Unlovable

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kimberly Dark

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

I was walking up the steps toward the bank. The sun was hitting the glass door so that I couldn’t see inside. I guess the woman coming out didn’t see me either and—bam—the big glass and wood door clocked me in the face. I stumbled back a bit, head throbbing. We both said, oh shit, and she apologized and I shook it off, got on with the day. My nose wasn’t broken, but I had a black eye for a week.

When I saw my sweetie the following day, she assessed the damage gently in public and then later in bed, she cozied up next to me. “Goddamn, you’re even hotter when you’ve been roughed up a bit.” She kissed me and pushed her head against mine, making me wince in pain. “Mmm,” she grunted.

“You’re one sick fucker.” We both laughed.

“Yeah, at least I’m not the one who hit you. Count your blessings I’m mostly over that shit.” We shook our heads and laughed again.

Look, no part of me wants pain. I understand how pain can be cathartic, and it’s not my thing. I always talked myself out of a beating, smelled the metal of my own blood through the skin before it broke, and got myself out of there. I don’t attract the ones who hit, but I sure attract the ones who could. And I learn how not to push. Being careful not to get hit, apparently that’s my gig. And I’m good at it.

In my youth, I had a flair for the flamboyant outburst. I mean, I was never one of those jealous glass throwers; I never upset a table in a restaurant. I’m not violent at all, just a little loud. Even still today, I’ll yell and put on the Medusa face but I do it in the privacy of my home.

This was my last big scene and how it finally clicked that I was done with that nonsense.

We’d been upstairs at my place, having sex and then arguing about some damn thing. I couldn’t begin to say what. She was visiting for the weekend and decided, no, fuck it, she was leaving. I was wearing a pale green and cream lace silky negligee with a little pearly business along the bodice. That I remember clearly. She threw all of her stuff in the duffle bag and heaved it onto her shoulder and down the stairs. I followed, giving her a piece of my mind every step of the way. Fire was shooting from my eyeballs as I watched her step off the porch and head down my steep front yard into the dark night. I shouted one last thing, loud enough for her to hear as she got into her truck: “YOU ARE ONE FUCKED UP INDIVIDUAL!”

And suddenly, that thing happened. A zoom out. An awareness. Suddenly a small, but terribly clear, voice inside my head said, “Actually, you are standing on your front porch at two a.m., yelling for your neighbors to hear, wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. You have just become the dictionary-illustration for ‘one fucked up individual.’ Why don’t you close your mouth and go in the house?”

And I went in the house.

She sat in the car for ten minutes and then I heard her mumbling angrily, hauling her bag up the stairs, bump by bump, then telling me, as she took off her clothes and got in bed, “Goddammit, if I leave now, I can’t fuck you again in the morning.”

At which I rose up briefly like a cobra to say, “Oh, so you think we’re having sex in the morning!?”

And she said, “Shut up. Just shut up. Go to sleep.” There wasn’t much fight left in me, so I did.

Yeah, we had sex in the morning.

She never hit me, but after a few disturbing episodes of almost, she went back to anger management classes and I joined a domestic violence abuse survivors support group. Things weren’t always good between us but that relationship lasted a decade because we both had fix-it tenacity. We tried to better ourselves this way and that. And now years later, as friends, we love each other still.

Maybe that’s all I will ever have in the relationship department. Love.

Not comfort. But love. What a strange consolation prize.

I sure know how to pick ’em. And they pick me just as surely. Okay, sometimes the others try to pick me but I just don’t get the hots for too many people and I send them straight to the friend-zone. With some, there’s a fast hard click, like a metal lock. That kind of connection rarely slips out of place until we’ve moved through some serious business together. How do we know even before we know? Is it scent or aura or the hand of God that shoves us together on the sofa?

I was talking to a recent unsuitable suitor on the front porch. We were drinking wine and smoking cigars, and I said, “Hey, look, don’t you even get it going for me! I mean, you don’t want the likes of me. I am damaged and downright difficult. I mean, fuck sake, you were raised by nice people in middle class suburbia and you’ve worked at the same job for thirty years. What the fuck? Stay away from me.”

As I told a friend (okay, she’s an ex) about the unsuitable suitor, I assured her I’d given her a good talking to. I’d really laid it out. And my friend said, eyes fluttering back in her head, “Oh, I’ll bet she loved that. You don’t know how bad people want a talking to from someone like you. You’re tough and pretty and almost always right.”

I stared, with the edges of my mouth curling up, eyes bulging. I thought I’d been super-clear. She added, “You’re a Bon Jovi song waiting to happen!” And then she finished our conversation singing, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name…”

I specifically try not to be a heart breaker. I say “no” more often than I say “yes.” The body has to choose; my head can’t be in charge. It’s a little fucked up in there where mating’s involved. The circuits didn’t get laid quite right in the beginning maybe. Though I give advice to others like a champ, keep my head cool in most situations, I rarely know what to tell myself.

Though it’s not like I’m pre-interviewing lovers—the fact is, I rarely get a lady-boner for people who haven’t had the crap beat out of them a few times when they were kids. It was probably someone who loved them doing the beating.

One could say, well, that’s just common. And it’d be true. But there are similarities among most of my lovers that are downright eerie. Probably it’s comfortable for me.

Probably it’s familiar to me. Probably it fits somehow with something I learned when I was a kid. Isn’t what the therapists would say?

I pick people who are too damaged to trust anyone fully by the time they get to me. Maybe the part of me that thinks I’m not lovable says that seems right. But it makes me mad. And they’re so certain they can’t be loved that my anger seems deserved. But it also justifies the lack of trust.

That’s it. Those are the ones I’m hot for.

Or maybe it looks like this: I’m so calm and accepting, I seem like a miracle at first. Truly, I am calm and accepting and a motherfuckingmiracle as well, but you’ve got to know that some anxious lovelessness caused me to pursue all that calm, and as soon as you upturn the table, you’re gonna see how it was made. I can’t get to the sex without showing someone how I’m made. Well, at least not more than once or twice, and I’m a more than once or twice kind of gal.

My lovers usually can’t let down their guard. They can’t be honest with themselves about how they keep creating their own misery despite trying really hard to get clear, meditate, breathe, get back to nature, journal, join a tantra group, talk to a shrink, and get freaky, at least for a while, with me. I have some kind of mojo going on that keeps them wanting it, that’s for sure.

