Editor's note: this is an excerpt from Tony's recent book Neighbors and Wise Men (Thomas Nelson, 2012).
Ani took two quick strides and he was standing nearly against me. This was not the first time I would be startled by the scant size of the Albanian spatial bubble. He took my hand in his. He face shone in the early evening light with a huge smile and sparkling eyes. His head bobbled slightly as he talked. He spun several sentences of what sounded only of gibberish to my unseasoned American ears.
Then it happened.
Startling, to say the least.
If you had asked, I would have said that it was impossible for Ani and me to stand any closer.
I was wrong. So very wrong.
Gripping my hand and forearm, Ani pulled me closer. Then he pulled me closer still. He was not a large man, but I could not deny his strength. Then, with celebrative force, he kissed me square on the cheek. Remembering it now, my memories move in slow motion. He slowly released, pulling away only so slightly. I can imagine the look on my face. In shock, I watched his face pass in front of mine, only millimeters separating our noses, mouths, and chins. His face was all smile and bobble. Then he kissed my other cheek, just as hospitably as he did the first.
Only then did he step away. There was still moisture on the soft center of each of my cheeks.
That night, as I lay in the dark on my divan-style bed, staring at the ceiling, I could still feel the shape of his lips on each cheek.
This was one of my first experiences with one of my favorite men I have ever known.
Touch was stolen from me.
It was stolen from me by the American story. It was stolen from me by our puritanical religious roots, and by an entertainment culture that turns affections into sensuality. It was stolen from me by a thousand church scandals that have left pastors afraid to even talk to a parishioner behind closed doors. And it has been stolen from me by a generation that calls all same-gender affection into question.
Society and religion have bedded together to relegate touch to either the sexual or the inappropriate, with little in between.
Two close friends
I had only been in country for a few months when I met Ilir and Genci. They had been best friends since childhood, and I imagine they will be for decades to come. That is the Albanian way.
They were a rugged duo from a small, outlying city. When I say rugged, I really mean rough, even a bit scary. When I first saw them in the dim corridor of their dormitory, I must admit I was instinctually on my guard. They both had dark eyes and black hair with weathered skin. Ilir was the slighter of the two, thin, with sunken cheeks and narrow eyes. Genci was broad. He had crazy hair and thick beard growth. Both wore leather coats covered with creases and cracks.
My first impression, judging them as hoodlums, was not without some merit. A few weeks after meeting them, I saw Ilir on Albanian national television. One of the charming practices of the Albanian police at the time was to place people suspected of crime in publicly displayed lineups. My guess is that the shame was used as a crime deterrent.