All I see is more of the same: working long hours on the days without Jessie, being the best therapist I know how to be, running and doing yoga, and taking modern dance classes. And what’s the point of being so stellar? I think. In the end, I’m still alone.

I can’t keep going like this, I say to myself. If things don’t change soon, I don’t want to keep on living. And then I realize how true that is. I don’t want to keep living if I’m going to be alone forever. The loneliness is unbearable.

Then I think of Jessie. I can’t off myself and leave my daughter. Of course not. I never would. That escape hatch was closed the minute she was born. And that thought deepens my despair. I can’t keep on like this. I have to keep on like this.

Then, right at this moment as I’m walking along Lake Drive, the mansions on my right and the snowbanks on my left, I feel two sets of hands on my back. They’re warm and tangible, exerting light pressure on my back as if helping me along. What the hell! I think. Some strangers are touching my back. How dare they. I stop and look over my shoulder, prepared to tell whoever these guys are to fuck off.

There’s no one there. There is no one in the back of me, or in front of me, or anywhere near me. And yet I can still feel the fading sensation of hands resting warmly on my back, like hands attached to arms attached to supportive friends.

I look around for any possible supportive friends. Maybe someone touched me and then ran away very fast. Or maybe I’m losing my marbles. Maybe the sadness I was feeling made me hallucinate.

I laugh quietly, feeling confused and intrigued. Then a voice seeps into my brain: Hang on, it says. Everything is about to change. You’re almost there.

I’m almost home, with less than half a mile to go, but that isn’t the meaning of this message. And it isn’t a voice. There’s no actual sound. It’s like I’m remembering words I heard a few seconds ago.

I start walking slowly on the snow-covered sidewalk, flakes melting into my eyelashes. I’m stunned. I don’t get this. And I’m surprised at how light I suddenly feel, so full of hope. Full of the cozy childhood feeling of crawling into my parents’ warm bed after a bad dream and knowing I was safe.

When I get home I stand for a few minutes in my front yard, under the two ash trees. Their snowy sleeves catch the glow from the streetlight and play catch with it in the darkness. I bend my head back and let the snow fall on my closed eyes. I open my arms wide, hands turned upward, to catch the flakes. And anything else that might unexpectedly fall from the heavens and into my life.

I walk up the stairs to my second-floor flat thinking about what just happened. I can’t imagine telling anyone about it. I don’t believe in God, or at least I don’t trust the God of my childhood, and I don’t believe in angels. I do believe a little in magic, but I don’t like to admit that to myself. But whoever or whatever this was, they/it pulled me back from an edge I never want to tremble on again and I can’t ignore that.

The next morning I reactivate my dating service account. The matchmaker, a guy named Bud, complains that I always reject the men he chooses for me. “I’ve changed,” I tell him, wondering if I really have changed. I’m hoping Bud will make better choices this time. Hoping there won’t be anyone like the retired surgeon with PTSD who told me horrific Vietnam stories every time he got drunk (which was often), or the man who proudly told me that he retreated to a child’s bedroom during a noisy party at someone’s house and fell asleep in the arms of a giant teddy bear.

“I promise to give the next ones a chance,” I tell Bud.

A few days later, three envelopes appear in my mailbox—three potential dates who want to meet me. I leave the requests on my kitchen counter. Not calling them right away. Thinking about it. Getting up my courage. After a few days, I call all three and schedule three dates. The first man turns out to be a boring anesthesiologist. The second one will be an Italian horse merchant who rigged the cinch on a jockey’s horse and caused a terrible accident during an important race. He has fled to America to avoid punishment. He is a definite no. I’m tentatively hopeful about number three. He’s the only man, among the twenty or so whose recorded interviews I’ve watched, who smiled, laughed easily and sounded intelligent. I was immediately drawn to him in that video, even though I cautioned myself to slow down; I only knew a few things about him: his sun sign (Taurus), his age (35), his marital status (divorced with an eight-year-old daughter—same age as my own), his job (lawyer).

When I call him he is brusque and unexcited. We make a date to meet at a coffee shop halfway between our houses. I’ve set aside just one hour to spend with this new man before I have to pick Jessie up. I’m glad it will only be an hour because even though the hands and the voices assured me that my luck is going to change soon and I thought I might like him, I’m a little worried that this person, whose name is Chris, will turn out to be another bad option. I get to the Coffee Trader Café on Downer Avenue before he arrives. I sit at a table and sip a cup of coffee. I look through the window and see a tall, good-looking man striding down the sidewalk, his trench coat flapping in a strong, winter wind. I know immediately that this is Chris.

