I feel grumpy. It's probably too late for me to be up. There's a house full of people, some kind of party. I go to my parents' room to lie on the bed, and my Grandpa Pat comes after me. He wants a hug and a kiss. I don't feel like it. I like him, but I'm always a little shy: he's got that big barrel chest and smells like sour fruit (much later in life, I'll learn that this the hallmark smell of a Maker's Mark binge). I screech "No," but he comes at me anyway, his Irish pan-face coming closer to mine. I lie back and kick my legs to keep him away. I kick so hard my knee smashes into my nose. Blood spurts all over my clothes and the blankets. I am four years old and I feel like a little bitch for not respecting my grandfather and causing such a problem.
I'm five or six. We have a neighbor named Hy who writes plays and songs. He keeps candy in his pockets and has a typewriter. (My dad does too, but my dad doesn't let me use his.) At Hy's, I can type and eat candy, so it's a win-win. One day Hy slips his hands down the back of my pants. I assume that is the way an old man shows affection for a young girl, so I don't ever mention it. This goes on for a while. Months? Years? I don't remember.
I am in college and all of New York feels like a palette for the fabulous life I imagine I am creating. I make lots of money as a bartender and cocktail waitress. The tighter my clothes, the higher my tips. My Betsey Johnson rose-print Lycra stretch top plus a butt-skimming black skirt is a standard outfit, an Old Faithful. I spend what is in retrospect an embarrassing fortune on taxis to take me and my cohorts to bars, where I leave a wad of tip cash and drink for "free." Often, I find myself at a friend, acquaintance or stranger's house, where it's too late and I'm so tired and drunk and it's just probably easier to have sex than say no and go home. I'm there because I want someone to pay attention to me. I want to feel something like love, but maybe this will do for now. I want to be wanted. But it always ends with the bumping, scraping search of clothes in the morning, the smell of sour fruit and a big glass of water that never washes away the night.
I am not that girl anymore. A lot has happened since then. I found love, many times over. I got married and divorced. I became a mom. Not in that exact order.
I know that every mother thinks her kid is beautiful, special, magical. But my three-year-old Grace has the charisma and comic timing of Bette Midler. The persuasiveness and intrinsic sense of justice of Gloria Allred. A golden halo of curls, like Shirley Temple. In fact, she looks a lot like Shirley Temple. Her looks prove irresistible for the ladies of a certain age in our neighborhood, who come up to her and want to run their hands over her creamy cheeks. They touch her hair, a talisman for impossible youth and paradise. "So beautiful," they say, and mean it.
I was raised to be a people-pleaser. I grew up thinking that manners were the only thing separating us from full-scale anarchy, and to this day, I believe that thank-you notes make the world go round. But I don't want people touching my kid. Grace doesn't want them touching her.
Still I know that these women don't think they're being invasive. Touching a kid's cheeks is like feeling a loaf of bread or smelling a flower. It's just a part of how you walk in the world. It's a compliment, an act of approval, of love.
So life in public becomes a constant calculation of the social implications of denying people versus letting Grace keep her own space. For strangers, the decision is often easy. It's Trader Joe's. Who cares? A simple, "Oh, maybe not today," and putting my arm around her often keeps them at bay.
It's not as easy to do with friends and family. Grace is shy with her affections. There are only two times I can think of that she's willingly hugged or kissed someone she's just met. She does give big meaningful hugs to her friends at the end of the preschool day, so I know she gets how to do it.
Grace loves her grandparents, for example. You can tell by how excited she gets to go there, about how she waxes on about "driving" her Papa's 1957 Buick Roadmaster, how she heads straight for the cart filled with plastic produce that they've always set out for her. She loves her dad, whom she stays with twice a week. She loves her aunties, my lifelong girlfriends who have mastered the art of connection with her. She loves pretty much everyone we know, to some degree or another.
But comings and goings are awkward. Not for her, of course, because she's three and it's easy for her to follow her heart compass, and she doesn't give a rip whose feelings are bruised. I mean that these interactions are awkward for me. Whether it's my grandparents, my mom, people who come to visit her, even sometimes her dad: It is my immediate instinct to tell my daughter to greet her loved ones with a hug. And what I mean by this, of course, is Go give them a fucking hug because look how much they love you and look how much you love them and they could all be dead tomorrow and then how much would we regret not getting that last hug in?
But I don't. Because I made it a personal policy, when Grace was very little and I saw the way this was going, not to force her into any kind of affection she doesn't initiate or accept on her own. I think of the forced hugs with people I barely knew who came to my parents' door. The wrong smells. The awkward seconds until it was over. Being pushed into things I didn't want and I didn't realize were optional.
My parents took good care of me—they made sure I didn't get hit by a car and that I ate a sufficient amount of calories—but they never gave me much training in the psychic and emotional protective arts. When I was 15 or so, I had no radar for creepiness, and I'd go behind our house into the woods to make out with Mike, a 20-something who helped my grandmother out around the house. A few months after we met, he tied up and robbed my grandmother and her sister. Convinced that I was the one who tipped off the cops, he wouldn't stop writing me letters from prison. I still feel such deep shame about this. (My father, at least, did go out of his way to get a restraining order.)
So I am trying to teach Grace to hone that sense of what feels right and what doesn't. When we leave and she sidles up to hide behind me at hug time, I say something chirpy like, "Oh, well, maybe next time! Say bye-bye," and Grace will make an exaggerated wave and yell, "BYE-BYE" and it cuts the tension a little. And we all laugh a little and we go home. And she will sleep close to me, pressing her little body against mine as if she's trying to mash our molecules together, her tiny arms around my neck.
The other day, our neighbor Bill, a kindly insurance adjustor for nuclear plants, came by as we were sitting on our stoop. He's good with flowers. Grace and Bill like each other. He offered a high-five, which she refused. "It's okay," I told him. "She's shy." He nodded in understanding and started to walk away. But before he was out of sight, Grace looked toward him, stood up, and blew a kiss.
Vanessa McGrady is a Los Angeles-based writer and mama to a toddler. Her dreams are epic theatrical explorations of psyche with casts of dozens. She feels that feminism and impossible shoes can peacefully coexist. She has learned how to make something from nothing in the realms of food, decor and style. She is either in a state of profound gratitude or utter befuddlement, often simultaneously. She would very much like you to visit her blog, and hang out with her on Twitter @swerveblog.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.