Gold, black, and white subway tiles lined the hallways. In an attempt to keep the high-school graffiti to a minimum, the tiles went right up the wall, like the tall-legged boots of the Three Musketeers.
In the 2013-14 school year, the last year I worked full time, I had a regular habit of making my way up and down the halls to see what was going on in classrooms. I called it, “taking the temperature,” of the campus. If I did this early in the morning, it provided insight about which students (and teachers) were out of sorts, who had a sub, which teen lovers were forming new couples, which were detaching from one another. It gave me a chance to let folks know, “I’m here if you need me.” It helped me have a flexible attitude about the course of my own day.
As difficult as that year was, Super Husband’s illness combining with the stresses of a brand new job, I still made the rounds as often as I could. Although walking up and down the halls took on the proportions of pilgrim’s progress sometimes, I believed in what I was doing. So up and down I’d go, peeking in doors, shaking hands, asking how everyone was.
I noticed one day that as I walked, my hand trailed behind, across the slick subway tile. As I became aware of it, I stopped. But next day, I noticed it again. As though the wall transmitted goodwill, I’d sought it with my fingertips. The tiles felt cool and secure, and I liked the shushing sound my hand made as it glided across the surface. It must be something about the tile, I told myself. I was a one-off toucher, nothing wrong with that. I resolved to wash my hands more.
However, new awareness, when it arrives, is often exponential. Soon, I realized that I wasn’t just touching the tile walls, but every surface I could get my hands on at work. The art installment at the building’s entrance, its tall metal rectangles meeting my right hand each morning as I entered the building, the pull of the seams between panels creating a predictable rhythm. The bricks lining the entrance to the library, the coarse texture that slowed my pace as I made my way through the building, the uneven bump of them, and how my subconscious steered me to make the pressure light enough to keep from scratching my hands as I moved. I explained it to myself this way: this is some sort of self-soothing, because you’ve been stressed. It will pass.
Wrong. We’re walking down Alamo Street in San Antonio with a big group of family, headed for the Blue Star area. As we pass a bunch of bushes that crowd the sidewalk, I look down. Guess where my hand is? Touching! Yes, there’s that right hand again, flowing in and out of the leaves. Could have been poison ivy for all I knew. I soon discovered that I was touchy all the time. Everywhere I went. Everywhere.
When one stops lying to oneself, disappointment often surfaces. I looked at my right hand, the rogue, and asked, how long has this been going on? It didn’t take long to realize—I’ve been touching walls (and their approximations) for my entire life. One memory surfaces.
The extended family trooped to Austin’s Palmer Auditorium (I think this is where it happened, but I was only 8 or 9) for an all- night gospel sing. As we approached the round building, I remember having a sense of wonder at its size. Other buildings were taller, of course, but it had this overhang, and broad, shaded sidewalks. We arrived before the sun went down, and the place wasn’t open yet. My brother and my cousins and I started playing on the sidewalk, and quickly discovered we could go all the way around the building and return to the adults in short order. The facade was covered with smooth river rocks and some flat mosaic tiles. There was some kind of swirly pattern of the rocks, like waves in beachy colors. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I vividly remember my hand dipping up and down with the swirls as the adults slowly disappeared, then reappeared as I made the circuit. Other children moved around the structure with me, but in this braille merry-go-round, I was deliciously, wonderfully alone. It was one of those moments in time when every aspect of the world seemed calmly, perfectly, right.
Self-reflection often creates confliction. If I had discovered this benign, but admittedly weird habit in my twenties, I would have worked hard to scrub it out. I probably would have lain awake at night worrying about my mental health the way I did during the elbow kissing scare of 1970. One of the adults said, “If you kiss your elbow, you’ll turn into a boy.” For at least two weeks I lost sleep, lying in bed thinking, could I have accidentally kissed my elbow today? Will I still be a girl when I wake up?
It’s a good thing, then, that I didn’t discover my wall-touching until I was a middle aged lady. Now, I know too many terrible things about myself, and about the world, to let a little quirk interfere with sleep. Maybe I have a touch of OCD, maybe I’m the eccentric, surface- touching lady your grandma warned you about. I can live with that.
Now, when I witness my hands as they pull along the spines of books in the used bookstore like they’re meandering down a lazy river, I just go with it. Sometimes I think of that incandescent moment, the sun setting over Town Lake, my small hand resting on a building made of smooth round stones. Even if I’m not consciously chasing the syncopation of peace, my hands know better.