Sunday, June 9, 2013

Kinds of Hugs

In day-to-day life, I’m not a big hugger. I like my personal space. More so, I err on the safe side of respecting the personal space of others.

That said, hugs do have their time and place. They’re appropriate for goodbyes.

It seems I’ve said goodbye a lot over the last decade, but perhaps that’s not so unusual for my demographic. There were goodbyes when I left home. Goodbyes at the end of each year of college as a different round of friends graduated before it was, at last, my own turn. Transience characterized my first full-time job, at Syracuse, where most folks didn’t stick around longer than a couple years (to be fair, I only stayed for two and half). Things are marginally more stable here in Baltimore. Just the same, by an off-the-top of my head count, I’ve said goodbye to no fewer than 20 co-workers from my department in five and a half years. Some were close friends, some nothing more than colleagues. Some moved hundreds of miles away. Some stayed local.

In many of these cases, I spoke with the parting co-worker about keeping in touch--a trite sentiment, to be sure. The stuff of yearbook notes and cursory scrawling in farewell cards. I’ve maintained a number of Facebook friends, and had cups of coffee with a handful of these people after our circumstantial, prescribed time together has come to an end.

But when I’ve hugged them goodbye, I’ve known what it really means:

“Have a nice life.”

“I’ll never see you again in quite the same way.”

I don’t mean all of this to sound callous. Putting aside my oft-snarky exterior, I’m pretty sentimental about the connections I make, and ready to more or less meet folks halfway if they want to keep in touch. The thing is, I’ve also found that friendships born out of common circumstances--particularly work--tend to have limited shelf lives. Take away office gossip, war stories, and shared geography. More often than not, you’re left with idle chatter about the family, pets, one or two especially prominent hobbies, and--well, that’s about it. Enough for a couple beers, maybe a lunch, but hardly enough for a sustained, meaningful relationship.

A couple years ago I hugged goodbye a woman I considered a pretty close friend. Sharon and I had worked closely with one another and bonded one winter over shared stories of bad breakups when I was at an emotional low and she had pretty recently emerged from the other side of the tunnel.

I caught her alone in her office, past five on her last day. We shot the breeze for a few minutes. Reminisced for a few more. Then it was time for the hug. I wrapped my arms around her.

She patted my back twice.

The moment stung. There’s every possibility I read too far into that instant. She may just be an awkward hugger, or might have grown weary at the tail end of a day full of embraces.

But I couldn’t escape the thought that maybe I’d misjudged our connection. That what, in my mind, was a close friendship was actually far more casual and professional for her.

I jotted a note to myself about that afternoon. It seemed like a conflicted enough moment that it might be of value in my fiction someday, or at least be a valuable personal lesson. A reminder to look at all manner of friendships objectively. Never to ask or assume too much.

Never to hug too soon, too hard, or too long.

But then, two years later, another colleague left. Carrie had been to my apartment for all manner of gatherings--Christmas parties, writing workshops, viewings of American Idol, Star Wars, and Wrestlemania. I recall sitting on her couch, sipping sangria one Fourth of July, joined by her husband and some mutual friends. Carrie and I have always gotten along well, and I considered her a friend. Just the same, when the time came to say farewell, I hesitated, remembering Sharon.

But Carrie put her arms over my shoulders and held me close. I held her back. After a second or two, it was over. And yet, in that brief period, I remembered what I had not so much forgotten, but questioned that a hug could, or even should be--

a gesture of love.

A hug like that isn’t sexual. But it is real. Simple. Sincere.

In life, we tend to hear a lot about first impressions. About firm handshakes and eye contact. About remembering to smile.

Maybe we don’t think enough about last impressions. About drinking deeply and remembering. About not being ashamed to shed a tear. About saying “keep in touch” and meaning it.

About holding our hugs a little bit longer.

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