Touched by an…other human being

I braved a social event last Tuesday night. I’d been scrolling through my news feed the week prior when my eyes registered something intriguing: DISCO’s Letter Writing Club.

Oooooooh.. a writing club? If there was ever a club for me.. I instantly signaled my attendance: Going.

 

I’d heard of The Desert Island Supply Company before, in passing, and thought that it might be a record shop, a cafe, or something along those lines, but when I tugged on the store’s swinging glass door last Tuesday night, I was surprised to discover that I was mostly totally wrong.

 

What it (DISCO) actually is:

The Desert Island Supply Co. is a nonprofit creative writing program for students in Birmingham, Ala. We offer free after-school workshops plus in-school programs in area schools. Our space in Woodlawn also serves as a hub for creative community projects and events

 

The first thing I noticed, walking into DISCO, was that the front ‘office’ was super dressed down. The entire room was quiet, peaceful, and it housed lots and lots of shelves that supported and advertised the various items that were for sale, like plain, brown journals, sensible pencil sets, and dreamy little bottles of “Imagination Spray.” I didn’t see anyone hanging around in the area, so I quietly followed the curve of the room and, in doing so, stumbled into another room — a really big, really colorful, and cheerfully decorated one.

 

Three young (seemingly in their 20s) people were seated at a large wooden table; one of them (the only one who was not wearing headphones) heard something, turned around, and saw me standing there.

 

“Hiiiiiii!” the girl called out to me, smiling; she had long, brown hair and wore spectacles.

 

“Hi!” I responded. “Is this by any chance the letter writing club?”

 

“Yeah!” she welcomed me over with a nod. I settled in at the far right end of the table, plopping myself down onto a sturdy chair that made embarrassingly loud noises as it scraped across the concrete and then letting my backpack slide itself down from my shoulder and land, with a single thud, onto the floor beside me.

 

“We’re all just kinda doing our own thing.. it’s real nonchalant..” her voice trailed off as she continued doodling.

 

Sweet, I thought to myself, relieved. This a nice, soft introduction into the world of socializing outside of work.

 

So I settled my gaze onto the journalistic spread lying on the table; there were differently sized- and colored-papers and various styles of envelopes to choose from, as well as a single, see-through jar containing pencils and sharpies, all situated near the middle of the table. I leaned across the table and carefully withdrew a pencil, selected an old-looking piece of linen paper, and chose a sky-blue envelope. I ventured, at this juncture, to glance over at the two other people in the room; a guy with fluffy, dark hair (also wearing eyeglasses) scribbling on his own sheet of paper and a slim blonde hunched over in front of a laptop. They both seemed deeply engrossed in their own activities. I felt comfortable.

 

So I readjusted in my seat, lowered my head to the table, took the sharp-tipped pencil up with my left hand and began writing: “Dear future Jace..”

 

Sooooo,” the girl who’d welcomed me over began, turning her head to look at the blonde. “What’s your favorite thing that’s happened so far today?”

 

Shit, I sulked. This sounds like a group icebreaker question. I knew that I would soon be asked to answer this same question, so I attempted to formulate – ahead of time – a good response.

 

I can talk about work, I considered briefly, and then thought better of it. Nah. That’s boring. These are, likely, full-time college kids. Talking about work will make me sound old. I paused. Wait — I’m 25 now; IS that old? I shook my head.. no; probably not. How about the dogs? People universally LOVE animals. I could talk about waking up and hugging the pups? No.. that’s not interesting enough. If that’s the most mention worthy part of my day, they’ll think I’m realllllllly lame.

Another pause. You could talk about how much you enjoyed your Chipotle burrito this afternoon?

Fatass, I reproved silently.

 

While struggling to craft my own cool response, I was partially listening along as the blonde responded to the group leader’s question. She had been answering that, for lunch, she’d tried out a new restaurant downtown (it was delicious, we should all go), and now she was sharing a humorous class happening. Is she in high school or college? I wondered. Am I too old to be here? I asked myself again.

