For Valentine’s Day this year, my friend Kitty ate all the candy from a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates, but thoughtfully saved the lid for me. It was a six-inch cardboard heart that said, I ❤️ NOT HUGGING. She poked a hole in it and attached a string.
Oh, how we laughed as she slipped that red cord over my head. In February, “Covid” and “social distancing” were still new to our vocabularies, but I was already a champion at avoiding physical contact.
For more than a decade, I’ve become one of “those” people during the winter. The one who wouldn’t kiss you hello, or goodbye. The one who didn’t shake your hand with congratulations, even if you’d just snagged the perfect job. The one who would curl into myself, like a turtle ducking back into its shell, when someone tried to hug me. All my friends know that from Halloween until April Fool’s, I like my space. OK, I like a little more than my space.
This year, thanks to the pandemic and social distancing, I no longer have to be that winter-time ogre, the only person pushing huggers away.
This is why for years I’ve been recoiling from people’s embraces: in 2008 I got the flu – and bad. What I experienced during those three weeks absolutely terrified me. I feared I would die. Then I prayed I would. My fever kept spiking to 103. I couldn’t keep anything down, including teeny sips of water. When I got out of bed I would crawl to the bathroom, and often I would curl up on the cool floor and stay there for an hour or so. At one point my doctor, a brilliant woman with a rapier wit, suggested I might need a spinal tap to rule out meningitis. I responded by tossing my phone. It took me months to feel human again. When I asked her how I could arm myself better, my doctor said, simply, “Get a flu shot every year, and for Chrissakes, stop touching people during flu season.”
That next winter I noticed how people would cough into their hands and still try to shake mine. Or they would rub their noses and then lean in for a kiss. Don’t even get me started on little children, those snot machines. I began wearing thick winter gloves and a scarf that shielded my nose and mouth. I stopped going to movie theaters. At concerts, I would find the exits and stay close to them. Or I’d make sure I was shielded from strangers by my husband. I’d always slip into gatherings late and leave early.
Several years ago, a friend moved to Taiwan to teach film, and whenever he sent a video, I was obsessed by the students wearing masks – maybe 40-50% of them. He told me that anyone who didn’t feel 100% would mask up. And really, who feels 100% in the winter? I asked him to send more videos.
Every March I organize a book festival in Woodstock, New York. My collaborators and I chose March to bring people into town when they’re normally not there. But since Woodstock Bookfest falls before the end of my no hug season, quite a few people have noted their displeasure with me. They say, “Yeah, I know you hate to hug,” and then try to hug me anyway. I’ve been spotted fleeing these people down Tinker Street more than once.
When I turn away from an embrace and people ask if I’m sick, I used to say, “No, and I don’t want to be.” They’d reply. “Oh I’m not sick,” and lean in. So I started lying, saying, “Yes, I have a horrid cold.” Shockingly, many responded, “It’s OK. I’m not worried about catching anything.”
Early last March, a close friend stopped by to see me. I was wearing my No Hugs sign. She laughed, then leaned in to enfold me anyway. I stepped back. She stepped forward. I stepped back again. It was like a psychotic cha-cha. We went on to have words – deep, painful words. She left, angry. I was sad, then furious.
A week later we were both in lockdown. We sent each other notes of apology and made up. Nine months in, we’re closer than ever.
When we started sheltering in place, I set up hand sanitizer and masks and wipes by the front door. I had plenty to choose from – I’ve been gearing up for this for a dozen years! For the first time in my life being right hasn’t felt so great. Although I take secret joy in knowing everyone’s finally learned how to wash their hands.
Martha Frankel is a writer, knitter, yenta and poker player. Her memoir, Hats and Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling, tells the story of her family and the thing they loved. She lives outside of Woodstock, New York and is the director of Woodstock Bookfest