Just a Touch
[4800 words, published in What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men. Ed. Ian Brown. Toronto: Thomas Allen]
When I was 12, old enough to know something was going on but too geeky to do anything about it I unscrewed my ballpoint pen and took out the slender translucent ink tube and the little spring surrounding it and placed both carefully in the pen groove at the top of my wooden desk. Both parts were equally important because without the spring the little silver knob on top flopped uselessly and the ballpoint, which hung down tantalizingly, would slip back into the plastic cylinder like a turtle into its shell the moment you touched the pen to the page. You couldn’t even make a period. Nothing. There was no force. I was 12 and so read nothing at all phallic into this the way some of you are doing, I just knew I had to keep the spring and the ink tube together. It would be years before I knew or cared that the ballpoint pen had been invented by a Hungarian journalist named Ladislo Biro, who figured out that printer’s ink, that gooey, rubbery stuff that you have to mash with a putty knife and smush around before you put on the rollers of a press the same way you have to mash up lard or butter when you’re making a cake, did not dry out the way fountain-pen ink did, forcing you to put the cap back on every time you stopped to search for a word, or, if you forgot, obliging you to put the pen nib into your open mouth and breathe haaaaah warm air over the nib to humidify it again. No. The little rotating ball would do what the putty knife did: provide enough friction to liquefy the ink for an instant, not so much that it would run, just enough that the rotating ball could lay it down on the page, like the roller of the press on to the type, leaving your warm breath free for other things. Such as the neck of Shirley Bassani.
Shirley Bassani sat in front of me in Math and in retrospect I think she was probably beautiful, though at that time I was still being socialized by Playboy and the other magazines we tried to look at at the drugstore to desire pouffy blondes like the ones on the cheerleading squad and it would be years before I came to acknowledge my hard-wired attachment to olive or almond skin and dark hair, so I didn’t really see Shirley as an object of desire, I just kind of liked her.
She always had a warm laugh (as opposed to the cold metallic junior-high sardonic laugh), and when I unscrewed the pen and took the empty bottom half, placed it to my lips and blew a jet of warm air onto Shirley’s neck she laughed and shook her head slightly. I blew again and the jet of air parted the strands of her dark hair that fell just to her shoulders before it curled and activated what I now suspect were the Meissner’s corpuscles in her neck.
I blew again, angling my little plastic blowgun so that the jet of air swept an arc from the little hairs of the back of her neck just below the hairline down to the smooth skin where the slope of her neck levelled out onto the flat plain of her shoulder. “T-ed!” she said, giving my name a two-note tone it had never had before and squirming in her seat, half-turning around, and with a little laugh I had also never heard before, said, “What are you doing?”
My kingdom for a time machine. I had no idea then what I was doing.
Actually that’s not true, I had, I swear, a glimmer, I wasn’t that dumb, I knew something was happening, but I couldn’t be sure and I always wanted to be sure (and so missed a million opportunities). Years later at a party a friend and notorious flirt came up to me as I stood with my beer in the kitchen and said, “Don’t move” and leaned in, not touching me with her body, and kissed, no hardly that, grazed me with her lips low down on the side of my neck. As the current flashed through me she was already drifting past into the crowd, and I wondered, What was that? – what nerve, what searing meridian? and was it this that I had stumbled upon with Shirley Bassani so many years before?
What is it about touch?
I consulted my philosopher friend Dianne. She’s always reading those French philosophers whose names I can never remember. I told her it was the one whose name sounded like a wine. “Bourdieu?” she said. “My students always pronounce it ‘Bordeaux.’”
“No, it’s not one of the ‘B’s.”
“Baudrillard, Blanchot, Barthes,” she rattled off helpfully.
“Bachelard, Benjamin, Bataille…”
“I said it wasn’t one of the ‘B’s.”
“Zizek is close to Zinfandel but he’s not French he’s Slovenian..…”
“The wine: it was Merlot.”
“Merlot? Ah, yes! Merleau-Ponty.”
“That’s the guy.”
“Yes yes, you must read him! I read his Phenomenology of Perception when I was seventeen and it changed my thinking forever afterward.”
I felt sad for her. At seventeen I read all the James Bond novels. Still, philosophy could be useful. I borrowed her heavily-annotated copy of PP and took it home. I read the underlined bits for a while, and then I read the bits between the underlines (they were smaller), not finding much helpful. As he argued that empiricism hides us from the cultural world I thought I might go make a sandwich, but then he began to talk about “a mode of perception distinct from objective perception, a kind of significance distinct from intellectual significance….erotic comprehension.” Now we were cooking.
