The Hug

by

James Burns

 

One night recently my wife Jane and I woke at the same time in what is for me the darkest hour of the night. Her waking pleased me, because when I lie awake while she sleeps, I fall into reviewing my life, the imaginary gains, the real losses. I tumble into the bog of my daily worries—the roof that needs to be repaired, future bills, cancer, the ever-present imminent heart attack, my dwindling assets. And then two more about which I can do nothing: I acknowledge how much of my life I've wasted, and, finally, I think of the march of friends and family into their graves.

I've learned tricks to drive out this bedroom angst. I conjure up my childhood home and tour it room-by-room. On an especially bad night, I inspect every knickknack, every book on every shelf of that lost house. Sometimes I play an imaginary round of golf on the primitive course of my youth. Finally, I can bring forth memories of the pain of shingles, of Pinkie Hillhouse's role in that awful time, and her unforgettable hugs. Even in the middle of the night, when I am hard put to believe anything would ever be right again, thoughts of Pinkie assure me that all may be well after all.

Happily, as Jane was awake, we began to talk, to remember events that led to childish, unstoppable, gasping-for-air giggling, the kind that in childhood often got one in trouble because the witnessing, sober authority, a teacher or parent, perhaps feeling the object of the laughter, suffered from it. After one of these fits of laughing, too rare as one ages, I am left slightly euphoric, as if I'd swallowed a recreational drug. My worries are banished. I am ready to sleep, or talk some more. I no longer remember what remark sent us into orbit that night—or which of us made it.

It was a quiet night; outside our house there was other talk, and death, and the tearing of flesh and fur—owls called to each other from one wood to another, coyotes howled and yipped in the fields. I imagined cotton-tailed rabbits, the common prey, trembling in hedges. Everyone but the rabbit was having a great time.

I can't explain why, in our darkened room, in our post-giggle lightness, I began to recall for Jane hugs I'd had in my life. I got carried away; I described and rated hugs by type and quality.

Until recent years, I'd had few hugs in my life. It wasn't done in what might have been my prime years for hugging. My parents generation didn't hug; I had no guidance from them. They shook hands. Not once did I see them or any of their friends hug, or, in the case of my parents, kiss or act warm and loving with one another. I was born too late to see them indulge in such behavior; perhaps they had tired of it by the time I was old enough to notice. I saw them touch only as mother left on one of her longer journeys, my father offering her a prissy kiss—perhaps because I was there to see—as my parents stood on the brick railroad platform at her departure. At the last possible moment—mother's bags were on the train, she had only to let the porter help her step up—my parents leaned to each other, their bodies held aloof, their lips pursed to touch briefly. It was the final act of turning away from each other, their lips bird-like beaks, unyielding, firm, dry, as if one were offering a seed to the other. It was never necessary for them to tear reluctantly and tearfully away from each other's arms, as I'd seen done in movies.

I never wondered if they did, or did not, love each other, or think that they should show me whatever it was. I would have been embarrassed if they had. I was content with them as they were, quiet and steady with each other, even later on when I was old enough to sense that they looked forward to the separations brought on by mother's solo trips to Banff, Carmel, Florida, New York, and even Seattle. I remember scenes, similar to the railroad station, in the driveway at our house, after mother learned to drive, when, again, she was off on a trip without my father. There was the familiar strained peck, and mother turning to get in the car and drive off. Father preferred to stay home with his business.

From the stairway overlooking their parties, I observed them and their friends, the couples they played bridge and golf with. I never saw one hug, or heard the sounds of other intimacies.

My own generation, I think, has been a bridge between the pre-hug era of my parents, and the current generation of wanton huggers who fly from one random hug to another with the same casualness that my generation shook hands. Then, the lingering firmness of the handclasp, an extra squeeze, or the look exchanged set the level of intimacy. If anyone of my generation hugged, I had looked away and missed it, or they had done it in a dark, private place. But I don't speak of the erotic hug. I refer to hugging as greeting, or parting, as casual substitute for shaking hands, as an act that leaves no lingering attachment, no possibility of liaison, nothing more than the meeting of two bodies: a clasp, a brief clinging, then the release and fresh air. Clean contact, clean break. Nothing expected, or promised.

