Dear Reader,

 

These letters are intended to tie the issue together and connect our articles and art to the theme. Usually, they tend to begin with some kind of allegorical story or stretch metaphor. This time, however, it’s easy. Almost all of the articles in the Stranger issue fit perfectly with the theme, either in the “person I don’t know” sense of the word, the “this is weirder than that,” sense of the word, or both.

Some writers tackled social phenomena that bring strangers together in unusual, sometimes frightening, ways. Tucker Smith explains in plain English (finally!) what data mining is, and why we should be worried about our personal information ending up in the hands of powerful strangers. Kat Snoddy examines the concepts of consent and platonic intimacy in the professional cuddling industry, in which clients hire strangers for some snuggle time. Tia Vierling takes a look into the niche eBay market for used diaries—what should you do with a stranger’s most personal thoughts in your hands? And, with some difficulty, Callie Zucker persuaded a few pairs who have had one night stands with each other (intimate nights with a stranger) to get together again—for a Polaroid photo.

Others reflected on the meaning of the word “stranger” in their personal lives. Craig Carey shares the last few moments he spent with a friend who was about to transfer from CC. Carey examines the dynamics of being close to someone who’s a stranger to most of his peers.  Lo Wall tells the moving story of how she woke up in the intensive care unit as a stranger to herself due to seizure-induced memory loss, and how she recovered (or rather reincarnated) her identity. And in perhaps one of the stranger articles I’ve personally had the pleasure to edit, Nate Goodman writes about a stranger he met in a strange place who showed him how strange he was himself.

If you, too, are starting to think the word “strange” is losing meaning because I’ve repeated it so many times, you’re right: honestly, our themes really don’t have much inherent meaning. The process we use to select the themes is not particularly selective or systematic. We get the entire staff together, tell everyone to think of words or phrases that are specific enough to inspire real-world associations yet vague enough to encompass a range of potential topics. Then we throw the list up on a whiteboard and proceed by process of elimination. This usually consists of everyone arguing about which themes they think are good or lame or funny or terrible until I feel like it’s the right time to tell everyone to close their eyes and vote.

When we first start working on the issue, rarely does it seem like the theme has any role in structuring the magazine’s contents, style, or feel. The theme is intended as inspiration (plug: you can definitely write an article for Cipher even if it doesn’t fit the theme), and sometimes it seems like the articles that end up in the issue really don’t fit the theme at all. But somehow, the theme always does seem to get worked into our personal lives.

For example, the theme of the first issue of Cipher last year was the “Ego” issue. We thought this would spark ideas for articles about the self, self-worth, and people with inflated senses of self-worth. While we did end up publishing such pieces, we really learned more about our own egos—as former Editor-in-Chief Ethan Cutler put it, in that letter from the editor, the “seemingly infinite ego clashes” that writers and editors face when trying to work collaboratively on a piece. Last year, Ethan and our staff worked hard to improve the quality of the writing and the professionalism of the magazine. We held our editors, artists, and writers to higher standards than Cipher previously had. The work we did was worth it, but it involved “infinite ego clashes” along the way.

This year, we hope to set a different tone. Almost everyone in our (almost entirely femme!) staff, save for Art Editor Caroline Li and myself, was hired at the end of last semester or the beginning of this semester. We started off as strangers to each other. Working on the Stranger issue, ironically, has brought us together. After all, how do you really get to know a stranger? You accept the strangest parts of them. When you edit someone else’s writing, you learn how to help that person put the strangest parts of their mind on paper. This year, we’re hoping the ego clashes wear off. We want to be more open to strangers, strangeness, and finding the strangest parts of ourselves—and give you some stranger content along the way.

Hopefully, the work inside these pages will help you, as a reader, learn a bit about the strangeness in the lives of our writers and artists, whether they be friends or strangers to you.

 

May you be strange forever,

 

Sara Fleming, Editor-in-Chief

“I’m communicating with my friends on Facebook, and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And, all of a sudden, I start receiving advertisements for chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those ads?” asked U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing last April. Nelson’s questions points to the lack of individual choice within data mining. But it only refers to the surface level of data exchange, not considering the much deeper and convoluted data mining occurring in every digital move you make and have ever made.   

Between the Facebook scandals of the past year and the new app MoviePass, it seems that data mining is on everyone’s minds—from the senators who grilled Zuckerberg to the random citizen (me) who’s wondering what exactly data mining is and what it means for me.

Before I researched the complexities of data mining, I imagined it as a matrix-like system where my online information was like a collection of vapor-like green numbers floating in an infinitely large database. Turns out, I wasn’t too far off. To understand the scope of data mining, you have to start with those green numbers: your digital footprints. With every transaction or interaction you engage in, you leave a digital signature. This sounds deceivingly insignificant until you consider the number of interactions you have in which you input personal data of some sort. If you have any social media profile, go to school, or have a bank account, you are consistently giving those entities your data. You also leave a digital signature whenever you Google anything, buy something on Amazon, fly on an airline, use Google Maps … you get the idea. Maybe if you never touch a computer and only buy items with inherited blocks of gold that weren’t catalogued, you might be able to evade the system. Yet even then, it’s unlikely you’ve never been to the hospital (Hello, birth certificate!) or had a friend who put you into the digital system somewhere. Basically, there’s a close to zero percent chance that you don’t have many, many, many data signatures. And that’s not even considering your phone’s microphone. (Bad news: it’s absolutely listening to you.)

Sure, you consciously use your credit card and choose what you post on Instagram. You know the data you freely give the internet, so what is the harm in other people using it? But really, what you put in is not exactly what comes out. It’s as though I tell my friend Jane that I’m unhappy with the dating scene and suddenly Jane is setting me up with her cousin in art school out of town and I have to drive an hour out to go to some new-age art show. I didn’t ask Jane to set me up, I just told her I didn’t like the dating scene. Data mining is the Jane of the virtual world; it takes what you give it and extrapolates much more from that. Data mining isn’t what you put in the system, it’s what the system guesses and connects from what you gave it to find meaning that you didn’t intend. The only difference is that data scientists are much more accurate than Jane.

Data scientists work for companies to gather large quantities of individuals’ data signatures and discover various patterns. The objective is to organize the data so as to better understand consumers and boost the company’s product. Data science is both descriptive and predictive: it has to both understand what works best, as well as predict what will work better. There are many methods of data mining, but they all have this same overarching agenda. To discuss all of the various types of data mining would turn this article into a novel, and probably a pretty bad one since data is … well, boring, and I can barely spell the word “algorithms,” let alone understand their function.

There’s one branch of data mining that’s definitely worth thinking about right now: associated learning. This is what Jane was doing before: observing that people who like thing x are likely to like thing y, or that people who buy thing x are likely to buy thing y. When you buy a bathrobe and then a pair of fuzzy slippers pops up on your “Recommendations For You” list, it’s because Amazon knows that people who bought a robe have repeatedly bought the slippers. Netflix does the same when it recommends you movies “based on titles you’ve watched.”

Sure, it all still sounds pretty innocuous. How nice of Jeff Bezos to try to make your life easier! And instead of having to sort through movies on Netflix, you’re given options you’re more likely to enjoy. No more endless scrolling and additional thinking. But what about when the association is “People who supported candidate x are likely to vote for candidate y”? Where does the line between convenience and invasion become blurred?

The line between data mining as a tool and as an ethical breach is almost impossible to define. At this point, the common rhetoric to identify unethical data mining is “you know it when you see it,” which complicates suing a company for privacy violation or uncovering the extent to which a company tracks its consumers beyond simple retail. We’re still living in a legal system meant for the past world, not the current digital age we live in.

“Our greatest problem as a society is to come up with a way of regulating this environment, that is changing really rapidly, and preserve the best of the internet and digital world while dealing with these insane excesses, because it’s really being used in tremendously malevolent ways,” remarked Political Science Professor Juan Lindau, who teaches a block entitled “Secrecy, Surveillance, and Democracy.” The course explores the evolution of the state’s surveillance of its citizens, other populations abroad, and the ways in which that surveillance is accounted and unaccounted for within our democracy.

“The government wants to know everything possible about you, but it’s not trying to manipulate you politically. These engines are trying to manipulate you; they’re very sophisticated systems of propaganda with very serious political implications,” said Professor Lindau, touching on the dangerous capacity of large private entities like social media. The potential ability social media has for swaying opinions and invading individuals’ privacy all boils down to its methods of data mining. Facebook is the best site to recognize and understand the scope of this potential.

First of all, Facebook has more data on you than you think. You already know that it has all of the profile information you input, but you probably don’t know that there is a “Facebook Pixel” which is used by sites other than Facebook. The pixel is an invisible tracking software that non-Facebook sites have; allowing Facebook, and the site in use, to track a consumer's likes, dislikes, and activities without their consent. And this isn’t a few hundred sites that have the Facebook pixel—it’s millions. Facebook takes that information to generate targeted ads for you, a marketing strategy that makes it the billion-dollar company it is. That’s why you can see ads for other sites you visited or would likely visit on Facebook’s side feed.

In 2016, Winston Smith from Missouri noticed this and sued Facebook and seven cancer institutes, accusing Facebook of violating privacy by tracking his browsing on cancer sites and research of treatment options. Since Facebook makes millions from its medical advertisements, it’s not an implausible argument in the least. Yet the judge dismissed the case, due to the data policy agreement that Facebook users agree to when creating a profile. Legally, Facebook didn’t do anything wrong. But Smith and the other plaintiffs didn’t feel it was right that Facebook profited off their medical conditions. It was legally valid, but was it ethical?

The U.S. government draws the ethical line when the question of data mining and political influence cross wires. Zuckerberg was called in to testify in front of Congress in April in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was discovered that the UK-based voter profiling firm had purchased the detailed personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users from a researcher who had told users he was collecting it for academic reasons. Cambridge Analytica used that information to create politically targeted ads, which experts believe may have allowed them to influence the 2016 election.

When working with Ted Cruz, Cambridge Analytica separated his potential voters into various psychological profiles and then targeted them accordingly. For example, they sent different messages to his “timid traditionalist” profiles than to his “temperamental” profiles; all based on the potential voters’ previous political leanings. Cambridge Analytica has the ability to accurately understand a user’s political tendencies, because every digital click is documented and used to create detailed voter profiles.

Mark Turnbull, managing director to Cambridge Analytica’s political division, said, "We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet ... and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, 'that's propaganda,' because the moment you think 'that's propaganda,' the next question is, ‘who's put that out?’”

Since, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans get their news from Facebook, the implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal are huge. Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing illustrated just how much information a large company like Facebook has on its users and how easily that information can get into the wrong hands. Data mining isn’t only about the personal invasion, but how efficiently that information can be employed to target individuals with misinformation.

Platforms like Facebook were never intended to be the news organizations they’ve become. Professor Lindau touched on this, explaining, “People like Zuckerberg and the holders of these other platforms, like [Jack] Dorsey at Twitter, need to acknowledge that what they have are not merely platforms. They’re not these neutral vehicles that deliver content, but that they are, increasingly, news organizations.” According to Lindau, this means that Facebook and Twitter can’t pretend to be neutral and escape the journalistic demand for verifying information and the way its’ used. As Lindau put it, “you have a responsibility to curate your content. To establish its veracity, to fact check it; you’re privy to the information that you’re imparting.”

It’s not hard to go into your Facebook settings to see the categories Facebook assigns to you based on what you’ve clicked on, at least on the surface level. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has colored-coded the categories to make its data settings easier to follow, although it’s still pretty overwhelming. I wasn’t surprised by what I saw when I looked into mine: it mostly consisted of liberal-leaning news organizations, Airbnb, Spotify, and other apps connected to my Facebook that I frequently use. This is what I expected to see, but that’s only part of the picture. Facebook is showing what I’ve already said yes to: the apps I gave consent to connect to Facebook. It’s not showing that it has my entire search history to sell to (or be stolen by) groups like Cambridge Analytica. And why would it? It’s out of Facebook’s hands and, furthermore, its business platform.

It’s important to note that Facebook isn’t the only large company profiting from extensive data mining; most companies do. In 2012, Target got into legal trouble for predicting and revealing women’s pregnancies. The company would analyze customers’ purchases and send them coupons for goods they’d likely buy at certain stages of their pregnancy. One man from Minneapolis went into his nearby Target to complain that his high school daughter was getting coupons for maternity clothes, which he felt was inappropriate. The manager called a few days later to apologize, but the father apologized instead; apparently his daughter hadn’t yet told him that she was pregnant.

There’s also the new app MoviePass, where users pay $9.95 per month for three free movie screenings. You’re saving money even if you view just one movie a month, so it’s no shock that it’s already up to 3 million subscribers and is expected to reach 5 million before the end of 2018. In fact, the deal is so good that it seems like it’d inevitably go bankrupt, but company executives maintain that it will turn a profit.

But the reason it’s so cheap is that MoviePass aims to profit not from individual revenue, but from consumers’ data, which it gleans from tracking their location. MoviePass tracks a member’s physical location to and from the movies so it can gather intel on what kinds of movies individuals see, at what times, and where they’re likely to go before and after. On a local scale, MoviePass can sell this data to nearby restaurants and businesses to boost sales. On a bigger scale, it can sell the data to big studios to change how they market movies to specific users. In order to use MoviePass, consumers agree to monetize themselves—but at least MoviePass acknowledges it.

