Cuddling My Way Through a Quarter-Life Crisis

An excerpt from HOLDING PATTERN by Jenny Xie, recommended by Weike Wang

Introduction by Weike Wang

The song that my generation of Chinese Americans knows and will always know in Chinese, thanks to our parents, is Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart.” Why the moon? I’ve wondered. Was it because it was far, like their homeland? Aloof? As we found our parents to be. They don’t say I love you, we complained, across the board, like brats. But if our parents knew nothing of love—that is to say Western love—then why do we, their children, all know this song? To me, the link between the moon and a parent’s heart is now obvious. The moon is mercurial and cycles through phases, each with a distinct shape. The moon and Earth are bound forever and the moon has a lit face, covered in craters, that the Earth sees nightly, along with a dark side that the Earth never gets to see. That this song features in Xie’s marvelous debut gives the title, Holding Pattern, an added layer of poignancy.  

Newly single and adrift, Kathleen has moved back in with her mother, Marissa, who is newly engaged, planning a wedding, and thriving. What a pair these two make.  The assured Marissa is a tour-de-force maternal figure, one I rarely encounter in fiction. A perfect foil, Kathleen is pensive, brooding, and the speaker of painful truths that both she and her mother have tried to forget. So, the wedding planning goes as one would expect. Chaotic, comedic, but it’s the road that both mother and daughter must walk if they are to find each other again.

In Holding Pattern, the reader will find an immersive experience akin to diving underwater. The prose itself is mesmerizing, one brilliant sentence unfurling into another. But the bond that Kathleen and Marissa share is so profound and vast that each scene with them courses with living electricity. Both women have endured heartache at the hands of fallible men. Kathleen’s ex, Oren, has fallen out of love with her, and, in a rare defiance of the long-suffering but united immigrant family, Kathleen’s father has, years ago, exited the picture. So, only the women are left to rebuild, and do they ever rise to this challenge. Human intimacy, especially intimacy that is non-romantic, is hard to write about because the end result is not about finding your one true love but finding a better understanding of yourself in relation to those who care about you most.

The following excerpt shows Kathleen at the start of her adjustment period back in Oakland. She needs something to do, to get out of her own head, and on a whim, interviews for a position as a professional cuddler (amazing, no?) at the Midas Touch, a startup (of course) that offers clients hourly cuddle sessions as a form of tactile therapy. The interview is a cuddle and in no time, Kathleen is enveloped—literally—by a stranger. This jolt of human contact activates something in her and in us. Just like that sudden embrace, aptly called “The Armchair,” Xie’s dazzling debut pulled me in stealthily but quickly. While planes can maintain holding patterns for an indefinite amount of time, and the moon remains thousands of miles away from Earth, what this story is really about is the indelible gravity that keeps drawing us together. 

– Weike Wang
Author of Joan Is Okay

Cuddling My Way Through a Quarter-Life Crisis

An excerpt from Holding Pattern by Jenny Xie

After indulging my misery for two weeks, LB made me download a dating app. We were in her loft at Dolly’s, a West Oakland co-op converted from a former packing warehouse for Dolly’s Sweets, a now-defunct cookie company—the members called themselves Dolls in tribute. LB’s place was on the fourth and topmost floor, its high ceilings traversed by pipes from which she’d hung ferns and streaming pothos. An expansive grid of windows faced the street, the panes cranked open over a mattress raised on shipping pallets. Aside from the bathroom, the space was completely open.

We were each nursing our fifth Aperol Spritz, lying in opposite directions on the couch, our ankles knitted together. With LB, touch came naturally; we’d spent so much of our childhood jostling each other, scrambling to turn the pages of trashy teen magazines and rub our wrists against the perfume samples, or pinching each other’s pores to eject globules of sebum. The ease I had with her didn’t translate to other people. Oren had had to coax me into creating our own language, a calligraphic system of strokes and caresses. The first time he’d kissed the back of my neck—I’d been bowed over a textbook—I’d yipped with nervous laughter.

LB sprung up from her side to snatch the phone out of my hand and started scrolling through photos to add to my profile.

“How does every single picture of you have Oren in it?” she said, slouched low against a pillow so that her chin flattened against her chest.

“All the good pictures of me are on his phone.”