My generation, at least where I lived, didn't engage in the wholesale hugging one sees today. Thus, I am left, at an age when I'm thought to be an experienced man, possibly even worldly, an awkward, fumbling, uncertain hugger, hesitant until there is a clear signal. I must be lead, invited, otherwise I am lost among arms reaching out.

Members of what is to me a younger generation, baby boomers now hug freely, casually, even indiscriminately. Man and woman hug me; I've learned to accept and give hugs when the opportunity arises, but in my old, somewhat hesitant and unsure manner, and always with pleasure, sometimes great pleasure. But I need the other to initiate the hug. Inside, I remain the shy youth, fearing—expecting!—rejection, afraid to make the first move. I must credit Martha Abbott, Hope Lukowski, and Pinkie Hillhouse for cracking my shell, for carrying me into hugging; for turning me into a hugger.

"Now take Martha Abbott," I said to my sleepy Jane, "she gets high scores. Are you listening? I didn't expect it from her, not that first time we hugged. Remember she and John stopped by. You were in the studio and didn't hear them drive in."

Because guests come to our island by ferry, we're never sure when they will arrive. Before we know it, they are driving down our country lane and parking on the quiet grass by our gate. We don't hear them. So when I think guests are due, I watch the road, ready to rush out, knowing how comforting it is to be greeted when one drives up to a country place and steps uncertainly out of the car. Is this the day? The time? Are we expected? Are they home?

"I saw the black pickup arrive, I went out to greet them." I listened to Jane's breathing. Yes, she was awake, listening. "It never occurred to me that Martha would offer to hug me—she's shy at first, don't you think?—yet, as we walked toward each other, she spread her arms for a hug. Without hesitation, I raised my arms and we met. I paused to remember. I was stunned," I said, "first at my reaction, I mean the way I put my arms out. This was the first time for us, I didn't expect the body-length kind of hug, clinging to each other all over, and both of us rather bony, the way you and I are. Martha surprised me, and I was happy," I told Jane. "As you know, I have little experience, but, from my current vantage point, I'd judge her among the best of huggers. Her grip surprised me," I said. "She must like me a little. For one so slight of build, so slender, even delicate in appearance, she is strong. She clung to me for some time as if to feel me. I knew then that she liked me. She was in no hurry to break away from me," I added, "which was fine because my delight built." I thought for a moment or two. "I can't understand why she wanted to hug me at all. Me, I said, an older man."

"You reciprocated, didn't you? I mean in kind."

"Oh, yes."

"Maybe she likes you," Jane said, "an older man she respects, or just likes. I know Martha; she doesn't hug just anybody."

"That could be," I said. "I prefer like to respect. It wasn't casual, but nothing was implied either except liking on her part. Apparently, she didn't fear rejection, or a half-hearted, timid response from me, that I would hold back, or reject her. I liked knowing that," I said. "There doesn't have to be anything more does there?"

"You've hugged since haven't you? I mean with Martha?"

"Oh, yes, every time we meet. It's lovely."

I discussed the few hugs I'd had with women of size, a different experience, new to me, and exotic, because the few romances of my past have been with lean women. "Remember Hope Lukowski?" I said. I resettled my head on the pillow, snuggled deeper in our bed. "She's what our friend Eric would call a pneumatique. She's not tall but she's tall enough to deliver the same full-body press as Martha, but what a difference. No bones. Hope must love a hug. She gives all of herself. That day we hugged, Bill, and Dennis and I had lunch with her. Her husband was there. They were leaving for Oregon after lunch. We went outside to see them off. Smiling and warm and wanting in the sunshine outside the restaurant, she took us one by one into her indulgent arms and gave us each a full, lingering hug. Oh, it was sweet; my slender body folded into hers. It was for Bill and Dennis, too. We still talk about her." Jane touched my arm. She knew.

