My U-Turn From Isolation to Intimacy

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Modern Love

There is a moment when your child gets too adolescent to cuddle. For me, that moment arrived when my 14-year-old son, Joe, headed to theater camp for a month. He was so eager to get there, he asked me to drop him off at the entrance. But there are papers that need signing when you entrust your child to strangers. Nonetheless, I was hoping for a goodbye hug.

After depositing his bags onto his bunk like a Nepalese sherpa, I reached to hug him. He ushered me to my car instead, where he bent down and gave me a peck on the head accompanied by a loving, but definite, shooing motion.

As a toddler, Joe was affectionately called a “space invader” for wanting to hug and touch everyone, especially me. As a single mother, I nursed him until he was 2. Then he became a 33-pound growth affixed to my hip, and finally a sleepwalking child who found his way into my room almost every night for years. In between the moments of treasured closeness, I often got pawed when I needed a little space.

Then we traded places, and it was Joe who needed space.

I accepted this as a normal part of his growing up. But it wasn’t just that I no longer got affection from my child; I also hadn’t been touched by a lover in years. Having this month to myself with Joe at camp was the perfect opportunity to remedy that, but there were no contenders. I was tired of futile attempts with online dating, and my free time wasn’t worth risking.

I remembered the advice a friend’s therapist gave her when she found herself in my position: Call an ex. At the time, I thought this was terrible counsel. But in my desperate need to feel connected, I sent a provocative email to one who lived nearby, and he obliged.

Later, however, as I drifted off to sleep by myself, I still felt unseen, untouched. He may have touched my body, but he hadn’t touched me. I recalled an Indian doctor I once had who said: “People in this country get sick because they live alone. They don’t get touched enough.”

I was living in New York then, where at least my legs and arms grazed those of other commuters on the subway. I doubted that doctor would approve of my life in Los Angeles, where we spend so much time alone in our cars, sealed off from everyone. But I didn’t have a choice about that until the day I crashed right into someone.

A few weeks after Joe got home from camp, I was making a U-turn on my way to pick him up when suddenly the driver’s side door of an oncoming vehicle appeared in front of me and I was staring into the eyes of the young blond woman at the wheel.

My adrenaline surged. Luckily, I missed smashing into the door, where I might have crushed her, and hit her car’s front wheel instead.

I got out of my car, leaving it in the middle of the street.

“Are you O.K.?” I asked.

“You just crashed into me,” she said, as if she didn’t quite believe it.

“I didn’t see you,” I answered. And the truth is, I didn’t. Was it the afternoon glare, or was I so disconnected from everyone and everything that I failed to take a second look at oncoming traffic? I didn’t see her; that was all I knew for sure.

Both of us were shaken up, with sore necks. And we seemed uncertain of what to do next. But because it was my fault, I took the reins. We moved our cars to safety. I called my insurance company and told her to call hers. I took photos of both vehicles and made sure we had each other’s information.

My phone chimed. It was a text from Joe, asking why I was late. It hit me how much I missed him. I had been looking forward to our 10-minute drive home all day. I texted back, explaining about the accident and asking him to walk over and meet me. He replied, “I’d rather go home,” followed by a second text, “Please.”

Feeling disappointed, I arranged for a neighbor to get him.

I looked up from my phone to see the woman standing on the curb, crying.

“What do I do now?” she asked, her voice quivering. “I’m not sure I can drive my car.”

There were no words to express how sorry I was, so I hugged her. This moment of intimacy was unexpected and involuntary, just a human reflex, like reaching for your child when he falls. But somehow that simple gesture allowed us to face what was ahead.

I called the local body shop. The owner, a sweet older man I had met before, answered. After asking if everyone was O.K., he agreed to wait for us despite it being closing time.

I locked my car and got into hers, and together we drove to the shop. When we arrived, the owner explained what repairs needed to be done, and a few minutes later, her boyfriend came to pick her up.

He got out of his convertible and wrapped his burly arms around her. I watched her melt in his embrace. When she was tucked safely into the passenger seat, they drove off, leaving me alone in the body shop with the owner.

I put my head down and hurried into the bathroom, where I fell apart. Big, heaving sobs. My job of being strong and efficient had ended, and I was left with myself — my shame, my sadness. How could I be so disconnected? How could I have not seen her?

I walked out, and the owner saw my tears. He had a tentative look on his face. He reached out and hugged me, waiting until he knew it was O.K. When I didn’t pull away, he relaxed and said: “I know, it’s always after everything is over. That’s how it happens.” He held me for a long time.

The collision broke my fender and the wheel of her car, but it also broke down the boundaries we walk around with every day. It pulled us out of our metal boxes and into each other’s lives and arms, where we experienced kindness and community, touching each other in a deep, personal way. And while I wished it hadn’t happened, I was changed because it did.

When I got home, the house was empty. A little while later, I heard the door open, and Joe came in. He glanced at me cautiously, and I saw relief wash over him.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” he said, looking guilty. “I know I should have come, but I was afraid of what it might look like.”

“It’s O.K.,” I said. “I understand.” He reached out for a brief hug before telling me about his day and his opera audition. Then he went into his room and closed the door. Listening to the click, I realized that even though our relationship had changed, our connection remained.

I went into my own room and rubbed ointment on my sore neck and side. I thought about the young woman I had hit and hoped her boyfriend had massaged her back before climbing into bed next to her. I remembered all the nights of longing I had endured, nights when I pathetically calculated that even my friends with partners who complained about having sex only once a month still got it 12 times a year.

Though I want that kind of physical intimacy as much as the next person, it was touch, not sex, I needed most. Touch solidifies something — an introduction, a salutation, a feeling, empathy. The next day, I kept asking myself if there was any way to experience that kind of closeness without crashing into someone.

And there is. Ever since the accident, I’ve noticed myself having many more moments of touch. Sometimes the touch is physical, sometimes it isn’t. It can be a simple smile exchanged with a stranger on my morning run or taking the time to meet the checkout person’s eyes when he bags my groceries. It’s petting our dog. And some days it’s even my own teenage son resting his head on my shoulder after a hard day.

I am not unseen or untouched. In fact, people seem to be noticing me more than ever, or maybe it is I who is looking up more, well aware of the risk of not seeing someone who’s right in front of me.

And while I could never have predicted it, a byproduct of all this has been that my persistent need for a lover has lessened. The kind of connection I have learned to cultivate since the accident is not something to tide me over until the real thing arrives. It is the real thing.