the future

Long Live Hugs

Illustration: by Luci Pina

In the middle of a big snowstorm just before Christmas, a friend in the neighborhood trekked the few long blocks between us to exchange baked goods in front of my apartment building. I had made brownies, and she had made sugar cookies. I think we both felt the same impulse to seize upon the adult snow day to inject variety into a December that felt simultaneously tense and monotonous.

My wife and I waved as we spotted our friend across the street. The snow hadn’t yet been pulverized into a garbage-flavored Slurpee, and her boots left perfect footprints in the fluffy white powder as she approached. When she made it to our door, she opened her arms wide to embrace my wife. Quickly though, her smile disappeared as she realized oh right … Her arms retracted to her sides, and as an alternative greeting, she bopped my wife gently on the shoulder with a classic go get ’em, slugger punch.

That’s when it hit me — like a snowflake on the back of my neck — how much I miss hugs.

I miss the way my mom, whom I haven’t seen in over a year, pulls my face close to hers for a kiss on the cheek when I lean in to hug her. I miss the enthusiastic bear hug I share when I visit my old roommate Jason who now lives across the country. I miss running into my friend Erin, who I know doesn’t like to hug at all, at a comedy club, and offering a friendly and respectful head nod across the table, which I think is its own kind of intimacy.

Here’s a humiliating fact about me: I am too pliable a hugger, and when someone pulls me close to their body I often end up standing with my forehead nestled to their shoulder, worried that they think I’m about to start crying. I even kind of miss that.

I’ve heard some talk on social media of COVID-19 bringing an end to certain inherited customs: blowing out birthday candles, shaking hands with colleagues. Hugging. But I’m not so sure the future will play out that way.

For the past ten months, I’ve only hugged my wife, and I love her so much, but that still seems like some real Mike Pence shit to me. I feel so lucky to have had that much contact; I know lots of people who haven’t had nearly the same level of closeness with others during the pandemic. Still, I’m worried that the first new person I hug post-vaccination will have to support my full weight while I fully collapse into their arms like a teenager in the ’50s who just saw Elvis dance for the first time.

Ultimately, even if the boom times for the hand-sanitizer industry continue, people are going to want to be close to each other again. They’re going to want to hug and kiss and share appetizers and scream into each other’s faces at concerts and bars and karaoke rooms. Hell, some people have been (inadvisably) doing that stuff this whole time. And when things get safer, all, or most of us, will go back to it as well. The CDC recently issued new guidelines that suggest fully vaccinated people can safely hug one another and that vaccinated grandparents can hug their healthy grandchildren. Every grandparent I know (a small sample size, but still) remains resolute to resume contact immediately, as if the real vaccine were stored in the cheeks of their children’s children, waiting to be extracted through gentle pinches.

My hope is that things change a little, though. Maybe we’ll come out the other side of this with a heightened awareness of each other’s boundaries, an elevated consciousness of what we can do to make each other feel safe, how to provide care for each other. We’ll be more conscious of our own comfort, for sure, and hopefully of others’ too. I’d like to think that we won’t shy away from contact but instead give more thought to every relationship and interaction, each brief moment of contact as perfect in its specificity as a snowflake falling from the sky.

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Long Live Hugs