“Hands,” Leonardo Rizzi, Creative Commons
When I attended Mass Before, the priest told us a few things: 1) If we were taking Communion, we could not allow the officiants to place the Host on our tongues. 2) During the Sign of Peace, we were not to touch, not to shake hands with our fellow worshippers.
Lapsed Catholic though I am, what I’ve loved most about Catholicism is its glorification of the body, all the ways in which it can be loved and hurt, sometimes both at once: the bodily torments of martyred saints, the insistence on Jesus’s humanity as part and parcel of His divinity. That we stand and kneel and bow during Mass, our muscles learning the movement of worship early and thoroughly. That we eat His flesh and drink His blood during the Eucharist. That during the Sign of Peace, we may hold hands with total strangers, a perfect moment of brief, communal grace.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, this casual touch is evaporating. We are told to engage in social distancing, to stand six feet away from others if we must emerge from our homes. We were encouraged—now ordered—to stay put, to stay in our homes, to not leave our towns, our states, our countries. We are discouraged from gathering in groups larger than ten. That we now look upon strangers, particularly Asian ones, with suspicion, even as infections in China and other Asian countries fell, and infections in countries like Italy and then the United States rose. We must wash our hands, refrain from touching our own faces. If there was the suspicion of infection, we quarantined ourselves; now, we quarantine ourselves regardless of whether we believe we were exposed or not. We are held in suspension, a paradox: to love our bodies, to protect our bodies, we must refrain from some of the most elemental acts of living within a body.
Obediently, I’ve retreated. Since mid-March, I’ve touched no one but my family, though I notice everyday markers of familial affection—kisses on the cheek, hugs, even casual thumps on the back or arms in annoyance—have decreased. Every time I go outside, briefly, to walk and breathe fresh air, I only nod or wave at neighbors from across the road. If I venture further, for trips to the grocery store, I immediately shower upon returning. My parents are over fifty; my father has diabetes, chronic breathing issues. I love them, and even if this near-ritualistic washing ultimately prevents nothing, I prefer to believe that my actions hold meaning, that doing this will hold off the worst.
In response, my skin—afflicted with eczema since childhood—has dried out, become flaky and rough. Though I lather on lotion, I sometimes wonder what’s the point if no one else will feel smooth palms, soft flesh. Touching my own skin only reminds me of what I’m deprived of—the touch of someone new, someone with possibility, even someone I might never see again.
As my craving for touch increases, I’ve returned to Robin Beth Schaer’s “Holdfast.” Lines play over and over in my mind:
The dead are for morticians & butchers
to touch. Only a gloved hand. Even my son
will leave a grounded wren or bat alone
like a hot stove. When he spots a monarch
in the driveway he stares. It’s dead,
I say, you can touch it. The opposite rule:
butterflies are too fragile to hold
alive, just the brush of skin could rip
a wing. He skims the orange & black whorls
with only two fingers, the way he learned
to feel the backs of starfish & horseshoe crabs
at the zoo, the way he thinks we touch
all strangers. I was sad to be born, he tells me,
because it means I will die.
In the poem, the speaker also refers to a friend who eventually dies,
[…] I once loved someone
I never touched. We played records & drank
coffee from chipped bowls, but didn’t speak
of the days pierced by radiation. A friend
said: Let her pretend. She needs one person
who doesn’t know. If I held her, I would
have left bruises, if I undressed her, I would
have seen scars, so we never touched
& she never had to say she was dying.
If “Holdfast,” is about the insistent desire to hold fast, to hold tight in the wake of mortality, of the often cruel brevity of life, what then does it mean when the possibility of touch holds the possibility of contagion? Even in the poem, the possibility is there of leaving bruises on a diseased body, of seeing the evidence of mortality in the form of scars.