Probably. You’d be better suited for an old fogies’ bingo club. 

“And the girl’s poem was about chocolate milk,” the blonde gushed, incredulous. “Like, talking about how much she loved it and how it was made and just.. whatever. It was soooooo weird.”

 

I laughed, quietly but supportively.

 

“What about you, Ben?” the leader smiled, shifting her attention to the only guy in the room.

 

“Breakfast,” he responded simply.

 

See? I challenged myself, feeling vindicated. It WOULDN’T be dumb to talk about Chipotle.

 

“I char-grilled some tofu this morning,” he elaborated. “Threw in some veggies. It was amazing.” He smiled down at the table, apparently enjoying the recollection. “I just whipped it all up, stuck it on a plate, brought it outside, and sat out on my lawn, eating and watching the morning traffic go by.”

 

Tofu was remarkably uncommon common ground, so I ventured to strike up a sidebar conversation with the guy. We talked, briefly, about Chipotle, and Mandarin House, and how to properly soak up the icky, acidic juice that packaged tofu is always sealed with.

 

“And how about you, Jace? What was your favorite part?”

 

Sigh. It was finally my turn. I still didn’t know what to say.

 

“Well,” I began, deciding to just picture the dawn of my day and then re-watch the time lapse, “I enjoyed waking up with the bedroom window open. My room was chilly and it smelled like leaves. That was nice,” I smiled, really remembering it. “And then I was happy to report back to work for the first time in ten days. I spent the AM catching up on random projects and answering slash filing away 105 emails,” I’d been disappointed that it was only 105, “and then I was able to meet up with my new hires, which was good,” I continued, “because I’m always super nervous to say ‘hey’ to them for the first time.. afraid that they’re not going to like me.”

 

“Awwwwwww!” she sympathized.

 

“Yeah, but I met with them, they were all super cool, and we made some good progress through the first part of the training manual.” I smiled and nodded the end, deciding that I’d shared enough.

 

Three others joined us. One of them, a gentleman with perfectly tan skin, warm brown eyes, and a name I struggled to pronounce, sat down right next to me. We talked here and there throughout the letter writing hour, and then, when it was time to leave, he walked with me as I returned to the front of the store. He spent a couple of minutes pointing out some of his favorite “for sale” items, and then he repeated what I’d heard about fifteen minutes before, before collecting my items; an art show would be taking place at DISCO this Saturday.

 

“I heard about that!” I nodded. “I’m actually heading to ARC Stories that same evening,” I explained, “but I will try to swing by afterwards, if the first event ends in time.”

 

He replied that he’d been to ARC Stories before — a long time ago.. back when the storytelling events were so small scale that storytellers (and those who liked listening to stories) all simply met up at Urban Standard, talking and mingling over evening coffee and pastries. It sounded delightful.

 

“I’m going to try to make it out to ARC Stories this Saturday, too!” he said suddenly. “Want to meet up here before the event?”

 

“Sure!” I replied, excited to make a new friend. I appreciated his friendliness and confidence.. they compensated for what I lacked and effectually bridged the gap.

 

Fast forward a few days: I enjoyed the art exhibit and the storytelling event. In addition to my newest friend, three other friends also attended ARC Stories: my best friend, Charlie, along with my close friend, Reed, and his wife. The four of us went for a late Mediterranean dinner together afterwards: Makarios.

 

After sliding into a booth and placing our orders (which included grape leaves, garlic rice, a vegetables-with-hummus tray and a barbecue-doused baked potato), we all whiled the time away, chatting with each other. Charlie got up to use the restroom at one point and, when he did, Reed quickly leaned in toward me.

 

“So, while he’s in the bathroom,” he smiled kindly, “how are things with you and Charlie?”

 

“They’re good!” I whispered. “He’s doing really well. So am I. We’re both happy, being best friends. It was a difficult slash awkward adjustment at first, but I know we’re the most compatible this way. And I feel clear headed, which is wonderful.”

 

He nodded and leaned back again, visibly relieved and satisfied.

