“Nerve Flossing” was selected for THE BODY microprose shortlist.
Nerves don’t like to be touched. I learn this the hard way. Pain radiating down my left leg, into the calf, sometimes the ankle, far, far away from what I am told is the point of injury. The distance between source and effect intrigues me. In the moments, that is, when it’s not driving me crazy. Keys jangling, I say, to the doctor who asks me to describe it. A flame flickering. A blade levering. The feeling is such that the answers come in a chorus of synaesthesia.
I meet her the same month I know for sure my marriage is over. It’s too soon by any rational standard; the damage too raw. But there I am, on Tinder, peddling the wares of my beaten-down heart. The heart, it turns out, is a very stubborn muscle.
The sciatic nerve is the longest in the body. It’s a bundle of nerves, actually, that originate in the lower back and run right into the foot. I like to imagine them, the nerves, woven and wending their way through the tight spaces of the vertebrae. They are responsible for sensation, for everything we feel. There is only the thinnest of lines, I realize, between pleasure and pain.
On Facebook a friend asks whether one can be both in the midst of a devastating divorce and a hopeless romantic at the same time and, as I am some months ahead of her, and as I know with every pulse of my falling-in-love heart that it is, indeed, possible, I can’t help but write in the comments: yes, yes, absolutely yes.
I practice an exercise called nerve flossing, which appeals to me because of its name and also because it seems to speak to something beyond my broken body. The idea is to smooth the way for the nerves, to teach them again how to move properly, seamlessly, through the narrow paths they are meant to travel.
I can’t walk well and I can’t shift my pelvis in a certain direction, but somehow I can still fuck. This feels like a small miracle, given how much we use our hips during sex. I had forgotten about that, in all the years I went without. The rocking, the thrusting, the arching. We figure out how to move together, she and I. Our own version of flossing.
The recovery is slow. The pain softens to pins and needles and then it comes back, sharp and hot. There are good days and bad days and new exercises and laps at the pool and seconds, minutes caught inside the tube of an MRI machine so I can find out what’s wrong. The diagnosis won’t necessarily change things, but I need it, the knowing, all the same.
The weeks between seeing her are also slow. We are cities apart, a different kind of distance between source and effect, and I need this knowing just as much. I’m limited, but here’s what we can do: be together. In a way that doesn’t hurt. In a way that lets me heal.
Lauren Apfel is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times’ Modern Love, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Salon, among other places. She is also the co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell Magazine.
Artwork by: Daria Shevtsova