My father, may he rest in peace, managed to weaponize both hugging and hand-holding. Nine months of the year I slept 2,500 kilometers from my dad, in a room in an building on a guarded compound run by religious fanatics, who believed God called Christians to give up their children. My brother was there, too. But my brother and I weren’t allowed to be my roommates. Blood siblings were separated by policy. We were all children of God.
My brother wouldn’t have wanted to room with me anyway. I was the geek of the dorm, the lowest of the low. Many nights I went to sleep with fresh bruises or scrapes. That was the kind of human contact I grew up experiencing. There wasn’t a male in my life I wasn’t physically afraid of those first two years at the dorm.
I started to shy away from physical contact, a lot like how a dog kicked too much begins to recoil from all outstretched human hands, even ones that are wanting just to give it a friendly pat. My dad, especially, I was afraid of. My dad didn’t like this. Any external sign of unhappiness, my dad interpreted as disobedience, not just to him but also to God. Hugs became mandatory and enforced. “Son, we hug each other in this house,” my dad would say. He had a look in his eye that was both a challenge and a threat. No one was going to tell my dad he wasn’t a loving father, especially not his sons. When my dad put his arms around me it was claustrophobic and sickly with triumphalism. I tensed up, held my breath, shut my eyes and waited for it to be over. It was like he knew his boys were terrified of him, and that’s the way he wanted it to be.
At dinner, those few months out of the year when the family was together, my dad made us all hold hands and bow our heads while he said a prayer. No one ate a morsel until we did. He liked to look up to make sure you weren’t looking up. If you tried to let your hand go limp, he’d stop and wait until the pressure was more to his, and God’s, liking. Later, we’d eat and if your elbows accidentally found your way onto the table, my dad’s hand would fly across the table and smack it off with extreme prejudice.
Back at the dorm, I took my meals wherever I could. Seating wasn’t assigned in the cafeteria. It was prison-style. When the bell rang for chow, you hurried downstairs and found an available seat. Out of the hundreds of times I ate in that horrible place, I doubt if I took more than five meals total—breakfast, lunch or dinner—at the same table as my older brother. He had disavowed me. I sat with the other losers and rejects of our Lord of the Flies ecosystem. It wasn’t fun, but after a year I came to prefer it to having to go home and eat with my family. My dad’s hugs were more hateful, and they hurt me more, than all the beatings and abuse to which he and his gi-normous ego had abandoned me.