Short Curve

Short Curve
Marlena Chertock

My sister and I stood back to back, raising our chins, and waiting while our friends walked around us, squinting their eyes, running a hand across our heads.

They said I was taller, and Hannah became angry, demanding a re-measure, insisting she was taller.

Sometimes I was afraid to press our backs together again and let my shoulders settle, in case our friends saw wrong.

*

I can’t see myself in most mirrors. They’re nailed into walls too high.

I could climb onto the sink and push myself up, balancing on the sink like a gymnast. But that’s not something I want people to catch me doing in a public bathroom.

The bottom dryers at school are always taken or broken. I place my foot on one of the bottom ledges, reach into the round opening, and heave myself up to peer into the top dryer to check if I got all of my socks and bras.

Sometimes I bring my stepstool with me to do laundry. I can easily throw my laundry into the dryer, take the lint out without several jumps, and check for my clothes.

I use my stepstool every night to get into bed. Freshman year, I tried to take a running start from the bathroom to jump into bed. I got halfway up, clung onto the sheets and mattress, and slowly slid off.

*

“She’s on the smaller side,” my mom’s doctor friend told her after I was born. “We’ve been taking measurements and I think she may have SED.”

He told my mom that my dad had the rare genetic disorder that causes short stature, incomplete collagen, and oftentimes dwarfism.

“Her limbs are proportional. She’s taller than others.”

“Is she a dwarf?”

“Only technically.”

The doctors thought I wouldn’t grow past 4’2”. But now I stand 4’6” and have since I was 16.

I get most of my height from my long legs, an optical illusion of sorts. It’s when I sit down that my torso gets squashed and my neck bleeds into my shoulders. It seems like my organs don’t have much space, so my body compensates by sucking in at my back and pushing my stomach out farther.

*

I’ve been robbed of four inches or so.

“If we stretch you out, maybe you’d be taller,” my dad laughed. He was trying his pervasive humor on the curve within me, the curve that has angles protractors would be upset to measure, that lifts one of my shoulders higher, that squashes me at least a few inches shorter.

For scoliosis treatment, doctors used to lay patients down on a traction table, strap their hands and feet in, and stretch them. Now, scoliosis patients wear braces that push against their bending bones, begging them to stop curving. If the bones didn’t behave and their angles became triangular, doctors used to open patients up and break their bones, undo the angles, fuse them back into place.

I’ve had several molds of me, back braces, but my spine didn’t care for begging. It curved to 44 degrees, pushed me both ways the same angle and balanced out, so the doctors haven’t opened me up yet.

*

“Let me get a pencil,” my grandfather, Poppop, said, moving his tongue from the roof of his mouth to the bottom before and after the sentence. He always talks like that, with great thought put into every word, almost tsking before he speaks.

He came back and I held my breath as he carefully, slowly, drew a faint line over my head on the side of the basement door.

The tradition started before I was born. My mom and her sister and brother pressed their backs to the door, lifted their chins up, and waited excitedly as Poppop drew lines on top of their heads. The lines remain on the door, their increasing height followed over several years, from the late 1950s to the 70s.

We asked Poppop to trace our height for years. We liked to see for ourselves our growth, centimeter by centimeter, inch by inch. It seemed more real than the strange lines on a growth chart that the doctors plotted points on.

“This dot is you,” the doctor said. “Here you are in relation to other girls your age.”

But I didn’t understand all the lines, numbers, and curves. The dots of other girls were far above mine, on the thick line of a higher curve, the normal curve. My lonely dot was making its slow progression on a curve of its own.

*

“You’re really short,” one of my bullies, Naweed, told me in second grade. “You’re smaller than a crumb.”

You’re like a weed, I wanted to tease back, but couldn’t.

I went home and cried to my mom.

“Good things come in small packages,” she told me.

But when that wasn’t enough, she told me to talk back to my bullies.

So the next time Thomas Huff told me I was short in the lunchroom, I said, “Well, you’re fat.” He was.

He told a lunch aide and we were both sat down at an isolated table. “Think about what you did,” the aide said.

I stared down at the table and let my tears plop onto the Styrofoam lunch plate. Thomas ate his pizza happily.

*

I’ve never been called midget to my face. It’s always a hushed word, rolled around on tongues and said through cupped hands.

He was silhouetted in the outdoor hallway of a dorm when he said, “It’s the Elon midget,” to his friends.

I always think of what I should say afterwards.

*

Hannah’s and my endocrine systems don’t produce enough — our bodies needed to be persuaded to grow. When I was 11, a nurse came over my mom’s house to show me how to ready the injection pen, how to stick the needle in my leg. She came at night, when growth hormone normally flows through the body.

I was nervous as the nurse held a vial filled with white powder between her fingers with long fingernails. She screwed the vial into the pen and it turned to liquid as it mixed. She pushed a button and the pen top jutted out, ready to adjust to the right dosage.

I don’t remember my first or last dose, but I had 0.6, 1.4, and 1.8, the numbers increasing as my weight and height did, slowly for my height, quicker for my weight.

The nurse gave me my first shot. For the next two years, my mom did. Then I decided to inject myself.

*

The camp nurse came up to me during dinner and asked, “Can you help a younger girl with her medicine?”

I wondered why the nurse was asking me to help with medicine. I wasn’t licensed.

Then she said, “She takes the same growth hormone as you.” I nodded, eager to help someone.

After dinner, I walked to the nurse’s office. There was a tiny eight-year-old girl sitting on the bed inside. Her limbs were so skinny I could wrap my hands around them three times.

She was scared. “I’ve done it before, but never in my stomach.”

“Why do you want to inject it there?”

She pulled her shorts up to show me purple and green spots on her thighs. Injecting her legs every night, even switching from left to right, left her thighs sore and perpetually healing.

I had never injected the medicine into my stomach, but thought I could still help her. At thirteen, I’d been doing this for three years, while she had for only one.

She readied the growth hormone pen, lifted her shirt up, and looked at me.

“You know what to do,” I said, wanting to give her confidence. I remembered teaching my sister how to give herself the shot for the first time. “It’s the same as in your leg. Just push it in, click the button, and count to thirty.”

She nodded, but said, “I sing a song when I do it.”

I told her she could sing it.

So she took a breath and pushed the needle into her stomach. She sang a few lyrics for thirty seconds and then took the pen out.

“It doesn’t even hurt there,” she said.

*

“I’m glad I’m short,” I told my mom when I was 14.

“You are?” she asked. She’s always worried that she made a mistake. She is short. She had kids with a short man.

I don’t know why it makes her so guilty. Height is a mere fact — it can’t be changed. I suppose she could have had kids with a tall man, but then I wouldn’t have had the experiences connected to my height, I wouldn’t be the same.

“It makes me different. If I was as tall as everyone else, I guess that’d be boring.”

She laughed. “It’d be easier,” she said.

“Yeah, but boring. I’d be like everyone else.”

*

There are first graders who are taller than me, there was a dwarf I passed by in Target and I caught people giving us weird glances, there is my friend’s dad who had to get metal plates in his head so he would stop knocking himself out by walking into the top of door frames.

I haven’t been plotted on a growth chart for a few years, but I assume my dot would still be making its way several lines under the normal curve. The curves don’t confuse me anymore. They’re not as rigid and demanding, the doctor’s pointing finger doesn’t seem to be asking me to adjust, to grow, to catch up to the other girls my age.

Height and I have an understanding: we acknowledge each other in passing, nod to each other, let the other go at a four-way stop, but won’t pay for each other’s dinners.
It’s kind of like when I had braces. When I was twelve I got my first back brace for scoliosis. I didn’t know how many years I would have to wear it, twenty-two hours every day, the plastic mold of me pushing against my spine, holding it in place. I knew if I felt sad about it that’s all I was ever going to be. So I changed my perspective. I viewed the back braces as a challenge. I laid down on my bed every night so my stomach would be flatter, slipped the brace on, pulled the Velcro straps tighter and tighter, and fastened them.

*

I crouched, waiting in the little space between dressers in my friend’s room. She crept into the room, opened the closet door, looked under the bed, even in the laundry hamper. She walked past me and I tensed my muscles, holding my position tighter.
But she didn’t see me.

Slowing my breathing, I concentrated on staying quiet or made up a story for myself while I waited. I was a witch running away from the town people who wanted to burn me.

My hiding places were the best. Whenever I played hide and seek with the neighborhood kids or at a birthday party, no one could find me. I’d wait until I heard them downstairs, starting to talk about cake. Then I’d come out grinning and tell them where I’d been.

*

“Come here, monkey,” my dad said.

I ran across the mulch and climbed up the plastic ladder. It was our game, and I had to get away before he tickled me. He walked closer. I made it to the monkey bars and grabbed the first one. I leaned all my weight on the bar, cool and smooth in my hands. I pushed off the playground floor and dangled from the bar.

“I’m going to tickle a monkey today,” he said.

“No, you’re not!”

I swung back and forth, gaining momentum, and once I had enough I thrust my feet up into the space between the bars. Squeezing through them, I sat upright and balanced on two bars and one side.

“Hey, no fair,” he whined.

I laughed and stayed up there. I liked the way the breeze felt different higher up, how I could see the whole playground and up to the trees and cattails we walked through to come there.

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