by Dena Feldman
©2000 Dena Feldman
you say about a shy, red-bearded mountain man who does cross-stitching?
A gentle, bighearted accountant with a passion for lions and tigers, he
had his framed lion and tiger cross-stitches and needlework displayed
all over his house up in the Big Bear mountains. His hands were huge and
freckly. He was definitely an unusual character. An eccentric, one might
say. But there was a strong, safe, and honest energy between us from the
very start. Typical for me, I thought to myself as I shifted in the
green-carpeted waiting room chair. I have always been drawn to
His voice did not match his frame of 6’2" and
253 pounds. When I first spoke with him on the telephone, I was taken
off guard. I had expected something deeper, gruffer, more rough-hewn.
Instead, his voice was a soft-spoken tenor, almost a soprano. There was
a painfully shy sweetness to that voice; it made me smile. You can never
tell how someone is going to sound by how he looks. But I liked him
immediately, and decided what the hell, I would meet him.
Who do we love? How do we find our ways to them? To
that strange, indefinable, yet fully palpable feeling of, "Yes. I
am finally home." This is how I felt with him, the man who lived in
the mountains. After years of Nomadism, wandering my own white and
stained desert, I had finally come to a place of shelter, a place where
I could swim.
ways are there, anyway, for a nice girl to meet a nice guy in Los
Angeles today? I never thought I would ever reach the point of answering
computerized personal ads. But I’ve lived in L.A. for most of my life,
since I was four years old. I’m thirty-one years old now, and have
been divorced for six years. My first marriage was virtually arranged
for me by my mother. Old World, East European, and frightfully, Jewishly
traditional in her values, my mom had me married off to my high school
sweetheart by the time I was nineteen.
I was sixteen years old in 1985 and a high school
senior when I met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband. Well…that’s not
exactly correct. I was actually fifteen years old and a high school
junior when I met my ex-husband-to-be. But at the time, he was simply my
boyfriend’s older and somewhat homely brother, Neil, someone I knew by
name and face and had a nodding acquaintance with. He shared a room with
his brother, Dan — my first real boyfriend — and got kicked out on a
regular basis when Dan and I wanted to have sex. Their mother, a
strictly Orthodox Jew who was legally named Kathy but had taken on the
name Tovah, would be downstairs listening to her Yentl soundtrack,
wearing her wig and broiling chickens for dinner. To this day, whenever
I happen to hear a song from that Barbara Streisand movie, I have
immediate, secretive, sexual associations…associations of hurried
adolescent sex while listening to "Papa, Can You Hear Me?"
Could they hear us? Hopefully not; we always tried to be as quiet as two
horny teenagers could be.
The whole scenario was heightened, at least to me, in
that I was far from your average, ordinary sixteen-year-old girl. My
face was pretty in a sweet, girl-next-door type of way. But my face was
where my innocence ended. I lived in a secretive prison, a prison that
few people knew much about. My parents, my best friend, and especially
my sister had a good understanding of the strange, private, and hellish
world in which I lived. My classmates knew to a certain degree from
interacting with me, but only to that certain brief degree that glimpses
allow, when every square inch simply cannot be covered up.
My skin was not normal. Lots of teenagers had acne,
some mild, some worse. And I had met people here and there who had mild
eczema on their elbows. But never in my life had I met anyone like
myself, though from what I had read over the years, I understood there
to be more people out there.
I had something called severe, recalcitrant psoriasis.
It began when I was eight years old. My skin carried a painful, thick,
irritated plaque, very much a scaly, reptilian crust, which covered
about ninety-five percent of my body. My skin cells grew too quickly,
simply put. Nothing contagious, exotic, or deadly like leprosy (though
there had been those who had compared me as such). Just psoriasis, the
stereotypical heartbreak, one of those uncommon, shameful, things that
everyone – family, friends, neighbors, and strangers — knew me for
but tried not to look at. I had almost no normal skin. My breasts and
cleavage were covered. My neck was bright red, scaly, and raw. My legs
were horribly patchy, scratched, and bloodied. My ears were full of
scale and crust. I had trouble wearing jeans, for if they rubbed against
me at all, I would bleed about my entire waistline.
