Intimacy in the time of the coronavirus

“Let’s meet for lunch” my friend and I agree over the phone. We haven’t seen each other for a while so we make a point to finally put an end to the smart phone’s supremacy over our busy lives and do the real thing, meeting in person, like real people.

“But where?”, my friend asks, “I don’t want to wear a mask”.

It’s the first time I am choosing a place to eat not based on the menu but rather based on considerations such as how crowded the place will be and if it’s safe to go without wearing a mask.

Strange times to be in Hong Kong.

When I later meet her and I am ready to give her a big hug and do my usual Italian ritual of double kissing on the cheeks she says to me, “let’s keep distance, at least for now”. I am not surprised, and I am not disappointed either, yet, I think again, these are strange times indeed for intimacy. Later that day I am lying on the couch with my son hugging him as I often do, and suddenly it occurs to me that perhaps I shouldn’t be doing it? Should I be more cautious? I thrive on human contact. I was raised with hugs and kisses and touching and cuddling and as disconcerting as it might be to some, this is the way I express intimacy and by reflection, my children do too. I like to touch my friend’s arm for encouragement, kiss them hello and good-bye. Covering my sons’ faces with kisses until they ask me to stop, but I can’t help to ask myself in this new scenario, if this is acceptable or if, perhaps, I could use some distance. There are different approaches to the virus epidemic currently happening. In a world gripped by anxiety, the way you express your intimacy has become a sort of political statement. There are the cautions ones who stay away and openly say it’s better to keep a distance and the defiant ones who kiss you on the cheeks to show that they don’t care, and this virus can go to hell.

Outside I see couples wearing masks sometimes holding hands, sometimes, not, and can’t help but wonder how their relationship and intimacy have been affected by it?

I go to the hardware store. The owner is usually very helpful and likes to chat me up on all things electrical especially given my evident lack of knowledge on the topic. He’s like a wizard of the DYI and can whip up a solution for any domestic need you might have. When I walk in with my new dilemma about how to convert a bunch of lamps bought online from the States in the spur of a moment, in a typical case of anxiety-induced shopping, I am expecting as usual that he finds a solution to my problem. But to my horror, he’s wearing a mask and he’s elusive. He speaks from a distance and doesn’t seem to want to have any contact with me especially because, well, darn careless foreigner, I am not wearing a mask myself. Now THAT hurt. It made me feel helpless and even worst, hopeless. While I am queuing at the supermarket cashier, I read on the phone about the first dead person in Hong Kong and I can’t help but wonder, will somebody remember him? Who is this person? Will somebody remember all the people who have lost their lives so far? Or have they become just statistics to scare or reassuring us, the lucky ones who made it so far?

I started to write this piece over a month ago when in Hong Kong we feared the worst. Since then the world has gone from believing this was essentially a Chinese virus to realizing that, in a world that is as connected and interdependent as the one we live in, nothing is confined to a certain area anymore or to a certain group of people, but essentially we are all in this together. It’s a beautiful and sinister realization all the same, but hopefully, it will put us off from finger-pointing next time something happens to a country because we will know that the next could be us, as inevitably happens. I see the lady at the cashier, I see her wearing a mask and I am happy she’s protecting herself. Suddenly it’s very moving to think about those among us who have to keep things running and be out there, in contact with hundreds of people every day just so that we can have our toilet paper and sanitizing gel. This lady touches countless shopping carts, hands, money, credit cards. And she does it graciously with no complaints. I want to hug her, but I know it would be so very inappropriate. So I just smile and say, “take care” and she smiles back and says, “thank you, you too”. Intimacy, sometimes, doesn’t need much more than that.

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