Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureWinter 2017
Breath and Shadow
Volume 14 Issue 1
By Kelley A Pasmanick
For Mom and Dad.
For Clyde, who not only acknowledged me, but believed in me and in this story all those
It was my sister’s wedding day, and you were who I was thinking about, imagining what could have been, the worst kind of daydream. Standing there beside her in the first piece of formal wear I’d ever owned—a black strapless gown because she was going for the classic, black-tie look—I stared at her, assessing the look in her eyes. It was a look I’d never seen before, one that said my future is here. Here wasn’t a place I’d ever be. Not with you. I wouldn’t have a future with you. I wouldn’t have anything with you. There was no us.
I was trying to ignore the fact that it was another day focused on her. It was just another day, and yet it was the day. It was her prerogative to say to Mom oh so audibly, “I don’t want her crutches showing in the pictures!” You knew my crutches were blue. Whatever happened to something borrowed, something blue? The blue addition didn’t have to be hers. And she got her way. I was standing with my crutches so close beside me that I felt like I was going to tip over. And then she told one of her bridesmaids to cover them. And what a dutiful friend she was. She did me one better. She covered everything but my face, hiding the black dress that did nothing to slim my gut that existed because of an exaggerated gait and poor posture that couldn’t be helped, but not before she said she was sorry. The others were probably none the wiser, thinking that the blue crutches and ill-fitting dress were my fault, just other signs that I wasn’t physically fit.
We have a conversation concerning the how of sex. This is how I imagine our first vacation together. We opt for the beach instead of Disney World because I say we need to talk. Correction: I need to talk. Anyways, I’m not going to waste the money going to the Wonderful World of Disney when I’m not going to be particularly cheery. I’m right. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable.
It’s dusk, and I can’t see your eyes. We’re sitting next to each other, knees touching, on the steps of the beach house we’ve rented with a view of the ocean. My hands are clasped in my lap, and your right elbow and my crutches lean against the railing.
“Please don’t ask me to suck you off,” I say, turning in your direction.
“Oh, my God!” You start laughing.
You can’t believe I’ve said this. There was a time when phrases like “suck off” would remain in the filing cabinets of my mind to be saved for later, when I had time to search for the divider labeled “out of character,” and find the phrases that reminded me that although I felt emotionally stunted on a regular basis, I was still feeling and wanting what was considered age appropriate. Concerning sex, I was right on track.
“I’m serious. I can’t do it.”
I won’t have sex before marriage, not because of religious reasons, but because I’m afraid that if I have sex with you, you’ll realize that I’m limited in what I can do versus the rest of the girls you know—all of them. After all, I have cerebral palsy. You won’t love me anymore. You started out as my best friend. You still are. Now, I just want your last name, the title of Wife, and our children, so if I lose you over sex, I know that’ll be it. There won’t be any more hands to play.
I’ll lose doubly like in gin rummy when the face card is Spades. I can’t tell you any of this, so instead I say “The idea of me sucking your dick long enough for you to come in my mouth and kissing you would be disgusting.”
You smile. I see your smile lines spread along your face, and you nudge my leg with yours.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“I know. I’m telling you not to ask before you have the chance. I won’t do it. Ever. I’m a firm believer in old-fashioned sex.”
You laugh your laugh that’s almost a giggle, which means you’re really laughing. I love that laugh.
“Old-fashioned sex is anything not oral or anal. It’s the real thing.”
“I’m okay with that.” You humor me.
“There’s nothing like good, old-fashioned sex.”
You come closer, the tips of our noses touching. I can tell that you think this is cute, that I’m cute. Inventions like old-fashioned sex are why you love me. I know you do because you take me in your arms, my feet off the floor, and kiss me like you do. When you kiss me you shake, mirroring your giggle of a laugh, and it’s when you shake that I know your kiss is genuine. For the moment, you’ve stopped me from worrying.
Mom always told me I had to become physically fit.
