Just to torture myself, I recently clicked through an online slideshow of parties from before the city shut down. A collection of black-and-white photos of people at clubs and bars, on dance floors and dark street corners, their bodies all so close together I instinctively worried they were a new crop of superspreaders, until I remembered the timeline. Looking at them, I realized I’d forgotten the diversity of ways people can touch people. Did you remember that you could grip the back of someone’s neck so hard your nails could make half-moon indentations in their skin? Or that you could let the pads of your fingers explore the rough terrain of someone’s elbow, or press your knee against a knee, snake a leg around a leg, put your lips to the arch of a foot, lean your whole backside against someone else’s frontside? You could playfully tug, gently pinch, or brusquely squish, nuzzle your face in a beard, and all of this could happen spontaneously, without underlying pandemic anxiety?
In the days since, I have had the most persistent fantasy: I’m at a crowded bar, so surrounded by people it takes 35 minutes to get a drink, but I don’t care because of the flesh. As I wait, a person I am with, or maybe a stranger — all right, it’s a fantasy, so definitely a stranger, and not just any stranger but a stranger I would try to make out with in a corner later — needs to get by, so they put their hand on the small of my back and lean in toward my ear to murmur, “Can I squeeze through?” Help me.
Lately, there has been a constant “this time last year” loop reminding us how long it has been since we’ve hugged a stranger, or gotten a massage, or grabbed a forearm for emphasis in conversation. It has been long enough that I’ve started holding my own hand in my sleep. Every night, I go to bed with my hands on each side of my body, and by morning, I wake up with my palms together, my fingers intertwined, skin-starved to the point of self-love.
There’s actually an official term for what I casually call skin hanger. Psychologists refer to it as “touch starvation.” Humans are wired to touch other humans; when we can’t, deprivation results in the usual litany of bad things: stress, anxiety, depression, weakened immune systems, disrupted sleep, and mind-scrambling horniness.
It’s hard to remember now, in these moments of extreme thirst, how quickly I developed an aversion to touching anyone or anything, how willing I was to buy one of those key chains that let you push elevator buttons without using your finger and to wave at friends when I met up with them instead of hugging them. Touching was the first thing we were told not to do in our attempts to avoid virus transmission.
Last March, in those surreal, painful early moments of the pandemic, we found ourselves first slowly and then abruptly turning away from the usual crush that we as city dwellers came into intimate contact with daily. We relearned our city-specific spatial reasoning, reprogramming how we sat, how we stood in line, how we made conversation, most of us never quite realizing how long we would be asked to avoid one another. Now, at the year mark of living like the chronically ill teens in Five Feet Apart, “cow cuddling,” the new trend of people escaping torturous isolation by signing up to hug cows at sanctuaries, seems totally normal — and actually, maybe something to try out next weekend.
Of course, there are those with partners who haven’t had to sacrifice holding hands, hugging, kissing, stroking, but even they can feel skin-starved for the unfamiliar touch. And there are those who have made the choice not to give up touch. There can be discomfort even in that: A person I know who regularly hooked up during the pandemic would without fail text me a day or two after a casual encounter with reports of fatigue, or a sore throat, or a fever. For their sins of the flesh, they were stuck in an eternal hell cycle of hypochondria.
Even if the intense yearning for any sort of touch is undeniable, I wonder how quickly the world will rush out to engage in physical contact. This past year has felt like a social elimination diet. We’ve become indoor creatures, our social skills atrophying. I’ve lost my ability to make small talk, and my internal alarm system for knowing when I’ve been talking for too long has stopped working. I ask people probing questions like “Do you remember joy?” three minutes into a regular conversation.
But as several million new people are inoculated each day, there is a palpable sense that touching and being touched will not be a solo act much longer. Each restriction lifted — restaurants can now have 50 percent occupancy, music venues will open in April, you can go to a movie theater — forces us to weigh what we’re psychologically ready to let back in. Sensitivities will be heightened, and I wonder how our excitement will affect our awareness of other people’s touch tolerance; will we be able to read signals as well as we had, or will we all be awkward and fumbling, unsure and hesitant? When the time comes, will we even know what to do anymore?
For some, the reintroduction to a world of casually throwing our arms around friends’ shoulders will likely be painstakingly slow. Others are already predicting a rumspringa of touch, a bacchanalian release of pent-up hedonism. It’s possible I’m seeking out signs that indicate the latter, because it sounds more fun. But recently, a tweet observation by bar owner Ashwin Deshmukh made me optimistic. “Uhhhh it’s happening,” he wrote during a recent night out. “Host is escorting a couple out of a Soho restaurant for bathroom shenanigans. They met outside an hour ago.”
With energy like that, it’s easy to envision the post-pandemic life of a recent ad campaign by Suitsupply, a company that makes suits for men and women. Its spring-summer campaign features a writhing pile of people, with two models in the forefront pressing their tongues flat against each other in, I guess, a form of kissing, though it looks more like oral grooming. The image is grotesque but also optimistic.
“We wanted to connect to the pent-up energy for getting close and gathering,” Suitsupply’s CEO, Fokke de Jong, explained to me. “The rest developed quite organically. Our main model, Robin, hadn’t seen his girlfriend in months. We arranged for them to get together with two other couples, following all necessary safety protocols, and the rest was less directed than one would imagine.” If marketing dictates anything, this post-pandemic summer we’ll all be wearing skinny-cut salmon-color suits while engaging in lots of maskless groping.
While I’m being driven insane by a need to lean against someone while watching a movie on my couch, I consider what we really want from touch: comfort, sex, intimacy, connection. Will we get those things when we reach out and touch someone’s hand, or is it possible we won’t be satisfied? Will we realize we never touched one another as much as we imagined we had in the first place, or worse, will we find our touch starvation has become touch anxiety? Maybe in our post-pandemic life, we’ll hate hand-holding. Or maybe, in rediscovering touch, we’ll be open to new ways we want to be touched. I cannot imagine patiently enduring the chicken peck of a bad kisser post-pandemic, but I will be so grateful for a hand around my waist that I won’t squirm away if it brushes my back fat. If, while dancing, my skin gets so sweaty my shirt clings to it, I’ll never apologize and swat when a hand feels just how damp I am. If I’m being honest, I just want to take a bong rip of someone’s breath.
Though maybe it will be best to start our reintroduction with baby steps — a kiss, perhaps, that most foundational, classic, most cinematic of our forms of foreplay. A first base from which to launch like a rocket. Remember the basics: the sensation of popping a breath mint, of making prolonged eye contact, of parting lips, of stroking a tongue with your tongue, of remembering to vary pressure from hard to soft, intense to gentle, teasing and then full of intent. Of not caring how sloppy it gets or how unhygienic.