It is a strange thing to have attended an all-male high school, and have hugged nearly my entire class—an intimacy that exploded during the sign of peace at school masses, where our blessing was exiting rows to reach around as many of our classmates as we could, and our curse was a priest turning up his mic to tell us to sit. We had notions of how unique this arrangement was, especially among men, confined to the island our mostly white private school carved out in Milwaukee’s mostly Black Merrill Park neighborhood, where the sidewalks tilted and cragged the further you got from our school, and the artificial turf of our football field turned into weed-filled postage stamps. We got to school early so we could park in the gated student lot, and recently, the school added enough parking to get all student cars off the neighborhood streets.
It brings me no great joy to admit that, even then, I never thought about the person I was hugging as much as I was counting to three, tapping their back, and disengaging. The ritual of a hug is what I like more than the intimacy itself—I want someone to know that I like them enough to hug them more than I really like doing it, and now, in the months of demonstrating for Black lives, it occurs to me I was far from alone in that high school. In a place where hallway hugs were common, a thousand mostly white boys also tried to dap each other up like we’d seen on TV, or filling up our gas tank off the freeway exit we took in from the suburbs, or running Cross Country down Wisconsin Avenue. We’d seen an intimacy we were envious of, which tells me now in a world where we are so constantly thinking about distance, that we were boys who lacked an intimacy we desired, boys who were experimenting with touch. I imagine this has something to do with Catholic upbringings that taught us our body was the seed and water and sunlight of sin, and, even more so, something to do with coming from the open, rolling spaces of Wisconsin suburbs. My neighborhood friends and I used to pedal down the shoulder of a county highway to the gas station so we could stuff candy in our pockets in the summertime, and we lived too far apart from each other to not call ahead to see if a friend was around. I remember all of that in-between lawn and cornfield and winding road: space that maybe didn’t belong to us kids in a legal sense, but no neighbors or concerned citizens or passing cars ever told us what to do with our bodies, or where they must go, or where they must end. Often, when my home was the only place I feared my body may be transgressed, I took shelter in open spaces outside, which is to say I took shelter in the gluttonous notion of everywhere: a space so sacred to the American idea of a “Man on his Land” that my body had expanded so far beyond its skin that a Black person within fifty feet of me triggered an implicitly biased sense of danger that felt like a skin prick.
While I couldn’t yet articulate this distance from intimacy as a kid, Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski embodies it. During impeachment hearing, health care votes, and Supreme Court confirmation hearing, she’s let us all know there may not be something right about the way her party is operating, and if you’re like me, it’s tantalizing to watch her actions like a sport where we root for self-discovery. And on June 4, the game was back on: when asked if she would vote for Donald Trump in 2020, she said, “Perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally, and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”
It feels like little accident she uses three conditionals when just one would convey a noncommittal stance—perhaps we’re at the point where we’ll be more honest with concerns—instead of what we get: an absurd conditional on a conditional on a conditional. “Perhaps” we are “getting to” the point, and “might hold” concerns expands the length, width, and height of scrutiny away from her body the same way we measure square feet that add up to acres. It screams anxiety, and it’s that anxiety that produces hope in spectators like me, as if Lisa Murkowski is a deer in the forest whose ears stand up after hearing a leaf-crunching step—she knows there’s something wrong. It feels necessary to say that allowing the notion of voting against her party within a certain psychological distance of her body presses in to the space that holds her safety, her ideology. That pressing likely resembles bodily pain under the same magic trick that makes suburban boy feel pressing when there’s still fifty feet of comfortable nothingness between he and another human being.
People like to use the expression “look deep down” for how we ought to locate truth, but I push back against the verb “look.” It implies an ease even though the eye cannot turn inward. Its ancient job of recognizing danger resists rendering our inner, living self the same as the potentially dangerous outside world. We’d have to break skin to actually look inside. Part of what’s is so difficult about engaging mental health issues is having to recognize that it is not only from the outside that something can kill. Having to locate and name and treat those layers of danger within ourselves psychologically or ideologically is self-surgery, whether our sense of self has expanded with the open space of suburbs and Alaska, or it hasn’t.
