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The Cuddle Stop

Laura Watts

Arrivals was a nightmare, queuing for decontamination. But there was such a warmth to the wooden panels lining the walls. I had to lean in to smell them: printed. In between that thought and the long inhale, I imagined the ‘ponics needed to grow pine, bamboo, thick enough to create a veneer. I remembered real wood, bark, the rough scraping of birch under my palm, warm slippery silver, split sharp, opening to the tree core. This station hive has a little more care in its design than my last stop. The label is on the literal box, Nordbikube, hive made by the North folk. Ship logs it as Waypoint 902. I’m docked planetside, so I get a view of the rock mass to which we’re tethered. An errant planetoid with a great gouge, as though its single eye has been plucked out. The rock has claw marks down its grey cheek. Wounded. Aren’t we all. Here I will dawdle. Expand and unfurl my limbs, release my lungs, weep until I am dry. Load up and then be on my way, out there, into the star dark, alone again. Ninety-eight days since my last stop, since I breathed the same molecules of oxygen and nitrogen as another human. The next sailing will be twice that length. But not yet. This hive, I hope it goes well. I hope I don’t screw up this visit. Space is too small. There are too few of us out here. Folk remember. The older ship mates have reached that irritating level of wisdom and self-awareness where they don’t seem to care, appear to accept each breath they are given (or not, when their ship fails). Well, that bitterness is something to note in my next sit. Even docked, I still sit the daily practice: meditate, journal, focus, physical practice, breathe. Breathe. Cool air pressing the cartilage in my nose, a ball of lightness in my throat, filling my diaphragm, pushing my chest out against my suit. Why did I choose this life? To be alone? To be with myself? Distraction: only my second time wearing fins today. The air jets down the channels and combs are ringed with light, but it took me a while to get my eye in, to catch them dotted through the wood print walls. The experienced mates already had the knack to flip the fins on their feet at just the moment to flow forward. They looked like stingrays, bodies rippling in the next-to-zero G. I found a quiet channel out at the rim and hung about, flapping my feet. The jets are so weak, it still feels impossible, you get so little momentum. Must be something to do with the shape of the airflow. I’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe. Being a beginner is a definite struggle still. Noted. Moving on. This entry has all been prelude and warm up, of course, to the Cuddle Stop. The best one I have experienced so far. There was a water ball with a granite stone for my toes to paddle with. There was a wall of grass, damp with dew that soaked through my pores. I smelled soil. There was a box of golden brown Chanterelle mushrooms, juicy spores planting themselves into my airways. The main rooms were filled with soft pink, red, and golden glows, and dark cocoons on the walls. This time not looking like internal organs but a dawn-lit cabin. I still feel too new, too afraid of the subtle etiquette to join the community and cover others, but I climbed into a cocoon and just waited, smelling basil, jasmine, rose. Someone came over and offered a cuddle. They were middle-aged with kind eyes, an older ship’s mate. I took a breath and accepted. I felt their warm body mass press against mine as they pulled forward, their chest connecting to my chest, human to human, there was the almost forgotten shape of a person shadowed in front of me. Our suits and the thick cocoon spreading warmth without contact. Their body tapered to a polite nothing below their waist. They rested their head against mine, dark arms around my shoulders, and through our silken masks I felt their ear against my ear, the folds of their arching helix. The arch of an ear beside mine. I sucked at them with my soul. There was the inevitable sobbing. I unravelled my loneliness, that pain which sits like a neutron star, a burning black hole between my shoulder blades. It’s pulling on my spine, now, as I write. A weight pressing on my lungs during the days alone. Then, today, I let it flare out with a cry. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I choose this? Keep making this choice? Why do I sit alone in the void, seeking and failing to find some wisdom? Why do I attempt to look at myself, just for who I miserably am? Allow myself to spend days wallowing, wishing I was less wounded, less broken, just… less. I do this in return for servicing the ship. Your days are in service to the universe, they said. I took the oath. I wish I was less ambitious, honourable, curious, whatever it is that keeps me in service. Note that I do not know. I cannot admit it. Not yet. I cuddled another human being today, a stranger, feeling the possibility and absence of skin. Skin: soft and brown, gnarled and yellow, veined and pale. I dream of skin. Arteries pulsing, joules of heat, almost impossible in our microbe-separated lives. Still they, that kind person, touched me, reached out, cuddled me, until they pulled back with a cool release that felt like the kick of a lover’s rejection. Lover? Will I ever experience intimacy again? There is little hope for that. Distraction: there is the bass thrum of the ship, around me, holding me in my bunk. Here are the hairs on my arm, raising as I brush them with my fingertips. I run my middle finger over the dip in my clavicle, around my collar bone, down, spread my hand, hover it over my breast, my heart. All my fingers are alive now. My skin tingling, pulling, nerve endings yearning. I blow through my mouth, feel my lips flutter. I lift my other hand and trace my cheek, along my bone, to my ear, follow the angle down to my jaw line, out to my chin and up and over my lower lip, to where my skin turns wet and glistening smooth. This, perhaps, is an answer. This is why I choose to service the ship and sail alone through the starlit dark. Because sometimes, like now, I can feel this sharp, this solid, this attuned, this whole. I can feel. Really feel. Here I am. Here in the dark I will always be.

Laura Watts is an author, poet, and ethnographer of futures, based in Orkney, Scotland. Her latest book, Energy at the end of the World (MIT Press), is part popular science, part rural fantasy, and was longlisted for the Highland Book Prize and shortlisted for Saltire Research Book of the Year.

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