projects and writings of Tracy Burkholder
This essay originally appeared in The Cincinnati Review vol. 9.1 in the summer of 2012. It was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2013.
“Touch is food. Vital food.”
– Deane Juhan, Job’s Body
Ginger-scented oil slicks my fingers. A new massage client lies beneath them, his back exposed to the waist. Despite the mild fall weather, my hands remain icy, refusing the heat of soapy water or quick friction. I hesitate, fingertips poised above shoulder blades, and apologize. “Sorry for the cold.”
Still, after all these years, this moment of pause arises with each new person. Not simply because of my chilly hands, but as an unspoken plea for permission: Are you sure this is okay? You don’t think this is too strange? You met me three minutes ago and now you’ve taken off all your clothes and slipped between the sheets on my massage table in the back room of my house. I didn’t even shake your hand when you came in, choosing instead the smile and slightly bowed head, the please-come-in roll of the wrist. I know nothing about you other than the inch-long information allowed on the intake form. Levatol for high blood pressure. Knee surgery in ’98. Back pain.
And yet, in the time it takes me to wash up – the water’s effects both scalding and brief – you’ve carelessly piled all your clothes on the corner chair. A pair of red plaid boxers drape across the top of your jeans. The beige massage sheet bunches across your hips and a patchwork of old acne scars covers your upper back. In seconds, your breath begins to slow.
Some therapists begin with their clients supine, but I prefer the element of anonymity offered by the face rest. Better to ask for wordless consent from your shoulder blades and spine. Will you let my hands roam in Swedish patterns across your body? Will you allow my thumbs deep into the painful curves of your muscles? Will you trust me to feed you this way?
Our bodies need other bodies. One of the first stories we’re told is the stroke of our mother’s hand across our newborn skin. The story tells us we’re safe, that it’s okay to grow and thrive. So new to the world, the touch of another human may be the only thing that tells us who we are, where we are, what we’re meant to be. When premature infants fail to learn that story, shielded from it by incubators, tubes and the fear of fragility, they have trouble learning that it’s time to live. Since 1986, the Touch Research Institute has been studying the affects of massage on premies. The babies that received regular touch –a few fingers rubbing their tiny heads and backs – gained significantly more weight in the same amount of time as those isolated and untouched inside their sterile, plastic homes. Despite this fact, only 38% of neonatal intensive care units provide touch therapy.
It seems we should have learned more, learned better, since the days of the early twentieth century when researcher Henry Chapin discovered that infants in U.S. orphanages suffered a mortality rate of nearly 100% percent. The small staffs of these institutions offered hurriedly served food and a solitary spot in a crib. Theoretically, this should have been enough, but if the child was under a year old, they failed to thrive. As social reformer Jane Addams wrote, “The high death rate in institutions is increased by the discontented babies whom no one persuades into living.” Reform brought an increase in staff at institutions and a shift toward foster care. This meant more time to hold the babies. The survival rate increased dramatically.
This bit of baby data feeds my need for proof. For over a decade, I’ve sought evidence that touch is not trivial, that a career built on touching is not some strange or lesser calling. Touchy-feely, I used to say, my nose wrinkled in disgust. Touch. Feel. It’s what I do all day now.
The first time I told my mother that I wanted to become a massage therapist I got the familiar triumvirate of disappointment: A tongue click. A descending “Oh,” followed by my name, uttered as if I were an undisciplined dog. I explained that I’d go to school, get a license, and then work in a clinic or spa.
“You mean a massage parlor,” she said.
I sat in Oregon; she sat in Massachusetts. Between us stretched the uncomfortable business of bodies and money. Bodies and money and sex. I wanted to know what kind of person called up their mother to say they were quitting their $6.00 an hour bookstore job to set up shop as a hooker. It was only when I got down to the detail of needing a loan to pay for the massage training program that she reluctantly understood.
Rubbing people for cash. That was, essentially, my plan. I couldn’t blame her for questioning the validity of my choice. She probably envisioned a different future for me, one that relied on a less manual and less intimate form of labor. Maybe she thought my life as a lowly bookseller meant someday I could emerge as an exhausted, bitter bookstore manager. I didn’t see how this was morally, intellectually or financially superior to being a massage therapist. But then I remembered why she might be wary: All those bodies, all that skin.