It’s a shame one can’t put a nozzle on ones own mojo, point it in the right direction, build it up, and let it fight the fire of a painful past. My lovers are fighters with mojo to spare, but it’s not clear whether we’re ever fighting in the right direction. I like ’em either super-scrappy or super-smart; both is best. What if we could point ourselves toward those painful pasts together, rather than looking right at each other when we’re mad?

After years of on again and off again, my lover with the anger issues and I went to couples counseling. After some time talking about our problems with sex—that is, talking about how she loves fucking me but doesn’t totally let me do her, she said this to the therapist: “I just know that if I really soften up with her, it’ll be the best thing ever. Then I’ll need it. Then she can hurt me.”

I wept quietly because, yeah, I knew that. I also knew she was already in pain without me doing the hurting. A pain I couldn’t touch. I guess she figured it was easier not to heal, to keep the low-grade fever of anger and hunger. Better to blame me for not trying hard enough. Better to choose a pain that already fit into her schedule rather than a yawning, aching need that brings terror. Who could relax then?

Pain is easier to carry than fear. Both will shorten your life. Whatever. We’re resilient as fuck, my lovers and I. That much is clear.

I have to hope for something better. It could be worse and it’s not. I pick someone with a few skills. I don’t pick the ones who are strung out on drugs. I don’t pick the ones who hit. I just pick the ones who need love and won’t accept it from me. Maybe a little they do. Small morsels. But I don’t do a good job pretending it’s enough. There’s a lot of fighting to be loved here on my side of the table. A lot of trying and failing. A lot of tear-it-down-and-try-again hope. A lot of joy despite the pain. Real eye-of-the-storm peace. A lot of tenacity and tenderness because there doesn’t seem to be another way.

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

There are a lot of you out there. Just like how I learned to stop making a screaming-scene on my own front porch, maybe I can learn to draw someone with a softer jaw, an unclenched fist. That’s possible. And here’s what’s likely: No matter who sits by me, I’ll keep pouring up love by the cupful. Sweet love. No matter what else happens, that’s not nothing. Love is never going to be nothing.

•••

KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kimberly Dark.

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Summers of Smoke

smoke
By Christopher Najewicz/ Flickr

By Susan McCulley

Late on a Connecticut summer night, a young man drives home after a date. He smells smoke. But he doesn’t see the fire until he gets to the pond at the bottom of the hill. Across the water a house is burning. Orange flames reflect on the water between the lily pads. He and a neighbor climb through a window, into the blackness, and pull an old man out of the smoking building. It is 1973. The old man is my grandfather.

•••

In early June 2014, my builder husband Frank complains of back pain for several days running. That can happen when he’s busy, and right now has several construction projects going at once. One house is in the last stages so there are thousands of details to track and a string of sub-contractors to direct. As he hobbles across the kitchen, we exchange pained smiles: Frank’s stress shows up in his back. It’s just stress. But the next morning, my beloved Frank crawls to the bathroom.

•••

My father gets a call at two a.m. at our house on Buzzard’s Bay near Cape Cod. His father, probably in a haze of alcohol, has fallen asleep while smoking in his favorite leather chair. The ambulance is taking him to the hospital with terrible burns from the fire that has destroyed his home. Dad immediately starts the two-hour drive back to Connecticut, headed for Middlesex Hospital. An hour later, doctors decide to transfer my grandfather to the burn center at Yale-New Haven. Realizing that Dad is driving in the wrong direction, his closest friend waits for him on the shoulder of I-95. At three-thirty in the morning, he waves Dad down and gets him to Yale-New Haven.

•••

We find a pair of crutches for Frank but they are awkward and uncomfortable. He settles on using the gnarled walking stick that he made from a dried Arizona cactus. Doubled over and shuffling along, he looks like a six-foot Yoda. The Force, however, is not strong with him. It is painful for him to sit, stand, or lie down. He goes to two massage therapists and a chiropractor and walks out of each appointment in more pain than when he walked in. We cancel a dinner with friends and then a visit with my family. At eight o’clock on a mid-June Saturday night, I call a friend who had back surgery not long ago and beg for Percocet. She gives me kindness, compassion, and every painkiller she has.

•••

My grandfather’s neighbors board up the fire-smashed windows of his home the next morning. In the hospital, Poppa is heavily sedated and asks my Dad to “clean up the house a bit” to get ready for a visit from his sister and her husband. My father has a long conversation with Poppa’s doctor about his condition, his prognosis, and his personality. The doctor says they can keep my grandfather alive, but he would need constant care and would be completely immobile. Poppa has no living will, so the doctor asks my father how he thinks Poppa would feel about that. Dad tells the doctor honestly about his father’s stubbornness, his fierce independence, and his recent battles over needing an in-home health care nurse. The next morning, the doctor calls to say he is terribly sorry but Poppa has died.

•••

Frank says he knows that the pain will go away. He’s been researching back pain, and he’s pretty sure it is just a matter of time before he feels himself again. It’s also possible that it’s not just stress. Maybe something else is going on. He goes to his doctor and gets some steroids and his own prescription for Percocet. He wades into the health care system to figure out what is happening in his spine. He has an X-ray that shows no arthritis and no bone damage. The doctor submits the paperwork for an MRI but it will take a week to ten days before it will be approved. The steroids make him sleepless and sweaty as a teenager. His right shoulder now has bursitis from his sleeping in only one position. We are at sea as to what to do and how to drag ourselves through the pain: his physical pain and my emotional pain watching him.

•••

My father’s father, my Poppa, was older—both in years and in spirit—than my tractor-driving, sailboat-captaining maternal grandfather. In my nine-year-old eyes, he was scratchy on the outside with a prickly mustache, wool suits, and a wool hat with bristly feathers. He had a bristly personality, too, and scolded me for eating like a bird. But his tender insides showed when I trick-or-treated at his door or when I sat with him on his deep leather chair to watch the Rose Bowl Parade on his color television. He drank more after my grandmother died and he smoked until his fingers were stained brown. My strongest memory of Poppa is his thorny-mustache kisses that smelled smokily of cigarettes.