In Brenda Peynado’s “The Touches,” touch can be literally fatal. Salipa, the narrator, lives in a future where all of humanity lives isolated in sealed cubicles with robots doing all of the work in “dirty,” the outside world contaminated with super-bugs, ancient viruses released from melting polar ice caps, common bacteria mutated into something monstrous. Humans, meanwhile, spend much of their time in a virtual reality called “clean,” only retreating into dirty when they need to bathe, eat, and vacate their bowels. Everything is delivered through a chute. The only thing they physically touch is the robot each are given that provides their daily needs, including touch. Salipa’s robot, Nan, hugs her every night, but she states, “The hugs are supposed to be soothing, meant to combat the developmental disorders of a lifetime of not being touched, but it’s awkward. Nan runs cold, and there’s no part of her that gives. I’ve thought of wrapping her in memory foam, but that would block her panels.”
The story is framed around each of the four human touches Salipa experiences in her life; the first two were when she was born. The last two, which she remembers, are weighted with ambivalent feeling: disgust, desire, relief, love. In one horrifying flashback, one of her classmates’ own native bacteria have mutated, destroying her body back in dirty. Even though Salipa and her schoolmates never physically interact with the girl, they ostracize her digital avatar, and eventually, the school forces the infected child’s avatar to stay at her virtual home.
Like with Asian people now, like with anyone with even the slightest suggestion of illness, the response can be punitive, strangers accosting strangers in public for coughing, ostracism of those wearing masks before wearing masks became near-mandatory, police officers being sent to homes perceived to be hosting parties, businesses owned by Chinese-Americans losing traffic, a situation already intensified by the shutdown of small businesses all over the country to protect customers and staff alike.
It is difficult to square my American-bred reverence for personal liberty with these new circumstances. I have grown to hate the word “unprecedented,” since every professional email I’ve received includes this word, but no word so aptly describes these times. I think of this often quoted remark by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
When I look it up, in context, it’s about the taxation of lands held by the Penns, the governing family of Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. In contrast to what is commonly thought, Franklin was actually defending the legislature’s right to raise taxes on an elite family, for the common security of all people in this frontier colony. This quote has been used as a rallying cry of our country, a refusal to give up our freedoms, even if it means forsaking the common good, when Franklin was advocating for people to give up a little to save the whole.
Or, for a more popular reference, while watching the HBO high-concept comedy show, Avenue 5, which chronicles a cruiseship in space crewed by mostly incompetents and carrying mostly idiots, this exchange between two crew members, one of whom was partially responsible for convincing seven passengers that they were on a reality show ala The Truman Show, leading them to walk into the airlock to their deaths, struck me as apt: “I was trying to be nuanced,” says the responsible crew member. “You’ve nuanced them to death!” exclaims another character.
I wonder, now, as the number of infections and deaths rise in the United States, as defiant spring breakers in Florida and elsewhere test positive for the virus, as statistics scream at me on newsfeeds that unlike common influenza, a person infected with COVID-19, can infect up to 2.5 people as opposed to flu’s 1.3, and that while influenza kills 1 in a 1000, COVID-19 kills 10 per 1000, I wonder if my attempt here to find nuance means nothing. If I admit here that I understand, in my heart, why spring breakers continue to spring break, why I envied the revelers on St. Patrick’s Day when my siblings and I canceled our own planned pub crawl, why I wished to join, for a minute, the defiant college and 2-day block parties my friends complain about on various group chats, is all of this merely performative empathy? I may understand the impulse that caused a new father to visit his wife in the maternity ward, even though he knew he had been exposed and was symptomatic, but the consequences, his wife getting infected herself and opening the rest of the hospital to infection, perhaps outweigh all this sympathetic consideration.
What it might take to combat this pandemic may force us to reckon with what we value, what we are in danger of losing. Before, when I still lived with my grandparents, before my relatives spirited them away from the population-dense city we lived in, I began to retreat from my appetites. I love my grandparents, who are in their eighties and who have all the aches and diseases of the aged. I didn’t want them to die because of my selfishness. I chose, as I do now, the other side of being human, the ego and superego over the id. I bite back my human instincts to touch, to gather together, to hold fast. To let the soft animal of my body surrender to its hungers. To press myself against another.
Before even all hell broke loose, I was practicing Lent for the first time in years—I decided to read religious texts, including the Book of Revelation.