 

Charlie returned, we all stayed for another hour, and then I took a look at the clock: 12:30?! I should have been asleep FOUR HOURS ago, I thought to myself, amazed.

 

So we migrated to the parking lot. While Reed and Charlie continued with a conversation pertaining to Dungeons and Dragons, Reed’s wife and I began discussing a topic that seems to follow me everywhere, like a stray dog, or a shadow: religion.

 

“I grew up in a conservative sect, too,” she shared. “Totally broke away from it for a while. But I’ve enjoyed.. forgiving Christianity. Accepting certain parts of it back into my life.”

 

I could understand this.

 

“Same. Not that I’ve re-accepted ANY of it,” I clarified quickly, “but, I am far less averted to the religion than I used to be. I went from defining it as the center of my world — where everything else truly revolved around it — to absolutely abhorring the religion and disrespecting all of its adherents.. which was super ignorant and totally unfair,” I admitted. “But now, I’ve been able to bounce back and forth between those two extremes and finally settle into a sort of happy-medium; I’m certainly not interested in or committed to the religion, but I can respect those who are equally as much as I respect followers of other religions.”

 

She nodded, acknowledging that this sounded reasonable, and she smiled at me. I liked Reed’s wife. This was my first time meeting her in-person, and whether it’s tofu or religious dogma, it’s really nice to find common ground with people.

 

The following morning, my newest friend (from the letter writing club) messaged me over Facebook. He said that he’d enjoyed the storytelling event and that he wanted to share an article with me, as well as solicit my feedback on it. The article was about the plight of being single, and you can read it here, if you’d like.

 

“Enjoyed the article,” I responded a few hours later. “I like that it touched (haha — get it?) on the importance of platonic touch. Here are my fav parts,” I continued, and then I quoted them (see below).

 

The thing is, I will never be whole. I will never be some sparkling example of human equanimity. I will never be someone who doesn’t occasionally wake up in the middle of the night to cry. I can’t un-become the person my suffering has made me.

My partnered friends think because they were well put together they attracted a partner, but I think having a partner makes it easier for them to be well put together.

People condescendingly deride people who are ‘afraid to be alone,’ but in our society, some of our needs are only allowed to be met by a romantic partner, and I’m not talking about sex. Casual sex is totally fine in my social circles. I’m talking about affectionate touch. And, it is completely reasonable to be afraid of not getting that.

 

I put my phone down after sending my response, but with words from the article still bouncing around in my head, I continued thinking on the subject as I moved through my day. Not the part about being single or not being single — the part about being touched.

 

Growing up, I didn’t really get to experience a whole lot of “platonic touch.”

 

My family members – those in my immediate family, anyways – aren’t the touchy/feely types. Some people are, some people aren’t. They aren’t. So we didn’t grow up holding hands, or hugging each other goodnight, or kissing one other on the cheek. None of that. Ever. We just didn’t. And when I reached middle school and friends began hugging me in the hallway or grabbing my hands from across the lunch table, it totally weirded me out. Being touched made me so uncomfortable. I felt like the awkward recipient of a gift I didn’t know how to hold properly. But soon, those feelings of discomfort turned into intense cravings. I longed for my friends to hug me and hold me, because suddenly, it felt wonderful to be the recipient of platonic affection, and I knew it was something I couldn’t get at home. It’s not that, if I had walked up to my mother and asked her to hug me, she wouldn’t have; she would have laughed at me, and then hugged me, and then asked: “Are you okay?!” It’s that we’d already ‘established’ the parameters of our relationship. The things we did and didn’t do. And these parameters were firmly set in place — their distance, an arm’s length between us.

 

I used to enjoy visiting my best friend, Melissa, in the winters and summers. Particularly because I’d hop on a plane, spend a few hours alone, and then spend the next two weeks cuddling with my very best friend. We held hands when we ice skated, nestled our heads together while we slept in the same bed at night, and tugged on each other’s arms constantly, pulling the other person into the next room, or store, or along for the next adventure. And even though leaving her to return home was sad, I was strangely happy during the plane ride home.. partially happy, and partially anxious, because I knew that my mother was probably going to hug me. I’d been gone for two weeks straight, which was unusual; of course she was going to hug me. I might get three or four hugs from her all year long, and I knew that this would definitely be one of them. I wanted the hug, but I was also scared of the hug; how long would she hug me? How tightly? How long and tightly should I hug her back? When would it happen again?