Jess Row says in White Flights that moving to the suburbs and removing Black people from their view reflects the distance between white people and acknowledging systemic racism. Borrowing from the work of other anti-racism scholars, Row calls this “achieving closure without resolution:” “White Americans live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment built white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to a state in which even a minimum amount of fear becomes intolerable, triggering anger, fear, and guilt.” Watch any interview with Lisa Murkowski where she speaks with hesitation about the morals of her party, and it’s believable that she sees the injustice. Whether she chooses to vote with that sight is another matter, and I can’t help feeling some softness toward her for the correct use of the word “intolerable.” However slight engaging with these ideas seems, it is a fact there is no simple touch for someone whose skin has never formed callouses, whose skin is pink with blood vessels pressed against it, that doesn’t feel like violence even when they need it.
If my partner decided to describe me as physically needy, and I most certainly am, it is likely because true intimacy for more than the sake of ritual—a hand on the small of a back, lazily intertwined fingers, or perpendicular on the couch watching TV—is still wonderfully new to me. And this awareness of my body is a vulnerability I chose, which really isn’t vulnerability at all. It is a privilege to allow pressure against one’s own skin. It did not occur to me in the hallways of my high school that the Black culture we were copping in the hallways, the intimacy we white people wanted so badly, could have been born of forced vulnerability and pain. What we didn’t understand then, and what we Lisa Murkowski hopefuls still fail to understand, is Black people in America have always been made to know precisely where their body ended, where it belonged, and where it didn’t. I don’t remember much of my suburban youth, but I understand what it’s like to know my bodily space as more of a cloud than well-defined contours, even when I knew precisely the space of a Black person’s body if they got close to me—and what is there to do when a leader who looks like me exhibits this anxiety and pain and guilt but hope she sets an example of tearing open her own skin to look deep down?
I’m in no position to define allyship or virtue, but my understanding of both is they are pursuits rather than destinations. So, I must push back against the notion that Lisa Murkowski’s self-surgery to find that glint of pure justice embodied by declaring she won’t vote for Donald Trump, the kind that might push more white people into their own self-surgery, is the kind of investment that cashes right back out. This is the fantasy of Lisa Murkowski white people can’t help living: that if she were burrow into her muscle and flesh and find that solar bright sense of justice, she could set up scaffolding as if it were a mine, and run track to it. Of course, I want her to tear into herself to locate whatever will motivate her to vote against Donald Trump, but more than that I want her to do it again and again. It can’t be real and be as clean or as singular as a game-winning shot. A white person’s pursuit of justice is more like treating a chronic illness that requires regular hospital visits full of needles, incisions, sutures, and grafts. And we have to drive ourselves to the appointments, park the car, and feed the meter. We must choose to suffer, and there is nothing else to call it, even if it’s dwarfed by the suffering caused by our ignorance and history. Suffering collapses our sense of safety into a wall of the present moment beyond which, our body informs us, is death. We cannot take another moment, it says. And when we survive that moment, the message repeats.
It is easier to ask someone to give of themselves when the return is equal and easy to measure, so it becomes harder when the return is nebulous, and harder still when it asks us to not love a part of our selves, and harder after that when the task involves inflicting self-pain. As a naïve college kid, collapsing of my flawed sense of space and safety presented as ongoing depression, self-hate, and shame. Pursuing justice from the privileged position requires a leveling. It requires a human cost: closing the comfortable intellectual space we’ve been born into, and it requires danger, and it requires pain. I’ll admit I can’t help feeling I owe something to who and where I came from, even though they’re often the ones I’m trying to convince to inflict pain on themselves. There is no simply making things better. And while asking the people who have answered my late night crisis texts, and the people who clothed me, fed me, and loved me as a child to suffer with regularity is hard, it is the honest thing, and it is the world I would rather live in.
I suppose I hugged all of those boys because I believed in something getting close to me. That there is value in closing one’s own boundaries, and if we were to do it over and over again, there just might be that shining core. Perhaps this is the closest thing to a religion I still have: to hurt. I believe in those glints I can catch in my periphery or feel in passing. It’s a belief in something I cannot wholly see, wholly name, or know beyond the fractures in what I say I feel and what I really do—there is layer after layer worth shearing away, and I refuse to be alone. Senator, we have never met, but it is with swelling hope I can say: I know you. And you are worth pursuing.
Ben McCormick is a Wisconsin-bred emerging writer. His work has appeared in Passages North and Masters Review. He is the nonfiction editor at Porter House Review, and an MFA candidate at Texas State where he’s at work on his first novel and an essay collection. Tweet him nice things @caseofthebens.