“What are you going to do when you get your period?” she said.
She made me prepare years before I got it because my C.P. made my muscles tighter, even the ones in my vagina. My body was in constant mutiny against me. She bought me box after box of tampons to practice with. In retrospect, it was pointless, because one needs lubrication, and I wasn’t going to have lubrication until I had my period. Her hope was for me to miraculously, with the greatest of ease, shove dry cotton up my vagina to expand the width of the little hole closed shut. Nothing doing. She was pissed. Tampons are expensive, especially the ones with the plastic applicator.
I got my period. On a cruise ship. My family—all five of us—shared one cabin.
She said, “Go clean yourself.”
When I went to college out of state, the first thing the doctor did was diagnose me with dysmenorrhea, or extremely painful periods. This was another gift the disability fairy gave me. She goes around gypping people. Every time I got a period, I thought, Fuck, another week without breathing. The tremendous amount of blood, the leaks in my underwear from the maxi pads I wore not staying in place. Later, when I was finally able to use tampons, they would gradually slide down due to my spasticity, dripping blood onto my underwear. When the blood wasn’t dripping, it came in clots. I vomited. My muscles hurt. It was difficult to move. I was doubly cursed because I was disabled and also a girl.
Mom’s way to manage my period paled in comparison to the Doc’s solution. He stopped my period for three months at a time because of the dysmenorrhea. My period on birth control—God bless the diagnosis—was like the drip of a faucet that a child neglected to completely turn off.
Not long after being diagnosed with the dysmenorrhea, another dys would enter my life. The fear I had developed years before with the help of my mother was real. Painful sex had a name: dyspareunia.
The doctor told me after he’d performed a pap smear during my annual exam. I had a feeling something was wrong during it. Very wrong. Even the smallest speculum he had was too big.
“It hurts!” I cried, feeling my stomach muscles flex, my feet pressing the stirrups. The paper covering the exam table stuck to my back because I was sweating so much. It tore as I fidgeted.
“We’re almost through. Just a little longer,” he said softly.
By the time we finished, I was crying. He handed me a tissue.
“It’ll always hurt.”
“What? Pap smears?”
“Sex will always hurt. There are two types of dyspareunia. Superficial upon insertion and deep afterwards. You’ll have both.”
I couldn’t believe he had just come out and said what I’d been thinking for years.
“Your muscles are tight from the C.P. It’s caused your dyspareunia.”
“Is it just because of the C.P.?”
“Your case is, but a lot of women suffer from it, about one in ten.”
He looked at me and smiled with pursed lips.
“It’ll get better, though, it will.”
“How can it? You said sex would always hurt.”
“You’ll fall in love.”
What Happened When You and My Imagination Mixed
The wedding day was perfect. For someone else. And for me, it was the perfect day to pretend. I found out, though, even perfect days got spoiled along with the pretend that went with them. It turned out I couldn’t even have a fantasy that included you, only a nightmare.
We are on the plane going to New York City. It’s our honeymoon. I’m not me anymore. We have a joint email address: Boris&Natasha@aol.com. We think we’re incredibly clever for such a contrivance. I tell you that I’ve told everyone that you’re a Russian spy. You laugh. This is the go-ahead. Technically, I’ve kept my entire name and have added yours without the hyphen. I’ve already published under my name, but as far as I’m concerned, my name is now my maiden name, and I’ll use your name as much as possible. I want only your name and to be known as your wife.
Oh, my God! I’m supposed to consummate this thing! Us! I think. Consummate. Consume. This is what I’m expected to do—what you’re expecting me to do—to consume you, to take you in my mouth, into my body, and slosh you around, extracting your flavor. You must see the blank look on my face. You take my hand in yours. Our rings touch. I’m not much of a jewelry wearer, but there’s no question I’ll wear my ring.