•••

With a cocktail of painkillers, Frank can sleep but, after a couple of hours, the pain pokes him awake. After weeks of determined optimism, he finally crumples. At midnight, he sobs hot tears of pain, fear, and frustration, “What is wrong with me?” Hands resting on him gently, I am paralyzed with the exquisite anguish of helplessness. I’m in such despair that I can’t even cry, furious that no one can help us. After a time and another Percocet, Frank quiets and lifts his head with irritation, “What is that noise?” A scratching, like a mouse or a bat is coming from the woodstove stovepipe and it is driving my sweet man crazy. I leap into action. I can’t make the pain go away, but I can make the bat go away! Intent on new-found usefulness, I stuff paper into the woodstove and light it—not thinking that it’s late June and hot outside so the chimney won’t draw. In a minute, smoke fills the house and I’m crazily sealing Frank safely in the bedroom, opening windows to the thick, humid air, squashing out the burning paper. In the morning, I’m sure that the whole ridiculous scene was a Lucille Ball nightmare except the smell of smoke lingers in the living room.

•••

When Poppa dies, Auntie Jane, my father’s only sibling, flies in from California. She comes for the funeral, presumably, but my only memory of her visit is of my mother and her at the kitchen table drinking and smoking cigarettes. I have never seen my mother smoke. She sees me staring and mumbles that she shouldn’t be doing it. “You deserve it, honey,” says Auntie Jane loosely holding a glass heavy with ice and amber and leaning against the bright yellow kitchen wall.

•••

Frank’s MRI is finally scheduled but his morning appointment is scuttled. He simply cannot lie flat and still in the tube of the machine. My kind, gentle Frank yells and swears at everyone in earshot. “I feel like a fucking old man!” I don’t argue. In just a few weeks, he’s aged decades. The technician tells him to get as much painkiller as he can from the physician and come back.

Hours later, after a torrential rain, we return to the hospital with Frank double-dosed with Percocet and Valium. We pull up to the main entrance under towering pink-gray clouds like billows of smoke from a nearby fire. Between the drugs and the pain he can barely put two steps together, so an elderly hospital volunteer and I help him into a wheelchair and I roll him to the imaging lab. I do my best to make light of it, slaloming down the hallway, but the sight of my strong fit man withering in a wheelchair breaks my heart. The MRI technician suggests I sit in the waiting area, but I will have none of it. I’m not leaving him. Together, the tech and I slide Frank up to the MRI bed and gingerly he hoists himself up. The tired-looking technician arranges Frank’s legs straighter and he is howling and swearing again. She looks at me. “Do you have any more drugs?” I do: two Percocet and two Valium. Frank takes them down.

•••

The rest of the summer of 1973 is soaked in the smell of wet smoke. Every morning, my parents go to the wreckage of Poppa’s house, pull out whatever they can salvage, and toss the rest. They come home every night reeking of soggy soot. Everything in Poppa’s bedroom is destroyed. The intricate family silver and my grandmother’s cobalt blue glasses are melted and unrecognizable. The leather chair and the color TV blackened and soaked. Mom and Dad find some photographs and the big leather-bound family Bible with the metal clasp. Decades later, it still wafts the unmistakable smell of fire whenever it is opened.

•••

Frank sits in the wheelchair with his head is in his hands. The beleaguered MRI tech ushers us into an empty examining room. “Give the drugs some time to kick in,” she says and closes the door on us. I squat down, roll him up close, and press my forehead to his. “I’m right here with you, sweetheart. I’m right here.”

Frank cracks into sobs and says thinly, “It hurts so much. I just want it to stop.”

After a time, all those drugs make his eyes go smoky soft. I put my head into the tech’s office and tell her that he’s ready. We gently slide him onto the machine, straighten his legs, and look at him cautiously. “Okay?” we both say at once. He nods. She hands us both ear plugs like the ones airline workers wear on the tarmac. “You can stand right there and reach in and touch him. It won’t hurt anything,” she says. I put my hands on his head and stroke his hair while the machine sings and groans and zings oddly for nearly thirty minutes. Only after it’s finally over do I look up and notice a back-lit oversized photograph of purple and yellow crocuses on the ceiling.

•••

In the summer of ’73, long before playdates are a thing, a different family takes care of my sister and me every day. Since we had planned to spend the summer on Buzzard’s Bay, we have no day camp or activities in place—only friends. Every day, when my parents go off to dig through Poppa’s burned house, another family has us over to go to the pool or the beach, play in the sprinkler, go out for ice cream. Once, we spend the afternoon with my grandfather’s next door neighbor, the one who pulled him from the bedroom window. He has kids our age and a great swimming pool so it’s a welcome place to be, but the pull of the fire-wrecked house next door is strong. I can smell it across the yard. The kids dramatically tell me not to look, not to go over there, but with equal drama, I sneak to the edge of the yard and peer through the bushes. The plywood-covered windows are like empty eyes. The gray siding above each window is smeared with long black soot smudges like bristly eyebrows.

•••

After the MRI, I drive Frank home, slide him back onto his perch of pillows on the couch, and go to get him tea and an ice pack. When I come back he’s looking at me with tears in his eyes. “How does anyone ever do this alone?”

Up until then, I had made only shy, tentative requests for help from my sister and my closest friends. Gingerly asking if maybe, possibly, would you mind too much, could you please help us? My dearest ones were right there in an instant. Even so, I was ashamed to ask. I felt like I should be able to handle this, that I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. That I shouldn’t need help.

Frank’s MRI shows a herniated disc in his lumbar spine that is pressing on his sciatic nerve. Just as the pain branches out from Frank’s compromised disc, I decide to reach out and ask for help. I send out a group email to friends and family explaining what is happening, what we know, what we don’t. In less than a day, friends start pouring in. Some bring enormous meals with funny, handmade cards and flowers. Some come play cards and Backgammon and watch World Cup matches. One sings him a song about chickens. The love pours in our door like a river.

•••

Frank’s back begins to heal, but the summer continues to burn. Four close friends’ fathers die. Another friend, younger than we, is diagnosed with colon cancer. Yet another friend has abdominal surgery to remove a painful and suspicious tumor. A neighbor is killed in a biking accident. A therapist of several friends commits suicide. The sadness and loss is staggering, relentless. The summer suddenly feels unpredictable, scary, dangerous. I take Frank to physical therapy and to get an epidural shot. I write sympathy cards, bring a bag of bagels to one family, bowls of cold summer soup to another. I feel disoriented, suffocated, blinded by all the sadness.

