I’m pretty good at falling. Over the past few years of living with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned how to come down on the flats of my hands without jamming my wrists, and even if my knees bruise, I can always wear something that covers the worst of the marks so I don’t look like the victim of some kind of alarming knee-related crime.
I’ve had a lot of time to work on my form. At times, my tumbles were such a part of daily life that my husband even came up with an Olympic-style system for rating my falls. He’d hear a thump as I hit the floor in some far corner of our home, then come in to help me up, but only after giving me a mostly arbitrary score of seven or eight-point-five after assessing how I’d stuck my landing. If that sounds cold, it wasn’t. We found it funny; the sicker I got, the more we both needed a good laugh.
There came a point when I couldn’t get between pieces of furniture in my house without taking a spill, and no matter how practiced I was at landing well, I was starting to feel the effects of daily falls—an ache here, an unhappily pulled muscle there. At my worst, when I needed to get farther than five or six feet at a time in a public place—say, from one end of a parking lot to a building—I’d end up hanging off my husband’s arm like a pet sloth.
Finally, I had to admit I needed a cane; there were times when I had no shoulder to hang from, and I needed a better strategy than hoping I’d magically stay upright every moment I was alone.
So, I did it: I ordered myself a green paisley cane. Fifteen bucks, two days, and some free Prime shipping later, and I was in business.
I loved my new cane. I could stand up more quickly, walk across a parking lot without beefing it in front of an oncoming SUV, and get across tricky rooms without having to hold on to walls like a creeping insect. My life was monumentally improved.
Who knew a fifteen-dollar piece of aluminum could do all that?
Some months after I started clacking along on my spiffy new assistive device, I attended the AWP conference in Seattle: it was a big, teeming mass of creative writers, many of whom I’d known professionally for years. Before entering the massive conference center, I gave myself an unconvincing little parking lot pep talk: maybe nobody will notice you’re sick this year! It’ll be fine! Heaving myself out of the car with my cane, I felt like a grade school kid worrying about what the schoolyard bullies would say about her coke-bottle glasses—my new accessory was a necessity, but something that made me uncomfortably visible.
Yet I was a grown woman, among a sea of other grown people. Surely nobody would point out what was so obviously embarrassing to me.
I shuffled into the conference hall, repeating it’ll be fine in the back of my brain while I missed session after session; there was no way I could move quickly enough through great swarms of people to make my way between distant points of the building. So I stopped to chat with people.
There was a great deal of noticeable name-tag scanning when I greeted folks I’d known for years but who didn’t recognize me with those drugs that aged me, hair that had thinned considerably, face puffed up with steroids, and my body thirty pounds lighter than it should’ve been. I got tired of saying a boisterous hello to people who either couldn’t recognize this version of me or wanted to know, “what happened to you?” Exhausted and demoralized, I ducked into a panel discussion—one where, mercifully, there was somewhere to sit.
One of the speakers on the panel was talking about the importance of believability in fiction, and led into a point with, “as the writer Kelly Davio said…”. I listened with horror as she repeated what was no doubt some poorly considered remark I’d made on Twitter. The look on my face probably resembled that of a wombat being asked to do calculus.
But it seemed the panelist wasn’t calling me out, but actually illustrating a point she was making. To my unending surprise, I’d actually been trotted out as some kind of authority. When I left the talk twenty or so minutes later, I felt a hell of a lot better about myself. I was, after all, The Writer Kelly Davio. I had been quoted!
With this new feeling that I was somebody—despite being an unrecognizable, cane-hobbling shade of myself—I ventured back out into the chaos of people to try being social again.
It was while shuffling through the corridors with my renewed sense of confidence that I felt the fist in my back. A man walking behind me had, for no reason I can imagine, punched me between the shoulder blades.
I flew forward. I came down, knees cracking hard on the concrete floor, trying to fall so that I wouldn’t injure myself, but failing in the brute surprise of it all.
As the meat of my hands swelled up from the impact, my mind played catch-up with the reality of my body on the ground. I tried to sort out what had just happened—this had to be some kind of freak accident, didn’t it? But what kind of accident involves punching someone? Who goes around swinging balled-up fists in a crowded room to begin with?
I looked up to see the man who had just hit me laughing as he loomed above me in his ugly red sweatshirt. It didn’t seem like the way a person behaves after a freak accident.
I waited for any one of the scores of people standing around and gawking to offer me some help. Any moment, I thought, someone would confront this man who’d just clocked me in the middle of a packed convention center. Of course one of these hundreds of other writers would offer to help me stand up, or even simply ask if I was okay.
But each of the people who’d just watched a strange man hit me turned back to their business, and the crowd bustled on as though I wasn’t there.
I watched their pretty shoes step past me as I crawled, on hands and knees, to reach my cane. I watched them maneuver around my body as I scooped up my absurd little conference tote bag and its ridiculous bookmarks and pens and submission guidelines that had spilled out all over the floor. I watched dozens of people pass and pretend not to notice as the man who’d just punched me reached down and picked me up off the floor, pressing himself against my back in a way that made me want to vomit or shower or both.
This is the part of the story when I am supposed to rise up from the ground like some kind of avenging spirit. It would make for a good scene if I’d dragged myself up by a festooned tablecloth on one of the trade show stalls—perhaps taking half of an MFA program’s table display with me—and let the man have it. It might be even better if I’d let the pamphlets and poetry collections and mailing list sign-up sheets fly around me as I lashed out at him, wielding my aluminum cane like a weapon (though of course I wouldn’t hit him. I’m not a violent jerk, after all).
Yet that’s not what happened.
This is the part of the story when I gathered my things with as much dignity as I could scrape together and walked straight ahead. A man who’d apparently been watching my clobbering unfold from his table a few feet away asked if I’d be interested in purchasing a year-long subscription to his publication. I politely declined. I’m not sure why he deserved my politeness.
This is the part of the story when I found the women’s bathroom, shut myself in a stall, and cried.
What a disappointment: a 30-year-old woman sniveling in the restroom like a humiliated child. I know what’s expected of sick and disabled people, and this wasn’t it. We’re to be inspirational, never to break the illusion of perfect equanimity, and—above all—to accept unacceptable circumstances without making a fuss.
Yet if I broke an unspoken social code, so did the mass of people who stood around and gaped at me that day. It would have been just as good a scene, after all, had any of my fellow writers asked if I needed assistance, confronted the man who’d hit me, offered to call security, helped me to a safe location, or even just smiled at me humanely.
This isn’t a story about human kindness any more than it’s a story about fortitude.
This is the story of how I learned I wasn’t The Writer Kelly Davio any longer. I wasn’t someone to quote—I was something to walk over. And why? What I’d thought had made me awkwardly noticeable had made me, in fact, invisible.
Who knew a fifteen-dollar piece of aluminum could do all that.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.