Last night I had a dream about my ex-boyfriend where we were using computers side by side. Toward the tail end of our relationship, which saw us cohabitating for some six years, all we ever did was use computers; relegated by yawning space to separate rooms in our little apartment, yards apart. We IMed rather than raise our voices, the din of the television swelling into the painful distance between us.
It was unlike us. It was unlike me. We met when young, at a time when both of us had waited through the numb-tunnel of our high school years as strange ones, lonesome ones, for someone we could love. When we met we hugged and kissed constantly with the singular needfulness of the deprived. Like we had been waiting all our lives just for someone we could hug and kiss without ever needing permission, and like having found it supplanted all other needs, like compatible personalities or life goals or tastes or anything. Having found it sustained us alone until we became old enough to understand it was not enough.
The laws of perspective apply to memory. Things seem different when you look at them from a distance. Come to think of it, I wasn’t deprived of intimacy as a teenager or as a child; children don’t think about whether certain things are okay, and that includes touch, holding hands. I had my first kiss at the age of six in a cement tunnel on my first grade playground. A little boy named Demetrius French asked ‘how about it,’ and I said ‘okay,’ and it was messy and strange and curious. Memory of holding hands, sticky palm to palm, with classmates whenever instructed to ‘buddy up.’
Girls had sleepovers, thoughtlessly. I wasn’t excluded. We never considered the privacy of one another’s bodies. We just were there and it was nothing to analyze; at one girl’s birthday-sleepover when I was eleven or twelve I had the remains of a sinus infection and we ate Doritos, and I blew my nose what felt like endlessly into a handkerchief that turned Nacho-Cheesier orange progressively. We laughed. Nobody kept their distance from me. We lay on our backs and compared toes.
Only when you grow older do you begin to analyze, to intellectualize, the potential innuendo of the ways you touch other people or allow them to touch you. You no longer have the freedom of thoughtless embraces, because you don’t want to give ‘the wrong idea’ to some unspecified ‘him’ or ‘her.’ You become paranoid about communication, maybe because you are now a single adult and you came from the sanctum of an uninhibited mutual home where consumptive touch was like eating and breathing and now you don’t really know how to touch anyone else.
Your cheek touches another girl’s when you hug and you wonder why she pulls away. You think about it for way longer than the gesture actually took. Some people kiss your cheek when they greet you, some don’t, some make like they’re going to kiss both cheeks and you’re startled and do a strange, weaving dance, clasped stiffly at arm’s length until you consent awkwardly to whatever it is they want. The weird smudges of half-kisses, gestures that aren’t real kisses, scratch and burn and linger on your face at parties where everyone smells like alcohol. You watch other people’s hands to determine the relationship between them. Your heart sinks when someone you’re looking at puts their hand on someone else’s knee just so. You learn to watch your hands.
You watch morning television body language experts who inform you that a woman’s knees point at the man she wants. You learn to watch your knees. You point your knees at the man you want or you touch him until you get even older and you learn about ‘how to play,’ how you ought not to be eager, how you should not be ‘demonstrative’ toward the man you want, and then you should endeavor to keep your distance so you don’t ‘let on’ or appear ‘too eager.’
You live in a city where personal space is illusory. You ride the subway and find yourself pushed into the cradle of a strange person’s arm, their soft body, you both must consent to this because there isn’t any room, and the packed, superheated train hurtles forward full of everyone’s breath and body, and everyone is resigned to it, and you are small and crushed and once the silence sets in and the train rattles off into dark tunnels it dawns on you: you are aware of being glad for the shameless physical proximity of other humans.
When you go to bed with others you will both drink a lot, when you like someone and they like you you’ll both drink a lot, because it makes it easier to surmount the tendency to analyze what and whom you are touching and why, you will be childishly unhesitant, no one will think about what anything means, not even when you fall asleep with your leg draped over someone else’s in that beloved tangle that indicates possession, fondness. No one will think about what anything means until later and then everything has to be negotiated twice over. It will never come naturally again.
Not like when you were in love. You will be visited by dear friends from earlier in life and they still smell the same, their hair or their skin or something intangible about them, and you remember the time you thought nothing of everybody getting naked to take melodramatic teenage graveyard photos and now, these days, you notice this: the way you say “I’m sorry” when your knee brushes one of theirs, like you had injured them by touching them, like you had violated your obligation to keep yourself to yourself without touching.
The worst is when you realize you’ve forgotten. In high school you had a friend who kissed a lot, a girl with long-long dyed dark hair and safety pins in her clothes who didn’t care that everyone thought she was strange. You were trying to be normal because you needed so much to be loved. So you winced with all of her embraces and her showy kisses and her over-demonstrations and hid, with your body, the silly lyrics and messages she wrote on your locker in lipstick, the way she did with everyone she liked. You were one of the people she liked, and you winced when she hugged and kissed you in public, all the while a little alarm sounding in your head that said isn’t this what you wanted.
You are now that wincing contradiction all the time. You suffer through embraces. The little alarm punctuates all of your stiff interactions, tries to remind you that you weren’t always like this. You try to put your head in someone’s lap because you used to love that and because they seem to want you to, but it feels weird, the stiff too-warm shape of their thigh, too intimate, you are forcing it, you wait an appropriate amount of time before you lift your head. So that they know it’s not their fault, so that you’re not sending yet another unintentional signal with your body language. It’s your fault. You’re the one who broke inside, somehow. You don’t want to touch anyone.
You don’t miss that ex-boyfriend. What you miss is how you tangled ankles and feet when falling asleep, had a way you knew to tuck knees within knees, habitually, without thought or discussion, how long that took, and then how long it’s been, and how you think you forgot, and what if you can never just be touched again?
The concept of ‘personal space’ spreading its immutable locus, the concept of analytical thought behind every physical gesture – are they just unfortunate consequences of growing older, or do you dry up inside, wick away from warmth like a singed hair from a candleflame, if you have been confused, harmed, for too many years? You don’t want to think about it. You wish you could stop thinking about it.