We weren’t huggers when I was a child. I have a very specific memory that my mind has labelled as the first time I was hugged, though I don’t know if my recollections can be trusted on this issue. It was in high school, by a friend, and I can’t have gone that long. Can I?
My parents were born in England in the early part of the 20th century. They were lovely people and I miss them deeply. However, my dad was not an overly sentimental man. He had little time or patience for overly emotional gestures, and was deeply interested in social justice and fairness. He was also fair and expected us to do the best we could, pushing when we needed it, but not blaming us for our failures. My mother, I think, was the more emotional one of the two, though I think she pushed it down and maintained a reserve she didn’t necessarily feel to stay in line with my father’s natural reticence.
I remember being fed, clothed and cared for. I remember we laughed a lot and our home was always open to friends and even strangers who needed a refuge or a meal or just a place to spend a holiday. My parents knew what it meant to come to a new country and start over, and they never forgot the kindnesses that others had given them. We often had other newcomers in our home for Christmas.
But I don’t remember hugs.
I know that my burgeoning queerness showed up early, as early as my appreciation for Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man. I remember seeing Richard Dawson on some celebrity version of Family Feud kissing another male star that was his friend. I said something appreciative about it to my mother and her face closed up into this tut tutting expression.
There were other significant instances I recall. Seeing the leads of Starsky and Hutch embrace as a symbol of their bond was, I think, unusual for the Seventies, and I know that it spoke to me on some deep level that was both part of my unrealized sexuality and part of some other, non-sexual absence in my life.
And so, there was that first hug, in the midst of my high school years, a sudden gesture of physical affection that I had not expected. He was a friend in that sudden, fiery, love affair mode of friendship. The kind that erupts and dies because, for so many unspoken reasons, it burns too fast and too bright that it sucks up all the oxygen in the room and cannot survive. If I’m honest, I had a crush on him, something so deep and barely recognized that I couldn’t have named it if I’d tried.
It was the first time he came over to my house. My parents were out that evening. We hung out and talked. I can’t even remember what led up to it, but, he put his arms around me and the hug was sudden and intense, just like he was. Then, as my parents came in the back door, he went out the front one, resisting my invitation to meet them.
I’ve been a hugger ever since. My first impulse is to touch, to make some kind of physical contact. Hand on shoulder. Stroke the hair. Hand on knee. You know how you see animals sleeping in a pile, all bunched together? I’m like that. Like a puppy that wants to be scratched behind the ears or and endless supply of belly rubs.
As a culture, we are ever more aware of bodily autonomy and consent, which is a wonderful thing. It is imperative that we regain and retain control of our bodies and how others interact with them. And, like everyone, I am negotiating what that means to me as a person whose first impulse is some form of physical contact. The most important thing for me is to pay attention. What’s my relationship with the person like? Are we formal and reserved? Do they respond positively when I’m raucous and loud and I talk in funny voices? That, to me, is usually a sign that we have a comfort with each other that would allow for some kind of physical interaction like on arm, or arm around shoulder, or even full on hug.
And the follow through on that is to pay attention to the reaction, which could be anything from active reciprocation to absence of reaction to active retreat from the contact. That reaction is crucial and governs my actions from that point on. Paying attention is key to understanding the role that touch has in your relationship with that person.
I’m working on actually asking. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and it feels awkward and… naked somehow, maybe? If the person says no, which they are completely within their rights to do, I feel awkward, which is all about my baggage and nothing to do with me at all. So, I tend to gravitate toward the people who are physically affectionate with me. And to be honest, I tend to feel weird around people who are reserved and quiet, like I’m too noisy, too oddball, too different. Like I’m all sharp angles and edges.
Touch is a thing that most humans need in some quantity or other, an allotment that varies with us all from person to person, day to day. Towards the end of his life, my dad became a hugger. I’ll never know what changed for him. My sisters and I too, are much more physically affectionate than we once were, many years ago. Like everyone, our boundaries shifted and changed into a new rhythm and pattern. I’m glad of it. As our family got smaller, it’s like our hearts got bigger.
So, if you see me out somewhere, and could use a hug, let me know. I’ve gotten good at it. I’ve been practicing.