Close Enough to (Almost) Touch

Tanzila Ahmed

Tanzila Ahmed

I stare at the palms of my hands, as if seeing them anew. They are fairer than I remembered, plumper and drier. All the tiny crinkles have deepened and the slash of my life line has lengthened.

I turn my hands on their sides slowly, looking at melanin’s soft edges. A short, thick, straight black hair is growing out of the side. I pluck it out, firm and deft. I notice another black hair, and then another. I pluck out each one. As I pull the last one out from the plush pad of my palm, it stretches, long and dense. It is a wet, raven-black feather. As I hold it, the shiny feather dries, quickly turning lush, but still as dark as night. I am amazed that it sprang from my skin.

With a startle, I wake up. My eyes open slowly and I stare at the shadows the gray morning light throws on the popcorn ceiling. Under the covers, I clench my hands, tracing their familiar smoothness. No hairs. No feathers.

I wonder what the dream could have meant. It must have meant something. And I wonder when the last time was that someone else touched my hand like that – really looked at it with that tenderness to detail and felt it with care.

That evening at my parents’ house, my sister comes into the living room, groggy from a nap. She gives me an awkward hug as I sit on the floor.

“I just saw Mom. She came to me in my dream,” she says matter-of-factly. She is always matter of fact when Mom comes to visit her in her dreams.

“What was she doing?” I ask. I always ask this, trying to place her.

“I didn’t see her. But I heard her in the kitchen. She was humming, happily cooking and making us food. I got really excited and I ran into little sister’s room to tell her that we were going to be eating Mom’s cooking tonight. And she got excited, too. And then I woke up.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if you walked into the kitchen right now and there was food on the stove? Like if she could reach us through the dream and part of it could be real?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she responds sadly.

Four years ago on Memorial Day weekend, I too had a dream about Mom. I didn’t know it at the time, but it had been an omen, one that foreshadowed her death three days later.

I can’t believe it’s been four years since she died. And I wonder again, if our dreams meant more.

+++

Mom’s hands were chubby and rough. Her hands had been forsha when she was teen, fair as ivory, but the skin on the back of her hands had turned a dark brown from the California sun – she had a fierce farmer’s tan. As a youth, her thin hands had been soft and musical, one hand dancing on the keys of a harmonium while pumping air with the other one. With those hands she embroidered — cross-stitching flowers, rainbows and peacocks and crocheting dainty white doilies.

On a recent visit to my Nana in Nepal, I saw mom’s embroidery work – moldy, faded and threadbare – still up on his bedroom wall. Later in life, as her joints made it harder for her to stitch details, she turned to knitting. She had just finished knitting Dad a sweater vest before she died. She liked to knit sweater vests because she didn’t like sewing on the arms. After she died, Dad wanted to get rid of all the sweater vests she had made him – but I hid them bundled on the floor in the back of my closet because I couldn’t imagine mom’s handiwork at the bottom of a thriftstore bin.

Her hands were working hands – she gardened with them, cooked food with them. At her job as a parking attendant cashier, she’d take money from her customers and return change with her hands. They were rough and thick. She could no longer wear her rings; her fingers had grown too big for them. I think sometimes, she didn’t recognize her own hands. In the same way, she said, she didn’t recognize herself overweight.

My last touch with Mom had been with her hand. It was at the airport, she was dropping me off for my return flight to Oakland. I was struggling financially and mid-hustle for a job. She had borrowed a lot of money from me, half of what was in my bank account, but I couldn’t say no. I was upset, worried about how I was going to survive, to eat. I hugged her goodbye stiffly, still so upset. Clumsily her hand reached mine, stuffing a hundred dollar bill into my hand and told me that I had to eat. She told me to spend it on food.

That was our Last Touch.

++++

I miss being touched.

My skin alights as if on fire when strangers graze my hand accidentally. When friends hug in greeting I am both uncomfortable at the foreignness and in awe at how electric it feels. I never know when is the normal amount of time to let go. The casual reach by an acquaintance is enough to stop me in mid-conversation. When you are single, live alone, and have a cubicle work life – you can go for days without human touch. In these modern sterile times, it’s easy. Life can be scrubbed of everything human.

