In a South American orphanage, Rene Spitz observed and recorded what happened to 97 children who were deprived of emotional and physical contact with others. Because of a lack of funds, there was not enough staff to adequately care for these children, ages 3 months to 3 years old. Nurses changed diapers and fed and bathed the children, but there was little time to hold, cuddle, and talk to them as a mother would. After three months many of them showed signs of abnormality. Besides a loss of appetite and being unable to sleep well, many of the children lay with a vacant expression in their eyes. After five months, serious deterioration set in. They lay whimpering, with troubled and twisted faces. Often, when a doctor or nurse would pick up an infant, it would scream in terror. Twenty seven, almost one third, of the children died the first year, but not from lack of food or health care. They died of a lack of touch and emotional nurture. Because of this, seven more died the second year. Only twenty one of the 97 survived, most suffering serious psychological damage.
It's occurred to me lately that I've gone for nearly two years without meaningful touch of any kind. My family, loving though it is, has never been of the physically demonstrative variety. Hugs are always cursory and kisses are reserved for husbands. I do not have a husband.
It's been nearly a year and a half since I lived with my ex-husband and another brutal six months on top of that where we were living under the same roof but on separate schedules, in separate chambers of the same heart. I lived for five years with a man who touched me rarely and never called me by my name.
I can think of nothing that atrophies the soul quite like a lack of physical human contact. It's a subtle sort of withering, so gradual that it's easy to miss. And when contact finally does come - when you're touched in ways you think you've forgotten (but your body remembers, your body never forgets) - whan that happens, it's like opening a wellspring in the desert.
Wet. Drenching. Tidal. Soaking. Filling. River. Wet, yes, wet.
All week long those are the sorts of words that have been drifting through my head, sifting into my dreams with their liquid rhythms and rippling cadences. Water words.
Last night I woke up laughing. Not a manic giggle, not a hysterical babble of sounds - I'm talking something pure here, something that was coming from the oldest and best part of me. I heard my own laughter before I connected with it - it was pouring out of me like shimmers of sunlight on moving water, the wettest of wet dreams, and all my skeptical brain could make of it was Who in the world is laughing here in the dark, and for goodness' sake, why? And by the time my jaded old brain caught up to the fact that its own spirit was amused, all three of us - body, brain, and soul - got the joke together, and I laughed some more until tears soaked my pillow and happiness lulled me to sleep.
This is funny on a lot of levels. Mostly because my body, brain, and soul are so rarely on the same page.
And that's why all the wetness, all the laughter. Because every blessed part of me - my neglected body, my fevered brain, and my wounded soul - every last bit of me was drenched in something life-giving, something fluid, something molten. Something ancient and healing. Because I had ten days with someone from my past who touched me the way I needed to be touched. Because I know this now: touch is vital, it is essential, it is excruciatingly necessary. Without it, the laughing part of you can die.
The man who touched me has been part of my life for over two decades now. It's an unquantifiable relationship. It's a friendship, yes. It's also been seismically sexual. But "friends with benefits" is both inaccurate and dismissive. We are deeply, tragically alike. We have many of the same faults (though mine are more pronounced) and many similar strengths (though he is significantly more charming and beautiful than I am). Suffice it to say that I have always loved his hands, his smile, his wit, his intelligence, and his heart. Suffice it to say that we know, love, and trust one another. Suffice it to say that he is a most gifted giver.
The man who touched me knows my name and loves to watch my face when he says it. He does not understand why my husband never called me by name, but he sees and hates the scars left by that casual cruelty, that passive abuse. He says that he will kiss the damage away. He vows to call me by name over and over until that particular hurt is erased, until I feel completely Named again. I believe him. I spent ten days hearing my own name in the mouth of this man. His voice is butter-rich and tinged with the honeyed cadence of the South. It is a memorable voice. The first time I heard my name wrapped in that velvet kindness, a healing began. I can still feel its spreading warmth now, weeks later.
The man who touched me has eyes as green as the green I remember from childhood - green like the first flush of spring, like the Atlantic after a storm. It's a shocking color to see outside of a landscape. A deeply recessive color, like violet or turquoise, his eyes are unquestionably rare, effortlessly heartbreaking. They shift shades in different lights, changing prismatically from moss-gold to the silvery shade of fresh sage. Until you get to know him, those eyes are disconcerting, the way some cats' eyes are unnerving in their clarity and steadiness. This is not a man who glances. He is a man who gazes, who sees.
Perhaps because of his eyes - eyes like his draw so many lovely invitations - the man who touched me has over the years become an accomplished and generous lover. He is skilled in the ways of touch. He is tender without being absurdly gentle. He understands that power and control issues can sour the blessing of touch, and he disarms any such issues with wry humor and a childlike sense of play. Perhaps most importantly, he adores the entire process of lovemaking. There's nothing about sex he doesn't enjoy. He's languid and ardent, relentless and patient, utterly sure of himself, sure of his ability to give and receive and revel in pleasure. He's a true voluptuary, a leisurely sensualist, an unrepentant sybarite, and he touched me for ten langorous days.
I spent ten whole days and nights riding a narcotic current of caresses. We'd talk for hours and then spend hours doing things that require no words at all. Some things happen in life that are scored not by music or words but by raw emotion.
I was thirstier than you can imagine.
He remembers my body when it was new, when I was only twenty-one. He remembers my body as it was and celebrates it for what it is today. And my body remembered him - remembered his touch, his skill, his gentleness - and responded by unfolding, by unfurling, by becoming what it was meant to be all along. Under his gaze, under his (sure and certain) touch, under his benevolent attention my body reverted to its first and truest purpose. Our shared history and friendship created a mutual shorthand, a language understood only and completely by the two of us. Our bodies amazed us over and over again; much of our laughter had a hushed, almost reverential quality. I think both of us were surprised that our flesh still contains such vast reservoirs of Yes.
We are both older now, both experienced enough to treat such a gift with respect, with superstitious awe. Both of us appreciate that days like these - opportunities like these - come rarely, and we understand not to take them for granted. We have sifted through enough rocks to recognize jewels when they glisten in our palms.
Our last night together we lay spent and satisfied, limbs sweat-slicked and tangled, faces flushed. We were laughing again - quiet laughter, contented laughter. The laughter that exists only between old friends. The best kind. He touched my face, smoothed my hair, smiled his slow Southern smile. He caressed the naked curve of my hip and pulled me into his warmth. His green eyes were crystalline and sad. Ashley he said - and my name in his mouth was springtime - Ashley, I think I finally understand the meaning of the word Bittersweet.
And I did, too.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.
- Norman Maclean