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The power of touch: Years before I came out, I found the tenderness I craved at the barber

The Guardian
2020-07-17 | Since 4 Month

He asks about my summer and if I’m playing baseball, and parachutes a navy-blue drop cloth over my head. He says I’m getting taller, and the edge of his fingers tickle and tuck the tissue against the back of my neck. He asks whether my brother is starting to look at colleges, and sprays a soft cloak of mist that kisses my skin, gathers a small handful of wet blond hair and measures and tugs and snips and talks, but I am not listening to a word this man says. The jolt of clippers purring against my skull is electric. I smile and mumble softly: “Wow, I really needed a cut,” and he laughs. I pretend my eyes are sealed to keep them clear of loose hair, but I think we both know I might be somewhere else altogether.

I first found touch in a barbershop in Michigan. Between the spray and chaos and chatter of other men. I mean this less in the sense of an introduction and more of an education, the way my mother says she never “heard” music until she encountered Stevie Wonder. Or my friend Alex says he had never “eaten food” until he went to Rome. When something grabs us in such a profound way, it startles us into ourselves, it raises the bar for how we wish to live, and when we’re lucky, it shows us who we are before we are even prepared to find out. Whatever the case, I “found” it first in the intimacy of another man’s hands, which, despite the blades they cradled, pulled the tenderness right out of me.

Among the many gifts that queer kids inherit, few are more profound than the capacity to improvise. We waltz through our daily lives with the sensation that what we desire, and how we desire it, is best kept hidden from view. We pay attention to the private encounters that nudge us towards erotic communion, without the danger of sex. And years before I’d come out, before I’d let my body receive and pursue the kind of touch it craved, I thieved it. In Michael’s hands. The barber. The soft scrape of his clipping guard against my scalp. One careful shape-up at a time.

As we lurch towards month five of life in a global pandemic, physical touch is all but forbidden. The intimacies we’re depriving ourselves of daily are far graver than the luxury of a haircut. And still, as unprecedented as this moment is, I feel an eerie familiarity, a preparedness – I recognise the challenge of improvising affection. Behind layers of cloth face masks, I nod and say thank you and good morning to strangers. In an ocean current of bike protesters, I sweat and pump my legs into rubber and shout the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Tony McDade and Layleen Polanco and Rayshard Brooks, in concert, in chorus, in rageful communion. In the park after rainfall, I place my sneakers in the footprints of other runners. Hold doors with my elbows in the same spot another’s have been.

And who knows what good any of this does, for none of these small thieveries are sufficient. But they do remind me of the hunger that has made me who I am. They remind me that I, like so many of us, possess the tenderness and fierceness to find new ways to show strangers I love them. To study and follow and listen and mind the small, healing gestures. To help us love us through, and to make ourselves again.

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