I’d been exercising to fit into my wedding dress, seven days a week, unable to get Mom’s voice out of my head. “How are you going to have sex when you can’t even spread your legs? You better start working on it. Otherwise, he’ll rip you to shreds.”
I’d walk and then walk-run on the treadmill. Mom finally got what she wanted ever since I can remember. I’m physically fit. You think I look beautiful either way and have only wanted to make sure that I’ve still been eating. Good Jewish husband of mine.
I see you out of the corner of my eye. You’re smiling. Aren’t you scared? We’re both virgins. I try to inspect the details with my feelers. When? Where? How? How many times? With a condom? Without? I’m afraid to ask because asking you would be acknowledging the fear. I wonder how much my body can take.
Backtrack to an insignificant detail from the wedding. After the Rabbi wished us good luck, especially for the times ahead, his six-year-old son yelled enthusiastically from the bimah in front of everyone, “She’s going to become a mommy, next!” Kids say the darnedest things. Everyone laughed, including us. I prayed that I wouldn’t pee on the floor. I didn’t trust my spastic bladder. My immediate family knew I was a virgin, but did the rest of them? Did yours?
I think back again to the old-fashioned sex talk and my reaction to the fact that my virginity was transitory. I wouldn’t remain one.
“Oww!” you said.
“What? Did I hurt you?”
“Your ring, it’s digging into the back of my neck.”
I moved my left hand away from your neck and examined my engagement ring.
“This,” I said, thrusting the ring in your face, “means we are really going to have sex.”
“That is the plan. A lot of good, old-fashioned sex.”
You smiled slightly. You knew you were giving me a taste of my own medicine.
I started to freak out.
“Screw old-fashioned sex, I can’t even have sex, in general.”
I looked at you and sighed. You were surprised that I responded that way. I knew all you were trying to do was to calm my fears. You took my face in your hands and kissed me. You had always liked the simpler acts of affection. I did, too.
“Let me ask you a question,” you said.
“When I said, ‘Oww!’ what was your reply?”
“‘Did I hurt you?’”
“Exactly, and why would you say that?”
“Because I never want to knowingly hurt you.”
“So what makes you think I would want to hurt you?”
“That’s right. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“That’s what you don’t understand,” I said.
“You will hurt me even though you say you won’t. The sex will physically hurt. You know my body doesn’t work like yours.” There were tears in my eyes. You didn’t understand. I did my very best to make you. “You will be engaging in the act itself. Not me. I’ll just be lying there. Simply, by us having sex, you will be hurting me.”
I couldn’t look at you.
You made me look you in the eye.
“I swear to God, I swear to you that I will do everything in my power to keep you from hurting.”
“What are you going to do,” I asked, “read the Kama Sutra?”
I was kidding with you, but I knew there had to be a position that I could do.
“If that what it takes, then yes.”
Now, sitting there next to you New York City-bound, I wonder if you had ever read it.
Why Being Physically Fit Enough to Have Old-Fashioned Sex Didn’t Matter
We were at Starbucks, our weekly haunt. I stared straight ahead. I couldn’t look at you. I was pissed because I had been home for three days and had to call you to remind you that I was there. We were not getting married or going on romantic vacations to the beach. Once again, what I wanted didn’t matter. These scenarios were never going to happen with you included in them, but were going to remain as they were—sugary, fulfilling, and yet, ultimately disappointing.
“I want to dropkick you,” I said, knowing that was impossible.
“Here we go again,” you said, “another ridiculous conversation.”
That was your favorite word to associate me with: ridiculous. I said you were being redundant.
“Didn’t you know I was here?” I asked.
“I thought your message said you were changing your dates.”
“I extended them.”
“It’s better that I only have three more days here. I’ve needed to talk to you, but I didn’t want you driving at the same time. We needed to wait until you were stationary to have this conversation” I said, staring at my hands.
“Oh, God,” you sighed.
“Why? You don’t want to hear it.”
“Say it,” you said, knowing what I was thinking.
