Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11 Issue 4
By Stacye Cline-Robinson
(Normal, Indiana, 2000)
I stand here cutting as I dye, dyeing as I cut. My goddaughter Jade sits with her wheelchair tilted back, her head wedged between the arms of the salon sink as I circle behind her. Turning on the faucet and placing her head under the rush of warm water, rinsing Jade’s hair free of bleach, I hope she doesn’t hear us. Her mom Liz and I make small talk— bawdy talk of bodies and waking from daydreams too rough for her ears. It isn’t that she can’t understand the games people play when they no longer believe in love. The way Jade’s eyes catch light, never staying the same shade of green-flecked brown or brown-flecked green and their quick expressiveness let me know she understands too much about the aftermath of love.
“Something easy, Marty, you know what to do. I also thought since summer’s here, it’d be nice to dye Jade’s hair blonde,” Liz said an hour ago as Jade wheeled in and Liz flung open the door.
“Make me as unhideous as you can, I guess. Mom thinks I’d look less defective as a blonde.”
Jade clenched her teeth.
“You are not hideous, Jade Ashli Alexander. I never said anything about any damned defect. Hideous is as it behaves. Be positive. Your godfather’s salon is no place for melodrama,” Liz whisper-hissed.
It’s ironic to me that I’ve heard Liz say to Jade a thousand times, “be positive.” I know too well what that means to people like Jade, and to me. It means smile and hush. Never burden the world with dark words lest it think you bitter. Never cry unless for triumph. Never let vinegar flavor your laughter. I am in fact positive, but Liz doesn’t know what it means to carry silent disease—at least not the kind that stigmatizes.
Jade’s begrudging, “Yes, Mama,” took a long moment to follow.
Staring at the sliver of space between them, I knew better than to say anything. Anyway, what could I say, loving both of them as I do? They both seemed to be in pain. I’ve known Liz since we were sixteen, the age Jade is now, the night we were in her parents’ basement making out and I had to tell her my secret so I could realize it myself. And Jade, I’d held her as a tiny baby and promised before God to instruct her in the faith.
I knew the ritual Liz was calling for again this afternoon too well. My fingers usually tingle, ready for its sweet ease compared to my finicky customers who’ve committed hair treason because they try to do their hair more cheaply then leave me trying to make their hair look human when they make it more orange than the all-mighty sun. Once every six weeks at least for the past eight years, Liz calls me to make a hair appointment. “Making Jade beautiful,” she calls it.
I arrive by Jade’s side, scissors clipping, bracelets jangling. From the way she’s always looked up at me, eyes wide and shining, I seem half hero, half alien.
After Jade’s baptism, I didn’t see her again until just after she’d turned eight. Liz called and said the family had moved back to town and Jade would need a haircut because she’d be laid up for six weeks after her surgery so she wondered if they could come in. I pictured my goddaughter walking in gap-teethed, her arms in plaster casts from some ill-fated playground injury. I pictured a replica of the tomboy her mother had been at her age according to the old photos on Liz’s parents’ mantle.
I was shocked when her Barbie-pink wheelchair wheeled in. Liz never explained anything. Jade was born early, but everybody thought she was in the clear because she’d lived. No one knew anything about her diagnosis with CP because her grandma Delores never told us. My first thought when I saw her was, Hadn’t whatever this was been taken care of years ago when they took her to the specialist in Lexington?
When Liz hoisted Jade into my salon chair that first time, she spun it twice as if to ease her nerves. After a minute, Liz told us she needed a cigarette, so she went outside. Jade and I eyed each other under the world’s-shittiest-godfather-grade silence lingering between us. She squirmed and fidgeted. Her plastic leg-braces clanked against the metal chair, the scraping sound hurt my teeth.
With her last wriggle, I had to ask, “What is it kid? Are you about to have a seizure?”
“No, I want to ask you something but I don’t think I’m supposed to,” she said.
“Your mom’s outside. Just ask.”