He pushes open the café door against a strong wind. He spots me (he has watched my video just as I’ve watched his) and walks to my table. He holds out a hand. I place my hand in his (so warm) and he squeezes it lightly. “You must be Jude.”

“I must be, yes.”

At the touch of his hand I feel a happy anticipation. There’s a warmth that seems to emanate from his hand and his eyes. I have a sense that maybe he’s the one I’ve been waiting for, even though if you’d asked me just yesterday if I expected there’d be another man in my life, I’d have laughed and said of course not. So I don’t invest in this sense that Chris is The One. I tell myself to step back, to calm down. It’s way too early to jump on board this ship.

“I’m Chris,” he says as if I didn’t know. He pulls out a chair, glances up at the overhead light, and says, “That light is in your eyes. Here, you sit over here, and I’ll take your seat.” He smiles at me, and I am a goner. At least for that hour.

When I get home, Timmy, my golden retriever, greets me joyously at the door, as he always does. He pads happily after me into the kitchen where I clear the table and stack the dirty dishes in the sink. “Timmy,” I say, “I just met someone who is going to be in our lives for a very long time.” He wags his tail.

Chris and I go out for Chinese food a few days later and afterward he takes me back to his house. Somehow or other we end up on his couch in a sweet cuddly embrace. I’m surprised by how comfortable I feel in his arms. Too comfortable. At dinner he told me he’s not looking for anything serious and is dating several women. This makes me sad. I can’t afford another broken heart. Can’t go back to that cliff I visited during my run before the hands landed on my back. I have to be strict with myself, protective. So I ask him to drive me home now. When we stand up to go, I say, “You’re a really good hugger.”

He smiles. “Yes, I’ve been told that before.”

“But,” I continue, “I don’t think I can do this. I already like you too much to be able to share you with those other women.”

He says he’s sorry to hear that, but he understands.

A few days later he calls and asks if I would consider going out with him one more time. I waffle. I shouldn’t see him, but it’s hard to say no to a man who feels like such a good fit. So I cave. I ask him if he’ll go to the Milwaukee Ballet production of Swan Lake with me. I have season tickets. I love dance. He hates ballet, but he won’t tell me that until I try to get him to go again. In the theater, he sits beside me and watches what’s happening on the stage as if he’s interested. He disappears at intermission for about ten minutes. When he returns he’s smiling.

“Where did you go,” I ask him.

“I had to make a few phone calls. To a few people.” We settle back into our seats. “Do you want to know who I called?”

“I guess. Sure.”

“I called the three other women and told them I’m not available anymore.”

“Really? You mean…”

“Will you be willing to see me now? Since I’m free?”

It was one month since the hands landed on my miserable back, giving me the courage to keep trying, to keep living, to keep looking for what apparently they (whoever they were) knew was just around the corner.

Chris and I talked every day over the next year. No exceptions. We were together as often as our work and parenting allowed, spending nights together at one or the other of our houses whenever both our daughters were with their other parents. I’d bring Timmy, the dog, with me when I went to Chris’s house; his cat stayed behind when he came to mine.

But I still didn’t entirely trust him, not for months. My first husband had turned out to be quite different from who he’d seemed to be. I questioned Chris unmercifully: I asked him about his feelings on women’s rights; about his relationships with his mother, his ex-wife, and his brother and sister. He answered patiently and reassuringly. He spoke kindly about every member of his family, including his mother (who, I later learned, was not an easy woman to love), and he respected his ex. I made sure he was politically liberal (he was and is). The fact that he called me every single evening, when we weren’t together, to at least say good night and I love you was probably what finally convinced me that he wasn’t about to run away, lie to me, or turn mean. So I committed—internally at first and then eventually out loud.

On a frigid snowy Friday in January, Chris and I drove from Milwaukee up to Door County, Wisconsin. We planned to spend the weekend enjoying the indoor pool, the sauna, and the Swedish pastries at Wagon Trail Resort. During the four-hour drive we had an argument. We remained tense with each other as we unpacked. “I need to go for a walk,” Chris said abruptly.

