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I read an article about how couplehood and the attendant touching, not necessarily sexy, increases good health and longevity. I’m single and on the dark side of 60. I’m fine living alone, it’s fine, but when Trump got elected, for example, I had no one to gather me up and curl around me to protect me from everything incoming, nukes included. In a less grim example, I’m on a regular schedule of imaging tests for cancer, and I have friends, I have daughters, but reaching out every three months to express my scanxiety and beg for hugs seems overly needy. If I had a partner, in my case, a man, in the next room, I could complain at moments of peak terror and get held and hold on. Maybe live longer in better health. After reading the article, I wanted to know how much human touch I was receiving over the course of a week. Like, data-gathering.
Day one, Sunday
Nothing. No one touches me. I feel flu-ish. I revise my premise from human touch to “intentional” touch, so I can count the dog, although he has to initiate. In fact, the rule is all the touch counts have to be initiated by the other person/animal. Sunday goes from nothing to seven times touched: the dog came to me four times with his muzzle to my hand for petting and two times with his paw on my foot to interrupt me as I wrote, and once on the street he purposefully bumped my thigh to herd me along.
Touches on Sunday: seven.
In the afternoon I have a manicure and pedicure, and impulsively add a lip wax and a ten-minute massage in the special chair. My Vietnamese nail worker, who is name-tagged “Sharon” for the clients, gets to work. She is rough with my feet and I flinch. We smile, she behind a mask. Sharon adjusts her touch. When she finishes—I love the feel of the twisted paper towel threaded between my toes—she takes my arm to help me from the high chair. In the waxing room, she dabs my upper lip. She moves a strand of hair from my mouth and then uses the flat of her palm to smooth my hair off my face. She applies the wax and presses the gauze and rips it off, one, two, three, four times. She taps my skin with something cool, gelatinous, and helps me off the table and over to a manicure chair.
I have to explain about my trigger thumbs, arthritis, a side effect of an oral chemotherapy drug. I wiggle them: please be careful. She wraps my aching hands in hot cloths. My throat tightens. Next she situates me in the massage chair. My nails are wet so Sharon gathers my hair—which, gone and grown back twice now, is newly thick and wavy and unruly for the first time in my life—and clips it up for better access to my neck and shoulders.
I think of my grandmother. Mary. I don’t know why, since I was so small when she died, and only know her through my mother’s memories. My mother, Marie, is dead too, so I can’t confirm anything. But I picture my grandmother with big hands, wide so that a whole warm palm, doughy, could heal eight children. When she finishes, Sharon smooths my wayward hair. I let out a small sob, sort of. My throat is tight and my eyes are brimming when I hit the street. The dog nuzzles me and paws me and herds me on Monday, too, so I tally seven again.
Times touched, Monday: seven dog and Sharon, to hard to count. I’m calling it fourteen.
Tuesday I commute to the office. That cuts down on the dog count, from seven to three, since I am not at home much of the day. The subway is packed, I am touched a million times but not with intent so, nothing counts. There are shoulder bumps and brushing hands and full strange bodies pressing against mine, nearly head to toe, but no. A woman flips her hair and hits me on the side of my face a couple of times. I spend an entire ride with a man jiggling his thigh against my thigh, and it’s hard for me to believe it is not on purpose. I move my thigh a millimeter away, his follows. Maybe that should count. No one touched me at the office. Mohammed the doorman handed me a stack of boxes when I got home and they tipped and he grabbed them and tapped my hand to say, “There you go.”
Tuesday, three dog, one Mohammed: four touches.
On Wednesdays, when my insurance is in full effect (there are only so many treatments allowed), I see Shaziya for 55 minutes of lymphatic massage, coded as occupational therapy. I have a little crew of surrogate daughters and Shaziya is tops on the list. I have two actual daughters of my own but one of them, the touchy-feely one, lives on the west coast. The close one is my protector, my supporter, but she is not touchy-feely. Her reserve developed later though, since, first of all, she refused to leave my body when it was time to get born, and had burrowed in so assiduously, she had to be obstetrically yanked out. The nerves along her spine, C5-C6, tore. There is residual deficit, as they say. Also, every photograph I have of this kid when she was little shows her hanging off me, hugging my legs. Yet, when she was four? I went to a Mother’s Day breakfast at pre-school, and the children’s drawings were hung with quotes about their moms, adorable, transcribed by the teachers. My mom lets me bake. My mom takes me to the park. My daughter’s quote was: My mom hates it when I hang on her. I laughed and we still laugh although ouch, then and now. Maybe her quote was her way of processing the doctors and orthopedic braces and surgeries and physical therapy sessions she was enduring. Projecting it on to me, who did not deliver her safely. That’s fair.
Anyway. Shaziya. Shaz treats breast cancer women who’ve had surgery. The surgery—in my case, surgeries—can mess up the lymph system because they remove nodes for testing. Your arm and hand puff up. It’s unsightly and uncomfortable, but also, lymphedema is dangerous. Plain old injuries can go gangrenous. I don’t have that and I don’t want it so every week I take off my blouse and stretch out on her table. She probes deep into my arm on my surgery side. She moves her fingers along my veins. She presses along the striations of scar tissue, pushes into the hollows of my chest and each breast, reconstructed to not great effect. She moves behind me. She moves her hands under my neck and across my shoulders, tight because I write, and also, I hunch them to protect my chest, which has taken the hits. I often drift into tears on the table, not exactly crying, more like expressing whatever from wherever she’s probing.
