The second most shocking thing that ever happened to me took place inside an Ikea. Stacy and I had been dating long distance for a year and on one of my trips up to New York City she asked if I’d like to go to Ikea with her, by ferry, which passed right by the Statue of Liberty. A homemaking journey and a tourist adventure wrapped into a single floating package. I said yes, of course. I hate Ikea — it’s a death trap for young couples with big dreams and a limited budget — but it was early days and we lived a thousand miles apart; I would have followed her into the sewer.
Luckily she wasn’t after any furniture, so we breezed past the people measuring bed frames and twirling around in desk chairs and flipping through fake books. She wanted home decoration; textiles; a new duvet. I stood nearby, squashing down pillows and watching them fill back up with air, while she flipped through the giant display on the wall. She asked what I liked and I told her to pick whatever she liked. I was only in her bed a few days every few months. It was really none of my business.
She chose a bright orange and red and pink one, and a dusky blue and black and white one.
“Comforters for any occasion,” I said.
She said, “Here, feel these. Are they soft enough for you?”
I blinked at her. “What?” I said.
She said, “Are they soft enough for you to feel at home in your body in my bed?”
I never talked to anyone about the softness thing — the “sensory processing sensitivity” thing — and certainly not to a girl I really wanted to like me. Not about how anything that wasn’t a t-shirt or a flannel or a fleece made my skin feel like it was covered in ants or wasps or rubbing off my bones, or about how it’d always been that way since I was a little kid, or about how I couldn’t concentrate or sit still or remember my own name if lace or wool or even polyester was touching my skin and so I sneaked my softball jersey to school to change into on test days because it was the softest shirt I owned, or the thing where I did secret laundry at night in high school using double fabric softener to try to make my clothes bearable, and cut the tags out of everything including my pants and sat on the edges of chairs and couches when I was wearing shorts so my bare legs didn’t touch the scratchy material and wore sweatshirts inside out under my coats because the super soft insides always turned to needles after they’d been washed too much, about how I could only give the briefest and loosest hug to anyone wearing anything I couldn’t wear on my own body.
“Anything’s fine,” I said. “Get what you like!”
“Please just lay your cheek on this,” she said. “I want to take care of you.”
She said it like the easiest thing in the world, like she wanted to buy me an ice cream cone or play tic-tac-toe. She’d decoded one of my main weirdnesses that I never mentioned to anyone because I’m a person who doesn’t need to compound my weirdness. She’d brought me across the river in a boat to press my face against something she was going to keep on her bed for the very rare times my face was in her bed. She wanted to take care of me.
I don’t need to be taken care of, is what I almost said because it was a simple fact.
I don’t need help. I have never needed help. I don’t need help lifting anything or carrying it either, I don’t need help reaching stuff on the top shelf, I don’t need help learning new things or going new places or figuring out how anything works. If it’s broken I’ll fix it. If it’s a problem I’ll solve it. When I was five years old and I got off the bus and no one was home to let me inside, I got on my Strawberry Shortcake bicycle to ride it several miles to my great-grandmother’s country store. When I was in middle school at basketball camp and I got moved up to the high school league because I was too tall and I started my period for the first time and my cheap shoes fell apart, I walked to the gas station and bought pads for my pants and duct tape for my sneakers and won the MVP trophy at the end of the week. When I wanted to become a writer even though I had no professional training whatsoever, I quit my job as an accountant and I became a writer. If your ship wrecked on a desert island, I’m the one you’d want to be stranded with. I find a way.
I laid my head on the duvet in her hands. It was very soft. Not as soft as I would have picked out for myself, but softer than anything anyone had ever bought because of me. (A burlap sack was softer than anything anyone had ever bought because of me.) I said, “Thank you for thinking of me.” She said, “I always think of you.”
The most shocking thing that ever happened to me took place on the telephone only a few weeks later. I was back home in Georgia and it was 2:00 am and Stacy was dozing off on the other end of the line. “I want us to be together so long I get to watch your face change,” is what she said.
I laughed. “My face?”
“Don’t laugh,” she said. “I love your face.”
My face was another thing I never talked about. I’d grown up looking just like my dad, everyone said so. My mom said it too, that I looked like him, and that I acted like him in every way. “You’re just like your dad.” Which in most families is probably an affectionate thing to tell a kid, but my mom meant it as the deepest insult. My dad was the one who had to tell her she couldn’t keep writing bad checks, running up the credit card bills, forging his name to legal documents. She called it “her illness” so we all called it “her illness.” I guess that’s what made her lash out at anything and everyone who called her perfection into question. I had a quick mind and sharp tongue and my dad’s nose. I didn’t understand her. And so she told me I was just like him.