When signing up for Facebook, tweeting, or entering a Google search, individuals are giving companies the right to monetize them, even if they don’t realize it. Individuals are getting a free service and, in return, giving their complete permission for companies to use and profit off of their data. Big companies like Facebook and Target track individuals’ behavior on the internet to extrapolate habits and patterns that create a very specific profile for each person who’s plugged in—a very accurate profile it uses to send you targeted ads of retail you’ll most likely buy, candidates you’ll most likely vote for, and news you’ll most likely believe.

Unless you were to completely detach from the internet, which is unrealistic for anyone who isn’t Ron Swanson, it’s hard to avoid being data mined. The other option would be to pay for things like social media, so one could insist on client protocols. Yet that option is also pretty improbable; Americans want to maintain their access to free commodities, and entities like Facebook want to maintain their extensive revenue. Big data isn’t going anywhere. The lack of knowledge and concern about the issue can change. But do people even care?

To find out, I asked Colorado College students whether they care if companies like Facebook targeted them with ads based off of the large quantities of data it’s gathered. Most people agreed that it’s a greater convenience and that the content of their own data is too inconsequential to matter.

“I mean, I’d rather get ads for things I’m interested in than not,” said Lo Wall, which seemed to be the resounding popular response to my question.

“It doesn’t bother me, because I’m not doing anything that interesting. So if it wants to collect data on me no one will use it,” said Bridget O’Neill. General opinion holds that people’s lives are too routine and trivial for companies to care about—and furthermore, if companies employ that data to target you, then maybe it’s just helpful. “I’m insignificant. Why would they care?” asked Emily Klockenbrink.

But not everyone is completely secure in that mindset; some ponder the dangerous trajectory of big data companies. Zac Schulman is worried that “companies will get to the point where they have a superior understanding than the consumers themselves; that they don’t realize they’re being manipulated.” Soon, the manipulation of who we vote for or what we buy might be so subtle that we don’t realize it’s happening.

Therein lies the frightening truth: data mining is becoming so accurate and subtle that it has the potential to know you better than you know yourself. Remember how Target could predict women’s pregnancies? That was in 2012, when Obama was running for re-election and the iPhone 5 had just dropped into the market. Today, more and more studies are coming out about data mining potentially (and already, in some cases) being used as diagnosis surveillance. For example, what if your phone could pick up your speech patterns to detect early onset Alzheimer's? Data mining is becoming so astute at analyzing behavior that it’s likely able to notice abnormalities before you can. In this theoretical future, my phone or computer could know I have a brain tumor before my doctor.

If one thing’s clear, it’s that data mining isn’t going anywhere. In some cases, maybe that’s fine—I like that Netflix recommends me movies—but do we care that the database is becoming more intelligent and accurate at knowing our behavior and desires than our own selves? Or that we may not be able to distinguish how we are being targeted, and whether we are being manipulated? We may not worry now, but we have to pay attention to the evolution of big data, or we’ll find ourselves the Sims of Zuckerberg without even knowing it.

On election day, it was my turn to host movie night for a group of friends from my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. We watched the German masterpiece “Wetlands,” and afterward, we needed to relax and unpack our daily drama. Macho Man was playing quietly in the background as we drank boxed wine and Dos Equis. The news was faintly playing as we chattered about Clinton, Trump, and the ridiculousness of the campaign. We ignored Anderson Cooper until we realized that the map of the states was turning overwhelmingly red. The laughter died down, I switched the music off, and everyone glued their eyes to the screen. While most of us started to panic, one pair of eyes watched in excitement as Trump was declared President of the United States. The room was silent. Then Alfonso, a smile spreading across his face, boasted, "I told you so."

Alfonso (whose name has been changed), a gay Filipino man, doesn't meet the typical demographic criteria of a Trump supporter. He remains a mystery even to those close to him due to his political affiliations. Even I have a hard time relating to him because of his beliefs, and we go way back. Since our childhood homes were only minutes apart, we practically grew up together. We were both born outside of the U.S. and forced to speak a weird brand of pidgin at home and battled the same cultural assimilation in the greater Houston area. I get angry when he defends our president, and a lot of our friends from the queer community have stopped talking to him completely because they associate Trump with fear and hatred. If I didn't know him so well, I might have joined them—but I could never throw away our friendship.

It's hard to stay mad at Alfonso, with his flamboyant personality and contagious laugh. He's still the same awkwardly-tall brown kid who has had my back since day one. From hate-watching “Glee” together to making me laugh when I wanted to cry, Alfonso has been a constant in my life. There are a million little things about him, like his love for Beyoncé and his Starbucks addiction, that make him an endearing person. His support of Trump doesn't change the fact that he volunteers at a gay homeless shelter in his spare time or leads groups at a local queer organization, Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH). Constantly happy, he has a boyfriend going on two years now, and he’s always gushing about him. He inspires me with the way he takes care of those around him. He always listens with an open mind, refrains from judgement, and connects people in need of resources. Instead of closing himself off to the world, he loves openly and boundlessly; I wish I could be like that too. Yet somehow, he still believes that his political leanings don't hurt the people who he tries so tirelessly to protect.

Alfonso asserts, “As a gay man, I am not threatened by GOP opposition to queer identities.” He explains, “Any threat to my sexuality has already been solved by the decision to legalize same-sex marriage.” He says he feels safe under a Trump administration. “We have done so much. I feel like the progress we've made can't be undone. It's not a fight we need to carry on; we've already won.” Frustrated by his response, I roll my eyes over FaceTime.

I explain that despite the legal battles fought and won in the gay community, de facto discrimination is still well in effect. Republican claims to uphold traditional and family values continue to threaten gay and trans people on a cultural level. Just this past August, a nine-year-old in Denver committed suicide because he was bullied for being gay. Gay and trans youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers because of the social stigmas associated with being gay. When someone is deemed deviant or “other” by society at large, their mental health suffers. Although we protect queer people to some extent on a juridical level, social discrimination is still alive and well. The discrepancy between legal and social policing continues to have devastating effects upon the LGBTQ community.

Alfonso disregards my points and instead claims, “I have my reasons for liking Trump. For one, he's upended what we thought possible [in our political system]. He's an outsider. If anything, he understands the gay community more than presidents before. He's not crooked, and any shortcomings since his election are because of the structure of the government.” As a staunch supporter of Trump's economic reforms, Alfonso continues to assert that Trump’s corrupt administration is comprised of well-intentioned folk who want to “drain the swamp.” He believes that globalism, war, and big business, are destroying America, and he just hopes that Trump—who he understands as essentially rejected by both parties, and only begrudgingly let into GOP arms—can solve our ever-widening political divide. “At the end of the day, I know I'm supporting someone who wants to change the way America operates. I know it’s not popular, and I don't agree with everything that has happened since the election—especially white populism—but I know that in his core, he's a good man. I support change.”

As a queer immigrant of color, Alfonso contradicts identity politics in every conceivable way. In fact, he believes that political tribalism and identity politics are stripping America of unity and freedom of expression. He often says, “I can’t be open about my ideas because of the overwhelming disdain my friends and family have for Trump.” He points out that “Donald Trump campaigned with a promise to support the LGBTQ movement, and even held up the gay flag during one of his speeches.” He also reminds me that “the Defense of Marriage Act was signed under the Clinton administration.” Concessions made for the gay community under the Trump Administration are purely verbal, but they give Alfonso an excuse to believe in Trump's larger political promises—the disruption of the governmental system. Instead of focusing on all the problematic things that have occurred since Trump was sworn into office, he continues to believe in the general mission to upend the status quo.

He refuses to acknowledge that many of the strides made in LGBTQ communities could easily be reversed considering Trump’s current political dogma. One-third of Trump’s court nominations have a history of anti-LGBTQ sentiments, although his final pick Brett Kavanaugh (odious for many reasons) won’t give an opinion on gay rights. Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence supports gay conversion therapy. In addition, Trump continually attacks the trans community. His administration denied trans people's rights to use bathrooms and lockers that correspond with their gender identity, and attempted to ban trans-identifying persons from the military. Alfonso's claim that none of these policies are hurting the community are baffling.

Politics notwithstanding, whenever I visit home, I still call up Alfonso, and we spend most of the night at Whataburger reminiscing. We remember the days of insecurity and teenage angst, and marvel at how we got each other through it all. Alfonso is now planning on transferring to the University of Houston. He wants to go into film or social media. We talk about books, movies, and TV shows—just stopping short of politics.

Maybe I don't understand him, but I respect his decisions. He's not to blame for the political climate—rhetoric fueled by fear-mongering will never be his fault. If I were to stop being his friend, I would fall prey to our black and white world that refuses to recognize nuances or differences in opinion.

Rain spotted my clothes as I walked into James’s place. The wind from the ride over had ruffled my hair, so a curl dangled in front of my eyes. James lived in a big house with five others two blocks north and one block east of me. That Sunday, though, his roommates were still gone on a camping trip and he had invited me over to make pancakes. The gate to his house was hanging from one hinge, so the bottom of the gate had scraped an arc of white streaks along the sidewalk, marking its history. I pulled it open and walked my bike through.

 The door was open. “What’s up, James?” I yelled into the house, hoping James was within earshot and that I wouldn’t have to search the house for him.

“Hey man,” he said as his head appeared from the kitchen. I walked past empty chip bags and a couch that was missing a couple cushions. Crumbs and scraps littered the area between the front door and the kitchen: it looked like no one had bothered to sweep after a party. The kitchen, though swept, was dirty; coffee grounds layered every surface, and dishes were piled on the counter next to the sink. James stood there trying to wash the bowls, plates, and pans needed for us to make pancakes. He smiled as I walked in.

——— 

I could always tell when James was having a good day. His eyes would stay focused when he looked at me. They wouldn’t gloss over and he wouldn’t stare off into the mountains, mouth slightly open, unblinking. The little dimples near the corners of his mouth would linger after he looked down at his hands, pointer fingers curling and uncurling rhythmically, as if wishing he could hold onto the way he felt forever. He had a nice smile on the good days. I think I only caught that smile a couple times in the two years I knew him, often after a hard day’s work or a date. I wished more than anything he could fight off his demons and hold onto those smiles.

Before he left CC for good, James stayed with me to avoid paying an extra month’s rent. One night, he came in to the house around 10:30 pm. An hour earlier, he had left with a girl, who showed up unannounced to my housemate Grace and me. She walked in and said a quick hello, before turning to James and asking, “Should we go?”

“Yeah,” he responded, drawing out the vowels. He talked deliberately—his words reflected his movements, and it was endearing to people. It also vetted them: to talk to James required a patience and precision that few people understood. I often found myself waiting for him to finish sentences, despite knowing where they were headed, but giving him the space to finish anyway.

He stood, grabbed his jacket from a dining room chair, and walked her down the porch steps and onto the sidewalk.

Grace and I shared a look. “Makes sense,” I said.

“Yeah.”

We both went back to our computers.

Grace had just gone to bed when James came back alone. He sat on the couch across from me, smiling. Then he leaned his head back against the cushion and sighed.

“What?” I asked with a half smirk.

“Just tired.” He half laughed. “My back is still sore.”

“You should lay down on the ground with your feet up on the couch.”

“Will that help?”

“Does for me.”

He sat down, put his feet up, then looked at me upside down.

“What’s up?” I asked, still smirking.

“I just like looking at you upside down. You look like an alien.”

I laughed. He never joked like that. He joked only when he felt most comfortable. He, like most people, had a fear of slightly angering those he cared about. We think, incorrectly, that they will love us less. I think back to when he would walk into my house with those eyes and that smile, and he would joke about things. In some way we all feel how James felt most of the time, lost and floating, unsure about who we are to ourselves and to other people. We need reminders that we matter to those around us: reminders that James never got. He was reminded more of the demons he fought every day than how much his friends valued him.

Those reminders are why Shaun and I hooked up last year. I needed someone to remind me that I could be loved like that, just like Shaun needed someone to remind him how much he matters.

James sat briefly back on the couch, put his head in his hands, sighed again. “I’m leaving in three days, though.”

“Three days?” I asked. I thought he was staying longer, until just before school started.

“Well, five I guess.”

“That’s not a long time.”

“No,” he drew out the vowel and his eyes glazed over for a second. We both knew who was on the other’s mind.

——— 

“I think we just need eggs and the mix, maybe some water too. Oh, and I have some blueberries.”

“Dope,” I said, “blueberry pancakes, yes sir.”

James walked to the fridge and a head of lettuce fell to the floor when he opened it.

“You were right when you said there’s not enough fridge space for six people.”

“Yeah, and I’ve only got like one thing in here,” he said, pulling out a carton of eggs.

I leaned against the counter opposite the sink, watching James move between the sink and the fridge. Part of me was sad then, because I knew that soon I wouldn’t get much of a chance to have these times with him. A couple mornings before, over breakfast, he told me he was going to leave CC for good, leave Colorado, and head home for a while to figure out his next steps. There wasn’t much for him here—he hadn’t settled into a major or found anything to truly ground him in Colorado. It felt like the pancakes checked off another mark on the countdown to his departure.

