I Want You to Touch Me

Em Unravelling


I am absolutely not a tactile person. I hate that awkward “shake hands or kiss?” moment when meeting someone or when bidding a new acquaintance goodbye. (The horror!). I don’t throw myself into casual hugs with my friends, unless I’m drunk or we’re on a dance floor or both. In short, there’s not a person alive who’d use the word “affectionate” to describe me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly affectionate with my family. I like to twine myself around my husband whenever we’re in close proximity (on the sofa, say). I hold hands with him when we’re parallel. I throw kisses and smooches around with careless abandon when it’s my children who are on the receiving end. I even cuddle the cats if they happen to pop into my orbit. I’m not cold. I’m just…selective.

You’d think, then, that the Covid-19 pandemic — and all the harsh restrictions making it actually illegal for random people to get up in my grill — would be the dream for me. And honestly? At first, it genuinely was.

Initially, I was quite gleeful about tossing the new and exciting phrase “social distancing” around whenever I needed to make the sort of space I’ve always enjoyed. “Right, goodbye then! I would shake your hand,” I’d say regretfully to my clients, “but we’re not allowed to do that these days, are we?” Smiles all around. Rueful shrugs. Happy days.

Running and walking with friends, too, suddenly acquired a side order of having to keep a 6-foot distance between us at all times. No bother! No bother at all. In fact, that rule dealt nicely with my constant fear of the awkward moment when we both reach for the latch of a park gate together and accidentally end up holding hands.

Making Zoom calls instead of crowding around pub tables was admittedly a fairly poor swap but all in all social distancing did not, for me, spell woe.

Well. It didn’t at first.

Now though, nine months since the first crop of colourful passive-aggressive stickers appeared on shop floors so that we’d all stay nicely apart from one another, I am entirely over it. Turns out, I wasn’t as awkwardly affection-avoidant as I thought. As with so many things, it seems I only wanted to avoid human contact when that was my choice to make.

It’s starting to feel entirely wrong that I can’t hug my tiny, bird-like little mum anymore — even though I hardly ever did, in the Before Times. And my dad, who’s always put a briefly brusque arm around me whenever we parted — now he can’t do that, and suddenly I am horrified by the fact that I don’t even know if he still smells like my dad (sawdust and Brut, fyi). He might feel and smell like someone else’s dad entirely these days, and I wouldn’t even know.

No, I don’t like this disconnect one bit.

Humans, it turns out, genuinely need touch. We all do, in varying degrees. We get “skin hunger”, and even happy little introverts like me are not entirely immune to it. Skin hunger kicks in when we’re not getting enough touch; which is a weird one because I’d have previously said with confidence that I didn’t need any touch at all, apart from my husband’s and kids’, but I’m learning that this isn’t true. I’m not immune to the universal need for more generalized human contact.

My work means that I deal regularly with people living in nursing homes. When I think about them living through what might be their last winter on this earth, without so much as a distant cousin’s hand to occasionally hold or the dutiful hug of a recalcitrant granddaughter on Christmas Day, I could cry. I never thought this would be the aspect of the pandemic that affected me the most. Honestly, it’s been eye-opening.

Because I want love, man. I want my extrovert friends to wrap me in smothering hugs again, the kind of hugs I’d always wriggle furiously out of. I want dance floor grinds and snuggled-up slumps on sofas. I want high-fives and damply sweaty bro-hugs at the end of races. (Hell, I want races, and that’s not something I thought I’d ever say).

I want handshakes again, even the hard dry scary ones. I’d even take the panicky spurt of embarrassment that accompanies the horrible third, un-reciprocated cheek kiss (you know, the sort of awkward maneuver that always ends up with me kissing the lips of someone I only just met and dying with shame for at least five hours afterward). Bring it. Bring all of it.

Actually, not all of it. Don’t bring me any of those flabby, damp, surreptitious-wipe-afterward handshakes. You know the sort and you can keep them. For now, anyway. Let’s see how we go.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.


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