The idea of intimacy used to exist in my mind solely as a physical act. I’m referring to myself as a teenager, mostly. Back then, when intimacy occupied my hormonal mind, it was measured by contact alone. It was a new currency to explore. Sometimes it could be frightening. But most of the time it was comforting and felt healthy for my well being. This has changed recently.
I tried to explain to my mother today how my mind feels as if it has solidified in the past couple of years. No longer is the cerebral a liquid, it is confident with a new firmness; I am adult of mind. I read the other day that your brain is, generally, fully developed by the age of twenty four. I feel this (I am twenty five now). I always hold my head up to scan the surroundings of the street so as to be aware, and not enclosed as before. I make decisions quickly and with utter thought, for myself, and others if in a group. I am informed and sure of myself with my mind leading the way above all. I take everything in. Processing and learning is constant and its own pleasure.
With this, my understanding and capability of intimacy feels significantly expanded, but more than that, it’s as if a new branch has sprouted that didn’t exist before. I know when a touch on the shoulder, or a cheek, should be refrained for the other person’s comfort, interjecting my own primordial impulses. Accidents run in fast-motion inside my head before they’ve happened. If I were a father I’d be protecting a clumsy child with this developed cognition. People almost feel codified to me, as if I have gained a working comprehension of the meaning behind all expressions, the highly gesticulated and the subtle. But I’m also aware enough to know not to think I can use any of this knowledge to truly understand a person, or even connect with them on any level, necessarily. To do that takes time, conversation, and yes, intimacy.
There have been two separate acts that felt intimate to me on a level that wouldn’t have been possible for me before. Both occurred with complete strangers. The first involved an older woman I have never even seen. She exists to me only as a voice on the other end of the telephone.
She has rung me three times until now. The first time, I was working, and so I hopped up to answer the phone to hear, “Alice….?”
“No,” I replied. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong number.” Then I ran back to my work.
The second phone call came about two months later. It went exactly the same. “Wrong number,” I said again, hurrying back to my desk. I knew it was her as she repeated herself in the same quizzical and hushed tone. What surprised me was that from her saying that single word, I was able to paint a whole back story for this woman. I don’t know how much of it, if any, is true of course. But she gave me the impression that she was possibly senile, or close to it, just by her gentle, yet also lost and desperate way of asking for her desired recipient. It was as if she were a ghost that didn’t realize she had passed away, stuck in a loop, searching for Alice. And that she had phoned the wrong number twice only added to my suspicion that this lady may have memory problems.
The third time came another two months later, as if it were routine. “Alice….?” she said, once again.
Between this time and the last, I had composed my theory, and vowed to connect to this woman somehow. I thought she may have been comforted by a connection with anybody, whether it was me, Alice, or anyone else. But I wasn’t going to lie to her to attempt this intimacy.
“Alice isn’t here, I’m afraid … are you okay?” I said.
“Oh,” came her confused reply.
“Do you need any help?” I queried.
“Sorry,” she said. “Do you know Alice?”
“I don’t, I’m afraid. Are you okay?” I asked again.
“Oh,” she said again. “Yes, I think so. I’m okay. I need to phone Alice.”
“Okay, do you have her number?” I said.
“Yes, this is her number,” came her reply.
At this point I wondered how she had arrived at this conclusion. I recently moved into this apartment (about six months ago), and know that the guy who lived here before me, an immaculate army veteran apparently, had been here for a while. I also know that he didn’t have a phone while he lived here as the guy who installed my broadband, and the estate agent, had each told me. So, perhaps the person who lived here before the army vet, was Alice. And this woman on the end of the phone has been dialing this number to reach her, but not even getting a ring, as there was no phone here to call previously. Now, as I do have a phone, she had got that ring she was after and, unfortunately for her, only has me to talk to through the speaker.
“Well, I live here now. By myself. Alice doesn’t live here any more. Do you have another number for her?” I asked.
“No, this is her number.” She let out a little sigh at this point. “Thank you,” she said. Then she hung up. That was about three months ago. She hasn’t phoned me since. My hope is that she has gained some form of closure from finding out that Alice does not belong to that number any more, even if she still feels a little lost, as I suspect she may. We need not speak again, but I hope that with having someone respond to her, just getting an answer that was more than “wrong number,” she has found new comfort.
The second occasion of intimacy was with an elderly gent. A recent widower, in fact.
Every Saturday, I go for the weekly food shop with my mother (she has a car, I don’t) and afterwards we go to my younger brother’s gravestone to keep the grass and lay down fresh flowers. Visiting the cemetery is always a time for deep reflection and thought for my mother and I. It’s as if nothing else matters when we’re so presently faced with the notion of death. There are grey headstones arranged in rows all around us, it’s quiet, and we are there together as if at the end of our lives, able to look back on them. Having that with my mother once a week is something I treasure.
Anyway, over the past couple of months, this elderly man had been there visiting his late wife’s grave. It wasn’t unusual to see another person down there among the newer plots but he had become a constant presence for four Saturdays in a row. What was unusual about him was that he read paragraphs from a book to his wife’s memorial. At his feet was a portable CD player. Once the reading had been satisfied, he would play a song to the mound of risen earth, a tear running down his cheek. It was precious to see. Both uplifting for his dedication to the woman he loved, and also saddening that they had been separated by the realms, and this was the only way he could reach out to her now. All this raw pain was exposed in front of us. But it was also beautiful and touching.
Being polite, we made sure not to even match the man’s gaze at all for the month and a half, or so. This was a private time for him and his wife. We didn’t want to interfere with that, or even make him uncomfortable while he, we assume, kept a deathbed’s promise. Those who need to mourn should have the privilege to do so as they wish, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed. My mother and I learned this for ourselves some twenty years ago.
One Saturday, as we approached my brother’s grave, my mother clutching the flowers and scissors, the watering can in my own possession, the man turned his head to us and offered a knowing smile. We smiled back and my mother gave her usual “Hiya,” as she does. This acknowledgement of us is what gave me the confidence to do what I did the following Saturday.
While my mother stooped over the grave, snipping at the grass voraciously, I laid the watering can on the ground within her reach, and walked the twenty or so meters to the side of the widower. He didn’t hear me coming as he was playing the song. Yet, he seemed to know that I was there as we each stood before the grave, hands bundled together in respect before us. He turned his head to me slowly, without any sign of shock or surprise, and gave that same knowing smile he had done the week before. I returned it while meeting his soft azure gaze. Then we stood motionlessly in our postures.
Strangely, I haven’t seen the elderly gent since (he was not there today), which has caused me to question if it had actually ever happened, if he had even existed outside of my mind, if it were a dream. My mother assures me that it did happen as she felt embarrassed by the whole act, but she’s also used to it by now, my strange compulsions. And so I’ve found that intimacy can exist within an assuring voice and a silent expression, even between strangers. It’s a type of intimacy that perhaps isn’t discovered enough, as we’re so used to the extremities: keeping distant from each other, or converging fully in physical partnerships of the body. How reassuring it is to know that intimacy can be affected in other forms that are available to everyone, even between the young and the old.