Shanna arrives at my apartment 20 minutes early for our 4 p.m. session. I greet her in the clothes prescribed by her company's code of conduct: a clean T-shirt and sweatpants. On my couch, also as directed, are a fresh sheet and two pillows, both with fresh cases. She changes in the bathroom into an outfit that matches mine, goes over the rules, and for the next 60 minutes, she holds, rocks, and cuddles me, a complete stranger.
Earlier that week, I had gone to Cuddlist.com, a website that connects certified cuddlers with those looking for non-sexual affection, and selected whom I wanted to hold or tickle me—yes, some people like to spend an entire hour-long appointment having their arms, legs, and backs tickled. Like with online dating, I scrolled through bios and scrutinized photos from the 11 practitioners in the New York area, and finally settled on a woman—a woman because I wasn't about to let a strange man come to my apartment and it somehow seemed less invasive. I also liked how Shanna, 35 years old with long, dark hair and a wholesome face, came from a holistic and wellness background and that this didn't seem like a random thing she was doing for extra cash. Her profile talked about grief and healing and therapeutic touching, and really, who couldn't use that?
Next, I answered 12 questions about why I was cuddling and what I wanted to get out of my session. I signed a client release and waiver agreement, gave my personal information and social-media handles, and waited for the screening process, which would be a phone call or Skype. I passed, though not everyone is accepted. After I picked a time and date and received a confirmation, I then surrendered my AmEx number—for a second, it did feel a little dirty.
I went through a horrific breakup in March. It was a five-year investment that left me cautious, jaded, devastated, hurt, and resentful. At the same time, I desperately missed human contact and the nakedness and sex my ex offered, something friends and family couldn't provide. Cuddling seemed like a temporary solution to the above issue, and at $80 an hour, a cheaper alternative to therapy.
It's not exactly deviant or even very new—cuddling parties have been around for several years. Like a large sleepover, strangers sit in a room and touch one another, give massages, scratch backs, and giggle. These one-on-one sessions are a private comfort to people like myself: those who are stressed from work or life, or feel lonely or lost or physically disconnected, thanks to the Internet—Facebook and Pinterest aren't adequate substitutes for human contact.
At 4 p.m., Shanna and I sit cross-legged on my sheet-covered couch and face each other. She asks if both of us are sober—we are. She prefaces that only platonic, non-sexual touching is permitted.
When I ask her why cuddling has risen in popularity, she says, "Most people are either trying to get what they never got or haven't had in a long time. People want to feel taken care of. They need contact. Technology gives the illusion of connection, but it's superficial. Touch nourishes your cells."
After anointing my hands with several different oils, she asks me to look into her eyes for 3 minutes. Then I put my head in her lap, and she rubs my back. For the first few minutes, I remind myself to breathe. That I need this. To accept the healing touch can offer. Then I cry. Then I feel uncomfortable. Then my breathing slows down, and by 4:18 p.m., I feel slightly sleepy. Every time Shanna strokes one of my arms or legs or changes a movement, she asks if she has my permission. I ask if I can hold her hand or touch her knee, which she says "yes" to. When she plays with my feet, I flash back to summer camp when I was 10, and everything was innocent and you braided your bunkmate's hair. When we lie next to each other, talking about life, I feel as if I'm back in college: late nights with your roommate, intimate and girly, filled with pontifications. When she asks if I would be comfortable spooning, which I agree to, it becomes too intimate and reminds me of what I once had with someone else—and what I clearly no longer do. At 4:45 p.m., we sit up and she embraces me, rocking me slowly as if I'm a child. I'm not sure about this part—revisiting the womb wasn't on my list.
At the end of our session, we stand and hug.
"Thank you for your trust and vulnerability," she says as we walk to the door and say goodbye. I'm not sure I feel better. I'm not sure what happened. It's been the most bizarre and surreal exchange I've ever had.
I'm still searching for something, so I decide to try another practitioner. What's a second blind date in a sea of embracing frogs?
I go on the site again and reread everyone's blurbs—both men and women. There are only four male options. Ian studied how to mend the human body through science and medicine. He conducts his sessions on a queen-size memory foam futon and likes to use recorded meditations as guides. He looks nice, but I'm not one for meditation, and I don't want an additional person in the session, even if it's Deepak. John talks about the stress and madness of the city. Kan is from Nebraska and recalls memories of "Grandma gently tickling my back with the tip of her long fingernails while she watched her soap operas." Fabricio says we can "hug, sit, lie, dance, sing, read, or play games." I can do the same with my neighbor's 8-year-old son, so I go back to looking at women and choose Saskia, whose studied psychology and massage therapy.
This time, I go to her house.
Saskia's one-bedroom is on the first floor of a brownstone on West 85th Street. She greets me at the door in black leggings, a pink shirt, and socks, and asks me to remove my shoes. Then she asks if I'd like a hug. She's blond and bubbly, almost giddy. As I change into what's become my cuddle uniform, she tells me I'm her eleventh client this week and that even though she's only been doing this for a few months, she has a return rate of 90 percent.
Saskia has different purifiers for everything: water, air, mold, even one of those stones that removes the negative ions computers can create. Being in her home is very intimate. Though she has her massage table up and she's closed the door that leads to her bedroom, it doesn't detract from her belongings—photos, fridge magnets, tchotchkes thoughtfully strewn about—which create a deep, human, personal picture of the stranger who will be laying face-to-face with me for 60 minutes.
She tells me about the different positions we can take. "There's 'Come to Papa,' where someone leans up against the pillows and they're positioned the elongated way on the couch, while the other person lays next to them, their head resting on their chest or shoulder as they are held and stroked," she says. "There's also the 'Short Stack,' a position I created where one person lays completely on top of another, as if they are two pancakes." We do both. "Papa" is soft and soothing, the "Pancake" a tad weird. "Some people like feeling the weight of someone else on them," she tells me.
When our session is up and the $80 exchanges hands, I feel as if I've paid for a service that falls somewhere between therapy and a one-night stand. There's still uncertainty and searching and the stirrings of an internal shift, maybe, but when I'm on the street, there's overwhelmingly something else: the memory of someone holding me whom I held in return. I know human touch is important. I know that this is therapeutic. But for me, for now, it's just not the same.
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