“I associate this place with bad feelings,” he said once. Maybe he meant the bad feelings of two years ago, when he first got here and it wasn’t all he had hoped it would be, when his world turned upside down. I never got the full story—I only know that it was soon after everything happened that we became friends. Soon after that, he took time off—almost a full year—before coming back last spring. He decided to leave that first time right when we were becoming better friends. The timing of everything upset me.

 ———

In the dining room, I sat with my left leg crossed over my right, a plate of pancakes in front of me, and a mug of coffee between my hands. I watched the trees sway in the wind and light rain through the window over James’s right shoulder.

“I’m happy I’ve had the place to myself this weekend,” he said, scraping the last of the maple syrup off his plate with the side of his fork. “The silence has been a nice change. Do you want more pancakes?”

“Most definitely.”

James brought in a large platter of steaming pancakes from the kitchen, and I pushed aside a bong and a book on psychedelics, neither of which belonged to him. Now they sat almost between us, a reminder of his housemates. He sat fiddling with a plastic wrapper from a sports drink neither of us drank.

James could push himself to the edge if he wanted because he knew himself well enough to find his edges. Before college, he’d been a golfer, finding calm in an explosive golf swing mixed into the slow and rambling pace of the game itself. But outside golf, he moved with such deliberateness it seemed the whole world slowed to his pace, and I always felt a little calmer being around him. He never pressured anyone to be quick or expected things to happen immediately. The way he moved always reminded me of the times I went too fast, the times I should have slowed down, and studied myself more the way he did.

When I was still at school in Switzerland, long before the idea of transferring ever crossed my mind, I made plans to take a 9 a.m. train to Lake Como, just over the Italian border. The night before, somewhere close to midnight, I stood outside Sully’s on the sidewalk.

“Come for another drink downtown,” Alex said.

I knew it from his blond hair, his strong jaw, the ease with which his Vermont voice floated from deep within his soul. I wanted another drink.

“Alright,” I said, checking the time on my phone, realizing that my morning would only get rougher the longer I stayed out. But I could feel the pull of Alex’s guitar and the laughter shared with Alex and friends, pulling me into the night.

I got to my room at 7 a.m. the next morning, not fully remembering how or why I’d gone out.

I left on the 9 a.m. train, my head finding comfort on the cold glass window of the car, but my stomach finding no solace. I thought of that train ride as I watched James’ movement. I knew that he would have known himself and the situation well enough to go home, to sleep, to take the next day with a smile and a good breakfast instead of tormenting himself the way I did with lost love and time.

——— 

As I watched the trees, James fiddled with a plastic wrapper. I spun my coffee around in the mug, waiting for him to speak.

“I’m not super out there,” he said, still looking down at the wrapper. “I’m not good at social things, like I want to be sometimes, but other times I like being introverted. But then again, I’m not good at being in groups, I never know how to act or what to say.”

“It still takes me a long time to figure that out,” I said. I watched his face as we talked. He had this funny way of using his eyelashes to communicate: more blinking and a twitch in his left cheek meant I’d hit a note that resonated. I watched him now and his eyelashes fluttered, his cheek twitched up, and he looked at me. He met my eyes more than most people. But he said nothing, so I spoke instead. “I know it seems like I know how to act with people, but I’m not always sure. Being happier these last few years means I’m more extroverted, but even now, I’m still not always sure.”

I was high the first few times I talked with James, and for months I thought he judged me for it. He lived with Wilson, and Wilson and I smoked together a lot back then. Once, Wilson left their room and I said hello to James, who turned around from his computer and responded. I missed what he said, so I kept quiet. I figured James only knew me as “the kid Wilson smoked with.” I figured out too late that he would have enjoyed hanging out with us if we had only asked. I regret that I didn’t invite him to hang out earlier. I, too, fell into the trap of seeing him first as an athlete, second as Wilson’s roommate, and only third as a person all his own.

 ———

I watched the wrapper. James used his hands more than most. He spent the summer working on a farm, and whenever I saw him he had dirt under his fingernails and seemed not to notice. He cooked a lot, too, and I would watch him move about the kitchen boiling quinoa or watching a squash in the oven. I would watch confident hands chop onions and cilantro: smooth movements with sharp knives. There’s a scar on his left hand from a slip up with a hatchet. As I walked in that day he held out his hand to me and said, “I think it’s getting infected, but I’m not sure if I should have it checked out again.”

“Maybe go back to urgent care? That could be pretty expensive though.”

“It’s probably fine.”

I found comfort near James while he cooked. The care he put into each step meant that I could do little else but stand aside and watch. Cooking became a defining feature of his reputation. Whenever James came up in conversation, people would ask me about his cooking. I would tell a story about a night we spent walking downtown trying to get him into a bar and the person would stop me and say, “He cooks, right? Like he’s a really good cook?”

“Yeah,” I’d say, “he knows his food. He wants to be a farmer, or a chef.”

Lots of people come to this school because they’re too rich to not get a degree, but don’t feel all that motivated to work for one. I think James falls into that category, at least partially. When he arrived, before his struggles surfaced and before he took the time to find his edges, golf consumed his life, and he never got the chance to step back and ask himself what he wanted until it was too late. When shit hit the fan for him, just before we started talking, too many people in his life knew each other and the news spread too quickly. Too many people knew him here, too many people knew what happened, or at least that something happened, for him to regain that anonymity he arrived with. CC was too small for him to be anything other than what people heard about him.

After a year and a bit away from everything, James finally knows what he wants to do and how to get there. He wants to be a farmer. Or a chef. Probably both to some extent. He wants to be anonymous, to disappear into the crowd, have no one notice him, be left alone to trudge through his days.

 ———

I don’t blame him for leaving. I will forever remember my last night in Switzerland, sitting on the hill overlooking Lugano. Carter had bought cigars. Alex was gone already, and I was to leave early the next morning. The sun dropped over San Salvatore and we puffed our cigars.

 “So that’s it?” he said.

 “That’s it.” I took a deep inhale and exhaled everything the semester had brought to me: the mojitos, the shallow friendships that followed, the loneliness, the feeling of inexperience, the sloppy roommate, the disappointment. I was getting out, but at the expense of the handful of friendships I found myself desperately clinging to. My need for change outweighed how close we got, and I figured I needed to forego the budding friendships for the ones to come in the future. I told myself that I would keep in touch with them, that they would mean as much to me in a year as they did when we rented an Airbnb in Annecy, when we finished a couple bottles of wine at a chateau in the Swiss Alps, or when we snuck onto the roof of our apartment building with Jack Daniels and Alex’s guitar. Yet I haven’t talked to any of them in months. But I wouldn’t change the happiness I have now for anything. So no, I can’t blame James for leaving.

There’s a picture of me from that final night standing on a stone wall, with the sunset and the mountains in the background. I’m blowing into my hands. I’m wearing the only hat I owned at the time, a beanie from my high school baseball team. The picture tells the story of a boy on the edge of leaving a place that never really accepted him, a place that brought fear and internalized anger. It’s a picture I hope never to take again. It strikes me now how times have changed.

 “That’s it,” I said again, “it’s all done now.”

——— 

James surprised me sometimes. Back when he was staying with me for a couple nights before he left, some other folks came through my house to spend a night or two before they could move into their sublease. We talked in the kitchen that night. I was leaning against the sink. Simon stood against the doorframe of the kitchen. James sat on the counter next to the stove. Two bottles of hot sauce stood on the counter next to him, one his, one Simon’s.

 “Can I try that one?” James asked, picking up the bottle and dabbing a bit of sauce onto his finger. He licked it, moved his tongue around his mouth, and nodded. “That’s good. Pretty vinegary, but I like it.”

 “It’s just some hot sauce from the store, not from some fancy hot sauce place,” said Simon. “Can I try a bit of yours?”

 “Go for it.”

Simon took up James’s bottle and went to put a small drop on his finger. It came out faster than expected and ran down his index finger. “Oh man,” Simon said, trying to lick all the sauce before it became messier, “that’s not ideal.”

I laughed. James smiled. “Did I say you could take that much?”

 “Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” Simon sounded defensive. He had missed the joke. I looked down at my socks, embarrassed for them both.

With James’s joke I saw myself at six years old, hand on the serving spoon of the sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving. My father stood behind me saying, “Excuse me, mister, did I say you could take that much?” and tickling my sides with gentle fingertips.

James got the tone just wrong enough that Simon missed it, and I saw James as a father, years from now, saying “Did I say you could take that much?” to his child, who just misses the joke. I rubbed my face, trying to remove the scene in front of me from the insides of my eyes. “I think I need to go to bed,” I said.

James nodded and put the cap back on his bottle of hot sauce.

 ———

After sitting in silence for a while, I looked up from the mug I held in my lap. James was still sitting across from me. He was still playing with the plastic wrapper. A breeze still blew through the open windows of the dining room, across the room, and out the open front door.

“I think you’re going to be alright, James.”

His eyelash fluttered, his cheek twitched, and the wrapper paused briefly in his hands, but he did not look up. “I hope so.”

I nodded that slow nod of understanding, leaving his hope in the air for it to settle into reality. And I let it linger after he left, after I wished him good luck, after I hugged him goodbye and shipped him the fly-fishing rod that he left at my house. I let his hope stay with us in that moment because hope that genuine and deep should never be tampered with by another.

Two nights before he left, James and I sat opposite each other on the couches in my living room. He was reading as I watched Netflix.

“I stopped taking my meds recently.” He set his book on his lap and smiled at me. “It’s kinda scary actually. I haven’t seen a psychiatrist in months.”

 “Is that a good thing?”

 “I don’t know. It’s invigorating, I’ve been able to drink more.” His eyes stayed steady in mine.

 “I see.” He always took me by surprise when he opened up. There would never be a build up or a lead in, only a single statement. I had to switch on in those moments, because it is in those moments that lives are suspended from fragile strings, when all the darkness of a soul reaches out to be illuminated by a friend. I’ve been on the other end, inching myself out into that open and vulnerable space too many times to refuse to be that helping hand. When he opened up like that, I listened, always gave him space to keep talking before I asked anything.

 “I don’t know,” he said, “I think most psychiatrists are bullshit anyway, they never really listen, just pass you off to the therapist, who passes you off to the pharmacist and says, ‘see you next week.’”

 “They don’t help at all?”

 “Not really.”

I closed my laptop. “Why do you keep going back?”

 “The meds help a little. They make me less anxious, more like a person.”

He told me once on a couch on a porch that he felt sluggish while on his meds, that they made him tired, but that it was better than being off them. But now, I guess he wanted more control. He wanted to drink more and go out and be around people. The girl whose name I never knew had something to do with it, I think.

 ———

People never got past James’ tall frame and endearing smile. They saw him only as the golfer he came to college as and nothing more. Few people ever took the time to ask James who he was, and fewer still cared enough to stick around for the answer. For too many of us, he started and stopped at his smile. In some ways he, too, stopped, stopped at the chopped cilantro and onion, stopped at the blueberry pancakes and the wrapper he fiddled with while we ate them. I consider myself lucky to have known him as well as I did. I got a glimpse of the man he’s going to be and am forever grateful for that.

——— 

We often meet people at the wrong times, when they are still looking for themselves and can’t give us all we might need. In many ways, he and I are the same, both trying to figure out just who we are in the grand scheme of our lives.  All we can do is take the lessons they give us and latch onto those lessons in the hopes that one day in the future they’ll come back and reiterate all they taught us, and maybe, just maybe, give us something more. I hope that one day James and I will reconnect, when we’re both a bit older and wiser, and will share with each other all we learned about ourselves and the world.

Just before we stood up to wash our pancake dishes, I said, “You know, it’s not really the quantity of communication that keeps people close, it’s what they say.” He set the wrapper aside and looked at me. He blinked and his cheek twitched as he smiled, stood up, and stacked my plate on top of his.

 

Names have been changed for privacy.  

Why would a person buy a stranger’s diary?

The descriptions of some of the diaries available on eBay range from eye-catching to just plain disturbing. One post provides an extensive description of its writer, introducing a “young promiscuous mother” who has to deal with her “sexual addictions” while supporting a new child from an unexpected pregnancy. Another diary from 1980 seems much less dramatic: the eBay description says that the diary consists of daily notes, but it includes little to no information about the personal attributes of the writer. One seller advertises their product by musing that a “frenetic (possibly substance-induced) vibe radiates from every page.”

The diaries range from $10 to multiple thousands, varying drastically depending on the number of filled pages, the time period, and the author. Some are leatherbound and chock-full of cursive, some spiral-bound; some are organized like farmer’s logbooks with daily notes, and others are filled with emotional rants.

I purchased two diaries from the early 2000s for $10 total to get personal experience with the practice of diary buying. I wanted to fully understand the process and buying a couple myself seemed to be the first step.

