In Search of Touch

“Go ahead,” he says. “I made them for you.”

A stack of white stickers cut from an 8.5×11 sheet of office labels fills my hands. I play with the corner of one to release its sticky side. Looking down to my fingers, I read the words printed in black Courier New. “You are beautiful,” it says up to me.

I had always wanted to make a sticker like this to place in bar bathrooms. I planned to place it on a mirror right across where a woman’s eyes might reflect back at her. I meant for it to replace the doubt, the fixing, the berating, but bars have been closed for months.

Through messages in the dating app, he told me he’d make the sticker anyway. He sent photos of samples for me to choose from. The way he shared his process as a street artist with me was sweet. We made a plan to meet in the L.A. Arts District to go pasting.

A crisp Saturday in December, I chose black pants and a black and teal flannel, but the sun was threatening to be hot.

I parked my car on Third, easy to do on an empty street. Close by, Fourth Street Bridge stretched across an empty river.

Before getting out I made sure to secure my mask and sunglasses. In my purse, I double-checked for hand sanitizer. I walked up to Arts District Brewery and waited on the sidewalk in front of a brick wall with a graffitied blue and bleeding heart. My date appeared, moving up the block. He was also masked, also beglassed.

Friends in committed relationships have asked, “What has it been like to date in the pandemic?” The answer, not easy.

First dates are meant to be flirtatious and giggly. In another time, we would be meeting inside a dark downtown bar. Music playing. The stench of sour liquor pinching my nose. He’d ask what I like and order me something smooth. After half a drink, the conversation would begin to flow. I’d ask him a crucial question, “What’s your favorite kind of fry?” He’d say tater tots. “What? That’s not even a fry!” I’d say shoestring dipped in blue cheese because ranch is so over. Later, because he’d be too shy to make a move, I’d ask him to kiss me. This seems to be my move in any time. And we’d make out sitting side by side on barstools all limbs and tongues.

On the street, there is a void of sounds and smells. I stick the words in my hands onto a light post in the eye line of passersby. Above my sticker sits another sticker a quarter-size bigger with white words over a black background.

“Think of something beautiful,” it commands.

My sticker will tell the next passerby, the beautiful thing is you. Above my head a mourning dove perched on wires asks, Who? No one in sight but us.

We keep moving down the street. As we walk, he shares about a son not long out of high school. He goes into staccato details about a 10-year-long divorce. I strain to hear his words muffled below his mask, to see the pain behind his glasses. His thick salt and pepper hair falls in a short wave just above his collar. How nice it might be to run my fingers through. How soft. How soothing.

We come to a utility box painted over in many layers of gray. He brings out a whole 8.5×11 page of sticker paper. This time the Courier New is bigger, and black words take up the majority of the surface. I stand back not to crowd him. I worry about cops, but there are none, and he doesn’t seem at all concerned.

“I refuse to stop searching for glimpses of joy within this chaos.”

He slathers white Elmer’s glue with a paintbrush across the sticker’s face. He informs me it will stay longer this way. I wonder how long until the next layer of gray paint.

Across the street and in view of the utility box, stands a large mural of a white woman’s face in profile. She’s touching her forehead against the forehead of a figure that could be alien or machine. I’m unsure, but the touch taunts.

What might it be like to hold his hand? See his eyes? Know his smile. The slump in his shoulders, the drag in his step, says he hasn’t smiled in a while. He stops beneath a corner of brick building. He shows me where he’s pasted a sign while he waited for me to arrive.

“Look at all the other stickers,” he tells me, “I like how we are all together.” I see “Think of something beautiful” again. Higher on the wall, a black and white Lady Liberty holds up a foam finger where her torch should be. Instead of a “1”, the hand forms a “W” for Westside with an “LA” in her palm. Lower, but still on the same corner of wall, a sticker of a funny pink character with blue hair reads “Endless Possibilities.” Each sticker represents a different artist. They talk to one another. Maybe even influence one another. They mingle at a party. Parties and gatherings inside four walls feel so far away, but here this wall is endless in possibility.

In front of boarded up windows of a closed down storefront on the corner of a vacant street, we say goodbye and walk our separate ways and never see each other again.

My married friends ask what’s dating like, but I don’t dare ask what’s married life like. Especially to those with kids. Especially when we’re all on the edge of cracking. Everyone has it hard during this time, but living as a single person through a worldwide health crisis that dictates to live, you must not touch, is a special kind of torture.

“I’m so lonely,” he said at some point on our walk. Or maybe he didn’t say it. Maybe it was something I felt without words like the thin layer of sweat building beneath the collar of my black and teal flannel as I walked back to my car.

Yes, I’m so lonely too.

The Night Had Claws

As our shapes re-emerge from the thinning steam, Sheila pushes the button and once more we disappear. She repeats this ritual in silence until my hands and the soles of my feet are wrinkled. I don’t want to leave this white hard shell. I want to stay here forever, tucked away from the world. Invisible. Safe.

Heavy Lifting

Maybe she stood by him no matter what, because she’d suffered enough heartache. She married her childhood sweetheart and had my brother and me before things fell apart. Her father, who had meant everything to her, died tragically in the projects almost a decade ago. Bernard was her one and only son, and even though it could happen, she didn’t want to believe she could lose him too.

My Mother's Name

When my mother said my name, not one of the three syllables was diluted or mangled, assimilated or Americanized.