I showered flakes of dead skin everywhere I went. I
could not turn and twist easily, for my encrusted skin would crack open
and bleed. I scratched constantly, shed constantly, bled constantly. My
heart, full of shame about how I looked, kept me a prisoner, too afraid
to be outgoing. The sheets on my bed were always stiff and stained
greenish-black with coal tar creams that I slept in at night, for coal
tar helped my kind of skin. Every morning I awoke, lying in a bed of
hundreds of dead, wilted, thick flakes of skin like little bits of human
stucco. They were unsightly, yet I was gruesomely fascinated with my own
scaling, raw body and the constant, shedding skin that was an extension
of me and always followed me about like the whitened, peeling shadow of
a snowstorm. I saved dead skin in empty mayonnaise jars until my mother
caught me and forced me to throw them out.
One month a year, I would be admitted into the UCLA
Medical Center Dermatology ward for a month-long stay, where I would be
tended to with special ultraviolet lights and salves and tar creams.
After the month was up, my skin would be clear and normal looking. But
all the treatments the hospital had to offer couldn’t get at the
malfunction that was somewhere deep inside my body, manifesting itself
on my skin. Only two months later, everything would return and I would
live again in my itchy, encrusted prison until the next hospital visit
the following year.
Strong-willed, though, my spirit somehow managed to
flourish and I had friends. People are adaptable, I suppose. If the body
that housed me had to be encased in diseased-looking skin, I would have
to force my own soul to flourish, or at least try. Classmates knew and
liked me. They thought I was shy, but funny and sweet. Was I really?
Maybe I was…or maybe those characteristics were my own way of making
it easier for people to look at me, for people to like me, for me to
In high school, Dan did not seem to see my skin. He
was not like others, who looked, then looked away and tried too hard not
to look. His gaze was admiring and unwavering. He never said a word,
except to tell me I was beautiful. The one time we discussed my
psoriasis, before the first time we slept together, he told me that it
only made my normal skin (what little of it there was) more beautiful. I
started to feel more like a teenager and less like a hidden sideshow
freak, always wearing long-sleeved turtlenecks in July. I was finally a
real girl. One wearing freak’s clothing, but a girl nonetheless.
But after a school year of passionate high school
dating and teenaged promises of love and the future, Dan broke my heart
and broke up with me for someone else. What better way to comfort myself
(and take revenge on Dan) than to start spending time with Neil? It
began as a friendship, turned into a crush, and six months later, Neil
and I were a couple. Dan was none too pleased about this turn of events,
but there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Tovah, however, was thrilled to have kept me in the
family. Whether it was with Dan or Neil didn’t matter to her. Whether
I looked like a walking, bleeding snake shedding its skin didn’t
matter. My father was a rabbi; I was a nice Jewish girl and a rabbi’s
daughter. Who cared that I had fucked her younger son in his bedroom
while she sang along to Babs and cooked Friday night Sabbath dinner? Dan
had his new girlfriend. Neil needed a nice new girl in his life.
Everyone was happy.
Everyone, that is, but me. I was still only sixteen. I
thought I was happy. I convinced myself that Neil was the man I wanted
to be with, that I wasn’t really rebounding from my first high school
romance gone awry. That I wasn’t really trying to get back at Dan. And
mostly, that I wasn’t really settling for the first man after Dan who
could touch my thick, plaque-ridden skin and not shudder. I could not
look in mirrors naked without crying. I didn’t feel nearly as
beautiful with Neil as I did with Dan, but he tried and it was enough
– enough, at least, for the me I was then.
My mother loved Neil. She had not really cared for
Dan. Well, she didn’t exactly dislike him…she just disliked the fact
that I had had sex with Dan in my bedroom at night after she and my
father had gone to sleep. "You’re shtupping, goddamit! I
do not want you shtupping in this house!" Why she always
consented to Dan’s sleeping over when it made her so angry was beyond
me. I was just glad at the time that she did, for it meant that we could
have sex at home in bed instead of on our math classroom’s desk during
lunch hour (the math classroom was the only classroom that locked).
