Love in a no-contact world

The pandemic came, a guy left. Then, a new sort of partner entered my life.

Want to share this essay? Yay! Use this link

I guess we have a perfect relationship. Most hours, I don’t know where he is. Until the scratching comes, if I’m on Zoom or not. I open the door and he strolls to the bed. If a person is talking, he prefers the desk, leaps to keyboard, swishes tail at my face, lands in lap, then thigh, his feet all prim together. I’ll apologize but not want it to end until I realize it must—that I have witnesses on the screen, and my weaknesses are transparent. I must need to be touched, or else how to explain the latitude given this creature who touches me? I cradle his belly, drop him beyond the door. Shut it tight, only somehow he’s in again. At night, I switch the lights off from bed and he pads onto my torso, pressing in a way that makes me feel irrelevant and cared for at once. I know he doesn't mean to give a massage but it feels like one, the kind you might pay good money to get. He is self-motivated in a symbiotic way, his touch internally driven yet therapeutic somehow. These are my thoughts as he folds his legs, an alive sphinx, ready at last for rest, on my chest.

Before all that, there was a man.

I remember the first kiss. I can see his smile, those well-formed, expressive lips, both of us laughing from the obviousness. We’d played an actual game of chess in the lead-up, off a board I bought that morning from Target, dashing in the rain. We landed on my place after two failed dates sitting across from each other like we were interviewing for jobs.

The issues were obvious, to do with age, family, stages in life, degrees of wildness. But differences can make attraction sweeter. Like in those news items about an unlikely friendship, with a picture of a monkey and a dog leaning on each other. A tenuous connection, but it still makes headlines. “You’re one of my favorite animals,” he said one day, as we lay on my couch, in a voice that made me think he worried he’d said too much.

It was an on and off thing. At dinner one night, after our first breakup, I told him, with seriousness—“I like you.” And he said, “I like you, too.” And then, our hands were linked, across the table.

I loved his smell. His weight on mine. There was more though. An animal spirit, a need for freedom I related to and admired and resented a bit. Things got simpler when we touched.

“In those moments he was all I knew and I felt present and alive the way you do when you pluck a string on a guitar, or sit on the grass with friends."

There was a clear purpose, a direct objective. We were more skillful here than in other arenas. I was amazed to feel a life force next to me, someone else’s, this particular person’s at that. Amazed to be so close to someone so far away, as if a skittish animal had come to my apartment to eat from my hand. In those moments he was all I knew and I felt present and alive the way you do when you pluck a string on a guitar, or sit on the grass with friends.

I watched a scene in the movie Parasite and thought I saw a sign of things to come. A couple kept apart for years finally reunite. They do not entwine tongues, or private parts when they do. No, the woman sits on her man and pulls at his limbs, beats his back, gives him a proper, medical-grade massage.

Love, I thought, is care, the sort a clinician, or an ape, might bestow. After all, the point is to last until the end of you both. If you can massage the feet, feel tender toward blown veins and wrinkles and signs of decay, you’ve found it.

One day I pulled at his limbs. He was always complaining about this pain or that, with a stylized buffoonery that was very much his own vaudeville act, too young for real pains and a little arrogant about that but also fearful of the inevitable. I had him hang on the side of the bed as I pulled. As I did I realized I wished deeply for him to feel good, and that I could imagine always wanting that for him and also always wanting to be the one to help it happen.

Then, a virus came. He left.

I talked to a friend who suggested a short-term rental, a reprieve. I found a guest house a drive away, in the woods, where you could walk. A couple bought the property in bad shape at a steal. A cat and two dogs wandered the premises. Moss grew on shingles, and I was told a tree-like structure had been sprouting out of the roof on the back side of the main house when they first arrived. I saw relief in the porousness, how we could sort of live outside, with all the paving stones, and the iron chairs, and the land. Yet there was a sturdy bedroom too, with walls, and heat, and privacy. I didn’t need to share their air, nor they mine, to feel close. We could be close without touching.

The cat, though, touched. He started the moment I arrived, wove between legs with a proprietary air. The owners said either he likes you or he doesn’t. Their last guest, a melancholic divorcé, he’d liked. Maybe, I suggested, he knew who was buying what he had to offer?

One day I went for an appointment I’d been delaying. In a small office, a doctor with glasses down his nose and a mask below that told me without looking up that I shouldn’t be waiting to have children. Better get it done in the next few years. He dropped a word I’d heard friends use but somehow thought would never affect me.

I returned to my short-term home and lay on the bed, the afternoon sun spread all over the room. The cat jumped up. As usual he stalked all over me, only this time instead of settling on my chest, he landed on my belly, right at the region the doctor made me feel off about. I felt his warmth, and wondered if it was healing me. It felt like it was, if only in how it changed my sense of the spot, like sending light into a dark space, remaking it sacred. I thought: This should be therapy. They should do this for women. I can see it now. Boutique reproductive health spas, with special cat-based treatments. It’s not only the heat, you see, it’s the beating heart, the life force, the care, the interest. Only with those cats they’d be coerced. This one was freely giving what he was giving. Let’s call it love.

Meet Our Contributors

Mallika Rao is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn. Her work can be found at The New York Times, The Atlantic, New York, The Believer, and other publications. She likes to write about intimacy and outsiderness. For Prism, Mallika wrote about how a cat came to replace an ex during quarantine.

My favorite inanimate object to touch is…
“At the moment, my guitar. Partly because, for an inanimate object, it’s really full of life!”

Roman Muradov is an artist of moderate renown living in Brooklyn. He has written a number of books and won a number of awards. For Prism, Roman illustrated the Touch essay.

What is your least favorite thing to touch…
“Raw chicken meat.”