I rejected the specialist in non-violent communication, the one who dressed like a princess while drinking apple juice from a challis, the one who understood the ways in which touch regulates the nervous system, leading to emotional alignment, and the one who advertised “fun wrastles.” I didn’t know it until I started looking, but I wanted someone imprintable. No sexual favors, yes. Emphasis on hygiene, yes. An understanding that consent is not possible under the influence of alcohol, yes. References to silence, spooning, comfortable clothes and music were all acceptable. References to holding space, eye-gazing, trauma responses, red solo cups, massage creams, or aerial arts were not.

          I wouldn’t know if I had picked the right one until much later. This was a trial by fire. But the signs were good. Her photo included a bicycle and kind eyes. She lived close enough to me that I knew the vibe of her neighborhood – it was where, once a month, I visited the public library and next-door bakery, choosing a book to read cover-to-cover over pastries and coffee – but far enough that I wasn’t likely to run into her in the grocery store or bank.

          Her house was as bland as I wanted it to be. There was no animal fur, no dirty dishes. A room off the hall, near the door, in which the only furniture was a couch. The floor was covered in pillows. A spider plant, an ivy. Everything else, shades of white. It wasn’t antiseptic, but it was a salve. Later, I realized it was like a bedsheet hung as a movie screen – blank enough for me to project my own needs upon.

          Her attire was minimal, and her body soft.

          “Venmo? Cash?” I said. I wanted to get this exchange out of the way. I hadn’t paid in advance just in case I chickened out before I crossed the threshold. I had stopped on the way to make sure I had a full wallet, but because I could never remember my debit card’s pin number, I had to swing by the organic co-op and buy something in order to get cash back. I’d settled on what turned out to be a weirdly gritty chai protein smoothie, and now the taste of oat milk and coconut coated my tongue.

          “Cash,” she said, “if you can.”

          I paid her – she left the room to put the money somewhere – and when she returned, we moved into the pillowed room and sat cross-legged on the floor, facing each other.

          I found myself examining her carefully. She was young enough that I could see brightness in her eyes, that the roundness in her skin was cherubic rather than matronly. At the door, she had hugged me, and I could still feel the way her body fit into the hollows of mine. She smelled like lotion, the kind with aloe in it. Not perfumy. But not musky either. Her hair was pulled away from her face, and a row of small gold earrings ran up her ear. Diamonds and crescent moons. Hoops. She wore no makeup, and a simple tattoo of three black lines circled her left wrist.

          “This is your first time,” she said. “Not just with me.”

          “Yes,” I said. I had told her as much in my introductory email.

          “We can start whenever and however you want. In silence or in sound. With conversation or touch.” She lay her fingers on her own wrist, lightly, to demonstrate.

          I bit my lip. I hadn’t rehearsed anything. I hadn’t actually believed I would make it this far. “I want what you would do for anyone.”

          She smiled patiently. “No one is the same.”

          I thought of a sandwich shop in Florence, where, overwhelmed by vibrant jars of preserves and hanging slabs of meat, and unsure how to even begin placing an order, I found myself saying, “I want what you would want, for yourself.” I said that now.

          “Ok, then. I see. Come here. Sit inside my legs. I’ll lean up against the couch. Here. Come in. Let me access your back.”

          I moved then, sat where she was gesturing, my back to her front. My eyes found the window, saw the outline of blind slats under a sheer white fabric gloss. Felt her strong thighs rest against mine, just enough for me to know she was there without being insistent, oppressive. She lay her hands on my back. I felt warmth, shifted in my seat.

          First, she scratched. Her nails traced circles across my back. Were they shapes? Letters? Was she spelling words? Drawing pictures? Rainbows? Puffy clouds? I tried to stop my thinking, but it was impossible.

          After a time, the scratches turned to touches. The touch – produced by her fingers and her palms, I think, but I couldn’t see – moved lightly, up and down my back. I got goosebumps for a minute and shivered.

          “Are you all right?” she checked in.

          “Yes, thank you.” I said, formally.

          “Make sure to tell me if you’d like me to stop.”

          “It’s fine. Thank you.”

          The touch began again. It moved over my back, making a heat grow. And then it moved across my arms, lifting the hairs along their length. I breathed, deeply, and something in the vicinity of my spine unclicked.

