She was the first person to introduce him to bar soap. While he had always been aware that soap came in bars, he would never buy them for himself before he met her. He couldn’t stand the way a bar of soap left a slick of itself whenever it was left wet on a surface, and he hated the scummy tide marks that stained a sink filled for washing. His parents had never bought bar soap for those reasons, so neither did he. But he was very clean; he used liquid hand wash at the sink, quick-drying alcohol gel in public, and shower gel and shampoo in the shower.
One day she said to him you should try this soap on your face. The bar was smooth and round and clear with a cloudy centre. Pure Soap, it said on the bar, and she said it was really pure, and moisturising, also with olive oil, so he should use it on his face in the morning and at night. He should splash warm water on his face and hands and work up a lather with the soap between his palms then rub the lather on his face then rinse it off with great handfuls of cold water thrown facewards with some force.
The Pure Soap made him feel better. It gave his skin a clean tingle, a pleasantly taut feeling. On days when he didn’t use it, he felt greasy, his eyes still prickling late into the morning with crystalline sleep. So he used it every day, in the mornings prior to shaving, and at night prior to bed, and he felt better for it. At the weekend he would scrub away a week’s accumulation of scum from the sink and restore it to shine.
She had bar soap of her own. She had a whole drawer of different soaps for different occasions – a crescent of lavender to soften the skin in the mornings, a scented lemon for scouring away makeup in the evenings, a soft jelly-like fruit soap that dissolved in the bath to release great clouds of sticky flavoured bubbles. She hated the so-called liquid soaps. She called them a cheap con because you would always get more use out of a decent bar of soap than you would a bottle of anything at the same price. She gave him another bar of soap to use in the shower, this one a heavy black brick which smelled of aniseed and fennel. It has charcoal, she said, to purify. It made his skin feel like a close-fitted suit for living in. She liked the smell and would often sidle up to him when he was doing something else to press her snoot against his shoulder and take a deep sniff. Then she would wander off again, satisfied.
Soon the Pure Soap began to wear away. She could not find another bar of the same stuff. They were out of stock, she said. It’s fine, he said, I’ll just buy another soap. So he went to the shops to get some more soap. The next day he found her peering over one of his purchases in the soap dish. What is this, she said, pointing to it as if it were something unspeakable. Jasmine, he said. I don’t think you can use this on your face, she said, it’s not pure, it’s not pure soap. Who cares, he said, I got it cheap in one of those big discount trays by the checkout at TK Maxx. Soap is soap is soap, he said. No, she said, you don’t get it, you’ve bought the wrong kind of soap.
She went off in a huff.
He had bought another bar of soap as well, for the shower, but he did not tell her about that one. He didn’t tell her because he knew she would say something bad or even try to throw it away if she knew he had bought it from an old man in the park who was selling little oval bar soaps from a folding table. All of the man’s soaps were cream-coloured and came wrapped in plain brown paper, but they came in a range of scents; sandalwood, pear, coriander, lemongrass, apple, cinnamon. He chose a mint soap. He paid and said thank you and as he departed he sniffed the soap through the paper and almost fainted so strong was its scent. He remembered how when he was six years old he was wandering in the garden with his mother and she had given him a leaf of mint to chew on and how astonished he had been to find that this fuzzy little leaf tasted of toothpaste and the red and white canes long since sucked at christmas.
The next day he used the mint soap for the first time before leaving for work. It made him feel different. At first his skin felt unpleasantly tight. It was sore and reddened around his fingernails, and he had a mild itch across his chest which he could not scratch in the office for fear of seeming unwashed. But as the day went on he seemed to grow into himself again, and by evening he felt better enough to want to use the soap again on his face. By now, she was resigned to letting him make his own mistakes.
Most mornings he woke up early and left for work with her still in bed snoozing, and the following day was no exception. After he had risen and showered, he was surprised to discover that his left hand – his principal soaping hand – had disappeared. He could still feel it present, could still use it to touch and manipulate objects, but he could not see his hand. There was no blood, no pain, no trace of a wound; his left hand had simply vanished.
He shook her awake in a panic. Can you still see my hand, he said. Which hand, she said. He poked and prodded her with the hand and waved it in front of her face. Of course I can see your bloody hand, she said. Then she buried her head under the pillows and fell asleep again. He could not see his hand, but other people could. He left for work, uneasy, but confident at least that his deficiency would not be noticed by his colleagues.
Nobody noticed. By the time he returned home, his left hand had almost fully reappeared to him. All of it was now visible but for the tips of his soaping hand’s fingers. He felt a little disappointed, since he was only just beginning to get used to life with a phantom limb. That night, as an experiment, he soaped himself vigorously with the mint scented bar from the man in the park. Though small, it had not diminished at all in size since he had started using it. Immediately his left hand began to fade again, and by the time he woke the next morning both of his arms had vanished. Putting on his jacket, shirt and tie that morning became a source of quiet amusement while his girlfriend slept in the next room. He told her nothing of this.
Soon he began using the soap so often that his whole body was rendered invisible, with the exception of his face. Thought he had used it to wash his face many times, it did not have the same effect there. Sometimes, when he stood naked before a mirror, he saw himself as a disembodied head floating above the empty space where his body should be.
This made him, he thought, a better person. He became more confident and talkative at work. He involved himself in important meetings and decisions. He contributed significant ideas which were to the benefit of the business. He went out with his colleagues and often became the centre of attention. Everyone suddenly discovered that he, who had until then been a quiet, reclusive member of the team, was actually a really cool guy who was funny and sharp and smart and always willing to help while not at all having a stick up his ass about work, even if he did have this sudden weird proclivity for knocking over drinks while making expansive hand gestures. They called him nice. They called him genuine. He was happy at his work.
But with increased use of the soap seemed to come increased dependency. He found himself taking showers at work just to make his legs vanish again – even though he couldn’t see them through his trousers, he knew they were there, and that was the worst part of all. She did not like his new soap-induced moods. He would come home tired but happy and would tell her all about what he’d got up to at work that day and she would sit in silence, sometimes nodding as she flicked through a magazine or sipped her tea. His was a world apart. But as they rested together in the evenings, his body would return to him as they heaped themselves on the couch in front of the television. Then he would have to go and shower before bed to feel clean again, and she would complain of the incessant smell of the soap, and they would go to bed angry.
One day she had been asked to travel to her work especially early for a conference. He was still unconscious when she woke. Through the walls of sleep he heard her padding around the room, picking up all her little things and putting them down again. He heard her go to the bathroom and he heard the toilet flushing and the water rushing in the shower. He slept for a while. He had time. His feet were cold. She was touching his feet. Are you there, she was saying. I can’t see your feet. Your feet should be poking out but I can’t see them. He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed and looked into the dark light of the morning. He could see right through her.