December 30, 2016
Attending a cuddle party was one of my fear-conquering New Year’s resolutions for 2016. My other resolutions — I had a long list — included speed dating and taking a hike with a mountaineering club.
I never got around to speed dating or hiking, but by August I had worked up the courage to sign up for a cuddle party. And that’s how I found myself lying on a foam pad on a stranger’s floor with my head on the shoulder of a strange man. Strange in that I didn’t know him, of course, but also strange in that he was so thin and bony that cuddling with him was no comfort at all.
Soon a young woman settled in on his other side and asked if she could hold my hand.
“O.K.,” I said feebly.
We reached out and clasped hands across the man’s chest. I felt rigid, tense, terrified.
A sea of foam pads and quilts and stuffed animals covered the expanse of the one-room carriage house. Even so, I felt the unrelenting pressure of my hipbone against hardwood. How long would I have to lie like this? What is the acceptable length of time to seem open to experience while also preserving my dignity?
It had been far too long since I’d been intimate with someone. At 44, I worried that I was becoming slightly feral. My parents, after 46 years of marriage, were still having sex — postmenopausal, geriatric sex perhaps, but sex nonetheless. Meanwhile, I had just shelled out $25 to cuddle with a frail guy.
During the introductions, our host had said, “I started hosting cuddle parties two years ago because my touch tank was really low, but I knew I wasn’t ready for dating.”
Her touch tank? As we went around the room, at least two people said their therapist had told them to try this, and one woman clutched a stuffed, life-size Garfield while rocking slightly and mumbling about being afraid of people.
Years earlier, when I had a boyfriend and a constant supply of cuddles, I saw an advertisement for cuddle therapy and laughed. How sad, I’d thought. And yet here I was, partly out of curiosity, partly to challenge myself to stay open to new and frightening things, and partly because I hoped to meet someone.
I am an independent, professional woman living in a progressive city, but entire days pass in which I do not touch another human being. I never thought I would be here, in this place, at this time in my life. The fear that I am in some way defective has become harder to stave off each year.
A bell rang. “O.K., that’s 20 minutes,” our host said, giving us an opportunity to rearrange and cuddle with new people.
I wasted no time heading to the bathroom, the only space in this little house where I could be alone. When I emerged, everyone was partnered up. There was a tangle of bodies in the middle of the room. I stood in the kitchen contemplating the snacks: dry shortbread cookies and veggies with ranch sauce. Unfortunately, no alcohol. That could turn things sexual, our host had explained. Cuddle parties are not about sex but about setting boundaries and connecting. But even with the lights dimmed, the entire setup felt more clinical than connective, as if we were all enrolled in Human Interaction 101.
I kept thinking about baby monkeys. In college I took an intro to psychology course where we learned about Harry Harlow’s experiments with rhesus monkeys, and how the infant monkeys preferred a cloth mother to one made of wire and wood, even when the wire mother was the one supplying the food. Turns out primates prefer a cuddly fake mother to a fake mother who actually keeps them alive.
Maybe this explains my recent craziness and blood pressure spikes. I had chalked it up to some sort of midlife crisis, but perhaps it’s too many years of too little touch and affection. I needed to put myself out there, but the longer I avoided it, the more frightening the prospect became. I was less afraid of becoming a war correspondent than opening a Tinder account.
Yet somehow I managed to corral enough bravery to do this.
“Should we cuddle?” asked a buffed-out guy who had come in late.
“Um, sure,” I said, since we were the only people not cuddling.
“How about we spoon?” he asked. “Do you want to be Nevada or California?”
“I’ll be California,” I said, wanting to control our proximity, especially in our southern regions. But he didn’t seem to want to get too close either, leaving at least two or three inches between us. I flung my arm over his side as we lay quietly, stiff as boards.
Then he started his nervous chatter. “Yeah, I’ve seen these ads for cuddlers-for-hire,” he said. “Seems like pretty easy money. I was thinking I could do that instead of what I’m doing now. I work in a hospital, but my boss hates me, and she’s stupid. Anyway, I told my therapist I was coming here tonight, and he said it’s too soon.”
Too soon for what? I didn’t dare ask. He continued chattering away until the host called time again.
It feels like a weakness to admit I am so lonely. I am supposed to be a pioneer — a brave, single feminist, unafraid to go it alone. Except when it’s a Saturday night and I’m eating my dinner while staring out my window into the dining room of the family across from me.
I watch the primates interact through their sliding glass doors. Father kisses mother on the neck while she washes dishes. Daughter No. 1 sits on father’s lap reading. Daughter No. 2 hugs father around the neck.
Do they watch me? Do they wonder: Why is the arctic shrew feeding again?
It’s not that I haven’t had opportunities. I’ve been engaged twice (the first time the man broke it off; the second time I did). But I’ve been deeply in love only once. My other relationships have been more like truces with loneliness. I pretend for months or years that I don’t need a man to be happy. But is being smugly single any different from being smugly coupled?
“Will you come and cuddle with us?” asked a woman who had been sensually cuddling with the same man all evening. She was maybe 10 or 15 years older than me, as was the gray-haired man with her.
I was ready to leave, but I lay down on my back between them. He put his head on my chest and his arm across my midsection. She started caressing my forearm the way my mother used to, soft fingernails against skin. I thought I might cry.
Many of my single friends seem comfortable, even happy, alone.
“I’m too evolved for a relationship,” one recently told me over a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.
I nodded, pretending to understand.
I moved to Seattle 11 years ago in search of love. In Alabama it seemed as if everyone married by 30, but Seattle was full of 30-something singletons. Every party I attended held great possibility.
And yet most were stridently single, satisfied with their lives. Climbing mountains. Rowing across oceans. The less baggage the better.
The woman I had lain down by said, “We knew we wanted to cuddle with you when you were introducing yourself and talking about how freaked out you are by all of this.” Her hands were soft on my arm. “You were so honest and brave.”
When I asked if they knew each other before this evening, she laughed and told me they met six months ago at another cuddle party.
A part of me hoped I would find love here, but as we went around the room introducing ourselves, I began to realize that I was possibly the most terrified person there, maybe even more than the woman hugging Garfield. Over the years, almost without noticing, I had become less available, less accessible, walling off my heart brick by brick.
The woman continued caressing my arm with one hand, and then, with the other, reached across my stomach to hold hands with her man. We seemed to be on the precipice of orgy territory.
Instead of freaking out, though, I actually let myself relax. And as the places where our bodies were touching warmed, I began to feel physically connected to other people for the first time in a long time.
Why had I been so frightened of this? Why is anyone?
There are now more single adults than married ones in this country, and the number of us living alone has increased to a quarter of all households. It shouldn’t require scientific research with monkeys to understand that we need, perhaps above all else, physical comfort in this world.
My resolution for 2017: Seek it.