          “Good. That’s good. You’re doing great,” she said. And at my release, her touch changed. She began to press harder, rub, circles and deep pressure. “I’m trained in massage,” she said, “Though this is unofficial, of course. I just want you to know you’re getting quality.”

          I laughed, and something lightened between us. She didn’t break contact with my body, but the massaging stopped. I felt her cheek come to rest against my back, felt her breath through my shirt. I felt her arms snake around my sides and hold me. I wanted to relax into being held, but I felt like a giant stuffed animal you might win at a fun fair.

          I closed my eyes. My breathing must have sped up, and she let me go. After a moment, I felt her hands on my scalp, and this, finally, was the moment everything shifted. I entered another zone, then. As she played with my hair, I began to let go. Her fingertips brushed across my neck. For an instant, I pictured the goofy whisk of a massage toy an ex had once given me to soothe my cranium, back when I had regular tension headaches – it had never worked, but my ex liked to laugh at the faces I made when I used it. Then, the toy and the ex drifted away out of my brain and popped like a bubble. I eased into reverie, let images appear on the back of my eyes.

          Grover, from Sesame Street.

          The face of my childhood dog.

          The lakeshore where I once napped on a hot summer day, letting cold water evaporate from my skin.

          Meat, again, in Florence, hanging and swaying.

          An eye where my third eye might be.

          “It’s time,” she said, suddenly.

          I was startled.

          And I hadn’t done it.

          “I’ll leave the room,” she said, gently. “Take your time coming back to yourself. Drink lots of water. I will meet you at the door and see you out.”


          A week later, I returned, and even then I couldn’t do it.

          This time went much like the first, without the awkward preamble. She asked if I wanted music, and this time I said, yes, but I didn’t know whether I should suggest something. She put on something with natural sounds and a light pulsing electronic beat I was sure was created to mimic the relaxed rhythm of a heart.

          She went straight for my hair, and unwound me that way, so that I was ready, and when she snaked her arms around my sides, I leaned back immediately, into her lap, feeling her breasts against my back. We tumble-fell into the ground on our sides, and she held me after that, spooned, breathing against me, so that I listened to her breath and the breath of the music and my own breath commingle.

          I fell asleep and lost time once again.

          The third time, I did it. It’s always the third time. Ask any fairytale. The third time, I knew what to expect and steeled myself in advance. I brought cash but no chai protein smoothie and wore my most comfortable clothes.

          Before she even touched me, I said, “There’s something I need.” But, then – I found I couldn’t say anything else.

          “Go ahead. I’m listening. You can tell me.”

          I bit my lip and thought about how easy it would be to walk away and crawl into bed and put on a disaster movie where lava smothered a small town in the mountains. To eat popcorn until the kernel sleeves stuck to my chest, poking me. How easy it would be to lay there in the bed watching the characters die or fail to die, until I slept on the kernel sleeves and dreamed the recurring dream about the kitten I’d forgotten in my backpack for seven days straight. But then I would start up from that dream in holy terror, crying out in my sleep, waking no one but myself. And I would watch my ceiling fan in the dark, its blades subtle shapes breaking the expanse of white plaster.

          And I would see myself sliced by the blades, over and over. I wouldn’t want to see it, but I couldn’t help it. Blades slicing open my belly. Blades slicing open my core. And then I would pull out my phone so I wouldn’t have to see it, and I would scroll through Reddit instead, and sometimes the posts would be “eyebleach,” cute animals that would make me forget and sometimes the posts would be of unexpected things whose unexpectedness made me forget, and sometimes the posts would be Ask Reddit threads about purchases that were never worth the money, or movies that were criminally underrated, or the most beautiful song you ever heard, or even the secret on-the-job knowledge that would surprise the general public – and I would read the thread for hours until the words blurred, and I fell asleep with the phone in my hand.

          And this is how I was able to say, “I, do you ever, I guess we would call it role play?”

          She paused and I could tell she was processing. “Not sexual.”

          “No, not sexual.” I said quickly. “I don’t know how to say it.”

          “Come with me,” she said, and walked me out of the cuddle room into her kitchen. This must have been where she brought the money, that first day. Her kitchen was homey, with yellow curtains and a simple wood table. She gestured for me to sit, and sat across from me.

