Questions of ORIGIN
Those afternoons I did not take the bus and chose to walk home from high school, I would find this boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, sitting on the stoop of the semidetached house where I imagined he lived. Every time I passed, this boy asked: "Why are your legs the way they are?" And I would answer, "I was born that way," never stopping or slowing down.
The next time I walked down that street, there this boy was, sitting on the stoop, and again he asked me his same question. And I gave him my same answer. That was the entirety of our exchange.
Every time I walked down Bay Forty-third Street in Brooklyn shortly after three in the afternoon, that boy and that question would be waiting for me. Never did I think of answering him in any other way. Or not to answer him at all. Nor did I ever stop to talk to him. And never once did it occur to me that I could walk down another street, not see this boy, and evade his question.
Or, "He could have been a girl," she would say, explaining that if I were a girl I would have had to wear a skirt or a dress and my legs could not be covered up by the pants she conscientiously cut and hemmed, creating ways for them to fit over my casts and pins when I was recovering from surgery, or over the braces I sometimes wore but do not remember wearing.
I have never told my parents how I feel when people gawk at me while I walk down the street. I don't even have to walk for people to stare.
"A freak, a freak, my daughter gave birth to a freak," my mother's mother yelled, running into the hospital just after I was born. Hearing this, my father fainted. The hospital staff thought he had a heart attack. By the time he revived, my mother, who had gone toxic while giving birth to me, was doing fine.
I try to imagine what my parents said when first seeing each other after I was born. I wonder if they even remember.
I was born, four pounds, five ounces, on September 22, 1960, the second son of Donald and Joan Fries, a lower-middle-class Jewish couple in Brooklyn. My father, then a kosher butcher, had just turned twenty-eight; my mother, then a housewife, was twenty-four. They had been married almost five years. My brother, Jeffrey, was almost three and a half years old.
I remember my young parents as the tall dark-haired handsome couple swirling on the dance floor at numerous weddings and bar mitzvahs. My father wears a dark blue suit and a matching tie; my mother wears her flowing black dress with hand-painted yellow flowers down the front and side. It is as if their love for each other, apparent in the bearing of my mother's regal long neck and in my father's beaming eyes and smile, propels them effortlessly across the floor.
We lived in a sixteen-story dusty-rose brick apartment building, one of a group of five built for middle-income families, in the Bath Beach section, between Coney Island and Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn. In the living room of our small two-bedroom apartment overlooking the busy Belt Parkway fifteen floors below, behind the metal door to 15F, our apartment, I play the upright piano, using the attachment so I can reach the pedal with my longer left leg.
As I play, I catch a glimpse of my parents in the large mirror: my father, despite his bad back injured in the Navy, carries my mother over the astroturf green living-room carpet to the plastic-covered lemon chiffon sofa, where he plants a kiss on her lips before they settle down to listen to the silly pop tune that I play.
To this day my parents walk down city streets hand in hand as if, after forty years of marriage, they are still newlyweds. When I was young, walking with them down a street, I giddily stood between them and, each holding on to one of my hands, they with firm grasps lifted me up, swung me forward, and gently returned me a step or two ahead of them to the ground, repeating the lift and descent, sometimes for a whole block at a time, until they had no more strength to do so.
My mother kept our apartment, unlike that of many of my friends, immaculately clean, if cluttered with too many family photos and knickknacks on the furniture, generic paintings and needlepoints on the walls. On weekday nights I expectantly waited to hear my father's distinctive toot-toot whistle when, returning home from work, he came out from the elevator, past the incinerator room, down the speckled olive-green hall. Before he knocked, I opened the door for him, kissed him on the lips, and took the evening edition of the New York Post, which I knew had the latest sports news, from his hand.
At the time I was born my father was a religious man. In 1957, three years before I was born, my father's father, upon returning home from Rosh Hashanah services, had a fatal heart attack. On the same day of the Hebrew calendar, three years later, I was born. Brought up in an observant Orthodox Jewish home, my father attended synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning throughout most of the first decade of my life. We celebrated the holy days. My mother kept a kosher home and changed the dishes and silverware each Passover.
These images of my parents remain steadfast in my mind. But now my memory is tempered with the darker knowledge of what I have come to learn, the turbulent emotions, the untold and sometimes violent story of what was happening beneath the love and smiles. It has taken me many years to remember, let alone understand, the events that happened in 15F, behind that metal door.
Only very recently, during a telephone call just before I was about to move back East from San Francisco, my father told me I had been born a month premature. I have no idea why he had waited so long to tell me. I have no idea why I was premature. Nor does anyone know why at birth I was missing the fibula, why there were sharp anterior curves of the tibia, and flexion contractions of the knees, in both my legs. Absent were two toes and posterior calf bands on each foot. There was no scientific name for my birth defect; in medical records it is simply described that "the child at birth had congenital deformities of the lower extremities."
Nor does reading the medical records my father copied for me after Dr. Milgram died in 1989 provide any answers. Even though I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, reach down and touch my legs, discovering all over again as if for the first time that, yes, I am disabled, I years ago gave up looking for answers to why I was born with a deformed lower body.
