When Andrew told me he’d read my essay, he had no way of knowing what it meant to me. He didn’t even say it outright, come to think of it, only confessed to Googling me. It was the quietness of his admission that was so jarringly lovely.
“Everybody Googles everybody,” he said with a sheepish smile, and suddenly we shared a secret. He was right, of course — everybody Googles everybody, usually to find out if a potential mate is married or a serial killer or a Republican — but sometimes there are other things to be found. I know because I am overwhelmingly Google-able.
In 2009 I’d come out, so to speak, in a national women’s magazine, writing about Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome (K-T), the rare congenital disorder that deforms my body. The essay caught fire. Loads of news outlets reprinted it, and suddenly my face was plastered on the AOL home page. I was the No. 8 most-searched term on Google the day the story broke, with the name of my syndrome beating me out for the top spot. As a writer, it was thrilling. As the subject (as all memoirists are), it was terrifying. Suddenly I was highly searchable — and that meant to everyone, including men I was dating. The initial exhilaration of being published gave way to my new reality: I was exposed, for better or worse.
I was still riding the high of my Internet fame when a guy named Ely contacted me on OkCupid. He was smart and funny, and I was excited to meet him. On our first date, we spent a sticky summer night at a Williamsburg restaurant sharing oysters and downing cocktails, then met my friends to hear a band. I liked that Ely was seeing me in my element, a (relatively) cool girl about town, and other than the vague self-consciousness that lives with me always like a bothersome ache, K-T was far from my mind. It was a flirtatious, lovely evening.
The symptoms of K-T are largely vascular (hemangioma, portwine stain), and for me somewhat concealable, but there are undocumented symptoms, too: namely, extended peripheral vision and ESP. They work in tandem and are treacherous. I see everything — the unwitting dart of the eyes to my torso, the languishing too long of one’s gaze on my disparate legs — and I usually react, often aggressively. Catch my stare when you’ve been caught and you’ll be sorry. (I have eyebrows that come to a natural point, giving me a perpetually suspicious and angry look; I think this is no accident.) That kind of antagonism on my part can make for entertaining subway rides and interactions on the street but not for such easy dates. It’s hard to get very far with someone whose defenses are up as high as mine.
I’d been careful not to supply Ely with my last name, but alcohol loosened my inhibitions, and when he pressed for it, I caved. I’d also made sure not to talk too much about being a writer, lest he fish for specifics (What do you write about? Have you been published?). It was counterintuitive for me to hide who I am — especially given my recent foray into print — but I also didn’t want to expose myself recklessly to a virtual stranger. Living with K-T is nothing if not a balancing act: say too little, I feel like a fraud; say too much, I am vulnerable.
Ely’s gaze was everywhere (supervision-ESP, engage!), and I grew uncomfortable. But we were having fun, and it had been so long since I’d had a boyfriend. The drinks, the food, the night, all of it weighed heavily on me, and I guess I was slumping on my stool. “Posture,” Ely said softly, indicating mine. Take away the alcohol and my condition still means that unless I’m trying exceptionally hard to sit up straight, I’m probably not. “Posture” was an accusation. “Posture” undid me.
I told Ely I was going to get some air and abandoned him. I went outside, where my friends Todd and John were.
“I’m going to cry,” I repeated over and over, trying hard not to. I had the feeling of so much potential slipping through my fingers, the foreshadowing of exposure by a potential lover turned unwitting aggressor, the persistent memory of so many strangers who had said so many unkind things about my body. In a lifetime, there were an incalculable number of them.
“Get it together,” Todd urged me. “He’s great. Stop it.”
I listened, sure I would regret my outburst in the morning, and when Ely, confused, came out to find me, I shuffled us into a cab. We kissed sloppily, and by the time the taxi deposited me on my corner, I had talked myself down; a voicemail from him shortly after saying what a great time he’d had practically erased the incident completely.
“I’m so happy for you,” Todd said the next day. I was happy, too, but something wasn’t sitting right. I knew with absolute certainty that Ely would Google me. I tried to tell myself this wasn’t the worst thing in the world. On the contrary, it was good. He would read what I’d written, we would talk about it and then we’d get back to the business of becoming a couple. I felt shaky and nervous but excited.
Then Ely emailed me. “Web sleuthing was too easy a temptation,” he wrote. He was impressed with the courageousness of my essay, he said, but also felt a suffocating weight. Through the prism of my writing, he was able to see weird refractions of our evening together (like my posture and disappearance, I guess), and though he wished it weren’t so, my condition was a barrier for him. Ely described himself as “excessively, stupidly, self-damagingly fastidious about dating” (he’d once broken up with someone because he couldn’t stand her laugh), and then, on the verge of copping to shallowness, congratulated himself for his honesty. He ended his letter with two questions: Could we be friends? And was I rolling my eyes at him?
The answers of course were no and yes, though a roll of the eyes was only the most minor of my reactions. Ely’s critique echoed the worst things I’ve ever thought about myself, but in all my years of living with a deformity, in all my years of dating, no one had ever come right out and told me that I wasn’t good enough. My body had always been the shoe I was waiting to drop; now there it was, lying on the floor.
“Did you really not think about what would happen when you wrote your essay?” a friend asked, not unkindly. She was asking because she would never, ever publish something so personal about herself. She’s not a memoirist. I am. And I chose to be one, which is important.
In some ways, I got what I deserved. Writing the essay was my way of handing people my life without having to face them. Only after having it blow up in my face did I realize what a loony tactic that is, the equivalent of someone in debt sending his credit card statements to a new lover with a note that says, “Here, you figure out what to do with this.” I was terrified of addressing my body, so I tried to let my essay do it for me.
It backfired, of course, but once I got over the initial shock of Ely’s email, I was mad as hell. That’s important, too. My momentary aligning myself with my aggressor — and his hatred of me, when you get right down to it, not only for having the gall to be flawed but also for spotlighting his own tremendous shortcomings — gave way to what I know: that I am worthy of being loved. How dare Ely insinuate I’m not. How dare he think I am somehow not good enough for him. I never responded to his email, but I did see him at a local café once. He positioned himself behind a column so that he was partially concealed, and I liked knowing he was uncomfortable. I liked knowing that he was the one who felt the need to hide.
On my fourth date with Andrew, the confessional moment came between sips of red wine and the casual, cautious touching of my elbow. We were two people trying each other on for size, and the fact that I’d written an essay about my deformed body didn’t automatically mean I don’t fit. Andrew couldn’t have known what it felt like to hear a man say he’d read my essay and see him stay — and not only stay, but ask me out again. For me, he was the antidote to the trauma of Ely. Dating is traumatic enough without worrying that your date will lash out at you for disappointing him. To have my body taken off the table as a deal breaker was an unspeakably amazing thing. It meant that if Andrew and I don’t end up together, it won’t be because I’m not perfect but because we have no chemistry or I don’t know enough about art or he doesn’t get my sense of humor or because it just doesn’t. It will be for any of the reasons people sometimes just don’t work out. And that matters. For me it matters the absolute most.
Carla Sosenko's writing has appeared in Jezebel, Marie Claire, Self magazine, Heeb magazine, Laughspin, and various other publications. Her first play, Headcase, was produced in the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival, and her short story “Clutter” was a semifinalist in the Nimrod Awards. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Follow her on Twitter @carlasosenko and check out her website, carlasosenko.com.
Photo via Flickr/miamism