September 26, 2021

NGUYEN | My Platonic Awakening

Print More

I like when skin becomes an event at Cornell.

You know, when Ithaca hits a godsent 50° in March, and suddenly campus glows golden with frisbees and Spikeball and hammocks and the echoes of darties from Collegetown. Rooftops turn into dance floors. Cornellians rush to any and every open plot of grass. Bare legs make their first appearance in months.

We had experienced a week like this in March 2020, right before the pandemic booted us from campus. I remember it well. I had brushed off attendance for at least two or three of my classes that week. And like the hordes of other students splayed out in the Arts Quad, I decided to just sit on the grass and soak in the Ithaca sunshine. (Because, let’s be real, Cornell kids love to milk the hell out of a sunny day.) It was a week filled with jean shorts, Birkenstocks and short-sleeve tees.

T’was Cornell’s annual, and triumphant, return of skin.

T’was also short-lived. The tail end of that week collapsed into chaos. “Social distancing” entered our lexicon — and before I realized it, I was waving goodbye to the sight of Ithaca skin for a year and a half. 

Gone were the crop tops and muscle tees. Instead, quarantine offered me modest, but intimate, vignettes of skin. Back home in California, I spent months watching my grandma’s careful hands chop up green onions. My mom had me examine her face every few days to check if her rosacea was improving (it was!). I began to notice the subtle ways my cousins and I showed affection to each other, resting hands on the smalls of backs, pushing stray tags back under shirt cuffs, linking arms at the grocery store. My days at home swelled with moments of familial physicality.

It felt new to me. Outside of my home, my feet were careful to trace six-foot circles around strangers. But indoors, I began to appreciate the magnetism that hovered between me and my loved ones. Lockdown, funnily, opened my eyes to the value of platonic touch — call it my platonic awakening? 

Before last year, skin had always made me antsy. My brain slotted physical touch under the umbrellas of sex and romance. Touch was for kissing. Touch was for a significant other. To touch was to seduce, flirt, sexualize. Even in middle school, when we’d have to hold hands during group activities in P.E., I remember boys holding each other by their wrists instead. Yelling out “No homo!” loud enough for the rest of the class to hear. Because, I suppose, to the seventh-grade-boy brain, male-male touch is so undeniably romantic that even forced wrist-holding is a queer confession.

But touch is the first expression of love that we’re exposed to. As babies, we’re rocked and soothed by careful arms and gentle hands. And then, somewhere on the path to adulthood, our relationship to physical intimacy distorts. Romance monopolizes physical touch. We learn that, as much as touch can nourish, it can also transgress. Teenhood taught me to glue my arms down by my sides. I kept my hugs succinct, and my hands stumbled through awkward dap-ups. I fell out of touch.

It took weeks of lockdown for me to stop viewing physical intimacy as just an appendage of romance (unintentional euphemism). Touch became another dialect of my household language. It was a comfort that hugged me every time my cousin squeezed my thumb and every time my grandma rested her hands on my shoulders. I came to see physical intimacy as a meaningful, sometimes necessary, cornerstone of my platonic relationships too.

By the end of this past summer, I was starting to forget just how much I loved seeing Ithaca skin. But once again, time blinked by. Life plucked me from home and kerplunked me onto a half-familiar, half-foreign campus. Here I am now, back in Ithaca: Cornell’s alive and bustling for the first time since my sophomore year. One thing hasn’t changed though. Now, even as an old and geriatric senior, I still find myself in awe of how sunshine and skin bring life to Cornell. Bodies are crammed in classrooms again, and I’m sitting elbow-to-elbow with freshmen in my French section. Zeus is back in full swing, with absolutely zero open tables in sight and a Wednesday mac-and-cheese line stretching for miles.

It feels surreal to watch campus life flood back to normalcy. It also feels weird to relearn and renavigate in-person interactions for the first time since March 2020. Last month, we arrived back at Cornell starved of touch and hungry for social connection. And though I’m grateful to be back on a populated campus, I can’t help but yearn for what I came to appreciate over quarantine. Platonic touch. Affection through physical intimacy. This year’s return of skin is a lazy limbo of sociality without physicality. Being able to see skin, but not being able to touch it. A masked smile isn’t the same as a hand squeeze. An elbow tap isn’t the same as a hug. 

But, the optimist in me as loud — and I’m doing my best to listen. If the pandemic taught me to value platonic touch, maybe post-pandemic life will watch me put that lesson into practice. Once it’s safe, and with respect to my friends’ personal boundaries, I’m excited to rewrite my approach to social interactions. To give hugs and hold hands, to link arms and lean on shoulders. To fill my moments with the warmth of physical touch. To embrace the people I love with the new language I’ve learned to love with.

Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.