By David Radcliff
My friends in college – and by these I mean, the people who seemed to be near me whenever anything noteworthy happened – all of them drank, and heavily. I didn’t. Not because I didn’t want to, really, but because I was convinced drinking was too common, too expected and, most importantly, that it would shatter the enigmatic, unflappable persona I wanted so desperately to project.
So I still don’t do it, even now at forty-four, though it’s harder to deny that the whole charade has become sort of stupid and tragic. The truth is that I, of all people, should be drinking myself to the floor. No life but mine seems more tailor-made for the art of falling unconscious and pissing on oneself.
I live in a one-bedroom apartment with flimsy plastic patio furniture and walls the shade of dirty cotton candy. Their color was not my idea. A pair of old lesbians lived in the place before I did, painted the whole damn thing bright pink, and died a week later, leaving me in the firm grip of their smothering pastel aftershock. But if you kind of glaze your eyes a little bit, stare through the wall instead of at it, you hardly even notice pink at all. It’s considerably less work than repainting.
And in the place across the hall, where it always smells like a greenhouse, lives this stunning Italian woman, Allegra. Every morning the laws of sex and physics rewrite themselves along the graceful curves of her body, brace for a calculated ambush, and fling themselves at me when I pass her door. After several years of practice, though, I can now instinctively avert my eyes if we happen to cross paths. Sometimes I’ll simply check my watch, pretending for the given moment I am an important businessman, an in-demand socialite too engaging to be pinned to one place or one pithy conversation, the harried white rabbit brought into human form: move, move, move.
Sometimes, though, it’s enough simply to feign a sudden interest in a curious carpet pattern or a small rip in the faded hallway paper, and to pick away at it as Allegra glides by on a gentle wisp of European bronze.
What I’ve developed through this whole procedure, I like to think, is some sort of well-intended mating ritual gone sour. With deft, subtle movements now, I can dodge even the most general hint of casual interaction – quickly shifting my shoulders to shield me from conversation, vanishing into the sanctity of my little pink cave, and forever secretly hoping Allegra will have the nerve to follow. She never does.
Rumor is that she wants to be an actress.
It’s been twenty-three years since I lost my right arm and a lot of the time I don’t even miss it. Having a deformity is, in fact, a remarkable phenomenon. Somehow, and almost without exception, it manages to transform the afflicted into a kind of quiet celebrity, casting all ordinary people as sad little re-runs, pale and dull and mass-produced as Q-Tips, soft and untested and sterile. Of the few people I take the time to meet anymore, almost none forget my name, not when they can mentally tag me with “missing an arm.”
So I sign all my Christmas cards “Love, Nub” because I think people like that. I think people like that I can laugh at myself, if only because it so graciously beats them to the punch.
So while it’s true that even the smallest physical activities are more cumbersome without all four limbs, it’s somehow reassuring that the misshapen fleshy lump beneath my shoulder has become my little calling card, a sort of unmentionable social marker.
What one stands to gain from a deforming experience like mine is an awareness that, over time, the classically attractive, with their too-perfect teeth and full-bodied symmetry dissolve into the background hum of daily life. But women with big noses and bad acne, a man with a missing limb, we at least stand a good chance of being remembered, identifiable, sometimes even a welcome diversion for others.
So I sign all my Christmas cards “Love, Nub” because I think people like that. I think people like that I can laugh at myself, if only because it so graciously beats them to the punch.
“Nub, now I know it’s your day off,” Kenny said over the fuzz of my ancient rotary phone, “but I think I’m going to need you to come in. Valerie’s shots still need some touching up. You’re not busy, are you?”
I struggled to quickly piece together a social calendar, give myself a life outside of my suffocating pink cube – movies, groceries, anything. But Kenny has been my employer for six years now. He always knows my answer before I do.
“Great, man,” he said with a dollop of faux enthusiasm, a born politician somehow lost in the world of fashion photography. “I sure appreciate the work you do.” But his voice trailed off at the end there, his arm no doubt en route to the phone’s cradle, ready to end this conversation and move on to better ones or, more likely, to unlatch the bra strap of the latest vapid, hopeful starlet.
