Cuddle Monster

I can’t say that rule No. 7-“NO DRY HUMPING!”-assuaged my fears.

I was looking at a Web site about something called a “cuddle party,” a party I was going to be attending a few days later, hosted by Reid Mihalko, 36, a self-described “sex and romance coach.” Initiated in April, a cuddle party is a gathering of snuggle-hungry strangers who descend on Mr. Mihalko’s Upper East Side apartment, where, in exchange for a fee ($30 during my visit), they get about three hours of nuzzling, hugging and massaging each other on the blanket-and-pillow-strewn floor. Snacks are provided, soothing music fills the room, and the guests wear wholesome pajamas. The idea is to relive the childhood impulse of piling on top of each other, in a nonsexual atmosphere. Mr. Mihalko hosts about two cuddle parties a week, including some “women only” cuddle-thons.

“If you work in corporate America, and you’re not in a relationship and you don’t have kids and you don’t have a pet, it’s not like you’re going home and spooning your roommate,” Mr. Mihalko told me later. Or as his Web site explained: “In today’s world, many of us aren’t getting our Recommended Daily Allowance of Welcomed Touch. Cuddle parties seek to change that in a way that’s conscious, healthy and nutritious.”

The prospect filled me with dread. Has New York City become so hardened, so sick with cynicism, that people are now paying money just to get a hug and a little spooning?

After registering, I received a confirmation e-mail which began, “Congratulations, Cuddle Monster!”, and described erections as “Mother Nature’s whimsical way of giving us the thumbs-up!” This did not calm me down.

Somewhat more reassuring was the following, from the Web site: “You don’t have to cuddle anybody if you don’t want to. You can attend the whole event and not cuddle a single person. Really. For some people just being in a room filled with strangers in pajamas is a breakthrough.”

How does one train to be a cuddle expert? Mr. Mihalko, a graduate of Brown University’s fine-arts program, also works as a bartender, and his online bio doesn’t mention specific training in massage or psychotherapy. “In 2002,” his Web site explains, “Reid began an extended period of self-discovery, training and meditation. This lead to, among other things, marrying friends and family as an ordained minister of Modesto, California’s Universal Life Church, and culminated in an intensive six-month coaching and leadership training program at Landmark Education.” He co-founded the cuddle parties with Marcia Baczynski, 26, who describes herself as a “relationship and communication coach and writer” who “has formally and informally been a sex educator for nearly 10 years.” (Unfortunately, Ms. Baczynski was not at the cuddle party I attended; I wanted to hear how one becomes a sex educator at age 17.)

I arrived late to my first cuddle party. Many of the parties are held in the mornings because, as Mr. Mihalko would later tell me, “It’s safer to create a nonsexual space in daylight.” This one was on a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Mr. Mihalko greeted me with a big hug. He had shaggy, beach-bum hair, a sturdy muscular build and was wearing a white T-shirt and bright orange pajama bottoms with cartoon prints from the childhood game Operation. I looked inside his apartment-a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up-and saw the two friends I had convinced to join me: a female cartoonist and a male filmmaker, both in their late 20’s. In their pajamas, they looked sheepish and a little worried sitting amid a smorgasbord of colorful tapestries, Eastern religious artifacts, stuffed animals, fairy lights and erotica. There would be eight “cuddle monsters,” four men and four women, all of us in our late 20’s and 30’s. Mr. Mihalko explained that attendance had gone down as people leave the city in the summer.

Alcohol isn’t allowed, and as the “cuddle lifeguard,” Mr. Mihalko would ensure that the canoodling didn’t generate too much sexual energy. With wide-eyed cheer, he went through the rules (pajamas stay on the whole time; crying and giggling are both welcomed and encouraged) and had us each introduce ourselves. There was a freelance writer whom I’ll call “Steve” and a psychology student, “Charlotte,” who was apparently a “varsity” cuddler (when I asked if she came often, her eyes widened and she just nodded). Then there was “Andrew,” a pharmaceuticals salesman (who was wearing a red union suit which Mr. Mihalko told him “rocks hard!”); and Tara, a singer and an old friend of the host’s, who regaled us with Etta James’ “At Last” at one point.

After so many rules (“No. 14: Be hygienically savvy”) and inspirational stories of emotional cuddlers, the cuddle session itself proved fairly anticlimactic. We sat around, engaged in idle chatter, awkwardly wondering if we were supposed to touch each other. Mr. Mihalko, noticing this tension, kept trying to fill the vacuum with yet more inspirational stories and affectionate invitations (“Can I give you a back rub?” he asked my friend; “Uh, sure,” she replied). I received and gave a back rub to my other friend, and then I got up to slather Nutella on bagel slices in the kitchen. Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook was perched on one shelf, while a photograph of a naked Mr. Mihalko holding his pet python was magneted to his fridge.

By the end of the session, some participants comfortably leaned against each other and others were subtly spooning, but not everyone was into it. The session ended with a “puppy pile,” in which we all lay across each other in a jumble on the bed. After we changed back into our civvies, Mr. Mihalko gave us each a warm, searching hug before sending us on our way. He warned us that re-entry into the “real world” would feel strange. The cold light of day did introduce a host of questions, such as “Shouldn’t I be paid to participate in something like that?”

