The Occasional Ardent Hug

Celebrating the beauty of hugs and the ephemera of attachment.

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I was on a stroll in New Orleans a few days ago when I saw a couple standing on the edge of a busy street, between parked cars, having a discussion that seemed serious. I thought they were fighting. I looked the other way for a few strides to see if my neighbor was out watering his yew trees, and when I looked back, the couple had erased all distance between them. Their arms were entangled, their faces showed something deeper than happiness, and they didn't let each other go for as long as I allowed myself to stare. My stomach went hollow. I wanted that.

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As a writer, I spend most of my time within a hundred square feet — desk, sofa, bookshelf, fridge — the bones of a life. I have found that men do not tend to wander through this space. Friends say love happens when you're not looking for it, so I don't, going so far as to pat myself on the back for staying in on yet another weekend night rather than prowling the neighborhood bars. Love must be imminent, I think, for I am not even bothering to leave the house. But the larger question, one that friends rarely ask, is what kind of love I'm after.

If sexuality is a spectrum, then love too must be a sliding scale.

This week — and many weeks, though not all — I don't want someone to come home to, someone to share the day's events with, someone to sleep beside. But I'm not wholly content with my solitary, hundred-square-foot life either. I want the occasional ardent hug. I want what that couple in the street had. A feeling of envelopment that lasts just long enough to warm the skin, and the inside of the skin, but not long enough to signal protection or possession.

In my short life, I have spent a surprising amount of time trying to figure out where the arms go in a proper embrace. Both above the other person's shoulders? Both below? Half and half (the old double-dutch)? If your right hand accidentally lands on the embracee's neck, and lingers, is that too intimate? Can you retreat from that position while maintaining your platonic stance? I won't even get into hip placement, or my bafflement as to where the feet go (why don't they bump into each other?). Once begun, can a hug just last and last? At some point, do you have to get married?

In my short life, I have spent a surprising amount of time trying to figure out where the arms go in a proper embrace.

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No. That's the beauty of hugs; they're the ephemera of attachment.

But I have had my arms wrapped around another person and thought, If he lets go, my cells will lose their glue. There are weeks when I want the longest hug. The shared stories, the nighttime body. But that's harder to come by, and I don't have the inclination to hunt for it, not yet. Mostly what I want is my family, and my friends, and my desk. At the desk, where I write, is all manner of love: children, widowers, monogamists, grandparents, wanderers. What's missing, or what I feel the lack of, is touch. A heartbeat running, foreign, across from mine. The living equivalent of what I invent. Perhaps it's not ephemera, then, but essence. And perhaps I should not feel so guilty when I say I don't want a boyfriend, I want a hug.

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I can already hear you offering solutions. There are professional cuddlers, providing their services for up to $100 an hour. (There's even an app: Cuddlr. Don't laugh.) There is Temple Grandin's genius hug machine. There's the Free Hugs movement. A recent instance of this made the rounds on the Internet a few months ago, in which an aboriginal Australian woman stood blindfolded on a beach, her arms out, with a sign: "I trust you. Do you trust me? Let's hug." It was a defiant stance on race and culture. My face got hot with tears when I saw it, not just because of the courage on display, or the obvious sentimental appeal, or its link to centuries of oppression, but because it was a reminder that touch is human, and hugs have no agenda beyond connection. They needn't be romantic; they needn't even come from someone you know. (Though paying for them seems to defeat the purpose.) Their success is dependent on nothing but the intent to listen for that neighboring heartbeat, to turn the foreign into the familiar. And so strangers, after years of hugging, become beloved. That is what I want my arms to do, of all the things they're not doing. In a Wall Street Journal article on professional huggers, one commenter observed, "There's more to this than just the physical act of cuddling. There's the illusion that someone wants to cuddle you."

That is what I want my arms to do, of all the things they're not doing.

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I came up with a plan to make friends. I was going to traipse into my local coffee shop in New Orleans with a dozen printed surveys to pass out to all and sundry; after answering my overly personal questions, they'd return them to me, one by one, and with each exchange there'd be a smile. I'd read their answers and then — the fantasy playing itself out — I'd go sit with each customer in turn, shifting the survey into a conversation. The initial questions were these:

1. What are you doing/working on/discussing in this coffee shop?

2. What's the best book you've read recently?


3. Are you basically happy? What would your dream life be like?


4. I just saw these people embracing lengthily in the street; if someone said to you, "Look, I like you, but I don't want to date you; I just want you every now and then to give me deeply meaningful hugs," would you be fine with that?

Surely some people would answer yes to No. 4. Isn't there some adage about just asking for what you want? On the one hand, how stupid to think that some patron would rise to her or his feet in an inspiration of affection; on the other, is this any shot-in-the-darker than online dating? Is a one-minute hug any more objectionable than a one-night stand?

Is a one-minute hug any more objectionable than a one-night stand?

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You'll want to know how the survey turned out. Didn't I tell you I was a coward? I can't even walk into a coffee shop without blushing; turns out distributing fliers was asking too much of my fragile system. There's the rub: the stratagem of intentionally not looking for love may not work for the timid.

Which brings us to the potentially gaping divide between what I want and what is good for me. My friends have strong opinions on this; it seems obvious to them that I'm afraid of a normally functioning relationship, that my instincts for self-sabotage lead me to unavailable men, and that my singleness is not a choice (which, in truth, it isn't) but a failure to engage. I disagree. If anything, I'd say it's a failure of imagination. It's hard to envision a Normally Functioning Relationship that's more pleasurable than my life now, or a process toward partnership in which the costs don't outweigh the benefits. I possess an independence that's endlessly precious to me. I can write into the early hours of the morning without disturbing a soul; I can eat lunch while reading in silence; I can get in the car and drive for hours — or weeks — without asking permission. As a woman, I recognize how historically hard-won this freedom is.

This winter I bought a Christmas tree — the first on my own — and felt very grown-up; an hour later, having wrestled the Fraser fir into my house and maneuvered the leaning trunk into the stand by myself, I wiped my forehead with a sap-stained arm and genuinely wished for a live-in tree helper. I thought of all the couples who do this domestic business together, who use their combined strength to tackle yard work and lift furniture and change lightbulbs, one person holding the ladder while the other teeters on top. But that evening I rewatched Roman Holiday — particularly noticing the Peck-Hepburn hugs, arguably more passionate than their two chaste kisses — and was reminded that what feels so right about the film is that the lovers end up parting. They share this beautiful day, Vespa-ing around the Eternal City, and then diverge. This is not a tragic ending to me.

Did you know that "to hug" comes from the Old Norse hugr, meaning "courage"? In ancient politics, it was a sign that you were unarmed. Grab my torso; marvel at my lack of weapons; trust me. Let us admit our mutual vulnerability, our fear, and hold each other anyway. If the trick is asking for what you want, let this be an expression of my current attitude, and not an apology. Begone, friends who yearn for my happiness. Begone, parents who yearn for grandbabies. Begone, instincts toward guilt when another Saturday night sees me at home. Begone, loneliness.

Loneliness? No, that never goes. It's a disease of the long haul, to be tempered only by the short-term fix: human warmth against human warmth. The rough skin of a cheek. Elastic arms. In my imaginings, all those men and women in the coffee shop pulled out their pencils, confessed their secretest dreams, unbuttoned their souls, and wrote Yes, yes to embracing in the street. We asked nothing more of each other. When I am fulfilled by my work, when I am happy with my thoughts, when I am doing good for others, just give me this one thing, allow me this one corporeal spark. Hug me.

Katy Simpson Smith is the author of the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men.

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