 

While I wouldn’t describe myself as being an overly affectionate person (probably because that sounds weak and needy and I wear a leather jacket), I’ve realized, over the course of the past year, that – among many other things – I am a creature that craves touch. And with this realization came the related realization that chasing after affection has caused me to jump from romantic relationship to romantic relationship for the last decade without ever breaking my strideI’ve never not been with somebody.. until two weeks ago.

 

And in conducting some casual online research, I learned that this isn’t uncommon. Strong and unsatisfied cravings for touch and affection plague many people, and I read too many sad stories where girls and boys admitted, anonymously on blogs and forums, that they were staying in unhappy and unhealthy relationships because they couldn’t stand the thought of losing the person who hugged and held them. While investigating the subject, I also learned about the impact that physical touch has on the development of children as well as the hazards posed to adults who aren’t recipients of it. The benefits of physical touch, it turns out, are incredibly expansive, influencing – among many things – the resilience of somebody’s immune system, their tendency for violence, and, most interestingly to me, their emotional well being. The end of this article pointed out something that I’d never considered before, and when I did take a pause to imagine the scenario, it made me feel so very sad; some people go to the doctor’s office, sit down, and wait for their name to be called.. not for treatment or diagnosis, but because they long to be touched.

 

And we all know that we live in an increasingly techy and stand-offish world, where heart emojis have stolen real-life kisses away from people and thumbs up emoticons have replaced a solid, hearty and tangible pat on the back, so what can a person – especially a healthy, single, and childless person – do that will nurture their need for touch?

 

First, here are some things I’ve discovered that ‘help.’

  1. Having a dog (or two). Your puppy, kitten or garden snake might squirm a little when you hold it, but even a few seconds of squeezing an animal can help cheer you up.
  2. Is your real-life pet just TOO squirmy? Try sleeping with a stuffed animal. I’ve slept with a stuffed rabbit – named Governess – for the last six years, and I don’t consider the behavior childlike in a negative sort of way. I think it’s healthy. I’ve found that it’s helpful.
  3. Don’t be afraid to hug on your friends. Obviously, you want to be aware of people’s personal boundaries and respect their space bubbles, but if you have a friend or a couple of friends who you know are comfortable with being touched, flat out ask them for a hug when you’re feeling down. Platonic touch is a thing. Keyword: platonic. I’ve read, once again, sad accounts of people who have stayed in relationships that weren’t healthy for no reason other than their need for affection. Don’t let that happen to you, and if it is happening, stop it from happening. You’re in control. Don’t wait for someone else to make a tough or healthy decision for you. Remember: You’re in control.

 

Secondly, here are some suggestions from the interwebs:

  1. Book a massage! Not only will you have your need for touch satisfied, but you’ll relax a few muscles in the process. Double win.
  2. Go dancing. I’ve only been dancing twice now but have already discovered that there are people who are totally cool with walking up to a complete stranger and dancing with them. Now.. I’m not one of those people — I subtly dance away from those people — but if you’re cool with it.. shoot.
  3. Go to church. Even if you aren’t looking for Buddha or Jesus. If you’re checking for hugs, attend some kind of religious assembly and I bet you’ll hit the jackpot.

 

In summary, I’d like to share three particularly memorable moments that involved touching and that deeply touched me. Oddly enough, they all revolve around doorways. I realized this on accident.

 

Recollection #1: Goodbye, Panda.

Panda was a blue-eyed Siberian Husky with a fluffy, black-and-white coat, and in a household comprised of 5 dogs total, she was my mother’s absolute favorite. Why? Because she was sickly; the dog suffered from epilepsy, and for this reason, Sierra adored her.

