An acting teacher once told me the most intimate thing you can do on stage is touch someone’s face. You could brush away an eyelash, maybe, or a funny strand of hair. Or cup an upturned chin with a finger or two. This isn’t obvious—to be intimate implies sex, and most plays and nearly all musicals contain at least an embrace, if not a kiss. But somehow, before an audience, hand-to-cheek reads more familiar than bare skin on skin, when one person reaches toward another’s face and no one swerves.
Touching someone’s face on stage or off means they trust you enough to let you reach toward six of the holes of their body—their wet eyes and mouth and dark seashell ears. It means they trust what you are enough to maybe let you in. But how often do we let the people who are not our mothers or fathers hold our faces in their hands?
Stephen Dunn writes that intimacy is the feeling of being ter- ribly understood. His poem “Connubial” describes the danger he felt when, he writes, “with alarming accuracy / she’d been identifying patterns I was unaware of—this tic, that / ten- dency, like the way I’ve mastered / the language of intimacy / in order to conceal how I felt—”
Terrible understanding then, the opposite of loneliness, when nothing can be hidden. Not the trifling sources of unease, not the names tucked into small prayers before sleep, not even the red velvet linings of eyelids. This is the price of closeness, of shared privacy. This is crushing familiarity. When you are known so wholly—consumed in the knowing—as to be used up and ready to discard.
This is my wrist in your hand, this is my body in quiet; this is your hand on my wrist, this is your body in situ.
This is my body in stitches. This is the shaking off, and the quaking of,
You and me splitting now, together
at the sides.
My mother says never to date actors, even though they are often beautiful. And I have, twice, dated actors, but only briefly. I have, always, allowed myself to be stricken with peoples’ outsides.
Thing is, actors have studied how to put the moon in their eyes, to mirror others’ actions so as to make them comfort- able, to listen and repeat. They know that a touch on the upper arm is familiar, but not assuming, and that trailing the backs of their fingertips along the side of someone’s face will make their cheeks pink and ripe to touch.
From studying acting, my mother learned that it is easy to trust those with whom you step into another world. It is natural to look to fellow actors, to those with whom you have contracted to suspend reality, for comfort and company. It is telling the way that feigned intimacy creates connections that feel eerily real.
Al Berkman wrote in his 1961 Singers’ Glossary of Stage Jargon that “The Intimate Position of the head is that in which both the face and the eyes are directed squarely toward the other person.” Attachment, then, begins with the eyes.
1. Explain the procedure to the patient with his/her eyes open. For example, “I am going to touch various parts of your arms (or other body part) with this instrument. I will touch you with either one or two points, and you tell me if you feel one or two points when you feel the touch.”
2. The patient closes his/her eyes, or vision is otherwise impaired.
3. Apply light and equal pressure across the two points.
4. Have the patient identify if they feel one or two points.
5. Move the two points closer together across consecutive trials until the patient cannot distinguish the two points as separate. Document findings.
Note: This test is used to determine the level of enervation in a particular patch of skin; that is, how well a patient can tell two things apart. Eventually, when the two points of the instrument get close enough together, the patient will only be able to perceive a single point.
The tiniest bit of space between makes all the difference.
A voice soars in the soul, as gentle and expected as the soft rush of one’s own breath fogging a glass. No one can predict it coming, this feeling, yet its arrival has always felt to me as natural and irresistible as a shiver. It is certain nearness, of trusting enough to lean quivering hinged jaws into the moist flesh of a palm. To be deeply known and still kept: a tingle in the gut that echoes three inches beyond the body in all directions.
By singing all of Fauré’s art songs for high voice, I establish a familiarity with his body of work. By kissing Paul four days a week for two months, I establish a familiarity with his body. The difference between intimacy with things and intimacy with people is synechdotal. I am not intimate with the composer himself, just his work, but because I am intimate with
Paul’s mouth, it is inferred that I am also intimate—close, dear, private—with him. His parts represent the whole. In that particular case I did care for the whole, though this has not always been true. I resent being handled gingerly by men with whom I have been intimate, who tend to assume I feel intimately toward them all of the time.
Cross-legged on the floor of my dorm room, I open and read his letter, his penciled words on looseleaf in shaky, schoolboy cursive and this is what I feel: one hundred tiny and precise and mechanical punctures on the soft underside of my jaw, along the v of my hips, during. The press of icy hands into soft flesh. The places he used to lay his lips. I read about how our sex became his guilt and how he had fasted and prayed and been forgiven, how he hoped I would be forgiven too.
It was a long time ago but he still breaks something that was whole and that I didn’t know I wanted kept that way. I mail it back to him with a three-by-five card reminding him that there was never a third person in bed. Don’t write me.
Joni says, Remember that time you told me, you said love was touching souls?
Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time, she says.
My father refused his bar mitzvah at 13, but he is the one who taught me to pray. In the soft voice kept for stories, he taught me to say, “Dear God, please bless...” and then list my loved ones, picturing their faces. He said praying was about loving, not going to church. He said that I could name whomever I wanted. But when I started loving outside my family, I worried that the new names would know somehow that I had beamed their faces into the ether. I worried it would scare them away, that admission of care, the closeness of holding a face in the mind just before the quiet of sleep.
Standing before a roomful of people, I lean in toward a stranger. I am facing Johnny, picturing Paul, softening into the space between. If I do it right, the blue eyes turn brown and there’s a little lurch. And I hope it looks real, or at least close enough.
Look how his thumb skates along her jaw
Look how she stills
Look how the phase of her face shifts, waxing
Look at the space between them, waning
Look how his hand drops, fast and hot
Look how there is nothing left.