“Mommy says you’re gonna cut my hair like a pixie. Daddy didn’t want us to come because he says you’re sick. If our blood touches, I’ll get sick on account of you being a fairy. Mommy called him a got-damned idiot who used to be fun once until he went bat shit Baptist and took the car keys from him,” Jade said.
“Grown-ups say a lot of things. There’ve always been people in this town who think I’m a five-eyed monster, always will be. What are you so curious to know?” I asked.
“What I want to know is, are you?” she asked flatly.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that question. Bobby Gentry asked me red-faced and shaking as he pinned me against the lockers and beat me up freshman year, shortly before I was expelled for beating the living Jesus out of him. Later, it came from my father, and after I’d answered him, we never talked again. Back then, when little Jade asked me, it seemed the whole town wanted to know—everyone was paranoid after what had happened to Ryan White. Still, I hated jumping to conclusions.
“Am I what?” I asked.
My thoughts raced. Since when is it a crime to be sick? Isn’t it supposed to be some bone-deep punishment for loving other men?
As my thoughts raced, I waited. How bad was her question going to be? She was eight. I couldn’t have been in a worse position than I was in as a gay man living in Indiana in 1992. When I told my mama over the phone that I was positive six months before I moved back and Liz and I got reacquainted, she told me everything would be all right, I just needed to leave California and come back home. Even though I did, Normal wasn’t home and the villagers’ vicious whispers replaced torches, but still burn me after all these years.
When she’d worked up enough nerve to ask her question that day, Jade looked up at me and whispered, “Are you my fairy-godfather?”
I whispered back, “Yep.”
After I chopped off her long strawberry blond locks, I turned her toward the mirror.
“See? You’re a pixie like you said. Remember, when fairies are afraid, we can always fly away.”
She nodded at me then, eight years and some-odd days old. For years, this whispered secret seemed to sate her. She used to whisper it to me sometimes post-breakup, when she was twelve or thirteen, as I would bemoan having lost Antonio, Jackson, Liam, or maybe my youth. Jade has rarely forgotten to comfort me or been unkind to her mother around me.
Today, though, she looks up at me seeming lost as I switch the spigot off. Her pain dulled eyes are edged in red. Shards of glass seem to jut from Jade’s eyes to Liz’s and back as they stare at each other. Jade wrinkles her nose. Between the redness of Jade’s eyes and the platinum blonde shade of the dye, she reminds me of an albino pet store rabbit.
Toweling her hair dry, I try to ask what’s wrong. I ask about the heat of the bleach.
I say, “Jade baby, you should have told me. Tell me now, anyway.”
She shakes her head “no” like a jack-in-the box thrown off its spring.
The effort of choking back sobs reddens her whole face. It spreads from her nose into her forehead, just like it did in childhood. She looks up at me just as her silence becomes more than I’m able to take.
“It’s just something you said—about getting over someone by getting under another. There’s this guy at school named Sid, he’s like my best friend. Every time I look into his eyes, it’s like I’m drunk. He’s the tide to my moon and I’m drowning. Anyway, there’s this other girl Annicka and he told her he loved her.”
Jade swallows hard.
Liz looks up from her home décor magazine.
“Don’t be such a little shit. Sid’s been better to you than any brother. Besides, maybe he does love her. What do you know about being drunk? Honestly, Jade, you can be so selfish.”
“God, Mom, do you think I’m that stupid? We’re sixteen; he thinks he loves her because they had sex. I’m in a wheelchair so he thinks that I can’t—I have no chance. You never apologize for how your not treating your pregnancy as high-risk made me different. I depend on you for everything and have to spend my days feeling like a fucking untouchable,” Jade says.
Liz shrugs, her eyes rolled sideways in disgust, any softness that was there once seems to be buried under murky debris of years. She thrusts her credit card at me, grabs it back and starts to wheel Jade toward the door.
“Wait,” I say.
I look at Jade then Liz, trying to stop another flood.
