The power of touch

indexThe feet are gnarly. I am rubbing lotion into twisted toes and knobby ankles. These feet that make me think of ancient oak tree roots and the person they are attached to are unrelated to me. I’m having an out-of-body experience. I could be anywhere else on the planet right now. I should be. But I am here, a 20-something bachelor spending a strange Saturday night rubbing an old lady’s cramped feet with moisturizing cream.

The gnarly feet are attached to my landlord, a woman who rents me a house way up in the high distant mountains of Western North Carolina. I suppose there is a reason in a way few might understand. We spent part of the day together earlier. She is isolated from her son because he is living somewhere else and not speaking to her. I am isolated because I know almost no one in the tiny town of Hayesville where I moved recently to work.

Out of sheer boredom I agreed to go with her to a fast food restaurant earlier where she bought me lunch. She told me about her son not speaking to her for years, but never explained why. I felt sorry for her, but I also didn’t want to know her life’s story. I left that silence between them an unsolved mystery. We picked up a few groceries on the way back. Then we went our separate ways until she called me at 10 p.m. that night asking for help. It sounded urgent, so I rushed right upstairs from my apartment below her home.

“I have cramps,” she says. There is some moaning. I think, that’s terrible. But where do I fit into this picture? “Cramps in my feet,” she clarifies. Not good, I think. Still not seeing how I am part of this equation. “The lotion is on the dresser,” she says. I bring the lotion to her. “You’re going to need to spread it on thick because it dries fast,” she explains. I must have been staring quizzically at this point because she goes on to explain, “I can’t, because of my arthritis.” Cue some more very urgent moaning.

The law of reciprocity and the price of a cheeseburger have something to do with why I am touching a woman whose own relatives won’t even bother to keep in touch. I just know a human being in front of me needs my help. It’s as simple and complex as that. Before I can think about what this means for our relationship, I start applying lotion to her unlovely feet. This doesn’t seem like it should be part of a standard renter/landlord contract, but it is happening.

When we can’t be touched, we lose a little bit of life. The sass goes out of our smile. A light dims in our eyes. Our hair no longer sits right no matter which way we brush it. We want to lie down and sleep and crumble into dust. We begin to wonder if we will ever be touched again. We fight the desire to be touched because we can’t have it. Maybe we’ll just exist outside of the realm of human existence for a time and try to accept that’s the way life is going to be, a ghost moving among men.

After a girlfriend left me during this period in my life, I felt exactly that sense of separateness. A sense of gloomy desperation. I was pretty sure I’d never be loved again and remain an untouchable fragment of my self destined for a slow decay in rooms that echoed with only my own voice. I longed for connection with someone, but I wasn’t ready to be loved. I suppose that’s how a gnarled foot from a stranger might end up in your hands, understanding a deep need to be touched even though you have no right to that show of affection.

When I was a teenager in Salisbury, North Carolina, I couldn’t be touched for about three years. This could be an exaggeration, or it might be precisely accurate. I guess I just wanted my own space, but it was pretty horrible for everyone. My great aunts would go to kiss and hug me, and I would dodge and weave out of their grasp. My mom would want to kiss me goodnight like she had when I was smaller. “How about a nice handshake?” I would ask. “That’s OK,” she’d say. “When you were a baby, I kissed you a million and five times. No one ever kissed anyone as much as I kissed you, so I’ll always have those kisses. You can’t take them away.”

Some time not so long after I massage my landlord’s feet, I am on my very first date with my wife in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We sit beside each other at a college basketball game. Our bodies have never touched except when we shook hands to say hello.

At some point, our knees wind up against each other. It’s not clear to me how they came to touch, but they did. A warm current of positive energy flows between them. A strange electric magic is happening. The knee that touches her knee radiates excited warmth through the rest of me. I don’t want to move from this spot. Ever. We are connected, exchanging our energies silently and absently. The promise and possibility of more touching hangs in the air, but for now the perfect intimacy of my knee against hers is all I need.

Years pass by, and things go quite well for our knees. We are married and enduring a harsh Pennsylvania winter. Robyn’s son from a previous marriage who is my son now too sits by my side in his small bedroom as we play StarFox on his Nintendo 64 game system. They make other games and other systems, but this game is the best ever. We sit there for hours, shooting down starfighters in space side by side. Andrew can be a handful at times, but he is the best wing man in space you could ever want. He has my back. I have his.

Not long after our son Avery is born in Pennsylvania, I am sitting in a reclining chair exhausted. I haven’t done anything wrong yet to screw him up, but we have the rest of our lives ahead of us. I spent some time reading “What to expect when you’re expecting” before he was born and a few bits and pieces from other books, but I’m worried that I didn’t read enough baby manuals before he was born. Now that he’s here it’s too late to do anything but be a father the best way I can. Avery is cradled in my lap asleep. His warm weight is perfect against me. The sensation of him breathing softly in my lap is a gentle blessing I never want to end.

More years pass. We live in the nation’s strange vertical stretch of paradise known as Florida, a boot full of weirdness and smothering heat. At night sometimes I sprawl with Avery and Andrew on a big couch having stinky foot fights, trying to make either or both of them smell my feet. I have made up a song for these skirmishes. “Stinky foot, stinky foot, smells so bad. Stinky foot, stinky foot, run away mad,” is how the song goes. I don’t want a big toe shoved rudely in my mouth as sometimes happens, but I love fighting off their feet and trying to jam my own smelly feet in their face. Robyn never wants to play this game, but I suppose her feet are not as stinky as mine and the boys.

Many more years pass, and Avery is sitting next to his girlfriend Willow on the couch in Carolina Beach where we are watching a movie. She will go on to break his heart, but this is months before that can happen. His arm is around her, and she has her head nestled up against him. He is in a perfect zone of comfort and keeps nodding asleep. She is pretending to be asleep. I know she isn’t. But she enjoys pretending. At one point, I see her peeking up. She winks at me and closes her eyes and nestles into him all the more. Her parents would not approve of this cuddling, but I am the only parent in the room at the moment and I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Many more years pass, and we are living in New York City in a tide of strangers moving at a hurried pace to unknown destinations. On the subway, I sometimes can’t help but touch other people, and they can’t help touching me. We are forced into an unwanted intimacy. I don’t own the space around me like I imagined I did. It’s suddenly clear I just rent my own comfort zone. The price is too high to maintain it here in this subway car. The tiny bit of space around me is like our Manhattan apartment, condensed and more costly here than elsewhere.

A million people pass each other in the streets above, ghosts in a giant machine that churns relentlessly. The space between us expands and contracts in moments. Disappears and engulfs us. Lost and always hoping to be found again. We need a touch even if we can’t ask for it and know we don’t deserve it. Or we may be lost forever.

On the day we move into the city, Robyn’s parents help us figure out how all the stuff I haven’t managed to throw away back in Carolina Beach will fit into our new home and a storage space. That weekend, we walk around Chinatown and at some point we stumble on a massage business. Foot massages are going for $20 a pop. This seems strange and exotic. Everyone in the party plops down into a chair where their tired feet get loving caresses from strangers.

All except me. We are one too many for all the chairs. I don’t really need a foot massage, I tell them. My feet are tired as much as anyone’s. But I am happy to see them all there with blissful smiles on their faces. I can get a foot massage another day. They rave about their foot massages later. How their feet feel new. Like baby’s skin. How good it felt to have them caressed. I am not ready to have my feet caressed in public by strangers. But this resistance wears down over time. Like my landlord back in Hayesville, I will learn to appreciate a stranger’s loving ministrations.

Sore feet make fast friends even in a city with millions of strangers.

The power of touch

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