"But remember Pinkie Hillhouse?" I asked.

"How could I not?" Jane said.

We met her a few years ago when we joined Jane's parents in a Mexican beach town, one of those fun-in-the-sun places that I can never believe are real, and, in my limited experience, never are. Pictures of smiling, laughing Yanks, their perfect, practically nude bodies lounging erotically on the beach. Scantily-clad models, half in the water, sipping tall drinks at the poolside bar. Cute thatched huts nearby. I've never experienced this scene on the two times I've attempted fun-in-the-sun. The thatched huts are there, the pool, the beach blankets, but the actors have taken on weight and blemishes.

Pinkie and her husband were friends of my in-laws. Jane and I were to be guests at their time-share condo. I stopped talking and remembered the pain of my shingles. The pain had begun the instant our plane took off for Mexico. It was a jolting pain gnawing at my upper right jaw. A bad tooth, I thought. I was confident I could suffer it nobly for the few days we'd be away from home and the only dentist I trusted. But the pain in the right side of my face began to surpass anything I'd ever experienced. For two thousand miles of the flight, I sat strapped into my seat concentrating on it. When I stepped out of the plane onto Mexican soil, the sun blinded me, the pain suddenly clawing at my right eye. Jane gave me her dark glasses, a slight but inadequate comfort. Stuffed with aspirin, during our first night in our host's living room hide-a-bed, I woke with pain exquisite enough for sainthood. The next morning, kind Pinkie, informed of my pain, shared her pain pills with me and kept me on my feet. It didn't take me long to sense her anxiety over her supply of pills. She had her own pain. A couple of days later, I went looking for a native dentist. He would pull my teeth and save my life and Pinkie's supply of pills. But my teeth were fine. He told me I had shingles. We decided to fly home. At departure, Pinkie hugged me with abandon, perhaps out of pity for my suffering, perhaps for bringing to an end my use of her pills, or perhaps she was simply grateful for my helping her back to the condo the day before.

"I thought she was going to crush me the day we left," I told Jane. "Pinkie took me by surprise then, but I was in such blinding pain, my memory of the hug remains fuzzy. She overwhelmed me, smothered me. I remember the surprise of pleasure, the magical relief of my pain. Her huge bosom, I suppose, her Mt. Rainier bust. There was the brief moment when she actually took my pain away. She was tall; I was weak. In our hug, all my parts couldn't make contact with all her parts at the same time. I was a prisoner on a soft, loving wrack, my body stretched in more than one direction. I had no control over the event. I don't know. Maybe this is a common experience with women of size; the way she gave herself, her simple, enduring, committed ardor."

"This probably hasn't anything to do with hugs," I went on, "but have I told you about my ride with Pinkie back to the condo on a bus, one of those big, yellow, Mexican buses that go like hell but take forever to get any place?"

"And stink of diesel," Jane said. "Of course, you have, but tell me again."

"Remember we had a big lunch that day, my going away gift to Pinkie and her husband? Remember the posters outside the restaurant, pictures of people eating and laughing and drinking? It looked expensive and safe so we went in. My shingles were kicking up in the worst way. I downed a lot of gin thinking it might kick in the pills' numbing effect. I paid the lunch bill too, at least I think I did."

"Did it work, the gin?"

"I don't know. Numbed me a little, maybe. I didn't think I'd make it to the condo after lunch, and I might not have if I hadn't been responsible for Pinkie. And those Mexicans on the bus, what they must have thought of me, but if they'd known the pain I suffered, the humiliation I felt from the presence of my large companion, they would have appreciated my grit." I sat up in bed for a moment to more finely the remember pain. "You should have stayed with me, not gone off after lunch with your parents and Pinkie's husband."

"I offered to, I wanted to take you home. I knew you were in bad shape. But you were in your saintly mode and said 'No, go on, have fun.'"

