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The Kiss of the Pony

de (16-12-2012)

In certain American nursing homes, a pony is brought in once a month. The elderly are taken outside in the yard or garden of the institution, some are carried in wheelchairs, some are aided by a nice social worker; they wear clean clothes, are well-fed and take their medicine at specific times of the day, though nothing seems to matter any more. Old people with gnarled hands and eyes drained of light are waiting in line. One by one, they will all have the privilege of spending a good couple of minutes with the pony. Not in order to ride it, of course. Once a month, the welfare programme pays for a session of tactile therapy for the elderly who have been abandoned in homes. Or not ‘abandoned’, because there may be one or two relatives left who still visit them, maybe even a long-time and just as elderly friend, but these more or less formal visits cannot warm up their cold hands or their slowly beating hearts.

The pony, on the other hand, is warm, gentle, patient, is never in a hurry and it too needs touch and warmth. I read somewhere that it is not only trained to accept the caresses and kisses of the elderly, but it also kisses them back. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed with sadness. Then sympathy. Then fury. How lonely can one become for a pony to be one’s sole comfort! But one doesn’t have to wait for old age or to be committed into a nursing home to experience a lack of the joy in being touched. What is even sadder is that, for many who are still young and competitive, touch is no longer a reason for happiness. The tactile reality from my childhood and youth no longer exists. The colours have swallowed the scent. Image has replaced touch. Touch has become virtual. Communication – only a sort of exhibitionism in cyberspace.

We live in a world where that tactile sensation, a mixture of velvet and silk, tasting of cinnamon and smelling of warm milk, from a childhood frozen in black and white photographs, has been replaced by the touch of computer keyboards and the mouse, by cell phones and many other digital devices which, for many children, are substitutes for a father’s kiss, a grandmother’s caress, the touch of grass with bare feet or the smell of wild flowers. For many adults, too, they are substitutes for the need to confide in a friend or the need of a partner’s tenderness. Touch can sweeten loneliness, prevent anxieties and depression, the therapists say. And their comfortable sofas, on which increasingly more metropolitan residents lie down, are substitutes for just this lack of touch.

Communication, now, excels through simplicity, it is direct and pragmatic, having been reduced to formulae and clichés that send the message in a dry and concise manner, without much chatter and metaphor – it befits the austerity of a certain kind of touch that used to be a form of tactile and sensual communication and made human relationships authentic and emotional. Like a friend of mine, who led a flourishing company in New York, used to say: ‒Touch is the most important thing in a business relationship or the most important thing that can build a relationship, taking someone from a formal closeness to a particular kind of intimacy; it is a system I used with new clients in order to create an atmosphere of familiarity, to make them feel more at home in my company, more relaxed, and give them the feeling that they were among friends… There is no time for such things anymore or for an affinity for the virtues of touch. Stress and competition are riding close behind.

Our neighbour has a strict life schedule: every morning, he leaves for his cage box on the twenty-fourth floor in Manhattan, wearing a suit and tie, and comes back in the evening with a carton of pizza; on Sundays, he gets his clothes dry-cleaned, stops by the gym where he tones his muscles for exactly one hour, after which he has lunch with his parents, who live in New Jersey; I have never seen women or men coming by his place, and he has no dogs or cats; his walk is characterised by tiny jerks, looking at the tip of his shoes as he does so, and if you ask him how he is, he’ll look up at you, avoiding looking straight into your eyes, mechanically utter all right, and then he’ll retire into his own world. A world devoid of even a pony’s touch.

One winter, he was clearing the snow from his front porch with uniform and well calculated movements. Since it was Christmas Eve, I thought it was an appropriate time to offer him a bottle of wine and keep him company by starting a conversation. I came out of the house in a cheerful mood and reached out my hand to wish him ‘happy holidays’. He paused, looked at me surprised, then looked at my hand with downright fear, stopped clearing the snow and went back into his house, leaving me with my bottle and hand in the air. ‘He’s crazy’ I thought. No, he’s not, the landlord explained, he’s my best tenant; for over twenty years, he has always paid his rent on the first day of the month, and he is a hard-working office-worker. A peaceful man. Can loneliness alienate people to such a degree that they are scared by words and touch alike? The owner shrugged his shoulders. In the end, the image of the two senile old people kissing ponies doesn’t seem all that tragic.