She didn’t seem to mind as much once I was shtuppingNeil in my bedroom instead of Dan. Well, she didn’t like it, but
instead of encouraging me not to shtupp, she pushed me to shtuppas a married woman, although I was only a
newly-turned-seventeen-year-old about to graduate high school. "If
you’re going to shtupp him, goddamit, GET MARRIED!"
Neil and I moved in together when I was eighteen, in
order to escape the constant "if you’re going to shtupp then
get married" chant that was being drummed into my ears.
Unfortunately, though, my mother’s "get married" caterwaul
continued by phone and visit on a regular basis. My father, the rabbi,
had no opinion, except for the fact that Neil was a nice boychik. But
my father’s lack of voice did nothing to override my mother’s siren
yowl. The brainwashing was complete.
Neil and I got married when I was nineteen and he was
twenty-four. I needed him, or thought I did. He needed me to need him. I
thought I was happy. The fact that my weight had skyrocketed from 140 to
215 pounds at my height of 5’3" did not cross my mind as related
to my marriage, nor did the fact that I had now developed something
called psoriatic arthritis, a form of arthritis caused by severe
psoriasis. Yet, I felt a strange worm of resentment towards Neil
wriggling in the pit of my stomach. When Dan looked into my eyes and
told me I was beautiful, I was astounded and touched. When Neil uttered
those same words, I felt contempt for him in his attraction to me.
As my weight increased, so did the emptiness inside
me, leaving only that worm of bitterness, like a burning, wormy shot of
tequila slithering down my throat. I spent most of the year I was 21
years old in a wheelchair while the arthritis had its way with me. It is
from this experience that I discovered one of life’s great truths: you
WILL let somebody wipe your ass for you if you are in enough pain, even
if you think you won’t. I promised myself that after a year’s time,
if there was no change, I would kill myself. Hours of fantasy filled my
mind. How would I do it? Was I mobile enough to make it to the bathroom
for a bottle of aspirin and the kitchen for our hidden stash of rum? And
if so, would I be able to open the bottle? Details spun lazily in my
mind for weeks, ultimately unfinished. The unending, knife-blade pain
slowly abated after eight months. I was grateful to once again be just a
simple psoriatic, flaking and raw but walking and wiping on my own.
In 1991, when I was 23 years old, my doctor offered a
new form of treatment to me. "It’s called PUVA. The P stands for
Psoralen, the pill you take that makes your skin ultra-sensitive to the
ultraviolet alpha rays. Then an hour later, you come into the office and
stand in the UVA light box. Works like a charm for almost all of my
severe cases." There were serious side effects: potential
cataracts, kidney damage, nausea and constant itching. I did not care. I
began treatments. Two months later, I was in true remission for the
first time in my life. I was free. I could feel my old soul shedding
away along with my layers of dead skin flakes and crust. My disbelieving
hands flew to my now-normal body in the solid dark or night over and
over again, trembling, almost frightened by the lack of familiar
roughness they found there.
Everything between Neil and myself changed. The
fullness of the change was frightening, cosmic, overpowering. I tried,
but no matter what, could not stop the rock that had begun rolling down
the hill of our marriage. By the time I was twenty-five years old, we
in a closet? I mean literally: come home from work at night, have a
little dinner, then go to sleep on a pile of dirty laundry in your
closet. The first room I could really call my own room after I moved
from my apartment was actually the closet belonging to my younger
I didn’t have too many options. Moving back in with
my parents was out of the question. My sister was living in a
one-bedroom apartment with a roommate of her own. This roommate, a
short, chunky lesbian named Lisa with a sarcastic sense of humor and
strangely petite ankles for her beefy frame, had the bedroom. Leanna had
constructed a dry wall in the living room, creating a tiny bedroom nook
for herself. She had just enough room in her nook for her twin bed and
I called her in a panic, and she calmed me down.
"Sure, Nonnie! Sure, come stay with me. It’s just that it’s
going to be a bit tight. Would you be okay sleeping in my closet? There’s
just no other place, and you know how Lisa is…" Leanna made
turning a living room closet – albeit a roomy one – into a temporary
bedroom the most logical and everyday idea I had ever heard.
