When my friend Jess was five months pregnant, she was walking back to her classroom at the elementary school where she taught music when a woman—a work acquaintance, not even a friend—approached Jess and, squealing, placed her hands on Jess’s pregnant stomach. Jess, with the same confidence and right as this woman touching her, placed her hands on the woman’s stomach as well. The woman recoiled.
“What? I thought we were touching each other’s stomachs now,” Jess said in the sing-song voice she also used for her students. As the woman hurried away, another teacher in the hall was stifling laughter. Jess rolled her eyes and walked back to her classroom.
I’m going to be like Jess when this happens to me, I thought. I was also pregnant, trailing Jess by three months, and only showing in a way I could tell. I’m going to be a badass and let those people know what’s up with my body.
And yet, as the months passed, this was never my reaction. When a coworker—a woman my colleagues reverently called Miss Linda—began to reach a hand out, my hips were already pressing toward it. Had I started this hip jutting before or after she had lifted her palm?
I have always wanted to be touched.
On nights that my father put me to bed as a child, I would ask him to “scratch my back carefully.” This was a phrase I had picked up from my mom, one that I did not realize until high school was not universal for having someone slowly draw their fingertips across your back, the “carefully” caveat differentiating from if you had an itch.
My dad would launch into a bad German accent and pretend to be a doctor administering touch therapy—a newly discovered practice that helped heal ailments. Then, I would pull my shirt up from my back and he would scratch my back carefully until it was time for me to fall asleep.
At some point, my father read an article about how touch therapy, though perhaps not by that name, was a real thing. That scientists had figured out there were tangible benefits to human touch.
But had we needed scientific evidence for that?
If my parents were ever affectionate with one another before their divorce, I do not have any memories of it. Instead, I have one memory of my aunt and uncle sitting on the tweed cushions of the sofa on my grandfather’s porch. My uncle had his arm not fully around my aunt’s body, but instead bent so that he could run his fingers along her neck. She kept talking normally, like he wasn’t doing this act, this act which I knew must be lifting the hairs on her head away from the skin.
This seemed like love. Or, at least, like an ideal situation.
In the fourth grade, my teacher set us up with desk buddies. Each of us got one person whose desk was sidled right beside us. In the spring, I was paired with a boy I didn’t have any particular feelings about, but through our proximity to one another, I developed a crush on him that lasted only the duration of our desk buddy experience. Every day, I would sneak my right leg under his desk, trying to get my calf close enough to his to feel his leg hair brush up against my skin. If I pulled it off, the reward was exhilarating; my hair stood up on end from my ankles to the crown of my skull. More often than not, he pulled back instinctively, unaware my touch had been intentional.
I did not have fantasies about being a princess or getting married as a young child. Instead, as I fell asleep at night, I imagined Jason, the Red Power Ranger, saving me from one of the cartoonish monsters that plagued Angel Grove. For whatever reason, he had to grasp me on his hip as we swung like Spiderman (something Power Rangers did not do) away from danger.
As an adult, I had to question this: was I really into the damsel-in-distress thing as a kid? I definitely was, but only because it was the only way I knew to justify an adult man touching me. The only narrative I was given of touch was one of romance, of heteronormative romance, at that. So even though I was pansexual, my youngest and most drawn-out fantasies revolved around being touched by men.
Twenty-seven and pregnant, I had trouble grasping the fact that inside me was another living thing. I couldn’t feel him. I constantly poked and prodded my stomach, asking, “Where are you, Elliott?”
When I went to the British Isles with People to People when I was twelve, I became overwhelmed with dread halfway through the two-week trip. I had begged my parents to go and, eventually, once my Great Aunt Erma was able to cover the costs, they allowed it. But halfway through, I realized this whole trip was kind of a sham. People to People had sold us an experience where we would be young ambassadors. And further, I thought that being stuck with the twenty or so other kids for two weeks would at least accidentally get me a friend. Yet, as was my luck, no one wanted to be friends with me, and we only met with actual British people in an ambassadorial context once, when we visited a boy’s boarding school.
I salivated over the thought of tricking one into hugging me, but of course it didn’t happen. Later that night, I wrote in a two-inch by two-inch notebook with a holographic image of London Bridge on the cover what I believed was an official statement: “I’m realizing I’m falling apart without hugs,” I wrote. “I did not realize I was so reliant on affection.”
