“The quality of the assist should be as if you are approaching the beloved,” states the woman leading the yoga immersion, showing us how to touch our partners as we help them into a pose. She is the only one standing, the rest of us seated around her like a kindergarten class. “And it should be a full touch.” She turns her hand into a claw on the soft purple cloth covering her thighs. “None of this.” She scratches up and down. “This doesn’t feel good.” She presses her palm flat against her thigh. “This feels good.”
We split into pairs and I assist first, kneeling before my assigned partner’s back thigh. I press my hands firmly against the inside and outside of her leg, rotating it inward.
“Does this hurt?” I ask, needing verbal feedback. “How does this feel?”
I drop into a meditative space, no thinking, just the quiet attention of giving a stranger’s body my full support and care. I focus on the position of her femurs in the pelvic socket, where her scapula lies on her back, my attention to her body leashing me to my own.
“You become who you are over the course of a life that unfolds as an ongoing interaction with objects and others, from the infant you once were, whose bodily cartography slowly emerged as you were handled by caregivers whose speech washed over you, to the grown-up you are today, drawn beyond reason to one person rather than another,” Christina Crosby writes in A Body, Undone, her memoir about her body, changed forever by a bicycle accident that broke her neck. How we know our bodies comes from the way we are handled, from the way your parents held you to the press of sexual partners. We become ourselves through the experience of skin against other skin.
My parents barely touched me as a child, physical intimacy not part of the Thai repertoire of affection, or at least not my parents’. My strongest tactile memory is of my mother scratching my bare back, really digging her nails in over and over until my skin turned bright red. I loved it, begged her to keep going, her fingers reaching down through the layers of epidermis to meet some primal need. I have no idea what my father’s skin feels like. Because of our physical similarities, I imagine that it must feel like my own.
I didn’t notice anything unusual about the way my family said good-bye until I left for college. At school, whenever I left a friend, even if I would see him or her the next day, we’d hug. The other person would step towards me and my mind, which at the time kept up a steady socially anxious hum, would blank, out of information. My arms would rise and grip the other person either too tightly or too loosely, and I was never quite sure what to do with my head. I’d often go to stick my face over the wrong shoulder and I’d bash my teeth against their cheek, or move as if to kiss them on the mouth.
Since puberty I’d felt my sexuality as a burden, heavy endless fantasies and a conviction that no one would ever want to sleep with me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to sleep with anyone. I did want to sleep with people, lots of people, but I didn’t want anyone to know, including the people that I wanted to sleep with.
The first time I told my mother I had a crush on a boy, she told me to turn those feelings off like a faucet. The only conversation we’ve ever had about sex ended when she told me, casually, that it always hurts. My father would leave the room when he saw the parents on Seventh Heaven kissing, complaining about all of the sex on TV. While my mother continues to be incapable of saying sex, my father occasionally says it too loud, a lot of force and air behind the word, as if propelling it away from himself.
My partner and I sleep on the same full pillow-top mattress I’ve been sleeping in since my senior year of college when I bought it from my best friend’s ex-boyfriend. I didn’t fuck anyone that year and felt acutely my best friend’s past sexual experiences through the cheap cotton sheets. The bed felt cavernous without anyone else, and I’d roam across it in the course of a night, rolling and rolling until I got to an edge, then rolling back. I remember that year as endlessly cold.
Now, I sometimes see my partner asleep in the bed alone, and it seems too small for just him, a splayed mess of long, pale limbs. Somehow, I manage to fit myself in. His body temperature runs hotter than mine, and as soon as I get in he wraps an arm around me, even if he’s sleeping. In the summer, I push him off, but otherwise let his arm stay there, enjoying the unconscious pressure. We change places throughout the night, our arms and legs swimming in and out of each other. His is the body that I’ve known the longest, one that I’ve kept myself wrapped up in for six years.
My partner is not a touchy man. This is initially what I liked about him, as in the past the touch of men has felt like an adventurer placing a flag, a way of announcing to the world that I am now owned. Sometimes, though, I long for a backrub, or for him to stroke my hair, something small to provide a moment of animal pleasure, like a cat’s fur bristling under a hand.
The last time I made the more than twenty-four hour journey to Thailand with my mother, I took note of the fact that when she saw her siblings for the first time, they didn’t hug. Instead, they stood a respectful distance from each other and brought their hands to their face in a prayer position, bending towards each other at the waist. I did the same thing, saying some of the only Thai words I’ve known for as long as I can remember. I’ve never touched any of my mother’s family, and watching them, I realized that maybe my mother hasn’t either.
During another yoga class, the teacher pushes me deeper into my seated forward fold, his hands guiding my torso over my outstretched leg. I don’t know if it is because he is a gentle, slightly older man, but the way his left fingers linger on my back ribs before moving on breaks open a flood of grief, leaving me with an absence, a father-sized hole. My back remains the most porous part of me, intensely sensitive, where my sense of bodily self is seated despite the fact that I can’t see it. In that extra moment of contact, I feel more than the touch really warrants, filled with my own lonely-girl needs. I know that this sense I have of being a fatherless girl is an emptiness for me alone to fill, not the place of this near-stranger.
But still, I hang on to the warmth for longer than I should.
