May 30th, 2020

Words by Alexa Lemoine · Artwork by Sendra Uebele


In April, Florida acclimates to a kind of non-time where it is always 70 degrees and the sky slouches, cloudless, from daybreak to sunset. More often than not, the sunsets look more like an indecisive painter’s palette. Sometimes the gloaming covers the sunset with its mouth as if there was never meant to be one in the first place.

The last time I was touched was one such night. The blue sky let the darkness swallow it up, just like it does now, except that it was January, or maybe February, and I was wearing a tank top and white jeans in the too-hot air. I went to a boy’s house. We watched TV; it was an excuse for him to pretend I was someone else. I sat next to him and tried to succumb to the sour smell of his skin. But the kitchen was unclean, and there was dog hair on my pants. I couldn’t get the performance of intimacy right with a near stranger and kept stuttering over the cues instead of manifesting sensuality. We didn’t kiss. His hand on my waist was a consolation prize at best. There was a pyrrhic quality to getting myself off the couch and back to my car. It was the first time I’d felt a non-familial touch in years and I could have stayed, but I didn’t want it like that - not from someone who didn’t truly want me. I felt defeated driving in the dark on the way home, resenting the bits of him that lingered: the sweat and the dog hair.

In David Lean’s 1955 film “Summertime”, Katherine Hepburn plays an effervescent, unmarried secretary on vacation in Venice, Italy. She marvels at the piazzas, the gondolas, the artists and their ilk. She takes pictures. She drinks too much. When she locks eyes with an effortlessly handsome Italian stranger, played by Rossano Brazzi, she becomes entranced to the point of craving just the sight of him. When he seeks her out, her eyes widen with pain or terror, or both, as her own longing steps out of her dreams to stand before her. He tells her not to squander this chance at happiness, the chance to be touched. 

To engage in celibacy, whether accidentally or on purpose, is to simultaneously dream of touch and be totally unfazed by it; to yearn and to then feel sexless when you’ve wrung your fantasy dry. As the time during which I remain touchless goes on, even the entire concept of my own tangibility becomes a mythologized thing. On a phone call to a friend, I tell her that I feel virginal and new again. On a different phone call to another friend, I lament that I miss boys. I tell her I’m scared that my lack of romantic intimacy has made me as fearful as a deer caught in a collision with the divine. I tell her this precedence of newness would make me a terrible girlfriend.

What began as a coincidence bloomed into a choice that has now spanned two years and some months. Although my need for intimacy is at times an immense irritation not unlike the feeling of having something stuck between your teeth, the truth is it takes up so little of my waking attention. The sun still comes out to paint the porch in light. The birds hover on the spring breeze. I call my friends. I go for a walk. I cook dinner. I am always cooking dinner.

At Harvard, a place so far from me, Dr. Dierdre Barrett is studying dreams. People report their dreams to her through a survey on the internet. She says people are dreaming more vividly during this time of crisis, as humans tend to do during and after life-altering events. They dream of insects, of running and running and never getting to where they were meant to go, of horrific events, of interactions with ex-lovers, and of being unable to get inside the supermarket to buy food.

At the beginning of April, I dreamt about someone touching me. In the dream, I burst into flames and look for water to drink. The water is in a plastic bottle that I can’t open because my body aches too much; my hands are so tender they can’t wrap around the cap. I wake up at 3 a.m. to reorganize the covers before falling back asleep. On another fitful night, I dream of my mother, but it’s like I can’t remember her face at all. Then I’m suddenly in a debate with a stranger about something unintelligible; I feel like I am making a good argument but ultimately also like I am on the losing end of the conversation. Again, I wake up at 3 a.m. My next dream of the night is of my ex-lover. I join the statistics of people dreaming of someone they once loved, someone who once touched them.

My city is full of lonely people. Everyone’s city is currently harboring people alone in their apartments thinking about sex, or thinking about eating, which I have also been doing plenty of. When I fall asleep to dream I’m able to relive the sensations of physicality that used to make up a large and important part of my life. They aren’t so much dreams about sex as they are dreams of desire; half of the time, the act never happens. I’ve had dreams of staring longingly at someone famous whom I will never meet, or of an attractive person I once saw at a bar when it was still cold outside and when even the word “outside” didn’t almost make me faint in excitement. The dreams are as real as the memories of the boy from February, and as real as all the times I’ve ever been touched by anyone.

The romantic films I watch make it seem so easy. A walk in the park is an opportunity, a glance is an invitation, and a touch is the world. During the two years of my celibacy, I’ve dreamt about the feeling of becoming a firm idea in someone’s mind just like the idea of touch itself is a firm idea in mine. Being touched by someone else has always made me feel stunningly existent but, now more than ever, dreams will have to serve as a substitute for physical fulfillment. For so many of us, retreating into fantasy the way you’d retreat into someone you love is all that’s left. 

Most of the time, I don’t feel the need to search for meaning in my dreams. They’re just reminders that the endurance of desire is similar to the tenacity of hope; both continue to exist in absence or trauma. Thinking of the possibility of connection and intimacy is a worthy horizon to look towards, even when it doesn’t seem like it should be important right now, even if its arrival makes my eyes waver and grow large like Katherine Hepburn’s. When the time comes to take this possibility out of the realm of theory, I’ll acknowledge the longing that steps out in front of me, reach out to this dream of touch - the one I’ve been dreaming of for so long - and draw it in closer.

Alexa Lemoine is an artist based in Orlando, Florida. She has poetry appearing in "The Harvard Advocate" and "Glass: A Journal of Poetry", among others.

Sendra Uebele is an interdisciplinary artist and writer pursuing her BFA. She lives in Chicago and collects buttons.