Today marks 150 days since the last time I felt external physical touch of any kind. It’s an incredibly strange sensation to describe, and I’m sure there are millions out there who are in similar states. If you’re one of them, you’re not alone. As much as we are.
My last physical contact was a hug from a dear friend after a wonderful dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. It was on the Union Square Q train platform, near the stairs to L train, which is where she was heading. We had spent much of the evening discussing these new protocols of religiously washing our hands and being mindful to not touch our faces and how strange it was and how we hoped it would quickly be figured out. That was March 5. It was before the lockdowns, before the mountain of articles and interviews, before the zoom meetings and disagreements politically (well, those were there before; but not quite as fervent). It was before months of solitude. In that moment, we thanked each other for such a wonderful evening – it had been a while since we’d been able to meet up and had committed to that late-night dinner (10 pm reservations). And it really was wonderful. I can’t say there’s a better way or a luckier way to temporarily say farewell to physical comfort than a hug from a dear and magnificent friend.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know I’d be going what will soon be half a year (and realistically looking forward, much longer) before I’d feel touch again. And, at the time, I didn’t view it as monumental. But it is. And always will be, for the rest of my life, the most unforgettable hug. I have spent hours and days remembering the exact feeling of that hug. Along with countless other memories of everything from handshakes to brushes of the shoulder to much more graphic examples. And I talk about all of the above with other single friends, who live alone, who are feeling this intense and deep longing for something as simple as a hand to be laid on our shoulders. But also, that we understand why. And we support each other through it.
Now, to explain a bit about my extreme measures and why. This is both to give you some insight into me and who I am, but more so to assuage any of you thinking “dude, come on, just go hug someone that got a negative test.”
I have a long history of medical issues. I am not sickly or in any way suffering daily from them anymore. I’m 38. I’m in fairly good shape. I would guess most my friends would describe me as healthy and strong. But I grew up with severe asthma and allergies. Trips to the hospital were routine. I had a nebulizer (or what we called a “breathing treatment machine”) at home and by the age of 8 could fully prepare my combination of medicines and go through the process on my own. I often didn’t, because I was 8 and when I needed to use it, breathing was very difficult. When I was 7, I had a particularly severe asthma attack and spent a week in the hospital. Not the only stint of that type I had in the years to come. My amazing and wonderful parents were there with me. My sister, just a toddler at the time, was there. But I know the feeling of waking up, in the middle of the night, in a hospital bed, unable to breath, with nurses and doctors swarming, doing all they could to ease the pain and fear. It’s not something I ever want to relive.
In addition to my lungs, I also have an unknown neurological disorder (which is similar to but not quite epilepsy) that, starting the day after I turned 17, has caused me to have a number of seizures. I’ve boarded planes and trains and later woken up in hospitals, not knowing where in the world I was. Again, not something I ever want to relive.
As an added and lesser addition, because why not paint the whole picture, I was on an allergy medication as a child that was found to cause, and was taken off the market for causing, heart failure and problems. Many of us were on Seldane; it has shown to be unlikely to cause issues later in life. But I was on a healthy dose of it, morning and night, from 1988 to 1997, and feel it prudent at the moment to be mindful of anything and everything I can.
So, I am being cautious. Covid seems to enjoy attacking lungs, brains and hearts. So, I and most of the people I know with conditions similar to mine or any condition having to do with any of those organs (and others), are being appropriately cautious. It’s not living in fear. It’s living.
I also happen to live alone. And am allergic to animals. In my life, the only animals I’ve ever touched without having an extreme allergic reaction (which frequently led to hospital visits or medication) are fish, reptiles, amphibians, and koalas. Yes, koalas. I held one when I was 11. There’s picture evidence of it. Along with evidence of my fear and discomfort holding an animal (something I’d never done at that point without it leading to a hospital visit).
Now, none of this is meant as a pity party or excuse excursion, nor to create a vision of me as locked in my apartment, afraid and agoraphobic. I just wanted to give the full story of where I’m coming from.
So, what is life like in a 225 square-foot studio apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in a large building where as of March 30 there were already confirmed cases from neighboring apartments (including one death)? Well, it’s monotonous. It’s interesting (which is a word that means nothing and everything). It is what it is, some would say. Because that’s another easy way of saying nothing and everything. And that’s what most my days are – nothing and everything.
I’m incredibly lucky that much of my career’s work is done in dark rooms, alone for long stretches of time. I’m a writer and a filmmaker (with most of my freelance work being commercial and film editing). I spend a LOT of time alone with a computer. And, given the description of my medical history, you can assume (correctly) that much of my childhood was hindered by medical cause. I missed a lot of sleepovers and parties (sometimes just because that friend had a pet). I missed recess sometimes. I had to sit out on basketball practice or track practice or the annual Thanksgiving family hockey game. I got used to this life we are all now living at a very young age – stuck inside, observing. Sometimes I think it’s where my true love of movies came from, because when you’re a kid, sick at home, not able or allowed to go outside (as you’re allergic to literally everything outside), you get used to watching movies over and over, back to back. Which, to this day, is still my favorite thing in the world to do. My parents both being film buffs and having a fairly extensive VHS collection (of movies taped from TV) also helped.
