I’m pressed to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic. Face masks and social distancing are the new normal. As is the absence or the restriction of touch. There are still so many people trying to hang onto life before the quarantine. Fully accepting a lack of control over what happens in the world is a continuous effort. But it also comes with the balance of understanding what is in your control.
Like wearing a mask whenever possible and minding the space you place between yourself and others. With strangers, it’s easier. What’s hard is maintaining the practice of physical distance with people you love and care about. Because of this, I’ve reflected a lot on physical intimacy and touch, on my relationship to it, and how it has changed since being in quarantine.
Touch As Comfort And Bonding
Growing up my family was not big on affection, we only hugged when someone was going away for more than a few days and when they came back. As children, we would content ourselves with simply lying or sitting near our mom and enjoying her company that way. She would sometimes rub our backs or comb her fingers through our hair during those quiet moments. Proximity was enough for us most of the time and our mom showed us affection in other ways instead. Our expression of love and intimacy did not revolve around touch.
In second grade, I had a teacher who, after recess, made all of us lay our heads down while she turned off the classroom lights and played calming music. The mystical kind that always featured a flute and the added sound of her rainstick. We closed our eyes and breathed our sticky breaths into the cool surface of our desks. Then one-by-one she came up to each of us and drew light circles between our shoulders with her finger.
Her simple and caring touch was my favorite part of the day, though it was fleeting as she did not spend too long with each student. I sat next to Wesley, a red-headed boy with freckles and a silver tooth. We were friends with a shared appreciation for Ms. Palma’s after-recess ritual. So when she moved from us to the other students, we reached over and rubbed the other’s back the same way she did. We would peek up from our desks grinning at each other.
Touch As Taboo
From middle school on, touch became much more intense. The connotations were different and, like many kids that age, I was uncomfortable with my body. I could not imagine touching or being touched by others. If I did it was in the context of skewed ideas of love and romance. Despite having this longing for touch and intimacy, I denied myself from forming those kinds of relationships for also skewed and misguided reasons. Self-discipline and self-restraint were cornerstones of my sense of self.
I was quick to judge my body rather than to celebrate it. Emotions, sentimentality and everything that goes along with them was a waste of time. At a young age, I decided to bury myself in school work and anything academic. My choice opened opportunities to me at a significant cost. Emotionally stunted, I was afraid of vulnerability. Physical intimacy was one of the most vulnerable things I could do.
For years, I imposed on myself unnecessary and imaginary restrictions on myself. I desired and desperately avoided touch. Being so close to someone but not quite making direct physical contact sent hot waves of anxiety fused excitement in me. Though mostly, I was afraid. Afraid that, if touched, a person would know everything I was thinking and feeling. I would be exposed.
Touch As Growth And Healing
I went into college describing myself as a touch-starved person and was still unable to figure out what to do with my body. My two roommates freshman year were different from me in many ways. The first, and most obvious being that they were white. Second, they were both very affectionate people. Being less open, I didn’t always know how to respond to their willingness to be vulnerable. As the year went on, I learned how to reciprocate with my own vulnerability.
Our friendship was communicated through intimacy and touch: from holding hands, rubbing each other’s backs, running fingers through hair, snuggling on the couch or in a twin bed, and sitting in each other’s laps. All of it was a lesson in trusting and letting go. By learning from and about them both, I learned a lot about myself. I realized how much I enjoyed physical affection with the people I loved and cared about.
A simple touch or gesture can bring such comfort and nurture parts of myself that I’ve neglected. Touch was something I could enjoy even if I wasn’t in a romantic or sexual relationship (which I didn’t have the slightest handle on). With them, I was able to build a better foundation for myself. One where I would have the strength and courage to explore different kinds of touch.
During the latter part of 2019, I opened myself up to new experiences and formed new relationships. Heading into my last year of college, I did not want to repeat the cycle of denial and fear I constantly fell into. I still had things to see and feel, including intimacy with others. I chose to step closer to people rather than away from them. Not every chance I took ended the same; some worked out better than others, while some were not meant to last. Though, putting myself out there reminded me of the risks we all face when we make ourselves vulnerable. As it turns out, vulnerability has never been a weakness. It’s sacred and we should treat vulnerability with the same respect due to the person expressing it.
For 2020, I decided I would take those lessons with me.
Touch As Life Threatening
It was early spring and things were changing. A wildcat strike from winter quarter had gained momentum on campus. Students, faculty, and townies in support of the strike flooded the picket line. We could not do business as usual with people forced to choose between their survival and their education. As a result, many classes shifted to online or off-site teaching. Weeks went on this way and then came another shift. Cases for COVID-19 began popping up in the U.S., then in California. We were ordered to shelter-in-place and spring classes were now set to be online.
