My brother leaves for his second semester of college on a dreary Saturday morning. It’s one of those mornings where it’s a little too cold to be outside without a coat, but you wouldn’t notice it until you had already committed yourself to stepping out the front door. I’m outside sans outer layer, and part of my shivering self wishes he would hurry up so I can go back inside. But he doesn’t hurry up, because he didn’t want to leave.
He finally does, but only after checking his room twice for items he couldn’t even bring back with him (the left-behind victims of military school asceticism) and climbing one of the trees in our front yard with little explanation other than he felt like it. When his truck is out of sight, I stand inside the warm entryway of our house with my mom while she cries. She always cries when one of us leaves to go back to school, she tells me, but this time it’s not so bad because I’m still here. She still has one. I hug her, and she cries even harder for a moment, as I awkwardly try to account for the five-inch height distance that has existed between us since I was 11 years old.
“I miss hugs,” she says. After another moment, “You were never a big hugger as a kid. Even when you were little.”
I hold onto her for a little longer, unconsciously trying to make up for lost years.
My family is not one of the physically affectionate ones. I did not grow up hugging my parents when they got home from work. My only physical contact with my brother was roughhousing, when he would poke my sides to annoy me, when we would hit each other in the backseat of the car. I hugged other relatives when they approached but never initiated. As a child, it never crossed my mind to wonder why I didn’t crave touch.
The lack of physical affection is not for lack of love, of course. We just show it in other ways. One of my desk drawers is full of long notes from my mom — ballpoint on copy paper that she tucks into care packages, prayers and “I love you”s folded between dollar-store candy and new pairs of socks. My dad leaves me long voicemails because he calls at odd hours, and I worked for a month on a book of pre-college advice for my brother so he wouldn’t have to go it alone. But moments of physical affection are often few and far between, confined to greetings and goodbyes.
But there were moments. When I was small, I would hug my dad on the rare instances that he was home from work before my bedtime. My mom would often rub my back before I went to sleep. When we visited the rest of our family in Oklahoma, my place was at the side of my grandmother’s armchair, where she could play with my hair and I could feel her hands grow more and more shaky as the years passed. But at some point I stopped waiting next to the door by the kitchen table, listening for the sound of my dad’s tires on the garage floor, and at some point I got ready for bed entirely on my own and started trading goodnight-love-you’s with my mother on my way to my room. During one family visit, I decided that I was too old to be sitting on the carpet next to my grandmother’s chair and moved to the couch across the room, where “connection” meant “conversation” and not “touch.”
Too early in childhood, I decided to outgrow physical affection. Part of it was subconscious — somehow, my feelings had decided for me that this was no longer something that I wanted or needed and that seeking it out was juvenile and therefore embarrassing. Other sorts of affection never left, but I no longer actively sought out touch. With no one else in my family to look to as an example, I felt as though initiating physical contact would be out of place. So as the years went by, my desire for touch recessed further and further into some sort of stupor. The childlike joy of running to the front door or sitting at my grandmother’s feet fled me.
At some point in high school, I began to wake up. I had a solid group of friends in high school, a small but close-knit circle that kept me happy throughout most of my four years. I was always comfortable in their presence, sharing food and beds at sleepovers but not comfortable enough to initiate hugs, play with their hair, or scratch their backs the way that many of the other friends at my school did. In watching other friend groups, I had realized something was missing and that the missing piece was platonic affection.
I was comfortable with my friends and grateful for the comfort. With them, some of my principal anxieties — that I was secretly unwelcome, that I was an interloper in a group of people who cared much more for each other than for me — never came to fruition. But these principal anxieties flared up every time I took a step outside my little safe haven. I was not good at making new friends.
As a consequence of growing up without much touch, I am hyper-aware of where I think boundaries lie. I fear that, by initiating touch, I will make people uncomfortable, and that they will be too polite to tell me to go away. That I will be branded in their minds as pushy or out-of-line. Respecting boundaries is, objectively, a good thing, but most of the time, I drastically overestimate where the boundary actually is. The same principle applies to other social relationships, entirely regardless of touch. I tend to assume that, if people don’t talk to me first, they don’t want to talk to me at all. When I initiate, I assume that I am intruding on conversations, on social circles, on personal space.
I once heard a classmate telling people he didn’t like me because I was too “standoffish.” I was standoffish, and the comment hurt, because standing off to the side — my defense mechanism — was the reason for his dislike. Because it takes a lot for me to feel welcome, because I still carry in me that fear of the interloper: that I am somehow intruding, secretly unwanted among people who are too polite to say otherwise. I envy those that can start up a conversation with anyone, who can go somewhere alone and walk out with new friends instead of keeping their heads down, hoping to go unnoticed.
On good days, I like to think I can call myself friendly enough. But every other day, I come across as cold, unapproachable. My facial expressions betray me, exuding haughtiness and disinterest when all I really feel is shy; multiple people have called me intimidating.