          Once we were seated and comfortably distant, she said, “Here’s how it will go. You can tell me. I can say no. If I say no and you don’t accept it, you can leave. If I say no and you accept it, you can stay and we can do what we have done. If I say yes, we can go slowly, one step at a time, and consent at every stage.”

          “That sounds reasonable.”

          “You might have to pay more, depending.”

          “That sounds reasonable too.”

          A clock hung over the sink, and I could hear its hand ticking, loudly. I wondered that I couldn’t hear it in the cuddle room. I couldn’t think of what to say next.

          She looked at me with some sympathy. More than I deserved, but also more than I wanted. I felt sticky. She touched my hand, patiently. “Is it that you want me to treat you like a child? Many of my clients want that. It’s very common. The need to be mothered.”

          “I don’t…”

          She modulated the tone of her voice. “Baby. Come here. Let me comfort you. You can tell me about your hard day. You can draw if you want. We can watch your favorite movie while mommy strokes your hair.”



          “I don’t want that.”

          “Ok, that’s ok.”

          I inhaled all my breath. “You’re the one. I want. To be Baby.”


          “A child.”

          “Ok. But not…”

          “No, not. Definitely not.”

          “Say more.”

          “I want to take care of you.”

          She nodded.

          “I want to feel your hands on my neck. Small hands on my neck. Baby powder smell. I want to fix the things that are wrong. I want to feel your weight. On my lap. I want to feel her weight on my lap and rub her back as she sleeps. I want her head in the crook of my neck. I want to read her her favorite book as she rests her hand absentmindedly on my thigh, and then I want to feel her breathing when it’s harder than she realizes it is, and just listen. I want to put on sunscreen and smell sunscreen and clean jam off her face.”


          I let the word sit there. I would not pick it up.

          “Is this grief work?”

          “Does it matter?”

          “Well. I have resources.” She paused. “For instance, do you know about the Cloud Lake Center? They do a lot of work with grieving…” she paused again…“families?”

          “I don’t want referrals. That’s not what I’m here for. I don’t need a professional. Not that kind of professional. I know what I need.”

          And I did. Maybe for the first time.


          I had looked at specialty therapists. I had looked at grief counselors. I had looked at child loss support groups, but this didn’t make sense because, well, I hadn’t technically lost a child. I had looked at rebirthing centers, various methods of somatic therapy. I had looked at water tanks that you float in to mimic the experience of being in utero. I had looked at cryogenic chambers that promise to regulate dopamine levels.

          Despite my aversion to public speaking, I had looked into community theater, D&D groups, methods of immersing myself in a world so far from my own that I would forget everything about myself. I looked into silent meditation retreats that would take me so far into myself that I would realize my “selfhood” itself was a myth, the myth of self. I thought about the microorganisms my body played host to, and I tried to believe that I was them, why shouldn’t I be, if they lived inside me? That I was a “royal we” but the “we” was made up of my ecosystem, or more to the point, my meat and the various species that inhabited that meat.

          None of it worked.

          Then one day I overheard someone in a coffee shop ticking off pandemic closures in the city. On their list was Cuddle Up to Me, the storefront service for platonic cuddling that had opened to much fanfare ten or so years earlier. I remembered the prurient news stories, the speculations about what kinds of people would need to seek out professional cuddling or the sensationalized think pieces about how our world was so isolated and touch-starved that people needed to pay to be held. For the next couple of weeks, on and off, I found my mind drifting back to this business. This service. Something told me that this could be a way to…work things out. That was all I knew, or really all I sensed.

          Finally, I gave in to my brain and looked up the business, wondering if it might reopen or relocate. It turned out a cottage industry had sprung up in its wake. I found websites modeled after Lyft, Rover, AirBnB. Professional cuddlers advertising their services. Photographs, statistics, prices. A grid of smiling female faces with soft eyes, motherly breasts. Henna, tattoos, piercings. Fillered lips and sex worker names. Names that evoked mystical goddesses and ample cleavage. Long grey hair and glasses of a sex therapist. And so many smiles, smiles that said “oh hey, it’s you, you’ve just interrupted me doing the dishes and I want to throw my arms around you and tell you how glad I am that you exist.”

          And suddenly I discovered a curiosity that I hadn’t found in myself in a long, long time.


          “Are you saying no?”

          “I’m not saying no.”

          “Are you saying yes?”

