With fists, with words, with kindness
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Once, years ago, I spent a summer without touch. I was nineteen years old and living alone for the first time in my life. I’d rented an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a red-brick building that lacked any kind of shade. Each morning I stepped out my door and into the heavy white light. Then I strolled to the Metro — slowly, so as not to begin sweating before work — and rode the air-conditioned train into Washington, D.C., to collate replies to a federal survey of school buildings. It was 1994, and Congress wanted to know whether American schools were ready for the Internet.
I’d heard Washington was once a swamp; that summer I felt it. As the train carved its silent path through canopies of tired-looking trees, commuters’ heads nodded and bobbed in dreams. The capital wasn’t what I’d expected. There was a somnolence and sadness to the city that made it feel like a stadium for loneliness. I didn’t own a Walkman, and cheap cell phones were a long ways off, so most mornings and evenings I walked to and from the apartment in utter silence. Not even cicadas were chirping. I didn’t own a car, so I couldn’t drive anywhere, nor did I have a TV. Every other night I fed quarters into a pay phone and called home to California.
Although my two roommates would turn up in a month, and the three of us would go out for drinks once or twice that summer, and I’d spend eight hours a day with other people at work, not once did I hug someone or did someone hug me. No one patted my back, nor did I tap theirs in friendly reply. No one put a hand on my arm. I remember this because, once I was aware of what I was missing, I felt a peculiar powerlessness to rectify it — like my body was frozen in place. When I spoke, my words seemed to emerge from someplace far above me, like a porthole or a valve, while down below I watched the hours and days drag on.
I think about that summer a lot, especially this year, when any kind of contact has become dangerous. I am lucky in that I live with someone I love and didn’t spend the lockdown and quarantine in New York City in total isolation. Instead we spent it getting ill together: first me — for weeks, miserably, with the full range of symptoms, right up to the intense chest pressure — then my partner, who got through it in five days. When both of us were fourteen days clear of getting over COVID, I left our New York apartment for the first time in a long while and quickly became alarmed. No one was on the street. This was in April, when tourists normally descend on Manhattan in flocks, even in our off-avenue neighborhood. But this year a tumbleweed would not have been out of place. It wasn’t the emptiness that was uncanny, though, but the city busily making itself known. The wind blowing on my arms, the sting of it on my eyes, the sound of the subway vibrating the pavement — it was like being touched. I realized that in safer times I had grown used to a near-constant engagement with the city. It was continually touching me.
For my first few years of living in New York, I’d found this staccato rhythm exhausting. My eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands — all were being thrummed into a state of overdrive. I grew up in the suburbs of Central Valley California, where there was always space, and often a car window, between me and anyone else; where on summer days everything often just stopped and went silent; where the sky above was always visible, like a huge, blue, cloudless dome. Compared to the California that had raised me, New York felt like an assault.
Lately I’ve been rereading Watermark, Joseph Brodsky’s great book on Venice, and it’s remarkable how much the Italian city of Brodsky’s mind is shoved aside by the lugubrious, dark, and somewhat empty Venice he encounters in the 1970s, a place much more provincial than he’d imagined. The distance between those two cities — the real and the imagined — coupled with the time he spends waiting for a woman at a train station (will she show up?), infects him with a melancholy notion that maybe he has reached the end of the world. And then “a large, flat boat, something of a cross between a sardine can and a sandwich, emerged out of nowhere and with a thud nudged the stazione’s landing. A handful of people pushed ashore and raced past me up the stairs into the terminal. Then I saw the only person I knew in that city; the sight was fabulous.”
In the spring, during our long lockdown in New York, I saw just one person I know outside my home, and the feeling — air hugs aside — was similar: fabulous. That he was not an idea but this small, hairy, impish, always-chuckling man of a certain age with loose gray curls and a walk like a land-bound duck — it seemed a miracle. We’ve been on a number of walks since, and he always arrives with stories to tell from his day’s work, sometimes with cake, and usually with four or five bad (which means excellent) puns. Walking with him, reacquainting myself with Manhattan — a city that might have to close again — is like a double mapping, of the city and the friendship.
