We have this machine at work where you put in a quarter, turn a knob, and a handful of trail mix comes out. The other day I put in a quarter, turned the knob, and got one nut. Do you know what it’s like to expect a handful of candy, raisins, seeds and almonds and end up with a single peanut?

A few years ago I would have considered this a Sign From The Gods. I would have spent the rest of the week wondering if it meant a) I would always be alone, b) no matter what I did I would never get what I want, or c) the universe considers me a lone nut on the grassy knoll of love.

This time, though, I didn’t slip into any of those emotional sinkholes. I still think of my little peanut as a metaphor, but I choose to think of it as a reminder that I already have everything I need.

This is a big change for me. I can twist the most innocent coincidence into believing I’m living under the influence of an irreversible Gypsy curse. Can’t find a parking space? It means there’s no place for me in this world. Break a shoelace? It means I need to loosen up and I’m not going anywhere until I do.

It’s hard to tell when all this started but I know when started to end. It was the day I met Heather.

I had been dating off and on for a couple of years after a long-term relationship ended but hadn’t found anyone I really clicked with. I’d met a lot of wonderful women but I didn’t connect strongly with any of them. It was getting depressing. I started to feel like the last slice of pizza in the box. The one nobody wants to take. I could feel myself slowly slipping into that emotional quicksand.

Then one day I read an article about a lady in Portland who was a professional cuddler. She had set up shop with three other woman in a little place on East Burnside and was charging $1/minute to snuggle up to people. I knew immediately I was going down there.

I don’t have a lot of memories from growing up but there is one I have from when I was around 12 that has always stuck with me. I was sitting on the couch with my mom watching TV one night when I leaned over and tried to snuggle up to her. As soon as my head touched her shoulder she pushed me away and said, “Get off me.”

My mother wasn’t a warm, cuddly person and it wasn’t the first time she had pushed me away. But it was definitely the last time. I didn’t say anything or make a big deal out of it. I just quietly decided never to ask for another hug. “Get off me.” How many times do you need to hear that before you decide to do whatever it takes to never hear it again?

This was the memory that flooded back when I saw the story about the lady in Portland. So I booked a session before I could talk myself out of it. It was going to be the first time I asked for a hug in 35 years.

A week later I found myself standing on the sidewalk outside a little shop on East Burnside with a drawing on the window of a big heart with arms wrapped around it. Was I really going to do this? Was I really going to walk in and ask a woman I’d never met to lay down on a bed with me in a little room and hold me for an hour?

I heard a little voice in my head say, “Get off me.” Then I walked in.

Samantha, the woman from the article, looked up and smiled and said, “You must be our three o’clock!”

“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I said.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked, getting up from her desk.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I said, suddenly worried that I was out of practice. This is a professional hugger. What if I didn’t measure up?

She walked over to me and gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever had. You know how toddlers run up and give you a hug with all their strength? That’s how Sam greeted me. Full body power hug. It was awesome. If Starbucks gave me a hug like that every time I walked in I would be up to 17 cups a day.

A moment later Heather walked up and said, “You must be Paul. Can I give you a hug?”

A free one? Just for walking in? Yes! After the hug she took me by the hand and brought me into the back of the shop for my screening session. Every person who comes in gets screened for, well, I don’t know. General creepiness? Overactive sweat glands? They make a copy of your driver’s license while you’re being interviewed so my name was probably being run through the FBI database to see if I was on some kind of No Hug list.

At this point Heather could sense my nervousness. It might have been the uncontrollable leg bounce I couldn’t hide under my coat or the terrified stare I was giving that copy of the “Cuddle Sutra” on the table in front of me. I had no idea there were so many ways to cuddle. I only knew two, “The Spoon” and “I Love You But I Can’t Feel My Arm.” How was I going to get through this?

I must not have been the first person to show signs of performance anxiety because Heather sat down next to me and looked me in the eye like a skydiving coach talking to a student before their first jump. “It only seems like we’re hurtling toward our death. I promise you the chute will open.”

Actually she said, “It’s going to be ok.”

“I guess I’m a little nervous,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “We’ll be all right.”

She had me read a long list of rules that made it very clear was acceptable and what was not. Everyone keeps their clothes on. No touching parts of the body highlighted in the drawing on page two. Nothing is given with a sexual intent. The cuddler can ask you to leave at any time if you make her feel uncomfortable. After I signed the list showing that I had read it she led me into a cozy room with a bed, a nightstand and a small lamp.

We laid down on the bed together and for the next hour we talked quietly and held each other. Because I knew we would never be romantically involved I was able to quiet the fears I always have when I’m with a woman. Does she really like me? Will I disappoint her? Is she only here until someone better comes along?

None of those things mattered because we were never going to see each other outside that room. She was there to hold me and make me feel like I was worth being held.

It was one of the best hours of my life.

Since then I’ve gone back three more times. I always see Heather and each session is as good as the one before. I understand that I’m paying for her to do this but there are benefits to that. Any other time I am this intimate with a woman it’s because we’re in a relationship. There are expectations with that as there should be.

Heather is the only person in my life who allows me to simply receive. And in learning to receive without guilt I’ve learned how important it is to give without expectations. I know it’s crazy to say I pay someone to teach me about giving without wanting anything in return. But that is what I’m doing. The heart is a funny thing. It grows under the weirdest conditions.

It’s hard to explain everything I’ve learned on my trips to Portland. All I know for sure is that there’s a lady on East Burnside who knows a lot about the heart. I pay her to show me what it feels like to be loved.

If any of you have a story about discovering something about yourself or the world I’d love for you to tell it at the next Fresh Ground Stories. Do you have a story about figuring out what you wanted to be when you grew up? Did you discover something about your family that led you to believe you’re the lost monarch of a small eastern European country? Maybe you figured out how to make a good omelette after 20 years of burned eggs. It doesn’t have to be the meaning of life. It just has to be something you care about. And it has to be in the form of a story which means you’ll need a beginning, middle and an end 🙂

The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.

Remember to practice out loud on friends or pets and keep it under 8 minutes.

Rules & Guidelines: https://freshgroundstories.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/storytelling-rules-and-guidelines/

I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, July 23, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.