"I did? I was? That shows you my condition. I really needed you. I was out of my head." I tucked myself in again, just my face sticking out from the comforter. "Pinkie's very real tooth-ache was too much for her, remember? That's why she decided to go back to the condo with me. As if I could defend her, or make sure that she made it back, or give her comfort." I paused again to remember, to look out our window at the night. There were stars, no wind, no rain; a sliver of moon now and then slipped from behind scattered clouds to brighten the room. A passing freighter's engines rumbled in the Strait. "Pinkie was insecure on the streets, I could tell immediately; from fear of attack, or falling, I didn't know which. She must have been desperate to get home to her pills to think I could protect her. Why didn't she ask her husband to go with her? He was twice my size, and healthy."

"She did, and he offered to, but you insisted he stay with us, and have fun while you got Pinkie home."

"Really? The sidewalks were treacherous there, an obstacle course for a woman like Pinkie. She was top-heavy; she tilted her upper body back and thrust her abundant ass forward, maybe to counterbalance the weight of her bust. Are there custom-made bras for a woman like her? No surprise, either, that she complained of lower back pain. She had tiny feet too, or they seemed tiny, and she couldn't see where they touched down. As soon as we left the restaurant, she paused to sway over a flaw in the walk. Apparently, she knew it was there, but couldn't see it as she got closer to the hazard. I sank my fingers deep into her arm and led her carefully, like a great precious thing, along the narrow sidewalks. I advised her of each trouble that lay ahead, the different elevations, the breaks, the holes, the crumbling curbs, told her when to step up, step down, to veer to the left or right. Her quivering self on the verge of toppling over, attached to my slender arm. I was a tug easing a great liner into port. I feared deeply that she would fall and that I wouldn't be able to get her upright. What if she'd fallen on me? What would that have been like?"

"Like having a tub of Jell-O dumped on you," Jane said.

"I'd be smothered," I said gloomily, remembering the pain of shingles, the calamity. "What do you think she weighed? Two-fifty?"

"I'd guess more."

"But she had a pretty face," I said, "and she was big as much as she was fat," I continued. "We finally made it to the bus stop without mishap but then had to wait for our bus," I said, "and guess what?"

"She led you into the piñata shop."

"Right. But why, groaning the way she was over her toothache? It was one of those shops that's stuffed to the rafters with things that make people like Pinkie happy, that make them shop. She seemed to lighten, as if she'd forgotten her toothache, and didn't need my arm. I was ready to drop, but, as her protector, and now piñata advisor, I tagged along in her draft, trusting the floor was smooth and level, to look at every piñata in the shop, and who knows what. Please, Jane, don't ever show me another piñata. The rafters were hung thick with them. We looked at every one, the proprietor took down anything Pinkie looked at for more than a second. We missed a couple of buses. Finally, she made her choice, paid for it, and handed it to me. I was to carry it, to finally be exposed as the despised tourist at last, stamped, sealed and delivered. You know how I hate looking like a tourist."

"You'd can't avoid it, darling," Jane interrupted.

"Then Pinkie fell in love with a great, gaudy sombrero, and bought it. For a horrible moment, as she took it from the clerk, I thought she was going to put it on my head, to complement the piñata, or perhaps to hide me, her inadequate companion, under it. She gave me a long look, and then, so charmed by it herself, she put the sombrero on her head. Thank God, because putting it on me would have completed the picture our fellow bus passengers, working Mexicans, surely had of me: the American tourist, the meek male dominated by, obeying the commands of, his great, feathered bird of a wife. As it was, the other passengers saw me, the sweating wimp sitting on his bench of pain, in pain, carrying and protecting his wife's huge and colorful piñata between my legs, as a gringo husband would. How they must have relished my misery. How could they have seen me as anything but pathetic?" I wondered out loud, as I stretched my legs to their full length under the covers. My foot touched one of Jane's. "Did you hear that?" I asked.

"What?"

