Sunday, September 9, 2007

No Touching

I never thought I'd be happier for rain. I adore rain--I love how it moves, what it does, where it goes. I love its sounds, its persistence and variation. I love how it falls from so high up, and everyone just accepts this as part of the deal, like it isn't something amazing that the surface tension of water can somehow hold each drop together all that long way down and we're not, instead, just walking through a constant, thick, steamy fog that sinks or rises with the air currents and condenses when it brushes against something solid. But today is one of those days when the heat has been so unbearable, oppressive, that the rain is practically the only thing that cures it. The heat hasn't broken, it has been lifted--but lifted by something falling, by water dripping down from its heaven. So in my mind, two opposite motions are made by a single act, and a swirling yin-yang of relief slowly opens. And I feel good. I just got out of the shower and my body is having one of those moments in which it needs nothing--it is perfectly comfortable and perfectly clean and perfectly sated. And what with the rain, it's like being suspended or rocked by the gray afternoon. I have space and quiet in which to think, and to write.

The truth is, I cannot imagine resigning myself to a life in which I barely touch other human beings. But that is the life I am living now.

The nature of my waitressing work means that I sometimes have to actively encourage or enforce this sense of distance, of "hands off," because we do have a few lonely, male, regular customers who have that lurking stalker-potential. A friend of mine actually had quite a scare last winter, when an older man waited for her in the grocery store parking lot across the street in order to offer her a ride home at the end of her shift, hours after she'd waited on him during the dinner rush. And of course, when the customers aren't mistaking professional cheerfulness for personal interest, male coworkers often step uncomfortably close to the line between innocent flirting and sexual harassment. About the same time I began to realize that other people considered me attractive, I began to discover that there were guys who, quite apart from getting along with me socially, "wanted to f--k" me. And some of them were not shy about saying so. What's worse, female coworkers seemed to expect me to take this as a compliment, and to encourage the idea. Anyone who thinks women can't be predators is simply fooling himself. I know enough women to know at least a few who remind me unflinchingly of the female praying mantis, who bites off the male mantis's head in order to minimize the conflicting "run" versus "procreate" signals its receiving. There is this kind of girl, who would prefer that men not think, because she doesn't think enough of herself to believe she could possibly attract them if they did.

All of this starts to feel somewhat like living kept locked in a dark basement by some conspiracy of society, with the only occasional light harsh, glaring, right in the face. The only physical interaction between human beings that is available begins to feel degraded and dirty, and you learn not to appear to enjoy any kind of contact at all, just on the off chance that it could be misconstrued. Perhaps if I had been a truly ugly girl, I wouldn't have learned this intentional recoiling petrification, the way a piece of iron seems to recoil by the very nature of its utter lack of response. If I were really ugly, perhaps I'd go around giving everyone bearhugs. As it is, there are a few people whom I occasionally touch gently on the arm or back to express affection--otherwise, I slip through life with a startling untouchability. I do not pull away from the casual brushes of others, but there is a layer of vacuum that I keep just under my skin, swept clean every time I breathe out, and no touch or feeling is communicated across it unless I allow it to be. If I did not maintain this kind of vacuum, I would be reduced to neurosis by the amount of presumed intimacy and callous familiarity with which I am treated daily. I am not a prude by choice; I'm a prude because I just cannot be a whore. I don't have it in me.

Things might be different. In fact, on my days off, when I am alone with myself, they often are. When I walk, I do not hesitate to reach out and touch the flowers, the leaves, the vibrating lines of a chain-link fence as I pass. Sometimes I spread my arms out wide to either side and stretch, just to feel the wind and sun. When I walk through a field, I can feel the dark heat of the grass, the sun that all day the dirt has been gathering into itself and holding onto; so that the earth under my toes is warm, even when the breeze at my ankles is cooling along with the evening. Through my meditation and attentive work over the past several years, I've learned a kind of mindfulness that puts me in intimate touch with the whole world. Or at least, it seems that way sometimes. When Freddy died and no one in my family offered a hug in consolation, I sat out on the rocky shore by the vacation house and, slowly, it felt like God Itself was bending down to hold me, to catch the weight of my grief when it might otherwise have borne me all the way down.

Mindfulness. Being mindful and attentive is what makes this real, and the energy and relations of the world express themselves in distinct physical sensations. Even at work, sometimes, in a moment of safety or when I am feeling alone, I slip into this receptive mindfulness. Then I will hear the quiet plop of an ice cream scoop into water from several yards away as if I were standing right beside it. Or the muzak in the dining room, drifting slowly down from the ceiling, will make me tremble or carve out dance steps that I accidentally trace as I walk, while no one's watching. This is the material world, the very definition of innocence, of open intention, of sensations that do not force their way into your skin or eyes or ears, but that open outward and invite you to slip in sideways.

But this is the world, not people. I am not afraid of anything as much as I'm afraid of other people, sometimes. The world is too big and I am nothing to it. There is no mutual intimacy here, even when there is sensuality. It could be different, and physical intimacy with other human beings could be easier. Mindfulness could redeem sex and sexuality. Attentiveness could restore the innocence of sensual affection. But only within the context of a respectful and trusting relationship. For me, this is the only way I can cease to be untouchable and come back from the realm of unfeeling. That is why the thing that scares me most about a potential future relationship is not differing political opinions or a distraction from philosophical discovery, but the possibility that the two of us won't "click" physically. It scares me to think that, despite all the work I do to connect to the world, to sew myself into the realness of time and space--that I might again fail to touch and become touchable to another singular human being.

That I cannot touch humanity, that I might never touch it and know it from the outside in--that is what scares me.

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