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The power of touch: Years before I came out, I found the tenderness I craved at the barber

The jolt of clippers purring against my skull was electric. I had discovered a form of physical communion, without the danger of sex

Welcome to the Guardian’s Power of Touch series

He asks about my summer and if I’m playing baseball, and parachutes a navy-blue drop cloth over my head. He says I’m getting taller, and the edge of his fingers tickle and tuck the tissue against the back of my neck. He asks whether my brother is starting to look at colleges, and sprays a soft cloak of mist that kisses my skin, gathers a small handful of wet blond hair and measures and tugs and snips and talks, but I am not listening to a word this man says. The jolt of clippers purring against my skull is electric. I smile and mumble softly: “Wow, I really needed a cut,” and he laughs. I pretend my eyes are sealed to keep them clear of loose hair, but I think we both know I might be somewhere else altogether.

I first found touch in a barbershop in Michigan. Between the spray and chaos and chatter of other men. I mean this less in the sense of an introduction and more of an education, the way my mother says she never “heard” music until she encountered Stevie Wonder. Or my friend Alex says he had never “eaten food” until he went to Rome. When something grabs us in such a profound way, it startles us into ourselves, it raises the bar for how we wish to live, and when we’re lucky, it shows us who we are before we are even prepared to find out. Whatever the case, I “found” it first in the intimacy of another man’s hands, which, despite the blades they cradled, pulled the tenderness right out of me.