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.
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?
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.
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."
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: