Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I miss the odd mix of being aroused and sexually invisible. In eighth grade, I had plenty of girlfriends — that is, friends who happened to be girls — who would rather disembowel themselves with a rusty spoon than fool around with me. Humiliating, for sure, but being considered “one of the girls” had its benefits. I was often left unsupervised in bedrooms, within arm’s reach of the dirty laundry. Once I caught a discreet upskirt glimpse as Laura Kelly and I lounged around listening to the new Divinyls album. Feeding on their sexual table scraps became a game. All I had to do was camouflage my permanent erection — and only borrow one pair of undies at a time.
This is what appealed to me about attending a “cuddle party.” But I didn’t mention that, much less beating off with Cassandra Kennedy’s stolen underpants on my face, in my emailed request for admittance. Instead, I claimed to miss “the physical affection that came with a steady relationship” and to hate “how attempts to replicate that affection can send mixed messages to casual partners.” That said, I’m not particularly touchy-feely with anyone I’m not seriously dating — and especially not with strangers. In fact, whenever I ride the subway, I lament not having a body condom and a respirator.
Yet REiD MiHALKO, the unconventionally capitalized organizer of the party, liked what I wrote. I was invited to the next party, as long as I understood the rules: pajamas stay on at all times, and no dry humping. According to REiD, erections happen; the cuddle party was “a safe space to be aroused” even if attendees had to refrain from acting upon it. I was relieved to hear that this natural phenomenon isn’t demonized like it is in other “body-positive” settings. Take it from me: a woody at the nude beach gets the same frenzied reaction as a suspect floater at a community pool.
When I arrived at REiD’s around 11 a.m. on a Sunday, the temperature was already in the eighties. As REiD opened the door of his fragrant apartment and pulled me into his burly arms, I wasn’t sure whether I was embracing a quarterback, a surfer dude or a tantric-sex practitioner. But I definitely felt the spasmodic excitability of a thirteen-year-old squashed against the TRL barricade. “I’m so glad you made it!” he sang, as his huge smile threatened to engulf his entire head.
Six or seven older people hovered around his living room, complaining about the ungodly hour. Enya-esque music droned in the background. REiD ushered me into a back room partitioned with flowing Buddhist prayer fabric and told me to change. As I slipped into my specially purchased PJs — the first pair I’d owned since the age of eight — I examined the framed motivational and spiritual directives that lined the walls. There were two black-and-white pictures of a nude REiD holding a female model aloft in his outstretched pythons. Something told me he got laid a lot.
Sheepishly, I crept back into the main room, where I offered my $20 “cuddle fee” to Marcia, REiD’s cohost. The two of them had spread comforters and pillows over every surface in the room. I perused the food options — bagels, cream cheese, Nutella, lox — and the other partygoers. There was an even breakdown of people in their thirties through sixties. My concerns about having an erection slowly began to dissipate as the thirteen of us formed a “welcome circle.
REiD is just about the happiest motherfucker you’d ever want to meet. The Tyler Durden of the group, he jokingly played up any and all comparisons with Fight Club. “First rule of Cuddle Club: no dry humping!” The room erupted in riotous laughter. “Second rule of cuddle club: NO DRY HUMPING!” Beflanneled thighs were slapped and spectacles were removed to wipe away tears of mirth. The main rules, as presented, were as follows:
1. Pajamas stay on the whole time.
2. No SEX.
3. Ask for permission to kiss or nuzzle anyone. Make sure you can handle getting a “no” before you invite or request anyone to cuddle or kiss.
4. If you’re a “yes,” say “yes.” If you’re a “no,” say “no.”
5. If you’re a maybe, say NO.
6. You are encouraged to change your mind from a “yes” to a “no,” “no” to a “yes” anytime you want.
7. NO DRY HUMPING!
8. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
9. If you’re in a relationship, communicate and set your boundaries and agreements BEFORE you go to the Cuddle Party. Don’t re-negotiate those agreements/boundaries during the Cuddle Party.
10. Get your Cuddle Life Guard or Cuddle Caddy if there’s a concern, problem, or question, or should you feel unsafe or need assistance with anything during the Cuddle Party.
11. Crying and giggling are both welcomed and encouraged.
12. Outside of your personal relationships, it’s nobody’s business who you cuddle, so please be respectful of other people’s privacy when sharing with the outside world about Cuddle Parties.
13. Arrive on time.
14. Be hygienically savvy.
15. Clean up after yourself.
16. Always say thank you, and practice good Cuddle Manners.
All pretty straightforward, although it seemed that Rule 15 would only be necessary if Rule 2 had been broken. I tried to imagine what kind of messy spillage could result from hugging, and then I tried not to.