“Can I talk to Jade for a minute alone? Is that cool with you, Jade?”
Jade nods, so I go on.
“What the hell are you doing snapping at Liz like that?,” I scold her once the door
has shut behind her mother.
“She’ll never understand. Neither do you. I might be like another sister to Sid, but he isn’t like a brother to me. Christ, I might as well be like one of Joyce’s paralytics in Dubliners.”
I try to hold my temper about her taking the Lord’s name in vain and wish to God Jade wasn’t taking AP English. I kneel in front of her wheelchair and switch off its brakes so she can’t avoid my eyes.
I try to start out with an innocuous question.
“How many other disabled kids do you know from school?”
“Just me, and this kid named Justin who can’t speak.”
“Hey, do you think you’re the only person in the world who has ever been sick, or who ever went unloved? Look Jade, if he doesn’t love you, screw him. People with paralysis aren’t even paralytic; they still feel things in various areas depending on where the spine splits. The whole numb from the waist down misconception is something you may be able to use someday on some unsuspecting idiot to get a free drink, when you’re of legal drinking age. Don’t ever share your body with someone who doesn’t see you, please. Someday, someone will love you enough. Can’t you understand? The first man I ever loved had a spinal cord injury and his need to ease the pain of it consumed him. If you stay selfish like this and let your hatred of what you have grow, that will happen to you.”
“If you think I’m as selfish as she does, why bother telling me all this?”
Jade tries to turn her face away from me.
“Life is short, I guess. I just don’t want to see you dead settled,” I tell her.
“Dead settled? What the hell do you mean by that?”
She starts to roll her eyes.
I try to think before I answer her. The best example of a dead settled woman I could give Jade is Liz. She paces through her days tight and anxious in her sun-leathered skin, the outline left by her absent wedding band still encircles her ring finger thick and white. She still says after seven years that she and Ryan are separated though it’s been seven years and she’s the one who left him. Neither of them knew how to help Jade cope so they turned on each other. I know I can’t talk to Jade about Liz this way.
I think about how different Jade used to be on the subject of using her situation to educate the public on the subject of disability awareness when she was little and first came to town. She used to be so patient. Whenever strangers came into my shop and asked Jade what she had, she’d tell them cerebral palsy because she was born premature. When some of them ventured to use the simile that she had CP “like retard Dan the can man”, she would tell them using that word wasn’t nice but yes he also had cerebral palsy, although he had a different kind. Dan walks straight but it doesn’t take people long to notice the slowed cogs in his lost, boyish mind. About the time she started seventh grade, she stopped answering strangers’ questions about her limitations with anything but glaring silence.
I don’t blame her for not wanting to recite the litany of what she is or isn’t, what accidents may have occurred at the hour of her birth. No one compares with anyone. I know that I’ve got to tell her I’m sick in an effort to keep her from becoming a complete twit. As I start to tell her, I can’t help but think about how far she still seems to be from being grown.
“Jade, baby, it’s true what your dad said years ago, I’m sick. For now, I’m stable. I don’t know how long that’ll last. Just don’t grow up to be vapid; this place can suffocate.”
“So wait, you really do have AIDS, like those old bats Dad goes to church with have been saying you do?”
Her brows knit and I can see hurt and anger seething in her face. I don’t know whether she’s shocked or feels betrayed since I’ve rarely kept anything major from her. The impulse to defend myself presses against my chest. Once she starts to speak again, I realize she’s just frightened for me.
“How long?” she asks me, weary after all the young friends she’s had and lost. She’s too fluent in the language of childhood diseases like cancer and muscular dystrophy.
“I don’t know. It’s never the disease itself that takes you. As I said, for now I’m stable.”
“I love you.” She hugs me.
“I wish you could fly away from this.”
Stacye Cline- Robinson has a master's degree in creative writing from Ball State University and lives with her beloved husband Ryne and their cat Calvin in Indianapolis.