Another thing I’ve always liked about Roman Catholicism: you “practice” the rituals of faith. You’re a “practicing Catholic.” Catholicism is rooted in rituals; to be Catholic is to perform these rites. Not to mention, “practice” implies there’s never truly perfection, an endgame. Practicing Catholicism means you will always be improvising, perfecting, performing these markers of faith again and again.
But Revelation began to all too closely parallel the unfolding pandemic around me. I became obsessed with this passage from Revelation 4: Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Experiencing this modern-day plague in an age where much of life now happens online, on scrolling news-feeds, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, is disorienting. The idea of beasts covered with eyes sends a shudder all over my skin. Maybe it’s because it’s familiar: the idea of being constantly surveilled, a panopticon we willingly enter. To be part of the world during an age when instead of worrying about omnipresent computer viruses, we’re now worried about literal viruses, one that kills the most vulnerable among us, one that rides the coattails of those we call careless and callous—who perhaps are callous and careless—and then infects the immuno-compromised around them. Everyday, I see call-outs on Twitter, lamentations of careless neighbors on Facebook.
I sympathize but have to shut my laptop. They’re right; we’re right. We have to protect the elderly, the sick, but I wish the words of people, many I don’t even know, didn’t infect the sanctity of my own mind with this endless public shaming.
That being said, I sometimes think shame is underrated as a societal mechanism. Shame can be cruel, can be directed at those without power but shame is also what Jesus hurled at the merchants and the money changers in the temple, at the Pharisees and scribes about to stone the woman they shamed themselves for adultery. Shame is what can bring the powerful down to their knees: Look what you’ve done to this planet. To your people.
Maybe shame can stop those who don’t care about flattening the curve. Still, these social media beasts with thousands of eyes often distort who has power and who doesn’t. Two data companies posted on Twitter a map showing where spring breakers returned to from Florida, demonstrating their movement towards densely packed cities like New York and Chicago, using their cellphone data. Security cameras has been used to track the movement of potential carriers in places like Moscow. When viruses don’t bow to theories about justice and privacy, perhaps none of these violations of civil liberties matter, yet I wonder if social media shaming shouldn’t be directed more towards the ones who should be managing this crisis. That if there’s anything laid bare, undistorted, by the virus, is that while the ordinary and the famous alike have been infected, is that we now know who can afford to be sick in this world, in this country. That this crisis, spread from person to person, burdens all of us. Are we all doing our part, each according to our ability? And do we even know how much we, each of us, can bear?
When I first read Robin Beth Schaer’s “Holdfast,” I didn’t even think about the reality of baby monkeys choosing wool mothers with no sustenance over wire mothers with milk. When I Google “skin hunger,” the monkeys are mentioned, over and over. When I look up Harry Harlow on Wikipedia, a few things stand out: that his methods were part of the impetus for the animal liberation movement and this: No monkey has died during isolation yet. When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of depression, characterized by … autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5 days later. The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia. … The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had to get the experiment rolling, but we soon assumed initially that 12 months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially…
Skin hunger is a real condition, something most visible in people like prisoners after significant time in solitary confinement. When people are deprived too long of human company, they hunger for touch just as much as food or water. Perhaps more. Your body can survive isolation but your mind? What separates us from everything else? We are sentient beings. We build things of unimaginable complexity. I am typing this essay right now.
And yet, in the end, we are like the baby monkeys left alone. Just a few weeks into this American quarantine, and already we are going wild. We snap photos of our isolated hikes and art projects, tape videos of our dancing and cooking, type our thoughts madly all over social media like monkeys on typewriters in the proverbial sense. What is all our typing doing, really?
In “The Touches,” Salipa acknowledges that the virtual touch she experiences in clean isn’t enough. She has to touch her robot, even before she finally meets her partner Telo for the first time in person. Before then, she, on a rare trip into dirty to investigate her bird samples, is touched by a colleague after an accident that exposes her to the contaminated air:
She puts a finger through, her fingertip on my palm. At first, I’m revolted. All the microbes from her hands, from everything she’s ever touched, cultured underneath her fingernails and attaching to me. Then the soft rub, the heat of her fingertip, the prickle of the virgin sensation. It feels like joy and pain at once, everything forbidden. “I have to go,” I say, yanking my ball away, rushing back to decontamination with my palm pressed against the breach. My hand burns the whole way back, and I keep telling myself it’s not flesh-eating bacteria, it’s not a mosquito bite, it’s just touch. My third touch. The only one I remember.