“Erotic comprehension is not a cogitatio which aims at a cogitatum.” Exactly what I was thinking. It is “not of the order of understanding, since understanding subsumes an experience, once perceived, under some idea, while desire comprehends blindly by linking body to body.” That’s it. You don’t want to think about it you just want to think it.
And, “we are concerned, not with a peripheral involuntary action, but with an intentionality which follows the general flow of existence.” That’s right. I am not a compulsive lecher, I’m following the general flow of existence. Thank you Merleau.
When he got to passive and knowing touch we parted company. “Passive touch (for example touch inside the ear or nose, and generally in all parts of the body ordinarily covered) tells us hardly anything but the state of our own body and almost nothing about the object.” On the other hand, “like the exploratory gaze of true vision, the “knowing touch” projects us outside our body through movement. When one of my hands touches the other, the hand that moves functions as subject and the other as object.” (I would learn that this is a famous example. Commentators take it up and they never talk about masturbation but it’s hard not to think about it. “The hand is,” says Merleau quoting Kant, “an outer brain of man.” To which the cynical will reply that maybe it’s his only brain, used constantly to drain the blood from the cerebellum to the organ in the deep south.) I liked Merleau-Ponty's distinction but wanted to collapse it: passive touch can do more than tell us about the state of our own body; it can also be an exploratory touch – and ultimately a knowing touch.
Touch gets a bad rap. Western philosophic tradition privileges sight and light: we want to acquire “insight”; possibly even have a “vision”; at the very least, to “see.” We value “lucidity.” Saying “I feel…” is an admission of, not failure exactly but approximation, qualification; touch is dark and dubious.
Dianne had also leant me Textures of Light, a commentary on Merleau-Ponty by Cathryn Vasseleu, who taught Philosophy at the University of Technology (which sounded like a tough gig) in Sydney, Australia. She said wonderful things such as, “eroticism is the ex-static dissolution of corporeality, rather than the fecundity of incarnation,” and “Voluptuousness is time out, an interruption in the time of being.” I didn’t know what she meant but the language made my knees buckle – voluptuousness, fecundity, eroticism.
I like cruising the dictionary (the on-line ones just don’t do it for me, I like the heft of a book, and the digital search doesn’t give you the chance encounters in the same way). Fingers tingling I turned the pages to learn that voluptuous comes from the Latin for pleasure and delight, the Greek for hope, expectation. I checked out touch: to bring a bodily part briefly into contact with so as to feel; to meet without overlapping or penetrating. And then, Merleau-Ponty forgotten, I decided to look up the word I’ve always found so voluptuous I can’t believe they haven’t banned it, that they let you utter it in the supermarket: succulent. Just listen to the Oxford: full of juice, juicy, having fleshy and juicy tissues. [?!] If that weren’t enough, they quote Crooke (1615) on human bodies: “some [parts] are dense, others rare and succulent or juicy.” Succulent has links to the Latin sugere: to suck; there’s succulency, and succulence, and Webster gives us the succulometer: an instrument for measuring the moisture content of a fresh vegetable. Lower down on the page is succumb, to give way, yield; and above is succubus, a demon in female form supposed to have carnal intercourse with men in their sleep.
Words too have texture.
I turned back to Vasseleu, who was talking about the caress. Caress is the threshold. Caress is the opposite of groping. For her favourite critic, the Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray, “the caress is not so much a touch as it is the gesture of touch… a never-to-be-grasped beginning, an attraction without consummation, always on the threshold of appetite….” That’s it. Always on the threshold.
What men angle in for is the triangle. We’ll dislocate our necks or feign shoulder tics to grab a glimpse through that three-sided gap that opens up on a blouse between the second and third buttons from the top, where the breasts force the fabric open. You have to be at right angles to see in, which is why checkout lines are so good for this – you have a legitimate reason for being there, for lingering, and you can pretend to be watching the cashier’s screen or just idly gazing into space when in fact you’re compacting your whole being into your eyeballs and sending their beams forth into the Triangle, like in those science fiction movies where they shrink a crew down to the size of atomic particles and put them in a mini submarine or space ship and sent them into the body which becomes enormous and terrifying with blot clots like the Blob That Ate Chicago, but here it’s not like that, you’re sending your eye beams into the land of lace and breast, homing in on that contact zone of cool fabric, crisp white – or black! oh god she’s wearing a black bra under her uniform, that irresistible combination of the lascivious temptress and the demure clerk, like the librarian who will toss aside her thick-rimmed glasses and unpin her bunned hair and shake it loose in one flowing motion, it’s the contrast, the disjunction … travelling from cool fabric to warm flesh, the hint of a curve, like the earth seen from an airplane at 30,000 feet where you can just discern a bend in the horizon line, this bosom curve becomes the promise of a whole world, a lush hemisphere…. “That will be forty-seven fifteen please.”