At the time of my mother's pregnancy some women were given thalidomide, a sedative that in 1961 was found not only to ease morning sickness but to cause birth defects similar to my own, as well. Many times I have asked my parents directly whether or not my mother had taken the drug. They have always answered no.
There is no mention of thalidomide in my medical records. But there is also no mention of my having been born premature. Actually, there is no direct mention of my being born at all. The first document in the file is a retrospective summation of my medical history and surgical procedures, dated May 3, 1965.
Today, there are no records that remain to show me how my legs looked when I was born. The X rays, along with the Polaroid photos Dr. Milgram took of my legs, were destroyed after he died. All that is left are the vague medical terms on the thin sheets before me. All I know is from what my father has told me: each leg was no bigger than his finger; each leg was twisted like a pretzel; each leg had no arch to separate leg from foot; each leg was dimpled inches above what would have been my ankle.
I can only imagine what my legs once looked like. I can only imagine that the words I now find to describe that infant's legs are accurate, precise. I can only find words to describe how that infant experienced his body, not actually experience it myself. Everything I write is a translation. Everything I write is necessarily from the perspective of a thirty-five-year-old man who now experiences secondhand what that infant experienced then. I feel what that infant felt through a nervous system years older and by now accustomed to a certain amount of physical and emotional pain. There is no other way of retrieval, no other way to remember.
Familiarity can impede recognition. Over time, the body adjusts until, like the Belt Parkway's constant flow of traffic fifteen floors below our apartment, what was once a severe disturbance becomes white noise. When one is accustomed to it, even a screeching car or ambulance siren will not attract attention. Over time, an alarm clock will no longer alert a sleeper that it is time to wake up, unless the alarm markedly increases in volume or, more likely, if the sound changes just enough, enabling the warning to be heeded once more.
I often try to imagine what it is like for a newly born boy to spend his first six weeks in the hospital, the first four weeks in an incubator. How frightening it must have been for a six-month-old baby boy to be anesthetized and go through hours of surgical procedures. For someone that young to spend so much time in a hospital. It is with a mixture of horror and disbelief that I remember that young infant in the incubator, that body on the operating table, was actually me.
t is cloudy and I think our planned night trip to the beach will not be worthwhile. But as Kevin and I make our way from the parking lot, past the closed concession stand and out onto the beach, the clouds are a curtain, rising as it parts. By the time we have spread our large blanket on the sand, the haze has moved beyond the horizon, revealing the star-filled sky.
It is the midsummer night when the meteor showers will be most active. The night when, if it is clear, it will be easiest to see the shooting stars.
When our eyes adjust to the dark we begin to discern other couples who, like us, have left indoor comfort behind, and lie on their backs, open to the elements, awaiting the beginning of the show. Some, farther down, have lit small fires. Triangles of orange flicker down the beach. We listen to the tide, hear other people laughing.
Soon, after Kevin spots the first sudden flash of light, we are laughing, too. Laughing and pointing to the next star, and the next, and the next traveling in an instant the entire arc of the visible sky. Before the mere flash it takes each star to burst across the galaxy, extinguishing itself as it advances, another has begun its momentary flight.
It has always been difficult for me to comprehend how the stars are sending light from so many years ago. That it took four days for the space shuttle's transmissions of Neptune's likeness to reach awaiting eyes on Earth seems to me unfathomable. The speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, has always been as incomprehensible to my mind as the distance between the Earth and the stars.
Tonight, lying on the beach, Kevin's hand in mine, I begin to name the stars. Not the constellations. Even when Kevin points them out to me, even when I say I can see them, the truth is I cannot distinguish the Big Dipper from Orion, one cluster of stars from another.
Instead I call out, "Shirley," the nickname for my friend Cheryl. Kevin calls out, "Marcia," the name of another friend. Soon we are naming every flash of light, using the names of our friends' ex-boyfriends, and when we run out of them we use our own.
"Polio," "spina bifida," "cerebral palsy," I hear myself naming out loud diseases that in another world, a world in which the connotations of disability are not pejorative, would be perfect names for shooting stars.
Tonight, looking at the sky, I know what it is I want to do. I want to be in an open space and feel Kevin's body close to mine as we look around us, sharing what is happening this very moment before our eyes.
But on this clear night I am able not only to understand the clarity, the intimacy both physical and intangible, that two different people can share, but at the same time I can see once again moving from the horizon onto the shore, the haze that only hours ago made it unlikely that we would be able to witness the stars.
Kevin's hand feels cold on my skin. As we watch the sky his hand mindlessly moves up and down my leg. The second finger on his left hand begins to play with one of the holes adjoining the scar, just above where my right foot juts out at almost ninety degrees from my leg.
Suddenly, involuntarily, I jump.
"What's the matter?" Kevin asks.
I take a deep breath and the warm night air gets caught in my throat. I taste sand and ocean salt. But all I can smell is ether -- the antiseptic odor that pervaded Dr. Milgram's crowded waiting room to his hospital office, when I was young.