"The owl. I think one landed on the roof." We listened. There was the familiar heavy thumping overhead as the owl walked about searching with its ears, its night vision, in the darkened meadow below it. I rambled on. "The other passengers must have wondered how such a puny, weak, sick-looking man could satisfy such a magnificent woman of size. What did I have that could please this sensuous hulk? What fate had thrown us together? Had she chosen me? Why hadn't she discarded me for something more promising, like what was right there before her eyes, the weary workers staring at us." Good Jane howled. "Yes, I wondered what they were thinking. We sat opposite the rear door. The Mexicans climbed onto the bus; their eyes, dulled by work, lit up when they saw us. They liked what they saw. And why shouldn't they? They were looking at one Yankee who didn't, and couldn't, intimidate them, or lord it over them. He was more beaten down than they were. Yes, I was in a state of humiliation worse than their own."

The thumping stopped on the roof and I waited now for the death squeal of a rabbit. "Oh, my dear," I said, cradling Jane's head on my shoulder, "it was one long, hellish bus ride. On our bench, we sat exposed for every one to see. The Mexicans couldn't take their eyes away. Pinkie's not bad looking, you know, when she gets herself fixed up. She was a little flushed, from the heat, I suppose, and lunch, and from her little burst of shopping, and the effort of getting home. And one of her cheeks was swollen from the bad tooth, but she may have appealed to a man who seldom has a full belly. The Mexicans smiled and nodded at us, and couldn't restrain their amusement at God knows what speculations about us. Imagine the scene, Jane," I said. "There we were, Pinkie and me sitting next to each other; above her big painted face, the ludicrous sombrero perched on her reddish hair; her fertile breasts ballooned over the aisle; a Mayan goddess, her Percheron thighs loomed above my skinny lap; and suspended between my inadequate legs, the biggest, gaudiest piñata in Mexico, dangled there like a—" I had to laugh, and Jane joined, and we nearly rocked into giggles again. How delicious in the telling my horrible affair was. "What do you think was going through their minds," I asked.

"I can only guess what you'd be thinking."

"Yes, that's what I thought. I speculated on the speculations of the Mexicans watching us, and imagined they were imagining what might take place when we arrived at our love nest. We two Yankee lovers on glamorous vacation. My skinny, weak body mounting her hugeness, crawling up the foothills of her thighs, disappearing into the valleys of her flesh until she was finished and cast me away. What's the insect that kills her mate after breeding? I kept wiping the sweat from my brow and watching for our bus stop; I planned each of my elaborate moves to help Pinkie off the panting bus, gripping her arm to cross the blazing street to the condo and its delights. My shingles nearly had me on my knees. We struggled off the bus and made it to the condo; Pinkie's fat fingers fumbled endlessly with her key. Like real lovers in a hurry, we suffered over the lock, not from lust but from the torment of her toothache, my shingles. Finally, we entered the cool dark of the condo. I gave her the piñata; she gave me one of her pain pills. I told her how much I'd enjoyed the afternoon, and fell into bed, alone with my pain."

"What does all this have to do with hugs?"

"Nothing, I guess, except that the next day when we left to go home she gave me one. You too. Remember how in the hug you met up with her bust, how it stuck out so you had almost no other contact with her?"

"I do, she jammed it into my face."

"Yeah, that's it."

"Poor Jimmy. Give me one."

"You mean a hug?" So I did, wrapping my arm around her, pulling her toward me. I held her tight.

"Pinkie's hug was great comfort though," I said. "Such ardor." I mumbled into Jane's hair. "I felt she might crush me, and I didn't care. I gave myself up to her. She took me. As if she knew her healing powers, she pulled me in, I sank deeper and deeper into her, warmer and warmer. I seem to remember a brilliant, white light. My pain vanished. I felt cured, refreshed, I could survive our journey home. And truly, that was the moment in which I became a born-again hugger, a hugger forever, as long as I can stand and hold out my arms."



James Burns lives on an island off the Washington State coast.
His email address is: jbur555[AT]msn.com
(replace [AT] with @).

Photograph ©2001 Joanne Warfield

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