Next, REiD gave a thorough forty-minute orientation speech, in which he explained the group’s origins, its goals and what to do if you were being prodded with a turgid phallus. Years as a sex-romance coach had honed his hosting skills without dampening his palpable enthusiasm. We all introduced ourselves and explained exactly why we wanted to canoodle our blues away. I recited an abridged version of the email I sent to ReiD and threw in something about my mother’s new career in holistic therapy. This was met with nods and sounds of approval. It was established that some people were “varsity cuddlers”, this being their third or fourth party. I was classed as a J.V. cuddler. We were each assigned a “cuddle buddy,” which REiD likened to having a swim buddy at camp. If sexual energy “cropped up” in the room, a bell would sound and we would have to find our buddy and raise our hands to be counted.
By the end of the welcome circle, I was still unsure about how everything was going to work. Would we change partners at regular intervals? What if I get rejected? What if I have to reject somebody? Is REiD’s enthusiasm the only thing I have to worry about being infectious? With a cramp-inducing flurry of finger quotes, REiD and Marcia described the room as a safe haven, separate from the “real world,” or, as they also described it, “reality.” “This is a safe space to experience rejection with no risk,” REiD explained. “In ‘so-called’ ‘normal’ ‘society’ the rejection process hasn’t progressed much passed seventh grade.” I couldn’t help but be whisked away in his colorful playground analogies that had the room captivated and nodding in zombieish concurrence. There was much group discussion about our natural instinct to touch, hold and preen each other. Monkeys were held up as a shining example. I generally take issue with people citing forest-ape behavior as some long-forgotten societal ideal. I fantasized about flinging my own poo at these people and seeing how they felt about it then.
Next, we practiced being “okay” with rejection in a “safe space.” “May I kiss you?” I said to a handsome Fijian man. “No,” he replied. “May I kiss you?” he retorted optimistically. I sadistically waited three beats longer than one ought, “No.” We practiced denying each other the thrill of first base until REiD called us back to the circle. “Excellent!” he beamed, before running us through our final exercise. This was, essentially, to collapse onto one another in a big pile of limbs. The room looked like the aftermath of a sarin gas attack at a mental ward slumber party.
After determining that everybody was okay with the setup, REiD threw on some world music and motioned everyone to get straight to it. Each of us instinctively turned to the nearest person. I told myself that if I started to freak out, I could just imagine that I was in a room with some very odd-shaped pillows. “May I hug you?” I asked Marcia, who thankfully gave me a resounding “yes” and created a spooning space behind her. As I wrapped my arms around her svelte waist, I was immediately overcome by the weirdness of being in that position with a total stranger. I decided to create a dialogue that would bring us up to speed with our familiar positions. We talked about rent. A few minutes in, a woman on the end of a boy-boy-girl conga line asked if she could touch Marcia’s curly hair. Marcia said yes. One of the gents in the second row asked to touch Marcia’s leg, which she also permitted and encouraged. Somebody asked to play with Marcia’s feet, and soon everyone in the room was physically connected, with Marcia as a hub.
A new addition to our tangle of limbs commandeered the conversation. I tuned out, concentrating on the feeling of Marcia’s voice resonating through her body and into mine. After a short time, the feeling of unnatural proximity had left me and was replaced by the sensation of chilly drool dripping down my face. After a few scary moments, I realized it was my own; I had fallen asleep. (Napping, incidentally, was encouraged.) I tried to rouse myself yet avoid any free thoughts, fearing they’d become ensnared in one of the dreamcatchers in the apartment. I wondered how often REiD emptied them out. I also wondered if there was any message in the other knickknacks scattered around the room. For example: a VHS tape of Riverdance and a book called The Day My Butt Went Psycho sitting together on a shelf.
As it turns out, my host is a bona fide renaissance man. From his online bio, I learned that in addition to being a masseuse, martial-arts expert and college football star, REiD is working on a humorous how-to guide on cunnilingus titled Everything I need to Know About Life, I Learned from Eating Pie. As well as acting in Guiding Light, Third Watch and The Sopranos, he also appeared in the last episode of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, in which he played Nathan Lane’s right-hand man. Seriously, that’s about as sexually transgressive as daytime TV gets. I think his most exciting venture is a sex-positive sitcom titled Polly & Marie, “about a married couple in an open relationship, their quirky, alternative-lovestyle neighbors, and the ensuing hijinx surrounding them all.”
