A few days ago, as I was walking down the Embankment outside my flat on a sunny morning, I failed to hear a jogger approaching behind me. Despite very wide pavements, he had decided I was in his way. Even though he was out in order to do non-vital bodymovement in order to collect endorphins and make himself more healthy, the extra movement involved in running around me was too much for him. He knew I hadn’t seen him or heard him. So he felt justified within the frame he’d built for himself to put both mittened hands on my side from behind and to silently and violently shove me out of his way. I was momentarily shocked. “What the fuck!”
He was plugged into his headphones, head down, on a mission to run, likely listening to some power ballad written by overweight drug addicts in the 1980’s. I shouted imprecations to his deaf ears as he receded, aware that if he chose to turn round and beat the crap out of me he could do a pretty decent job.
Why am I thinking about it still?
Because it’s the only physical contact I’ve had all week. It’s likely to be the only physical contact I’ll have this month. He put his hands on my side. It was sudden. It wasn’t affectionate. It was unwanted. It enraged me.
But it was communication. More effective than me shouting “I hope you fucking catch corona you antisocial dickhead!” to his tight ass as it vanished into the distance.
Touch is a big part of how we transfer energy and information. Everybody is learning new technology because of this isolation. Zoom and houseparty must be spiking downloads. But we are already too isolated. We are already starved of touch. It’s dangerous to normalise things that tear us even further from each other.
An angry man was shouting at me on the tube years ago. Some instinct made me put my hand on his shoulder. He stopped shouting. “I see that I upset you, and I didn’t mean to.” I told him into his momentary silence. It defused a weird moment that might have escalated. But it wasn’t the words, it was the hand on the shoulder.
We are more and more living in bubbles now. Negotiating crowds, I will still do a less impactful version of what the jogger did. I’ll put a hand on someone who hasn’t seen me, so long as they’re roughly equivalent to me in age and not wearing a shoulderless dress or somesuch that would necessitate hand on actual skin etc etc. Even that’s a minefield.
Touch has been getting rarer and rarer anyway, before it became acceptable to greet each other by pointing elbows.
A handshake is a moment of actual connection. Eye contact and skin contact. Simultaneous contact of two major signallers. We gather more information in that moment than we can in ages of conversation. Because there’s more than we understand about how we are connected to one another. And it can’t be transferred through a screen. I know immediately if I’m going to get on with someone from that first moment. I go in for a hug too if I think it’s warranted.
I have no idea when I’m next going to come into contact with another human. That’s crazy. The person who plays arm-pressure wrestling on the shared arm rest. The momentary brush of fingers as the dude hands you your coffee. The handshake, the hair adjustment, “there’s something on your shoulder I’ll get it.” When we get out of this madness we’re going to be conditioned away from touch. Another thing that brings us together, that unites us. We are nothing without each other.
It’s terrifying to think it might be a month or more before I even get shoved away by someone else.
Come back, angry jogger. All is forgiven.
I think I just need to get laid.