Why my sister always ensnared herself in such bizarre
living arrangements, I did not know. She was twenty-three years old and
strikingly beautiful, with dark curly hair hanging nearly to her waist,
and blue eyes with unusually dark eyelashes. Strangers – you would be
surprised just how many – regularly asked her if she was wearing false
eyelashes for one reason or another.
Leanna seemed to gravitate towards weird and
dysfunctional people and situations. I didn’t know it then, but at the
time, she was working at a place called Lady Laura’s House of Bondage
and Domination, on La Cienega Boulevard. Leanna received twenty dollars
per customer…men who would whip or spank her with a variety of belts
and paddles while she wore lingerie. She was also a receptionist for a
hotshot Beverly Hills law firm, and sold marijuana to her lawyer bosses
on a weekly basis. My sister would eventually, by the time she was
thirty, become a registered nurse and work for an occupational therapist
specializing in hand injuries, but neither of us knew that then.
And so I moved into my little sister’s closet for my
first month of single life. I still had the same job I’d been at for
the last two years, editing insurance-related law at a publishing
company in Chatsworth. There is little to write, entertaining or
meaningful, about the editing of insurance-related law. It felt almost
appropriate to arrive at work from awakening within a closet and huddle
in a purple-carpeted cubicle to read Worker’s Compensation and Motor
Vehicle laws for eight hours. It was at this point in my life that I
discovered another riveting truth: in most states, a man will receive
only twenty-two weeks’ worth of financial compensation for losing a
testicle on the job. However, if a man loses both his testicles
in that same accident, the amount of compensation suddenly quadruples.
Every body part had its price. This was a favorite topic at lunches
I was free. It was 1993, and I was scraping by on
seventeen grand a year. Barely enough to get me out of the closet and
into my own tiny, boxy studio, but I did. I had a room, toilet, shower,
closet, sink, and hotplate. I was twenty-five years old and had never
really dated, except for Dan and Neil.
Country music and "Achy Breaky Heart" was at
its heyday. Newly single, I took up line dancing and two-stepping with a
passion born from the combination of old repression, newfound
excitement, and a sudden spurt of bravery. I immediately dropped thirty
pounds, bringing me down to a more svelte and acceptable 185, and a size
18. I wore low-cut blouses with fringed vests to show my cleavage yet
hide my abundant waist.
My line-dancing phase taught me something I had not
known before: there are men who want to have sex with 185-pound
women, or at least those who are willing to. I couldn’t grasp the
concept of a man having sex with a woman to whom he wasn’t attracted
just for the sex act itself. Thus, I savored like a rich dessert the
idea that men were attracted to me, to me, to the girl who used
to shower skin onto carpets of dressing rooms, her face hot and hanging,
eyes avoiding mirrors. According to my ever-Puritanical mother, I shtupped
anything in pants and cowboy boots. According to her, I was a
My father’s only comments were never aimed at my
divorce; he was simply pleased that I had followed in his footsteps of
musical taste, country music lovin’ and guitar strummin’ rabbi that
he was. All he said were things like, "Merle Haggard and Johnny
Cash are true country, not these new fakes like Billy Ray Cyrus.
Achy Breaky Heart, my ass." Then he’d flip back to whatever
sermon he was writing that week.
Even for the newest of single girls, though,
one-night-stands with cowboys eventually do grow old. Or perhaps
sometimes, something that was meant to last for only a night stretches
out, and lasts for years. Maybe Ian was simply a two-and-a-half-year
stand. He and I met on the freeway during rush-hour traffic. My car had
broken down and I had pulled onto the shoulder. Leona, the person with
whom I always traded crises, was living in London at the time. Lady
Laura’s behind her, she worked as a short-order cook in a pub now,
dishing up quiches, Marmite sandwiches, and pickled eggs to drunken
Englishmen till from suppertime until three o’clock in the morning,
and attended massage therapy classes during the day.
Ian pulled up alongside me on the shoulder of the 101
freeway, his face darkly handsome, and spoke into my window. "Need
help?" His voice was soft, with just the hint of an accent, not
British but something close. He turned out to be from Bombay, a Catholic
Indian. He carried a tiny New Testament in his glove box, hidden a
respectable distance away from his pack of ribbed Trojans.