For five years, I had a crush on Jordan Himes. I remember the day I decided to have a crush on him, which is to say this was not something that built up over time. It was the week before I started the fifth grade, the heat and humidity of Pennsylvanian summer simmering even at night. My family had gone to get Italian ice, and we saw the Himes family there as well. I waved at Jordan, and he waved back at me.
And that was it. The first day of a five-year, one-sided commitment. But on nights like that, the air felt so warm and safe, my body free to exist in shorts and tank tops, I felt like the world was holding my body up, buoying me, and that I could do anything. That maybe someone as smart as Jordan Himes would accept and return affection. That maybe his wave meant something.
Some people say that the humidity in Pennsylvania makes them feel suffocated. That night, and even now, it makes me feel loved.
My baby is the size of a turnip. My baby is the size of an axolotl. My baby is the size of a paper plane. Every week, our pregnancy apps compared Elliott to some fruit or toy or animal. I imagined that object inside of me and then I poked around for a lump that size. Eventually, I could feel the roundness of my swollen uterus, though nothing that felt specifically baby-shaped. Sometimes, in just a flash, a feeling that maybe I was lying or wrong about this entire pregnancy came over me. Because how could I be sure if I couldn’t even feel my own baby inside of me?
At the first sonogram when Elliott was larger than a lentil, he had his legs crossed. His face appeared on the screen as a skull. He looked both incredibly human and inhuman at the same time. I was not overwhelmed with a feeling of love for this thing I felt like I was meeting for the first time on a screen suspended six feet away from me. But when he moved—when I saw those arm bones wriggle forward and backward in and out of focus—I felt relieved. He was alive; he was moving. And soon, I would be able to feel him.
Even though the only touch he knew, then, was me.
I gave Jordan a Christmas present in the eighth grade: a neon light in the shape of a martini glass. I had very carefully curated this present, listening to him during the months leading up to Christmas about his current interests and obsessions. I needed to get him something he legitimately thought was cool. This martini glass-shaped neon light was it. In my diary, I recounted the evening’s events after I gave it to him: “He HUGGED me! Omigosh I was freaking out. This hug was warm, smooth, longer cause I held it out, it had body and strength and was deliciously wonderful.” In three subsequent entries, the last of which was a full month afterward, I noted, “Still riding the high of that hug.”
Later that year, after soccer practice and track practice, Jordan and I were waiting under the awning in the front of the junior high for our rides. It was March in Pennsylvania, chilled gray and cloudy.
“I’m going to hug you to warm up,” I told him. I thought I was being assertive, sexy. And for a few minutes, he allowed me to swing my arms around his shoulders. He was wearing a gray hoodie and radiated of warmth. But it was clear he wanted none of this; he wriggled his way out of my grasp at the first chance. Knowing more thoroughly about the concept of consent now, this entire encounter is cringe-worthy. If I were writing about it from the perspective of the girl who did not want to be touched, but who allowed it because fighting seemed harder, we’d all be reading this with a familiar lump of dread in our stomachs.
It doesn’t change things to say I was desperate—too old to cuddle with my mom in bed as we watched TV and without the wiles I needed to get this boy I had dedicated so much of my time to to like me back—but I was. I was desperate.
Nothing ever happened with Jordan and I, but even today, I dream about him. I dream that I somehow convince him I’m good enough for him. And he tells me he’s been waiting. And that he’ll stay.
At the beginning of my prenatal yoga classes, we were always given the option to be “adjusted.” The teacher would direct us into child’s pose so our faces were hidden from each other. Then, she’d say, “I will be offering hands-on adjustments during this class. If you would like to keep a more personal practice instead, please raise your hand now.”
I never raised my hand.
At the end of class, in savasana, the teacher sometimes came around with sweet orange or tea tree oil rubbed on her palms and pressed her fingertips into my neck and temples, a brief massage. She could never get to each student in the class, though, and so even though I knew I was paying her, even though I was sure it was random, each class I thought, I hope I was good enough today. I hope she picks me.
After I broke up with my first boyfriend the itch to be touched returned almost immediately. He and I had spent most of our time cuddling and making out, but I was getting more annoyed with him than was worth his touch. In my creative writing class in high school, I twisted my body around to a friend was sitting behind me, and said, “I think I figured it out. I think I’m addicted to affection.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, rolling his eyes at me really hard.
