Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Haphephobia” by Olly Nze. Olly is a freelance writer living in Lagos, Nigeria. When he isn't trying to navigate the madness of the city, he tends to his cacti and writes perfectly acceptable poetry and decent prose.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
When I was 19, a man with kind eyes and callouses on his knuckles took my hands in his, brought them to his lips, and told me all he wanted was to hold me. For the first time in what seemed like a very long time, I didn’t feel fear when a stranger touched me, so I let him. He held my hand as we watched a documentary on animal migration on his couch — it was brown, like most of the apartment. Brown and white, the color scheme for middle-aged bachelors everywhere. As he inched closer to me, bit by bit, the couch made the sound leather couches make only when you are trying to be quiet. I let him stroke my cheek as I lay on his lap listening to him talk about his work with renewable energy. I let him rub my shoulders as I washed his dirty dishes. Before we kissed goodbye, I let him hold me in his big arms, his stubbled cheek pressed against my smooth one.
“I would like to see you again,” he said, his voice rough and warm on my neck.
On the cramped bus back home, amid the heat, fumes, and the battle between the schoolgirl and the conductor for her change, I realized again that I was not afraid of being touched, although for years I had believed that to be true. I like to be touched, and I like to be held. This was the second time I had questioned my affliction. But this time, the feeling felt more permanent. In the coming years, I would forget about my fear many times. I was often reminded of it in the most unexpected ways.
People who believe they are afraid of touch have what’s called haphephobia. Sufferers experience immediate fear, anxiety, or panic attacks when touched and tend to avoid situations where they are likely to be touched. But I do not have haphephobia. That was not the fear I was dealing with.
I was 16 when my mother found out I was gay. She called me into her room one morning before school and told me she had found a video on my phone of two men having sex.
“Have you become a full-blown gay boy?” she asked. By "full-blown," I knew she meant sex.
“No,” I said.
I saw her let out a breath and steady herself. You need to stop this lifestyle, she said. If my father ever found out he would have us both out on the street, me for being what I was, and her for knowing. Mothers always know.
I remember that day, not because of what she said, but because that was the day the hugs stopped. Her hugs were the only touch I regularly received. I didn't have any close friends I roughhoused with growing up. My eldest sister—who gave great hugs and would let me cry on her lap when I needed to—had lived away from us for as long as I could remember. My elder sister didn't hug, not because she didn't want to but because she was too like my father and always needed to be strong.
I never needed to be strong. I was the third child and the first boy, so I got all the hugs. After that day, they were gone. She wouldn't touch me for a long time, always brushing me off whenever I got close to her, hardly meeting my eyes. She even started to be unkind. Answers to questions about dinner or schoolwork never came or were barked at me. Every time my eyes were on my phone, she would hiss at me and say, “you better not be watching that rubbish.” She would make me leave the room if the family was watching a show and a gay character came onscreen. She would give me this hard look —as if daring me to become a stereotype— if I made a comment about fashion or design. It was many weeks before she decided the interior decorator on Clean House was a safe enough gay for me to watch. It hurt, the unkindness, the brutal cessation of intimacy. From her, I learned the beauty of language, the secret that through words on pages, you could take yourself far away and stay there for as long as you could keep your eyes on the letters.
Later that year I turned 17. I learned not to let boys near me so I wouldn't become a "full-blown" gay boy. I learned to put a password on my phone and on some of my apps. I learned how to cut myself so no one would notice. I learned the word "haphephobia". My mother doesn’t know I ever thought I had haphephobia.
Sometimes I wonder if her fears about my father were justified. I think he knew. I think he knew the same way she had always known. He never teased me about girls or asked me if I had a crush on anyone. If he didn't know before, he definitely knew during my gap year. It was the year we found out he was dying. Cancer, which in the developing world just means it was extra slow and painful, and he felt every minute of it.
I held off school to care for him. My mother had to work longer to make up for the loss of income, and I was the only one available. He must have sensed something, maybe the coolness my voice took on when I spoke to him, or the fact that I had no desire to want to seem “strong” in his eyes. A few months later, when he could walk again and seemed on the mend, he insisted on taking me everywhere with him. I went to work with him when he could manage it, sat in on his meetings, attended social functions, passed him his medication in-between the pepper soup and jollof rice, then backed away between demonstrations of obeisance to the corner with other sons and assistants. Sometimes he would catch me squirming when one of the other sons would touch my shoulder or shake my hand. On those occasions, he would tell me on the drive home, always softly, that he took me to all these things because he loved me, because he wanted to make me strong.
He frequently came across men he wished were his sons. I knew this because he would find ways to get them to hang out with me. Whether it was learning how to drive a manual car—which was hopeless because I am very gay— or sitting in a stuffy office, or learning how to slaughter the Christmas ram, I seemed to be constantly on rotation, constantly being shown what I should be. Once in a while, these men would try to hold my shoulder, or shake hands, or touch my thigh in a gesture of camaraderie. I would react in different ways, sometimes verbally, but most times I would just shut down. They would return me then, shaking their heads as if saying sorry chief, this one's no good. My father wouldn't yell, he'd just say again "I'm doing this to make you strong." Whenever he did, I would think if I'm the one who needs to be strong, then why are you the one dying?