I slumped to the floor of my kitchenette, ass-first against cold, dusty linoleum, only then realizing I wasn’t even dressed. Just underwear from the night before.
It’s always a long walk from my apartment to the parking garage, and for whatever reason, today’s seemed longer than usual. These moments, these commonplace blanks in the terrain of my life, are always crushingly uncomfortable for me. Finding myself confronted by even a few unexpected minutes of unmanageable nothingness, even the simplest commute from point A to point B, I’m suddenly forced to come to terms with just how few new or challenging things I have to contemplate anymore.
Give me those same extra minutes in high school, and I could’ve listed sixty different ways I wanted to change the world, all the while believing I could and would put those very plans into action. And what was college but four years of arming myself with weapons of mass pretension? Four years of rallying out at injustice without actually understanding what injustice really was…
(injustice, n. — an education wasted. Usually followed by depression, isolation and lethargy.)
…Surrounding myself with political and social causes because G-d dammit they were there, and they were exciting, if only because they unhinged all focus from myself and fixed it squarely on the heads of who was really to blame – lazy, faceless bastards everywhere. The convenient, easy out.
So while my friends went off to get laid, get married, get the jobs they wanted (or could learn to want), take small bites and chew and swallow, put one foot in front of the other, I just kept jaywalking through life toward some unmarked destination, with this stupid, youthful confidence in my own quiet, untapped potential.
These are the sorts of things I often think about, on my long, daily voyage to the parking garage. But once I reach my car, and feel the spontaneous distractions of driving, I don’t feel so obligated to let them weigh on me at all anymore. At least not much.
From a purely masochistic point of view, I really enjoy working for Kenny. I hit the tiny buzzer that allows me access to Kenny Levinson Studios, and, suddenly, I have a role, better yet, a community. I come here not just for a paycheck, but for a reminder of my personal niche, my fixed position in the occupational social sphere: somewhere just above fermented pig and miles below everything else.
“I knew it was her before even seeing her, because the stump beneath my right shoulder suddenly began to twitch and burn, as it too often does when she is nearby.”
To his credit, though, Kenny is forever careful not to remind me of my delicate position in his caste system. We are, after all, friends – a fact he often tells me as if he needs the reminder. Kenny likes to speak of our working relationship as a celebrity might mention a favorite charity, some small duty he tends to, in order to make the world, if not himself, just a little better.
Kenny is tall, blonde, and has that sort of lean physique most often found in eighties music videos. His grey eyes are in a near-constant state of narrowness, always trying to sell some sort of sexual, predatory energy that lives just below the surface, next to a stunning absence of character. And when he’s in particularly high spirits, Kenny introduces me to others as his “right arm” (a title whose irony is not lost on either of us). He does this, of course, because he knows I can handle a joke.
He unleashes his razor wit in a special, game-show-host voice, hoping his brilliance might sweep to the back of the room and properly amaze and entice any fresh meat that might be itching for a good lay. Once the joke is performed, I am of course expected to play my part, finish the sell, smile. So I inevitably chuckle, or maybe roll my eyes, because Kenny likes people to think he is spontaneous and that this is the very first time he’s uttered such a killer line.
Working at Kenny Levinson Studios, though, for all its expected ass-kissing, is more or less tolerable. I don’t really care to look for any place else and, to be honest, this business has been a well-oiled machine for many years. Here’s a walk-through of our operation:
1. Kenny takes a series of photographs of a naïve, hopeful model
2. Kenny fuels model’s hopes for a lucrative future
3. Kenny f–ks said model
4. I touch up the model’s photographs, removing imperfections and enlarging assets (usually as Kenny repeats step #3)
And occasionally I answer phones, if we’re really pressed for time.
Some calls are better than others. Example:
Me: “Hello. Kenny Levinson Studios.”
Female Voice: “Hello. I was hoping to have some, how do you say…head shots taken?”
Me: “Alright, and what’s your name?”
Female Voice: “Allegra. Allegra Portabello.”