Though I felt apprehensive, I went to pick up the diaries as soon as they had arrived in the mail. My stomach lurched as I pulled the two little books out of their bright yellow packaging. One was hardcover, and the other spiral-bound. They had biblical statements like “Trust in the Lord” and “God’s way is perfect” inscribed on their covers and printed on their pages. And, of course, they were filled with someone else’s handwriting.

Even though I knew exactly what I had signed up for when I decided to get them, flipping through the journals made my stomach churn. Looking at the lines of looping cursive made me feel uneasy; I didn’t consider myself the type of person to read someone else’s most private thoughts until that moment. I felt especially invasive when I read the inscription on the inside of one of the covers: “Private + Personal Property of mine––Betty Penrose.” (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

I had purchased these journals for a reason, however, and I wasn’t going to just leave them on my desk. Despite my discomfort, I could sense my curiosity begging me to read through the pages.

To my surprise, it took less than a page for my inhibitions to fade. I realized that these diaries were not those of a young girl, as I had assumed (stereotypically, I know). I was reading the work of a 55-year-old woman, as she wrote on one inside cover. By the bottom of the first page, I had begun to associate her with a grandmotherly figure. It was as though her mannerisms were embedded in the diction. I could hear her voice talking about how she was sure the trash cans had blown over in the rain the night she wrote her first entry. She worried about her relationship with her children and detailed her day-to-day troubles, like an argument she had with her husband over a $5 loan. She often finished entries with entreaties to the Lord to guide her through her struggles.

As the months progressed, the intensity of Betty’s life heightened. She was having trouble with finances, her husband was succumbing to alcoholism for yet another year, and she was considering a divorce. Suddenly, the entries stopped. I flipped to the other diary and opened it to find that the next entry was from four years later. Betty was talking about her husband like nothing was wrong. What had happened in those four years?

It didn’t take much introspection for me to get a better understanding of why other people might read stranger’s diaries—I was doing it myself. Once I put the diaries down, however, my thoughts about the ethics of reading them kicked into high gear again. I didn’t intend to publicize Betty’s life or her acquaintances’ personal issues using their real identities. But what if someone did decide to do that?

I have no idea if Betty is still alive, but if she is, I now know more about her than I would ever want to admit. That’s the strangest part—I feel a bond with this stranger, and I am interested in her wellbeing. I want to know what happened to her after the pages ended, but at the same time, I would never want to meet her.

I can imagine that it might feel like someone sneaking into my room and reading my journals—I would rather not know what they had done, let alone talk to them about it. That, I realized, was where my qualms about the ethics of reading strangers’ diaries lay: awareness. I never questioned the morality of reading the journals of medieval monks, the logbooks of privateers, or even the diary of Anne Frank. None of those people would know that I had read their journals. The issues surrounding reading the diaries of the long-dead are far more easily dismissed than those of the still-living.

While I know my theory is slightly hypocritical, given that I myself read the personal thoughts of a woman who is likely still alive, I still stand by the idea that the private issues of another are meant to stay that way unless explicit consent is given.

 ———

A Reddit user named Dawn used her writing to justify collecting used diaries. She first learned of used diaries when a friend gifted her one, and she has continued to collect ever since. In her post she wrote, “For someone who loves writing about real life, this is a perfect way to build a character and put myself in their shoes via written-down thoughts. The diaries were like fertilizer to my brain, blooming ideas and ways to write. It was eye opening.”

Though it had been years since the original post, I managed to speak with Dawn. I was glad to hear more of Dawn’s thoughts, especially those confirming the validity of the post—while she noted that she posted her original piece “thinking that people would see it as fiction,” the personal experience described within was real.

The post contained several excerpts from a diary with intense descriptions of the writer’s struggles with mental illness. It seems that Dawn is cautious about sharing more; even though I didn’t mention that writer (who is still alive) or his diary to Dawn at all, she made it very clear in her responses to me that she “will not try to answer questions related to the guy in the diary.” It made me wonder if others had contacted Dawn asking about that man in particular.

Dawn has spent hundreds of dollars on diaries, but she isn’t alone. In the Buzzfeed video “I Bought a Stranger’s Diary,” the host bid over a hundred dollars for the diaries she read on camera. The host’s motivations for investing in the diary market seem less personal than Dawn’s goal of improving her writing. The reasoning behind the Buzzfeed diary purchase is, as exemplified by the title, clickbait. Other videos by the same host have similar content, such as “I Bought a Stranger’s Love Letters from eBay.” The titles evoke a visceral reaction, calling to mind invasion of privacy and the commodification of deeply personal belongings. The strategy is effective; the used diary video has just under five million views.

While I understood the individual motivations, I also found the sheer amount of time, energy, and money that I saw pouring into the used diary market astounding on multiple levels—a commitment embodied by some particularly devoted collectors.

 ———

Sally Macnamara is a used diary aficionado who has read “between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces” over the course of 30 years. It would be difficult to find someone with more experience than she in the world of “vintage diaries,” as she calls them. While her enterprises with the personal writing of others began with a collection of letters, Sally soon moved into the realm of diaries. For Sally, the personal connections are one of the most important aspects of diary reading: “you get very attached to these [families] and it makes you only want to know more.” The more diaries she read, the more she considered herself “the perfect caretaker of their stories.” As she says, “I treat every family, every diary or archive with the deepest of respect … Each diary finds a special place in my heart and they become almost a part of me or I a part of their family, and I hold that in the highest regard … I take what I do very seriously.”

The majority of the pieces she has read are written by people who have passed away, because, as she notes, “it gets a bit tricky when you are reading diaries from someone who is still living.” However, no matter what types of diaries she reads, Sally is conscientious and respectful.

Sally is not just a “keeper of secrets,” as she has been described. Similarly to Dawn, Sally learns from the stories of other people. In fact, she says that what she has read has been “life changing”—understandable, given how many years of her life she has devoted to the practice.

 ———

I still don’t completely understand why a person would buy a stranger’s diary.  I question what type of person would bid a winning $46 for a “personal female journal” on eBay described to include “depression… secrets… anxiety… sexual harassment ...” But although some people might read used diaries for darker purposes, those I spoke to had varied and unique motivations for engaging with them. Dawn has her character studies, the Buzzfeed host has her viewer count. Sally has her personal attachments, and I have my curiosity. The draw behind vintage diaries, however, is the same for the majority of those who read them. Sally said it best: “Everybody has a story … and a good one at that.”

 

Olivia does not believe in superstitions, which is a shame because she should. One day we were walking and found a penny on the ground; it was tails-side-up, but she picked it up anyway. I hated that she did this. Stupid Olivia.

We don’t like Olivia. No one really likes Olivia at all, actually. Sometimes Olivia will be walking and she will stumble on her feet—so embarrassing, she thinks. And everyone agrees; yes, so embarrassing.

What is interesting about Olivia is that she is obsessed with fish. This is the only thing that is interesting about Olivia. She has posters of fish in her room, she eats fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and goes fishing on the weekends when it is nice. When I kissed her, she tasted like fish; when she asked me to go fishing with her on the weekends, I said no. However, her omega-3 levels are particularly admirable; this makes up for all of her other qualities, which are particularly poor.

I lied; many people do like Olivia. In fact, she is quite popular. I dislike her for this. She has friends and a family, both things that most people consider good. She is smart and she looks okay, but maybe you would think she looks better. Olivia likes these things about herself. I liked these things too, at one time, but Olivia lives her life in a world unlike others. Her mind, as one might say, is a thinking mind. She wakes in the morning with thoughts like: We are all just naked people in disguise. She goes to bed with thoughts like: Beef jerky is just cow raisins and for someone who doesn’t like tea, a cup of tea isn’t their cup of tea.

Olivia is a Viagra baby. She is a Viagra baby because that is what her mother told her she is. I don’t quite know what this means. Olivia’s mother is very odd; I met her once or twice, three times perhaps. Her name is Noreen. Noreen is tall and pretty; she looks like she lives in the suburbs. This look is accurate because she does in fact live in the suburbs.

Olivia likes to call people cunt. Noreen does not like it when Olivia says cunt. Noreen has never heard Olivia say cunt, but Olivia knows that if Noreen heard her say cunt, she would not like it.

Noreen is cynical; her humor is dark.

Everyone likes Noreen and this is the truth. This annoys Olivia because it extends the amount of time it takes them to complete a task that involves interaction with another being. Said being is always charmed by Noreen. Said being who is charmed will talk to Noreen until Olivia tugs at Noreen's jacket like a child and blurts, “Don't we have to go?” It is like this every time. Olivia hates that she has to act like a child. She is too old to be a child, at least, this is what she claims.

At the dentist’s office, the dentist shoves sharp tools into Olivia's mouth. But instead of focusing on the procedure, the dentist is looking at Noreen, who hovers near the chair. The dentist is laughing so hard that the tools shake in Olivia’s mouth, making her bleed. Then he looks at Olivia and asks through his gasps for air, “Is your mother this funny at home?” Olivia does not reply. Noreen is not allowed to come into the dentist's office with Olivia anymore; Noreen has to sit in the car and wait. Bad Noreen.

Noreen does not like drugs, or swearing, or people who stick their tongues out of their mouths or wear their clothes too tight or wear their clothes too baggy. Olivia does all these things. I was only ever guilty of three. Maybe you are guilty of more. Noreen would not like that.

Olivia likes puns. One time I was with Olivia. I have been with her more than one time, but this time we were in her room. I slipped one hand under her shirt and one hand into her pants. She squirmed and cooed and began to squeak and her brow began to sweat, so I leaned down and whispered in her ear: If you were a fruit, you would be a fineapple. She came.

Noreen and Olivia go to church every Sunday. I hate this about them. The church is exactly a six-minute and 30-second walk from Olivia's house. Noreen leaves 45 minutes early. Noreen says this is so she can be on time, but Olivia knows that it is because she likes to talk, even though there is never anyone there for her to talk to. Noreen never takes communion, and she never donates to the church. “Isn’t my existence enough?” she exclaimed when Olivia made the mistake of asking.

Sometimes Olivia went to the chapel and prayed. I told her that was stupid. When she stopped going to the chapel, she stopped calling me a cunt. I told her that just because she stopped calling me a cunt didn’t mean I was going to stop eating hers. And I thought yes, that was smooth. I am charming.

Noreen is a paramedic. Noreen hates her job. Olivia thinks Noreen has a cool job. But Olivia is stupid, we cannot believe what she says. Whenever Olivia asks Noreen for advice, Noreen begins the same way: “Do you know how many dead bodies I have had to pull needles out of?” Olivia never finds this comforting.

When Olivia asked Noreen what to do about a short man who shoved his fist down her throat and stole the voice from her soul, she said that she would kill him dead. “Dead, D-E-D, dead,” she said. I was not supposed to know this.

When Olivia and Noreen went to Home Depot, Noreen asked Olivia if she wanted to get high on fumes together. Olivia knew that she was kidding, but the man next to them did not.

When Olivia asked Noreen how she picked her name, Noreen told her she found it in the obituary section.

When Olivia asked Noreen what was in the giant box sitting on the front step, Noreen said it was a dead body.

When Olivia asked Noreen where the drilling sound was coming from, she told her it was their neighbor chopping up his wife.

Noreen has no chill.

Noreen is also very kind. Olivia admires this about her. She wishes she could trade her high levels of omega-3 for some of her mother’s qualities. Olivia told me this while we were fucking in a bathroom stall.

When Olivia was writing a story about her mom, she called Noreen and asked her for examples of stupid things she says. Noreen was quick to reply:

“I don't say anything stupid, are you cereal? First of all, I didn't sign a release allowing you to write about me, you didn't ask permission. Inspirational, thought-provoking, inspiring maybe. Stupid? No. Maybe you should write about someone else's mother. Why don't you talk about how you were adopted and how traumatic it was when you learned that you did not have roots?”

Olivia reminded Noreen that she was not adopted. Noreen continued:

“I have post-nasal drip, I can't think right now. Talk about how I was the first female to walk on the moon. And how the world isn’t round. Or how you like to get loaded … that means drunk. Listen, why don’t you lose this number.”

Noreen did not like that Olivia wrote that story. Noreen does not like that I have written this story. Noreen says none of this is true. Perhaps I would agree.

I knew Noreen, but I did not like Noreen. Noreen called me a liar. I called her a cunt. Olivia didn’t smile the next time I called her a fineapple.

When Noreen called to ask Olivia how she was and what she was doing that night, Olivia said she was having people over before going out. I was not invited, but neither were you.

“Going out where?” her mother asked.

“A party,” Olivia replied.

“You should not party,” Noreen said.

“Why not?” Olivia asked.

Then Noreen began: “Do you know how many dead bodies I have had to pull needles out of?”

Olivia’s life is a series of failed social interactions that she plays off as jokes. People think Olivia is cool for acting this way. Olivia’s life would make a good movie. You would like this movie, I think. Her movie would be a comedy. Who would play me? I wonder. They would have a lot of lines. They would not be liked.

When Noreen asked who Olivia was having over, Olivia told her “friends.” Noreen asked what she was serving.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Olivia asked.

“Well, what appetizers will you provide?”

“You don’t provide appetizers at a pre-game.”