I’d read somewhere in my early 20s that if you’re going to develop the same mental illnesses and personality disorders as your parents, you usually do it by the time you’re 25. I don’t know if it’s true, but I clung to it like God’s personal promise. I sat awake in my bed by myself on the eve of my birthday when I was 24 years old and counted down the minutes. Five and I would never raise my hand to anyone and especially not someone I loved, four and I wouldn’t say mean things on purpose to make people cry, three and I would think of others as much as I thought of myself, two and I would never make anyone question their own reality, one and I would always be grateful for everything anyone did for me. Midnight and I was still me. I sobbed into my pillow. When I woke up, the mirror told me my face was turning into hers, but my heart told me I was free.
Except my face isn’t really my mom’s. She has tan, flawless skin; bright green eyes; a mouth made for smiling. My face is her shape but my skin is scarred and lined, a hormonal acne nightmare since I was barely ten. My chin is crooked from one too many baseballs to my teeth. My eyes are her color, but muted, and I can hardly see out of my left one, a truth that betrays me every time I take off my glasses and it lazily looks in toward my nose. My face is a funhouse version of my mom’s.
Stacy messed with everything I thought about my body. She liked it. She wanted to take care of it. She wanted to watch it change.
Her closet filled up with soft things and she kissed my laugh lines as they turned to wrinkles. I know her scars, exactly the way her day went from her posture the second she walks in the door. I know where the invisible border is between her abdomen and her side that separates feeling really nice from feeling unbearably ticklish. I know the meanings of all the shades of all the colors of her eyes and whether or not she’s in the bed beside me when I wake up even if I’m not facing her direction.
I stopped thinking about my weird body as being weird until just this year when a pap smear and mammogram reminded me that my body exists outside of the warm blanket of Stacy’s perception. I’d spent 25 years of my life worrying about the nature/nurture damage to my heart and the way my face was transforming into my mom’s, when I should have been worrying about the gene mutations that caused her breast cancer when she was younger than I am now. Those initial tests concluded that I had an enlarged uterus and focal asymmetry in my right breast, and so I had MRIs, and blood work, and ultrasounds, and outpatient surgeries, and mammograms, and biopsies, and endless consultations to get to the bottom of it.
My breast abnormality isn’t malignant; it just needs to be monitored. My reproductive system is, medically speaking, “a wreck.”
When we found out I need big surgery, and that the big surgery is going to require a major recovery, I called Stacy at work and told it to her matter-of-factly. Then made a list of things to do: stuff to buy and hospital appointments to make and responsibilities to delegate. I checked off everything one by one. Peppermint capsules and chicken broth, blood work and pre-admission, all my writers handed off to different editors. There’s a shovel in the kitty litter that Stacy can use so she doesn’t have to wrestle the 40-pound bags and a jar full of quarters for the laundromat so she doesn’t have to fight the change machine and a new cord management system installed by my bed so I don’t have to bend over. Stacy asked what she could do, how she could help, all she wanted to do was be useful, and I said nothing, nothing, I’ve got everything under control. And so she held me on the nights I was pretending to be able to sleep and whispered “I’ll take care of you” over and over without ever expecting an answer.
The first time she walked into the recovery room after I’d been under general anesthesia she lost the structure in her limbs. Every way she moves is so commanding and purposeful; she looked like a different person when her arms turned to rubber. I was sitting up and drinking apple juice and everything was good. The doctor had already talked to me. Nothing to worry about, everything normal, once I was finished with the graham crackers I could go home, and then onto the next test. I reached for her hand and said I knew it was hard for her to see me like that, with the tubes in my nose and the IV in my arm and my even-paler-than-usual face. She tugged on the neckline of the hospital gown I was wearing. “It’s too stiff,” she said, “We have to get you out of it.”
Years after Stacy’s head found its home in the crook of my shoulder, we bought our first piece of grown-up furniture together at the Brooklyn Flea Market. We shared a lobster roll, three tacos, and a waffle. I drank a beer. Then we saw the table, and it pulled us to it like gravity. Repurposed steel pipe legs and a tabletop made from old barn wood, deep brown with streaks of orange still glowing through. Stacy clutched it with her hand, her face so firm no one came near it until the woman who built it had a free minute to sell it to us. We called it our “darling table” and we followed it with matching chairs, a media console, two big beautiful area rugs. We bought our couch from a furniture gallery in Soho, custom made. It was the same couch we bounced up and down on in the showroom, the same one we imagined afternoons and evenings on, curled up with books and hot toddies, our faces close and dear and slowly changing. That one, but with special softer fabric.
My big surgery is Monday, October 9. I’ll be away from Autostraddle and the whole internet for several weeks. I thank you in advance for all your warm wishes.
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