“You don’t take selfies? Oh, hey, it’s me! Aw, I remember that day.” She flipped the screen around to show me the picture. It’d been taken a year ago at the county fair. We were squatting next to a pygmy goat at the petting zoo, its bristly face cocked at the camera; LB’s baseball cap was crooked, and she was making the metal horns sign with her hand. “I’ve got one hand on a go-at,” she sang in the strained, spiraling voice of Alanis Morissette, “and the other one’s giving a metal sign.”

She raised her glass from where she’d placed it on the concrete floor and slurped from her luminous drink.

“Whoops, that’s a nude. What angelic tits you have, Kath, seriously. But shouldn’t you keep these in a separate folder?” She tsked. “Oh my God, you only take selfies with dogs. Whose dogs are these, even?”

Later, when she’d finally cobbled something together, we huddled next to each other and thumbed through hundreds of faces. Men in plaid flannels held their prize fish up to the camera; men flexed in front of mirrors at the gym. They loved to travel, and held dear the notion of pineapple on pizza, and would only trust you if their dog liked you. They were GGG and ethically nonmonogamous, and punctuated their wholesome portraits with a snapshot of themselves in Burning Man regalia, rosy and powdered with desert dust at sunrise.

“He’s cute, sorta,” said LB, pausing.

I hummed an indecisive tone. “Oh, no, he’s a moderate.”

She swiped his photo away, condemning him to the digital abyss. “Not gonna lie, this is rough. Guess we can’t all inherit our best friend’s exes.”

I had always been grateful to LB for preserving our friendship through her candor and optimism, her disarmingly vulnerable way of saying things like “Kath, I wouldn’t go down this road if I didn’t feel like there was a real chance at happiness at the end of it” when she’d first started dating Andrew. “I really need your blessing.” She was the sort of person who sought blessings, who looked out for signs of goodwill from the universe—a ring of mushrooms parting the grass, an exquisite rock plucked from the riverbed—and made you a believer, too.

An ad popped up next. Need a hug? Cozy up to cuddle therapy, it read, accompanied by a photo of a couple snuggling by a campfire, a blanket draped over their shoulders. We snickered at its cheesiness.

“I’m sorry, come again?” I said. My glass collided with my teeth and I repositioned it, tipping the drink into my mouth and gesturing for LB to click through.

The website that loaded was for Midas Touch, a self- proclaimed cuddle clinic with locations in San Francisco, Oakland, Brooklyn, and (coming soon) Austin. Hygienic photos of people spooning in bed or curled up on the couch ran alongside a friendly, sans serif font. Whoever had art-directed the photoshoot had been scrupulous about representation, as though they’d had a checkmark beside every race, gender, age, and size.

“This is so creepy,” said LB.

“Is this a cult?”

“It’s either a cult or a millennial sock brand.” I clicked on the About Us page.

Take a hands-on approach to happiness. Studies have shown that a kind touch lowers stress, boosts your immune system, and releases oxytocin—you know, the hormone that gives you the warm and fuzzies. It’s time to get back to basics: unplug and unwind with a wellness consultation with one of our trained cuddle providers.

“What on God’s green earth,” LB breathed. “The founder’s a babe, though.”

The creator of Midas Touch was Abigail Brown, a woman with a spiraling mass of red hair, whose thin lips were tilted in a knowing half smile. “‘The seed for the cuddle clinic was planted during her one-y ear solo trip around the world, when she made so many meaningful connections—but still craved the simple, soothing comfort of touch,’” read LB bombastically. “‘Over the past two years, Abigail has consulted with experts in touch therapy to develop the Midas Method, a code of ethics and cuddling manual.’” She widened her eyes at the screen. “This is wild. Is this based on any science at all?”

“To be fair,” I said, “there is this thing in social psychology called the Midas touch. Like, if a waitress touches you at a restaurant somehow, puts her hand on your shoulder or something, you tip more. And students participate more in class if they’re touched by the teacher—no, not in a molesty way—and basketball players score more points if they high five or hug each other.”

“Ew!” she shrieked. “Of course you would know that. Look,” she said, tapping on the START CUDDLING button, “they need brains like yours. ‘Become a certified cuddle provider and earn up to $100 an hour.’ I’m signing you up.”

“No!” I grabbed for the phone, but LB twisted away. “I’m going to get so many spam emails.”

“Hey, I’m doing you a favor,” LB said. “This is a job. One that pays four times as much as I’m making.”

I tried to imagine what it would feel like, holding a stranger, but instead my brain substituted Oren, the stubble I grazed when I sought his lips in the dark. A slow sadness, like cold mud, saturated my body, and my eyes welled. I was always within reach of pain; it could assault me at any time.