At some point, I realize Shaz’s big, pregnant belly has been grazing the crown of my head as she works. I wonder if there’s anything out there, myth-wise, about what happens if a baby bump bumps against a head, because I experience an epiphany during Shaziya’s bump bumping against mine. The arm problems, surgeries, physical therapies, residual deficits. My daughter and I share them. I cry for real. Although the belly-head rubs were not touching with intent, they were revelatory, so, yeah.
Wednesday’s touches: two dog, Shaziya, infinity. I’m starting to question my methodology.
The dog does his usual thing. In the evening, I have a date, unusual. I have been set up by a friend with a guy, a journalist, a lawyer. “He’s both,” my friend says. “Stay open.” The journalist-lawyer encourages me to pick a meeting place but dismantles my choice, so we go with his choice although he doesn’t even live here. I’m staying open. He’s good looking on the internet. Maybe I’ll have sex with someone other than myself. I would love to. It’s been a while. The prospect makes me feel girlish. I exert special effort, clothes, hair, make-up, to look as effortless as possible. My age but younger. The guy is good-looking in real life, too. We hug. That’s one. He guides me with his hand on the small of my back. That’s two. We find seats at the bar. He pulls my chair out and says, “Is this okay?” and I say “Very okay,” and he then does this thing where he tucks a stray hair behind my ear and I’m thinking, How nice, and that’s three, but at the same time I’m thinking, Too soon. He talks a lot and I sip my wine. Sip. Sip. Sip. He’s still talking. I slug the dregs. Finally he says, “And you?”
I tell a story, a pretty good one, and in the middle of it he reaches over and takes my hands which I have been using to gesture, to punctuate, and he pushes them down into my lap. Holds them there. He gives me a nod and says, “Now go ahead, keep talking.” I try but my face is on fire. I feel like calling the police. He is restraining my hands and smiling as if he’s teaching me a lesson in how to be a better storyteller and a more fuckable woman. I take my hands back, dig in my bag for 20 bucks, lay it on the bar and go home. He doesn’t text or email or anything. I zero him out, no touches. Or maybe I should count four touches? He touched me, with intent, that’s for sure. I hate dating. I don’t want to be a couple. I hate this experiment. I decide to erase him.
Thursday: Seven dog touches.
Friday is black
Friday, there is a nor’easter, although it is spring. Friday, after one measly morning nuzzle and a dirty look, the dog goes to the groomer, an all-day proposition. Back home it’s so dark I need to turn on the lights in the daytime. I spend the whole day thinking about the journalist-lawyer who touched me in a way that felt like an assault. My internal, eternal, infernal man-manager—the me who makes allowances for men from long, long habit—wonders what I did to provoke it. Yet. I can still feel his hands holding mine hostage. I have spent my whole life finding my voice and using it. Using my hands helps, like massaging my words, like guiding my thoughts. I wrote my first novel at age 60. That’s a long time for a writer to not write, that’s some hard-core shutting myself up. I’m done with that. I am so mad from the night before I don’t notice the dog is giddy with relief when I pick him up from the groomer. He is overjoyed, bumping and nuzzling, licking my hand and leaning against my thigh, pushing his nose into my crotch. I forget to count.
I love my dog. He is an affectionate fellow. On Saturday, he lays his head in my hand so I’ll scratch his ears, itchy from the groomer yanking the fur out. He head-butts me in the kitchen when I’m making coffee. He wants me to know he’s happy to be home with me after his traumatic salon time. He stares into my eyes, watches me intently. I hug him, and even though I’ve read dogs don’t like being hugged, he stands solid for it. He’s big so I can lay my cheek along his strong back and wrap my arms around his chest, his heart beneath my hand. He breathes into me, hot, damp. His tail wags, just a little, his own dignified choice. I feel liquid, loved, loving, bonded, connected, attached, just like the couples in the article.
I meet my daughter, the close one, for dinner. We embrace hello. She maintains her reserve but we sit shoulder to shoulder at a bar. She shows me pictures. We bend over her phone and our heads touch. We laugh. I rub her back along the bumps of her spine as she digs into dinner. My fingers stop and rest at C5-C6. I don’t think she notices, although she misses nothing. She tells me a story about her dog. We laugh. We talk about my father’s coin collection, my Christmas gift to her. We talk about my new hat, her Christmas gift to me. A hat. We talk about her sister, whom we miss. Let’s visit together, I say. Yeah, she says, let’s. We’ve had a few. We walk out into night and I take her arm, my deficient right through her deficient left. She hugs me hard. I hang on her as we say goodbye.
I go home to the big dog. I clip the leash. We perambulate like old marrieds down the street to the park, him herding me along, thank god. My phone dings, Love you, Ma. My phone dings, When are you guys coming to visit me? My phone dings, We just talked about it at dinner! My phone dings, I’m jealous, where’d you guys eat? She, my touchy-feely west coast girl, posts a picture of the three of us from another time and tags me. The texts and the tag, the tail’s wag, the hat on my head, everything like kisses, everything like hugs, everything like hanging on. It’s Saturday night, the week is over, the task, to tally the touches that carry me through, is impossible. The experiment’s a failure. To do it right, I’d have to start over. To do it right, I’d have to redefine the terms and I am pretty sure after all that, I would still lose count.
Stephanie Gangi’s novel, The Next, is available now from St. Martin’s.