It is 1983 in a northern suburb of Boston. My father sits in his brown leather chair squinting into a file of papers. My mother works in the kitchen chopping celery for the salad. They sip whiskey and sodas (bourbon for mom, scotch for dad) and glance occasionally in the direction of the TV that rattles off news about Israel that I don’t understand. On the opposite end of the couch from me, my sister asks if she can change the channel to Star Trek while around the corner, the slightly cramped, heavily draped dining room threatens with its high backed chairs and candle-lit propriety. Despite my loathing of Star Trek I ask, as I do almost every night, if we can eat dinner in front of the television. Of course not, my mother says, now set the table.
Throughout the evening we circle each other in distinct orbits. If we touch, it is accidental and glancing. If we speak of our bodies, it is done in stoic tones to register significant illness or pain. What I need to know about the biology, morality and emotional complexities of sex have never been mentioned by either of my parents. And never will be. If they’ve talked to my older sister, I don’t know about it and I will never ask.
Such distances haven’t always been the norm, but the tearful hugs and goodnight kisses that fed me as a child now feel, at the wise age of thirteen, like signs of weakness. No evidence is offered to the contrary. No attempts are made to change my mind.
This is not blame. This was simply the way we were: well-loved at arms length. And by we I mean, not only my immediate family, but my friends as well. My girlfriends and I never threw our arms around each other as we walked down the street. We never hugged hello in the hallways when we first arrived at school. Even in our giddiest moments of celebration, we kept our bodies separate.
And by we, I also mean Americans. In 1966 a researcher named Sidney Jourard studied physical contact between friends from different parts of the world. Sitting at cafés in England, France, Puerto Rico and the U.S., he counted the number of times his subjects touched during an hour-long conversation. The French touched 120 times. The Puerto Ricans a remarkable 180. Do the math. That’s three times a minute. To me, this is nearly inconceivable. Stop grabbing, I think. Keep your hands to yourself.
The Americans touched only twice. The English, not at all.
I was sixteen before I held a boy’s hand and when I did, my nerves went haywire. I was closer to seventeen before another boy, one I’d liked for over a year, asked to kiss me. It took me a day to push through the nervous sting and panic of it and agree. Then, suddenly, I knew. I felt what I’d been missing and would, soon enough, miss again. Body against body, skin to skin. Not sex as much as touch. A feast of entwined fingers, of summer cheeks against summer shoulders.
On my refrigerator is a postcard that I received of a collage by Barbara Kruger. You create intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men. The words ride over the grainy black and white image of tuxedoed men grabbing playfully at each other. Kruger didn’t know that years later, a study at the University of California, San Francisco would reveal that NBA teams that were more physical with each other played better than those that were more reserved. The college friend who sent me the card didn’t know that, at the time, I’d developed a crush on a man simply because he liked to rest his head on my lap while we watched TV.
It is 2005, before I see my parents embrace for the first time, or at least the first time I can remember. It is Thanksgiving and my immediate family has crowded into my grandmother’s tiny home. I wake up on the couch and directly in my line of sight is the open door of the guest room where my parents have slept in separate twin beds. My mother stands in profile wearing the latest version of the off-white nylon nightgown she’s always favored, talking softly to my father in a blur of blue pajamas. It’s odd and slightly disconcerting seeing them in the thin, shapeless fabric of sleep. Grabbing my glasses from the coffee table, I hope to make the day turn crisp. Instead, I see my mother lean into my father. They embrace for no more than a few seconds but the intimacy of it is undeniable. I fling myself upright and out of view, my eyes unsure of where or how to settle. Only later am I amused by my shock and embarrassment, though I tell no one. By then, everyone is fully dressed and separated by an appropriate amount of air.
I received my massage license in 1996, but this had no effect on our familial orbits. During visits, it was understood that I was on vacation, uninterested in plying my trade. My father told me how his low back pain had been cured by regular chiropractic treatments. My mother claimed to love the microwavable flax packs I sent for her birthday, the massaging chair pad I sent for Christmas. It wasn’t until six months after witnessing that embarrassing embrace at Grandma’s that I ran out of excuses to not touch my family.
On her way home from work, my mother stepped into a crosswalk and was hit by a small delivery truck. Luckily, the only serious injury was a bad break to her leg. When my father went away on a business trip, I flew home to help. I drove my mother to her appointments, to the store and bank. I helped cook and carried her plates to and from her spot on the couch. An excess of helpfulness was given at every possible moment, everything but the obvious gift of a massage to ease her pain. By that point in my career, I’d helped dozens and dozens of clients recover from car accident injuries. I knew touch could bring relief. And yet, while we talked about how massage would help, I felt not only my own hesitancy, but my mother’s as well. She was tired and didn’t want to bother. She’d had P.T. that day and we didn’t want to aggravate it. We stayed up too late watching TV with the comfortable width of a coffee table between us.