          “Come here,” she said. “Let me look into your eyes. I need to know if you will tell me if we cross a line. If we go too far. If something feels dangerous or unsafe.”

          I understood. This is why I was here, after all. “If something is breaking,” I added.

          “Any of that.”

          “Yes. I promise.”

          She paused a beat. “I don’t think I can call you –”

          “No, I don’t want that. Seriously. Not like that.”

          Then, she looked at me tenderly, seeing me, it felt, in a way that should have made me uncomfortable, but didn’t. “What was her name?” she asked.

          “Vivi,” I said.

          “And what kind of cuddles did she like?”

          “I don’t, I don’t know.”

          “I am not sure I understand.”

          “I want to find out.”

          She looked confused, but I didn’t have any more words left. I sighed. Then I scraped myself out as best I could. “You don’t have to act like anything or be anything. I promise. Just let me spoon you. Be my child. Let me spoon you as my child.” I felt more tired than I’d ever felt in my life.

          Back in the cuddle room, we lay down together on the pillowed floor. I pulled a comforter around us, pulled her into my arms. She tucked neatly into my big spoon. I held her tightly but gently. Focused my thoughts on keeping her safe.

          We lay like that for a long time. Then, I stroked her hair, felt its soft strands sift through my fingers until I felt an impulse.

          “Can I sing?” I asked her.

          “Yes,” she said, softly.

          I rocked her, sang “just before our love got lost you said, I am as constant as a northern star…” the Joni Mitchell song my ex used to sing to me when I had trouble sleeping.

          Then I didn’t feel done. So I hummed Brahm’s Lullaby, the tune my mother’s music box played.

          And I still didn’t feel done. So a new song came up and out of my mouth. “I’ll sing you one-o. Green grow the rushes, o. And what is your one-o…”

          I hadn’t thought of it in years. It was a song my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. I think her mother used to sing it to her when she was a child. I forgot much of it, but I hummed when I couldn’t remember. “Two two lily white boys…eight for the April rainers…”

          The rise and fall of the melody came through my body and entered hers. I could feel her breathing lengthen against me. I could feel her drift. I tapped the rhythm gently on the back of her hand as I held her. “Green grow the rushes, o.”

          I felt something akin to peace.

          And peace felt like giddiness.


          I should have understood the giddiness to be a sign to slow my roll, as the kids say. But the release of the massive weight I had held for so long set me spinning into space. When I returned, I brought with me a stuffed animal from my childhood. A ratty bear named Hamish, whom I planned to offer as a gift. I had held him through years of nights, after my parents divorced, when I felt more alone than I ever had. I had wet his fur with my tears. I had told him stories until I could sleep. I had clutched him, truly believing he was the only one who could understand me. I knew from then on that he would be a gift for my first child.

          I pulled Hamish out of my backpack, and pressed him into her hands. “Hold it, please.” I said, “While I hold you.” The minute I did, I knew I had made a mistake.

          Her body stiffened into professional formality. Her eyes took on the look of pity they had worn the first day I asked. She was gracious enough to stop me, to tell me I had gone too far.

          And she was gracious enough to allow me back.



          Six or seven sessions went by. Normal. Intimate. Peaceful. Peeling back the layers between us. It was cathartic for me, and I was pleased with myself for understanding how to fix something that seemed unfixable.

          And then it was she who broke.

          I could tell when I walked in the door that something was different. Her face looked strained. She looked tired. I couldn’t help but want to care for her. For her.

          I connected my phone to her bluetooth speaker, put on the playlist I had made earlier that week. Lullabies from around the world.

          She wrapped her arms around her torso, held her own sides. She looked very small. I felt a radical wave of tenderness swell inside me.

          “Do you have a hairbrush?” I asked her.

          She nodded, and left the room, returned with a wooden-backed brush in her hand.

          “Sit,” I told her, feeling confident. Feeling more centered in myself than I had in a long time.

          I sat on the couch, and she sat on the floor at my feet. I took a long time, brushing her hair. I held each cluster of hair at the root so as not to pull at her scalp. I brushed the same sections over and over, until her head bobbed a little. I parted her hair down the center. And then I lifted three small sections of hair from near her forehead, began to French braid in the way that my mother used to have me braid my sister’s hair when I was ten and my mother was too busy with work.

          She sighed deeply.

