L.I. Henley

Unusual Clouds

June, 2011

Today is full of unusual clouds—looping strokes of sky-cursive, grey wisps of cirrus near the horizon, and the low-level, ropelike billows whose underbellies cast back the evening sun. To a brain dry roasting in Palm Desert’s triple-digit, never-ending heat wave, it’s unbearable that the white streaks and whorls above are composed of water droplets and ice crystals.

My mind says, smoke.

My body says, every beautiful thing is on fire.

I’ve spent the last couple of hours reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fidgeting, changing positions on the couch, on the floor, seeking out any and all possible openings of relief I might find. I couldn’t find any, not lying on my stomach under the air conditioner with a cold pack on my lower back, not with my back on the floor and my legs up the wall, or propped up in bed with a package of frozen corn on each of my knees.

But now it’s seven in the evening and Jonathan is carrying me on his warm back across the hissing blacktop of the road to one of the three pools in this gated community we now live in, an act that has become ritual without us really noticing.

He knows not to ask me to grip harder with my legs and ease up with my arms, and I try my best not to choke him as I cling.

He can feel my lean lower extremities shaking with the effort of trying just to stay in place around his middle. My left flip-flop falls to the grass, and his muscular body squats down in perfect form; I stay in place like a weighted vest. He slips the shoe onto my foot, but it takes a few tries before I can will my big toe to allow the piece of rubber on the sandal into its grasp.

We’ve been laughing about some thing or another, whole-body laughs that flood me with endorphins, make me believe for seconds at a time that I could live this way forever if I had to. As long as we can laugh like this.

What does it make him feel, this laughter? That he could live with me forever, just as I am, even if I never got better? That this, it turns out, is what love does—allows people to bend like saplings into mystical shapes.

Or maybe he’s just thinking about the right now. Men, I’ve read, can do this better than women can. Right now he loves the woman on his back, the water is waiting for us, the water is good. The tequila is a warm embrace from inside. Amen.

I keep looking over my shoulder, waiting for a camera crew to jump out of the manicured hedges and announce that the past three months have been an elaborate prank. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me I’ve been punked by karma, or Jesus, or the devil, or the god of limbs.

The pain in my legs came suddenly in late March, not long after my 28th birthday. The pain brought weakness. In less than a few weeks, I went from hiking the knobby, moss-grown trails of the Redwood Preserve and doing whatever people do in hot-yoga classes to now barely having the strength to buy groceries on my own.

After a month went by and I still couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time without exhaustion, someone close to me casually told Jonathan that he didn’t have to marry me. As in, he didn’t have to feel obligated just because we were engaged. He could wait and see. It was maybe a joke. It was said more than once. I wanted to laugh it off, I really did, especially since it was said right in front me. The difficult part is that I know it’s true—he has options. The able-bodied always do. And as of right now, I’m not in that club. I try to envision a future in which I will be able to laugh at the off-putting stuff people say when they don’t know what to say about invisible disabilities.

What I want most right now (besides for this shit-show to end) is to be like Randle McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest—I want to laugh at the things that hurt me. And luckily, all these little opportunities keep arising.

A few feet from the pool my right flip-flop drops to the grass. This is funny. The extreme heat, my quick decline into disability, the way gravity presses down on the things we pretend to own. Our bodies. The absurdity of limbs. How we ever thought we were in control of anything at all. How we