“Because People Might Think We’re Dating” and Other Reasons My Grandfather Doesn’t Like Hugging Me

Whenever people ask me about my grandparents, I usually give the same responses: They live in New York, they’re two of the most important people in my life and my grandfather is super hot.

That last bit usually comes out wrong.

Let me start over:

My grandfather is the most adorable man on the face of the earth and I can’t help but maul him with love whenever possible. Unfortunately, he’s not the biggest fan of mauling. Nor does he enjoy when I try to pick him up. Nor is he a fan of my sexy-forlorn poses when he tries to take a picture with me. In his defense, I’ve become aggressively more annoying since our conflicting feelings on PDA hit a breaking point a few years back.

It was the summer of 2007, on the family cruise vacation my Nonno had always wanted to take all his grandchildren on. I tried holding his hand while walking to dinner one night, to which he responded with even more Italian curse words than usual. I usually find this comical, but having already had a week of Nonno being exceptionally tense towards my usual fawning, I finally attempted to address the issue. The following conversation took place:

Nonno [through adorably indecipherable European accent]:  You shouldn’t be all…touchytouchy with me. People think things, you know.

Me: Things like…we’re family? And I… love you?

Nonno: No! C’mon, you know! Older man… traveling alone with young boy…

Me: [Horrified Silence.]

Nonno: …You know.

CLEARLY people would see right through the grandpa-grandson shtick and know he’s actually pimping me out world-tour style. While I was somewhat complimented that he thought I was pretty enough to be mistaken for a hooker, everything between him and I changed that day. Up until then, I had been all right with my Nonno’s inability to touch me. I assumed that it was an old-person thing, being frail and whatnot. It now dawned on me that the actual issue was our gender. I should have realized it sooner with how openly affectionate he is to my female cousins, pleading for their hugs and kisses! And they’re totally pretty enough to be hookers! But this, unfortunately, was never an issue of “who’s prettier” (me) – it’s about how terrified men are in our culture to show affection towards one another. It is, for some reason, verboten – and you know it’s serious when only a German word can explain the feeling.

Men in our culture suffer from an affected assumption that if they’re too “touchytouchy” around other guys, one of two things will happen:

1.) People will think they’re gay.

2.) They will somehow, by means of science and/or magic, become gay.

Rather than focus on how incredibly insulting this belief system is to actual gay men and women, let’s take a moment to consider the alterations to perfectly normal physical contact most men make to appease this belief system. First and foremost is “the fist bump”, originated by the hip-hop community and perfected by awkward white guys who want to look like they know a black person. Then there’s “the hand-slap”, the more adult version of the “high five” that always feels like a secret handshake neither party has learned correctly.

You can never tell if the initiator of a hand slap is intending to follow the strike with a handshake, a finger-pop, a shoulder slam or all three in a randomly ordered sequence. On the rare occasion that something resembling an actual hug does occur, two dudes will keep their feet planted while leaning in with their chests so their crotches don’t touch – because apparently all hell would then break loose.

It must be very frustrating having to put so much energy into avoiding physical contact with a member of the same sex. Maybe that’s why guys put so much meaning into girl-on-girl affection? It could actually just be a form of jealousy, wishing desperately that THEY could simply hug their best friend hello, which causes them to go into hysterics over the mere cheekbones of two girls softly colliding as they greet one another. An unfortunate number of guys I know are completely obsessed in this department, and what really disturbs me is when girls fall for the double standard. You know that friend of yours that will make out with another girl solely for a guy’s amusement? You should tell her to stop that. It’s sort of demeaning. And if you’re that girl, you need to demand that the guy make out with his friends first. But please don’t tell him afterward that you think he’s gay now. Because even if it’s just a pat on the back, an arm around the shoulder, or a friendly hug – people need to be touched.

As a guy, I’ve never had a problem with physical contact – I’ve demanded it. Friends of all ages, genders and sexual orientation know that when I’m tired or not feeling well or slightly intoxicated, my head is going on someone’s lap and there better be fingers running through my hair or all bets are off. I’m a sickeningly affectionate person and have a real do-or-die policy with friends: do let me touch you or our friendship is going to die.

To some I might seem over the top, but to others it’s refreshing. Several of my guy friends have gone on record saying how much they enjoy being able to let down the usual barriers they have up with other guy friends. And, yes, I can tone it down when it’s clear that someone will not respond well to my kamikaze attack on personal space. I can shoulder-slam and solemnly swearing that torsos shall never meet, but am I seriously supposed to use that brand of bro-code in showing my own grandfather how much I adore him? If my Nonno ever tried to fist-bump me, I’m fairly certain I would die.

So it’s in these entanglements that I do what I do best with societal boundaries that make no sense to me: I act wildly inappropriate. It was on that cruise that I started referring to my grandfather as “hot” when introducing him to people. This is my grandfather, isn’t he hot? So hot. Look how hot he is with that pocket square. My God. I can’t help but respond with childlike absurdity to the need men have to limit affection between one another, especially with the understanding that at the root of it is homophobia and misogyny. And I’ve always found that the key to crossing a line is to traverse it at such marathon length that you make a mockery of its very existence. Or at least that’s my excuse when I jump on a pal’s back and pretend I’m a koala, pantomiming the eating of eucalyptus leaves while yelling “NAARRR NAARRR”, because in my mind that’s the sound a koala makes.

It’s in ridiculous, uncalled for, and even annoying displays that I show other men how fond of them I am. Is it sometimes obnoxious? Without a doubt. Do I intend on changing? Not a chance. So many people in the world go through life being glacially cold, forcibly sucking the warmth out of every interaction they have; why not let there also be loads of manic pixie dumbasses like me, who forcibly interject the warm and fuzzy in every repartee? Sure it’s exasperating, but is it really so bad to try and deflate their phobia of affection?

Over time, Nonno has adjusted to me slightly. He can now withstand ten seconds of hug-time before yelling at me to get off him. I can even slip in two kisses on the cheek before letting go, but the second is really at my own risk. I must drive him nuts, but I’m comfortable with that as long as he knows just how much I love him: overbearingly so. And any incidental comedy that comes from enraging him is purely coincidental.

Okay, so maybe I could cut back on putting my hand over his when the waiter comes to take our order, but I can’t help it. He’s just so damn hot, my grandfather.

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