To Do the Holding

How acknowledging the pain of others can help us heal our own.

Holding

I don’t get enough touch. We don’t get enough touch. I rest my hands on the arms of friends, I nuzzle my head on your shoulder because if I do not I am afraid something in me will die.

Photo by Flickr/Sara

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I want to murder everyone. I think about violence on the daily. I want to hit someone and I want all of you to watch so you are afraid.

I think a lot about the sound a laptop would make if thrown from a third-story window. I think about the heavy goodness of a U-lock in my hand smashing into your bumper, or your mirror, after you cut me off. I think about a man I know who I once saw while riding my bike. He was smoking a cigarette, and when I saw him I wanted to get off my bike, walk up, and shove him in the chest with both hands so that the cigarette would fly when he thumped into the brick wall behind him. I wanted this so badly that when I jumped off my bike and walked up to him he looked and me and said, “Why are you panting?”

I read an interview with Roxane Gay. When Roxane was a child, boys took her into the woods and when she came back, she was broken. She tells the interviewer that she got fat to become a fortress. “When I ate,” she says, “I got to make my body what I wanted it to be.” I think about how I gave my first blow job because I got tired of being pulled back into the bed and tired of being the only one who heard me say no. The first time I made myself throw up, I thought about getting that night out, and the thought gave me a cold kind of pleasure, so I did it again.

I skinny dip a lot more than you do. I like to do it alone, to do my little doggy-paddle laps in a pool on a quiet night; to leave the house I’m staying in, the campground where everyone else is sleeping, and run until I get to the dunes, stripping as I go, until I am fully naked, kicking sand up onto my own body with every stride. The water and the sky meet in the same darkness, where it is cool and full of life. Your skin, not your eyes, is the organ with which you see the physical terrain. At night, your body feels as natural and shameless as anything else. Swimming naked is the way we were meant to swim. It feels like church. It looks like forgiveness.

Sometimes I think if I could get hurt and then write about it, people would pay attention to the issue I was hurt for. I think about this when I run and a man tells me he could watch me move my beautiful ass all day. I say Don’t talk to me like that. It’s disrespectful and I don’t like it and he says What the fuck did you just say to me, bitch? He steps toward me and I step toward him. My blood goes up and I start to shake, but I also am filled with this blindness close to clarity. I raise my fists. If walking or running down the streets already leaves me bloody inside, why not have the outside match?

Sometimes I think if I could get hurt and then write about it, people would pay attention to the issue I was hurt for. There are a number of reasons why this is ill; namely, that people have already been hurt, and they are the ones for me to pay attention to; namely, that you don’t have to be a wounded white woman to be deserving of attention. In an anonymous essay titled “First Night in Kyiv” and published in Balkanist in 2014, the author wrote:

"In some ways it all comes down to this: for all the regressive belief still lingering in our culture that women are sentimentally attached to the tropes of victimhood (and why not anyway, when there are so few central roles for women to play out in their lives that don’t cast them as a side-part?), if you don’t actually want this role — and I don’t actually want this role — its continual resurfacing in your life is a source of infuriation."

The woman who wrote “First Night” is a journalist. She was sexually assaulted by another journalist during her first night in the city, by an older male she looked up to and respected, wanted to be liked by, asked for guidance from.

Before my own incident, I was pursuing journalism as an undergrad. He was the editor in chief.

Last year, I read a poem by Kay Ryan. It’s called “Why We Must Struggle,” and it asks the reader:

" ... how strange

it is that one sector

of the self can step in

for another in trouble,

how loss activates

a latent double, how

we can feed

as upon nectar

upon need?"

I think D. A. Powell’s poem about forgiving his lover who gave him AIDS is the most heartbreaking poem I have ever read. He captures anger and despair and love. I want to be okay holding many contradictions, because that will mean I am okay with holding myself.

I don’t get enough touch. We don’t get enough touch. I rest my hands on the arms of friends, I nuzzle my head on your shoulder because if I do not I am afraid something in me will die. I need to remember that touch is not about containing, or about owning, but it is hard to remember that when life has taught me otherwise.

In Communion, bell hooks writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that it is easier for females of any age to learn the art of loving than it is for their male counterparts. It is easier because our interest in love is not questioned.”

I want men to be free to learn the art of loving. I want them to be free to be loving toward each other, to express that love with touch towards each other, to express that love with touch to me, and for me not to feel displaced if they do. I don’t trust men. I am learning to trust men. I am learning to trust myself.

I wear lipstick to rallies to remember I have a mouth. One rally is in memory of black men and black women and black trans folks and black youth — we must say it — who have died at the hands of police. I ask myself to be honest about why I am going. I am going because I want to be honest about what damage I and my people have done.

To my left, a white male friend holds a sign that says We hear you, though you can no longer speak. My sign says We see you, though you are no longer here. To my right is a young black man who is not holding anything, until the moment of silence, when he takes my hand. The moment of silence lasts four minutes; one for each hour a boy’s body lay on the street. Everyone at the rally links hands and raises up their arms, sticking their hands up in both surrender and fight. In the silence, all I can think of is how me and this stranger started out in a neutral, friendly, cupped clasp, but now he has slid his fingers in between mine.

I think Oh no. Please; not here, not another man who sees proximity as opportunity. But he’s not just another man, and I am not just another woman: we’re touching in America, and there’s 400 years of history in our black and white hands. I’m scared of him, and I’m scared of why I’m scared: Is it because of what’s happened to my body, or because of what I’ve been taught about his? I’ve struggled to learn how to prioritize my own safety. What does it mean if I do so here, in this space — both safe and rare — meant for his own body, his own marginalized self? We’re touching in a climate that values my life over, and at the expense of, his. I want to feel safe, too. He runs his thumb on the back of my hand once, twice, and then when my arm shakes a little from the strain, gives my hand a squeeze as he holds me up a bit higher.

What does he want from this touch? I think. What does he want from me? What if I let go?

Throughout the crowd, no one speaks. I can’t see much of anything because I’m partially supporting my sign with my forehead. I don’t look at his face when our arms are up, and I don’t look at him when they finally go down. Then, out of my eye’s corner, I see him reach an arm up again. I turn now. He watches me watch him wipe at his tears, which he cried, without me noticing, while I held his hand and worried about what he was doing with mine.

It can be really hard to trust people in general, and for me, men in particular. It is really hard not to see each interaction as sexual, and sex as anything but a transaction of need. And yet, when William Carlos Williams writes in that old poem, It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

I think we could take out the word poetry and replace it with touch, or trust, and get the same answer: dead men.

We are still looking at each other. He is young, maybe twenty. Tentatively, I reach over and touch his arm. And then, my arm slips around him. He folds me against his chest and wraps both his arms closely around my body as I step toward him, and when he does this, I don’t feel like I’m something to be possessed. I feel cherished. It is a fierce feeling, to feel intimate and also safe. It has been a while since I’ve let myself be held. It’s been a while since I’ve let myself do the holding.

When we break apart, my formality is returning, as a way to navigate this emotional terrain. But once more, we take hands. The crowd around us is chanting when I lean in and ask, “What is your name?” “Ralph,” he says. His voice is soft like water is soft at night, when the lake is still and you are in it, naked and unashamed. “What is yours?” “Katie,” I say. “It was an honor to hold your hand.” “It was an honor,” he says, “to hold yours.”


Katie Prout is a runner, writer, and MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Reprinted from North American Review (Fall 2016), the oldest literary magazine in the United States and one of the most culturally significant. Contributors have included important 19th-century American writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and 20th-century writers like William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, and Flannery O’Connor.