We would survive but without touch, without skin.
– Paul B. Preciado, Art Forum 26 Mar 2020
Loneliness drifts through my apartment like mist over a river. In the kitchen, bright yellow downlights; the loud, lively industry of steam and oil and the fan over the oven. I fry a thin portion of supermarket salmon, splash hot water over four demure sticks of asparagus, cut dill to sprinkle over boiled potatoes, chopped into neat cubes. But not too many – trying to cut down on carbs in the evening. House arrest means some people get an extra spare tyre. I refuse to fall victim to gluttony.
The sky shrieks violet as I finish my meal, knife screeching on ceramic in my empty kitchen. The light changes through the windows of the conservatory. When the fading sun throws a final piercing orange, I pull on my running shoes, leaving my dirty plate at the table, cutlery askew. I’ll have to be quick.
I’m not even 200m from my house before the first checkpoint. Two women in hi-vis jackets, walkie talkies, belt of weapons on their hips, take in my lycra top, my pumas, my adidas pants, and accept the costume of the night jogger. I nod at them, bouncing past in jovial cadence, and they each raise a hand in return. I think one of them could even see me leave my front door, so they don’t need to check my proof of address. I breeze past them into the night.
Cross the main road, down the hill, onto the path by the canal. The rhythm of gravel crunch. The swans are settling now, white floating on black water, beak tucked in wing, wrapping into themselves to prepare for cold wet slumber. I hear a rustle in the reeds, and slow down, spot two shadows together; not in an embrace, exactly. In the secret place, he reaches across to her, cups her chin in his hand. Whispers low, whispers deep.
For some it is enough to breathe the same breath. Others like the classic treatment. But after many months removed, forcing desire underground, it is difficult to launch into full body contact. You’ll find that more and more people are after a gentle whisper, a soft touch.
Me? I try and give people what they want. That’s half the excitement, the dance of unknowing, the interpretation of the eyes – which gets harder as the light fades – the translation of embarrassed mumbles. Besides, when can we actually declare what we need? It is difficult to truly know, much less to ask.
And there’s not much time, neither, with police idling up and down the streets besides the canals, and they’ll whirl the siren to give us a good scare; sometimes they’ll be on foot and they have a habit of peeking behind the trunks of ash trees, or moving closer to the canal, heeled boots tapping on the wooden boardwalks where we dangle feet over the slimy water.
It’s always the same rigmarole, the same authority of the flashlight, a c’mon, mates, the exasperation of a school principal tired of the student constantly on the cusp of expulsion. A sort of go on, scram, a dispersal with the wave of the arms. So you get up, you go your separate ways, you go home.
But there aren’t messers in sight, yet.
I see a silhouette coming my way. We approach each other, steady steps. I reach out an appealing hand to her, she grasps my fingers lightly, experimentally, momentarily, yet doesn’t slow, and as we pass each other she shakes her head slightly, biting her lip. Well, even that miniscule contact gave me enough electricity to send me shooting off into the night.
Sometimes I spot a looker across the waters, a pang of disappointment in my chest. For the bridge is too far and even if I were to double back to pursue, somebody else, some other body would likely intercept them before I got there.
A shadow rises from the waters, momentarily confusing me – it’s not warm enough to swim – but it’s just a swan, pulling at underwater weeds with its sturdy, muscular neck.
Lonely venus shines to the south-west and the sky deepens to deep blue. It is truly twilight. I see a figure up against a tree. Is it her?
Last week, I’d seen the girl up closer to the pub and the bike racks. Her dark, full cheekbones gleamed and we’d leant against a brick wall covered with graffiti, beneath a row of flats. I was wearing a singlet top – the air is getting warmer and these nights can be real soft, sometimes. Breath shaking, she trailed her index and middle fingers along my wrists, my forearms, my biceps, my shoulders, up and down, again and again. Painting enchantments on my skin, sending jolts from surface to buried nerves. I closed my eyes and relented to her feathery touch. Sure, she was much closer than two metres, we were at risk, we were fools, all of us along the banks of the canal are fools. But she didn’t get any closer. Arms’ length. Even at that distance we cherished our closeness.
Since then I’d thought some things I’d like to say to the girl. They wouldn’t quite be true – but they would have elements of truth to them. And if that is her in the dark, then finally I can –
It is. I remember the soft tangle of her hair. But she’s not alone. A woman kneels before her, looking up, eyes round above the mask covering her mouth and nose. From beneath the material strung across her face, she sings a song of devotion, holding my girl’s hand, stroking the heel where the thumb meets the palm.
The girl doesn’t notice me as I walk past, or refuses to. Just stares down at the woman before her, eyebrows knotted, lips pulled tight. A cop car pulls past but they are lost in the shadows, and still, it is going too fast, some police don’t take this task seriously. Maybe some of them understand, maybe they’re out here themselves on their nights off.
Tonight isn’t as warm as when I was with the girl, and my skin is covered. Nevertheless the wind pushes through, making my wrists ache. With a rush of pounding feet two real joggers fly past; I didn’t hear their approach and am startled by their pace, their rhythm, their vocal breath. I stop, disturbed, watch their bouncing white shoes disappear into the black, listen to the fading sounds of their panting. Their path widens as they avoid something on the middle of the footpath. I quicken my pace.
There. Further down, black hair lit by orange streetlight. He is sitting cross-legged. Somewhat reckless – maybe it’s his first night. At least he’s making it clear. He wants something. There’s no one else around.
At the two metre line – none of us need the guideline anymore, we can all estimate pretty accurately, there’ve been enough strangers’ dirty looks at the supermarket – I stop. I put my hands in the pockets of my adidas pants. Smile. A dog barks in the distance.
He doesn’t smile back. But he is receptive, eyes wide. He puts a hand out, asking to be pulled up. A mallard, head shining green, watches us from where it floats on black water. I can smell his cologne, mixing with the scent of cool algae.
I grasp his hand – the transgression of skin – and lift his weight, pull him into the shadows’ shelter. In the solace of the willow tree, long tendrils surround us, drip and dangle over the water.
Hi. Want a can?
Some people prefer the ease of alcohol, weed. I push back my hood, shake my head. I am scared, too, but am better at hiding it.
His back is against the tree. The cold wind blows, the orange streetlight flashes through the sway of the willow branches, revealing ‘remember me’ scratched crudely into the trunk besides his face. He throws back his head to drain the drink – I glimpse his shaved throat, the jump of his adam’s apple, the cruel glint of his pierced septum – drops the can and the plastic bag from his fist, swallows, looks up at me.
I just want a hug. Please.
The distant dog howls. I’m taller than him, so fold my arms around his shoulders, while he slowly encircles my waist. It is awkward, he is new. It is never not strange, adjusting to the feel of another body. We begin to rock, slowly, from side to side, and a mm escapes his lips. It startles him, I can tell, so I adjust my arms, add a new movement, begin to stroke greasy, thick hair. I am sure he can feel me hard against him, it always happens instantly pressed against the heat of flesh, but I will let him lead, I will let him decide how far we will go.
I say all the things I want to say to the girl, say all the things I want to hear from her and all the others before her and before the checkpoints and closed doors and two-metre rules, all the things I want to say to the sky and all the things I wish I could say to myself. He shifts against me, settles into my arms, and the whisper streams from my tongue, a spell wrapping around our bodies, pouring and pouring and ending with this final word: beloved.
The risk isn’t mentioned. Everyone knows each person has the power to infect. A kiss could be a harbinger of suffering, a caress the killing stroke. But we do what we must. In the shadows we touch the angels of death to feel, for a moment, the memory of god.