“Why? You don’t want to hear it,” I said, repeating myself.
“Say it, and get it over with, so we can be done with it.” Your voice rose.
“Say it!” you yelled, banging your hand on the table.
Footsteps approached our table. “Pardon me,” the barista interjected, looking down at the floor, no doubt responding to your table slap. “I have a java chip Frappuccino?”
“Yes, thank you so much,” I replied. I had trouble looking the young man in the eye.
He made sure to meet my gaze with a sheepish smile.
“Thank you again so much. That was very kind of you.”
“You’re welcome,” the barista replied, as he stared you down. You stared at me. I stared back, a staring trifecta. A move was made. The barista left.
I looked down, embarrassed and noticed that the barista had given me extra whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
You picked up where you left off. “Say it,” you whispered, obviously having learned your lesson.
“I love you.” I let the words sink in. “I love you,” I said again. “I love your voice, the way you speak. I love your face. I’m trying to tell you how wonderful you are—”
“I’m trying to tell you how wonderful you are.” You took my hand. I jerked it away far enough to where I was barely touching yours.
“I’m afraid to hold your hand. I’m afraid to rest my head on your shoulder,” I said, my voice breaking in place of tears. “I won’t cry for you anymore, I refuse to. I’m tired of crying for you. There is no love in those gestures.”
“How can you say that?”
“They don’t provide me with any comfort,” I replied. “They just make my heart hurt. Why does it matter that I tell you all of this? My opinions don’t mean anything to you.”
“Your opinions mean everything to me!” you said, your face flushed and your eyes flashed. “They mean more to me than anyone, and my not being in love with you has nothing to do with your disability.”
“Then why don’t you love me?” I pleaded.
We arrive safely in New York, and we’re at the door of our hotel room. You put down our bags. “Come here,” you say. I walk over to you. You take off my crutches, resting them against the wall. You put the key card in the door and wiggle it a bit. The green light flashes. You push the door open. You take my head in your hands and lead it toward your lips. I lean in to reach you faster. I kiss you as hard as I possibly can. I hold onto you with the grip of death. You brace yourself against the wall.
“I love you, Mrs. _____.” You say our name. This is the first time you say it attached to Mrs. “How does it sound? Good?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I say. I wipe my eyes.
“Good, because you’re not ever going to get an opportunity to have it any other way.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. Now, look down. Are you ready?” you say, smiling at me. You lift me with one arm supporting my back and the other hooked under my knees.
I look. One foot over the threshold. Another step. Two feet. I throw my head back and laugh and clap my hands. “Mazel tov!”
“What? Did you think I was going to trip?” You smile, head cocked.
You walk over to the bed and set me down as gently as you can. Our bed.
“Do you want to unpack?” I say, unsure of what to do next. I try to stall. Mom’s voice enters my head, “How are you going to have sex when you can’t even spread your legs?” I had been working on that before the wedding. I could now sit Indian style without crying, which I hadn’t been able to do since the age of nine, before I was in the hot pink body cast for six weeks after surgery.
I can spread my legs pretty far, but how far is ‘pretty far’ to you? They’ll naturally push themselves inward, fighting me the whole time. You’ll have to keep them open. You’ll have to have sex with me and not vice versa. You’ll have to do all the work.
“Yeah.” I grab my bag before you can get to it. I don’t want you to see the nightgown I packed. I bought it for you. It’s white with spaghetti strap shoulders and silk with an intricate lace pattern at the bottom. It hugs my body. I smile, imagining you hugging me in it.
I unpack everything, hiding the nightgown in one of the empty kitchen cabinets. We’re in a suite. White king size bed, a beautiful cranberry-maroon carpet, and black and white tile on the kitchen floor. There’s a mirror on the ceiling.
“I’m going to shower,” you say. “I’ll be quick. We have reservations in an hour and a half.”
“Somewhere.” You smile. You know I love surprises. You run into the bathroom and poke your head outside the door. “Come look in here. It’s incredible.”
