My palm in her hand, a friend reads the creases. She’s impressed with my even lines and soft skin. I’m balanced between earth and sky, she says, symmetry. I nearly fall from my barstool into her lap.
Ellen lays on her can’t-see-you-without-hugging-you embrace while rushing to class while confiding glib comments in my ear about a mediocre male colleague.
Eve and I squeeze onto a pink pool float in a tepid stream. Green algae collects inside of our bikinis.
Holding the hand of a student as she cries, I cry.
I am writing a collection of touch memories, an archive of touch that documents a life in which closeness was casual. Like a photo album, this archive preserves gestures, friends, experiences worth remembering. Each entry is a snapshot from when touch was banal: brushing shoulders in crowded airports, Erika tousling my hair after we hug. Those touches evaporated into the ephemera of memory. When I write, I reach through my notebook to embrace that life. I memorialize each gesture in writing, documenting meticulously and quixotically: scent, temperature, texture, tension and ease. I need to recover all this in tactile detail and recompose it with lists and lines on paper.
2020 began with me leaning awkwardly over Ellen’s pregnant belly to hug her as she left my party at 9pm. March 2nd found me side-by-side with students discussing their essays. March 9th forced me to leave campus early on a crowded bus as the university closed. March 19th California closed.
Like a stern dad, Governor Newsom grounded us. He threatened to close the beaches if we, the citizens of California, didn’t act responsibly. On zoom, friends puzzled if ‘stay at home’ were literal instructions? We looked forward to how long our distance would continue. Then we looked back to our last nights out? last hug? last kiss?
Thumb sized bruises creep up my inner thigh, and my hand secretly returns to those tender places as I write. A skin story, Lidia Yuknavitch calls them.
Under the multicolored beer light, my two fingers pluck a cigarette from Brent’s hand.
Stanley grins as I wipe nacho cheese from his chin. We avoid the crowded side of the bar, knowing a virus is supposed to be coming.
Abruptly touching became reckless. Riding on a bus became a frightening endeavor. Jostling at a crowded bar became a threat. My body took weeks to relearn how to greet friends. The reflex to hold them close was ingrained in muscle memory. What is lost with touch’s loss?
I grieve for touch. I miss hugs and the smell of Ellen’s hair. A greeting feels incomplete without physical connection. I feel disloyal when I withhold my arms from Eve as she cries. I cross the street when I see neighbors. Brent tells me that strangers will never again look each other in the eye. In June, I blew kisses to Ellen’s newborn baby held up in the living room window. Now that baby can crawl.
Touching is more than feeling good. Often, touching does not feel good. And yet, touch reminds us that we are alive together. Brushing shoulders on sidewalks, bumping into students rushing from the library, helping a neighbor extract a thick root, or gyrating on dance floors, all of these audacious touches remind us that we are in it together. Now, we are in it together, alone. Collectively, we’ve lost touch. Stripped of our rituals, we mourn our shared loss alone. We show up for each other by social distancing. Half our faces covered. 6 ft apart. That’s how we’ll survive. Care now feels cold.
Ethan embraces me before going behind the bar to fix my unusual.
On a loveseat, mom, my sister, myself pile onto each other like kittens keeping each other warm even on a humid southern Sunday.
Humans have evolved to seek comfort through touch. We are complex pack animals finding safety in numbers. From the womb to death, we know we are not alone when skin touches skin. Even our metaphors for comfort are bound to embracing: lend me a hand, cry on my shoulder, stay in touch. Now when we most acutely need reassurance, touch presents the greatest risk. We also touch to explore our world. Babies grab everything in sight. All of our senses help us to understand the world we live in, and touch is the most intimate way of knowing.
My touch archive is a smaller version of the spaces I enter for research each summer. All of the archives I’ve previously entered are cold and sterile. I open innumerable documents searching for traces of women inventors. Archive preserve rubble that has been saved, cleaned, organized and made into historical evidence. Any bit of water, spot of mold could destroy complete histories. It’s intentionally hostile towards organic matter, including me. I wear a warm coat, scarf, and am given white gloves to keep the archives safe. I don these layers in order to pour over evidence of the women who history long forgot. These chilly archives are my home each summer as I reach between the women’s lives preserved on pages and the living world of women.
The dance floors are slippery on queer women’s dance night. We step out of the club and into the humid DC night, arms around waists, shoulders, my finger on her clavicle.
Whitney Houston’s “Dance with Somebody” sends Brent’s long skinny arms sweep and my hips swing.
My archive of touches is a coping mechanism. Through collection, I cling to the hope that my life could be full of touch again. I’ve included monumental embraces, moments of pleasure and intimacy that I carry deep in my heart. But those moments are scarce. The archive is rather mundane. Bus rides, river banks, grocery stores, and lines in the DMV take up the most space. I cherish the ease of these moments. They remind me of when I didn’t fear casual closeness or communal spaces. With evidence, I set out to prove touch could be preserved.
