A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm, I happened to walk past two young lovers who were deep in an intimate conversation. The boy was wearing a baggy, sleeveless shirt which hung carelessly off of his gangly frame, exposing more of his flesh than I needed to see. At the farthest end of one skinny arm, between two tweezer-like fingers, he held a cigarette. He was using his other arm to keep his girlfriend in a solid headlock.
The boy’s lankiness gave length to his arm, which was wrapped completely around the girl’s entire neck. He had used what scant strength he had in order to bring her ear closer to his nicotine stained lips, which were enthusiastically forming words of, I’m almost certain, indescribable banality.
The girl, for her part, did not seem to be putting up any protest. Her delicate hands were rested on top of the boy’s forearm, presumably to moderate the pressure that was being applied to her trachea. She had a serene smile upon her face, which I judged as being a result of the words she was hearing, and not due to imminent death through asphyxiation.
At that moment, a familiar sentence popped into my head:
“Do you think she’s under duress?”
The girl was not, in fact, under duress. Despite the aggressive body language, I had come to learn that physical interaction in Chile is on a level I had never seen before. The phrase, “Do you think she’s under duress?” was a throwback to a game I used to play with a friend of mine when I first moved to Chile. It was our way of coming to terms with the terribly distracting body language of lovers in this country; of pointing out a pattern that, to us, seemed so absurd yet so commonplace.
Now, there is not enough blog space in the world to address the complex and politically fraught dynamic between men and women in Chile, and I am not nearly involved enough in the culture to be able to understand this kind of behaviour, so it’s not my place to condemn it. It seems to be the norm, with women being just as comfortable with being physically subdued as the men are with being physically overbearing. All I can do is witness it with bewilderment.
Somehow, the young woman interpreted the man’s stranglehold as a show of affection. She was unfazed by the claustrophobia and the restriction in her movement. She found no offense in being breathed upon, at point-blank range, by a mouth that had just taken a youthfully arrogant drag on a cheap cigarette. I can only assume that, to her, this was an intimate expression of true love.
Admittedly, that was one of the more extreme examples I have seen while I’ve been living here. The more common practice is the clamping of the neck from behind, like a bank robber leading the bank manager towards the vault. The stance is one gun shy of a hostage situation. And it’s not only teenagers who act this way. I’ve seen the same conduct adopted by people all along the age spectrum, but all with similar levels of tenderness.
To be fair, it’s not only Chileans whom I’ve seen acting in this way. I’ve spotted this maneuver in other countries as well, and among different cultures. I think perhaps I’m just more aware of it in Chile because of how awkwardly intimate the public displays of affection are here.
Love is good, and I’m happy to see it celebrated. However, I like to see love celebrated happily and freely, and not in a serious, us-against-the-world kind of way.
But I must stress that this is all just personal opinion. The touch of a loved one can lift the spirit. A hand at the back of the neck can be pleasurable. Sometimes the best moments of loving someone are just in reminding them that you’re there. It’s a way of communicating affection, and I think that’s very important. But still, I’d prefer not to use my partner as a leaning post.