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This text was first published in its original form on Paper Journal, here. I have since updated it to the text below:

[…] the touch of a hand frequently the first touch between lovers.[1]


It began with a meeting on a hot day. They were running late; I was waiting outside the front door for a while. They arrived panting slightly, a sheen of saline across their forehead. Sorry, I had to jog from the car. I held out my hand.


The exchange of bodily fluids should belong to the domain of intimacy, surely. Yet here, on this sweltering afternoon in June, this formal gesture resulted in the cross-contamination of sweat, palm to palm.


Sorry, they said again, and wiped hand on pale grey trouser leg, a dark smear left behind. My hands are really sweaty.


There was only one thing worse than this soggy handshake, and that was the acknowledgement of its sogginess. A further dampening of social relations. I smiled wanly.


And yet, unlike so many other handshakes, this greeting lodged itself in my mind and now refuses to be moved. I can still recall the feeling of clammy flesh beneath my fingers, the grip that was slightly too tight. At first I was repulsed by this person; angry that they had violated a social norm with their bodily effusions. I wished to put the incident out of my mind. Yet now I find myself returning to this moment compulsively, perhaps as one returns to a bad smell. Something happened this humid afternoon, something that disturbed me on a level deeper than I had anticipated. 


The exact origins of the handshake remain veiled in mystery. There is evidence of its use from at least the fifth century BC. General consensus holds that it was a gesture of peace as the symbolic laying down of arms: neither party can hold a weapon and enter into the gesture. Today handshakes are not longer limited to a truce. The handshake can be contractual / a greeting / to mark a beginning / to mark an end. However, fundamental is that it still remains in the realm of the symbolic.


It is the touch equivalent of asking: How are you? at the beginning of a conversation, part of a codified greeting asked without sincerity and without the desire to know the true answer. Q: How are you? A: Fine, thanks, how are you? We shake hands. 


I imagine that they said to me, that day, Hi, how are you? to which I am sure I replied Fine, how are you? These social niceties are meaningless of content, the symbolic exchange of words. Thus I have entirely forgotten them. But the handshake, the handshake remains. 


I did not reach out to touch their hand through a desire for close physical contact with this person. I did not see this hand and feel drawn to it, though I recall now it was an exceptional hand. Long fingers and square nails, a broad palm and smooth skin with a trace of hair around the wrist. Large, but not too large. But still, I did not reach out to touch their hand through a desire for close physical contact with this person. As I held my own hand out, I was anticipating an exchange that followed the conventional rules of etiquette:

1. Look at the hand you are about to shake. 

2. Hold the hand of your greetor, but do not squeeze it.

3. Shake three to six times, moving from the elbow: firm, but not aggressive.

4. Once you have finished shaking, withdraw your hand and do not linger.


Despite the excessive lubrication, their handshake was—happily—the perfect level of firmness without aggression. There is a value placed on the firmness of handshakes, as though physical strength were a suitable yardstick for character. It is as though when meeting, two people would enter into an arm wrestle. Softness is weakness. Yet I wonder what else a softness of touch across fingertips could provoke.


The utility of the handshake as overdetermined and unstable signifier is, I take it, manifest and obvious: on the one hand, the "manly" handshake and the "fraternal" embrace" are respectable, disciplined, and sexually innocent gestures of male sociality (imagine, for instance, counting the handshakes in Dickens); on the other hand, such gestures, given a slightly altered social context, readily take on the heat and pressure of the sexual.[...] Consider what happens when fingers wander[2]


I return to thoughts of the sweaty handshake between myself and them, and the discomfort we shared. Two bodies coming into moist contact on a hot day, their skin pressing against mine. Perhaps my hand is an entrance into my body and likewise their own. Bodily fluids intermingle, their fingers probing my own. Interiority meets interiority, they press against one another across a membrane that is porous and fragile and invades and is invaded. Firmness was essential as a means of retaining some residue of a determined gesture. If there had been any softness of touch, had their hand stroked mine with a teasing lightness, had I run my fingertips across the line in their palm and then their thumb had started to move up my wrist. Had these things happened.


Hands, devices for pressing, pushing, reaching outwards, hands grasping and clawing out of the confines of social etiquette. Hands reach outwards but receive information inwards: that afternoon, upon entering into the handshake I was opening myself through the hand: the palm becomes another orifice. The hands are a doorway, an entrance point to interiority and a means for interiority to reach out and form contact with exteriority. Even when they are not literally sticky, sticky with sweat, their sweat; even when they are not literally sticky, perhaps the hands always maintain this stickiness of an uncertainty regarding boundaries. 


As they turned away afterwards, I looked at my hand smeared with the grime of their body. I smelt it, I ran my hand under my nose and across my mouth and caressed my own face with it. I put my finger in my mouth. Perhaps they did not know it, but through sweat, a part of them had probed into me. 


[1] Michie, Helena ‘The Paradoxes of Heroine Description’ in The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures nd Women’s Bodies (oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

[2] Craft, Christopher ‘Descend, Touch and Enter’ in Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1920 (California: University of California Press, 1994) p56

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