I creep around the door, uncertain of what I’ll find. Nothing kinky. Good. I don’t need anything extra to add to the pressure. I survey the room: double mirrors, sinks, Jacuzzi on one side of the room, the shower on the other. It’s not the size of a regular shower. It seems like a roll-in shower that had been converted back into a “normalized” design. They made a door to fit its size. I speak too soon about seeing nothing kinky. Good for two. Good for fucking. Plenty of room for plenty of positions. The pressure mounts. I see all that I need to.
8. I Dreamt of a Honeymoon in New York, But What I Actually Get is Starbucks
Awaiting your answer, I distracted myself by slurping my Frappuccino.
“I do love you unconditionally, but you know everything about me. That won’t work.”
You were wrong, and I was obstinate. “I don’t know everything about you,” I said. “I didn’t know you were going to Russia. How long are you going for?” I asked.
“In August until January.”
“How nice for you,” I said. I looked down. The light glistened on something rectangular.
“Is that a pack of cigarettes? When did you start smoking?”
“They’re for finals and for conversations like these,” you said.
I felt honored that you decided to partake in a habit which I enjoyed because of me. Asshole. “Why are you going? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“For study abroad, not to mention that I need to get away from Mom and Dad. They’re fighting all the time, and I don’t want to be here for the fallout.”
“So again, why didn’t you tell me? I’d help the fallout feel less like a fall.”
“It’s not just them. It’s you. I never thought I’d get to this point, but I want to get away from you. I didn’t tell you because it’s not just a want. It’s a need.”
“I’ve thought about you every day since the first time you told me you loved me,” you said. Your eyes widened. I wondered if that was your way of showing me you were being sincere.
I smiled, but I realized I shouldn’t have.
“I’ve thought about it every day, and I don’t want it. I don’t want you.”
“You don’t want that? You don’t want me?” I pointed to myself for reinforcement. “Me?” I asked. “How’s that possible? I’m your best friend!”
“I told you already. You know everything about me. I think that’s our downfall.”
“Our downfall? Why are you talking like this?”
“We know everything about each other. I don’t want your everything anymore. I want someone else’s.”
“But, I love you. That’s why I love you. You know me.” It was more than that, and I decided to be brave. “You accept me.”
“It’s too much. Would it be easier for you to pretend that I’m gay?”
I had never felt so unwanted and ugly in my life.
We get back to the honeymoon suite after midnight after eating sushi at Nobu. You’re slipping off your shoes when I jump on the bed. “Thank you for the surprise,” I say, feeling awkward because I know “thank you,” won’t do my feelings justice.
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you were surprised. I wanted sushi to be our first meal together, just the two of us. I hoped that would put you at ease, at least temporarily.” You smile.
As you smile, the feelings of inadequacy, fear, and sadness that had plagued me during the flight resurface. “You can see it on my face, can’t you?” I ask.
“Only a little bit.” You crawl over next to me. “I want you to know that I’m scared, too. It doesn’t compare to your fear, but we’ll be scared together. Anyway,” you say, “there’s no prenup, so you don’t have to worry.”
I laugh my nervous laugh of haha-uh, and retort, “You could always ask for an annulment.”
This isn’t funny to you. Your voice cracks. “No, I couldn’t because then I would lose you. I would lose my best friend, the same best friend I’ve had since I was five years old. Who would I go talk to about the annulment? It’s not like I could talk to my best friend about it.”
“No annulment,” I say. I kiss you and whisper, “I’m going to get ready for bed,” as I slide off the bed and walk toward the kitchen where my nightgown is still hiding in the cabinet. This is just another night when you come to visit, and I fall asleep while we watch a movie, I think as I sneak off to the bathroom to change. Thinking such a thought, I’m able to suppress my phobia of sex. Especially with you.