•••

I’m delivering a platter of roasted vegetables and a bowl of melon to another friend singed by the summer of 2014 when I suddenly remember the smoky summer of 1973. I remember the play date at Poppa’s neighbor’s house. I remember the smell mostly—the rest is hazy, except for how odd and disorienting it was as a child. I wonder what it was like for my parents.

When I ask my father about the summer of 1973, he says that what he remembers is the kindness and generosity of so many people: of the young man who spotted the flames, of the neighbor who helped him pull Poppa free, of my father’s friend who flagged him down on the highway, of the wise doctor, of people who just did what needed doing. “People are pretty awesome,” he says.

This summer has cracked me open. It’s challenged me to do things and be with things beyond what I thought I could. The edges of my heart are sore and aching from all the sadness and disappointment and loss. The fibers of my compassion and empathy muscles have been stretched and strengthened. I hug longer now, look with softer eyes, am gentler with my words. I’ve let go of any illusion that I have control over a single thing.

Memory is a funny thing. My father looks back on the tragic death of his father and it is the support, care and kindness that he remembers. As traumatic as it must have been, for my dad the summer of 1973 was about love.

It’s been forty years since Poppa died, but it’s only been a couple of months since Frank’s been walking without his Yoda stick. The string of memorial services is still unwinding. The soreness and bruising from the summer of 2014 are tender, and it is a tenderness that I hope never goes away. I have been tempted to call it The Summer of Sadness, but honestly, that’s not how it feels. The feeling of the summer of 2014 is love. The rest disperses like the smoke from a single match.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing, traveling, and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. This is her second essay for Full Grown People and others have been published on Elephant Journal. She lives with her (now fully healed) husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Status of Pain

microphone
By Ally Mauro/ Flickr

By Sonya Huber

A friend at a writing conference asked me how I was doing. I said, “Pretty good, all things considered.”

“That’s good,” he said. “All I see on your Facebook page is ‘Pain, pain, pain.’”

I gave a half smile and a knowing shrug to get away from the conversation, but my brain buzzed with distraction, embarrassment, annoyance, and a bit of curiosity. That’s all I’d managed to leave as tracks on his brain: pain? Was he razzing me in a failed attempt at flirtation, or maybe trying to be sensitive in a backhanded way?

Then I began to worry that I’d set up an inadvertent Wailing Wall on social media, even though I’d tried to do the opposite. I had made a conscious decision to post as little as possible about my medical adventures with Rheumatoid Disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Sure, I needed to vent. After scrolling past enough pictures of people’s dinners, rock-climbing feats, and dogs, I felt compelled to put a bit of myself into the maelstrom. And sometimes I wanted to share that my small life was also part of the big picture of life, even if it was posted from flat on the couch.

The last thing I wanted to become on social media was what I felt like in real life: pain, pain, pain.

•••

When I was in college, a young woman in philosophy class told us that she had chronic pain from ulcers. I couldn’t fathom it. Pain, like stubbing your toe, but all the time? Wouldn’t that drive you bat-shit crazy? She was beautiful and a campus athlete, and I began to revere her from afar as some kind of saint, which was the reference point I had for unrelenting suffering: that it ennobled.

Lucky for me, I had exactly twenty more years to live my lovely normal life, filled with sex and sports and walking and soccer and sleeping late and hardly ever having to fill prescriptions. My body could swing and shake and dance for hours. Eventually my immune system revved up into crisis mode when I was in my late thirties, which catapulted me into rheumatoid disease. It’s systemic, autoimmune, and incurable. My joints hurt pretty much all the time. I’m four years into the rest of my life, the part that comes with pain.

Since then—in case you’re tempted to share with me your quick fix—I’ve tried everything, and I manage stuff like a pro. Supplements, exercise when I can, a new diet, medications, acupuncture. I work it like a job, and I have to say I am as responsible as one can possibly be in caring for this very needy pet. But although pharmaceutical company commercials want us to believe that new drugs make life better for everyone, the drugs for my condition don’t work all the time, and they don’t erase pain.

•••

Pain itself is a weird experience, but you get used to it, even if it does drive you a little bat-shit crazy. It’s as tiring as parenting a newborn. It creates so many interesting conundrums and challenges. You can imagine it as adding a World of Warcraft addiction or a constant remodeling of one’s kitchen to your already busy life. That’s what it’s like: a weird project that you have to manage in addition to everything else you already have going on. A weird project that will never go away. Imagine remodeling your kitchen for the rest of your life.

People who don’t know pain think it is really depressing. This makes sense, because it is the core biological imperative for preservation of one’s existence: avoid pain. Run, in fact, from any mention of it.

When I post on Facebook about being in pain, or admit to pain in a casual face-to-face conversation, I read the winces in the emoticons, and I feel and see the edges of my friends’ mouths pull back in grimaces of displeasure, winces of agony, as if they themselves are feeling discomfort. As if, in mentioning it, I am the one hurting them. They don’t want to talk or hear about pain. But they have questions, and they are embarrassed to ask. Some friends do ask, and I have loved how they listened as I tried to describe it. I feel very cared for in those moments and immensely relieved.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with this pet Pain I have if I can’t post picture of it on Facebook. It’s not going anywhere, and yet the thought that it makes other people uncomfortable adds to my own discomfort. Not only do I have a physical problem to deal with, but I also have to feel guilty and watch that I don’t inflict thoughts about pain onto other people like some kind of social contagion. People want to fix pain or to convince themselves that it’s not that bad. They want to tell you their grandmother cured her osteoarthritis with cactus juice. I’ve done the same for different difficulties, responding with vague clichés about “what makes us stronger” when friends have lost parents, marriages, jobs, and medical battles.

It’s hard to know what to say. It’s easy to say the wrong thing in those situations.

Sometimes it’s harder to watch someone we love suffer than it is to suffer one’s own pain. I can’t do anything about this pain (aside from seeing my doctors, getting on the treadmill, and eating turmeric and fish oil like candy) but at least I can know it. And that’s what causes anxiety for others, I think, and for me when I’m on the other side of a skin barrier from pain: it is unknown, unfathomable.

