Less Than Perfect
A young woman discovers that revealing a secret can be more powerful than making a "good" impression.
(Illustration / Christopher Silas Neal)
I met John at the coat check of a downtown bar where I was hosting a New Year's Eve party. We chatted briefly, just long enough for him to notice my smile and for me to notice his startling blue eyes. Hours later, we found each other again, just in time for the midnight kiss. Sound too good to be true? Of course. It all happened, but the real story is always more complicated.
I had spent the afternoon debating whether I should even attend my own party. I had been released from the hospital just two days earlier and was completely exhausted. As unwelcome accessories to my black cocktail dress and long hair pulled up, my arms were trailed with deep purple bruises, remnants of collapsed veins from IV insertions. I have bronchiectasis, a chronic condition, meaning bacteria and mucus collect in my lungs, causing infections, decreased oxygenation, and frequent hospitalizations. I'd just spent Christmas in the hospital, as well as Thanksgiving and several weeks of September and October. I was more interested in recovery than romance.
"What happened to your arms?" John asked as we moved from the edge of the crowded dance floor. I pulled at my wrap, which had slipped down around my elbows.
Emboldened by champagne and weary of the charade I had carried on all nightall my life, really, in situations like thisI did something I'd never done before with a cute, friendly guy I might actually want to see again: I told the truth. And instead of discreetly excusing himself as I expected, John asked for my phone number. Instead of the total regret that I expected, I felt a tiny twinge of relief.
Like most 20-somethings, I wanted to be vibrant and appealing, not weak and sickly. The pills, tests, surgeries, and daily sessions of physical therapy that make up my life are not exactly dating-friendly. What guy wants to hear about medicines and mucus over martinis?
My friends and family knew all about it. They visited me in the hospital, brought me tea and trashy magazines, and watched hospital cable with me. But in the dating world, first impressions in bars often mean only impressions, and chronic illness didn't fit easily into that scene. So I cultivated the art of casual conversation, perfected the ability to deflect personal questions, and avoided the very topic I felt defined me.
In the back of my mind were the words said a few years earlier by a man I had cared about: "Thinking of your life stresses me out. I can't do this." Careless words, but they resonated. I didn't think someone new would ever want to get involved with me when there were plenty of healthy people around. I gave John my number doubting he would call.
But he did call, and within a couple of weeks, we had already bypassed the need for what my friends call the "RDT"relationship-defining talk. Given our obvious feelings for each other, the idea of affirming our exclusivity was ludicrous.
As a new couple, we survived our first dinner with my parents, our first real fight, and our first "I love you." But soon into it, we also experienced our first surgery together, our first emergency room crisis, and a slew of messy infections.
I waited for the reality of it all to overwhelm him, for my illness to crowd him right out of our relationship. I told myself I would understand if it did.
"None of this is ever going away, John. Wouldn't you rather be with someone healthy?" I asked one cold winter day. I spoke with the halting confidence of someone who knew the answer but needed to hear it anyway.
"No, because then it wouldn't be you," he said without hesitation.
And with that, I started to get over myself. A quirky habit, a misshapen body part, a childish and irrational fearwe all have something we want to keep hidden, something we fear will diminish us in another's eyes. It wasn't John's perception of my illness that threatened to hold our relationship back; it was my own.