How do I explain to Kevin the enormous respect I had for my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Joseph Milgram? How do I describe the people from all over the world who sat with me in that fluorescently lit, linoleum-tiled waiting room? How do I begin to tell him how Dr. Milgram made me feel special?
I always bragged to my friends about the important doctor who took care of me in Manhattan. Even Alice, his secretary, was surprised when Dr. Milgram asked her to write a check to pay for a subscription to the magazine I always read in the waiting room. He even gave my parents his home telephone number, showed us photos of his upstate farm, and once told my father that he felt like he was my grandfather.
Kevin watches the stars. I want to tell him why I jumped. I want to tell him about the disagreement between Dr. Milgram and the resident doctor. How, in 1970, after the major five-hour reconstructive surgery on my right foot and leg, during which my foot was connected to my leg only by a single blood vessel near where he had been touching, my leg, held in position by two pins, was heavily bandaged but not put in a cast. When the resident doctor made his rounds he put the bandaged leg in a plastic bag. When Dr. Milgram came the next day, he took it off, saying that it needed to breathe. The next day the resident put the bag back on and Dr. Milgram on his next visit took it off. I want to tell Kevin how these two men, supposedly working together so I could walk better, did not agree on the best way to lessen the chance of infection in my leg.
I want to tell Kevin why I jumped when his finger grazed that hole. I want him to know that when the pins were removed Dr. Milgram at first insisted that it could be done without anesthetics. I want to be able to describe the pain when that was tried, how it still racks my body when the holes where the pins were inserted are touched. I want Kevin to know that the next day, when the pins were successfully removed, I was in the operating room under anesthesia. I want to tell him that even though Dr. Milgram did not know what caused my legs to be deformed, I needed to trust him. I want Kevin to know that despite any mistake he, Kevin, might make, something harmful he might say or do, I want to trust him, as I trusted my doctor.
I want to tell Kevin that although I am no longer young, and that I understand more with each passing year, I am still afraid. Afraid that after all these years, after all the surgery, after all the psychotherapy, some wounds can never heal, that some wounds are actually the scars.
An hour later we are driving the short distance back to my house, where only a few weeks ago Kevin came to spend the summer with me. I feel his hand on my neck. Barely over five feet tall, I cannot reach the gas pedal or the brake with my legs, so I use hand controls to drive: a simple metal lever, up and toward me for gas, down and away for brake. My left hand on the controls, my right hand steering, when driving I have little time, except when stopped at a red light or on longer drives when I can hold the hand controls and steady the steering wheel at the same time, to hold my lover's hand. Instead, I push my head back into Kevin's palm.
Kenny Fries is the author of "Body, Remember: A Memoir," recently published by Dutton, from which this excerpt is taken. The Advocado Press recently published "Anesthesia," a book of his poems. In October, 1997, Dutton will publish "Staring Back: An Anthology of Writers with Disabilities," of which he is editor. The recipient of the Gregory Kolovakos Award for Aids Writing for "The Healing Notebooks," he teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
BODY, REMEMBER: A MEMOIR by Kenny Fries
published by Dutton, a division of Penguin USA
now available at bookstores or call 1-800-256-6473
$21.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-525-94162-2
"A beautifully written, moving memoir by a disabled
poet and playwright who explores both the scars on
his body and those on his psyche. . . . His journey
from the shallows to a rich, loving, and productive
life is a memorable story."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Kenny Fries' Reading TourJan. 30 - 8 p.m. - A Different Light, 8853 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
Feb. 1 - 7:30 p.m. - A Different Light, 489 Castro St., San Francisco
Feb. 2 - 5 p.m. - 23rd Ave. Books, 1015 NW 23rd Ave. , Portland, OR
Feb. 3 - 7 p.m. - Bailey Coy Books, 414 Broadway E., Seattle
Feb. 5 - 7 p.m. - Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, St. Louis
Feb. 6 - 7:30 p.m. - Unabridged Books, 3251 N. Broadway, Chicago
Feb. 8 - 8 p.m. - Woodland Pattern Book Ctr, 720 E. Locust St., Milwaukee
Feb. 10 - 7:30 p.m. - Borders Book Shop 3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
Feb. 16 - 2 p.m. - Now, Voyager, 357 Commercial St, Provincetown
Feb. 18 - 7 p.m. - Waterstone's, Quincy, MA
Feb. 20 - 7:30 p.m. - The Globe Bookshop, 38 Pleasant St., Northampton, MA
Feb. 22 - 5:30 p.m. - Bookhampton, 20 Main St., Easthampton, NY
Feb. 24 - 7:30 p.m. - Barnes and Noble, 675 6th Ave., New York, NY
Feb. 25 - 7:30 p.m. - Borders Books and Music, 9051 Snowden Square Drive, Columbia, MD
Feb. 26 - 7 p.m. - Lammas, 1426 21st St. NW, Washington, DC
Feb. 27 - 7 p.m. - The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC
Mar. 2 - 5:30 p.m. - Giovanni's Room, 345 S. 12th St., Philadelphia
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