I was on mile four of a long walk when a stranger reached out and hit me on the arm.
It didn’t hurt. It didn’t even sting. Really, it was more of a gentle smack than a hit.
I didn’t stop. It didn’t even occur to me to stop. I kept walking but locked eyes with a guy coming the other way who’d seen it all go down.
“That was weird,” I said, laughing and shrugging.
“It really was,” he said. At least I think that’s what he said. I had Jenny Lewis coming in loud through my airpods. The dude looked baffled but sympathetic like, oh wow, sorry that stranger felt the need to touch you, lady.
I didn’t know how to feel about it. I still don’t. It did not seem aggressive but, rather, familiar and chummy. And, I, like most women, have been touched against my will in public too many times to count. One time a man actually licked my leg in a pizza place as I waited for my order. Not the worst example in my repertoire of stories but maybe the weirdest. Anyway, this was nothing in comparison. The person did not seem violent. I did not feel scared or angry or threatened in any way. But it’s been a week and I’m still thinking about it.
I’m extremely guarded about who I touch. I’ve never enjoyed casual contact from strangers, acquaintances, or even friends. I especially don’t like it to come out of nowhere. One of the worst feelings in the world to me is being picked up against my will by someone bigger and stronger. (This happens more than you would expect. College is just a blur of people picking me up and carrying me around.) I’m not even entirely comfortable with a friend squeezing my arm when telling a story. I try to be because I love my friends but I’m just not touchy-feely. Pre-pandemic, I’d gotten a bit better at hugging close friends hello and goodbye but then, well, you know. At this point if someone goes in for a hug, I might go full Looney Tunes and jump straight into the air.
So, my reaction to this unwanted contact with a complete stranger should have been fear or outrage but instead, I just found myself curious. Were they walking around tapping people on the arm that day as a bit? Did they think they knew me? Do I remind them of someone that they hate? That they love? Were they so lonely and isolated in quarantine that they just wanted human contact? Or was it just an impulsive thing? They just reached out and smacked someone.
I was wearing a black hoodie and a hat that said, “Book Nerd.” Probably not something that would offend anyone but, I mean, maybe they hate books. Or nerds. Maybe I’m a ringer for the person who tortured them in high school. Maybe a book nerd tortured them in high school!
I just don’t know.
I don’t enjoy being touched without permission and I certainly do not condone smacking strangers on the arm but I will say that the whole thing got me out of my own head for a while. It gave me something to think about besides my usual anxious self-torture end-of-the-world bullshit and that, I guess, is a good thing. I mean, it might be, right?
The last year and a half has been so strange and devastating that interacting with other humans again has a manic quality to it. It’s terrifying or it’s a rush or it’s joyful or it’s everything all at once. Most days, for me, the vibe is surreal. Like I’m moving through a simulation of reality but I don’t know the rules yet. And I wonder how other people are experiencing this odd time. It seems as if we’re all teetering on the edge of doing things we wouldn’t normally do. You know, like reaching out and touching a stranger as we pass them on the sidewalk. But, let’s all agree not to do that, okay?
*pic is one I took of the sky on that walk