What riches I previously took for granted. I work at home, but on an average day prior to the pandemic shutdown, I spoke in person to twenty or thirty people, sometimes more. A few of them were regulars, like the postal worker and my neighbors. Others were visitors, who were always greeted with a handshake or an air kiss or sometimes, if we hadn’t seen each other in a while, with a big hug. A few used the hands-on-upper-arms hug, where you stand back and look at each other, friends enough not to have to hide the mutual assessment.
I could do most of my work alone, high up on some mountain fastness, but I’d find it intolerable, even with a lot of dogs. I need togetherness the way a tree needs rain. I need to see people and to be seen and, yes, to hug and greet and use the sense of touch, which, if turned off, makes me feel like I’m dying of thirst.
For the first few months of the shutdown it was easier not to think of this loss; with the science so opaque, it was safer, too. Now those days are behind us, but the touchless days still stretch on to the horizon without stop. Some days I find myself cataloging all the casual forms of touch we enjoy among friends, family, and sometimes coworkers. (Appropriate touching. We can all agree the opposite is not missed.) I think of all these missed contacts and feel sad: The hand on the middle of your back passing through a doorway. The sideways hug of a friend, as if to say, You’re OK! The high five from a passing stranger on a bike — because, hey, why not? The unexpected hug from someone you didn’t realize was a part of your life until that person disappeared from it and then reappeared. The hug that is like a surrender to affection or goodwill. Someone kissing your temple.
Most, if not all, of this is now on hold. How could I possibly care even remotely as much about baseball?
My solitude that summer in D.C. was not total. At work I shared an office with a classmate who was as bewildered as I was — but where the boredom of the job made me quiet, it made Nora talkative. I used to think of her as my own personal Nora Ephron. Like the filmmaker, whose Sleepless in Seattle had come out the year before, this Nora possessed the same restless, amusing rage at small things — and the same decency. To be in her presence was to walk in and out of the shadow of each of her moods as they strobe-lit a room.
The work we did was incredibly tedious: determining the age of prewar American school buildings, occasionally phoning up principals or chasing down forms. Both of us struggled with wakefulness. When we realized how little people cared about what we did — one superintendent in Wyoming told us his questionnaire had literally blown away — we took to closing our door at lunch, turning off the lights, and lying down on the floor for an hour. We’d talk quietly until one of us did not respond to the other’s comment. The person still awake would set the alarm to get us up.
By the time my roommates turned up, smack in the middle of what was then one of the hottest summers on record, I had developed a set of routines to blunt my longing: Each week I’d visit a new museum after work. At the apartment at night I’d read in my window in the falling dark, sometimes with fireflies coming out. (These were among the loneliest and happiest hours I’ve ever had as a reader.) My mother had sent me her recipes, and each week I’d try — and usually fail — to cook a new meal.
Suddenly all that routine was put away. I came home at dark to an apartment lit up, a boom box on, and Paul, my roommate from Oakland, cooking meatballs in the kitchen in his underwear. Brenn, my other roommate, had brought a car from Rochester, a diesel VW Rabbit with a driver’s-side door so rusted it was not to be opened. After work we sometimes drove over to Rock Creek Park and jogged through the soupy air, coming back to the apartment to lie on the hardwood floor, which was always cooler than the chairs, and watch SportsCenter on a tiny black-and-white TV with a screen the size of your hand, which Brenn had gotten hooked up to cable. You could get one month free if you canceled on the thirtieth day.
Come to think of it, I spent a lot of that summer on the floor. The apartment was a one-bedroom, so one of our first orders of business, upon my roommates’ arrival, was to sort out how we would sleep. Paul would pay the most rent to be able to sleep in the bed all summer; Brenn and I would rotate between the second spot on the bed and a mattress on the floor. How much more easily I slept once the room was full of other bodies — even if Paul did go to bed each night in the same shirt, which he didn’t wash for forty days.
None of us had a girlfriend or even someone to write to. None of us had a fake ID or knew a place to use one. So, even though we weren’t great friends at first, we made a kind of pact for the rest of the summer to eat and sleep and walk and go to events together because it felt better than doing it alone. It got us through July and August — or, at least, I know it did for me — to be able to fall asleep next to a living body, to wake and know someone would ask if I was ready to leave for work. The summer passed, and when I came home from it, I fell like water into the arms of the first person I knew.