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‘Is this how you hug?’
“Should we hug?” Claire asks. We stand a meter apart on the sidewalk, in front of the café we always used to meet at on the corner behind Frankfurter Allee. Flowers and weeds sprout from the crumbling brown walls and drainpipes, low-fi instrumental beats call from the open door, the smell of freshly ground coffee beans, a cheesy panini with hummus and sun dried tomatoes.
“I mean, we could,” I say, hands at my sides. We always used to hug, when we said hello, goodbye, I’m sad. “To be honest though, I was never much of a hugger.”
“Really?” she asks from a distance, “But you always hugged people.”
“I know, but it’s sort of social convention, it’s weird when you don’t,” I say, “or, was weird.”
“So are you just not going to hug people anymore?” A group of kids in matching safety vests stumble by, chained to each other with reflective leashes, bookended by two exhausted women. The one at the front yells at them in German to look both ways before crossing the street, stay together, find your buddy.
“No, I will. I think.”
We stand in silence and watch the glowing yellow mass of tiny people. One of them falls, tripping on a metal tram track or a cobblestone and starts screaming, holding up the rest of the group. The kids are tugged back and forth by their leashes, wobbling on their velcro shoes. They reach for each other and stumble.
“So like… what do you want to do here? Should we just go inside?” Claire is getting impatient and I’ve already offended her but things are different now no matter how much we’ve been told everything can go back to normal. Provided you’ve been vaccinated. I texted her right after (it didnt hurt at all) and she texted me after she got hers (ure right it was fine). There’s a sign on the door of the café asking for your vaccination certificate upon request. All these little reminders. I have mine in my wallet beside my passport, my two most important documents. One proving that I’m even allowed to be here, the other that I’m allowed to go out. We are legally allowed to hug.
“Let’s just do it,” I say, trying to break the ice. “This is ridiculous. I haven’t seen you in over a year. I’m overthinking this.” I step towards her and raise my arms like a zombie (is this how you hug?) but she steps back and raises her hands in a different way.
“Now I’m nervous!” she says, laughing, and we collapse into giggles on the sidewalk. I laugh so hard my eyes start to water so I take out a handkerchief and wipe my eyes, clean off my foggy glasses. Claire is bent over laughing but looks up at me and her face suddenly drops. She stops laughing from one second to the next in the blink of an eye.
“Are you washing those at 60 degrees?” she asks.
I sigh. “Yes I read the same article you did. You sent it to me, remember?” My tone is snappier than I meant for it to be. I shove the handkerchief into my pocket and put back on my glasses. Claire’s face is flushed. The kids have been shuffled out from the center of the road onto the opposite sidewalk. The one who fell is lost in an undulating sea of neon and screams, miniature heads bobbing up and down. The women do a head count and pull first aid kits from their backpacks. There are fingers in noses and dirt in mouths. “Besides, we’re vaccinated.”
“I know but you never know,” Claire says, shrugging. I open my mouth to repeat something memorized about how you can trust science and trust the vaccine, but this is all so new. My first pandemic. So instead I just nod.
“I would like to hug you,” I say defiantly. And it’s true even though I’m not much of a hugger. “But I totally get it if you don’t want to. I won’t be offended.”
A man on a bike drives past on the narrow sidewalk, we skip to the side to make room and make practiced faces at him, shake our heads. The autumn weather is warm and the streets are dotted with yellow and orange leaves that crinkle underfoot. There are more people outside than I feel like I’ve ever seen before, like the population exploded while we were all apart. It’s like life went on without us.
“Okay,” Claire says. She takes a deep breath. “Fuck it.” We both smile and slowly edge towards each other, teetering on clumsy steps like the kids in safety vests. We lean forward and reach out our arms. There is a moment when we don’t know whose arm will be on top, where they are meant to go. Am I hugging left or right? We make a few awkward sounds until we figure it out, but then we are hugging. She uses peach shampoo. I realize I forgot to put on deodorant.
The man bikes past again, closer this time and screams, “Schlampe!”, slut. I can feel his spit land on my shoulder. We pull away.
Tam Eastley is a writer and web developer based in Berlin. She likes writing about reality TV, tech, and the post-apocalyptic world. These days you can find her swinging in her hammock on the balcony, curled up with a good book.
Love the title, Really clever, thought provoking. Thank you.
Great short story!!!!