Today, I swiped a stick of foundation across my jawline, leaning into the mirror to see whether the color blended. The woman next to me snuck a look at me- then a longer one. I smiled at her. “Your eyes are really pretty. Those colors look great on you,” I told her. It wasn’t a lie- the pale, pearly shadow she had brushed on her inner corners showed up beautifully.
She smiled wide. “Thanks. Umm, can I ask you a personal question?”
Most people don’t get personal over testers at the local Sephora. But I knew the conversation she was about to start, because it was the fourth time that day I’d had that conversation.
Life is different when you’re visibly disabled.
I’m fortunate; unless you strip me down to find the scars, most of my disabilities are invisible in most circumstances.
In most circumstances.
As my family began planning a vacation to an amusement park- no small undertaking with several kids and several adults to coordinate- an awkward subject came up. One of the kids was probably gonna need a wheelchair. After the planning session, my partner pulled me to the side. He avoided my eye, so I cut him off before he could force the words out. “I think I may need one too, if the doctors can’t figure it out by then.”
“I’m sure they will,” he said. “But it might be a backup plan.”
The months passed, taking it from a backup plan to a certainty. I didn’t have an easy time with that- I had once walked a mile or so home after moving cross country with a used TV perched on my shoulder for my new residence. I had been athletic for most of my life. But it was more important to enjoy the vacation without being in tears just from the pain of staying on my feet for a single ride’s line.
I nearly cried sitting down that first day. It felt too much like admitting I was never going to get back up.
When my mobility-restricted companion saw me, they squealed. “We’re wheelchair buddies!” They sat next to me on rides, and tried demanding their father race my partner with our chairs. They offered me their arm to lean on when I walked. I was happy that the wheelchair had taken the brunt off them for theirs- I knew them well enough to know how their health issues and mobility issues too often set them apart from others. I smiled, and played along.
But I saw the stares we got. Each one was a pebble tossed into my lap, until I could hardly believe my partner could still push the chair past their weight.
He got up to stand in line at a snack kiosk, setting my wheelchair, with me in it, to the side of the main thoroughfare. A man cutting a corner without looking walked into my chair. “You’re a fucking cunt,” he told me. “If you can’t walk, you shouldn’t be here.” He was gone by the time my partner got back. I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to ruin the trip.
At the end of that trip, I was overfreakingjoyed to get out of the chair and return to short walks and frequent breaks- and ashamed, that I missed how much less I hurt when I wasn’t constantly forced to overdo my body’s limits for even minor activities.
Like I said, I’m fortunate.
Following my recent surgery, my body recovered exceptionally well in some ways- and unusually poorly in others. I was able to start moving in record time- but my blood was functioning abnormally poorly. So I’m on oxygen now. I’m not sure for how long- I guess that’s up to my blood. I hope that it, like the wheelchair, is temporary.
About that conversation…
“Can I ask you something personal?”
She carefully avoided looking at me, combing a wand over an already-mascaraed eyelash that was free of clumps, too. The action was superfluous, but one of those little moments of grace that those of us who wear makeup rarely get to see others do. “Do you have… that… because you’re a smoker?”
Same I had with the others, I laughed. “Sorry, no. I’ve had one cigarette my entire life.”
The wand stilled. For a moment, the fear she’d been trying to hide hung their between us, painted across her face. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “I just lost the genetic lottery.”
She took her weight off her elbows, standing straight to look me in the eye. “Don’t say that. No genes are bad genes. They make you you.”
That they do.
So why was she- and every other person who started that same conversation- so afraid of me?
Our bodies are our homes. Homes aren’t supposed to be fragile. Homes aren’t supposed to have cracks in the roofing, or gas leaks, or flimsy walls, or quirky creaks on the stairs. That person complaining about the drafts must be imagining it- because no homes have faulty caulking. So we curse at the creaks, and tear up the stairs, installing new planks only to discover that it may not have fixed the creak- or that the creak may not have been worth fucking with. We pretend to ignore those drips until we run out of pots to catch the water. We pretend not to smell the fumes, until they poison us in our sleep. We treat doctors as a luxury, rather than as a necessity.
We look at those whose homes came with flaws, idiosyncrasies, or differences that prevent them from functioning in the same way ours do as having somehow caused or deserved it. The fat. The smoking. The drinking. That person in the wheelchair has no right to the space they take up.
Because so long as it’s their own bad choices biting them in the ass, that person lugging an oxygen tank around, or that person in the chair will never be you.
Until it is.
So long as it’s their own bad choices biting them in the ass, you don’t have to consider whether you’ve been kind to others in their position. You don’t have to consider accommodating their needs. You don’t have to ask, “What if they’ve always been that way?” You don’t have to consider that sometimes homes just aren’t built that sturdily. You don’t have to consider that even the most sturdy homes eventually succumb to rot, to disaster, to age.
You can blithely believe that there are no bad genes.
Only bad choices.