•••

I decided to read through a year’s worth of my Facebook posts to assess whether this friend’s comment about “pain, pain, pain” on my Wailing Wall was accurate. Because I love Facebook, I had hundreds of my own inane status updates to click through, mostly quotes about writing, teaching, books I loved, political activism, or events on my campus. I had posted links to articles on fighting racism, pictures of my family, jokes, laments about my dying car, and a photo of a squash that we’d kept on my kitchen table for over a year because my son drew a face on it with a permanent marker. I posted about getting solar panels, my love of the cartoon Adventure Time, and many thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. I posted ideas for imaginary band names and jokes about Star Wars, as well as an update on happened when I spilled a full can of seltzer on my desk. I posted about the sport of soccer-tennis, a trip to Hong Kong, kayaking, and the zombie apocalypse.

Throughout the whole year—June, 1, 2013 to June 1, 2014—I discovered six posts about my illness. Three of these were not about my own situation, but instead links to content created by other people: a graphic about national awareness day for Rheumatoid Disease, a link to a survey about Rheumatoid Disease, and a link to a book about coping with chronic pain. The remaining three posts gave updates about my own health situation, all within a few weeks last summer in which I had a thyroid crash and was having problems with my energy levels. One was a simple apology that I was having trouble returning emails in a timely fashion because I wasn’t feeling well. The second: “When I have the energy, I’m going to write about finding the energy to parent with an autoimmune disease.”

And the third: “It turns out that giving up caffeine after a 22-year habit is actually not that big of a deal if you have RA. I have learned this morning that my pain tolerance and my pain levels are both so high that a teeny little caffeine headache barely registers. It’s kind of cute, this little chemical headache trying to act all important.”

Two posts for the entire year had mentioned “pain” by name.

•••

In that last post, I injected some humor, as I know I should when talking about illness, as a way to sweeten the subject and not drag my friends down, but also because it’s one of my own coping methods: I have to laugh at it. At the same time, I was trying in that status update to give myself a little credit: I do have a high pain tolerance. People in chronic pain are often desperate for a sense of how others might experience their level of pain, not to share the misery but because they would like to know whether they are merely being overly sensitive or whether they are dealing with something that is as epic as it feels.

This is all complicated by the fact that pain research shows that a chronic pain sufferer’s nervous system can get activated and become permanently on alert, so that everything does feel like agony. The question is epistemological, as all seem to be: how would this pain feel to another person? That’s impossible to know, because pain is not an abstract essence. It is an experience, a process.

•••

My friend might have been exaggerating, but I believe his comment, and his memory of the “me in pain” that I’d shared on Facebook, meant something, despite the fact that it was factually incorrect. Pain is searing and it creates an emotional connection. Expressing pain affects others deeply, creating discrete and uncomfortable memories. One expression of pain, and that is what he remembered. This, too, must be keyed into our species’ survival.

When I thought of this friend and his own online persona, I happened to remember most vividly a few honest posts he’d made about his own troubles. It could be that empathy burns those associations into our brains, and that we vividly remember the strong emotions that are drawn forth by the agony of others.

The question, then, is whether even a few honest statements about our conditions become what people see when they think of us. If we are vulnerable, will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?

•••

Maybe as a result of this awareness, which began well before his comment, I’d also been consciously checking myself. I felt embarrassed after I posted more than one thing about my health because an administrator at work who is also a Facebook friend said, “You’ve been very honest on social media about your medical issues.” He said the word “very” like I’d done something scandalous and unwise, or as if I were into an odd hobby like sticking goldfish up my nose. Or as if admitting to Rheumatoid Disease was akin to posting a picture of myself doing a kegstand. He’s one of those administrative types that make you feel like you might be in trouble for everything. He kind of has principal voice.

After his comment, I got a little paranoid and decided to post less on social media about my pain, partly out of vanity: I didn’t want to be depressing. I wanted people to see me as someone who had more going on in my life than pain. I wanted to be seen as sexy, lively, cute, funny, and relevant. Smart. A thousand other favorable adjectives to please my ego. So maybe vanity won over honesty, or maybe I was trying to condition myself to focus on more than the pain in my joints.

After I’d made the promise to myself to craft an ideal version of myself, a witty well-read upbeat figment of my imagination, another friend said, “I noticed you haven’t been posting stuff about your health on your page. You must be doing well. I’m so glad.” I wanted to tell her about my continued troubles, about the complicated nature of invisible disability, but I said nothing. We hugged and rushed off in opposite directions in the middle of some event.

•••

I have gone back and forth about what risks I take when I publicly acknowledge on the Internet that I am sick. Or that I am me plus a sickness, or however I might want to describe it to make myself feel better on a particular day. For a while, I thought that sharing would actually protect me, because I figured that the more people knew, the more they’d be required not to discriminate against me. But this is a whole other legal and medical privacy conundrum. I know, ultimately, that the social protection of sharing outweighs any of this, because I stumble slowly into networks who will be truly supportive when the chips are down.

I know that the data I post on social media might be used for specific marketing purposes and is public in a way that might have an impact on me in the future. I can’t be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act, but new methods of discrimination are always being hatched. Still, this condition is already recorded everywhere in my records, so I’m not safe anyway.

I can’t maintain a cagey fear of anyone finding out about my healthcare issues. Pretending a big part of my life doesn’t exist only makes me feel insane, and ashamed, as if I have done something wrong that I need to hide. I needed people to know what was really going on in my life because the pressure of trying to pretend to be normal was more exhausting than being sick. I needed my coworkers and friends to adjust their expectations of me. I needed them to know what I was up against so that they might understand when I said no. Putting my reality on Facebook was a way to train myself and others to deal with my new normal.

For that reason I have decided to be “out” despite the consequences, but I have to remember that I am able to be vocal about a few conditions in my life due to social privilege. One: I’m a writer, so if someone does discriminate against me on the basis of a health issue, I can put it up on the Internet in a reasonably coherent narrative. Two: I’m an activist, so I would know how to make a stink about it. Three: I’m white, so I have the social privilege to be listened to and believed. Four: I’m a tenured professor with a decent income, so I have the flexibility and time to write, the ability to have a flexible schedule that works around my illness, the support of colleagues, and the ability to be relatively safe from health-related discrimination at work.

•••

Or did I just want sympathy? I admit, at my weakest moments, that I did want that. But I also wanted to benefit other people with these conditions, which is a major motivation for people who post information about illnesses on social media. A recent study found that 94% of patients were willing to share their social data to help patients like them, even if there were privacy risks involved. Hence, the link sharing. And another survey found that 33% of adults use social media to find out about medical conditions and “to track and share symptoms.” For that function, I would sometimes post questions or comments to a series of Facebook and blog comment boards where patients could crowdsource information about new treatments, tests, medications, research, and side effects.