          “Do you want to tell me about it?” I asked.

          “I don’t think so,” she said.

          “You don’t have to.”

          “I just, I want to be here.”

          “Be here, little girl.”

          She turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had gone too far. But she laid her cheek on my thigh and sighed again. I could see her child self in her expression. Some openness that hadn’t been there before.

          “I want to make a mess with you.”

          “A mess?”

          I brought out the finger paints I had bought at Target in the giddy era. I had thought long and hard, but they didn’t seem beyond the pale. I bought a big pad of paper, too. “You are so good at touching, honey. I want to see what happens when you touch the paint to the paper. I want to see what you make.”

          For a moment her adult self threatened to burst through as she looked around at the white white white. I knew she was thinking about laundry, the cost of replacing items.

          “Shhh,” I said. “Let me take care of it all.”

          I had brought trash bags, and I laid them over the pristine white pillows. I had brought an old king-sized sheet, and it covered the trashbags nicely. I hadn’t been sure this would work, but I was pleased that it did, and pleased to see her close her eyes and listen to the music. The pad of paper was thick and huge. It was easy for her to paint without spilling. I brought a towel and a mason jar of water whose lid could be replaced tightly. She didn’t need to worry about anything.

          Light moved over her face like a sunrise. I know that sounds cheesy, but that was all I could think. Delight. She opened the paints and devoured them with her fingers. It was as though they were candy. She moved a blue line over the page, made a series of purple fingerprints. Shaded a corner in red and then blue so a new purple was created. Then poked a finger into the thick paint and dragged it down in rays. Suddenly, she looked at me. “Um. Do you want to help?” she asked.

          I laughed. “No, darling. Let me watch you enjoy yourself. This is fun for me.”

          “It is?”

          “It is, sweetheart.”

          She painted for a long time. Lost herself in it, I could tell. I watched her body move. Watched the softness grow as the paper became ever more saturated with color. She was beautiful. Profoundly, sweetly, dreamily beautiful. When she looked at me, I saw adoration.

          At the end of the hour, she sat at my feet. “Thank you for my paints,” she said, in the voice of a child.

          I knew she was a child, then. And I was happy. So happy. I could feel the base of my stomach covered in soil, and the old pit of bitterness beginning to crack and let out small tendrils like an avocado suspended in water, and in that cracking, I felt something new begin to root – something I couldn’t name.

          She didn’t charge me that day.



          But the next day, there was an e-mail.

          “We need to process some of what happened yesterday,” she wrote. “I’m not comfortable with this shift in dynamic. A line was crossed, and it’s really important for me that we identify what that line was.”

          I could feel her fear seeping through the lines, the perfectly composed lines.

          I had barely slept last night, because I knew something had changed, irrevocably. Did I love her, I wondered now, as I had wondered then?
But the answer was the same. No. I didn’t. I cared for her, but this shift was nothing you could ever call romantic or sexual. Did she have feelings for me? Again, I didn’t think so. I knew we were playing with fire, but nothing in me worried that I would kiss her or that she would kiss me, or that any “sexual favors” would be requested.

          I weighed my words carefully. There was nothing inside me that couldn’t conceptualize yesterday as anything but good. My brain worried, but I chalked that up to the omnipresent anxiety that yesterday had finally, for once, relieved. And because of that, perhaps I pushed too far. “I think you are afraid of being vulnerable,” I wrote. “Your vulnerability is a gift. And I promise I will never take advantage.”

          “I need us to take a step back,” she replied. “This is non-negotiable. Let’s take a month and see how we feel about continuing this work. After a period of thirty days, you may reach out and contact me.”

          I read the message over and over. I found myself tearing up, and then sobbing. My stupid face was covered in stupid snot. How foolish I was. I wailed, and punched my stomach with my fists.

          And then I went to the store and bought a bag of popcorn.



          But it turned out I was right. She needed it as much as I did. After thirty days, she wrote me, and we arranged another time to meet. It was as if nothing had happened at all.

          “Will you tell me a story?” she asked.

          “Can it be about our family?” I replied.

          “Our family,” she repeated.

          “Yes,” I said. I reached out and stroked her hair. “I will never, ever hurt you,” I reminded her.