Snap! Your eye beams zot back into your head like bungee cords off a roof rack and you dig in your pockets for your cash. (Guys often look startled in completely ordinary situations, as if they’ve suddenly returned from outer space. This is because we have. We have just returned from the Triangle Galaxy and we’re taking a moment to adjust to re-entry.) Cash is best because it allows for more contact. (The other pleasure of cash is intellectual and political – you’re a subversive, they can’t track you, they the marketeers who know how many bananas you buy at a time and what kind of razor blades you like.) You don’t swipe your own debit card. You hand the cash across and the way she takes it will tell you everything.
The everything you want to know is, Will she touch? Will she as she takes the bills extend her fingers underneath so that her finger tips touch yours. There’s that brief charge if she does, and also the emotional pleasure of knowing you’ve been deemed touch-worthy. She has been aware, weighting the broccoli, swiping the cans of tuna, of your presence. (I have been told that, subtle as men are, women can sense when we’re zeroing in on the Triangle Galaxy) and so has made the decision whether or not to allow your eager fingers that frisson of contact.) So she hands you back your change. Avoid Safeway because they have those machine where the coins come banging down a chute, like a waterslide into a pool, and you have to scrabble with one hand to pick up the change while you reach across with the other to get the bills. It’s awkward, it breaks your concentration, and it minimizes contact. You do not in fact want any bills at all.
You want change because then if you are lucky, if she has decided to grant you the next favour beyond the fingertip brush you will get the caress. NO, I don’t mean she’ll leap across the counter and fondle you. I mean her hand, holding the coins, will come down in your hand like one of those little diggers at the Exhibition, those little mechanical steam shovels that you use to try to pick up a prize and drop it in the slot, and her fingers will open like the scoop of the digger, letting the coins fall into your hand.
There are three ways she can do this.
1.) She can drop the coins into your hand from above, forcing you to cup your hand so the pennies don’t bounce off onto the counter. This is crushing, a denial of contact, and you go away feeling rejected and scumbagulous, exposed as a leering voyeur.
2.) She can touch down with the ends of her finger nails, open up, and allow the coins to slide into your palm. Did her finger tips graze your skin as she opened up? Yes. Maybe. You’re not sure. It’s ambiguous. Or she’s left it ambiguous. There’s no eye contact, and she’s already reaching for the plastic divider to begin ringing up the next customer’s cat food but you go away feeling good. That was alright.
3.) She can go all the way. She says, “That’s two ninety-three change,” looking you right in the eye, and you know already it’s going to be a lot, two loonies and three quarters, a dime, a nickel, three pennies, and she places her hand in yours and her fingers, right up to the first knuckle, against the fleshy lobe at the base of your thumb, her thumb with its wide soft knuckle against the base of your little finger and you can feel the warmth of her, and then she opens to you, slightly at first, finger tips moving across your hot palm, compressing the coins up into a column and letting them start to flow into your hand, and then she opens all the way and the coins rush down and there’s a last brush at the edges of your fingers and she’s gone.
The re-entry is worse than from the Triangle Galaxy and you have a responsibility not to stand there flat-footed. You’re in this together. You have to respect her. The woman with the cat food is on the verge of harrumphing. She knows what’s going on, but if you’re cool she can’t prove anything. You smile and say thank you, and move on.
I liked what Merleau-Ponty said about memory: “We can, in recollection, touch an object with parts of our body which have never actually been in contact with it.” On the street we are like hunters, we bag the flash or the graze. For the instant we fix all of our sensory powers on it so that it is imprinted, incised, branded on our brain, and then we take it home, to recollect in tranquility. Toward the end of his book Merleau-Ponty nails it: “My gaze, my touch and all my other senses are together the powers of one and the same body integrated into one and the same action.”
From Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses I learned about Meissner’s corpuscles, capsules just below the surface of the skin, enclose “branching, looping nerve endings,” that are “like the many filaments inside a light bulb.” These corpuscles are amazingly sensitive because each area can respond independently, like the separate coils of an innerspring mattress. I pictured my skin as a tiny mattress full of flexible plastic light bulbs with blonde filaments. The Meissner’s “seem to specialize in hairless parts of the body – the soles of the feet, fingertips (which have 9,000 per square inch), clitoris, penis, nipples, palms, and tongue – and they respond fast to the lightest stimulation.” Like your palm to the cashier’s caress. Or Shirley’s neck to the pen-channelled breath.
There are also thick, onion-shaped Pacinian corpuscles which respond quickly to changes in pressure. Or, for those more sustained moments, the saucer-shaped Merkel’s disks, near the surface, and the deeper Ruffini endings, both of which respond to continuous, constant pressure.
“Does that hurt?” she said.
“I’ll go a little slower.”
“How’s this?” she said, and moved in closer. I could feel her thigh through the thin cotton against my upper arm, and then as she leaned over, against my shoulder. Her eyes met mine over her mask.
“You’ve been bad,” she said. Her arm rested lightly on my chest. “You know that every day, every day, you must floss.”
Dental hygienists. They have you pinned, they’re opening one of your most sensitive orifices, probing soft flesh. Agreed, some of them trained at the Nurse Ratchet Academy and where they learned to starch their scrubs and use disinfectant for deodorant. They’re the ones who like doing the deep scaling and say with no apology, “Now this is going to hurt.” The unspoken words being, “And you deserve it, you flossless slacker.” So you find another one, one who treats you right, and every six months (oftener if you’re lucky enough to have gum disease) she’ll tilt you back, adjust the light, and slide in next to you. “Open wide.…”
Each time it’s different. Sometimes she’s friendly, conversational. Other times she’s all efficiency, hovering above you, attacking your gums with the swiftness of a sushi chef, not deigning to touch you. It’s a game she plays. She showing you that she’s in control, that she can reach every point she needs to without touching you. So that when, near the end, she swivels her stool around to the top of your head and comes in from above with a quick twirl of her steel probe to lay into that buildup behind the lower incisors, and she slows down now, works carefully, leans in, and you feel the cotton, and then the heat behind it, and you’re willing your scalp to register everything, everything because now you feel pressure, touch and release – it’s her breathing, you can feel her breathing and that’s her what? her rib cage and belly against you, the pressure soft but firm, in and out, and she says, “This is built up here, we’ll have to go slowly,” yes, and your breathing quickens and you feel, yes, hers quicken too you’re not imagining it, you’re breathing in unison and you forgive her her standoffishness with the molars, her coolness as she worked the bicuspids, yes because she’s here now and you’re breathing together, and you remember the first time in the back of a car when you slid your fingers down her cheek her neck her hardly daring to touch to press her breast and now you feel with follicles rather than fingers that same soft pressure so evanescent it’s hardly there but it is there yes her breast is that possible it must be yes, the soft underside of her small breasts and she says “We’ll get all this tartar out, you must be a mouth breather when you sleep,” oh yes I am, take it all out, and on and on and on she works and there is no body now only your mouth and your hair her breasts and the breathing the rhythm the almost throb eyes closed on the verge of a swoon and a voice cries,
“Hey! How about those crowns? Your insurance gave us the go-ahead – we can do them both for five thousand!”
Christ. You feel like Harker in Dracula when he’s being enveloped by the succubae and then the vampire count flings open the door and says, “He belongs to me!” The succubae slink away; the hygienist slides back. Your dentist owns you both at the moment, and he slaps some x-rays on a screen – they could be of licorice nibs and white corn for all you know, but they give him authority – and as he rattles on about how this is superior product with carbon-fibre reinforcements to meet your oral needs, your hygienist's eyes meet yours and you don’t care about the crowns, you’ll do them of course, why not, your share is only $2500. But she’s pushed her chair back and peeled off her gloves. When she thinks you’re not watching she massages her wrists. Carpal tunnel? She may not be here next time.
