When I was eight, my mother took me to the Liberty Science Center.

The building, a massive, three-story tall museum, was stuffed to the gills with interactive exhibits. A budding geek’s dream.

The most famous exhibit was the Touch Tunnel. It sat in stark contrast to the rest of the museum; most of the exhibits were big and out in the open, swarming with the noisy bodies of excited children. Not this one. Tucked around a corner on the third floor, hidden away behind walls, it was eerily quiet. The Touch Tunnel was eighty feet of compressed darkness, with nothing but your hands to guide you.

I asked my mom if she would go in with me. Her reply, delivered quickly and firmly, as though she had been planning the response since we walked in: “No, Mommy’s claustrophobic. I’ll wait for you right outside.” I knew what claustrophobic meant, because I was claustrophobic too. We found out the hard way one summer in upstate New York, when my mother had dragged me through a tour of a famous network of caves. Fists clenched at my side and tears dripping down my face, I dragged my feet through the cave, simultaneously amazed by the geological wonders around me while trembling at the tight networks of walls they created.

I let go of her hand, and bent down, into the darkness.

The only way to go through was on your hands and knees. Inside it smelled of a bank room that hadn’t been vacuumed for a few days. I could hear people in front of and behind me, but could see nothing, my sight stripped from me. My breath was quick as my hands desperately searched my surroundings, feeling for a hint in the structure, a turn, a dip, any inclination that it would be over. The only truth I had is what I found with my fingers.

Now, in quarantine, the boundaries of my world are again confined to only what I can feel.

I grazed the perimeter on my first social-distance walk with a friend. Committed to safety while making this slight bend in the rules, our bodies danced like binary stars as we walked down the street: pulled close by familiarity, only to drift apart from fear. When our walk was over, he stayed in the parking lot as I made my way up the stairs to my front door.

Looking up at me, he said “I just really want a hug.”

Looking down at him, my mind raced. This was the first person I met in college, a person who had seen me through an abusive relationship, who had watched me grow into adulthood, who understands me in ways even my husband does not. This was the person who looked at me and said, “Julie, it sounds like you’re poly, go talk to your husband.” The spark in so many of my journeys.

All I could say back was, “I want to hug you so badly.” But neither of us moved. We stayed, frozen, staring, until finally, I went inside. I sat on the couch for a while, silently lamenting the proximity I could no longer provide.

At night, I press my cheek up against my husband’s back. I love the way it fits so perfectly between his spine and shoulder blade, like this spot had been there, waiting just for me. We entangle ourselves as much as we can without having sex, his legs under mine, my arms wrapped around him. His heartbeat steady, grounding. The closeness is intoxicating, and my body gulps it in. My husband’s body is a hard stop, a wall in this new touch tunnel I am confined in.

Sometimes when I hold him, I can feel the others. Hidden in the softness of his back is the familiar curve of hers. My fingers remember. In the dark, they sparkle as they follow the lines. My thumb washes across my husband’s collarbone, tracing the path it used to take with his. Muscle memory reliving each tender touch.

I remember the final bend in the tunnel: a soft glow of light quickly growing into a wall of luminosity and sound and energy. Tumbling onto a mat, and scrambling for my mother, there were no tears this time. Only an appreciation for my hands, and the sight they gave me through darkness.

A crafty New Jersey native, Julie will talk (or knit) you under a table, but also still knows when to listen. She is passionate about education, philosophy, and linguistics, and when she's not teaching, she can be found awkwardly roller skating in empty parking lots.

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