I am afraid of what I will become without touch. Already the frayed edges are beginning to show. So much of my life and the lives of so many women is found through touch. We touch our babies, we hold them to our breasts and bellies, we wash our ageing mothers’ bodies and comb and braid our daughters’ hair. We massage and we pet and we soothe and we tickle. We do this with each other.
I have been blessed to feel and embrace and be embraced by women all over the world. To hold their stories and their hands, weep with them in my arms. We know how to do this, women. We know how to express loss and grief with our shuddering bodies and tears, transform our rage into medicine with the simplest caress. We know how the body is filled with microaggressions and macro ones. We know how to loosen ourselves into grieving and tighten ourselves into rage. And many of us are practised in that particular hug that shelters, that relieves, that confirms. Hugging is how we know we are here. How we feel each others’ existence and meaning and value and substance. How we transmit our love, our empathy, our care.
I am sure that so much of what we women do – so much of our so-called beauty routines – have as much to do with touch as they do with appearance. I cannot wait to have my hair washed at my hairdresser. There is one particular woman; I will call her Nina. Her hands are delicious and confident and kind, equally firm and gentle. When she digs her long, waltzing fingers into my scalp, mixed with the warm soapy water, I know salvation. The same with the woman who does my nails, the little hand massages, her fingers pressing deep into the stress of my palm, the flesh-to-flesh contact and energetic exchange. I need that. We need that. Particularly those of us who live alone, who don’t live with partners or spouses. Particularly those of us most likely to perish from the virus – the older ones. Touch is how we go on.
I think of women hairdressers, manicurists, masseuses, nurses, caregivers, nannies, yoga teachers, acupuncturists, physical therapists. Who will they touch again and when?
The other night, the man I live with, James, a magical being, was playing and suddenly threw himself on top of me. His body was perfectly heavy and it felt unbelievably good to feel human weight, muscle flesh pressing down on me. It had nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with life, connection and vitality. He smushed me good. The imprint has lasted. These are desperate times.
We all know the significance of touch. We know babies who experience physical contact show increased mental capabilities in the first six months of life. Touch makes your brain grow. And we know that those seriously deprived become aggressive and develop behavioural problems. Touch is how we become part of this human community.
So here we are in the middle of this pandemic, knowing our cough can potentially kill; our body could be a lethal weapon. How do we make sense of this? How do we live with this unbearable skin hunger?
Part of the agony of this crisis is that even in death we are denied the possibility of touching the body. By four o’clock each afternoon, I can feel the disintegration begin. After a day of disembodied voices, blurred and frozen faces, loud news. After a day of ever-increasing numbers of the invisible dead, the bodies piling up in unseen warehouses, the back of huge trucks and cold-storage rooms. After a day of aerial shots of mass graves, wooden coffins stacked on top of each other like boxes of invisible pain. After a day of wanting to reach through the screen, the void, the isolation, to feel a heart beating, take someone’s hand, breathe with another’s breath, I can feel myself begin to disappear.