Touch has long lost its meaning for couples, as well. A high society New York lady explained to me cold-heartedly that an educated person represses their affection, doesn’t accept embraces from strangers or kisses from relatives and doesn’t touch anyone they are speaking to even if they are animated by some thrilling topic; gestures and the act of touching are generally indecent and must be drastically  reduced. Yes, touch is appropriate in the context of sex. But touch as a sign of tenderness? A corny manifestation that is on the brink of extinction anyway.

The code of good manners within the puritan Anglo-Saxon world implies that the husband and wife do not touch in public. If it happens that a momentary emotion is stronger than education – very unlikely, in general – the maximum allowed is the discreet touch of a partner’s elbow. Amusing or not, this is exactly why an Italian friend of mine divorced her English husband. He was fair, responsible and polite, nothing to object to here. What mattered to her, however, were the warmth, touches and embraces outside the marital bed. (And the very fact that ‘making love’ is frequently replaced by ‘having sex’ is also a result of the relationship dynamics which assume that passion has been absorbed by the marital union – this being the best-case scenario…)

Despite a successful career, my friend, who had the outgoing temperament of a southern-European, was left alone in Manhattan. Having gone through all the motions of the ritual of the unmarried and childless – from yoga, Pilates and meditation centres to concert subscriptions, park jogs and gorging on movies, one day she decided to go back to her little town in Tuscany, where she now teaches English for considerably less money; but her house is filled with nephews, aunts, neighbours, laughter and noise, and her long dining room table gathers everyone around a pot of spaghetti. ‘Touch is neither shameful nor dangerous here’, she once wrote to me. ‘I miss New York, but I saved my soul. Plus the five cats I’m raising out of fondness, not necessity. I had once had a discussion with her about the relationship between today’s individual and animals. Back in the day – nostalgic cliché into which we fall ever more frequently, not because of old age necessarily – people used to have dogs around as household guardians or cats as mouse removers… Now, the only purpose of having animals is to sweeten the bitterness of human loneliness and alienation. ‘And, in the evening, they take their masters out for a walk’ my friend used to joke.

It still beats having to raise a computer-generated pet, visiting an electronic Zoo or having a virtual farm with virtual cows, chickens and sheep that you care for at fixed times during work breaks, mentally reliving the lost sense of rural life, those ancestral roots. Estrangement and alienation are, presumably, a result of the new spiritual trends of Shamanism or Animism, which draw on humans’ dislodgement from a genuine world of harmony with nature and animals. Useless laments, probably. And still. After decades of declaring myself ‘made of asphalt’, still infected with the Manhattan virus, in our little garden in Rego Park I can still rediscover the smell of the soil after rain, of mashed grapes and chrysanthemums reminiscent of autumn from my childhood. A late youth of sorts is haunting the bushes of honeysuckle. When I touch the flowers wet with morning dew, I can even feel it coming back to me.

Recently, a distinguished intellectual came to our doorstep with a bowl of lettuce. Not to be consumed later at dinner. She removed the lid and introduced Raul, the newest member of the family, smuggled by airplane from her hometown in Poland. An emigrant, much like herself. Like us, it wore its house on its back. ‘Go on, show us what you can do, she encouraged it, and we all directed our attention to the bottom of the bowl. Raul sneaked its head slowly out of its shell, took out its noble antennae and rose from under the lettuce leaves, climbing on the edge of the bowl and then on to its mistress’s hand, like a gymnast in slow motion. The entire evening, its mistress caressed its furry neck, praising its talents, intelligence and discretion. I had never seen her looking so warm, affectionate and young. And the creature didn’t object to the touch, obviously flattered by all the attention and tenderness. One poem. If I were to write it, I would probably call it The Kiss of the Snail.

Translation from Romanian by Dorothy McCarthy and Cristina Baciu


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