It wasn’t until the last day of my visit that I realized how ridiculous it would be if I left without showing my mother the skills I’d acquired and serving her with the touch she needed. I imagined how both my clients and friends would either assume I’d massaged her when I hadn’t or they would ask me if I had and would then wonder what my problem was when I told them I’d done nothing. Bad therapist. Bad daughter.
We both waited until the last possible moment. At the end of the day, I finally climbed the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. My mother waited for me in bed in her cream-colored nightgown with her leg trapped inside its giant, hinged brace. It took several minutes for her to undo the straps and gently guide her leg free of the monstrous thing. I stood to the side with a bottle of lotion in my cold hands, a nervous damp coating my back. What bothered her the most was the outside of her thigh above the injured knee. I found myself wishing for more neutral ground: a whiplashed neck or a broken arm. Rubbing my mother’s thigh seemed too quick a plunge into the realm of intimacy. As if, in an instant, we’d become the kind of family that told each other secrets, that called each other “friend.”
I pushed through the urge to run away, not because of some rush of compassion. Compassion was only a trickle beneath the swell of embarrassment I knew I’d feel if I made an excuse and left the room. Propriety required I follow through. At the same time, propriety insisted that the whole thing was terribly, terribly touchy-feely.
My mother’s leg was shockingly pale and covered in fine wrinkles as well as the deeper creases caused by the brace. I didn’t want to feel her softness. I didn’t want to dispel the final remnants of my long-held illusion that our bodies needed nothing but food and shelter, that they existed as a vehicle for our minds and little more. This illusion was a factor in years of self-imposed isolation, and yet ending it with such an obvious display to the contrary seemed like an insult. Like I was thumbing my nose at how I was raised, at all those years of careful distance and proper conversation.
I rubbed a spot of lotion into my palm and shifted all my effort into imagining my mother as a new client. My hand dropped to the tight band of tissue along the side of her leg. Moving mechanically across her thinning skin, I babbled about the benefits of increased circulation, the timelines for tissue healing, and the origin and insertion of each muscle I tentatively touched. Like any number of slightly shy, pain-ridden clients, my mother accepted my touch with a quiet alertness punctuated with exclamations of disbelief: You can feel that? Why is that so tight? After half an hour, I left amidst an awkward profusion of thanks. My mother remained in bed, while I turned out the lights for her and closed the door.
The next day, she claimed how much the massage had helped. Her praise felt like many a mother’s praise: a little too loud and a little askew. Still, I accepted it as gracefully as I could, relieved that our crossing orbits hadn’t resulted in a horrible crash. That, in fact, we had crossed paths and were now continuing on, both feeling a little better.
Our culture prefers we keep our distance. Despite studies by Nicolas Gueguen and other researchers that show a couple touches on the arm can encourage participation in the classroom or compliance with taking prescribed medication, teachers and doctors touch us less and less. Those same doctors have largely stopped touching their patients during an exam, relying on the knowledge of tests rather than the knowledge of hands. On the internet, we gather hundreds of friends that we never see, let alone hug. We largely refuse to abandon the solitude and independence of the single car/ single driver dynamic and when we arrive at our office cubicle, harassment policies remind us that it’s safer to simply speak our congratulations and condolences. Send flowers or an email or a text.
Hairdressers, manicurists and massage therapists have stepped in like surrogate mothers. We tend to the body for the sake of health and beauty, but also to shed a layer of loneliness from our skin and others. All of us hunger for reassurance that we exist, and more specifically, that we exist in our bodies. The string of abbreviated, disposable messages that we pass through the ether cannot be the whole of our connection.
I have longed for my yoga instructor to place her hands between my shoulder blades and adjust my position. I have craved the feel of my partner’s feet rubbing across my own to bring them warmth. While I still rarely hug the friends I’ve known the longest – my fellow stoic New Englanders – I have forcibly shed my repulsion, though not all of my awkwardness, toward taking people into my arms. I continue to hesitate above the backs of new clients, but I never fail to follow through. And it seems I’m not the only one in my family learning this skill. The anecdote my mother now tells almost every time my profession is mentioned in casual conversation is how her favorite part of getting her hair cut is the wonderful scalp massage the woman gives her while she does the shampoo. I take this as more proof, an acknowledgement that touch feeds us all, even those who prefer to keep their hands to themselves.