“That is rude, don’t be rude,”  Noreen insisted. “You could have cheese and crackers and fruit, and everyone can bring dip.”

“Or booze.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s a great idea. Why don’t you just have a pot party.”

“Good idea,” Olivia smirked.

“Do you know how many dead bodies I have had to pull needles out of, Olivia? Do you?”

Olivia hung up the phone.

When I told Olivia she had a fertility problem she replied, “Yes, I know. It is called being a lesbian.” That was comical, I thought.

“I did not know,” I replied.

“Yes,” she replied.

“That does not change how I feel,” I stated.

Our conversations were never long.

I looked at a photo of Olivia sitting at a coffee shop, sitting with an extraordinarily handsome man. He is shorter than he should have been to be with her. Nonetheless there we sat. Yes, that short man, that boy, is me. She is smiling, I am laughing. I called her a fineapple and then she called me a cunt. We left the coffee shop. I did not leave a tip.

Olivia is stupid and her feelings cannot be trusted. Olivia cannot be a lesbian because Olivia loves me. Olivia is confused. I pity Olivia. Noreen says that my narcissistic, chode-like qualities are toxic. I called her a cunt. Again. Olivia cried.

The day Olivia left for school, we smoked a cigarette in the backyard. She asked what I was going to do without an education. I told her I was going to write. She liked that. I told her I was going to write about her and Noreen and you. She smacked the butt from my hand. She did not like what I said.

Olivia aches for closure. Olivia hates who I have become. Noreen just hates who I’ve always been. I tell them I do not know what I have done. I tell them that life is a metaphor and this is my poetry. I try to distract them with abstract words that make little sense—oblong, cerulean, epoch, soy sauce. Perhaps I am dwindling into that now. I hope you don’t like closure. Olivia loves closure,

You know when you’re about to seize, even if it’s never happened before. You feel a storm of electricity about to strike your every brain cell. You feel it in the lightness of your head. Your fingertips feel like they’ve shrunk down to the size of butterfly needles in a Shrinky Dink oven. You let yourself fall back into the blackness. Your breathing is cut short. You don’t really know where you’ve been the past hour, and you’re confused because you can’t remember what it felt like to not feel like you do now. Then out of the darkness, you feel your body shoot up like something from the “Exorcist,” and your head curls over and bobs above your outstretched legs; gooey, clear fluid oozes from your mouth into your hand, swirled with what looks like red food coloring. You feel your saturated brain swell and compress against your skull, a water balloon in the firm fist of a too-eager third-grader who is filling the latex bag to the point of explosion. This was my reality: my life was out of my hands.

A woman shook me, her stinging fear welled in her blue eyes that looked like wet marbles. Behind her, a man moved his mouth, a man I knew I should recognize but couldn’t, whose speech was muted behind the throbbing of my skull. The world went black again, and when I next woke up, everything was loud. I was surrounded by what felt like a million frantic people. One was crouched next to me, holding my head, saying, “Stay awake. Charlotte, you need to stay awake. Don’t close your eyes.” But my eyes kept closing and people kept shaking me awake. The man I didn’t recognize was asking me where I was, what my name was, who the president was—none of which I could answer. (I later learned that when they told me Donald Trump was president, I apparently yelled, “NOT MY PRESIDENT!”) I was in a pressure chamber of questions, sounds, air, and sloshing water all fighting for the same 11-pound space that was my head.

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Over the next few hours, saline was slowly injected into my bloodstream, and I drifted in and out of consciousness, not knowing who or where I was. I remember my head feeling like someone had pumped 10 gallons of gasoline into it, and I remember being in an ambulance that shook and rattled and turned so sharply that I felt the walls of my skull expand from the pressure.

I felt like I was floating on a cloud above my body. I watched as people in white (God knows who) lifted my body onto a white bed that they wheeled into a white room. There they dressed me in a white smock and tucked my body under warm cotton like a doll. I peered down and saw my face. It looked inanimate, soulless, unaware. I remember yelling at my body, wanting nothing more than to shrink back into it, the missing glass slipper into which my consciousness perfectly fit. I regretted hating it for so many years. I opened my mouth but no sound emerged; it felt like one of those dreams in which you try to run, but the ground is suddenly a treadmill that makes you run in place and trip over your feet.

I became conscious in an emergency room for a short time. I remember waking up and feeling both my arms plugged with a saline bag. I have a fragmented memory of a nurse taking me into a bathroom where I saw my body in the mirror’s reflection. There were dried streaks of blood in my hair and millions of flaky, brown platelets forming dry rivulets down my chin onto my neck. I scratched the flakes off with my numbed fingers, and when I opened my mouth, I gaped in horror at my destroyed tongue, patchy with blood blisters and swollen like half-chewed raw meat. The muscle looked like someone had taken a knife to its side and ripped it open like an English muffin. My tongue hung out, and I heard my slurred and muffled voice say, “What the fuck happened to my tongue? Did I give Pinhead a blowjob?”

The world kept cutting out. I remember hearing mentions of a helicopter and the words, “she needs to go now, or …” before fluorescent, violent phosphenes danced in front of me in the darkness of my consciousness. They were lightning strikes in the black ink sea that I was drowning in. I fell back-first, arms-out into the darkness, and it enveloped me.

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I next woke up in the intensive care unit, days later maybe, in some place called “Utah,” which I knew didn’t sound like home. There were two people in scrubs drawing blood from my fingertips into tubes that looked like the ink vials in plastic Bic pens. Another person in scrubs was trying to place an IV in my right arm, shooting through the vein six times because it was the consistency of overcooked spaghetti, disintegrating into a bruise with each poke.

For the next few days in the ICU, every hour on the dot, someone came in to draw more blood from my fingertips. By the time I left the ICU, my fingertips looked like they’d been forcefully run over a cheese grater and then stuffed into a garbage disposal. Doctors checked in on me three to four times an hour—one happened to be a Colorado College alumna. She asked me where I lived on campus while she pressed her oddly warm stethoscope to my chest. I heard my voice mumble “Mathias.” (I’d only lived in Mathias for a few days my first year.) I passed out before I could hear her response.

The ultimate diagnosis was that I had had a non-epileptic tonic-clonic seizure, commonly known as grand mal seizure. But really, I had maybe three or four grand mal seizures in a row, caused by low sodium. I had been extremely over-hydrated after drinking too much water, so my blood sodium level was extremely low—ironically, in Salt Lake City. The morning of July 8, I had felt funny and lightheaded while lying down to get my eyebrows waxed. I remember closing my eyes while the esthetician pulled wax across my skin. I felt like my body was sinking into the table. My head hurt and I felt dizzy, high even, which I figured was because I had skipped breakfast. When I went to pay, I remember not being able to type the PIN for my debit card, looking at the numbers on the keypad and not recognizing the figures—they just looked like meaningless white squiggles on the black plastic. With each step I took back to my car, it felt like my head weighed a thousand tons and I was sinking into the asphalt of the parking lot as if it were quicksand, and the air felt heavy, thick, and suffocating on my entire body. But I knew I needed to get to my sister’s house, so I got into my car anyway.

Looking back now, I realize I was seizing when I came to the first stoplight in my car: my head cocked to one side and my jaw cranked open, convulsing like I was going to vomit. When you seize, you have no idea that the things your body is doing shouldn’t be happening, which is why I only now realize that the convulsions weren’t normal and that I was having some sort of seizure. In the moment of one, your entire reality is being seized upon by electric shock. I’m lucky (and so is everyone else who was driving that day) that this happened at a red light. After my jaw convulsed like it did, I just remember feeling so sick and wanting nothing more than to lie down. I saw the light turn green, and I told myself that I just had to make it a mile more to my sister’s house, where I could lie down. I don’t remember actually driving there, but my mom said that when I arrived, I was acting “like I was on drugs.” She said I broke a bowl and poured pure table salt into another, which I “ravenously” ate with a spoon. I imagine I looked like some sort of rabid hyena, but instinctively acquiring and eating this salt as if it were a bowl of cereal is the only reason I’m still alive and writing this article today.

However, the seizure wasn’t a one-time thing in the sense that if I just physically increased my sodium level, I would be done with it. It was a reset—my body feels and looks different now than it used to. My brain processes information differently. I’m still searching for the words to describe the transformation I went through and what happened.

When I first woke up in the ICU, I didn’t know who I was. My autobiographical memory felt like it had been cracked like the porcelain bowl I broke when I was frantically searching for the salt that saved my life. I read through the social media accounts my laptop was signed into and the journals that I had apparently kept since I was eight. This was how I discovered who I had been for over 20 years—through retweeted memes, superficial captions on photos, and tags from people with whom I was supposedly friends. Going through my old journals felt like I was reading the most intimate experiences and innermost secrets of a stranger. These accounts were written in a handwriting that matched my own, and the girl who wrote the words had my same sense of humor, but the words weren’t mine. The person I read about was physically me, but the me before the seizure and the me I am today are different people with separate experiences and distinct memories.

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I felt out-of-body disassociated for about three weeks after I first gained consciousness. I remember being so happy, happier than I’d been since I was an infant, because when you don’t have any memories, your life is a clean slate—a mind free of trauma and heartbreak and fear and abandonment. I used to question the effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy for mental illness, but I now see how it could work for some. If you shock your brain numb, you can’t even remember that you had any baggage to begin with.

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I opened my eyes one morning and a rush of trauma and heartbreak and fear and abandonment surged through my entire nervous system. My body felt heavy and my consciousness caved into a fleshy mass of discomfort and ache. The body I woke up in wasn’t mine; every cell of it felt different than I remembered. It looked different too, and I still look in the mirror and wrestle with the reflection I see. The mirror doesn’t show the image of the self I saw for the first 20 years of my life. I gained 65 pounds in the two months after the seizure, which is a lot of thiccness to add to a body that had previously been very thin. I feel this weight on my body every second of every day, reminding me with every movement how much both myself and my body have changed.

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People tell me I’m “a new person,” and I have changed since the seizure. I used to introduce myself as Charlotte because I was Charlotte then, but I feel like I’m an imposter if I call myself that name or respond to it now.

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When I think back on my life before the seizure, I have memories I know I should identify with now, but I can’t find the personal attachment to them I know I should feel. Any pre-seizure memories just feel inserted; I feel disconnected from almost everything back then.

Just thinking about the old me is like remembering a boyfriend or girlfriend who I’m still in love with, but who broke up with me and has since blocked me from their life. It aches to think about the old Charlotte, because my life revolved around that person for over 20 years. She’s the person who gets me unlike anyone else, and she knows all of my quirks and peeves and desires. But when I try to reach out and find her, the rejection feels like I’m lunging into a static void that makes my entire body ring with a tingling pain. Thinking about her is like hitting my funny bone on a sharp corner.

But despite how uncomfortable adjusting to my new mind and body has been since the seizure, the reset has given me somewhat of a clean slate to work with. Every day is like Christmas—I re-befriend people who I may have some fuzzy, hidden, distant memory of, but whom I haven’t felt personally close to for the past year. I hear all these stories about my old self that I may not recall, too, and when others share their memories of me, I can almost feel my synapses pulling and stretching out to reach the memory in a place in my own head that was otherwise inaccessible. I’ve since found out that I peed in a bush at Trump Tower, said “Uh-huh, honey” referencing “Bound 2” by Kanye West in a speech in front of 20,000 people, and that I’ve written many “sweet letters” to friends and strangers alike. I’ve also learned that I used to dislike dogs, which is wild for me to consider now, granted dogs make the world go ’round. I also apparently like different music than I used to. (According to some, my music taste has become worse. Oops.) But many people have also told me that I seem happier, “more approachable and outgoing,” which is quite a lovely thing to hear because I know the old me used to be perpetually stressed.

My short-term memory is also pretty fried, but this has become a part of me. My bad memory is something I poke fun at, an inside joke with my friends. What I do and don’t remember is sporadic; I can’t remember what it’s like to be in love or what having sex for the first time meant to me. I don’t have the memory of learning to ride a bike, although I can still ride one. But I do remember every lyric to each song on Ke$ha’s first album. So, if anything, this experience has taught me my brain’s priorities.

People tell me I’m not the same me that I was before, and they’re right, which is why I now only introduce myself as Lo. I feel different too. I’m no longer on a cloud above my body like I was for weeks post-seizure, but I still never feel entirely present in this body. “Charlotte” feels like a stranger, some distant daydream I had years ago, a person I don’t know how to be anymore. When I woke up in the ICU, I was a fragmented version of “Charlotte,” somewhere in the middle and only a fraction of the person the name signified (CharLOtte). Lo and behold, I realized I was Lo.

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This past spring, while I was taking a semester off, I filled out an application to transfer to another college because I couldn’t remember whether I had friends at CC. I knew I had dramatically changed both mentally and physically, and I was unsure whether the people who did keep in contact with me while I was gone (who I am so thankful for and who kept me sane those 12 months) would like the new me as much as they liked the old me—a me I saw as a better version of myself and missed dearly.