At base, I wanted my friends to understand me, including this new little wrinkle in my life. I wanted to be out as a person with Rheumatoid Disease because being quiet about it added shame and loneliness to a host of other problems, mainly the pain.

It’s hard to know exactly what I want in response. Sympathy helps a little, but it almost directly transforms into my friends’ agony and discomfort, and I don’t want that. Instead, like sharing haircuts or publications or travails about broken cars, I just want them to know and to have known, so that they can form an accurate and honest picture about me and who I really am. That’s intimacy, I suppose, and it seems to break down the wall that anxious sympathy erects.

And it’s true: I do have chronic pain. But I can name your imaginary band in two seconds, and I have a thousand books you should read, and I’ll send you a link to a great news article, and I think your dog is really cute. And I do have a lot more going on than lying on the couch. It’s just that right now … I’m lying on the couch.

•••

SONYA HUBER is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

 

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To the Pain

crystalball
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Dina Strasser

Mandolin? Mandoline? I’ve never been able to figure out the pronunciation of this device or how it connects to music. I have angered it. It has just sliced lengthwise through my right thumb.

I have been battling a series of small but debilitating injuries since I hit my fourth decade—an ankle orthoscopy, plantar fasciitis, arthritic knees, unexpected bursitis in my shoulder. It’s old hat now. Maybe this explains why my first thought is the purely prosaic: “Fuck. Now I can’t finish dinner.”

But there the potato sits, half scalloped; there is the mandoline, so swift and clean in its retribution that I do not bleed until several seconds after I hang my thumb under the running faucet.

The water begins to turn a deep shade of rose. Anthropomorphizing the mandoline is a bad idea. Inaccurate. I turn my hand over, gingerly, and see that there is no flesh behind a portion of my thumbnail.

The shaking starts.

“Honey?” I call.

•••

I have slung my teacher’s bag onto my single shoulder, often dozens of pounds, unprotected, for over a decade. In a misguided fit of back-to-nature, I spent a summer in “minimalist” sneakers, not realizing that my tendons weren’t strong enough to handle the strain. And what preventable loss of focus drew me away from noticing where my fingers had gone today?

Surely, as with all truths, the reality is a confluence of things both within and outside of my control, but I realize as I clutch the bloody paper towels around my hand that this doesn’t matter. I have already decided that I have not earned the right to cry.

I take deep, shuddering breaths over and over as I sit in the lobby of the urgent care facility. “I can’t scare the kids,” I keep thinking, although the kids aren’t there.

My husband negotiates the paperwork.

“You have to sign these,” he finally says, grimacing.

“Seriously?”

The irony makes me laugh, softly, and then a little hysterically.

I grip the pen between my index and middle fingers and, by the fourth form, I have managed something like my name.

•••

“I am not going to be your friend right now,” says the nurse and briskly dumps a syringe full of saline onto my thumb. I am glad my husband is still outside finishing up the papers, so he doesn’t hear my swallowed scream.

A doctor pauses only long enough in the exam room to assure me that I have not damaged any nerves or tendons, that nothing drastic is needed for healing, and to explain that they will place a special foam on my thumb to stop the bleeding. “Okay?” he says. His mouth smiles, and his eyes say, “Now is when I need to smile.”

“Okay,” I say, and he has left before the second syllable hits the air.

The nurse, my husband, and I joke about “Carrot Guy” who came in just before me (now dubbed “Potato Girl”) as the nurse binds me tightly with a pressure dressing and compliments me on my pain tolerance.

I’m grateful. Really. I’ve seen a few doctors recently, and I’m grateful for them all, no matter how busy they are. I try to catch the nurse as we leave, but he wishes us a cheerful goodbye, determinedly eye-contactless, and starts rapidly wiping up the drops of blood I have scattered on the floor. It’s six o’clock, and the office is closing.

My husband scoops up the mandoline the minute we get home. It was expensive, but I don’t feel the slightest bit unhappy about watching him pitch the whole thing into the garbage can, scalloped thumb slice still stuck to the underside. We agree that you’re better off with a plain old knife. You can see where it’s going.

•••

Three days later, I find out what I did to myself officially. It’s Ingrid who tells me, my primary care doctor. She’s unhappy, in the way doctors are unhappy who don’t want to besmirch their colleagues.

“They didn’t give you bandages that wouldn’t stick to the wound?” she says lightly but frowning. The nurse who took me in said something similar but far less diplomatically.

Ingrid has just come back from seeing the patient scheduled after me, allowing me to sit in an examination room and soak the dressing off my thumb in warm salt water. It takes almost an hour. I’ve had to work at it, pulling gently, literally asking my skin aloud to let go of the material and hoping that no one can hear me. The wound is reopened and throbbing out little tendrils of blood into the water by the time it agrees.

I’m disoriented by Ingrid’s question, because she’s staring right at me and typing into her health care software at the same time, without looking at her fingers. It hits me belatedly that she’s doing this on purpose, to make sure I don’t feel sidelined by what her hands are doing.

“It’s called degloving, what you did,” she says. I laugh until I realize that she is using an actual medical term. I am struck by its poetry.

She fills a bag with non-stick gauze, soft antibiotic ointment, and magical bandages that are impregnated with Vaseline, and she redresses my hand. She takes her own right hand and wordlessly rubs my knee for comfort.

•••

I am turning in a tight circle, flapping my arm around as I try to shake off my bathrobe.

“Ah! A penguin in need of assistance!” says my husband, in the plummy tones of Superman.

I grumble wordlessly as the robe drops off my wrist just as I was about to take him up on his offer. As a pair mismatched almost exactly by a foot (I’m five foot three), we have evolved a silent vocabulary of gestures to indicate when I could use a taller person to step in. Standing forlornly in the kitchen with my hand floating in midair means, “Please get that damn coffee mug off the top shelf,” for example. Approaching him silently from behind with a light bulb is also effective.

Today, though, I unequivocally need him not because of my bathrobe, but because I can’t hook my bra straps together. It’s one of those tasks, I discover, which demands working opposable thumbs. I am more and more aware of these kinds of minute movements. I collect them, the way I used to collect small semiprecious gems in grade school. The heel kicks back to close a door when my hands are filled. The fingers hook the collar of a t-shirt to toss it up over the head. The shoulders, astonishingly, comply. Garnets. Rose quartz. Fool’s gold.