Me: “I’m sorry. I dropped the phone. That’s spelled like the mushroom, right?”
So Allegra, across-the-hall Allegra, came in that Wednesday to see Kenny. I knew it was her before even seeing her, because the stump beneath my right shoulder suddenly began to twitch and burn, as it too often does when she is nearby. The damned thing has somehow become supernaturally attuned to her presence, my mangled little compass hidden beneath a thin sleeve.
I quickly swiveled around for confirmation. She was, as expected, present and beautiful. But I was surprised and angered to find that Kenny paid Allegra very little attention. Their conversation was short and curt and, even as paperwork was signed and photos were taken, I knew nothing particularly impressive would happen that day or any other for Allegra Portabello, hopeful model/actress.
As she floated past the office on those sea foam heels she wears, I realized no one’s head had turned but my own.
Now, I knew that all of our employees will try any good screw once, and yet this gorgeous woman, whose existence is itself a reminder of all of my disgusting social and physical shortcomings, had barely registered in their peripheral vision. I simply couldn’t believe it. Was there something wrong with her? Wouldn’t someone please at least say they’d like to f–k her?
Selfish as it seemed, I needed to feel better about myself. I needed, most of all, to rescue my sense of taste from a quick and silent death. So, against our policy, I interrupted one of Kenny’s shoots that afternoon.
But my timing was, to say the least, unfortunate. After swinging open Kenny’s office door with a fervor so uncharacteristic I didn’t even recognize it as my own, I found him fluffing a woman’s naked breasts like a couple of old throw pillows. Still, too late to turn back now. Best to get on with it.
“Hey, man,” I said with all the awkwardness of a sixteen-year-old boy. “What’d you think of that Italian? Wouldn’t you like to do her?” The words stumbled out of my mouth like ambushed soldiers, desperate and confused and pleading for a retreat.
And the chesty blond model peeked out from around Kenny’s neck, killing me with a glittering, diamond-eyed stare, her lipstick smeared grotesquely along the edge of her nose and chin, her hair tousled, revealing dark roots even under the soft light of Kenny’s office. Suddenly I found myself backing toward the door, guided by a rapid recognition that I didn’t care what this guy’s answer would be, my friend who just f–ks anything.
“If it was true, what he said, then I had somehow become predictable and safe, easily categorized and shelved away, a failsafe friend to be pulled out occasionally for some odd job or casual advice.”
It didn’t matter, anyway, because Kenny never answered my question. Instead, he tilted his chin to the ceiling, like a f—king wine connoisseur, and looked as if he had forgotten Allegra already, some second-rate tart who wasn’t even good enough for him to flirt with.
“Now just when did you start up with that locker room talk, Nub?” he said, his eyes scanning the ceiling dismissively. “You’re much too nice a guy for that.”
And the chesty bi–h laughed.
Kenny’s comment stung at me for the rest of that afternoon. It crawled inside my face and chest and teased me, like the spicy sweet aromas from that apartment across the hall. If it was true, what he said, then I had somehow become predictable and safe, easily categorized and shelved away, a failsafe friend to be pulled out occasionally for some odd job or casual advice. What he had said meant that after so many years at striving to defy definition, I was now just some routine sap who had been too easily pinned down, branded, managed.
That night I went to the supermarket and bought a lot of alcohol. I don’t know what kind, and the labels really aren’t that important, anyway. I drove home quickly, urgently, and, after drinking several bottles of something that tasted vaguely like copper, fell asleep sprawled beside the fridge.
Against my better judgment and in spite of years of conditioning, I did not show up to work the next morning. Instead, I slept off my first hangover, and discovered how little coffee actually helps the situation.
Once the jackhammer haze of the experience had worn down to a dull throbbing, I realized that, at some point the previous night, I had put on Cream’s Wheels of Fire album at nearly full volume. The needle had found a comfortable home on “Passing the Time” and, much like me, probably hadn’t budged for at least nine hours. I decided to leave it.
Seven unanswered calls on the machine. Without even checking them, I figured they were all obnoxious demands from Kenny. Not too many people have my number anymore.