At the beginning of quarantine, I stayed with my roommate’s family –another roommate turned close friend and loved one. I was thankful to her and her family for taking me in. After two weeks I chose to go back to Santa Cruz. I felt more comfortable being in a space that was ours and with our things. Even if that meant I was going to be quarantining alone. We rented a converted garage in a house and lived with our landlady. She was an older woman and was understandably concerned about the ensuing pandemic.
After coming back, she sat me down and we began talking about our plan for quarantine. With us both in the house full-time we had to manage shared spaces differently. We had to clean more frequently, especially in the kitchen. We also scheduled who used it and when. Then, of course, we both had to be mindful of noise for our respective schedules. I was hyper-aware of every surface I touched and whether or not they were wiped down. I stopped going out and saw my friends far less than I did just weeks before. For roughly four months I stayed in the same spot in our two rooms, coming out only when necessary and pretty much avoiding our landlady.
Touch As Taboo (Again)
In the beginning, I opted for video-calling to see close friends and loved ones. Fortunately, I was occupied by the bout of inspiration I had for my senior seminar in fiction. I was writing every day a couple of hours a day and was able to keep my mind off the pandemic. Later, self-isolation started weighing on me. I missed being able to go out as freely as before and have friends over or spend time in their houses. A few of my closest friends were still in town. Thousands of students left home to their families for quarantine, considering it was cheaper to do that than pay for housing.
My roommates from freshman year were still in Santa Cruz. One of them and I planned to see each other and take a walk around my neighborhood. In the days leading up, I was nervous. Was I going to hug them? Would it be okay if I did? Maybe I should meet them farther up the street so my landlady doesn’t see us. What if she did, would she say something? Is it weird if I wear my mask the whole time?
When the fateful day came, we held hands while we walked and talked. I pointed out that it had been the first time in months since I had touched another person. The contact was comforting, but it was spoiled by the anxiety I felt thinking that my landlady was going to jump around the corner and ‘catch us’. Or that she’d find out and I would get in trouble somehow.
Touch As An Exercise In Caution
I still felt this bittersweet feeling when I met up with other friends during quarantine (then and now); even if they’re few and far between. Living at home with my mom is easier. I’ve become more affectionate with her to help fulfil my need for touch. I have been taken back to my childhood when she would brush her fingers through my hair and rub my back while we rest. Working has also posed another challenge for social distancing and touch. I’m in food service which entails a lot of contact with customers, but we have some safeguards that help to an extent.
It’s hard to deny the changes that have been brought on by the pandemic. The reality of this new normal struck me this past Thanksgiving. I was almost brought to tears walking into a crowded Costco with my mom and sister. There were so many people. More than I have seen for over half a year. Social distancing was practically impossible, people were swarming grabbing items from their grocery lists. My mom told me it was okay if I left and waited for them in the car. I thought it would be better to power through and face the fear I had experienced. I can’t be afraid forever, only careful.
Touch As Creativity And A Look Forward
Friends who are still in Santa Cruz have put together a writing group where we can see each other and workshop our writing together. We have our first meeting coming up soon and I’m excited to see their faces again, even if through a screen. I have sought out new ways to pass the time at home. My sister and I got into sculpting with air-dry clay. We sit on the balcony with all my plants and mould our imagination into the clay. Reading has been another big thing for me. I’m notoriously bad at finishing books but I’ve been able to knock out a few since coming home.
A book I’m currently reading is Is It Love Or Is It Addiction written by Brenda Schaeffer. In it, she talks about identifying love that is considered healthy and love that is unhealthy. I think she opens an interesting discussion on what we are seeking in our relationships with other people; whether or not they are ones that will help us grow or if they are replicas of harmful cycles we’ve experienced and find ourselves caught in again and again.
Her definitions and ideas don’t exclusively apply to sexual, romantic, or love relationships. They can apply to casual, platonic, and familial relationships as well. I feel that her book is relevant in that even though we are in quarantine, people are still going to seek out others for love, companionship, and other emotional and physical needs. We will adapt and find ways around the pandemic to fulfill these natural needs we have.
In a future article, I want to expand on this idea and try to imagine what socially distanced relationships and physical intimacy will look like for people not already coupled. Meaning, new relationships where people do not already live with their significant other. I want to explore how we might draw on existing themes and culture to create new understandings of touch and intimacy.