Back at the party, folks luxuriated in each other’s bodies, pausing only to change partners, pee or fix themselves something to eat. Marcia disappeared, and almost immediately a hand found mine. Its owner, Rachel, asked me to join her on the bed, where she gently rested her head upon my chest for a forty-minute nap before asking me to “talk British” to her. I obliged, until I realized that Rachel had started making out with another guy, leaving me prattling on like a bargain-bin audio book. I trailed off and carefully stepped over a mound of caressing Baby Boomers to get to the kitchen. The fruit was almost all gone, and the salmon had been declared suspect and disposed of. The remaining bagels were garlic, which seemed odd given that we were getting all up in each other’s business. In the spirit of the safe space I ate one anyway. I liked the “safe space to do whatever” slogan. Like the “…then the terrorists have won” mantra, it’s sort of carte blanche for all sorts of counterintuitive behavior and asinine breaches of common sense. As for sexual energy, I looked for any signs of tenting around the room, and found none.
Then Amanda, an attractive and curvaceous lady in her fifties, patted the space next to her. I sat down and we held each other, not saying a word. Once securely fastened, I opened an eye to get a read on what Amanda might be feeling. She seemed to be glowing. I, on the other hand, had to piss like a racehorse. The more I fidgeted, the tighter Amanda pushed me into her heaving bosom. She then began to graze my head, face and neck with her fingertips. I caught site of REiD over Amanda’s shoulder, and he gave me an approving nod from under a tangle of pastel blues.
Suddenly, sexual energy cropped up in the room, not in the form of an errant erection but rather a mid-party discussion about how turned-on some of the female group members were. Amanda and I listened carefully as REiD skillfully steered the group away from becoming the orgy that cynics expected the party was a front for. He talked about how we’re programmed to think we have to act upon sexual urges and that the party is a safe space to be aroused and nothing more. It was truly fascinating to watch.
Uri was a heavily accented gent in his early thirties. “May I join you?” he beamed. Before I could really think about the potential emotional fallout from my first same-sex anonymous cuddle, Amanda dragged him down to the patchouli-scented comforter and into our clutch. In a deft move belying both her age and mass, Amanda maneuvered our heads atop her gargantuan left and right breast respectively, our noses forming a pink bridge over her formidable cleavage. Uri assumed that blissed-out look that seem to adorn everyone’s face.
I caught a whiff of garlic breath but couldn’t discern if it was mine or Uri’s. To be safe, I exhaled out of the side of my mouth, a technique I’d fallen foul of while watching a movie next to a couple in the early stages of a relationship. With his eyes still closed, Uri asked if he could touch my arm. Again, in the spirit of the safe space, I said yes. His touch was much different from any of the ladies’. He seemed to be sizing up my biceps and deltoids, squeezing them like he was checking a grapefruit at the market. After a reasonable amount of unreciprocated fondling had occured, I managed to escape to the bathroom. Above the sink was a huge sign that read, “Rule #7. NO DRY HUMPING.”
“Okay people, we are nearing the end of our time today,” announced REiD. “You know what that means!”
“PUPPY PILE!” shouted almost every other member of the group with gusto. A “puppy pile” is everyone collapsing to form a huge haystack of bodies. Several of the cuddlers were so enthused about being at the bottom of the pile that they flung themselves several feet to belly flop in the center of the room. Returning from the bathroom, I got caught in the stampede and found myself on the second layer of a stack of four robustly built people. Apparently, the ideal was to be smothered by as many people as humanly possible. People were gleefully having the last remaining air squeezed out of their lungs, but I could only stand the heat and enormous weight for about two minutes before I had to squirm out of the huddle. The toaster-sized air conditioner was valiantly trying to keep the room cool, but the group was now throwing off heat like a well constructed campfire. I backed off to the kitchen and tried not to faint.
Before we dispersed, REiD called the group into — what else — a group hug. He gave us a thorough debriefing, warning against the “totally normal” feeling of lightheadedness we might experience when stepping out into the “real world.” While everybody hugged and thanked each other, I went in the back room and got changed. When I came out, everybody was still wearing pajamas and locked in embraces. Cards were swapped, numbers were exchanged and sincere promises to “definitely hang out” were traded furiously. After ten minutes, I realized that people were determined to stay put, despite REiD’s gentle herding. I hugged the group’s leaders goodbye and became the first to walk into the mid-afternoon sunshine. I wouldn’t call it lightheadedness, but I certainly was left with a transcendent feeling after three-and-a-half hours of embracing strangers. I only wish Cassandra Kennedy had been there to experience it with me.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.