A slow sadness, like cold mud, saturated my body, and my eyes welled.

“Sent!” LB dropped the phone and noticed my tears. “Oh, no.” She confiscated my glass and looped her arms around my neck, pulling me close. “See? I’m healing you with the incredible power of touch.”

I laughed through a shudder. “Thanks.” I blinked against the dark of her shoulder for a while and then pulled back, wiping my nose with the inside of my collar.

“Have you, like, tried being angry?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m angry,” I said indignantly. I regularly cycled through my list of grievances: that Oren had kept his unhappiness from me, that he’d unilaterally decided the relationship was past saving. That he hadn’t been present to support me through school because he was too busy excelling, that he hadn’t admitted that he found my lack of motivation unattractive. It was a dark pleasure, seething about these things, flattening him into something easier to discard.

“Have you been so angry you’ve broken something?”

A pause. “What are you trying to get me to do right now?”

“Come on!” she exclaimed, flinging her hands up, looking around her space. The light cascading from the warehouse windows sharpened the knolls of the mussed sheets on her bed, revealing the whirligigging dander in the air. She launched herself toward a long dresser, its surface a tableaux of books, candlesticks, and pert-eared plants, and brought back a mug. It was white with a teddy bear pattern running around it.

“I’m not going to break your mug,” I protested.

“Just try it,” she said, shaking it at me. “It might be satisfying. I hate this mug. This mug is cursed. I accidentally stole it from the kitchen at work and now this woman named Cheryl is asking everyone for it, and it’s too awkward to put it back now. It must be destroyed.”

“How? Where?” I grasped the handle.

“On the floor! We’ll sweep it up! I mean, you’ll sweep it up.”

I walked a few paces into the center of the room and conjured my apartment in Baltimore, how empty it had seemed after Oren had gone, how utterly airless, and I hurled the mug against the floor, where it petaled into several pieces. The sound came hot and bright.

“How did it feel?” asked LB.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Good.” I started gathering the shards with my shoe. “That felt good.”

The next day I had an email from Midas Touch: Little spoon or big spoon? Let’s get to know each other. It opened with a testimonial from a cuddle provider named Drishti, age thirty-six, in San Francisco: Seeing my cuddle clients is the absolute highlight of my week. Midas Touch takes care of the scheduling and payment processing, so all I have to do is show up and snuggle. I always leave feeling like I’ve made a difference.

I told myself I was reading it ironically, but something compelled me forward. I didn’t believe in the sanitary veneer Midas Touch presented, but that only made it more alluring. Here was research of the flesh, so far from the hermetic experiments of school. So many relationships and flings had made me suspect that I was less fluent in touch than other people: I marveled at how easily other bodies warmed to mine, yielding like butter whenever my hand grazed the back of a neck, the slope of a thigh. I tensed when they kissed me in public as though it would help to fortify the borders of my body. Oren had had to encourage me toward him, saying when I pressed my lips to his bare shoulder once, “I like that. You never do that.” But it was less complicated with strangers. I was only afraid to reach for someone I was scared of losing.

The next steps to becoming a certified cuddle provider, the email explained, were to complete a background check, take an online training course in the Midas Method, and pass an in-person Cuddle Aptitude Test. After that, I would be added to the directory for clients to book within my available days and time frames.

At worst, I reasoned, my nerves swimming with a strange electricity, it would be a good story to tell; I could already imagine LB’s eyes inflating with shock and glee. I clicked on the button—GET STARTED—marveling how even the most innocuous copywriting could feel like a benefaction to someone like me.

Midas Touch was in downtown Oakland, occupying the sixth and seventh floors of a building that had once been coworking offices. Long ago, in high school, I’d peed in the front courtyard out of desperation after leaving a show on Telegraph Avenue, squatting behind a concrete planter while my friends stood as lookouts. Now, the elevator doors opened to a landing of dark tile and mirrors. Glass doors bearing the company’s logo, a golden palm radiating lines of energy, slid open as I approached, beckoning me to the front desk.

“Hi,” I said to the woman at the computer. “I’m here for my Cuddle Aptitude Test?” She was intimidatingly put together, like a gift, presentable, with her dun blond bangs in a crisp line across her forehead and small gold hoops pinned to her ears.

“Great, just one sec,” she said, swiveling to the monitor. As she searched for me in the system, I ogled the open office behind her. Everything was unsettlingly neat: there were rows of standing desks lined with marigold felt dividers and white orb pendants hanging above the employees, headphones clamped over their ears. Fiddle-leaf figs and voluminous palms grew lustily out of burlap-sack planters.

