Where It Hurts


Carl Phillips



Blurry photo of a light-skinned woman from the waist up. She leans on her elbows and gazes down.

Sonya German
American, b. 1978
After Sex, from the portfolio
Rhode Island School of Design Professional
Practice in Photography
2010, 2009
Pigment inkjet print on paper
15.2 × 22.9 cm. (6 × 9 in.)
Gift of the Rhode Island School of
Design Photography Department 2010.95.7
© Sonya German

“From what I hear, it’s already gone too far—they’ve become intimate,” I remember one of my mother’s friends saying to her at the table where they played their weekly card games. I hovered out of sight, though the women must have suspected I might hear them, for they lowered their voices at the mention of intimacy. So intimacy was not to be spoken of openly, meant going “too far,” and was connected to sex. Somehow I understood this last connection without knowing exactly what sex was—I knew at least that, like intimacy, sex wasn’t to be spoken about: so it must be bad.

Sex doesn’t have to be the context for intimacy, but it was through sex—specifically, anonymous hookup sex—that I found one definition for intimacy: privacy crossed with tenderness, often where none is expected.

your shirt
, he said,
after. Lifting it. Bringing it

to me as if it were
not a shirt
but a thing immaculate

So goes the opening to “Conduct,” one of the rare poems of mine where what I say is exactly what happened. A simple gesture, but hardly a necessary one between two people who’d exchanged no names and said almost nothing during the whole encounter in the privacy of who knows where, at this point? Yet that gesture of returning the shirt as we silently covered our bodies again was an act of caring, of attention from one person to another, acknowledging the other as a person, beyond just a body as source of pleasure. Tenderness, then, as the tempering counterweight to what had otherwise been mere transaction. And the resulting intimacy, even now, in memory, feels almost holy—what I mean, at least, by holiness.

Intimacy requires privacy, which doesn’t mean it can’t occur in public. Sometimes gesture itself creates privacy, if only for a moment. Not the crush of bodies on a crowded subway, but the exchanged glance between two people, strangers or not, across those bodies. Not compassion so much, or pity, in the wake of disaster, but how, in the words of a more recent poem of mine, “just holding the victim’s hand, lately, has been exactly enough.”

Intimacy’s value goes up as privacy diminishes, as it surely has, in our era of the internet and surveillance. Privacy’s a different thing from secrecy, though the sharing of a secret together is an intimacy too, not without its erotic charge, which is different from sex.

Tenderness can also seem harder to come by, these days. I mean here the tenderness of being gentle, attentive for no other reason than that we care and want to extend that caring, by whatever gesture, toward another. To be tender can also, of course, mean being susceptible to pain—a tender wound, for example. Intimacy involves both these tendernesses, is at once that show of openness toward and trust in another both despite and because of our vulnerability, and what amounts to an impulse (however unconscious) to shield tenderness from harm—to protect. As in teaching. As in parenting. As in one man helping another get dressed again, when he didn’t have to.

Intimacy reveals something deeply human in us. We need each other on a practical level, which means having to trust strangers. It’s analogous to what I understand prayer requires and what writing poems requires: an openness to the unknown, coupled with trust, a belief that we won’t be hurt. It’s at once akin to and the same as devotion.

A kind of beauty to him that seemed otherworldly caught my eye—that’s all. Nothing sexual. Just appreciation. “You were a handsome boy once, too,” I said aloud to myself, without anything like regret, nostalgia, any longing to be other than who I am. But in remembering my younger self, that self came briefly forward again and nodded back at me, or seemed to. Intimacy and tenderness, strangeness and familiarity, all became entwined, while time held still, while I kept moving, while the boy on the street disappeared steadily into memory, then barely a memory.

To remember anything—however small, however briefly—is also an act of intimacy. It’s a way of holding a thing inside us, giving it room within that most private of spaces, with which only we have any absolute contact and relation: who we are, how we feel, deep down. Art, for me, is but one manifestation—not a translation—of who I am. It’s a record of my ongoing negotiations with my many selves. A thicket, therefore, of intimacies. Here, he said. Your shirt.

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