Mr. Mihalko said he has plans for elderly cuddle parties and adolescent cuddle parties, and would like to train cuddle facilitators who go across the country and spread the cuddle gospel. “And this is four months into it,” he said. “There’s been this big wave of support, and I’m on the surfboard on top, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, so you’re the cuddle expert!'”

-Emily Bobrow

Mauro of Manhattan

“I love penis.”

My girlfriend Marsha shocked me. I knew she didn’t like to talk about sex. She went to some private nuns’ high school, no boys in class until 17, pure puritan Upper East Side upbringing as icy and erotic as Gwyneth Paltrow or Nicole Kidman (today’s best, it seems).

“Whaaat?”

“Yes, I really do like penis.”

Did I understand well? Was she the same charmingly inhibited girl who accepted to sleep in the bed with me for the first time (after weeks of dating) only because of the New York August 2003 blackout, which would have forced her to climb 44 floors to reach her apartment on 60th Street (mine is on the sixth floor)? But who, sliding naked under my grandma’s monogrammed white linen sheet (same initials as mine, what a luck), warned me: “I’m shy …. Don’t like it so fast”?

And who had me emigrate transcontinental with an Upper East Side girlfriend of hers (to an Italian lake of Como luxury hotel) in order to actually make love for the first time (without the friend)?

“Why you never buy me some?”

“Buy you … penis?”

“Yes, that would be lovely.”

Oh my God. She was kidding, for sure. But, as far as I knew, she hated joking about sex. She was so delightfully repressed she couldn’t even pronounce any name related to it.

“I’d love to kiss your pussy,” I once threw in while kissing passionately in a taxi. I wasn’t trying to give her shock therapy. In good faith, after a few months in America I thought that “pussy” was a kind way to name the female sex organ, as opposed to the vulgar “c…”

Marsha raised her eyebrow: “Mauro, that’s disgusting!”

“Why, you don’t like it?”

“But …. Don’t you know what that word means?”

“Yes, I was just trying to be nice. Or do you prefer the other word, the strong one?”

“Niiice? But that’s gross!”

“Come on …. What about Pussy Galore, in the James Bond movie? In Italy we say ‘pussy pussy’ to kittens, it’s a sign of affection.”

“Jesus! That’s crass, you really turned me off. You don’t believe me? Ask Renzo.”

My colleague, the long time Corriere della Sera correspondent from London and New York. Knowing English better than me, he confirmed that the word “pussy” has a much stronger meaning than I thought. She was right. I apologized. She finally lowered her severe WASP-ish eyebrow.

Always misunderstandings. Like in 1976, when I spent one year in Madison Connecticut as an A.F.S. (American Field Service) foreign-exchange student. A senior in high school, I was excited because 28 years ago, too, I had to emigrate transcontinental to have sex for the first time. Which I did, only to be confronted by my new love the next morning on the yellow school bus: “You raped me. I’m gonna sue you.”

“But I thought you wanted to do it.”

“No way! I was drunk, you profited from me.”

“But you invited me, you even told me, ‘Come on.'”

“Yes, I said, ‘Come on ,’ meaning ‘I don’t wanna do it,’ ‘Drop it,’ ‘Leave me alone!'”

She didn’t sue me. But I couldn’t trust the Rolling Stones any longer. I thought their song “Come On” meant an invitation, I swear I remembered Mick Jagger adding: “And I don’t mean maybe …. ”

At that time my knowledge of English relied very much on the songs I knew by heart. Lots of them: Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel. Today too, I have to admit: “We can work it out” and “Let it be” are my favorite sentences. You don’t need much more, to calm things down and survive.

Still, that “penis” invitation was a real puzzle. I started smiling, but Marsha kept embarrassingly serious. Apparently she really wanted this penis. How could she be so explicit, though?

“And … where should I get it, my dear?” I inquired.

“Just go to the grocer.”

Ah. She wanted the grocer’s penis? I gulped and thought: ” Cazzo! ” (interjection which means “penis” in Italian). She must have been provoking me. She had never cared about penis.

She was not into oral sex. My penis was actually involved in our love-making, but she once confessed that she felt more relaxed when I was rubbing her feet, or massaging her shoulders, or tickling her arms. How could such a sophisticated angel ever have turned so horny and graphic and even porno-graphic all of a sudden?

“Most of all, I relish white penis.” Which didn’t make sense: The grocer downstairs, established in 1978, was Korean, like almost any grocer at any street corner in New York, I had discovered. “But … the grocer’s penis is yellow, I guess,” I cautiously objected. I was frightened to make jokes relating to race and physical appearance, since the day when, walking on a beach in Europe, I told Marsha: “Look at that fat woman.” She immediately reprimanded me: “It’s so rude to use that word …. Why don’t you say ‘overweight,’ ‘oversize’?”

“Our grocer has penis of many colors: white, yellow, red … ,” she specified.

O.K., enough of this. “You want many?”

“Yes, of course.”

“How many?”

“Well, I don’t know: four, six, eight.”

“And why do you want them in pair?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s tradition. An odd number would seem odd.”

“So, you would like a nice bunch, ah?”

“Yes, that should be nice. It’s so romantic.”

“Do you find penis romantic?”

“Flowers are always romantic. I love peonies.”

-Mauro Suttora Cuddle Monster