Back in March, when the Coronavirus started picking up steam here in New York, we were all told we should stop shaking hands. This didn’t affect me much—maybe because I’m female and I find women shake hands much less than men, but also because I’m a screenwriter, and in Hollywood, you don’t shake hands when you greet each other; you hug. Seriously, even when meeting a high-level executive for the first time, and even post-Harvey. (It’s a hug, not a massage!)
But then, one day—March 5th, to be exact—I arrived at a meeting in Midtown with a number of screenwriters, producers, and executives who had just flown in from L.A., and NOBODY HUGGED. At first it was a little awkward, as the head executive acknowledged with a nervous laugh that the only reason we weren’t hugging hello was fear of the Coronavirus. But then it became clear we wouldn’t be hugging good-bye at the end of the day, or hello again the next morning when we reconvened. That was when I knew this thing was serious: If Hollywood had stopped hugging, the end of the world couldn’t be far behind.
Back in my personal life, the end of hugging had a more gradual fade-out. First, I started to notice that certain friends were no longer hugging me hello. And if someone did approach me with a hug, I would sheepishly say, “Oh, I don’t think we’re supposed to be doing that anymore.” To this, I received a range of reactions: Some were totally on board, while others felt I was being overly cautious/neurotic, and still others appeared hurt or rejected. One friend defiantly said, “Well, I’m still hugging, I’m going down hugging!” Suddenly the line in the sand between the huggers and the not-huggers felt clear.
And in those first few weeks, I felt a real loss from not hugging. It made me realize what a big hugger I am. In normal times, I hug my friends a lot. Sometimes even mid-hang-out or mid-meal, after we’ve already hugged hello, I’ll feel the need for a spontaneous hug or squeeze of the hand. And I love the feeling of being hugged. I have been known to hold onto a hug longer than the average standard hugging time (ASHT).
Suddenly, without those hugs hello and good-bye, every interaction felt lacking and incomplete—as if the capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and the punctuation at the end were missing. And the new “faux hug” we all started doing, where we demonstrate hugging the air or ourselves (as if we’re mimes) to send the message that we wish we could hug, was a sad substitute—like artificial sweetener instead of real sugar. Blessedly, I hadn’t lost my sense of taste or smell, but it sure as hell felt like I’d lost another crucial sensory element.
But then, a few months in, something else happened, something weirder: I started to experience the relief of not having to hug people. I realized that deep down, I hug a lot of people I don’t actually want to hug—either because that’s what I think you’re supposed to do, or because of some dysfunctional need I have to make sure everyone feels loved. In fact, I realized I sometimes hug people I actively dislike—almost a reverse-reflex or maybe an attempt to cover my dislike. But now, thanks to Covid, I never have to make that split-second, panicky decision of whether or not to hug this person standing in front of me. Because no one’s hugging anymore! We’re not allowed. It was like being given a superpower—a big, fat Get out of Hugging Free Card.
Looking back, I guess you could say I had a serious hugging problem I never fully understood.
And that realization led me to another, possibly even more disturbing epiphany:
I like social-distancing.
Yes, I’ve found the six-foot distance thing weirdly liberating. I’ve actually had some really deep, honest conversations with my neighbors in the lobby from six feet apart I don’t think we ever would have had if we were standing closer together. In fact, I’ve even started talking to people I’d never spoken to before—at a distance. There’s a certain safety in knowing we can’t get too close—call it a fear of intimacy—but I’ve noticed I feel freer to engage with people with this new built-in boundary. Or, better yet, when passing someone I don’t feel like stopping and chatting with, I know I can just wave from afar and keep walking, with that now universally-understood gesture of, “Wish we could stop and talk, but we really shouldn’t!”
For example, there’s an acquaintance who was always way too touchy-feely with me and would keep her arm tightly wrapped around my shoulders whenever we stopped to talk. It made me uncomfortable and the only way I knew how to deal with it was to cut our conversations short. But now I don’t have to. I’ve had some really wonderful conversations with her, far longer than they ever would have been before Covid, because I’m not trying to escape her space-invading ways.
Still, this whole no-hugging thing has sent me into a serious identity crisis. All this time, I thought I loved people—I’m a people-person! I love going to parties and hosting parties. Normally, I’m a Chatty-Cathy and my kids hate how much I stop and talk to people on the street. I’m Jewish, for crying out loud. I was raised in the denomination of Thou shalt smother each other and hug and kiss a hundred extra times before leaving a get-together. But now, thanks to the pandemic, I’m getting in touch with my inner-WASP, and it feels great.
Maybe deep down, all that hugging wore me out. Was I over-hugged as a child? My mom was known to sneak onto buses, trains, and even airplanes after I’d boarded to give me a few more kisses and hugs good-bye. So maybe I O.D’d.
But now that’s exactly how I’m raising my kids. I hug and kiss them way too much, especially these days, since they’re the only people I’m allowed to hug and kiss—aside from my husband, and he can only take so much. So I don’t really know what the answer is. I’m confused. I’m rattled. I’m anxious about the state of the world and having trouble sleeping. And I guess…. Well, I guess I could just really use a hug right now. ❏
Julie Rottenberg lives and works in Brooklyn, and wants you to know you are NOT the space-invading acquaintance mentioned above.