I turned back around and wrote the first draft of a spoken word poem called, “Affection Addiction.” In it, I wrote, “I am addicted to waking up to birds singing, and you draped over me like a robe.”
This had never actually happened to me before.
All my life, I have reached out and grabbed for all the hands I could hold.
On Tuesdays, we met friends for trivia night at a sports bar, and Katy and Mike brought their baby, Nora. Nora liked me more than Kenny, whose beard she was scared of. I carried Nora around as much as I could, high off the way she grasped to my arm and shirt in the same way I was high when Jordan had hugged me more than a decade before. I kissed the top of her head. I sang her name. I dipped her down near the floor and then the whole way to the full extension of my arms.
Katy was glad to have a brief break from holding her, but without fail, Nora always wanted to go back to her before the night was over. As she should, which I knew. I had to intellectually reject my sadness of this every time. Especially since, on the way home, Kenny would say, “What if our baby doesn’t want to be held by me?”
I’d reach for his hand and place it on my stomach. He will. I’d think. This one is ours.
When my boyfriend broke up with me between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I spent the whole summer eating avocados and lying in the sun. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d call Anya, two hours behind me in Denver, and talk until I felt calm enough to give in to the exhaustion.
Getting back to college was a huge relief, partly because Anya and I spent half the time sleeping in the other person’s bed. These beds were the standard extra-long twins in dorms, and so we had to sleep wrapped in the other person. Sometimes, she would wake before me, and I’d find her smoking cigarettes and reading poems on our porch.
I had gained seven pounds that summer from the avocados and would gain twenty-three more before I graduated. Anya, who had been relatively healthy my freshman year, would fully commit herself to an eating disorder. She shrank and shrank and shrank.
I was sitting on her lap when I commented, “I wish I was smaller so I could fit in your lap better.” I was pushing 175. She was hovering near 100.
“That’s it,” she said. And in a moment of lucidity, one not wrapped in hating herself, in disgust, in un-logic, she told me, “That’s what my eating disorder is. I want to be small enough to be held.”
The first night Kenny slept over in my bed, I was skin drunk off of him. He felt warm and cotton in the same way Jordan had felt in middle school. But Kenny actually held me back. I remember singing him the line, “I can no longer tell where you end and I begin.”
My junior year, I had surgery that repaired my ACL and removed most of the meniscus in my right knee. Afterward, I couldn’t walk, even with a brace, for a week. I was in the full leg brace for a month. Anya and a few other friends were supposed to come visit me at my mom’s house before she drove back to Denver for the last time. She had graduated. She wouldn’t be coming back to Pennsylvania.
I was so excited to be the sick one. For almost our entire relationship, it had been Anya who was sick or in crisis, and I was looking forward to her sitting in bed beside me, holding my hand and kissing my cheek goodbye. I was indisputably more sick than her this time. It was my turn.
She called fifteen minutes before she was supposed to arrive and said, “Hey, we’re actually meeting at Panera; can you come down here?” I was baffled. I was in so much pain I was still taking Vicodin every four hours to the minute.
“No,” I said, “Even if I could bend my leg to hit the pedals, I can’t drive on these painkillers.”
“That’s a shame,” she said. “I guess I’ll just have to see you next time.”
I wept and wept. There was no next time. That was it, and I hadn’t been enough.
Kenny had stayed with me post-surgery and pre-finals to care for me while my mom was at work. We had both worked on final papers together in my bed, before he drove back to school to gather his things and turn in papers. He returned shortly after my phone conversation with Anya and talked me back into calmness while running his fingers across my neck.
“I know something that will help,” he said. I hadn’t bathed since my surgery, four or five days before. He arranged towels on the floor of my bedroom, filled a bowl with hot water, and helped me undress. Telling jokes the whole time, he bathed me, carefully avoiding my bandages, not letting me do any of the work. We were having sex at this point. We slept in the same bed almost every night. But this: this was the most intimate thing we had ever done. Even with the sting of Anya still fresh, I felt clean, warm, and loved.
In the lost year between undergrad and grad school, I worked at a financial firm as an “associate”—basically a glorified secretary. Transitioning from college to an office was difficult, but not because of the early mornings or the sterile office space. Instead, it was difficult because no one touched each other.
