Have you ever gotten a hug wrong? I had one particular occasion where a hug went so wrong that it continues to be something I deal with psychologically to this very day.
It all happened when I was seated on a chair at the end of a row in the auditorium of a venue I was regularly at. The chair I was sitting on was one of those plastic ones which interlocks with it’s neighbour to form a row which can be moved or dismantled. I was catching up with some people who were in the same row of chairs to me at the end of the event. It was around this time that I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I twisted around in my seat and squinted as the overhead light shone in my eyes. I caught a glimpse of an older lady who I recognised from her regular encouragement of me whenever I visited this venue. For the purposes of this recalled account, I shall call her “Elsbeth”.
I remember that Elsbeth had a strong indeterminable accent from some unknown country. She’d pronounce my name as “Dah-vid”. She had a larger than life personality, and whenever she’d see me, Elsbeth would make a bee-line for me to cheer me on with some genuine sentiments which I really appreciated.
Elsbeth was not a tall woman. But the sheer force of her personality filled the space around her like she was an older Amazonian goddess.
She also had a greeting style which I would call “explosive”. She combined a stealth-like approach (think of a ninja in slippers) with a loud! sudden! greeting! It didn’t help things that I am usually distracted and caught up in my own thoughts, and that her sudden and booming appearances would startle me.
The other aspect to Elsbeth’s encouraging one-woman cheer squad was her unique lack of personal space awareness. Whilst I aim to have at least a two metre radius between me and most people, Elsbeth (either through poor eyesight or some unknown cultural eccentricity) had no such qualms. On the occasions when she would blast me with genuine yet shocking goodwill, she’d accompany her sentiments with a very close and invading proximity.
Inevitably I would take a step back as she talked, and then she would then take a step forward, until I’d be pressed back against whatever wall was near as she punctuated each of her thoughts with a thrust of her generous bosom. Flecks of spittle would fly until she’d finish her encouraging moment and I’d be left to regather my thoughts.
Elsbeth was definitely one of life’s characters, and despite the dangers to my personal space, I’d become quite fond of her whenever I’d visit this particular venue.
As I sat at the end of that row of chairs and looked up, I heard my name spoken in that familiar and mysterious accent.
With the touch of a hand on my shoulder, I realised that my usual strategies for protecting my personal space were already thwarted. And I perceived some movement above me. Elsbeth was leaning in for a hug.
Now, for a guy who enjoys his personal space, I consider myself an accomplished hugger. I’ve been hugging for years. I’ve got them all down pat. The ‘side’ hug, the ‘handshake’ hug, the leaping ‘chest-bump’ hug, the defensive 'elbow-between-us’ hug… I’m experienced.
But at that moment, I realised that I was about to make history with a hug I’d never contemplated before: the ‘seated-tall-man, standing-shorter-woman, very-much-platonic’ hug.
I didn’t know if I could carry it off. Worse still, it was underway before I had gathered any plan or strategy. And it was happening over my right shoulder. I know that I could have pulled it off it I’d been leaning the other way. I rue the day I chose that end seat.
As Elsbeth leaned in, I realised that she’d added a complication as well - she was not just going for a hug, she was going for a ‘cheek kiss’.
I’ve managed to scare off most people from the cheek kiss by growing a beard - not just any beard, but a beard made up of Scottish strands, each like a thick wire. And each follicle grows in completely different directions. It’s like a beard version of barbed-wire. So most people who attempt the ‘cheek kiss' with me usually get an instant sense of impending danger to their faces. The result is that they usually veer off at the last moment into an ‘air kiss’.
Once again, I’d let my defences down, not expecting a cheek kiss on top of this very complicated hug.
Then it dawned on me… Left or Right? Which way is she tracking? Which way should I be moving?
“WHY ARE YOU SITTING DOWN FOR THIS? RUN AWAY!” my brain screamed at me.
I made a judgement call on which way Elsbeth was tracking. I was wrong.
Elsbeth had closed her eyes, possibly still moving towards where she remembered my cheek being. I, on the other hand, was moving incorrectly to where I imagined her cheek to be, slightly confused with being twisted around in my seat and moving awkwardly.
I felt something brush and then settle… on my lips.
I looked up and realised that despite my best attempts, I was now kissing Elsbeth and she was kissing me… ON MY LIPS!
The friends who I had been talking with moments earlier were now shocked into stunned silence. In fact, the whole auditorium seemed to have gone deathly quiet. Time stood still - and not in a good way.
I have incredibly fast reflexes, honed as a youth worker in the back streets of Sydney - think ‘The Matrix’. And yet with all my quick reflexes at work - with all the fibres of my muscles at work - it still seemed to take forever for me to be able to draw my lips back from Elsbeth’s.
Elsbeth and I finally pulled apart. It had only been a second, but it was long enough for the horrors to have filled my mind.
“This could not get more embarrassing,” I thought to myself.
The overhead light seemed to reflect off something glistening in front of me. At first I thought it was a line of cobweb. I was wrong again.
It was a thin thread of saliva. As I tracked it from somewhere beneath my moustache, I saw to my dread where it ended - on Elsbeth’s lips. We were still joined by a string of her saliva.
Gasps came from the friends who were still sitting, stunned, behind me. They’d all seen the saliva strand too.
As Elsbeth turned away, possibly oblivious to what had just transpired, I rushed off to wash my face and find something powerful to gargle.
Since that day, the friends who were there with me now seem to have shunned me.
I have also perfected a technique for avoiding altogether the ‘seated-tall-man, standing-shorter-woman, very-much-platonic’ hug.
And Elsbeth? When visiting that town, I occasionally catch a glimpse of her in public before I race away.