If I’m being truthful, it’s hard to remember the last time I was physically close with someone, and it being intimate. An exchange of bodily fluids, sure, but that feeling of us against the world? Not quite. Before all of this trouble, whenever such an encounter ended, I was always left to contend with the catastrophe of my personality – to quote Frank O’ Hara – having failed to insert the past into a fresh human cut-out.
We commit to all sorts of endeavours in search of connection. I, ripe from old hurts, sought the tactile. First I invested in cheap silk bedding and then moved onto people, which allowed me to pretend, if only for a few hours.
“Like many, I am living without touch, in what feels like a pandemic of loneliness.”
As every email reminds us, we are living in “unprecedented times”. This virus has exposed the fault lines in society: a failing NHS, and a government that rewards the 1% over those who have just been recognised as “essential workers”. But for us who have been lucky enough to be spared contact with the casualties, life continues to spin, albeit on a different axis.
Our lives, though, look very different. Like many, I am living without touch, in what feels like a pandemic of loneliness.
“I realised that whiling away my days didn’t negate loneliness, and that the wrong touch can be worse than none at all, if you’re shadow boxing with your past.”
At the end of my relationship, I experienced a bout of insomnia. My bed became a place where I mourned not only our relationship, but his body against mine; the tickly warm breath on my neck that had been sleep’s siren call for so long. John Donne got it, in The Sun Rising, he imagines his and his lover’s bed as the centre of the universe – this bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere – he writes, inviting the sun to orbit them instead. All here in one bed lay.
After a breakup, if you have good friends and an eye for the next best thing, you’re rarely alone. So I tossed myself out like a buoy; nights blurred into a haze of substances, hungry kisses, and empty afternoons spent poring over conquests that were as unfulfilling to recount as they were to experience. Eventually, I realised that whiling away my days didn’t negate loneliness, and that the wrong touch can be worse than none at all, if you’re shadow boxing with your past.
“Being alone has helped me realise that I was searching for the tactile in all the wrong places. Touch is a language we inherit by dint of being born, though its meaning is determined by who delivers it.”
This time last year, heartbroken and with a broken ankle to boot, my therapist told me to write three pages each morning. Of course, I didn’t do it – there was work to get to, and invariably I was hungover – but quarantine doesn’t allow such excuses. Denied a social life, and other such moreish distractions, I’ve had to confront myself, and the actions that have led me to this juncture. After nearly seven weeks, I found myself on the page – mostly guts, some glory – as those cleverly told stories I used to make sense of and justify my behaviour fell away.
In quarantine, I don’t have access to the touch of others – be that of a lover, a friend, or a stranger – and my body has started to feel like an island, expansive in its yearning for someone to confirm its existence. However, being alone has helped me realise that I was searching for the tactile in all the wrong places. Touch is a language we inherit by dint of being born, though its meaning is determined by who delivers it. As bell hooks stresses, love is as love does, and so a caress from the right hands becomes tactile; immortalised in memory you can almost taste upon recollection, though they may be long gone.
Whenever a relationship ends, I often turn to Derek Walcott’s Love After Love:
The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror.
Recently, it’s taken on a different, more powerful resonance – now that there’s no pressure to “get over” my ills to feel like a thriving individual in a world of recovery narratives – it’s easier to look over the life I have created with a sense of wonder, a life that despite its faults and tribulations, has given me memories rich in love. Their very existence makes it impossible not to be hopeful for the future.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
“Memories are alive, they’re tactile, and the ones we seek have the power to reframe how we see our lives, and the roles we’ve played within them.”
And in that sense, it’s never been easier to locate the tactile. Unless they stink of unfinished business or tap into some current yearning, we file away our memories – they’re invoked by a certain scent or refrain, sure – but we rarely take the time to bask in them, or when we do, it’s always the same painful ones.
If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then we dredge up certain memories to keep the past entangled with the future, often because we don’t want to imagine life without a certain person.
This slower pace of life has allowed me to treat myself with a newfound respect. Instead of reliving the same difficult situations – knowing that I’m unable to find a resolution – I have the time, and the context it provides, to view them as scenes within a life, rather than the entire feature. Memories are alive, they’re tactile, and the ones we seek have the power to reframe how we see our lives, and the roles we’ve played within them. I now know better than to tap into ones that feel like closed doors – it’s the memories that feel like embraces that I need most, in isolation. I suspect the same is true for many of us.
“Touch is allegedly ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and I cannot wait to be amongst friends, as the night wears on, the pints stack up…”
The course of action I followed after my breakup yielded little fruit, how could it? I tried desperately to locate him in foreign bodies, but you can’t create meaning where there is no history; the intimate knowledge you glean of someone’s skin comes after years of experimentation, and a commitment to being in cahoots with each other’s pleasure. It’s still possible to cherish that, while waving goodbye to a future that’s no longer possible.
Still, it’s not easy being alone. Touch is allegedly ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and I cannot wait to be amongst friends, as the night wears on, the pints stack up, and stories are told by way of bright eyes and gesticulating arms.
I can’t wait to embrace my best friend with the same fervour I had aged 12, after a summer break dragged on for too long. I cannot wait for the time when the presence of someone’s fingertips, mere inches from mine, can physically move me. But until then, I know that the tactile is a gift we can give ourselves – all that love and meaning we yearn for – much of it has been within us all along.
Nessa is a London-based journalist, currently serving as the editor for Jungle Creations’ women’s interest publications. Her work focuses on everything from pop culture to identity politics. @Nesssmoney