However, upon deciding to come back to campus at the beginning of the summer, both CC friends I knew before and strangers alike welcomed me with the most open of arms. I didn’t expect such warmth from a community I had previously felt so anxious to return to. And the process of figuring out who my friends are is ever-changing and ongoing, but I think that’s a similar experience for anyone in their twenties. Regardless, the generosity of the people I have found since returning to CC has been the most beautiful affirmation that different doesn’t always mean worse, and that change is okay.

Sometimes when I close my eyes, the phosphenes that danced with me during the darkness of the seizure are still there, but when I open my eyes, I have friends who dance with me in the light too.

Click. Flash. I was momentarily blinded as the stranger clicked the shutter. I don’t remember the expression I made—did I smile? I must have tried … Was it a look of shock? Or was it anger? Regardless, the Man from Iquique (the only name I knew him by at the time) has a snapshot of me, a physical reminder that I existed, in my curly-haired, wool-capped glory, even if just for one night. All I have of him is a memory, one that I sometimes doubt is real.

When my vision returned after the flash, I could see the vague outline of my companion. Still shrouded in darkness, his features were mostly obscured. Bearded and about my age, he wore a knitted hat over his long hair, which fell in knotted curls down the side of his face. His eyelids were half-shut and drowsy, and I still hadn’t ruled out the possibility that he was on drugs. He looked up from his camera lens and smiled wide. The shutter went off again, and, dazed, I thought back to our initial meeting a few hours earlier.

He had wandered from out of nowhere into my beachside camp on a remote Chilean island. I looked up with surprise to find a helmet-wearing, mud-splattered visitor, interrupting my meal of over-salted ramen noodles with a crude request. “Agua,” he said sluggishly, gesturing to the military-issued canteen hanging from his waist belt. He stood alongside a beat-up bike he had somehow managed to maneuver down a cliff and onto the beach.

Though shaken by the sudden break in solitude, on some level I was pleased to be freed from the condition of being alone. By the look on his face, I couldn’t tell if he was frowning or simply determined. He exuded confidence, although it was unclear if it was the type born of knowledge or ignorance. With barely enough water to make it through the night myself, I was at a loss. Not knowing what else to say, I asked how he was doing—“¿Cómo estai?”—mimicking (with little success) the strange Chilean way of slurring the ends of words. The Man stared on. I asked his name and where he was from. After a couple tries, I finally got an answer: “Soy de Iquique. No sé mi nombre.” (I am from Iquique. I don’t know my name.)

I started to laugh, but stopped when I realized the Man was serious.

  ———

It was late April, and fall had come quickly. I was halfway through a semester exchange program in Chile, but so far I had spent more time getting lost than studying. I hadn’t been to class in more than a month. Most days felt like empty space, split up by street food, sleep, and periodic trips to the beach. Underneath my carefree exterior, my life was falling apart.

In a desperate attempt to at least make it seem like I was having fun, I decided to take advantage of a rare window of sun and travel 22 hours to the desolate western coast of Chiloé. A southern island in the Los Lagos region just north of Patagonia, Chiloé is primarily known for quaint, wooden churches and the local propensity for superstition. I got off the bus at the main city of Castro. It was raining and I realized I had nothing to do there, so I got on a bus to the next town, where I ate at an expensive seafood restaurant and ordered a glass of wine to try to make the night feel special. But I missed the sunset while waiting for my phone to buzz with the latest news from home.

The night bled into early morning as I sat in bed at the hostel, mostly naked and somehow still wet from the rain, working on a report due months prior that felt as hard as a jagged kidney stone. When daylight broke, I followed the road to a little-known beach and hiking spot called Cole-Cole. That’s where the Man from Iquique found me.

 ———

After a couple hours of walking, the gravel gave way to sand and an abrupt turn left me facing the Pacific Ocean. I took off my hiking boots and wandered through the surf. I must have been trying to outrun something—I was further from home than I had ever been before. But the looming sun gave me hope and, for once, I believed myself when I told myself everything would be OK.

I crossed a bridge over an inlet when, out of nowhere, a pack of small dogs started to chase me from the other side. Light shined off of their fully-bared teeth as they aggressively lunged in my direction. It was clear they were not here to give me a friendly greeting. Not knowing what else to do, I ran in the opposite direction, toward the ocean, until I was suddenly waist deep in the water. Miscellaneous contents from my pockets floated to the surface. I held my breath and bit my tongue as the dogs paced along the edge of the water, menacing as ever. It was a few minutes until they left, and a few more until I deemed it safe enough to exit the water. Although I was once again back on land, I was sinking, and this time it felt like there was nowhere to go but down.

As I made my trek across rising and falling cliffs, the lingering feeling that I was being assaulted from all sides added to the strangeness and mystery of the place. The sun was already in the lower third of the sky as I made my final descent to the beach where I would make my camp. Approaching what felt like the edge of the world, I was alone. In a ritual gesture I stripped off my clothes and ran along the beach, feeling the cold water against my scarred body. I washed myself clean and made camp in a clandestine alcove. The campgrounds, though busy during the summer season, were empty with the approach of winter. Both the refugio (shelter) and ranger station were boarded up. Even so, I was prepared. I set up my tent quickly and started boiling water. I ate my lazy dinner as the sun slipped below the horizon. Diverting my attention from the shoreline, I found myself suddenly staring into the eyes of a stranger.

 ———

Struggling to grasp the situation (especially following the strangeness of the Man’s arrival), I stopped what I was doing and stared straight ahead, almost believing that he would just go away if I concentrated hard enough. After I realized that wasn’t going to work, I went back to his initial question—“Agua?”—and gave him directions to a small creek not too far away, warning him that the water was murky and likely contaminated.

Dismissing my suggestion, he turned his attention elsewhere and started asking about the cost and durability of my tent and campsite materials. I fumbled for the words to respond in Spanish, but nothing I said seemed to get through. The Man walked away, supposedly in search of the aforementioned water. Dusk would fall shortly. I let out all the air that had become trapped in my chest. I felt safe again, in the stranger’s absence, though I knew he would be back. His small satchel indicated he was ill-prepared to spend the night, yet here he was on this remote beach—my inopportune companion. It was a full 20 kilometers to the nearest road—where else was he supposed to go?

Three hours passed. Putting my anxiety aside, I started reading “Ms. Caliban” off of my Barnes & Noble e-reader. The 1984 novella takes its title from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in reference to Caliban, an “uncivilized” brute who is toyed with, dehumanized, and cast out by society. I made it to the scene where the amphibious monsterman (later bequeathed “Larry”) enters the main character Dorothy’s home for the first time. Panicked at first, Dorothy reaches for a kitchen knife, but, in a last-minute decision, grabs a cucumber instead. Handing the long, green vegetable to her soon-to-be-lover in an unexpected sign of friendship, Dorothy becomes inexplicably aroused. It was at this moment that the Man from Iquique—my own allegorical Caliban—made his return. Without saying anything, he sat down next to me.

I asked for his name again, receiving the same response. He pointed to his head and told me he had fallen (presumably indicating a severe concussion). During the entire conversation, he was trading glances between me, my camp, and his phone, on which he was clearly checking Facebook. It was then I stopped believing the stranger. He knew exactly who he was (his name was right on the screen, after all). His intentions, however, became even more of a mystery.

The Man picked up a clump of mushrooms surrounding a nearby tree and started eating them. He offered me some, telling me he learned they were good to eat at a mycology conference he had attended a few weeks earlier, “durante la primera de mayo” (mind you, it was still April). The darkness made it impossible to discern the mushrooms’ features, so, somewhat out of character, I turned them down. Whatever reason I had for feeling apprehensive towards the stranger suddenly felt validated, and suddenly, I began to perceive him as a real threat.

When I was 13, my grandfather signed me up for boxing lessons. He said that this way I could stand up for myself when I got picked on at school. The assertion made me uncomfortable. Sure, I was awkward, confused, and tried to avoid gym like the plague, but I wasn’t being singled out. Whenever I tried to convince my grandfather that I was not, in fact, the punching bag of the seventh grade, he would look off to the side in mild disbelief and tell me I needed to be tough. I sucked it up, and for the next year I spent two hours a week learning how to throw a weak punch.

At 22, for the first time in my life, I thought back to those lessons and what it would mean to have to defend myself. In silence, I calculated the angle of the Man’s potential attack, and how I would roll to my side and grab a nearby fallen tree limb, regretting that I had forgotten to pack a knife. I concocted this fantasy in just a few minutes. In the end, I decided a preemptive strike was a pretty silly idea considering I was never a great fighter anyway. I had a better shot playing friendly. Better to be a sympathetic target than a stick-wielding asshole, I reasoned. Taking out my dry bag, I offered the Man a variety of items: peanuts, dried fruit, carrots, and an apple. I even managed to get rid of some chorizo that my inner vegetarian felt guilty about buying in the first place. With a look of surprise that was a departure from his more familiar shades of scorn, the Man took the offering and, in return, handed me a smashed-up sleeve of chocolate chip cookies. Out of courtesy, I accepted. The obnoxious sounds of the two of us chewing together balanced out the silence that, in a way, I found strangely comforting.

Moments passed and the Man started asking a few questions, little things at first. “De dónde eres?” he said, asking where I was from. “Soy de Colorado,” I answered. “Ahh,” he said, “Cómo es California?” I tried to correct him, but to no avail. Eventually, I just started telling him about California. Soon the light of his eyes became focused on my brightly-colored, sweat-encrusted scarf. He asked me where I got it. From my ex-girlfriend, I told him. He told me it was pretty. I told him he was right. He asked if I think we will get back together. I said probably not. He bowed his head in a surprising sign of solidarity. I appreciated the sympathy.

Sleep drew heavy on my brow. My body started to relax and I felt my arms and legs go limp. As if trying to contradict everything I wanted, the Man from Iquique stood tall, as if pulled by a string in spite of gravity. Out of nowhere, he grabbed an expensive-looking camera from his backpack, kneeled down and started taking pictures: first of the ocean, then of the sky, and finally of me. He took a while playing with the exposure before he got the composition right. He slid out a tripod from who-knows-where, set a timer, and ran to my side. We smiled in unison as the flash went off. He was still smiling even when the glare of the flash wore off. It was the first time I’d seen his teeth. They were slightly off-white and reasonably straight.

Distracted, I didn’t see the cows until they were already in front of us. There were 20 of them, maybe more, standing mostly still. How they arrived so quickly is still a mystery to me. Did they come from over the cliff? Was there a passage in the trees through which the cows surreptitiously traveled? The moon must have brought them out, I thought.

Upon recognizing our new company, my misbegotten friend flipped around and started photographing the cows as they milled about the beach. He moved out further on the sand and his head, turning like a gyroscope, swiveled up and down, the emanating light of the full moon suddenly breaking free from behind the trees. It dawned on me, then, that I was on the literal opposite end of the world from home, under foreign stars, and besieged by real-world visions crazier than what I could have conceived under any hallucinogen. The walking iteration of God would have failed to surprise me then, for fear had become irrelevant. I laughed as reality took off its mask and revealed itself as absurd. The cows were calm and had nowhere to be. Neither did I. They didn’t care who or what I was, and, for a time, I knew what it felt like to be them: I felt my third stomach groan as it funneled the nutrient-poor ramen into the fourth. I may have farted, but alas, I fail to recall.

Now I stood arm’s-length away from the Man, both of us floating in a sea of bovine. Ecstatic, I waved my arms around in the air for no apparent reason. The cows ignored us. Undisturbed by our presence, they continued to graze in the sand, an activity that, despite serving no obvious nutritional purpose, drew their attention more than me or the Man from Iquique had.

From far away, the two of us probably looked like long-time friends (maybe even lovers, judging by the austerity of the single-person tent). My heart was loose. I breathed in and felt the full weight of my body. Oxygen-rich blood buoyed my spirit and I soared, though soon my body sank in on itself and began to tire. It was nearly midnight, and I was truly exhausted. The elation of the illusion began to fade, and I was reminded of my own fragility and the precariousness of the situation.

The Man, though no longer a menace, became a nuisance. I told him I needed to go to sleep and suggested accompanying him to a nearby dilapidated shed where he could spend the night, about 200 yards away. “Three walls will keep you warmer than none,” I argued.

“No,” he said. “Hace tanto frio acá, tenemos que probar otro lugar.” (It’s too cold here, we have to try another place.) Where else were we to go? The Man suggested the refugio, back in the direction of my camp. I relented, expecting the entrance to be impassible. We tried each door, pulled at each window and, through a stroke of luck, managed to pry one loose. Crawling our way into the bathroom, we landed next to the composting toilet and, from there, gained access to the rest of the building. The night seemed close to finally being over. But the Man snubbed his nose at this option too, as though he were some kind of new-age, burly Goldilocks. There were beds, but he wanted a box spring, blankets, and a pillow.

I couldn’t articulate just how odd it was that he came all this way—without any gear—and somehow still expected dreamy hotel accommodations. As a last bet, we tried getting into the ranger station (in eyesight of my tent). Unsurprisingly, it was sealed shut. I motioned to leave and return to the refugio.

