Have you ever noticed that handshakes speak their own secret language? If you pay attention you’ll hear them whisper, yell, fret, or fawn. And handshakes of the rich and famous; they’re amplified. 

I’m at a soirée in New York when I meet the handshake on the far end of the spectrum. The band plays “Getting to Know You” as I receive an obligatory up-down jerk from junk bond King Michael Milken. Avoiding eye contact, Michael looks over my shoulder, searching for someone with status. “Isn’t There Someone More Interesting Here?” his handshake grumbles.

I mean it

My favorite is the “I’m Sincerely Pleased to Meet You, and I Mean It” shake: a double grip sporting three up-down pumps, meaningful eye contact, and a personal comment. If I’m ever a VIP, this is the shake I’ll master. My first encounter with the Sincere shake is at the White House, where I meet Hillary Clinton.

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She’s all warmth and compliments, asking about my experience as a woman in the early days of Microsoft. I am enthralled. Now she asks my opinion of contemporary poets.

The second time I shake with Hillary we’re in the garden of a private Los Altos home. Once more she chooses the Sincere shake and then, to my astonishment, continues our conversation from eight months ago. “So nice to see you again,” Hillary smiles. “In our last conversation, on poetry-”

She remembers we discussed Maya Angelou and e. e. cummings? There’s got to be a wire in her ear, with Secret Service on the other end reading cue cards. I tilt to the left, lean forward to check. Hillary notices, her raised eyebrows seeming to ask, “Is there bird poop in my hair?” “Great earrings!” I offer.

The long-haul shake

I thought I’d sampled the complete range of shakes until encountering the “I’m Hanging in There for the Long Haul” shake. This one features a few dozen up-down pumps, a lengthy handholding session, and an extended, earnest conversation. Leaning against the creamy wall of the White House ballroom, I’m watching President Bill Clinton work the crowd.

Crossing the room, I reach Bill moments after his last Long-Haul shake ends. We smile, we grasp, and we’re off. Ten minutes into it my arm is starting to ache. Women glare at me, like I’m hogging the President. I wanted a simple shake ’n’ howdy, and now I’m stuck. Do I have to wait until he lets go?

I smile, chat, and tug, ever so gently to release. Bill begins up-down pumping. Are we starting from scratch? My arm is throbbing. Release me. Please. I mentally beg the CEO of America.

He doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he still wants to hold hands so I am out of luck. He’s taller than me, and holds my hand high. It’s starting to turn blue, tingling from lack of blood. I straighten up, beg into Bill’s sparkly eyes. “Mr. President, we need to encourage entrepreneurship in America.”

“How would y’do that, Christine?”

“Oh . . . lots of ways.”

“Such ayas?”

“A . . . uh, proposal. Yes, I’ll write a proposal for you, enumerate my ideas . . . .”

“Ahlright, Ah’ll look forward to thayat.”

“Great meeting you, Mr. President. I’ll get to work right away. Oh! There’s Stephen Hawking!” I twist free my numb, leaden hand, smiling and bowing a little.

The soul shake

“Hi,” I say crouching before the seated man. He’s alone, slumped over the little desk attached to his wheelchair. “Your speech was terrific… you make physics so… accessible.” He smiles and shifts a little, preparing to type a reply into his speech synthesizer. Aware of the effort I say, “You needn’t respond.”

He looks up at me, into me, with deep dark eyes-no black holes here. His eyes embrace me in a down-duvet hug. And there it is: connection. I can feel his giant, potent mind trapped in a tiny, twisted body. I no longer care that I’m not a player, that I’ll probably never be all that important. Because right now I am. I feel seen all the way through.

This is the moment I remember most-not attending a White House party, not shaking hands with the wealthy and well-known, not breaking free from Bill Clinton-but this better-than-a-handshake moment: the soul shake, the touchless shake, of Professor Stephen Hawking.