We were smoking Djarum Blacks when I told you my dream about the kids. Holden, Laney, Calia, and Charles Wallace. I could see what they looked like, hear what they sounded like. Like you. You nodded your head. My birthday was in almost a week, and I dreaded it. I was no closer to any of my dreams, and nearly a year had passed. The laughter ended, and I was still drunk on margaritas. I grabbed your hand.
“Will you dance with me on my birthday?” I asked, not knowing that this would be one of the last times I saw you before you went to Russia.
“Yes.” Your reply was flat. You were neither pleased nor fearful of the prospect.
“It’s important. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to dance with you before, I didn’t dance with you because I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your friends.”
You already knew this. The before to which I was referring happened at your Bar Mitzvah party. Out of everyone, you wanted me to cut a rug with you, and I didn’t oblige. I was terrified and ecstatic that the young man whom I loved the most wanted to engage in an act of loose-footedness with me although my feet were unwilling and tight.
I was sitting at your table at your Bar Mitzvah party. I was alone. Everyone was dancing, and there I sat, drinking in the steps that reminded me of The Sound of Music, and the step-hop, step-hop of Julie Andrews. You came up and said, “Dance with me.” You snapped your fingers to the beat and bit your lip in a smile.
“No, no,” I said, “go dance with your other friends.”
“Are you sure?” You probably had some inkling that I wasn’t being truthful. Perhaps that is why this moment still plagues me.
“Yes,” I said, though I was unwilling to meet your eyes. I thought of my blue crutches, the same ones I had now that have grown as I have over the last thirteen years. They would have gotten in the way, just like they did now, angering the bride-to-be. That was always how I justified things. “Go on, have fun.” I doubted if you would have known to hold me so I wouldn’t fall. To tell you to lock your arms, to become stiff like me, instead of fluid and lithe would have been humiliating. No one else had constraints when dancing, so to avoid them, I didn’t dance, even with you.
“Okay,” you said and went on dancing. This wasn’t my party, and I couldn’t have cried if I wanted to. I did that later when I missed every homecoming dance and junior and senior prom. There were no college formals for me. You asked me to dance at age thirteen, and I hadn’t been asked since.
Next week, I turn twenty-two.
“Will you sleep with me on my birthday?” I rephrased the wording even though you knew what I meant. “Not sex, just sleep.” I knew I couldn’t push it. We were a long way from where we were when I was thirteen.
“Possibly,” you said with the same flat tone.
“You know I would have sex with you over and over again if you asked. I’m not afraid to have sex with you. I want to.” I lied to you when I said I wasn’t afraid, but at least by having sex with you, I’d get to experience the hugging and kissing that people who were in love did, for a little while.
“I’m going to have sex with my wife, now stop” you said, opening your car door to let me out. We only had dinner and now you were dropping me off at home. This had happened before. You were spending less and less time with me. I began to realize you weren’t just dropping me off. You were dropping me.
“Why would you want me to try something that I didn’t want? Do you really want to risk a friendship for something that probably won’t work?” I didn’t understand how it couldn’t. In my mind, it was foolproof, part of a logical progression that was seventeen years in the making.
“But you told me that you loved me unconditionally. Why can’t that include romantically, too?” As far as I was concerned, not loving me romantically was a condition. As far as I was concerned, you’d used the wrong word, and I wanted to correct you, but I moved on.
“Can’t you just try?”
“It’s not a matter of trying. I don’t want it.” What you meant to say was that you didn’t want me, but you used the wrong pronoun. “I can make it so we don’t see each other anymore. If that’s easier, I don’t have to see you.”
“Are you mad at me? What did I do? I love you.”
“It was nothing that you did or didn’t do. We were having such a good time. Can’t you stop?”
I began smoking my third Black. “I think you’ve had enough,” you said.
“I’m fine. Are you sure it wasn’t something I did?”
“Didn’t I just say it wasn’t?
