Last winter in Dublin, my housemates and I got the bright idea to save on our electricity bill by periodically shutting off our old, inefficient heaters. In the end, it made the house so cold that one of my friends got chilblains on her toes (Google it if you like). In the meantime, we would clump together on the couch under fuzzy blankets, doing coursework or watching Below Deck Mediterranean. This probably reduced my risk of frostbite, but I would also go off to bed wrapped in a kind of warm glow. There were six of us in the house, including two couples if you count my friend’s live-in boyfriend, and these moments made me feel less of a fifth wheel and more like I was participating in a shared intimacy.
The OED lists one of the definitions of intimacy as “the state of having a close personal relationship with someone”. The beauty of this phrasing is that it encompasses the myriad forms of connection I have felt throughout my life, with elementary school teachers, family members, children I babysat, camp counselors, friends of friends, friends’ older siblings, my next-door neighbours, and so on. I was not necessarily physically affectionate with these people, but rather at some point we shared a mutual appreciation. This could be as deep as the bond I have with my older sister, or mere passing moments that affected me strongly. I vividly recall being in class at the age of six and my teacher pulling us aside one by one to check up on the picture books we were making. For a few minutes it would be just the two of us at her desk while she asked in hushed tones about how the work was going. I would feel like the only person in the room, and when it was over, I would float back to my seat.
“Platonic partners are a more meaningful version of the crush on the girl in the library in that you never reach a disappointing end.”
As the aforementioned fifth wheel in a city under lockdown, I cherished my built-in platonic partners. On my cycles home from friends’ houses, I would feel after effects of those little moments imprinted on my body: being pushed aside to make room on the sunken couch, feeling the vibrations of a loud cackle beside me, crowding around a single stove while trying to cook several meals at once. These were not flirtatious connections, but they seemed to transcend friendship nonetheless. A better way to describe them would be a bond distinct from friendship or romance. In romantic encounters, one feels too keenly the vulnerability of not being good-looking enough, or ruining the chances, or finding out that the physical chemistry they hoped for was all in their head. Platonic partners are a more meaningful version of the crush on the girl in the library in that you never reach a disappointing end.
Even in romantic relationships, non-sexual intimacy can express one’s tenderness more profoundly than anything else. This goes without saying if you have ever had a sexual encounter with someone you are not overly familiar with. There is a cognitive dissonance between the act of doing something so vulnerable and yet feeling intensely judged and alone. Even worse is the withdrawal of intimacy in a relationship at its end, the decline of small gestures and strokes, which silently spell out the final days of your involvement. The small demonstrations of fondness, when given, can feel as intimate as sex itself, like whispering their name to wake them or buttoning up their coat.
Though many have experienced the cold side of casual sex, it is still seen as the pinnacle of physical interaction. It also tends to be couched in heteronormative terms. Affection among young girls is normalized from childhood, but frowned upon with boys for fear of introducing sexual thoughts too early. Nevermind the fact that children can be attracted to members of the same gender or that they may not identify with either side of the binary. Boys typically are told not to be affectionate whatsoever. These codes follow us into adulthood, but friends have a funny way of showing affection in spite of them. I work at a cafe with two guy best friends who possess an extraordinary capacity to make fun of everything about each other. They joke provocatively about how they sleep together as a way of painting the very notion as ridiculous. Still, there is an intimacy in the way they avoid their usual tasks to chat and mess up the latte art because they can’t stop laughing, and they will sincerely say ‘bye, love you’ to the chef when he leaves for the day.
“I appreciate the small instances of endearment, physical or otherwise, that I do receive from friends and acquaintances…I have grown to understand that, with or without a romantic partner, I can rely on them to feel loved.”
Perhaps if I came from another culture or another country, I would not be so obsessed with these interactions, cataloguing them and observing them in perfect strangers. But I grew up among standoffish New Yorkers and left for Ireland, where people are warm but not kiss-on-the-cheek affectionate per se. I appreciate the small instances of endearment, physical or otherwise, that I do receive from friends and acquaintances. There are many people for whom these gestures are rare or entirely inaccessible, like those who are incarcerated, children who are neglected, even people who live alone. I read in the therapist Lori Gottlieb’s memoir Maybe You Should Talk to Someone that one of her clients, a retired woman in her mid-sixties who was estranged from her children, began to keep up a weekly pedicure appointment because the technician’s hands were one of her few chances at human contact. The story pained me and I grew a strong gratitude that I do have those kinds of relationships. I have grown to understand that, with or without a romantic partner, I can rely on them to feel loved.