There were things I learned from him. Ian, who bought
me expensive gifts and took me on weekend trips on a regular basis. Ian,
who told me often that he "preferred slender women" and told
me never to wear horizontal stripes. Who told me he loved me only once
in two and a half years, whispered into my ear after using his hand to
make me come in the dark on a cold New Year’s eve. Who bought me
groceries and petted my hair when I flared and couldn’t walk for six
months. Who told me one night, after coming home from going out for
dessert with two friends, that I ate like a pig, then had angry sex with
me after I cried. Ian, who partnered me at a West Coast Swing Dance
weekend workshop. And Ian, who wouldn’t put moisturizer on my back one
night when my skin had gone crazy and flared after my first of four hand
surgeries for the arthritis. "What do you expect me to do? Come on.
I mean, why don’t you just say, ‘I’m a leper; rub me down’?"
That sentence, that falsetto assuming of my voice for that split second,
still rings in my ears sometimes when I awaken from a dream of my past,
dreams that I am once again lying in a bed stiff with coal tar, in piles
of skin-made confetti.
We left each other at the same time I left PUVA. I had
been given ultraviolet light treatments for the last twenty years. Its
effectiveness had worn down; my grace period was over. Instead of
normal-looking skin now, I bore what looked like a light heat rash, or
chicken pox. Red freckles graced my body like a livable, mild, yet
shameful token of what lurked inside me. I felt like the woman in The
Scarlet Letter, yet my letter was not branded on a dress, but instead
dispersed over my body with dozens of telling marks. My doctors taught
me how to inject methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug that weakened the
liver, into my thigh each week, to take the place of my holy light.
Pain and anger is a powerful combination. My mind
became solely, obsessively, grievingly focused on diet and exercise. I
would be the "slender woman" Ian had always needled me to be.
If I was condemned to be a leper begging to be rubbed down when scabbed,
I could at least be a shapely one. In five months, I dropped from 185 to
135 pounds, and stayed there. He gave me this gift with his inflicted
pain, this gift of untapped strength I found lying fallow until then.
A new truth of life presented itself to me then: being
thin does not mean that you will meet nice men. If anything, the men I
met when I was fat were of better emotional and mental quality, perhaps
due to their open-mindedness about bedding a fat woman.
I cannot write too much about Michael. Just a few
sentences could sum him up, really. He had been in the army, stationed
in Germany. He had a four-year-old daughter back there, and cried when
he talked about her. He had an evil temper and drank heavily; yet oddly
enough, Michael was at his sweetest when drunk. On the few occasions
that I cried in front of him, he would mutter, " Damn it,
Nonnie, stop sniveling." Michael loved to cook spaghetti and
chicken enchiladas for me; he was an excellent cook. His sex drive was
surprisingly and disappointingly low, he spoke military-talk in his
sleep, and after three or four or five breakups, we went our ways.
Leanna returned from London a certified massage
therapist, wanting to become a nurse and soured on men after a failed
British love affair with a repressed computer technician named Flash. I
decided to leave my insurance-editor’s job and return to school to
earn my master’s degree. The two of us took up house together,
eccentric and successful roommates, each sister finally with her own
bedroom and closet.
leaned back against my mountain man stretched out on the couch. The
radio was on very low, the local Big Bear station counting down the last
hour of 1999. His legs were on either side of me, my back against his
stomach and chest. There was frost on the windows. I could hear tree
branches scraping against the roof in the crisp, breezy thirteen-degree
air. Snow blew off of the mountains and turned the air misty and
ethereal, like dancing, teasing, flirty clouds of cold white confetti.
We settled into each other, butter melting into
butter. Our shapes fit well, like two jigsaw puzzle pieces that finally,
after much searching, get clicked together so satisfyingly by the person
assembling the puzzle that there is an involuntary sigh of contentment.
I could feel his body moving with breath, and see his red beard out of
the corner of my eye when I looked up. His large and freckly hand lay on
my stomach almost shyly, as if it wasn’t sure whether it had
permission to be resting there. It had been three months, and this was
the closest our bodies had yet touched.