I didn't resent my parents. I loved them. My mother was afraid and my father didn't know better, and I knew it couldn't last forever. It didn't. The decision to let me start university came around the time we all knew my father was never going to recover. He had been diagnosed too late and was not getting the best treatment. All that was left to do now was wait. I had already given a year; his life was ending, and I needed to begin mine.
I started university when I was 18 years old. I chose computer science in a small private school because I had missed the entrance exams for medicine—thank God—in the federal schools, and the big private ones were too expensive. I didn't care. I was leaving and he was dying. If he was gone my mother would not be so afraid. The fear would go with him, and the hugs could come back. I was free.
Arriving at school was one of the most exciting things in the world. It was like—and yes, I know this sounds silly— floating on a raft in an ocean of morning dew. There were boys EVERYWHERE. There were boys of every shape, height, and shade of brown imaginable. On my way into the dorms, I had to keep my eyes to the ground to stop myself constantly turning around to look at all of them: sporty boys, shirtless boys, preppy boys—they seemed endless.
I was exhilarated. They excited me and scared me at the same time. I wanted them sexually, I wanted them to be my friends, I wanted them to protect me, and I wanted them to look at me and not wish I was someone else. They terrified me because they were so alive: so confident, so sure of themselves. They terrified me because it occurred to me that they might want to touch me. They might brush past me in the halls, might want to shake my hand to say hello, might even want to do that weird handshake-shoulder grab-back pat maneuver boys are always doing. The thought of interacting with them frightened me; the thought of not interacting with them made me sad. I was used to sad, so I stayed away.
Within the first few weeks, I came to be known as the weird quiet kid. I always showered before 6 a.m. when barely anyone was up or using the stalls. I went to school early and came back as late as I could, and I never shook hands. They called me the waver. When presented with a hand to shake or a fist to bump, I would raise my hand and wave, slowly when I was tired, which was often, and more vigorously when I was in a good mood. Everyone thought I was weird, and I thought I was too, till one day someone waved back.
I called her Sunshine, not because she was always sunny, which she was, but because I had heard someone call her that and I was too embarrassed to ask what her name was. She was effervescent—a word I found when my vocabulary failed to provide a fitting adjective. I liked her because she was gentle, because she asked if I had had breakfast in the mornings, but mostly because she was kind. Seeing as I was reading too much Byron and Wilde at the time, I obviously had to write her a poem. It was execrable, with a verse likening her to polished amber—she laughed at this part—and one about how much talking to her made the bad thoughts go away— this part she loved.
I remember how she ripped the page out, folded it four times, and put it in her skirt pocket before hugging me. That was the first time in two years someone who wasn't family had hugged me. That was the first time since I learned the word that I forgot about my haphephobia. On my way back to the dorms, I high-fived seven people I didn't know and acquiesced to my first awkward handshake-shoulder grab-back pat maneuver with my roommate. That night I drifted off thinking about boys again, but this time I was just excited. The fear had gone away.
I still thought I had haphephobia. It was always there before I saw her and whenever I let too much time elapse between hugs. She hugged me like my mother used to: like she thought I was fragile enough to break but knew I was strong enough not to. I had missed that, so I started to follow her. I would wait for her after chapel services I refused to attend, and after choir practice, and after prayer warrior's meeting where I knew the others screamed at God as they demanded favors while she always asked nicely. She was always glad to see me and would greet me with a hug.
The day I told her I was gay, the hugs changed. They became longer and tighter, like she was trying to hug the sin out of me. She told me it wasn't too late. I hadn't done anything with a man yet, and thank God I'd never even been kissed. All I had to do was to seek God and he would heal me. I knew she was wrong, knew I should get away from her, but if I returned to the dorms without seeing her, the fear would come back. I would barrel through the halls, head down, back hunched, and chest tight, hoping no one would notice me. So I stayed, and the fear was replaced with guilt. Guilt about the fact that I wouldn't change, wouldn't become "whole."
Our shared silences, which had always seemed therapeutic, became suffocating. She would routinely break them with pleas for me to attend midweek service or to read a Bible passage her pastor back home recommended. I always said no, but she always kept trying. The day she found me with a razor in the boys' restroom crying about how I didn't want to hurt anymore, her hugs changed again. They were still longer than they first were, but now they were no longer tight. They no longer came with Bible passages to read, and when I fell asleep after seeing her, the fear was still gone, but a little bit of the guilt remained.
By the time I started my second year, she had graduated, and over the holidays we just stopped speaking. I had just turned 19. I knew sunshine was gone. I resumed being afraid of boys again, hoping the next day would be better. That year, my father would die with tears on his cheeks. A few months after that, I would learn, through a man with kind eyes and callouses on his knuckles, that I definitely was not afraid of touch, that instead I was afraid of what it meant to lose it.
My father has been dead for four years. Now when I come home, my mother always tries to hug me. I know it hurts her when I move to the side or simply pat her on the back. I can see the pain in her eyes. With him gone, all that fear has turned to shame, to a lot of loneliness, and maybe to a little bit of guilt. I want to hold my mother, to make it all better. Then I remember the day the hugs stopped. I remember how my elder sister thinks me cold, my eldest thinks me almost broken, and my brothers think me businesslike. I remember how I don't always like touching men I am not a tiny bit in love with. I remember, and then I step past her, asking over my shoulder if my room is clean.