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Calinda Shely

My responses are generally one of three: I’m OK, I’m here (with a wry little wink), or I’m doing my best.

I was thinking this week about the last time I touched another person voluntarily. I live alone, so it’s been awhile. I think it was March 12, a Thursday, the last day I had in-person class. One of my international students gave me what she called a Chinese good-luck charm “to keep me safe and healthy,” and we hugged.

I wonder if the charm is working.

I have been to the doctor since March 12, and they touched me to draw blood, give me a vaccination, etc., a necessary touch. And then on Friday evening a woman in the grocery store literally reached across me while I was looking for orzo, a most unwelcome touch. I glared at her over my tiger snout mask and said “Excuse me!” in my most outraged voice. I did not smack her with a box of oven-ready lasagna noodles or otherwise savage her, which is a great accomplishment in my mind.

I can touch my dog Mabel, who nestles next to me and works her head closer to my head as the night progresses so that in the morning her head is usually next to mine on the pillow and I breathe in her corn chip scent while I’m awakening. Mabel hungers for touch other than mine, though. She loves greeting people and getting pets and attention (which she fully deserves); her appetite for touch is insatiable. She doesn’t understand why I don’t let her now. We are both deprived of human touch.

I take care of two other dogs two times a week for people who are essential workers, so I can touch those dogs, too. These people also have chickens, and, after about a year of visiting and snack dispersal (minus the 2-month quarantine break) I can pet all of the chickens as well. Touching other creatures is good, even if they’re not the people I love and care for. Chickens and dogs are both very soft.

I was supposed to go visit my boyfriend over spring break, but of course I had to postpone that trip. No touching allowed. “What if I die and no one has touched me again?” I asked him the other day. He assured me it won’t happen.

In the Before Times, I didn’t know how much touching/being touched mattered. During quarantine I have been using an app called Marco Polo, which allows you to do asynchronous video messages of any length, and I’ve probably gotten over a dozen people to download and use it. So, I can see my loved ones’ faces frequently, and that helps some. I also had many video conferences with students before the term ended. Almost everyone cried when I asked how they were, but I couldn’t touch them.

I had to go to my office this week to get books for the (online) summer class I am teaching, and it felt like I was returning to a crime scene, even though I haven’t committed any crimes (that I know of). I re-read and touched all of the notes and cards from students I have tacked up on my little bulletin board and wondered if physical mementos were going to be a thing of the past. I hope not.

In an odd way, the physical things are making a bigger difference, taking up more space in my mind, since things changed in March. It’s not just the lack of touch that’s difficult; I’m also experiencing a lack of security that I wasn’t prepared for. I learned this week that my university is moving all non-tenure-track instructors to semester-only contracts next year, and I don’t know if there will then be resulting gaps in my paycheck and health insurance or if I’ll even be employed at all. No one has answers. This causes me great anxiety, and yet also I know I’m extremely fortunate because many of my colleagues and friends have been laid off completely without even the hope of a semester’s employment. We need the physical things—a home, food, clothing, etc.—to survive, and no paychecks mean survival becomes uncertain for far too many people. I’m extremely privileged in that I have a safety net because I know I can always move back in with my parents (which I have had to do before while I was an adjunct instructor). I won’t be homeless or starve and I know I’m very fortunate and thankful. But I’m starting to think we need touch in addition to the necessities. Or at least I do. When I cry and panic about the uncertainty of the future, I need touch. I am a Strong, Independent Woman and a certified introvert, but I know I can’t live like this for much longer.

My family wants me to come back to Texas for awhile; I think they are worried about my mental health, which is a valid concern. I have an anxiety disorder (GAD), and isolation is not conducive to a good mental state for me. I think Mabel and I will go in the next week or so. There will be a long drive and much sanitizing along the way, but at the end there will be nice things to touch: a new puppy, shaved ice snowcones, a swimming pool, picking apricots and making jam, and, eventually, the most welcome kind of touch, hugs from my family.

I’m doing my best. Thank you for asking. I hope you are well and safe.

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