Something about the inside of his left thigh felt
unusual to me. It felt as though there was a depression at the highest
point of his upper inner thigh, right before the groin. I couldn’t
tell for sure. I shifted mildly and pressed close to the inside of his
leg. Yes, something was definitely different there. His leg was not
fully formed, or a part of it was missing. I was curious…but I did not
want to ask about it and force him to confide anything in me before he
had brought himself to open to me naturally.
He spoke as if I had asked a question out loud.
"There’s a big piece missing from that leg."
I was still leaning back on him, relaxed, my eyes
closed. His face and body were behind me; I could feel his warm breath
in my ear when he spoke. His voice was soft and pleasant, like a slight,
shy laugh was held inside. I said the first thing that popped into my
The breath by my ear continued. "Well, I don’t
remember it, but I was attacked by a bear when I was four." His
voice was gentle and matter-of-fact. "There’s a big piece missing
on my back, too. My parents have told me all the grisly details about
it, but I really don’t remember it at all." His voice was so
gentle, so gentle. A wind chime sounded in the outside air like music
echoing in an underwater cave.
My body was still pressed against his left leg. I
turned onto my side and put my hand high up on the inside on his thigh.
My mountain man lay there and did not move, blue eyes hidden by his
closed eyelids. I could see the deep concavity in his leg by the groin
once I laid my hand upon it; my fingers softly dipped into his leg
several inches deep as I ran my hand up, then back down, dipping again
into the deep U of his inner thigh.
I tried to imagine what must have happened. A bear
grabbed this once-four-year-old boy, maybe shaking him by the back until
a piece of meat tore free, then dragged him by the leg over leaves and
dirt. Did he utter a cry? Did the bear release him on its own volition,
or had his father, yelling unintelligible things, run out with a rifle
and shot the animal dead in its tracks?
I stood up and moved behind him. My hands, like
inquisitive little animals not belonging to me, gently pushed my
mountain man’s shoulders until he sat up on the couch. My hands ran
gently down his back. The gouge was not difficult to find. There was a
huge hollow right below his left shoulder, deep and wide enough to hold
at least half a cup of water. I lay my cheek against it while white
flakes of ice hit against the window. The radio’s voice announced
there was only forty minutes remaining until the new millennium.
I moved in front of him, my red-bearded mountain man,
in a dream of color and sound and heat within ice. I could not feel my
hands as they gently, surely pulled my clothes from my own body while he
watched. Naked, I stood before him as white, frozen flakes of ice tapped
against the window behind me. There was no squirming, rueful feeling of
exposure as he looked at my body, glowing gold and speckled red from the
fire burning in the living room fireplace behind me. My drifting mind
went to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid and how she must have
felt, standing at the rocky shore for the first time, beautiful and
unsure, wobbling on legs lovely yet awkward and ungainly.
He had not moved, only gazed at me, his crystal blue
eyes steady and limpid. I moved to him, naked, and stood behind him once
again. My hands, bold yet gentle creatures unattached from my arms,
pulled his shirt over his head. I looked down at the puckered skin
covering the missing chunk of his back. How large had the wound been as
a four-year-old child? How deep had the gouge dipped? I lay my hand in
the hole below his shoulder. His body was warm, peaceful. The skin where
my hand lay was lusciously soft. Was he even real? Was he a fantasy of
mine, and I would awaken in bed at home, alone? His name never floated
through my head when daydreaming of him; he was simply my mountain man,
the man of lions and tigers far and away.
His strong arm, furry with red curls, reached behind
him and took hold of my waist. A flash of memory – something having to
do with my waist and blood — tried to surface but immediately
disappeared in the gentle, warm, milky whirlwind of his hands on my skin
and his mouth on my mouth.
Valentine’s Day, a time for lovers. I sat in one of the many
green-carpeted chairs in Waiting Room 1 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital
right before the first Valentine’s Day of the new millennium, waiting
to have the lumps under my left arm examined. They had surfaced
suddenly, with no explanation. The hospital was located on Edgemont
Street, right off of Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of where sleazy
Hollywood becomes sleazy Los Angeles.