“Kathleen Cheng?” asked the woman.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Perfect. I have you all checked in. If you’ll have a seat in the waiting room, someone will call your name in a couple of minutes.”

“Thanks.” I walked in the direction she pointed. The walls were gallery white, hung with blown-up photographic prints of nuzzling bodies, composed to abstract the joist of a collarbone or the swell of a stomach.

I was both impressed and distressed with how seamless it all felt, as though I’d stepped through the app into a physical manifestation of the brand. Everything about the startup was studiously youthful, friendly, conscientious, cool. During the online training, after every video segment a quiz would slide onto the screen. Your male- bodied client becomes physically aroused during the session, it asked. How do you handle the situation? I’d tapped on Take a break from cuddling and assess how you’re both feeling, and a flare of confetti had showered the screen.

The waiting room was wrapped in a hushed taupe felt, and a curvaceous built-in wooden bench wrapped around three sides, accented with circular cushions. There were knotty wooden blocks dispersed as side tables, adorned with dried flowers and eucalyptus. Ambient music bled softly into the room. I sat down on a cushion and studied the large canvas on the opposite wall, its blotches of sienna and fern green.

Soon, someone walked in and I straightened, but it didn’t seem like he was there for me. We glanced at each other—he, a forty-something white man in a checkered button-down; I, a visibly tense woman in a black T—and decided not to disturb our private spheres. He took a seat on the bench and pulled out his phone. A client, I realized. I imagined gathering him into my arms, feeling the shifting of his spine and smelling the faint tang of coffee on his breath, and my nerves flared again, both in agitation and with an odd longing. I felt protective of this human creature.

I imagined gathering him into my arms, feeling the shifting of his spine and smelling the faint tang of coffee on his breath, and my nerves flared again.

I sat examining this feeling until a woman around my age entered the room. She was tall and plump, with shining cheeks and a gap-toothed smile. “Kathleen? Thanks for waiting. If you’re ready, I’ll take you to our therapy rooms.” She glanced at the man waiting.

“Wayne, let me know if you need anything.”

“I’m great, thank you,” said Wayne, holding up the phone as though it was proof.

She introduced herself as Nadia—“senior cuddler and community liaison”—as she led me out of the waiting room and up a carpeted stairwell. “Do you have any experience as a professional cuddler?” she asked.

“No, not professionally.”

“Most of our cuddle providers don’t have formal experience, but that’s not a problem,” she said, her high-pitched voice ringing with a slight echo. “I’ve been at it for four years now, so let me know if you have any questions. At first I was doing it on my own, but then I found Midas—or, more accurately, they found me. I helped beta test the whole thing, smoothed out the kinks. And here we are: the bathrooms—there’re changing stalls if you need to get into something comfier—and the therapy rooms.” We’d emerged on the next floor, where a long hallway connected meeting rooms encased in frosted glass. I could see dim silhouettes in the occupied spaces; a touch screen at the door closest to us counted down the minutes left in the session. She took in my silence. “Not what you were expecting?”

I couldn’t put it into words—the eeriness of commodifying intimacy, the company’s willfully cheerful answer to the urgent and pervasive loneliness of existence. Studies on the physiological benefits of touch were sparse, and questions around ethics stayed the hands of caretakers, doctors, and therapists. Midas Touch seemed poised to satisfy a primal need, but what about the ethics of privatizing touch at all? In the end, profit would be the only metric that mattered. “It’s very regulated,” I finally said lamely.

“Oh, absolutely. Everything’s been streamlined to feel as safe and comfortable as possible.” Nadia unlocked a door with a string of numbers and held it open to let me pass.

Here, a low platform bed took up most of the space, draped with a fringed coverlet, and a slim leather couch hugged one wall. A wooden coffee table held a brass tray of melted candles and a singed nub of palo santo in a marble bowl.

“Go ahead, have a seat,” said Nadia. She took her place on the couch, then leaned over to wedge a finger into the back of her sneakers. “We just ask that shoes stay off the furniture.”

Unsettled by the sudden familiarity in the room, I stepped out of my flats and sat beside her, maintaining a cushion’s width of distance.

