4 unwanted touches + 1 wanted touch

A/N: This was mean to be a companion piece to “lessons in consent,” but as I sat with what I’d actually written, I realized this was less about “times I wish I’d said no” and more about touch. (None of these instances are sexual.) So, there’s something to be said for letting a piece of writing sit, and giving yourself and the writing time.

Word count: ~1200

i. retreat

At the opening of the retreat I’m on, the instructor says, “Stand up and turn to the woman next to you.” This is our introduction to one another. The woman to my left and I face and look at each other.

“Get close!” the instructor calls out.

The woman next to me steps closer, leans down, touches her nose to mine. She’s close enough to kiss me, and I can feel her warm breath on my lips. I hate people breathing on my face; it’s something I do not tolerate, even from lovers. I want to say no or please back up, but I say nothing. Instead, I stand tall, still, and straight, not wanting to lose ground.

She leans back, jokes, “That might’ve been too close.”

“It’s fine,” I say.

The second and third day of the workshop, we talk about boundaries. I mention my therapist had talked about setting boundaries in the moment they are crossed, rather than letting it go. I wish I had stepped back, or placed my hand on her shoulder and gently pushed, and said, “Please ask me first.”

I share this anecdote on social media and an acquaintance tells me, “Go easy on yourself. This takes practice.” Which is true. I am a recovering perfectionist, and I want to ace everything I try my hand at.

ii. work party

At a work party, where alcohol flows, two male coworkers touch my shoulders at the same time. There is also a male coworker who takes my face in his hands. I know there is no malicious or sexual intent, so it is easier to be generous and shrug it off, rather than telling them to fuck off. Still, it would be nice if men could make the mental calculation and realize these actions are not appropriate in a workplace.

I tell my former boss this, and he frowns. “Tell me who it was,” he says, and I know he will take action. I shake my head, and change the topic. I am uninterested in the actions of the individuals; I am interested in the work environment that allows these gestures (among many others) to flourish.

When I tell someone higher up the corporate ladder (in the same broad strokes I relay to you now), he pulls me aside, asking if it was my former boss. Startled, I say, “No.” He is so relieved, and I disdainfully think how far off the mark his relief is. What I told him (and you) is but a small part of the powder keg he is sitting upon. And to my knowledge, he does nothing about it, because gender, power, race, and the workplace are variables he does not factor into his business decisions, despite his MBA.

iii. christmas party

This memory is hazier, before the work party, I think. I cannot find a diary entry about it, which strikes me as odd, but here is what I remember: a Christmas party, people everywhere, set in a cozy home that smells of Italian food and pine trees. We are in the living room, and he is a man, bigger than me, and this is a hug that I am ready to exit. He does not let me go. It is not predatory, but I am annoyed he is not respecting my request to let me go.

“You’re so cute, all angry,” he coos. (Did he say that before or after I set my teeth to his throat?)

I am ticked. I’ve asked him to let me go, and he does not do so, so I lightly bite his throat as if in warning: let me go, or I’ll rip your throat out. But my jaw can’t stretch wide enough, or perhaps I just don’t know how to find his windpipe.

This man is the guest of one of my roommates who I get along with like a house on fire. I don’t remember if my roommate interceded or not. In fact, I don’t remember how I exited that hug at all. And I don’t know if that man found my displeasure cute because of my body, my gender, or my ambiguous race.

iv. pandemic

I circle back to lessons I thought I’d completed. In a better world, a romantic partner would not have to provide me with all my snuggles – I’d have many people to do that with. But the cultivation of that level of community is exceedingly difficult; whether because of the society I live in, or because I lack the needed skills, I don’t know. But I realize an abundant amount of physical affection is something I can require in my romantic relationships. That an ability to meet my snuggle needs is a big relationship green light. And perhaps it is even the source my desire flows from.

And yet, despite this, I love the way the pandemic has made it so very easy to say no to touch.

People’s inability to care about the well-being of other people besides themselves, and their unwillingness to inconvenience themselves to advance the health of us all, has left me with lingering resentment and mistrust for people I don’t know. Unsurprisingly, I don’t want to hug people I view with suspicion. (It also doesn’t help that I have lived with multiple people who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, even during a pandemic.)

Greeting and farewell hugs fall to the wayside for the most part. Or maybe it’s people are more conscientious these days, asking if hugging is okay. And I politely hold my hand up and say no, and everything is fine. There is no push back or strange looks. This is how it should be; there is no shame at declining the touch of people who haven’t earned my trust. Still, sometimes people will go for the hug without asking first, and I go along with it because it’s easier.

v. outside a coffee shop

I haven’t seen Glenn since before the pandemic. I’ve written them letters, covering writing craft, what I’m reading, and whatever else comes to mind. Still, the best way to catch up with them is in person, one on one. So, vaccinated at last, we make plans to meet for dinner and a show outdoors.

The pandemic makes seeing people strange: Will I still recognize them? Which has changed them more: my memory or time? But I still recognize Glenn, and we wave to each other. When we are close enough to hear each other through our masks, they ask, “Hug?”

And I do not need to think. I act on instinct and fall into them like a magnet, holding them tightly, pressing my face firmly into their jacket. They still feel familiar to me, even after all these years.

So here is an answer: my body knows who is safe, who I turn to, whose touch I find subjugation under and whose I find freedom.

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