I would love to appear inviting and strike up conversations easily. I would love to be able to sit with more people at meals and count many more people as my friends.
But I don’t know how.
One weekend during the second semester of my freshman year, my friends and I went to a party. It was one of those quintessential Harvard affairs: too many sweaty bodies in too-small a room, the same songs you hear at every party pounding from a speaker in some unseen corner. Lights out, faces indistinguishable, easy to get lost.
I did get lost, separated from my friends before I even realized they were gone. Suddenly there were hands around my waist and a body pressed against my back, and when I whirled around a man was there, swaying drunk and looking me up and down. He said something to me that I couldn’t hear, and when I asked, “Who are you?” he shoved his tongue down my throat.
I still wish I had fought him off better. I wish I had punched him, or slapped him across the face, or at least shouted at him to get off me. But he was taller and much, much stronger than me, and I was terrified. So when I got away as soon as I could, I shoved through the crowd and disappeared. I’m just glad I remembered to grab my coat.
It didn’t take me long after that to realize something had changed. Platonic touch had been something out of my grasp before, something that I welcomed at the moment it happened; now, it was something that I actively avoided. When we got back from spring break, I stood back so male friends would not hug me in greeting. I shuddered when people brushed past me during lecture. But it was the worst at parties; I went to one a few weekends later and left ten minutes in, because the feelings — people bumping into me, clothes catching on mine, hands on my lower back moving me out of the way — sent me into a pseudo-panic, not always enough to compel me to flee but often enough to make me an outsider, the one quiet person in the crowd with a pained look on her face, trying despite everything to still have a good time — and failing.
I often reminded myself that it could have been much worse. And the pseudo-panic went away after a few weeks, when I no longer worried about turning around and finding another strange man leering at my back and when casual touch did not carry with it a threat. But in the time until that happened, what little touch, what little courage for physical affection I could muster, before had been taken away from me. I had been hyper-aware of other people’s boundaries before, but now, I was hyper-aware that my own had been violated. Every touch was indiscriminately lumped in with that of the perpetrator, a defense mechanism gone haywire in an attempt to keep me safe.
But the anxieties had not fully run their course by the time that freshman formal came around, and I, best interests notwithstanding and very much punch-drunk on the elation of almost being done with the year, decided that I very much wanted to go.
As it turns out, crowding into a large, unheated tent with a thousand of my classmates and an aggressively loud DJ booth was not something my best interests would let slide. I participated in conversations outside the dance floor, complained of painful shoes so friends would sit with me at a table, and eventually decided to dance. I tried to have a good time, I promise. And outside the dance floor and at the table, I did. But on the dance floor, the did turned into pretend. And after someone bumped squarely into me from behind, a thrashing arm colliding with the bare skin between my shoulder blades, I didn’t want to pretend anymore.
A friend noticed my expression as I was planning my escape route and asked me what was wrong. I told him the whole story, and instead of letting me leave, he told me to wait a second. He gathered up the people around us, most of them our close friends, and told them circle up. When the circle was complete, he motioned for me to move to the middle. “Now,” he said, where no one else would hear, “no one will touch you.”
So I danced, encircled by friends, safe from the swirling mass of bodies and limbs that surged around us. An imperfect eye of a storm, in which I was grateful for the respite from the wind and rain.
When someone else asked what was going on, my friend replied, “Anna Kate’s feeling claustrophobic.” A little white lie that preserved my little sanctuary for a little while longer, just long enough that I could count the night as a good memory.
Years have passed, and I have gotten better. I am better at initiating hugs, at casual contact, at smiling at people in dining halls. I will always want to be more friendly, more inviting, more open. But for now, this is progress. This will do.
The week before school started this year, I took a morning bus to New York City to stay with my boyfriend and his family. He picked me up from the bus stop, and we took the train home with his sister, and when we arrived at his house, his father hugged all three of us and I — somehow, in spite of the anxiety of being in a new place — felt welcome. We sat around the dining table for an hour or so, talking, his dad telling me stories of what my boyfriend was like as a kid. His sister was eating doubles (street food, curried chickpeas mashed between fried dough) and told me I should try it, holding the piece out for me to taste. Even as I took a bite, narrowly avoiding her fingers, I was surprised — surprised that I, someone she had known for one train ride, was someone she was willing to share food with in this way. And as I sat for longer, I realized that one gesture, a small bite of chickpeas and dough, had made me feel even more welcome than before.
I watched as I sat, and I saw a family that had not outgrown physical affection in the way that I had. And in that hour of being, I thought that if I have a family someday, this is what I want us to be. Close, affectionate, sharing food and “I love you”s. Never having to make up for years of lost hugs.
— Magazine writer Anna Kate E. Canon can be reached at email@example.com. This is one of three essays published as a part of FM’s 2020 “Contemporary Romance” feature.