“Okay,” I said, breathing out the heaviness of heart I felt into the air. “You said you would help me have the kids.” I moved my face very close to yours. Your eyes penetrated mine. You didn’t like this one bit.
“If that’s what it comes down to, then yes.” This wasn’t true. There was a time that it was alright that I had my whole future stowed away in you. We must have been about fifteen or so because you told me this around the time my fear of sex began to develop.
“How am I going to have kids? I’m going to need a sperm donor.”
“What about someone like me?” you had said. I looked at you and you at me. We both smiled. Your eyes turned blue, as they always did when you had something important to say. I held your hand and squeezed it and rested my head on your shoulder. Those were the days when I was still permitted to be affectionate toward you. You held my hand with the same grip of death. That was when I finally accepted my love for you.
I sat across from you at the Starbucks, gulping down my fourth cigarette, teetering on the last twinges of inebriation. How am I supposed to have Holden, Laney, Calia, and Charles Wallace without you? I thought. They were your kids with your eyes and your smile. I couldn’t just bequeath those names to another man. He would have been my husband, but our love would not be the same as the love I had shared with you. Such an act would have been like a groom re-gifting his first bride’s wedding ring after she’d left him at the altar and giving it to the next girl after feeling so lucky to have found someone else to marry. The next girl would wear the ring proudly as his first wife, unaware that he thought of her as his “second try” and unaware that he was a groom before.
You and I were the only ones who knew about the kids and what it would take to get them, who knew what they looked like, what they sounded like, and what worried them. You would never tell a soul about them because as of now, they only existed in my head and heart. It would be me who told. The kids would be someone else’s if necessary. What my future husband didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Those kids were as much mine as they were yours.
When I come back out of the bathroom, you’re already in bed, reading. You see me and take off your glasses to focus on me more easily. You uncover yourself and slide out of bed.
“No, don’t get out of bed.” I put my hand out, trying to stop you.
You open the nightstand drawer and take out your camera. There was the snap of a shutter and a flash went off. I shudder.
“No,” I said, “I—”
“You look so beautiful. I don’t know what to say to make you believe me.”
I don’t know how to respond to such a statement, so I say, “I’m cold.”
You creep over to me and hold out your hands. I take them and squeeze even though I want to let go. I want to get away from you because I love you so much. I want to hide from you the fact that my body will betray me.
You take me in your arms. “You’re shaking.” You say my name. You say my name again. “Why are you shaking?” I shake my head, sobbing, concentrating on finding your lips, any part of you that will allow me to ignore the shaking.
You carry me backwards to bed, the perfect setup. I keep kissing you, anywhere. Your lips, your eyes, your neck. My eyes are shut. We land on the bed. I’m below, and you’re above me.
You hold my feet, while I lift myself toward the headboard until my head touches a pillow. I un-tuck the sheets and pull them over me. I can see the outline of your face, brave enough to open my eyes with the little light. You slide down me, taking off my underwear. I hold you closer and sob. “I love you,” I say. Your face is level with mine. I grab your hair and look you in the eye. “I’m afraid,” I say, nodding to make sure you know.
“I’m going to love you. I’m not going to hurt you,” you say, possibly so that both of us will believe it. You lift my nightgown above my head and begin kissing my face. Then you kiss my neck and my shoulders, and with tears splattering down my neck you go lower onto my breasts and in between. You kiss my belly button. My crotch tingles. I groan in pain and jump. You lick again. Same reaction.
You move up toward my face again to distract me from what is to come next, to distract me from the feeling of my body betraying me. The reality of my body—of what sex will be like because of it—overpowers my fantasy. My fear makes the sex into just what I expect it to be. Love isn’t made, only pain.
You press into me, inside me. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue. I don’t scream because then you’ll stop. I don’t want you to stop. You press again inside me, and I feel my abdomen tighten, the first time in my life I ever have had a six-pack. You’re filling me, uncomfortably. I feel distended and stretched, though unable to make room. I want you out of me so I can breathe. I take back the thought immediately. I want you in me. I just don’t want it to hurt. I focus my mind on something else, the mirror on the ceiling.
