when I ran into the Toucher

September 27, 2012

…was an LK Bennett trench coat over a pair of Gap chinos that toned nicely with the trench, and under that my favourite tee, black with an image of primitive mask from my friend Tom’s collection. All very cool and understated, but on the way to the theatre, which is where I ran into the Toucher, I got caught in a near monsoon. As I result, when she and I came face-to-face I was wet and straggly, like a spaniel that’s just climbed out of a pond. It didn’t matter: I could have been bone dry and styled by Karl Lagerfeld and I’d still be at a disadvantage with the Toucher. She’s one of those lanky, fine-boned blondes who takes the perfect honey-colored tan and who looks great in white jeans and a flowing muslin top – the kind of top the rest of us threw out when we were 28, along with the Daisy Dukes and the long feather earrings that never looked quite right. She’s also an expert in something men really like – duelling pistols or ’64 Porsches — and she’s very, very sharp, just like her cheekbones.

Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me, being around a woman who beats me in the looks or style stakes and who has a line on a subject I know nothing about. Normally, I like the company of polished females. They’re decorative. They’re educational. You can learn a lot from them – and not just make-up tips. But these were not normal circumstances.

You see, the Toucher and I have a bit of a history.

We first met at a lunch party outside of London. I say ‘met’ but she didn’t register with me until the hostess called us in to the table. It was boy-girl seating and she – I didn’t think of her as the Toucher yet — was one away. A man I didn’t know was on my right, then her and, on her right, my husband. If I hadn’t noticed her when we were introduced, I did now, because as soon as she sat down she turned 90 degrees to face my husband and curved her upper body into a ‘C’ shape.

She was making the bubble.

You’ve probably seen the bubble without realising what it was or maybe even done it yourself. It’s when you lean into someone, close but no touching (not at first), with your back rounded so the two of you are encased in a dome of your own making. The rest of the room gets the cold shoulder, literally the cold shoulder, and the message is unmistakable: No one else exists; it’s just you and me.

In case you’ve ever wondered when flirtation becomes ASP – Attempted Sexual Poaching – here’s your answer: it’s when someone makes the bubble.

I thought: Well, this is interesting. On one level it was kind of flattering. She had singled out my husband, which could be interpreted as a tribute to my good taste in having married the guy. But on another level it was slightly insulting, the implication being I was so insignificant she could make the moves on my spouse, in my face, with impunity.

Rappers have killed for less.

As I was pondering this, she put her fingers on my husband’s hand where it lay on the table and made little dance-y motions on his wrist.

That’s when I started thinking of her as the Toucher.

An old friend of my husband’s was seated on my left. I turned to him and said, what’s the deal with the Toucher over there?

Her fingers were on his upper arm now.

I said, is she always like this?

He smiled. Only when there’s a man she’s interested in.

I didn’t have a game plan for this. Not at a lunch party. Not at a lunch party in England. In New York, given the same situation – blatant public ASP — I might have said something like, Hey. Get a room, and it would have been all right. But the Brits don’t tend to handle things that way. The way they handle it is by not handling it. It’s the elephant in the middle of the floor. You don’t talk about it, you don’t look at it. You pretend it’s not there and maybe it will go away.

Sometimes that works. Plus it’s the classy way to go, the idea being you’re so cool you can just take it in your stride. Then I heard her say: Why don’t you write your number on my hand?

Her hand was hovering around my husband’s chest. On my palm, she said. I promise not to wash it off.

She might as well have asked him to autograph her breasts, at least that’s how it struck me.

I guess I was jealous.

Let’s be clear: my husband did not seem to be colluding in this. His expression, as far as I could tell, was determinedly neutral, like someone listening to a marginally tempting sales pitch. Nonetheless, the situation was starting to rankle.

In my opinion, there’s a category of touching that’s a step too far. I don’t mean social touching — the pat on the shoulder, the nudge in the ribs. I’m talking about TWI, Touching With Intent: skin on skin or skin on cloth, deliberate contact that signals purpose and leaves one’s scent.

It’s spraying.

It’s what dogs do to stake a claim.

I have a pen, the Toucher said to my husband.

I have paper, I said to her.

O, my hand will do, she said airily, not turning around.

No, I said. I have paper.

She faced me.

Your husband’s been giving me wonderful advice about university applications, she said. He has a number I can ring.

I held out my card.

My husband made a peevish I-was-handling-it face.

You want information, I said, it’s probably best to go through me.

She looked at me for a few seconds and then she took the card.

There was no follow-up, of course. And when I ran into her that rainy night a few months later, she stared at me quizzically for a moment or so, trying to place me. Then her face cleared and she threw her arms around me with glad cries. I said something in return and when I stepped back I saw my wet coat had dampened her muslin top, making it clingy and see-through. I have to admit, she looked great.