Words by: Joseph Lew Art by: Gabrielle Poh
The first time I touched another person I was 16. His parents were out of town for the weekend — in Spain or Morocco or something of the sort — and in the one hour in between the end of the school day and when he was meant to go pick his brother up from tutoring, we dug ourselves underneath his messy floral bedspread, whispering hushed secrets and tracing love letters across one another’s spines.
Armed with the horny desperation of every teenager ever, we quickly began the awkward dance of fumbling hands and rushed intimacies, his lips brushing their way up my torso as his fingertips tugged my shirt upwards. “It’s too cold,” I whispered, before pulling his hands back down.
The second time I touched another person I was 17. We came across each other in the secluded bedroom of a mutual friend’s house party, each of us seeking respite from shallow conversation and meaningless exchanges. Buzzing from Passion Pop and cheap wine, fuelled by the fleetingness of our interaction, we sought escape in one another, easy conversation escalating into subtle flirtations, rushed kisses, frantic touches. I remember his hands sliding under my shirt, moving their way across my chest, my shoulders, my back — at which point I froze up. “Maybe not tonight,” I said, before hastily exiting the room.
Unbeknownst to me, this pattern of events would be one that would repeat itself over and over again. Beckons to undress deflected by excuses, one after the other — at the beach, by the pool, in the bedroom. It’s too sunny. I’m freezing. No, I’m fine. Yes I’m sure. I think I’ll just leave it on.
Not much introspection is needed from me to understand why this was the case. When I think back to those adolescent years, the images instantly come flooding back: nights spent in front of the arched mirror on my wardrobe door, criticising jagged hips and protruding ribs, bacne and bony wrists. I hated the way my reflection pointed out my every flaw, exposing every square inch of myself I had tried to hide.
But insecurities look different in another person’s eyes. The lips of strangers taught me that. In the dark corners of nightclubs, in the bathrooms of bars, they brushed over the parts of my body I had always failed to love, whispered worship to forlorn locations — ears, eyes, lips, neck, back, spine, stomach, thighs. Beneath slurred speech and reverent gazes they praised every aspect of myself that I thought needed changing — they loved how my body was shaped and moulded, the curve of my spine, the way my skeleton resisted the captivity of muscle, flesh and sinew. This is how I found acceptance in the most unexpected of places.
Don’t get me wrong, of course at first, I struggled with it all. I failed to reconcile these people’s perception of me with my own, I laughed them off, brushed off the compliments, shrugged off the adulation, thinking they were absurd to see my body the way they did. Who actually likes my torso, my arms, my ribs, I’d think to myself. But at the same time, I was oddly drawn to the validation, the idea that someone would choose to seek pleasure from me upon first glance. Again and again, I would return to these places, hearing sweet praise whispered to me until eventually I started to believe it all for myself.
Even though I’ve long moved past those years, those fleeting nights have always stayed with me. Not the people, nor their touch — those left the briefest of impressions — but the rush that one can only get after being seen the way they always wanted to be seen. I’ve locked those moments into a first-aid kit in the back of my mind, reminding me whenever I feel like the person in the mirror isn’t enough, that there’s someone standing in the corner of a nightclub waiting to tell me otherwise.