My husband, with fingers too large for these delicacies, is fumbling with hooks and eyes. “How do you people do this?” he mutters.

But he was the first to gently pull away the bloody paper towels and just as gently shoo the kids to the neighbors’ house and bundle me into the car. He reached across the seat and buckled me in with the same calm as when he held my hand, almost a decade ago, while I contracted blindly and endlessly to bring our two babies into the world. He saw both resulting c-sections performed behind the curtain placed in front of my head. He was too tall for it to obscure the view.

I finish my ablutions in the bathroom, wrapping up my thumb, lower palm, and wrist with the magic Ingrid bandages, then gauze, then cloth tape.

When I am finished, I open and close my four free fingers over the resulting thick tube for several moments, as if I am making a shadow puppet duck. This shape is reminding me of something, but it takes a while to bring it back.

It’s mittens. I remember suddenly, out of nowhere, how I would stay out for so long on snow days that ice would coalesce into small hail-like balls on the knitted wrists, with strands of wool as their nuclei. I remember the gritty feeling of the wool scraping across my mouth as I took off the mittens with my teeth.

•••

My eleven-year-old daughter has just ripped open a package of litmus papers we’ve ordered for her school science fair project—she’s cleaning pennies with solutions of varying acidities. Once she discovers the rainbow of results, however, she becomes an unstoppable cyclone of litmus testing.

“Oh! Orange juice!” I hear her gasp, and the fridge door rattles open.

I am deciding at our laptop, after a long internal debate, that I’m going to post about my accident on Facebook. I’m preternaturally sensitive to sounding like I’m whining on social media.

I don’t define “degloving” in my post on purpose, hoping people will feel its weird beauty as I did. This turns out, amusingly, to not have been the best idea.

“WORST.GOOGLE.IMAGE.SEARCH.EVER,” a friend responds.

“What else, what else?” my daughter ruminates out loud. “Hair spray!”

“Oh god, it’s not that bad,” I type back, after seeing for myself what “degloving” brings up.

“Bleach!” my daughter sings out.

“Wait, hang on, you don’t have—” I call to her, but she’s already flung herself down into the basement where we do our laundry.

I lurch up from the computer and down into the basement after her, thinking to find her some latex gloves to use. She’s perversely saddened that we don’t have enough corrosive bases in the house for her to get the deep plum shade of the higher numbers of PH.

I don’t find gloves. She could care less. She brightens when she discovers that at least in the PH world, there appears to be no difference between slamming a glass of cranberry juice or one of red wine vinegar. This is good to know.

On the way back up from the basement, I pass the shelf where we store our less-used cooking contraptions. My eyes pass over the standing mixer, the apple peeler, the cherry pitter, and I shudder. I realize that I have now renamed this shelf in my head “Things That Can Hurt Me Really Badly.”

What is getting older but a yawing, a slipping and widening, of that shelf to hold more and more things? Pots. Pans. The stairs. My ankles. Ice. My blood pressure. My brain.

I look down at my hand. How on earth am I going to do this?

My daughter tears off another strip of litmus paper. “Maybe I can spit on it,” she says thoughtfully.

I can’t help it. I laugh, loud and long, and she joins me.

•••

Just before I go to bed, I notice there’s a new comment on my Facebook thumb post. It’s from Rachel, an old college friend, whipsmart and wonderful.

“This is why we don’t own a mandoline,” she writes. “Or a mandolin, which is what autocorrect wants me to own.”

At least I’m not the only one. As I settle down to sleep I picture a clueless, cartoon Autocorrect and I, with a potato in one hand and a mandolin in the other, looking confused.

I cradle my bandaged hand in the crook of my left arm. I’ve re-wrapped it once more, once a day, as Ingrid showed me. “Don’t roll over on it,” my husband says sleepily, already in bed. My daughter is reading quietly about bacteria cultures in her room. The ibuprofen kicks in.

You’re not always going to see where the knife is going. Sometimes you’re going to look for a stringed instrument to make music, and find it is a bloody blade instead.

But what else is there to do? You reach out. You strip off your gloves. You play.

•••

DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org. This is her second essay for Full Grown People.

The Safety Net

basketballhoop
By andrewmalone/ Flickr

By Anjali Enjeti

A seam near our garage door bisects the cement driveway—our family’s foundation for hula-hoop challenges and colorful chalk artwork. At the end of a slight downward slope, roughly fifty feet away, our portable basketball hoop projects a tall shadow.

We purchased it a little over a year ago, and although I have never formally played basketball, every evening after dinner, I abandon piles of dinner dishes that need loading and pots that need scrubbing, to shoot hoops in our driveway.

Lining my bare feet along the crevice, in between moss and stray bits of pine straw, I dribble two, three, four times in a thumping rhythm that shores up my concentration. With unwarranted bravado—I’m competent, but not good—I coax the preteen posse congregating on my porch to try to do what I’m about to do.

One of them carries on in his conversation without so much of a glance. One takes an approving bite of a banana chocolate chip muffin that I’d just pulled from the oven. Another picks at his cuticles. A fourth, my twelve year-old daughter, flashes hopeful eyes. She’s used to my routine basketball antics: Let’s see if I can make a basket with my eyes closed. Let’s see if I can make a basket while standing backwards. Let’s see if I can make a basket left-handed.

But this particular shot, where I position myself a full three car lengths from the hoop, is not usually a successful one for me. Despite this, I call it my lucky shot. And, when the ball whooshes through the net, I feel like a champion. Like David must have felt when he felled Goliath.

I dribble several more times while facing my orange-rimmed nemesis. Some more kids have gathered near my mailbox on bikes and scooters. They’re focusing on me. I haven’t made this shot in a long time, and now I regret calling so much attention to myself.

As I launch the flesh of rubber from my fingertips, I know, right away that it’s going in. The net swoosh of a clean shot makes the victory even sweeter. A chorus of hoots and hollers erupts and I high-five my way back into my house. But I know better. The kids aren’t so much as praising my athletic skills as they are hoping my inflated ego will generate a second round of muffins for their consumption.

•••

Sometimes when I’m playing—hoisting my five-year-old into the air closer to the rim, or showing my nine-year-old how to cradle the ball in her hands—a neighbor passing by our home will slow down at the foot of my driveway to compliment my athleticism. “I wish I had your energy,” he or she might say. “I wish I could keep up physically with my own kids.”

