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Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 - 4:32 a.m.

Under the table in the darkness of the bar, their hands meet.

He squeezes her hand and she squeezes back. Then he wonders why human beings need to do this. He had last massaged his grandfather's hands a year ago. He had squeezed a vein-wrapped hand and the old man, despite seeing the nearness of his own death, smiled.

He has less history with her hands. The total history of their hands so far, is 3 minutes 37 seconds. His hand lies on top of hers, like one body on top of another, with vast areas of new, unfamiliar skin in contact.

He had a dream recently. In it, grandfather looked a little sad and just held his hand all night. He woke with clarity and the sensation of pressure on his right palm. When the nurse pulled the sheet over grandfather's face, he cried, because grandfather's hands stuck out from under the white sheet. Beige on white. That pair of disembodied hands was all that he was left with.

He squeezes her hand twice and waits for the reflection. There is a lag, and then she squeezes his hand back twice. It is a universal somatosensory language that each person is born with. Each just said to the other: I am here.

No one taught them the words, or this way of speaking. But everyone knows what it means to squeeze a hand - because to exist as a human-being is to exist as a body of distance, a creature of separation. The hand is a desire for closeness.

He thinks about the woman who collects the toll tickets, in the small concrete booth at the end of the expressway. Cars, buses and trucks slow down as they near her, and then each driver touches her hand for a second, handing her a small blue ticket, before accelerating away. She must touch a thousand different hands each day before she goes to bed at night.

Sometime after 5 minutes, their hands begin to slide apart. Skin sliding on skin. In the final moment when their hands are together, he understands something about the meaning of life. It all coalesces into that instance, just before the last point of contact between their fingertips is lost.

He understands that the meaning of life is not an answer to a question, but a question that each man has to answer: why am I allowed to exist seventy years, to become a grandson, a daughter, another man's best friend or someone's wife, son, father - and then to die and lose everyone forever? Immediately, he also loses the string of that thought as it slides out of his grasp, tied to an invisible balloon. And then he is left there alone with nothing in his hands, except the feeling that he has forgotten something important and irretrievable.

What did she whisper to him before she left? Did she go to the restroom, or did she go home? She had leaned into him and said something, her lips close to the side of his face. He felt each exhalation of her air blast against the folds of his ear. The music was too loud and he was a little disengaged. He remembers her smell when she was close, but not what she said.

Did she whisper her phone number to him? The eight numbers, a series of coordinates where he can find her. Around him, the anonymous shapes of black bodies dance. He looks around the table and the sofa, to see if she left anything behind. A handbag, a jacket, or a half-finished glass of wine - clues that she had really been here.

As the car speeds down the expressway, he sticks his hand out of the window to feel the rain. A woman will be in her little toll booth tomorrow morning, touching a different set of a thousand hands. The orange, liquid-light of lampposts washes over the surface of his palm. It is level and faced towards the sky, catching the raindrops that fall too quickly.


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