Through the window of our second-floor room, I watched him pace back and forth along the shore of the icy lake. I tried to read his face, but he was looking at the ground. He appeared burdened, maybe anxious. I was disappointed. I’d been hoping he’d ask me to marry him this weekend. It seemed like the right time, one year exactly since the day we met at the Coffee Trader Café. We’d already talked about getting married, both of us saying there would probably be a time when we’d do that, maybe after our girls had gotten more used to us being together. Watching Chris pace now, head down, frowning into the wind, I realized I had to let the idea go. Maybe another day. Maybe never.

I decided to just enjoy the weekend. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. And that warm indoor pool and sauna, to melt away the Wisconsin winter.

Chris returned and we went downstairs to the hotel dining room, where a folk singer was singing and playing a guitar. We ordered dinner, sipped some wine. Then suddenly the singer stopped, set his guitar aside, and, looking directly at Chris, said, “I’ve been waiting for something to happen, been singing love songs to get it started, but nothing’s happening. What are you waiting for, guy?”

“I guess now’s the time,” Chris said nervously. He stood up from the table, knelt in front of me, and asked me to marry him.

I burst into tears. “Yes. Yes, of course,” I said, and the dining room (with only four other occupied tables) broke into applause.

Later on, when I asked him why he was pacing the beach that afternoon, he said he was trying to give me the wrong idea, intentionally misleading me because he wanted his proposal to be a total surprise. When he’d gone out for his walk, he’d noticed a sign in the lobby about a singer who’d be performing at dinnertime. And there happened to be a man with a guitar sitting right there in the lobby. After confirming that this was indeed the singer who’d be performing that night, Chris asked him to start playing love songs as soon as we arrived for dinner. The singer agreed and said he’d even include my name in a song. Then, Chris went and paced, looking troubled so I would have no clue he was planning to propose. He wanted it to be a total surprise.

I had mixed feelings about being tricked, about the hour or so I’d worried that he wasn’t going to propose. But given the result, I let it go.

The following morning I did a pregnancy test. My period was a week late; I hadn’t wanted to spoil our weekend by worrying about it. I came out of the bathroom holding up the test strip with a blue stripe on it. I was stunned. We both were. We were pregnant.

That baby, Nic, would be born in September, six months after we got married. Chris and I were both grateful that he’d asked me to marry him before I took the pregnancy test so we’d always know that our decision to marry was about love and not just about a pregnancy.

Our wedding took place at the Quaker meeting house on the banks of the Milwaukee River. Our reception was there, too, with everyone bringing a dish to share (we couldn’t afford to feed everyone. The beautiful wedding cake with its strawberries and pink frosting was created by Chris’s artist mom.

Thinking back on all this now, thirty-five years later, it almost feels like a fairy tale: the snow, the sensation of hands on my back, the wintery weekend in Door County, the positive pregnancy test, the potluck wedding. In my mind now it’s all bathed in a cinematic warm glow. It’s hard to believe all of that happened to me. But it did. Young, busy, successful psychotherapist and single mom, me.

The years since then have been filled with challenges, struggles with money, illnesses, teenage girl dramas, a math-prodigy son’s loneliness. Filled also with loyalty and love, anger and arguments, breakages and repairs.

I don’t know if I really believe that ghosts or angels or spirit guides were with me that sad snowy December evening. And I’m satisfied with not knowing. The older I get the more able I am to accept that I don’t hold the answers to much of anything, especially not about what is real, what is imagined, what is earned, and what is a gift.

A watercolor painting of a light-skinned girl with black hair. Her hair covers her face and vines cover her arms. The background is pink.


by Larissa Monique Hauck

Judith Ford coauthored a poetry collection with Martin Jack Rosenblum, Burning Oak, published by Lionhead Press (1986). Her memoir, Fever of Unknown Origin, (published by Resource Publications) is now available on Amazon and will soon appear in bookstores. She also taught creative writing to middle, high school, and adult students.

Larissa Monique Hauck is a queer visual artist who graduated from the Alberta University of the Arts in 2014, where she received a BFA with Distinction. Her artwork has been featured in multiple regional and national group exhibitions as well as a growing number of international exhibitions. She has been selected for inclusion in events such as Nextfest 2018 (Edmonton, AB), Nuit Rose 2016 (Toronto, ON), and the 9th Annual New York City Poetry Festival 2019 (New York, US). Her drawings and paintings have also been featured in publications such as Creative Quarterly (US), Wotisart Magazine (UK), Minerva Rising (US), and various others.

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