In a conversation about touch with one of my professors earlier that year, he had pointed out how much easier I had it as a woman. “Traditionally, women are allowed to hug each other and hold hands platonically,” he said. “If men try to be affectionate like that with each other, they face harsher repercussions. Instead, men tend to do things like greeting each other by punching a friend in the arm.”
In college, I had hugged nearly everyone I knew as a way to say “hello.” At work, I resorted to this male tactic, punching my friend Larry in the arm in the breakroom. I could feel my body lean forward toward him and would have to stop myself. At the end of my year stint, Larry’s mom got cancer, and I couldn’t help myself anymore. I hugged him at his desk every morning I stopped by to see how he was doing. And it seemed cruel to me that others weren’t doing the same.
It took a few poems and a few years before I finally figured out how to fit in a line about how I liked when flies and ants crawled on me. As a high schooler, I wrote, “I’ve been lying in fields hoping flies will land on my back and crawl across the routes your fingers used to take. In summer, this is my affection.” In grad school, I wrote, “Then the flies come, the large peony ants, and crawl over my neck, routing their way from the line behind my ear to the muscles that blur the definition between neck and shoulder.”
The second poem was discussed in a poetry class, and a classmate commented, “Who is this speaker that wants bugs to crawl on her? Is she that desperate to be touched?”
Yeah, I thought, who would want that?
My desperation for touch largely disappeared once I was living with Kenny. We slept attached at night and held hands on the couch when we watched TV. But at the end of my pregnancy, I found myself doing something I never thought possible: rejecting his touch.
My pubic bone felt loosely rubber-banded together. My tailbone cracked every time I turned over in bed. In fact, the mere act of getting into or out of bed was both painful and difficult, with ligaments that were never made to stretch feeling as if they were about to rip. I read about women spraining their pelvises online, their bones wobbly from the uptick of the aptly named hormone relaxin in their systems. I moved carefully, attempting to avoid what seemed at the time to be an inevitable conclusion.
I would wake to Kenny, still asleep, breathing heavily in my ear, pressing against me. I’d have to push him away, or say, “Kenny, no. No.” And he’d wake up not remembering the interaction at all.
Some part of me still very much desired his touch, but in those last months my body was a live wire, exposed to every tiny movement. The whole world touching me. And Elliott, kicking, pressing, filling me up.
When Elliott was outside of me, his touch would still sometimes be too much. I’d feel stretched too thin to give him what he needed. I just wanted to be able to put him down so I could cook dinner or put away clothes or just not be touched.
And yet, he only knew how to give to me. Elliott was born with a hole in his heart that required open-heart surgery when he was eight months old. The night before, he had woken himself up—something he never did any more—early in the night. I went in to comfort him and started weeping as I rubbed his chest and tummy, overwhelmed that soon the perfect swath of skin on his chest would be interrupted by a large, if life-saving, scar. He lifted his hand and started drawing it up and down my arm. He fell back asleep comforting me.
The only touch I savored at the end of my pregnancy came from my chiropractor. He was not someone I’d have liked in any other context. He was a New Yorker transplanted to Maryland, the kind of person who edged on calling me unearned terms of endearment like “sweetie” every appointment but, luckily, he remained professional and never did. But from May until mid-September, two or three times a week, he pressed his hands and elbows into my lower back, loosening the muscles where they had tangled. I’d turn on my side and bend my body as if I were about to do a can opener into a pool, and he’d briskly hug me, cracking the bones in my spine one by one. Then, a nursing student named Derek would place sticky pads attached to wires on my lower back and for ten minutes, electrical currents would tingle the muscles into submission.
I couldn’t tell how much of this was working because of the science behind it and how much of it was just my body sighing at this touch meant only for me. But after each appointment, I could walk again easily. I kept going back.
Does the pain of labor count as touch? I could have felt Elliott leave my body, could have felt as his small body—less than six pounds—exited, creating two periurethral tears and one second-degree perineal tear. But instead, I opted for an epidural and only felt the pressure and release of pressure as his head came out. I gulped in one final breath before pushing out his body, which slithered quickly behind his head.
I did not feel those tears or the doctor stitching them up. What I felt was the weight of Elliott’s body on my chest, still attached to me by his umbilical cord, his inch-long hair in curlicues on his head, and his slick body that was warm, so surprisingly warm.
He mewed his first kitten cries, as if to say, “Touch me, touch me. I have only known touch, and I do not know how to live without it.” And so I did. I did.
Rumpus original art by Adreinne Travis.