Panda, whose mental strength continued to wane with each consecutive seizure, ate an extraordinarily large hickory nut while stalking through the backyard one afternoon and, as a result, was rushed to the vet. She quickly ended up in surgery (to have the blockage removed) and had to be kept overnight. Sierra was a nail-biting and food-shunning basket case.

Well I was sitting in my room the morning following the surgery — staring at my desktop computer and teaching myself a new song on the guitar — when I sensed and heard someone looming in the doorway. I looked up and saw Sierra just standing there, looking vacant and lost. I locked eyes with her and, instantly, things felt very strange.

 

“She’s dead,” she gasped, her voice uncharacteristically hoarse. “Panda’s dead.

 

She spoke the words and then I watched as my mother ran away. I zoned out for what felt like a century (and was, likely, a single minute), struggling to comprehend the finality of the news.

Without affectation, I slowly lowered the guitar to the floor and exited my bedroom. I could hear sobs coming from the living room, and I followed the sound of them. I saw my mother leaning against a couch, her head bowed, her body shuddering, and I walked up to her and I hugged her. I’d never initiated a hug with my mother before.. not in my whole entire life, but on a level that superseded all awkwardness and completely disregarded established and approved custom, I knew that this tiny and trembling little woman, who had never known that she needed to be hugged, needed to be held. I can’t remember for how long I held her as her body convulsed with tears, but I remember spending the rest of the afternoon digging alongside her, through foot after fucking foot of dry, red clay, so that we could bury Panda at home. In-between hours of effort, I walked inside, visited the kitchen, and then returned outside with a blue mug full of water. I remember setting the cup down onto a porch step so that I could resume my work, digging, and then I forgot all about the cup, leaving it sitting there on the porch step, collecting rain water and then drying up over and over and over again, for months.

 

Recollection #2: When there were no words to say.

Last November, I had to leave work early to go file for Chris and I’s divorce. It might have been a Tuesday.. how funny, for it to be something so ridiculously commonplace; just another weekday.

 

I clocked out at 2:00, or 3:00, and – after grabbing my backpack – walked over to my manager’s doorway. So many years later — another doorway — and this time, I’m standing in it.

 

She heard me and looked up from her computer. We made eye contact but didn’t say anything. I could hardly stand to breathe, the air felt so oppressive. Without a word, she rose from her chair, walked over to me, and put her arms around me. I started to cry. I felt like I was going to a funeral that day, and like that hug was my friend telling me that she was so, so sorry for my loss.

 

Recollection #3: I wondered if he would.

This was in the evening.. earlier this year, and late in the spring. Chris had dropped by the house for the first time in several weeks; it might have been to pick up an amplifier, or it could have been the night I cooked a veggie stir-fry and he swung by to collect some. I just remember him being there, in the house, for a while, and then picking up his keys and slowly waltzing over to the front door. Waltzing.. a goofy kind of waltzing; that’s how he walked sometimes.. sashaying this way and that with his head tilted back just a little. Looking casual. Exuding confidence. I remember opening the door for him, watching him step out onto the front porch, take two more steps towards his car, and feeling devastated; of course he’s not going to hug me goodbye.

 

But then, unexpectedly, he turned around, moved two steps closer to me, and extended his hand. I took it, and he held my hand for about ten seconds. I’m closing my eyes now; wishing I could remember his face, and our words, but I can’t.. but I will never, ever, ever forget him holding my hand.

 

That’s it.

Whether it’s a hug or an embrace, a handshake or a high-five, physical touch can communicate so much, and can say the things we want to know the most, that words just aren’t able to convey. To me, physical touch says:

  • I see you.
  • I understand you.
  • I care about you.
  • I love you.
  • I support you.
  • Don’t be afraid.
  • You can do this.
  • You’re not alone.

 

That’s all I’ve got. From one sad and lonely soul to another: If you ever need a hug or a hand to hold, you know you can always count on me.

 

Still here, figuring all of this shit out..

Aun Aqui

 

 

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