But I digress. The point is that these encounters are unspoken, unacknowledged, unconsummated. That’s what makes them so delicious. I remember meeting some friends for drinks at a club with an outside patio on a warm spring night, and I’d been riding my motorcycle and so was dressed down for this trendy new bar – motorcycle boots and jeans, a black leather jacket that I hung over the back of the chair, and the heavy cotton work shirt I always used for riding. The others were all in light linen. When the waitress came – poised, aloof, immaculate, like she was doing us a huge favour by coming at all – I felt even seedier. But she came to my side of the table, and as she leaned forward to light the candle I felt her mini-skirted thigh press against my shoulder. “Can this really be happening?” I wondered – not wondering, Is she touching me? because in fact it was a full-flank press, but wondering, Can she be doing this to ME? (I realized later that of course it was not me – it was the black leather, the zippers, the Spanish boots. In a seersucker jacket I would have been chopped liver, but that’s a whole other chapter.)
The Server Touch is like the Professional Smile. It’s about money, not pleasure. Ackerman reports on an experiment at a restaurant where servers unobtrusively touched diners on the hand or shoulder. The customers who were touched did not necessarily rate the food or the restaurant better, but they consistently tipped higher. I knew a young woman who put herself through university by working Friday nights in a pizza trailer outside a bar. She’d put on her black push up bra and say, “These babies are going to make mama some big tips tonight,” She’d lean way over to hand out the change and she usually got most of it back. Enticing as such moments are (we’re hardly going to look the other way), they’re a tich overt, they lack romance, they can slide toward the sleazy. Like at the hairdressers where I once had a great sweaty boob dangled in my face for most of the procedure and experienced that Gulliver’s Travels gross-out, that moment when Gulliver is in the land of the giants where not only are the mammaries mammoth but the attendant warts and pimples are as well, and he decides there can in fact be too much of a good thing. I left a 9% tip.
It, the real encounter, always begins with your body responding instantly but your mind holding back. Part of the delight is the uncertainty. You’re not quite sure it’s happening. You can’t ask. You have to feel your way into it. And you have to enjoy it for its own sake, for its own duration. Act on it and it dissolves, turns into something else. Seek to fix it and it evaporates/ Push it and it turns into a clumsy come-on.
Yet it can be more potent than wild unbridled sex. I have a friend who has a radically incompatible girl friend. I mean radically in its original sense: base, root. They don’t like the same books or movies, they have different circles of friends, they have warring conceptions of interior design, their internal clocks and bio-thermostats are so different they joke about living together in different hemispheres, and when it comes to money they complement each other the way a banker does a bank robber. What started it all was they travelled well together, and the sex was fabulous (he said, “It’s true what they say about Asian women,” but didn’t elaborate) and they both loved Thai food. He suspected this was probably not enough to build a relationship on.
When he was younger he would have dumped her after two months. Except that she would have dumped him after one because he would have been so obnoxious. He wasn’t obnoxious (or considerably less so) because he’d reached the point in his life where he decided not to sweat the small stuff, also the medium and a considerable portion of the big stuff. Actually what he’d discovered was that the things he thought mattered didn’t, or, rather, that he didn’t have a choice.
It was a warm day and they were taking a nap in the afternoon in Rome, and they hadn’t been making love, hadn’t even been crabbing at each other: it was rather one of those mornings when the discordance of their sensibilities had not made them not angry but sad. They were so far apart they had become civil. They knew there was no point in fighting because they knew they were just running out the clock, waiting to get back to Canada to break up. In that truce they found a kind of comradeship, a shared acknowledgement of the impossibility (racial, financial, aesthetic) of it all, and it was in this multiple exhaustion that they lay down on the bed to sleep.
She turned on her side, away from him, and before turning away to his side he leaned over and touched her between the shoulder blades, just above the line of her halter top, and then kissed her there, one light kiss and then rolled back. “God damn it,” he thought, now wide awake. For he knew in that instant he would never leave her. She fell asleep in seconds (another thing he resented about her), and he lay awake and stewed in the heat and in his mind, staring at the coarse wooden beams in the ceiling and going over her many faults, imagining the horror of their life together, how the simplest transactions from buying yogurt to washing socks would be fraught with contention.
But it was no use, it was the feel of her skin that had hooked him. Skin to skin, subject and object dissolving while the intellect and emotions danced around saying, What are you, crazy? Let’s get out of here! and his body, content, oblivious, refused to budge.
That was twelve years ago. Every day since has been a struggle. Sometimes he swears she has been placed on earth solely to drive him mad. Yet he has only to feel her skin to know he’s home. Touch. It settles everything.