Just as I started to tell him, “We’d have to break a window, we should g-,” the glass shattered and crashed onto the floor of the hallway inside. He had kicked the window open. A few pieces stuck to newly tattered holes in the stranger’s pants, but he didn’t seem to be bleeding. We walked inside and, out of shame, I began to sweep up the pieces. With no dustpan or trash-bin in which to place them, the best I could do was leave them in a neat circle in the center of the floor. We found several disheveled mattresses, and the Man from Iquique excitedly wedged himself between two of them. This is where he decided to sleep. I said my goodbye and walked back to camp in bewilderment.

Early in the morning, I woke with a sense of foreboding, unsure if everything that had happened was real or a dream. I quickly took down my camp and prepared to leave, hoping for the latter. I found a seagull feather and put it behind my ear, thinking it would make me look cool. Trying to find one last moment of reflection, I nestled myself in a nook in the sand just above the breaking waves and began to meditate.

Halfway through, the Man from Iquique joined me. Shivering, he told me the night had been cold (the broken window, I’m sure, did not help). I took pains to stand up and walk away quietly, trying to leave without a trace. The Man remained a statue, eyes shut and undiscerning of his surroundings, more object than person. I left and he didn’t notice.

As I made my way along the coast for the long and soon-to-be-rainy hike, I realized I was alone. My face turned cold and I grimaced, reaching for my headphones to blot out the sound of vacuous thought. I pretended to be happier than I was. In reality, the pang of solitude cut as deep as ever.

——— 

This story would end neatly if I had never seen the Man from Iquique again, if the cliff-side beach remained a liminal space totally apart from the rest of reality. That, however, was simply not the case.

Who would I expect to find, a few hours into my hike, but the Man from Iquique, riding alongside me on his bike? He slowed down and started to walk, making jokes and plans for hanging out when he passes through San Francisco. I begrudgingly resigned myself to small talk. We passed by a small store, and he walked inside. I escaped to the nearest bus. An hour later, there was a 10-minute stop in the route. Again, the Man from Iquique rolled up, sly as ever. He offered me a bonbon candy, and proceeded to eat his meal: pre-cooked chorizo wrapped in slices of cheese, topped with a splattering of mayonnaise.

I walked away, telling him I had to get a bag from my old hostel. The Man from Iquique followed. After I received my bag, the Man remained by the desk and argued with the attendant over the location of his bag (which I can somewhat reliably say did not exist). I made a beeline to the exit and made the bus as it was taking off. Five minutes later—lo and behold—the Man from Iquique entered the bus (now without a bike) and sat in the row behind mine. Did he ditch the bike along the side of the road? Was it stolen to begin with, or did it simply disappear according to whatever magical order allowed the Man from Iquique to arrive in the first place? I lent him a portable power bank, and we listened to music in silence.

The rain beat hard on the vehicle and landscape. There was traffic getting back to Castro, so I got off several blocks before the bus stop, hoping to finally make my real escape. Six p.m. and all the buses to Santiago had already sold out. I grabbed a ticket to the nearby mainland city of Puerto Montt. Better than nothing, I said to myself. At this moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder from behind. I looked back and saw the Man from Iquique standing there—soaked with rain, mouth opened just enough to reveal his mostly-white teeth, shining in a small grin. He was less fortunate than I was, and told me he would stay the night before taking a bus to Valdivia the next morning. We stood outside as the storm turned to a drizzle. As I was about to leave, he told me to take down his number. I did what he said. He told me to send him a message. I said I would do it later. He told me to send it while he was still there. I did as I was told, and then finally walked away, thinking for the last time, Fuck this guy.

Two days later, I received a WhatsApp message:

“Hola Nathan”

“Cómo estás”

It took me another five months and the motivation for writing this story to respond. I asked for the Man’s name and if he could send the pictures. He told me I could add him on Facebook and, using Messenger, informed me he couldn’t upload the photos onto his Linux platform computer, but would be happy to send them by Telegram. He asked me about California, again. This time I didn’t respond, and the conversation has stayed in limbo ever since.

We are, however, Facebook friends. The Man from Iquique does in fact have a name: Camilo Olivares. In his profile picture, he appears to be holding up a dried-up pile of shit with the caption “fertilizer for the earth.” He is a strange, strange man—but so am I.

As much as I painted the Man from Iquique as different, foreign, a brute and weirdo, we were the same in both our loneliness and our strangeness. It would be flat-out wrong to call myself normal, even in comparison to my unexpected accomplice. I may have called him “my Caliban,” yet was he any more of an outcast than myself? At least he spoke the local language and was from the right continent. We were strangers in a strange place, looking for connection, company, and maybe even a tiny bit of compassion.

The Man from Iquique never hurt me or gave any clear indication he was a threat, yet I decided to label him as such. I treated him as a menace and wished he would disappear. Without realizing it, I inflicted the worst violence I could on another lonely person: I tried to erase him. In trying to protect myself, I created a specter of an enemy in someone who could have been a friend. I am ashamed of how I treated the Man from Iquique.

Looking back on my friend—the stranger—I think back to “The Guest,” a short story by the French absurdist Albert Camus. The plot follows a schoolmaster living in the mountains of Algeria, who is instructed to help walk an Arab prisoner to a neighboring town to stand trial for a murder he allegedly committed. The teacher, however, doesn’t feel right about taking someone to his certain death. Instead, he tells the prisoner to go east, where he can hide with the nomads. In doing so, the teacher attempts to absolve himself of the moral dilemma. But with the path to freedom laid clear, the Arab, to the consternation of the teacher, continues en route to condemnation. Confused and feeling scattered, the teacher returns home to find a message—more of a threat—scrawled against the wall: “YOU HANDED OVER OUR BROTHER. YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS.”

I have the sense that I, too, abandoned my brother. I feel I became morally implicated in the life of the Man from Iquique: when I left thinking Fuck that guy, I “handed him over” to the pangs of loneliness, exposed to the chaos of the world. I ask myself Could I have done anything differently? And when I don’t come up with an answer, I tell myself, I did nothing wrong. But still, guilt weighs on my shoulder like the threat etched on the teacher’s living room wall. I will write him back one day, I tell myself, tomorrow or the next. I want to absolve myself, but the way is unclear—I have yet to pay the cost of my pride.

When will I become the stranger, the threat, the eerie and outlandish “Man from California”? I think back to that night on the beach, alone and confused under the light of the full moon. Perhaps I already am. 

“Call the Counseling Center,” I wrote on my to-do list in purple pen, under “Grocery shopping,” “Job search,” and “Clean room.” The four words sat at the bottom, no line drawn through them. I’ll call them tomorrow became my refrain. After more tomorrows than I could count and the attempted suicide of a friend, I found myself in my RLC’s office, telling a near-stranger the whirlwind of emotions and panic that occupied my thoughts.

Looking back on that day, almost a year ago now, I can’t remember the specifics of anything I said in that office. All I remember is the question: “Do you want to see a counselor about this?” and my affirmative response. He said, “Okay, let’s go,” got up from his desk immediately, and walked me to the student health center.

Though I wish my introduction to counseling had occurred under different circumstances, I desperately needed the push. I had spent the previous summer experiencing frequent panic attacks and building anxiety, without the vocabulary to put a name to the feeling that caused difficulty breathing and created a pit in my stomach. I hardly told anyone what I was going through, mostly because I didn’t understand for myself. The trauma of someone in my life attempting suicide led me to realize my own preexisting needs for counseling. Within 10 minutes of leaving my RLC’s office, I was in the back room of the counseling center filling out preliminary paperwork. 15 minutes later, I sat in an armchair in my first-ever counseling appointment, confiding in a stranger.

Mental health has always been a topic I discuss with hesitation. Whenever I have a counseling appointment on campus, I provide a variety of similar, not quite truthful explanations for where I am going: a doctor’s appointment, a meeting, or some other obligation. I have become increasingly comfortable discussing my mental health struggles with those close to me, but I still have difficulty being honest with people I don’t know as well. No one I have told has responded with anything but positivity and support, but the fear of confessing that I deal with anxiety on a daily basis holds me back from fully opening up to the people around me.

 ———

“Can I ask you something?” someone asks, unnamed not for anonymity, but because I have had this conversation countless times. “It’s fine if it’s too personal of a question, but have you seen anyone at the Counseling Center?”

For months, I believed that my frequent panic attacks and anxiety were something I was dealing with/going through/forced to face, until regular treatment and the introduction of medication made me realize that I did not always have to feel that way; the symptoms were temporary/eradicable. Beginning medication heightened my awareness of my mental health struggles, the orange-yellow Walgreens pill bottle reminding me that my anxiety has now become something palpable. I am progressing away from the period of hiding it behind closed doors.

“Yeah, I have,” I tell people every time. “I’ve had really great experiences going there.”

I used to assume that the Counseling Center’s services were common knowledge, but not all students seem to know about or take advantage of on-campus resources. Colorado College’s Counseling Center provides students with six free counseling sessions, and these sessions reset at the beginning of every academic year. If students take advantage of these each year, they have 24 free sessions throughout their time at CC. After students use these up, counseling sessions may still be free depending on their insurance policy (CC health insurance covers counseling fees) or available at a significantly lower rate than off-campus services. If students are on non-CC insurance plans, counseling is $40 per session at CC versus an average of $150 per session off campus. The Counseling Center also has a scholarship fund available to students who either cannot afford the cost of counseling sessions, or who do not wish to inform their parents that they see a counselor.  

Yet the Counseling Center doesn’t meet all students’ needs. One CC student, when unsatisfied with her experiences at CC’s Counseling Center, decided to look elsewhere for professional services. When she saw counselors at Boettcher, she felt as though they treated her like a stereotype: “shy, anxious, and possibly a stoner.” She believed the counselors she visited worked based off assumptions, and she felt treated as such. One counselor told her that she needed to meet more people and join clubs, without really listening to the root of her problems. For this student, it only took a handful of subpar visits before she decided to switch to an off-campus center, where she feels her counselor makes a genuine effort to understand her. However, given the price, this is not feasible for all CC students.

When talking to peers on campus, she has heard generally negative feedback about the Counseling Center—yet are the majority of people’s experiences negative? Or is it simply more common to hear critiques of CC’s mental health services rather than praise?

Despite a negative perception of the Counseling Center circulating around campus, over 700 CC students visited the center during the 2017-18 academic year for a total of 2,800 appointments. Counseling Center reports showed that the majority of these students only went once, yet some went as many as 20-30 times. Among students who used CC’s counseling services, the average number of sessions per student was between five and eight, which is similar to the national average of counseling utilization (about five sessions).

I spoke with Bill Dove, the director of CC’s Counseling Center and a counselor at CC for over 30 years, about the negative associations surrounding the Counseling Center and the ways in which the center has evolved over the years. Dove agrees that a stigma still exists, yet he has seen it dramatically decrease over the years as student utilization of the Counseling Center has increased and parents and peers become more accepting of their search for mental health treatment. However, he still sees the stigma existing among certain groups, such as male athletes.

CC has taken action against this stigma by bringing a psychologist, sports psychologist, and nutritionist once a week to the athletic training room to provide mental health and wellness services to athletes. Leah Veldhuisen, a senior on the cross country team, talked with me about these services and the benefits of having them available specifically for athletes at no cost. These services are only available to NCAA athletes, often addressing mental health issues within specific sports, along with general nutrition issues. Veldhuisen said the appointment slots are relatively short at 30 minutes; however, they still provide a valuable service to student athletes.

If students are not satisfied with any of CC’s counseling services, the Counseling Center provides a list of off-campus counseling resources for students who require more intensive mental health treatment than CC can provide, or who simply wish to seek treatment off-campus. According to Dove, the Counseling Center frequently revises this list, which includes many places within walking distance of campus. As for on-campus services, there are currently nine counselors on staff, five of whom are full-time, in addition to a psychiatrist and a mental health physician’s assistant. In attempts to increase diversity amongst staff and best serve the needs of the student population, Boettcher employs one LGBTQ counselor, three black counselors, and one Indigenous counselor.

Dove also brought up some of the Counseling Center’s issues, such as difficulty with appointment availability. Due to the high demand of counseling services, counselors at CC typically are only able to see students every other week, which may not be ideal for students who require more frequent care. Dove encourages students to try out multiple counselors to determine who is the best fit, yet he reported that the largest number of students who use the Counseling Center see one counselor, don’t connect, and don’t return. However, the Counseling Center’s return rate is still higher than the national average, potentially due to the accessibility and low price of the center.

———

When speaking with Monica Black, a senior who has used the Counseling Center since her first year, she told me she has had overall positive experiences with her treatment. She was unsatisfied with the first counselor she saw at the beginning of freshman year, and didn’t go back until a friend encouraged her to return second semester. The second time around, she connected well with two different counselors who helped her in different ways. Prior to coming to CC, Black saw multiple counselors in high school, yet prefers the counseling services she has received on campus. She believes some pros of the Counseling Center are the convenience of being able to go on campus, the flexibility of switching between counselors, and the fact that CC vets therapists to ensure that their values align with the student body. She discussed how counselors at CC won’t be homophobic, anti-premarital sex, etc., which may be an issue at off-campus centers in Colorado Springs or elsewhere.