I’d hardly been touched when I’d left for college, just a high school boyfriend I made out with wetly in the back seat of my car. I’d sucked his cock maybe once or twice, but he was incapable of coming from the stimulation of my mouth. After we broke up, my friends and I referred to him as the pillow-humper, because he could only come with that soft fluffy aid. I think I must have been hurt that I, a living breathing girl was not as effective at eliciting orgasms as two pieces of fabric stuffed with batting. But now I regret how I made fun of him. Who am I to judge where people find their pleasure?
It was not strictly true, the part mentioned earlier about never touching my mother’s family. I have been touched by my cousin, not in a hug, but while she gave me a facial, practicing her English for international Amway conventions.
She has me lay down on top of the covers of the hotel room bed, my hair pulled back away from my face. She fills a bowl with warm water and wets one of the small square hotel washcloths, dampening my face. “The first step will remove your dying skin,” she says, rubbing an abrasive cream against my face. Like scratching, it feels good, and I want her to dig deeper. “The warm water is to open up the holes in your face.”
“Pores,” I say.
“Pores. And the black stuff will come out with the cleanser.”
I did not think of my face as having black stuff. The cleansers smell fusty, not at all the scent I would choose for myself. They remind me of my mother’s hoard of Estee Lauder samples. My cousin rubs small circles into my face, whipping the pearlescent gel into a lather. She is careful not to nick my skin with her long painted nails, and then uses the wash cloth to wipe the foam and black stuff away.
Nothing is ever just good.
I go to an early morning yoga class taught by the gentle, slightly older man, move through sequences in my fuzzy pre-caffeinated state. He touches me once—comes up behind me during a standing twist, purposely stepping on my foot. “Heel down,” he says. He wraps his warm hand around my inner thigh and tells me to push through. “Nice,” he says, keeping his hand on my thigh, his other hand coming to my back, nudging my ribs around.
As I leave the class, the woman next to me pulls me aside. “This is weird,” she asks, “but are you okay with his assists?”
I think her second person is really a first, that she is unhappy with the way he’s touched her. I prepare to launch into a speech about the yoga studio’s affirmative consent cards. “I know what you’re talking about,” I say, trying to normalize her experience.
“You do?” she says. She stares at me, eyes large, looking a little ill.
“Yes?” I say, confused. “I do.”
At eighteen years old, I arrived at college and felt a desperate need for a boy with a girlfriend. I didn’t know what to do with this urgent demand to touch and be touched by other people, and the only way I knew how to handle it was to drink cheap vodka until my skin went numb. This was how I lost my virginity one night in my dorm room, to the boy with the girlfriend, the computer on the desk playing a bootleg copy of The Labyrinth. I couldn’t even feel it. A hazy body on top of mine, sloppy kisses and some pushing. That is all I can remember.
When I ask the boy later why he’d had sex with me, even though he had a girlfriend, and I was so incredibly drunk, he simply said, “Because I wanted to. I’ve spent enough time not doing what I want to do.”
The next morning, I eat breakfast with my roommate in the dining hall. She seemed ready to celebrate the loss of my virginity until I tell her more about it. “That’s rape,” she said.
The word hit me where my ribs knit together. “No,” I said. “That’s not what it was.”
So that’s what she called it. Other people, maybe even my own parents, might say I got what I wanted. I don’t know what name to give it. I don’t have the right language. I am trying to write my way to the words, but even now they still don’t come.
What I do know is that afterwards, I was fucked up. I dragged myself to and from class, turned in what I needed to, but I did not talk to anyone. I swam at the university pool, back and forth in the clear chlorinated water, trying to leave the bad feeling behind me. I lost body and language. I remember just waiting for something to end.
I left my body and did not live in it again for years. I have spent so much of my life spinning rootless, desperate for a place to live. This girl, that boy, I would hang on and beg to be let in.
The woman who confronted me at the yoga studio started to look even sicker and afraid, as if I am bleeding from an unseen wound. It’s then that I realize her question had been earnest.
She’d seen his hand on my thigh. I saw how he touched you, her look says. You should be afraid.
And then I’m eighteen again, old fear feelings blooming. Your young girl-body, vulnerable female flesh. She looks at me, and I hear my freshmen year roommate. I hear the word rape.
I get my coat and shoes, throw them on, and run out the door, ignoring the teacher behind the front desk.
The thing is, I dated that boy from college for a while. Maybe at some point I loved him. That’s the thing about not living in your body. The touch and press of other people can take over. Everything gets fucked up.
I came back to my body because I had no choice—this is my only container. I exercise intensely, swimming, yoga, biking up hills, until the pain radiates out to my fingers and toes. I breathe into the agony, teaching myself how, in the middle of fire, to be safe in my own bones.
While working my body has helped me feel my edges, I also know that it is the presence of the gentle, slightly older man who teaches my yoga class, a stranger I feel safe with, who brought me back with a soft, careful touch. I hate admitting this, how much I owe to an almost unknown man.
I am okay, and I am not. I am healed and I am in pain. What has happened to my body, and what my body has done has been knitted into its fabric, into my bones, into the thin iridescent tissue that keeps my muscles in form. Does pain make you stronger? I don’t think so. I don’t think pain is anything good. But on a lucky day I can live inside of pain, and it feels like life, trying to fight its way in.