I don’t know how to hug people.
The quick squeeze of "hello" and "goodbye" that most of my friends shrug in and out of makes me incredibly envious. Getting off a subway stop before the rest of the group, they’ll lean in and slip their arms around shoulders, necks or waists, say the right funny things and then skip out of the door into the 90-degree night where they are sure to neither sweat nor stumble. I go to say goodbye and inevitably punch someone in the boob or kiss an eyeball before darting out the train door, suddenly confused about if I’m supposed to go left or right at a station I visit every day.
It’s not because I don’t like to be touched, or because I come with from a non-affectionate family.
I’m the oldest of four, and despite the odd heartbreaking game of Scrabble where the bad loser (and we are all bad losers) sulks off to their room or “jokingly” sends the board flying, we are a loving bunch with our own way of expressing that familial devotion.
If I’m visiting, my mother still won’t go to bed without seeking me out for her a kiss, and my dad has been known to sassily insist that those passing through whatever room he’s happened to set up camp in kiss his bald head.
My not-bald-yet dad and I having, what appears to be a hilarious convo about raisins.
My red-haired brother is an athlete. He climbs icy mountains and runs ultra-marathons recreationally. He is like a Mountain Dew commercial. He is also the most physically affectionate of anyone in my family -- picking up my mother in his tree-trunk arms, tickle-attacking my youngest orneriest brother, blowing raspberries on my sister’s upper arm until she bellows “JESSE!” and plopping down beside me on the couch, his duck-butt hair sticking up and tickling my ear.
My sister’s three years younger than I am, another red-head, and in photographs from when we were small, she is often attached to one of my extremities, beaming just being near to me as I went from playing along to shaking her off with annoyance. She doesn’t clamor for my attention anymore, we’ve switched roles. I creep in beside her while she’s napping and at her most magnanimous.
My baby brother doesn’t like being touched. Ruffle his hair and he hisses, pat his arm and he scoots away, ask for a hug and he treats you to the middle-school special -- all arms and distance. Try to rub his back and he bellows, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”
Other than my deep, fleeting passion for vests, very little has changed.
To the outsider observer, I’m probably a fusion of my father’s need for affection -- but on his terms -- and my youngest brother’s shirking distaste for contact. My father, for all his massive love for us kids, doesn’t hug -- when he does, you can tell he wishes he weren’t doing it. Being this way makes it hard to latch on to people, physically or otherwise.
“You’re a really bad hugger,” my first boyfriend said, smiling a tiny smile. I tried to smile back but I felt bitch-slapped. You expect me to put my arms around and then you talk to me that way? Forget it. Other things to forget? The furtive butt-touching of which you are so fond, good sir.
Sadly, though his bleached tips and Oakley's didn't exactly belie prescience, his pronouncement of my skills as a hugger continue to prove accurate. I'm 29 years old, and when a guy I've recently started getting tingling-nether feelings for walks me home and we slow to a crawl and do that thing we stand being moony at each other, I find myself wishing I were being confronted by some low-rent Valentino with enough swagger to pull me in for all-body clinch.
The idea being that he'd act with enough strength of purpose that I wouldn't have time to calculate just how much of my nipples he can feel through our respective layers of clothing or if I can simply escape the tension with a hearty fist bump.
When I was 25 and a vaguely panicked graduate student, I started telling the people I met that I didn't like being touched. The funny thing is, it's probably the complete opposite.
Around this time I fell deeply in love with a guy with a fake tooth front tooth, and a bad ponytail. He took me at my word, approaching me arms wide, 'Stokes, I'm gonna hug you!" he'd taunt, and as I narrowed my eyes and told him where to go, every nerve in my body was saying "Yes! Yes! Do it! Touch me! Touch me and you'll see how much I love you! Yes! Yes! Just for a second!" I tell everyone everything anyway -- I don't need my body giving me away at every turn, too.
Professionally it is much the same. When being introduced to new colleagues or visitors, I approach one arm raised to half-hug if forced, the other extended fully, incentivizing them to engage in a firm, polite, totally doable shake. So basically I scuttle up to them eager to meet their needs but more eager to meet my own, arms extended like a giant crab-woman; a true creature of nightmare.
The physical presence of another body in your arms, for hellos or goodbyes, for comfort, to express love in any iteration -- I think we forget how heady this really is.
After my mother's single mastectomy, I began to hold her to me even tighter than before, ignoring my rising panic. Her very physical geography had shifted beneath mine which me made all the more aware that in a second it could vanish altogether. An embrace -- you smell the skin, you hear the other organs churning and whirling like clockwork, you feel -- I feel -- how breakable you are, and how much you trust me, and I’ll be real -- very often that’s a responsibility I don’t want.
Those are feelings intense enough that if I hugged every friend coming and going I’d fall to pieces from the intimacy. Living in New York, respecting the intimacy of another person's personal space is very often a luxury we don't have.
I've stood side by side waiting to cross a street with people in short sleeve shirts, their arm hair grazing my own and pretended like I don't feel it. How can I be expected not to feel the rhythm of someone's breath change when they find the perfect place to wrap their arms around me? How can I not notice how tiny the bones are in the back of a friend who's big talk and bravado otherwise keeps everyone at a healthy distance?
I guess really this means, is that I am in fact -- a very good hugger. I will hug your damn face off if I love you and it matters and you need or I need it. But I am an infrequent hugger, because every touch means something. To me, there is nothing casual about another human being’s body.
If we had a cup of coffee and I’m seeing you tomorrow -- don’t make me hug you! That shit is sacred. And subway-friends, don’t try to make me rub up on it when you leave, because I’ve got enough going on without having to be constantly honored to have you in my life and tragically aware of mortality -- my mortality, your mortality, and the mortality of the weirdo jerking it while I consider these things on the now mostly empty train car.