I’m focused on a mole in the center of your shoulder when you push into me again, as hard as you can. I bare my teeth, and you gasp.
Your breathing slows. You’re still inside me for a time, so I stare at the ceiling until you shift. As soon as you move, I uncover myself and hobble away. I bawl in silence, behind the bathroom door. I hold onto everything, afraid I’ll fall, eyes blurred, climbing into the shower. I sit on the shower chair slowly, shut the door, and survey my legs. Semen drips down them. I don’t dare wash it off because it’s proof that I’ve done it. I’ve had sex. My stomach is still constricted, proof that you were there. I can feel you. You reached within me and took what was yours to take. I gave you license to take it. I married you.
I sit there in the shower, dripping, until you awake. You say my name. I hear you calling my name from outside the bathroom door. I don’t answer. I don’t know how. You say my name again, higher in pitch, fear in your voice. I still don’t answer. You check the bathroom. You say my name. It wavers in your throat. You open the shower door.
I’m naked and crying on the chair.
“Maybe I should have exercised more,” I say.
Sitting in the dressing room with my sister and her bridesmaids, already drunk on mimosas, even though it was just after three on a Sunday afternoon, I was suddenly sobered by what appeared on the big screen vaulted to the wall.
A human-interest story was on ABC News about an elementary school essay contest winner who wrote about the value of difference in the movie “Penelope” starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy. The essay winner, a twelve-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, won the opportunity to meet James McAvoy.
“Really?” I asked aloud to the television. “How special.”
The other bridesmaids stopped and turned in my direction. I went back to watching what I couldn’t stand. They aired two different clips, one of the girl gushing privately to the reporter how much she loved James McAvoy and how wonderful his character was in the movie. It’s so easy to make the day of someone who has nothing to look forward to, of someone who is no one every other day of her life.
Her day wasn’t mine. Her smile showed big white teeth. She was a pretty girl who’d grow into a beautiful one. Talented and grateful, I thought. Maybe, just maybe, she might achieve what Penelope had: an understanding that her own perceptible difference—cerebral palsy—doesn’t have to be what defines her.
The second clip was the actual meet and greet. James gave her a hug and a kiss, and her eyes looked as if they’d just been dilated. Those big white teeth shown through tears as James told her what skill she had and how insightful she was. The footage ended as it should have, with him looking deeply into her eyes and then kissing her on the cheek. The gimp should just take whatever she can get. How rare it is for her to be a girl instead of a gimp, and the reporters know it. Maybe she does, too, I thought. I wanted to see the look on her face as he left her. But that they wouldn’t show that. They never show the after, only the happy.
My smile and dripping eyes mirrored hers. If anyone asked, I could blame it on the wedding. As I kept watching, though, hearing the reporter refer to the girl’s experience as an “inspiration” and her essay as “words to live by,” my heart ached for her. I had just witnessed a fantasy on air. The fantasy only had life when the cameras were rolling, but at least it had had life. It had been realized. Others had seen it.
Then my heart dropped and my smile faded. I knew the reporters wouldn’t be flocking to her again. They wouldn’t be capturing her triumph, but that of someone younger, cuter, more disabled—more pathetic. After all, disillusionment doesn’t make for good television. No other experience she would ever have would top this one she’d just had at twelve years old. Nothing else she would ever do would warrant such an audience. This was as good as it was going to get, and that was the saddest thing of all. She’d never do any better than she had done for herself at age twelve. She would become her own audience—her only audience—for whatever she witnessed and experienced from then on.
And so would I. The remnants of who and what we were and what we could have been would remain solely with me.
Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-year-old woman with cerebral palsy from Atlanta, Georgia. She lives and works in Napa, California as an advocate for individuals with disabilities. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob’s Teahouse.