          “Tell me,” she said. “Let me get cozy first. Sit there,” she pointed bossily to the corner of the couch. I sat, and she lay down with her head in my lap. She looked up at me, calm and tender and, well, the word I’m thinking of is “serene.”

          “When I was a kid, I used to get very scared at night. I had night terrors. Dreams of giant bees.”



          “What did you do?”

          “Shhhh and I’ll tell you.”

          “Ok, silly.”

          “Your grandmother used to read me stories at night. Everything from fairy tales to the Children’s Bible to the Just So Stories – you know those ones? The ones where we learn how the leopard got his spots or the elephant got his trunk? Anyway, this was our ritual. But things got so bad with my dreams that I started asking her to make up stories about us. It was like, well, I couldn’t sleep until I heard a version of my own life that was so magical and perfect I would lose myself in it.

          A lot of the stories were circus stories. I was an acrobat or a trapeze artist. I walked a tightrope above a cheering crowd. Sometimes they were stories about ice skating on a lake in winter. She didn’t tell me about magical lands. Nothing too out of the ordinary. What we might call magical realism now – real world stuff but with the volume dialed up high. I wanted parades and picnics on mountaintops and birthday parties with four-tier cakes.

          And eventually, I wanted her not just to tell me but to show me. I made her start drawing pictures that went along with the stories she told.”

          “You made her?”

          “Well, as much as I could. As much as you can make me do anything.”


          “Yes. But she did. She wasn’t an artist. She told me that every night. She thought it was absurd that I was asking for pictures, since she thought she had absolutely no artistic talent. Zero. But the quality wasn’t what mattered to me. It was the time, I think. Just sitting there with her bringing these worlds to life. It helped me get through the night. I still have all those pictures, somewhere. In some drawer.”

          “I like that story.”

          “I think that’s where you get your artistic talent. From her.”

          “I can’t tell if you’re being serious.”

          “Does it matter?”

          “No. It really doesn’t.”



          Three months later was winter, and we had decorated a little rosemary bush Christmas tree with origami cranes, a paper star on top. We had made paper chains and hung them on the walls of the cuddle room. The scent of rosemary filled the room like a potion.

          “Doesn’t it feel strange to you that I am not a child?” she asked. She was lying in my lap and we were watching a cartoon together on Netflix on my iPad, something Scandinavian with mythical trolls and elves and bright colors.

          “No. And yes,” I said. I sighed, deeply.

          I tried to feel my body, as my therapist had told me to do, where the feelings were located. I couldn’t feel anything but weight.

          “And no,” I said again. “I can’t ever let a child into my arms.”

          She sat up. Looked at me in the eye. “I’m not sure I understand,” she said.

          Our session was drawing to a close, and it made sense to transition. So I allowed her to stay in this seated position.

          What else could I say but, “This longing is so big it would break their bones.”

          “You would hurt them? I’m not a mandatory reporter, but.”

          “No. No. Listen to me. This longing. This pain. This missing could fill a room. A house. Stain the walls like smoke, taint everything it touches.”

          “Taint me?”

          “I would never hurt you.”


          “I would never hurt you.”

          “You would never intend to hurt me.”

          “I. Would. Never. Hurt. You. I’m not worried. Anyway, you’re a professional. You’ve seen it all, right?”



          She was quiet.

          “Does this change things?”

          She was quiet again.

          “Please. I can’t do no contact again. Can I come back? Will you let me back?”

          “Yes. But…”


          “At the beginning, I made something clear. This is a practice where I give. This is not a practice where I receive.”



          “Not compensation.”


          “It’s labor.”

          “It’s a calling.”

          “Have you reevaluated what it means to receive? What you are comfortable with?”

          “I have.”

          I smiled. “So?”

          “So.” She paused for a long time, then. She looked at me. Eventually, she said, “Tell me what I am giving, and you can come back.”

          “You are giving me tomorrow.” It was plain as the nose on my face.

          She was quiet for a moment.




Megan Savage

Megan Savage is a queer multi-genre writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her publications include Sixth FinchHunger Mountain, and the Routledge anthology, Pandemic of Perspectives: Creative Re-Imaginings. She holds an MFA from Indiana University, where she was Fiction Editor of Indiana Review. Currently, she teaches writing at Portland Community College, where she helps coordinate the Carolyn Moore House, the first and only writing residency housed at a community college. Find her at https://www.meganesavage.com/