“So the first thing I want to point out,” said Nadia, “is that there’s a camera in every room that monitors the session. This is just to ensure that everyone is complying with the Midas Method, which, as you know, includes cuddling, conversation, and companionship, but is completely nonsexual.” She gestured to the white camera mounted in a corner. “If you feel uncomfortable in any way, it’s your right to terminate the session, and that’ll flag the user in our system for a follow-up with the safety team. Nine times out of ten, that will result in them being permanently banned. Not that it happens very often—less than one percent of the time, to be exact.” She flashed a reassuring smile. “Do you have any questions before we begin?”

The misgivings I had were jumbled in an impossible knot. I shook my head.

“Okay, feel free to let me know if anything pops up. Otherwise, how about we start with you showing me The Armchair?”

The Midas Method included a guide to cuddling positions that ranged from basic poses, like spooning, to more elaborate choreography. Start with something simple, the training had advised, and let the rest come naturally. Feel free to incorporate stimulating movement, like back rubs and head scratches, with the consent of the client, checking in periodically to make sure you’re both comfortable and relaxed. I’d studied the illustration for The Armchair, recognizing it as the way Oren would often hold me: he lying on his side with his knees bent at a right angle, me resting on my back with my legs hooked over his, as though in a seat. I guided Nadia to the bed and into the pose, suppressing a laugh at the strangeness of our bodies connecting so unceremoniously, as though we were models performing for a camera. My arms encircled her shoulders as she settled into my lap, and I could feel the warmth and give where her breasts began, and I smelled coconut shampoo.

“Are you comfy?” I asked, hoping that she couldn’t feel my sputtering heart.

“Mhm. This is nice. Are you?”

“Yup.” I cleared my throat to stifle a cough. I waited for further instruction, but it did not come. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute. I marinated in my own self-consciousness until it deepened and metastasized into a kind of horror. To disperse the feeling, I tried to think about the science of what was happening: the unmyelinated C-tactile fibers in the skin responding to tenderness, the insular cortex of the brain processing sweetness. While I labored, Nadia was breathing deeply, letting the air graze the back of her throat so that she emitted a light snore, and I wondered if she were falling asleep.

I closed my eyes. I focused on the rise and fall of her body pressing into mine. Gradually, my thoughts lost their rigidity, began to drift. I became less aware of time and more aware of the heat coalescing between us, my consciousness sinking until it was a small, eyeless seed within a broadening galaxy of flesh, bone, blood, nerve, steady and alive. It felt like a meditation, a color dawning inside my head. Apparitions of sound and image ballooned and dissolved, forming a diaphanous tunnel that transported me back: the tick of a car signal, windshield wipers clearing a swirl of snow. Oren’s hands climbing over the wheel as we cruised left. The tires dragging through slush on the road. I was telling him about Brian, how flushed my mother sounded on the phone; maybe they were taking things too fast.

He glanced at the directions, the blue line charting our path. “I think I turned too soon.”

“That’s okay, we’re close, I think.” I cleared a patch of fog on the window and watched it regain its milky opacity. “Did you hear me?” I’m worried she’s going to get hurt.”

“Have there been any red flags?”

“Other than an alien abducting my mother and replacing her with a freaky clone? No. Can you imagine Marissa running?”

“What’s so bad about her wanting to be more active?”

“It’s not bad, it’s just . . .” I arced against the seat, stretching my back. “It’s alarming. It’s like everything she went through—that we went through, really—didn’t count or matter. All she needed was to meet some dude?”

He patted my thigh. “I’m sure it’s jarring, but if she’s happy, what’s the point in overthinking it?”

Comfort, encouragement—Oren offered them readily, but he had a hard time acknowledging when things were off. He did this when I talked about Marissa, about school, about us, as though the troubles of my life could seep into and taint his. It was because he saw my life fundamentally as a reflection of his own, a shadow that couldn’t survive without its counterpart. It was lonely to trudge through my doubts, though at the time I’d dismissed them as my own insecurity and anxiety.

The truth was, my body had sensed the relationship straining before the breakup. Oren and I had stopped touching each other. The sex was still there, but not the palm caressing my lower back as he passed me in the kitchen, not the sardine squeeze of our bodies stretched across the couch. We fell asleep with just our ankles intertwined, and I would wake up huddled on one side with the covers while he lay exposed in the dark. These were inches that felt like miles, the negative space between us like runes we’d refused to decipher.

Nadia sighed and shifted, and I miraculously moved with her, and we nestled facing each other with my chin buried in her hair. I felt as though I’d landed a dazzling gymnastic maneuver, but it had come naturally. My body had known what to do.

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