‘I felt like I existed’: An oral history of one woman’s first hug after 106 days of isolation

(Maria Hergueta for The Washington Post)
July 14 at 6:00 AM

Two weeks into self-quarantine, Karina Montgomery told The Washington Post she was so touch-starved that she “would pay $50 for a 2-minute hug.”

While living alone with her cat Tobias in San Diego, she was abiding by California’s stay-at-home order, going out only to pick up food. No masked walks with friends or socially distant hangs.

When California gradually started reopening in May, Montgomery remained vigilant — and horrified at the maskless throngs she’d seen flocking to the beaches and congregating downtown. (Even now, San Diego County’s covid-19 cases have been rising steadily.)

Finally, after three months of isolation, Montgomery, an events assistant for San Diego County, was eager to see some friends and get that hug she so desperately needed. But she wanted to do it as safely as possible, and governors and mayors don’t set out phases for when it’s safe to embrace your bestie. She’d have to figure it out on her own.

Here’s an oral history of how one woman sought to break her no-touch quarantine. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Karina Montgomery, 50, hug seeker: My last hug before lockdown was Saturday, March 14. It was the early closing night of my play, “Clue on Stage.” After the show, my fellow cast members and I were at a crowded bar and everyone was super-huggy.

I have a restaurant’s old chalkboard in my kitchen. I would make a hash mark for every day of lockdown, every day of no touch, in rows of 25.

Three months in, my therapist was like: “You really, really need to get out and see somebody. Think about planning a bubble with other friends.”

Karina Montgomery, second from right, at a bar with friends on March 14. (Karina Montgomery) (Photo by Karina Montgomery)

Jonathan Caraker, 43, hug participant: My wife Amanda and I met Karina through a music group in town that we joined in 2013. She was really nice and welcoming.

Amanda Caraker, 42, hug participant: She and I were both singing alto. We formed a friendship where she and I were going out for drinks and going to movies. We did a lot of activities — everything from going to Comic-Con to lots of fun, wacky parties.

Jonathan: Karina is a gamer, so I’ve gamed with her in a couple different ways.

Amanda: During the pandemic, Karina and I were having Zoom calls with a group of women on Sunday mornings. We all have to discuss the problems of the world with our coffee. We were keeping in touch, because I was concerned that she was by herself. It’s a global pandemic; it feels very plague-y. It’s bad for everyone’s nerves.

Karina: I had been talking to my friends, asking them: “What do you think about bubbling with me? When was the last time you did anything besides pick up food?” No one had been pure for the same window. I’d been talking with Amanda about how hard it is living alone right now.

Amanda Caraker, left, Jonathan Caraker and Karina Montgomery at the Women’s March in January 2017. (Jonathan Caraker) (Photo by Jonathan Caraker)

Jonathan: We had invited her to come over and be part of our pod. All of us were hunkered down and had been pretty careful about the pandemic. So we felt fairly comfortable about getting together and not worried so much about whether anybody was going to be ill or passing on any illnesses.

I think she was kind of on the fence about that. She was worried about how much we had been exposed to the outside world.

Amanda: Karina and I had this ongoing discussion about: What does it mean to isolate? What does it mean to break quarantine? Are you only going out every two weeks? And then making sure you’re not sick for the next 14 days and then it’s your next trip out? That’s kind of the rhythm she had going.

In our group of friends, Jonathan and I are probably the safest people in terms of exposure. I’m home. I’m pretty locked down. Jonathan goes out to get groceries.

Jonathan: We wear masks. Sometimes I wear a mask and gloves.

She agreed to come over.

Karina Montgomery lives alone with her cat, Tobias. (Karina Montgomery)

Karina: In late June, I went on two masked walks with friends. Then I hung out on a friend’s patio, and saw mouths for the first time on June 26, day 104 of lockdown. Two days later, I went to see Amanda and Jonathan Caraker.

Amanda: We cleaned all the surfaces. We cleaned our persons. She came in, she washed her hands, and then wiped down all her stuff. We did the ceremonial removal of the masks. I was like: “Okay. We’re gonna have a hug. We’re gonna do it right now.”

It was fantastic. It felt really good to give her a hug and to show her how much I love her and to get that love in return. It really cheered my heart and soul. I didn’t realize how lonely I’d been.

Karina: Amanda gathers me into this huge hug, and I wasn’t expecting it, but of course I wanted it. She’s stroking up and down on my back, and my face is tucked into her shoulder. At first I had tears going quietly and then it was a full-blown ugly cry. Loud, funeral crying. That was easily two to three minutes; it was forever. She releases me.

And Jonathan shows up, and he gives me a big hug. He’s over 6 feet tall. I’m 5-6. There’s a lot more man size. (He’s my friend, I can do it.) That kind of bigger arm — he’s always been a good hugger anyway. I got my face turned with my cheek on his chest. Squeeze. Man hug.

Jonathan: She kind of melted into my arms and I realized it was going to be more than just a quick hello hug. I felt her heaving a little bit and she started crying. I asked her if anything was wrong. She said no; it had been so long since she’d had a hug. So we just held each other for an extra long time.

Amanda: There was lots of crying on both of our parts. It felt very warm and close. And it was like all the things that we try and replicate: The weight of another person. Weighted blankets for your anxiety sell out online. It is nice to have another person that we love so much be part of our lives.

Karina, Amanda and Jonathan at Karina’s birthday party in January. (Courtesy of Jonathan Caraker)

Karina: We ate, drank, caught up, complained. Part of the plan was to rent “Emma.” We watched it, and then Amanda’s like: “Can I brush your hair?” I sat on the floor and she sat on the couch and brushed my hair like a little child.

Amanda: It was a throwback to every junior high slumber party. It felt fun. It felt silly. It felt close.

Jonathan: Then I jumped in and I gave her little scritches on her back and gave her a shoulder rub.

Karina: I asked Jonathan: “Could you just lay your hands at the base of my neck, top of my shoulder?” Ohmygod, it was warm and heavy, and I could lay my cheek on his hand for a second if I wanted to. Just the presence of a person touching in an intentional and loving way was so sweet and so generous and so simple. I still feel like the world is crazy. But individually, I felt better. I felt like I existed.


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