My skin thirsts for contact. It has been a year since my last proper cuddle and a couple more since my last proper relationship. In that relationship, our hands were magnetically drawn to each other, my head always had a shoulder to lean on, and we touched with fingers to say, “I hear you.” That kind of magic doesn’t come from the awkward handshake after a blind date or the uneasy random hookup.

They don’t tell you that about growing old and single. That the craving of human contact trumps sexual desires. I want the thrill of perfectly intertwined fingers. The smell of his musk as I nuzzle my face in his neck or how my head fits just perfect in the nook of a shoulder. I want to feel skin to skin, skin on skin, the soft caresses and hugs that don’t end.

Sometimes you miss touch for so long, you feel undeserving. And your protective shell hardens up even more.

++++

Mom was the glue in our family. She was our oxytocin – always there to give us a hug. I never really hugged my sisters and definitely never hugged my Dad. Hugs with Dad were forced and full of tension. Mom’s hugs though – they were full. She meant them. Though she had grown in size, it meant there was more of her to hug. In her embrace you would fall into safety and all the worries of the universe would fall away. Her hugs were easy, always available. She’d always be there to rub your back with a hand, to give you aadhor while she caressed your cheeks. She’d stroke your hair when you were feeling under the weather. She held your hand when she knew you were sad but didn’t know why. In our family, she was our touch. And our touch point.

After she left, we didn’t know how to be affectionate to each other. Our family had to re-learn and struggle through what it meant to be a family without her.

I missed her hugs so desperately after she died. I missed her touch. Profoundly, I realized that I wasn’t being touched by anyone at all – not by my sisters, nor by friends. I missed being touched so much. There were the perfunctory greeting hugs, but no one to cuddle and no one to hold hands with. All those years I had been single, it was Mom who had been my primary source of oxytocin highs. Without her, my skin just ached to be touched again. I missed human contact.

Recent research says that people who live alone are less likely to live long lives. My heart sank the first time I read this – I thought about how the simple act of not being able to find a partner could shorten my life span. What an unfair side effect to not being able to find romantic love. They say that without human contact, your body stops producing oxytocin – the chemical that helps to stave off physiological and psychological issues. The simple act of bodily contact causes your brain to release low levels of oxytocin. A ten-second hug will boost your immunity and lower your risk of heart diseases. But what about those of us who don’t even have that?

I think, maybe, that’s why the stray black cat must have been sent to us. Within weeks of Mom passing away, a grown black cat came lingering in the driveway of my family’s house. The first time I met him was on one of my frequent visits to the house. He ran out to greet me at my car when I pulled up and escorted me all the way to the door.

“Who is that? And where did he come from?” I asked my family, as I entered the house.

“We don’t know. He just started showing up on our doorstep and hanging around the house,” my Dad said.

“I think Mom sent him,” my sister said conspiratorially. “We named him Casper.”

He wasn’t scared of us. He demanded to be petted. Our household was allergic to cats, but Casper would not be ignored. He rubbed your legs when you tried to avoid him. We eventually relented, petting him and washing our hands afterwards. My Dad began putting out milk for the cat. Casper is prone to disappearing for a few days on end, and each time we think it may be the last. But every time he comes back my Dad’s face lights up and he says, “Oh, you’re back! How it happened like this?”

And then he’ll go and get a tin of cat food to feed him. Casper is one of the few things that makes Dad truly happy these days.

Casper’s black hair is now peppered with gray hairs and a piece of his ear is torn. His meows are lazy and sometimes he’ll just sit in the middle of the street late at night under the glow of streetlamp. I wonder constantly where he came from – how much of Mom’s hand resides in how and when he appeared. I wonder if he’s sending her messages of what he sees us doing and tells her how we’ve grown. I think we all know in our hearts, that he was sent to watch over us.

And maybe Mom sent him to help us cuddle for our oxytocin recharge, too.

Read more by Tanzila, here.

Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively.  An avid writer,  she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.


One Comment on “Close Enough to (Almost) Touch”

  1. Lara says:

    Beautiful, Tanzila. I am inspired by courage to be vulnerable, over and over again. Kudos to you. May Allah grant you love and comfort in the best ways.