“Get well soon, sweetheart!”
His voice cut through the conversation I’d been having with a friend I hadn’t seen in a month. She looked startled at the interruption, not even sure what this passing guy had just yelled.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
I’ve had this sling for two weeks now, encasing my splinted and wrapped right arm from wrist to shoulder. First the doctors thought my elbow was sprained and bruised, and now they think it’s fractured, but whatever is wrong with it, I can’t lift or bend the arm that I write and shave and chop potatoes with. It has started to itch. Worse, it’s started to attract distinctly unwanted attention.
I fell in Brooklyn Heights, a swanky neighborhood in New York where nobody I know lives unless it’s with their parents. I was stomping home after a party at the childhood home of an old friend and didn’t see the comically teeny flowerbed poking up from the sidewalk. My foot caught, like it often does, and I went sprawling, like I sometimes do, but this time I fell so roughly and severely on my arm that I had to lie there for a full minute and make sure the rest of me was still intact. My knees were banged up but my glasses were in one piece.
I got the splint and the sling, along with my first-ever x-ray, from the clinic near my apartment the next morning. And since then, I’ve felt different. Not just in terms of what I’m able to do — shockingly enough, it turns out that everything I enjoy, from knitting to flipping pancakes to removing my makeup and then reapplying it after work, requires the use of my dominant arm — but in how I’m regarded by the rest of the world. Calls like that guy’s have become suddenly, strangely commonplace. I live in a city and am not noticeably disfigured so I get a number of generic catcalls on a regular basis, but now they have a theme, a directness.
“How’d that happen?!” a guy smirked at the drugstore the other night.
“You’ll be okay,” a passing man offered from deep within a pack of six or seven of his snickering friends, as I struggled to unlock the door to my building.
“Are you all right?” a boy asked on the subway. His voice was so soft that I had to lean in as he added, “And I have to ask — are you single?” I lied and shook my head, because just then I didn’t even know how to take care of myself and the thought of adding another person to that equation made the walls of the train seem to warp.
I’m being sensitive. I interact with hundreds of people every day and those few that take the time to notice me at all are generally nice, polite, and don’t give me a second thought. Since hurting myself I’ve been offered subway seats and sympathetic smiles with no undertone to speak of. And this increase in attention does make sense. In an impossibly crowded place like New York, or maybe anywhere people are trying to reach out and make connections (some sleazy, some sweet), everyone is always looking for an opening. There is a wash of relief that comes when you have something specific to talk about with a person, and here I am with this giant piece of fabric right there for everyone to see, inviting questions and commentary. In bars and at readings and on the subway, I watch as people first register my sling, then my face, then who knows what.
The thing is, I don’t want my injury to be someone’s opening. It marks me as vulnerable, as exposed in a way that I’m not comfortable with. There’s a strong element of damsel-in-distress-ness to it all, which fits with what I’ve been silently, insidiously taught about how to be a woman. We’re (arguably) past the time of archaic thinking when men were obligated to pull out chairs for women and carry heavy bags, but of course vestiges remain. Some call it chivalry and some sexism; either way, it’s never been something I’ve ever thought necessary. And now all of a sudden I require that kind of help, and everyone can see it. It’s not just about how I interact with men — women have been just as understanding, just as quick to get me a cup from the high shelf in the office kitchen, and just as pitying — but about how I fit in the world. I’m a recent college graduate and an even more recent New York transplant, with my first job and my first apartment. I have no boyfriend, my parents are four hours away, and I badly want to prove that I can start to build my own life without being taken care of. And yet now my arm is physical proof that I can’t even walk from Point A to Point B without disaster. I look helpless. I feel young.
That night with my friend, I ignored the “sweetheart” guy and kept walking. When I got home, I shut the door to my room and proceeded to decorate my entire sling. I embroidered (crookedly, with the wrong hand) the word “Ouch” in pale green, along with a bunch of small flowers. It looks pretty silly — even more helpless and exposed than I’d appeared before, I’m sure — but fuck it, if I’m going to be looked at, it had better be on my own terms.