When I was 12, I got my first job, working at the Milford Cinema, our town’s small one-screen movie house. The owner hired me on a trial basis for two months until I turned 13. I worked that job (which might still be my favorite) until I went off to college and even a bit during. Sadly, it, like so many small, family owned and operated businesses, is having to close its doors soon due to the pandemic’s effects. When I was 20 and moved to New York, my first real job in the city was at Champagne Video, which is when my daily movie watching habit exploded from at least one per day to a healthy handful each and every day. This is all tangent information. Again, painting a picture. Back to the point.
I have worked hard to find ways to fill my days in absence of real work. It’s August 2, and thus far this year, I have worked a meager total of 21 paid days (not how I expected the year to go financially). I am a full-time freelancer. I bounce from gig to gig. And sometimes it’s busy. Sometimes it’s slow. So I am used to stretching a paycheck. I got very lucky, and early on in quarantine, I booked a couple quick but very well paid jobs. They’ve allowed me to survive. That and the government stimulus check, kindness of my parents, generosity of friends, and (as of a couple weeks ago) an SBA loan, which truly saved my ass. Because I have still not been approved for the $600/week unemployment that ended this past Friday. I should qualify. But, every time I check, I get the same response: “We are continuing to work on your application and are determining the amount of benefits you will receive. You may get a call from us if we require further information. You will receive a status update as your application progresses through the system.” (side note, fuck our current system)
I am not saying this to complain. I am incredibly lucky in comparison to so so many. I have an apartment. I have my health (due to my vigilance). I have family and friends that have been amazing support. I also have my creative work. And I have found great comfort in creating just for me again – making short films, writing, getting opportunities to help friends with logo designs, websites, and other outlets I usually don’t have time to enjoy. I’ve reconnected on a huge level to some of my oldest friends as well as making new ones. Every Friday since March 20, my oldest friends and I have gotten drunk together on video calls. We Houseparty. And it’s great, to be honest. It’s such a huge comfort, and those that live with people may not be able to know exactly how much, but those calls, those zooms, those texts, those check ins, they are everything to those of us living in solitude.
And, of course, visits are wonderful. I have gone on a number of distanced and masked walks with friends. I have gone to friends apartment buildings and visited on the stoops. We stay at least six feet apart and circle our arms and say “I’m hugging you right now!” And it is comforting. But it’s not the comfort that’s really craved. It’s not an actual hug. It’s not that hand on the shoulder. Sometimes, the in-person visits lead to incredibly lonely nights, crying ourselves to sleep having been reminded of our solitude. It’s like eating a potato chip when you’re really hungry and it does nothing but remind you of how hungry you are. And this is how it has to be for now. Not forever. But for now.
I know what I am doing is right FOR ME. I know it in every part of me. Especially because I wake up healthy and functioning every day. Lonely sucks. Lack of physical comfort sucks. Not as much as waking up unable to breathe, alone and afraid.
My parents miss me like crazy and I them. They live in Michigan. My sister is in Milwaukee. And I would absolutely love to visit them. Along with my dear friends in Cleveland, Denver, Boston, LA, South Carolina, Barcelona, Stockholm and Australia’s outback. I can’t wait to return to visits and hugs and all the wonderfulness. But, right now, I know what I am doing is what’s best for me.
It’s been 150 days since I felt any form of physical contact. And, likely, it’ll be at least that many more. My dreams have always been incredibly visceral and graphic and I remember them. This crazy time hasn’t changed that but it has changed the content of what my subconscious misses and longs for and reminds me of while I sleep.
I dreamt of a handshake the other night. Like, the whole night. One handshake. Not even a special one. But I woke up with my hand gripping my comforter. I dreamt of kissing and woke up making out with my pillow (and clearly had been doing so for a while given the drool pool). I dreamt of holding my yet to exist infant child and it took half the next day before the feeling of that touch left my shoulder and chest where he was napping. And when it did dissipate, as much as the idea of having a child is impossible for me to imagine right now, I cried so hard. Because as long as that feeling was there, it felt like I was being touched. And it was amazing. And thinking about it right now, I can still feel every tiny finger and toe.
Touch is such an amazing part of life that is not to be taken for granted. Those of you living with partners, children, roommates, housemates, coworkers, whatever it is, however you feel about each other right now, go hug them. Embrace them. Embrace the feeling. Embrace connecting. It’s a truly beautiful and wonderful thing. And no matter how much politics divide and borders divide and the world urges forward in divisiveness, know that those are just ideas and thoughts. Placing your hand on someone else’s when they are in need, that touch of the shoulder, that hug, that kiss, that fuck, it means something. It means something even when we don’t want to let it. It still means something. We aren’t nearly as in control of that as we wish we were. And that’s what makes it so monumental. That’s why I’ll never forget that hug on the Q train platform on March 5, 2020 just after midnight.
This year is a chance for so much change to take place. So much overdue and necessary change. And not just governmentally. Not just politically. Internally. Personally. Emotionally. Feeling strongly is something we should all strive to do. As we pursue love, as we strive forward in our career, as we foster families (through friendship or partnership or procreation), as we grow and live, feeling strongly and expressing those feelings is everything. Without it, what do you have?
You are not alone in this. Even when it feels that way. I am sending you all an enormous virtual hug right now, placing my hand on your shoulder, and doing what I can to let you know, I’m here and I get it.
To my friends and family, thank you. I miss hugging you terribly. I love talking to you regularly in a way that we hadn’t before this but should from now on. I cherish you. I appreciate you. I support you. And I am maintaining strong, thankful and healthy because of you.