Despite having overall positive experiences at CC’s Counseling Center, Black feels like it is not built for people who have chronic mental illnesses because of the difficulty booking recurring, regular appointments. CC’s Counseling Center is often used by students in crises, which is beneficial for people who need access to counseling services in brief, high-stress moments, but not as helpful for students who need regular, long-term services.

Black is open about her experience with mental health and counseling because she feels that being open allows her friends to fully understand her. Over the years, friends have texted her about going to the Counseling Center because they know she has experience using their services. She believes there is no reason to be ashamed or afraid of mental health issues, and doesn’t hold back in talking about her journey.

Though Black didn’t feel uncomfortable discussing mental health issues, a stigma around talking about mental health still exists in the student body. In the Healthy Minds survey conducted by the Colorado College Wellness Resource Center in 2018, about 77 percent of surveyed students strongly agreed, agreed, or somewhat agreed that they sometimes keep their mental illness a secret. This survey received over 700 student responses, and while the surveyed students made up over a third of the student body, the responses may not be entirely representative of the CC student body. However, the responses received are still valuable in examining mental health on campus.

About 60 percent of respondents agreed that they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in some capacity during the past 12 months. At the time the survey was conducted, 42 percent of survey participants were currently receiving counseling or therapy, either at CC or off campus.

The statistics from the Healthy Minds survey and Dove’s reports on 2017-18 Counseling Center utilization show that over a third of the student body has visited the Counseling Center at least once in the past year. This statistic doesn’t include students studying abroad or using off-campus services. Additionally, over half of survey respondents felt as if they were struggling in some way with their mental health. According to the Healthy Minds results, my own experiences, and the experiences of people I have spoken with, many students don’t openly discuss their mental illnesses.

While students may feel that a stigma exists surrounding mental health, and perhaps hide their own struggles for that reason, about 97 percent of surveyed students disagree with the statement “I would think less of a person who has received mental health treatment.” About 98 percent of surveyed students agreed that they would “willingly accept someone who has received mental health treatment as a close friend.” There is a disconnect between students’ perception of mental health issues and the student body’s overall attitude toward those who deal with mental illnesses.

“Are you sick?” an acquaintance asks me when he sees me in Boettcher’s waiting room. I’m not sure. I have memorized the fields on the counseling sign-in sheet to the point where I can fill in the blanks in less than thirty seconds; I have sat in the same stuffed armchair in my counselor’s office every other week for the past year; I have swallowed a 5-milligram pill every day for the past five months. I accept my truth.

“I’m here for counseling.”

“Can a man cuddle with a woman without being turned on??” CuddleComfort user SpicySteve wants to know. His question is one of many on the website’s open forum—other questions include “Newbie: What are the rules of a cuddle?” and “What are you doing right now?” User GentleAndKind announces that they are “learning to cook … Finally!”

 ———

The first thing you see when you log on to CuddleComfort.com is a scrollable row of female faces, each captioned with their age and username. CloudyMarie, 20, laughs as she sips a glass of rosé. Alexiss, 34, smiles lovingly beneath her Snapchat filter flower crown. Curly_Sue, 25, glares out of the screen from behind her purple hair.

The next thing you see after clicking on a user’s face is their profile, which contains additional information such as their height, body type, job, preferred gender for a cuddle partner, and relationship status. Curly_Sue, for example, is a 5’6”, curvy, single cashier. She describes herself as a “night owl” and “rocker chick.” She prefers to cuddle men. If someone decides that Sue is the one for them, they can either message her or save her to their list of favorites.

CuddleComfort is a professional cuddling website—after making an account, users can message professional cuddlers like Sue and arrange to meet in person. The cuddler charges a fee—usually around $80 for an hour of intimacy—and the cuddlee gets to receive affection. The website emphasizes that any contact between cuddler and cuddlee is to remain strictly platonic. However, it also mentions that the company cannot be held accountable for anything else that happens between them.

In theory, professional cuddling is meant to be an alternative therapy in which cuddling professionals provide therapeutic touch to improve the emotional well-being of their clients. In practice, most professional cuddling websites look a lot like CuddleComfort: grids of women that a user can message to arrange a meeting. Users choose their partners based on a narrow range of superficial information.

Below the row of available cuddlers on the CuddleComfort homepage is the discussion section, in which professional cuddlers and cuddle enthusiasts can deliberate on questions like SpicySteve’s. Knickerbocker (a since-deleted user) weighs in on the subject with an eloquent, “Nope. Show me a guy that says he can and I'll show you a liar.” Catloaf replies with a meme that reads “Oh look, this thread again.” Clearly, I’ve walked into a debate that’s regular for the denizens of CuddleComfort: can and should physical intimacy be separated from sex?

SnugHugs, a woman and a professional cuddler, contributes her opinion. “Somebody just came to this site to cuddle attractive women then wonders why he's aroused.” SnugHugs points out that perhaps the fault rests not on the concept of professional cuddling, but on SpicySteve’s misinterpretation of what’s supposed to be a platonic service.

Professional cuddling is an ever-growing market with an ever-growing media presence. A search for the term “professional cuddling” yields links to media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Dr. Phil. Rolling Stone, for example, published an article about why the industry is booming under Trump. Vice called for its readers to “Stop Trying to Have Sex with Your Professional Cuddler.” Every article, though, touches on the same question: what if the client gets turned on?

It’s a reasonable thing to ask. As someone who wouldn’t hug anyone until 10th grade and has spent the years since being physically affectionate only with sexual partners, I can attest that it’s easy to conflate sexuality and general physical intimacy. I’m sure that many people have had similar experiences of conflation. I do, however, also think that this confusion is detrimental.

“Touch deprivation” is a term used by medical professionals and paid cuddlers alike to refer to extended periods without physical contact. Touch deprivation can drastically impact a person’s well-being. Vanessa LoBue, psychology professor at Rutgers University, writes in Psychology Today that skin-to-skin contact lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can improve both cardiovascular health and emotional balance. Physical affection also triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which guides emotional bonding, improves sleep, and can even block pain signals. If a person does not receive physical affection on a regular basis, they experience the reverse of these effects, leading to increased loneliness and stress.

Though extreme cases of touch deprivation are rare, most people experience it to some degree. If you aren’t in a relationship and you don’t have a framework for platonic affection, whether it be professional cuddling or hug-happy friends, you’ll receive little physical contact. In American culture, sex seems to be the primary gateway to physical affection—hence SpicySteve’s confusion.

 ———

Though it may seem like the only people using these sites are future Ted Bundy types, the reality is much more benign. Michael Brace, whose name has been changed, is a regular user of professional cuddling services. He is a middle-aged man living outside of Los Angeles who drives to and from his desk job every day. He doesn’t connect with people often or easily. He was used to receiving affection from his wife, but since their divorce, he has been forced to go without it. He says that there is a literal ache in his heart when he doesn’t get enough touch. For him, hiring a professional cuddler lends a bit of relief to that ache.

 ———

Jean Franzblau is the founder of Cuddle Sanctuary, a professional cuddling and cuddle event company based in Los Angeles. Her own experience of touch deprivation inspired her to create the company.

Twelve years ago, Jean was “doing a lot of traveling, which meant a lot of time in empty hotel rooms and by myself.” Then, serendipitously, she saw an advertisement for a “cuddle party” in an in-flight magazine. Her initial confusion at the prospect of multiple grown adults comfortably snuggling gave way to a sentimental curiosity. “I had never seen such a thing and I felt a sense of longing. I didn’t know I was touch deprived.” Now, Jean knows better than most what it means to be touch deprived and what can be done to change that.

Jean began to search for a cuddle event to attend. Finally, she found one. "I was really impressed, first of all, with how safe I felt, how comfortable I felt connecting and speaking authentically with people I just met,” she told me. A few years later, Jean was hosting her own cuddle events, using a system she created to teach participants about consent.

Before the actual event begins, participants attend a mandatory orientation in which they learn about consent. One of the most important guidelines is that touch is not required, and that participants can change their minds at any time. By doing this, Cuddle Sanctuary is already distinguishing itself from the multitude of superficial, appearance-focused websites like CuddleComfort that seem more like a paid Tinder than a cuddle therapy site. (Though her company seeks to be different from these websites, Jean doesn’t look down on sex work at all—she just thinks that explicitly non-sexual affection and legal routes for obtaining physical connection are important.)

The event itself opens with a circle where participants can get to know each other. From there, the event facilitator (either Jean or one of her employees, whom she has trained extensively to lead events) guides an exercise in which everyone can stretch, relax, and breathe. “Many of us are working all day, or we’re thinking all day.” She encourages the group “to breathe and get into the comfort of our own bodies.”

From there, the group divides into pairs, where participants are given the option of doing a touch or non-touch activity—the activities range from thumb wars, to sitting back-to-back, to gazing into each other’s eyes. Then, the group rejoins and relaxes together, engaging in massage trains, listening to music, or just lying and talking. If participants so wish, they can engage in “classic cuddling” during this part of the event. The event closes with another circle in which people can share their feelings, good or bad.

 ———

The practices that Jean implements in her cuddle parties give new gravity to the idea of consent—a different perspective than what we as college students get from seeing the word 10 times per day on dorm hall posters. The repetitive rhetoric of consent that we receive constantly from freshman orientation to graduation, though well-intentioned and incredibly vital, seems to lose meaning and become distant from the actual practice of giving and denying consent. Jean’s exercises bring the idea of consent into a physical space.

For Jean, consent is the foundation for any kind of intimacy, sexual or platonic. Jean’s cuddle parties are like consent workshops—participants can practice giving or denying consent in a safe, platonic context, and can then apply what they learn beyond the scope of cuddle parties.

During the cuddle parties, Jean leads an exercise in which participants practice saying no to a hug. At first, the idea of the exercise struck me as a bit silly—how hard can it really be to just give someone a hug? Can’t you just sit and suffer through it?

But after thinking about it more, I realized that touch—even just a hug—can sometimes be difficult or emotionally taxing to give or receive. “Many of us, as children, were pressured to ‘hug your uncle, give your grandma a kiss,’ and all of these things that we weren’t necessarily wanting,” explained Jean. “We learn tough lessons about not really having authority over our own bodies.” Many people see this pattern and internalize the idea that it’s rude to deny affection.

Saying no to a hug requires purposefully assessing your own needs rather than simply going along with others’ desires. The exercise becomes a space for the reclamation of autonomy and authority over your body.

It can be incredibly difficult to learn how to say no, but Jean’s exercise creates a safe space to practice. It allows participants to unlearn their internalized notions and to relearn consent in a way that prioritizes comfort within themselves.

Jean’s point about the pressure to give affection as a child resonated with me. I have strong recollections of being in the exact position that she described: my parents telling me that I couldn’t leave grandma’s house until I gave her a hug, or that grandpa would feel hurt if I shied from his affection. These early interactions likely established an association between affection and obligation. Like Jean said, I was made to feel that someone else could dictate the rules of my body. The negative association with touch that I had early on in life led to years of vehemently denying contact, telling close friends who opened their arms to me that I didn’t “do hugs,” or shrinking into subway car corners to avoid being brushed by someone’s sleeve.

As I came to unpack my childhood experiences and learn my own bodily autonomy and authority, I began to reconstruct a framework in which I could be comfortable with affection. Though denying contact for years surely had adverse effects, I think that doing so ultimately allowed me to reclaim authority over myself. It’s as if I spent a decade slowly and unintentionally teaching myself Jean’s exercise.

 ———

After talking to Jean, I returned to the CuddleComfort forum with my own question: why has professional cuddling gotten so popular in the last few years? Is it really because we’re all so stressed about Trump, as Rolling Stone suggests? Or is it because, as Fox News alleges, you can make “$57,800 a year ‘strictly cuddling’ total strangers”?

A few people pointed out that the internet has created a platform for people in need of affection to find and hire cuddlers who could fill that need that didn’t exist before. One person theorized (without much evidence) that more people today are without children or a partner, leading to a greater lack and a greater desire for contact. User Sheeds made a compelling argument, writing, “Prior days: Cuddling = Hookers. Today: Cuddling = Platonic Cuddling :).”

Sheeds’s idea of the trajectory of professional cuddling reminded me of SpicySteve and his conflation of sexuality and intimacy. It does seem that we’re undergoing a social shift away from intimacy only being available in sexual contexts. While SpicySteve thought of cuddling as inseparable from sex, Sheeds sees cuddling as an evolution beyond it. The rise of a cuddling industry indicates a shift away from the cultural norm of seeing touch as inherently sexual. Professional cuddling allows touch to become more than sexual—it makes us realize that touch can be restorative too.

This one goes out to the lovers, kick back the covers, the all-night conversations and the all-of-the-abovers,

the dance floor makeouts and two-AM stakeouts, the ones you still love and the ones that you hate now.

For the one time things, kisses and flings, in twins and fulls and queens and kings.

We’ll share something for a night, be one-time entertainers, but maybe that’s the beauty in sharing something with a

stranger.

 

We asked people to take a polaroid with their one night stand (of any varying level of intimacy) for us to print for this issue. Although many people liked the idea, only a few people actually approached us to let us take a photo. These are the lovely volunteers willing to share their experience with us in a few words and a Polaroid.  

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