My stump had been itching since I’d woken up and, for lack of previous experience with drinking, I wrote off the sensation as an effect of the alcohol. This got me lost in thought for a bit, got me wondering if any doctors have studied the medicinal effects of alcohol on pulpy, disfigured flesh, or even if millions of disfigured lives could be saved by such an endeavor. At the very least, it’d probably be good for a laugh.
Scrambling to a half-hearted, Cro-Magnon stature, I stumbled and fell against the door, laughing almost hysterically and totally without reason. The stump thing wasn’t funny, necessarily, but there was something about the tickling peculiarity of it, something about the strangeness and cyclical absurdity of my whole life, social and physical disfigurement combined, now that was f—king killer.
So I laughed like a G-d damned crazy man, I laughed with my head against the pink doorframe and my only arm braced tight across my chest, and I laughed while Cream kept spinning the same three lines: “Passing the time, everything fine/Passing the time, having the wine/Passing the time, drinking red wine”.
“I rushed to clean up the place, tossing bottles and books onto corners and shelves, killing the Cream album, just clearing a path, my stump producing a slow burn to match my nerves.”
My stump felt like hot sand now, and my gut had been severely pummeled by a welcome and unfamiliar mix of laughter and booze. A pounding at the door matched the ringing at the base of my skull, and at some point I gathered up enough sobriety to twist the doorknob and reveal myself to the hallway.
My clouded head raced to adjust to the light spilling into my apartment, and slowly Allegra came to a sort of soapy focus. There she was, backlit by the unnatural yellow glow in the hallway, balancing a full laundry basket on her thigh, and catching me at my absolute worst.
“Are you good?” she asked, and I realized that apart from our phone conversation, this was the most she’d ever said to me. Her ink-black hair spilled uncombed over her shoulder, and her toes clenched and released at the shag hallway carpet. True concern was in her eyes and, although it took me a moment to recognize it, I was convinced she was the most beautiful, flawless thing I’d ever seen. “You left your music on all night. I thought I heard you fall just now.”
“I did,” I said, because it somehow summarized everything. “Do you want to come in?”
I rushed to clean up the place, tossing bottles and books onto corners and shelves, killing the Cream album, just clearing a path, my stump producing a slow burn to match my nerves. Then, we sat to talk, drinking lemonade the whole while because she categorically declined all alcohol.
“I am surprised that you have so much of it,” she said.
“Me too,” I said.
“But here we were, quietly defiant, two kids at a career fair, quietly, desperately, kissing middle-aged life the long, slow goodbye.”
Sitting on that sad plastic furniture, with a new pair of eyes in a dimly-lit apartment that I had so long kept unseen, it suddenly occurred to me that I was wearing the same clothes from the day before. But if I smelled strange, or was bleary-eyed or incoherent, Allegra never mentioned it.
We spoke, instead, of just what it was we wanted to do with ourselves, a subject we had both somehow assumed had passed the point of relevancy. But here we were, quietly defiant, two kids at a career fair, quietly, desperately, kissing middle-aged life the long, slow goodbye. She said she had “this crazy idea to be an actress.” I was surprised to find that most of my crazy ideas had died with all of the good ones.
As she talked about her dreams and the remarkable fire that used to fuel them, I had this extraordinary urge to hold her, to fix all of our losses, to mend them with whatever strange completion had been gained by today’s chance conversation. This was better, more intimate, more simple, than I imagine even the act of sex must be. Finally, smiling, she leaned forward on the weak little chair, its legs bowing outward beneath her. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but these walls I think are very ugly.”
“Oh, I know,” I said too quickly. “I didn’t paint them. They were like that before I moved in. Usually it’s not so bad if you just glaze your eyes a little.”
She laughed. “Like us, I suppose,” she said, her eyelids slipping closed over a lost memory that we both somehow understood. And then, without hesitation, without fear or discomfort, she reached across the short abyss between us, and with her short, round, imperfect fingers, touched the white hot nub where my right arm used to be.
About the Author:
David Radcliff is an editor for AngeLingo. Read his bio here.