Ross Gay collects similarly mundane archive in The Book of Delights. Each day for a year, he writes an essay dedicated to a delight, plants, high five, and a barista’s top knot. Each delight, on its own, is inconsequential. Together the collection celebrates joy, community, and resilience in the face of grief and racism. His archive of delights is also an archive of touches: “a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder” “someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.” Each gesture is worthy of preservation.
The fantasy of the archive is that of an unmediated connection to the past. The researcher enters with the intention of moving closer to the past. That becomes a fever dream when the reality of the archive becomes apparent: for every question, there are many contradicting answers. Each document leads to more questions. Illegible handwriting conceals a secret. Missing pages remind researchers of all we cannot understand. Some of the gaps are accidents. Many of the gaps have been methodically crafted. They are not gaps, they are erasures. Historically, men have been given credit for inventions. But the women who wrote instructions and labored through the night, their handwriting is on every page. Their hands touched each document, but no biographies celebrate their contributions. Whose signatures were never saved in the archive? Lost touch has been women’s history. Lost bodies, sweat, and labor has been a patriarchal legacy that is cemented into national archives.
The bus to the Women’s March is crammed with feminists and smells of coffee.
A line cook gives my ponytail a gentle tug on his way to the dish pit.
Memory left to its own devices becomes a palimpsest. The original is present under layers of story, script, and text. Each additional layer of the palimpsest, much like each retelling of the story, adds meaning and conceals the original. The archive seeks to halt this process. While palimpsest covers the original but remains whole, the archive preserves the original through dissection. The artifacts are isolated, removed from context and placed inside folders, air-tight containers, and climate-controlled warehouses. The act of preserving memory changes what we seek to save. Fragments stand in for the fullness of experience. The glossy covers dull the acuteness of people making history. The palimpsest and the archive offer us a closeness to history. The archive does so with file folders and the allure of authenticity. Preserving the past is impossible. Archives can only create something new. What may my collection of touches be creating?
The bus from campus stinks of cheap beer and Abercrombie and Fitch. I feel strangely intimate sharing transit with students.
As a child I hold my mother’s hand during prayer, finding her skin thin and pliable. The veins protrude. She was aging. She would die.
Smashed into the stage, our bodies have to jump synchronously because there’s no other way to move.
What is created in my collection of touch and loss? Philosopher Jean Luc Nancy believed that writing is a form of touching. Through each page readers touch the writer, writers touch readers. As I write my archive I grasp for the ones I love. I pour every word with heat. I’ve always believed scholar of language Athur Quinn when he wrote “Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth.” I savor the warmth or writing while yearning for another. I wrote a memory of holding my mother’s hand in prayer. I wrote the memory with my own hands now with skin thin, pliable, raised light blue veins. My own hands are aging, and I can’t remember when I last held my mother’s hand in mine.
The scholar with a scruffy beard and southern drawl traces his fingers down my back.
Christina takes my arm to steady herself as we go off the path to get a closer look at camellias blooming under the winter frost.
Her hand on my shoulder directs my body to let the bartender pass by with a precarious tray of drinks.
10 months into the pandemic brought us a new year and overtaxed medical systems. During the first days of 2021, sirens wailed all night heading to the hospital two blocks from my home. I’ve read it takes 66 days to learn a new habit and 10,000 hours to master a new skill. At this rate, our bodies are beginning to master the skill of avoiding each other. We are over 300 days and counting since I stepped foot in a classroom or introduced myself with a handshake. I mourn closeness with friends, but now my body skirts away from joggers like a reflex. My muscle memory has retrained towards distance. My mind has been rewired to see family gatherings as selfish. I’m angered when people enjoy touch; it’s jealousy and fear.
Each friend who posts photos of their vaccination card gives me hope. But after so many days, weeks, it will be a full year or more before I can hold Ellen’s baby. By then she won’t be a baby. She will want to run while I still want to carry her in my arms. No amount of writing will give me back the time we’ve lost.
Archives cannot actually let us touch the past; they can only leave us with inchoate fragments with which we build new stories. My personal archive cannot bring back a life of reckless touching. It is a grasp for a time in which I felt less lonely and a hope that I may feel coddled by touch again soon. But even the vaccine won’t bring back the world we lost. For that, we are likely better and safer. We move forward carrying with us what Leslie Jamison called the “vector’s shame” and an awareness that we are inextricably connected. I’ll move forward carrying my archive of reckless touches and the conviction that touch is absolutely precious and reckless.
Patricia Fancher (she/her) is a writer, researcher, and teacher at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her research uncovers the writing of women and queer communities. Frequently tweeting about books and gardens at @trish_fancher.
Image: Touching Hands.