The government committees which produced clean had tried to make clean mimic the old world as closely as possible. Salipa says:
If clean was unregulated, I could simply wish the tablet into my hands. I get annoyed that part of the legislation to create clean required that everything be tied to a physical representation as close to real life as possible. So we don’t become alien to ourselves, none of this living exclusively in our heads. They wanted to pretend the world was back the way they dreamed it. I get it—-nostalgia. Even though none of us can eat in clean, my parents left the kitchen in the digital representation of the house they used to have in real life, and I didn’t code it out when I inherited because it was always there in my childhood. I use it as my meditation room where I try to imagine the smell of coffee.
We are not at that stage yet. Many of us are holed up with loved ones or roommates. Some of us have no choice but to be with others. But Salipa’s new longing for touch, for everything that has been denied her—the feel of another person’s skin, the smell of coffee in a kitchen shared with her parents not the virtual manifestations of them—resonates in this time when such ordinary human actions as gathering in cafés to have a casual afternoon chat with people outside our households are unavailable to us.
But what will change about our world post-virus? Will it be like the Black Death that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages, that I’ve seen some claim led to the Renaissance? Fewer people meant more food for all, higher wages for the few laborers left. Fewer people meant more fallow land, more space for the Earth to breathe and reset.
But I dislike this idea being bandied about, that our being laid low by the virus, that all these deaths, are better for our planet. The cruel, almost eugenicist, belief that those we perceive as weak aren’t worthwhile, that salvaging the Earth means collective human suffering.
I prefer to believe that, somehow, people and yes, the Earth, have always found a way to survive and even thrive in the face of things trying to destroy us.
Let’s return to the final lines of each piece:
From “The Touches:”
Everything in [Salipa] gives up. “Take me,” I say.
“Take you where?” [Telo] says. “This is how we live.”
We’re snotting in each other’s necks, grabbing our faces, smelling each other down to the feet. I run my fingers in the curves of his ear. If we hurry, this touch could last a lifetime.
And this is what we can tell the baby assigned to us, if we survive: We can pass on our ruin through love. This box that you wake up in is evidence of how dangerous you are with need. We will give you what we can. We will offer up the whole world to your hunger.
We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.
I also touch on the current Netflix sensation Tiger King. In the show, the final episode, which follows Big Cat owners and private zookeepers, and the people who oppose them, the titular Tiger King, Joe Exotic, finally speaks, of the animals he kept, bred, and often abused at his zoo, that he once had a pair of chimpanzees who spent a decade next to each other in cages. When he finally moved them to a sanctuary, where they both lived in a big, open pen where they could run around, the first thing they did was hug. And Joe, who the entire series defended fiercely his right to own and cage wild animals, finally acknowledges he deprived them of their fundamental nature, to be chimpanzees.
While there’s a maternal or platonic quality to two of three of the relationships described here, the kind of skin hunger we associate with babies and mothers or caretakers, “The Touches” depicts a first touch between Salipa and Telo as practically an affair, with all the secrecy and danger of one. Touch, there, is locked up with love, desire, and danger, one that in my reading of the story, is worth it.
We want to touch each other, even if it destroys us, starves us, passes on virulent disease. We cling to each other after years of only seeing each other through bars. When we touch, especially in the midst of great danger, we’re risking everything, we’re choosing something else. We are Harlow’s monkeys, Joe Exotic’s chimpanzees. We are people seeing each other behind the clean, perfect avatars for the first time. When we touch, in this time of coronavirus, whom we choose to risk our touches on, tells us whom we love, whom we’ll risk everything for.
Anna Cabe’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch Media, Rappler, The Mary Sue, The Toast, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She received her MFA in fiction from Indiana University and was a 2018-2019 Fulbright Fellow in the Philippines where she worked on a novel about martial law. She currently serves as an assistant fiction editor for Split Lip Magazine. You can find Anna at annacabe.com.