In the Absence of Hugs

by Rachel Furey | Things you can’t buy online.

In the Absence of Hugs


I don’t remember when—how many hundreds of days in—I googled: Can you buy a hug on Craigslist? I wasn’t that desperate yet, but I needed to know my options down the line. Google responded: Did you mean: can you buy a gun on Craigslist? My initial thought: Google considers my question so inane that it can only respond by suggesting I kill myself.


Some days later, or maybe earlier (you know how pandemic time was), I crested a hill on a hot, humid summer jog. Discovered a woolly bear caterpillar moseying along the blacktop of a parking lot. She moved swiftly, undeterred by my presence looming over her. I settled cross-legged on the warm blacktop. Still, she kept course. I reached out a finger, hovered it over her accordioning body as if to ask for permission. Then my finger met her back, my fingertip running along her bristles. Gentle touch reverberated in my body as if I were a child again, lying next to our dog, Honeybear, whose body stretched longer than mine.


I didn’t miss handshakes. Didn’t miss pushing my cold, sweaty hand into someone else’s. On walks, I shook hands with mullein leaves, filled my palms with rocks worn smooth by rivers, ridges of tree bark, rushing stream water, bald cypress needles, fallen maple leaves, mud, snow.


My encounter with the caterpillar was the most visceral touch I’d experienced in months. I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment that didn’t allow pets. In online faculty meetings, I startled each time another creature popped into a colleague’s Zoom box: children bouncing in and out, spouses walking by in the background, cats strolling across keyboards. Touch was so casual—constant—on the screen. Involuntary tears sprung loose. The game: could I turn off my camera quickly enough that no one saw? Could I stay present enough to earn tenure? I tapped my own shoulder to remember the sensation of touch.


I bought new kinds of shampoo. Lined the rim of my bathtub with them. Pretended I had visitors. Pretended family was sleeping in the apartment next door. In the shower, I closed my eyes and pretended the hands scrubbing my scalp were not my own but my mother’s, carefully teasing through my curls.

Feet and Calves

I’d always been weird about socks. I wasn’t ashamed of it anymore. Rather, I leaned into it. If I could find the softest seamless pair that cushioned my foot, left just the right amount of space for my toes, and clung to my calf in a manner that was neither too tight nor too loose, I might feel hugged again. Socks arrived in the mail in their beautiful new-sock glory—no pilling, all soft cotton. No pair perfect, but several close enough to trade out during the day. I left a trail in my apartment: the cushioned pair for washing dishes, the seamless pair for running, the longest, best calf huggers for faculty meetings.


In winter, as I was hiking in West Rock Ridge State Park, a dog bounded down the trail toward me. Pre-pandemic, I’d had unleashed dogs jump on me, occasionally break skin with their claws. But I wasn’t scared now. The dog came at me with a soft face, eager—but not unbridled—energy. In that instant before my palm touched her head, she found the gap between glove and coat and licked the inside of my wrist. That sensitive piece of skin where touch registers so deeply, where nurses and doctors check the pulse. She was there only a split second before her human called her back. I stood anchored in place. Overcome. The human apologized, pulled her dog away, careful to stay several feet from me. I watched them go, holding my wrist up as if it could speak. 

Rachel Furey is a neurodivergent writer and associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University, where she teaches creative writing, including writing the environment and writing the body courses. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as One Teen Story, Sou’wester, Nimrod International Journal, and the Baltimore Review. She’s a winner of the Briar Cliff Review’s Creative Nonfiction contest, Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Prize, Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, and Stone Canoe’s Robert Colley Prize for Fiction.

This essay is a Short Reads original.

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