I smile, shrug my shoulders, and offer a neutral, somewhat muted comment in return: “I’m getting older. It’s getting harder.” But truthfully, I’m not sure what to say. Because how I appear on the outside is so far removed for how I actually feel.

I spend much of my day in pain—significant, sometimes excruciating, pain. And I have lived with this pain for so long, I can barely remember what it feels like to function without aching, throbbing, or piercing sensations.

I suffer from coccydynia, a condition where my coccyx or tailbone becomes inflamed. Roughly fifty percent of all coccydynia cases are the result of an injury or pregnancy. The other half of all cases, including my own, have no known cause. Sitting and lying on my back causes my pain, but once it’s inflamed, I am in pain every single second of the day. On good days, my pain resembles a moderate rug burn. On bad days, it’s like I’m sitting on a dagger. And there are often more bad days than good.

I’ve seen countless doctors, tried a gazillion drugs, practiced yoga, and endured physical therapy, chiropractics, herbs, and acupuncture. Some treatments help, some of the time, but any relief is temporary. And there is no known cure.

I avoid movie theaters, car rides, restaurants, churches, amusement parks—any place where I would need to sit for extended periods of time. I don’t ride bikes, nor do I ever eat dinner at the large, wooden table in my kitchen—I stand at the counter for every meal. An hour kayaking, one of my new hobbies, will translate into days of agony. I collapse into bed every night with an ice pack wedged against my lower back. Patches of frostbite have permanently stained my skin. They look like angry, gray amoebas.

It’s taken me eighteen years of pain to stop pretending I am strong. To understand that for all of its virtues, the pretense of strength has a downside. It weaves a tale of happy endings and heroics, which trick its sufferer into believing they are more invincible than they really are.

Nearly half a lifetime of pain has forced me to answer this one question: What, for crying out loud, is wrong with being weak?

Weakness isn’t a pity party—it’s base in a game of tag. It’s crying on the phone to a loved one, because you don’t know if you can take the pain much longer. (Even though you know you will, and must.) It grants permission for the enthusiastic pronunciation of the f-word, desperate texts to friends in the middle of the night. It is the recognition that you are drowning, and that you need someone to throw you a fucking life preserve. Sometimes, that person has to be me.

I dread appointments with my array of highly qualified health care professionals. “How bad is the pain today?” they begin, flipping through my chart.

On a pain scale of zero to ten, zero meaning no pain, ten meaning extreme pain, my answer is rarely below five. And in the pause, between their question and my answer, I can’t help but link my entire existence to merciless, numerical increments.

If we’ve only recently started a treatment plan, I’m honest. “Seven,” I’ll announce, with a nod of the head. But if we’ve been working together for some time, with little to no progress, the shame of continued pain—the let down of failure—colors our encounter. I will throw my care provider a bone, graciously reducing the number, as if placing my aching body on some sort of reverse grading curve. I do this partly because I feel guilty about their sincere disappointment in the outcome of the treatment plan. As if I’m some kind of co-conspirator with my condition.

But I also do it because the way I characterize my pain is the only way left for me to control it. If a therapy fails to take even the edge off, the least I can do is choose its value. Because while my provider will spend only one hour a week considering its position on the pain scale, the number will continue to haunt me as I exit through the lobby, locate my car in the parking lot, and sit, motionless, in traffic. It will dominate my thoughts at three a.m., when I wake up to get a fresh frozen ice pack out of the freezer. It will share the same space in my psyche as my social security number.

If I am to achieve any kind of autonomy in agony, it’s in the when, why, and how I describe it. It’s my only option for a long-term coping mechanism. Because the pain consumes not just a singular moment in time, but years of milestones in the distant future. Will I be able to sit during my oldest daughter’s high school graduation? Will I be able to make that long plane trip to visit my favorite uncle in Australia? If I can barely endure this pain at age forty, how will I manage when I’m fifty, sixty, or seventy?

These are the questions that no acupuncturist, physical therapist, or rheumatologist will ever be able to answer. They don’t measure in precise integers on a scale, but hover in the spaces between them, in the infinite fractions and decimals that follow.

Which is okay, I think. Because ultimately, I have to believe, that my life and how I live it, is so much more than a numbers game.

•••

One cool, late summer evening, I rummage through the garage, kicking aside squirt guns and bottles of bubbles in search of my favorite basketball. I have spent much of the day pacing the floor in pain, pressing rotating ice packs into my flesh, chewing through an entire packet of gum while watching crappy reality television—doing anything and everything to distract myself from my colicky spine. I consider going upstairs to lie down, to submit to the merciful unconsciousness of sleep. But the seductive pull of the hoop calls to me from the driveway.

When I finally find my ball, wedged behind the recycling bin, I decide that today, I will conquer a different kind of shot. This time, I will position myself even further away from the hoop and hurl the ball, overhand, like the pitch of a baseball, with the hopes of hitting anywhere on the backboard.

Somehow, on this driveway in front of my home, my pain and I inhabit a level playing field. When I gaze out at the net, with its empty, jigsaw spaces, I conjure a power, a temporary confidence in my body. With the rough surface of the pavement supporting my bare feet, the fragrant scent of gardenias wafting throughout the front yard, I assume the home court advantage. And on this court, no one is keeping score.

Dribbling, I lull myself into concentration. The porch-dwelling preteens eye each other. They are placing nonverbal bets about my chance of success.

Palming the basketball, I take aim at the white square target on the backboard. My thumb pulses against the bumpy rubber casing. My arm reels back like a catapult. When it releases, my sight traces the ball’s arch into the atmosphere. But at its peak, I realize my shot is way off mark, destined only for wind.

I rest my hands on my hips while the collective groan of the neighborhood sounds in unison. My daughter jumps off the front porch to chase the ball into the next yard.

As she runs it back over, dribbling a few times around the driveway, I consider going back inside the house to lie on my side with my ice pack. Perhaps a hot cup of chamomile tea will help distract me a little from the pain.

“Hey,” my daughter calls from underneath the basket. I assume she’s going to take a shot herself.

But she doesn’t. “You’re not too far off,” she says, tossing the ball back toward me. “Why don’t you just try again?”

•••

ANJALI ENJETI, a recovering attorney, is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Queens University in Charlotte. She writes for ArtsATL, the only comprehensive arts news source in the Atlanta area. She lives with her family in suburban Atlanta.