The entourage of patients waiting along with me to be
seen by a doctor was an interesting one. An old woman with fading
dyed-black and gray hair muttered to herself in a wheelchair as a nurse
with a strident voice called, "Mrs. Guttierez, you stay right
there! Wait till I come to get you!" A young couple, both with
bright blond hair and blue eyes, huddled together eating French fries
out of a bag and watching football on the waiting room’s television
set anchored to the wall. An identical couple, but with dark brown skin
and hair rather than blond, read together from an English/Spanish
dictionary and murmured back and forth to one another. A stoic looking
Asian man with a high forehead and wire-rimmed glasses stared straight
ahead. A lone woman, nervous, sat hunched over chewing her nails, her
wedding band glinting in the florescent lights.
I caught the eye of a teenaged Latin boy for a moment.
He looked about fifteen or sixteen years old. He had thick, curly, dark
hair and a very handsome face. He wore faded jeans and a T-shirt with
the number 43 ironed on the chest. He sipped at a soda clutched in his
hand. A Burger King bag and cup sat on the floor at his feet like
obedient pets. The cup was full of what looked like strawberry
milkshake, nestled in a brown cardboard drink holder.
We smiled at each other briefly, then he looked away,
shy. A moment later, his head swiveled up as the door leading to the
examination rooms opened. A tall, rawboned woman hustled out, all
shoulders and elbows. Her skin was fair and freckled. Her long, thick
auburn hair was frizzy and flyaway. She wore bright, frosted purple
lipstick, purple eyeshadow, and eyeliner extending beyond her eye to
create a "cat’s eye" effect. Her white T-shirt and black
jeans were skintight, and she wore a glittery, narrow,
The teenager’s eyes lit up. "Mom, I got you a
shake!" It was only then, when I heard his voice, that I noticed
his eyes were set unusually closely together, and that he had Downs
Syndrome. He got awkwardly to his feet, trying to clutch his own soda, a
paper Burger King bag, and his mother’s strawberry milkshake at the
same time. The boy held the tall, pink-tinted cup out to her.
"Look, Mom! I found the caffy-teria!"
The woman ignored the proffered milkshake and spoke
sharply, brusquely. "Okay. C’mon." She hurried towards the
waiting room’s exit doors, jerkily, shoulders turning sharply with
The teenaged boy turned to follow her. His face was a
picture of perfect tension, creases furrowing into his young, brown
brow. Our eyes met again, and I offered him a tentative smile. I
received nothing in return. He looked down, then away, then hurried with
a clumsy gait after the woman with the long auburn hair and glittering
I watched the two of them as they left the waiting
room, one striding away aggressively, one trailing behind, unhappy. What
had been wrong with that woman? Was she pregnant and here to see about
an abortion? Was she a crack-addicted hooker with a sexually transmitted
disease, leaving her Downs Syndrome teenaged son home alone at night?
Did she just have a basic, run of the mill sore throat, like so many
people get in February? Or maybe she had cancer.
My thoughts turned back to myself, myself and my
mountain man. It already seemed like forever since last night, forever
since we lay naked together in the back seat of his truck, his warm
mouth on my neck and his huge hands on my back. What would he think if I
had to tell him that yes, the drugs and injections had finally worked
their evil side effects, and that I had cancer now on top of the skin
and the arthritis? Would one more medical problem be the straw that
would break his camel’s back? Would he turn his own beautiful and
mutilated back, and wash his hands? Or would his feeling for me, his new
and strange love, prevail?
And if my haunting, fantasy-like worries eventually
came to be, and the drugs, like evil friends I could not give up,
eventually killed me, would he be sorry to have ever met me? Would he
hold his pain against me? Would he stay in touch with Leanna to comfort
her? I did not want to hurt him with my pain.
Somehow, though, my mind could just not let me imagine
his walking away. The image tried to form, but my imagination drifted
and wouldn’t create the picture. Perhaps I was only able to imagine
what I believed, and I did not believe in him as one to run. There was
shelter; there was his warm circle. My eyes closed and I leaned back in
Instead, I wanted to win myself as my prize, the self
I tasted in my mouth when I kissed him. The strong me. The survivalist
me. The beautifully scarred and marked woman of me. I could now look in
the mirror naked for long moments at a time without averting my eyes.
Looking and looking and looking, eyes and body locked in awe, neither
fearfully tearing away.
©2000 Dena Feldman