The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Casa Azul Cripple
Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born.
—Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
In Mexico, in a museum with a name I’ve forgotten, hangs Desnudo de Frida Kahlo by Diego Rivera. In this 1931 nude portrait, Frida still has both of her legs. As an amputee long interested in Frida’s story—her art, her journals, her likeness printed on reusable shopping bags and colorful refrigerator magnets from Austin to San Miguel de Allende, her authentic genius—I know that the phrase “limb loss” is not the correct description for the story we share. Body parts are not misplaced. People don’t lose track of their thumbs and toes, their feet, their arms.
“Recovering From Limb Loss,” was the title of an article I read once at breakfast, as a teenager, in a magazine my prosthetist had recommended to me and to which I briefly and reluctantly subscribed. Interviews with new amputees and their doctors appeared alongside ads for various brand name artificial feet (Seattle, Endolite, FlexFoot), showing amputees “in motion.” Amputees mid-swing on the golf course. Amputee moms lifting bags of groceries from the backs of minivans while smiling (normal) children looked on. Amputees mowing lawns, building decks, fixing dinner. “You can have a normal life!” the article promised, exclamation points included. Annoyed, I put the magazine aside, returning to my bowl of Cheerios, to the pages of Seventeen and Sassy, turning to the ads that spoke to me, those of two-limbed girls in acid-washed, high-waisted Guess jeans, off the shoulder Esprit tops, oversized Swatch watches, and wildly permed hair—the uniform of the teenage girl in 1988. Recovery, I thought then and believe now, is not an option, as it implies a return journey down a path that no longer exists, that has been leveled and burned. An unmarked state of being is impossible to re-member once loss has been sustained. Survival, however, is a different story. It is the real stuff of true fairy tales lived, and told, in a different way.
In many tales of transformation, the girl enters the forest, literally or metaphorically, and is changed/altered. Perhaps she is saved by a man, by an animal, by her own sharp wits and clever mind. Perhaps she perishes among the dark trees and remains unsaved, serving as a cautionary tale for others who might be tempted to follow her rebellious example. When a girl like me, like Frida, loses a limb and gains an artificial one, she learns to appear and reappear on an almost daily basis—strap it on, strap it off. This is a kind of art form, to change so often, to hold the before and after together in one’s mind as well as in one’s body. In mine and Frida’s story, in this reverse fairytale, nobody overcomes anything. People who go through a crucible experience and shout from a mountaintop that the world is suddenly wonderful are liars. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve been making and holding memories. The more believable myth, and the one more challenging to embody, is to live on in the body you’ve been given. Frida did that with a powerful, complicated grace that has always intrigued and sometimes repelled me, her deformed/reformed body a mirror for mine.
In Mexico City, in the infamous Casa Azul that Frida shared with Diego Rivera, now a beautifully curated museum, I am thinking of the world “crippled” and the way people use it, incorrectly denoting a state of being that implies stillness, stasis, and ruin. It was a crippling financial blow. I am crippled by anxiety. Deformity as disaster. On this, a warm afternoon in December, I’m sitting on a bench in Frida’s carefully tended garden, wearing jeans and sneakers. I feel weighted and tired. I have a sore near my crotch that has been rubbed raw. Such inconveniences are an inevitable consequence of the uneven weight distribution involved in a pregnancy lived on one artificial limb that extends, as I explain all the time, “all the way up.” Each step is painful. Whether it is “crippling” pain, I’m not sure. Can one be already crippled and then be somehow crippled again by a new pain, however localized and temporary? For days I’ve been gritting my teeth while laboring down the streets of Mexico City, a crowded jungle of sensations that enervates and inspires. I don’t want to complain, because this funky patch of skin embarrasses me; that something so small could cause such pain shames me somehow, makes me mute. The baby feels like a stone about to drop between my legs. Sitting down provides the illusion of holding her in, keeping her safe.
Green, delicately veined plants loom all around me in this well-tended garden, itself like a tableau from a fairytale. Impossibly bright flowers with names I’ll never learn droop over stone facsimiles of temples. I’m thinking, oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, given what we’ve just learned about how Frida lost her leg, and how it immobilized her, and how Diego cheated on her afterward, and how perhaps she never recovered /returned from this blow, about beauty and pain. Diego was a man, an artist, a famous artist. Frida was the pitied woman, the dynamo ruined by misfortune, the fallen body, the beautiful woman made unbeautiful, the cripple.
I’m thinking about the “breakout groups” at the amputee support conventions I attended as a teenager, how another young female amputee and I would chastise the older attendees who were openly ashamed of their bodies, saying I am crippled in loud voices as a way of reclaiming the word, thinking this made us strong; thinking this made us bright, impervious stars of youthful potential, weird bodies be damned; thinking we could convince people that we were normal/worthy by calling proud attention to our difference, a strange and ultimately faulty strategy. And I’m remembering the men, wearing khaki pants and polo shirts—there was an intentionally nondescript uniform, it seemed—who were later identified as amputee “devotees.” They appeared to hide in the plastic planters of the hotel lobby, leaping out when you walked by, saying, to your face, a propos of zero, unbelievable things like, Nobody will love you because of your leg. But that’s the thing I love best about you, the thing I want. Spoken together, the statements were terrifying, both contradictory and true. Devotees were, as I remember, middle-aged and especially fond of young girls—young, pretty girls, which my friend and I, as we linked arms and hurried away, reminded one another that we were. We were pretty. We didn’t need those men. It was the early 90s, after all, and we were young feminists, empowered and independent. The devotees were wrong. But what spun through our minds all the time, every moment, without ever being spoken aloud: what if they’re right? We were careful not to look at one another—afraid of the fear reflected back in the other’s face—until long after we’d cleared the lobby, left behind the gauntlet of those grasping men, and returned to our teenage bubble of concerns: hairstyles, music videos, and who liked whom, and why, and how.
These devotees were devoted, they claimed, but to what, to whom? To loving the cast offs and the untouchables, it seemed, and they wanted credit for that, appreciation from those of us who, according to their logic and blatant hierarchy of desire, were undesirable. They were the big men, couldn’t we see? I could not. I didn’t want to exist on some outlying planet in the galaxy of eros. I wanted no interest in conditional desire, didn’t want to dwell, strange and terrible, in some outer ring. I wanted to be in the center, the bull’s eye, of somebody’s wanting, but not in a way that obliterated all of me for the sake of one aspect of my appearance and experience.
“I’m attracted to your pain,” a devotee once explained to me. We were at a sporting event. I had competed in a swimming race, and we were sitting in the restaurant bar before the awards dinner. I was nineteen and drinking lemonade. He was fifty-five (I asked) and drank two martinis in the space of our twenty-minute conversation. He was proud to call himself a devotee, he said, letting his eyes wander down my rust leotard tucked into waist-cinching jeans. He told me I had pretty hair, a classically beautiful face, a “slammin’” body. He’d been watching me, he said. Uh-huh, I responded, and pressed on. Since he was already married, it felt safe to ask him about his particular desires, and I wanted to demystify/de-monster the men from the hotel lobby planters. I asked him a series of questions. His wife did not wear artificial limbs; she sat across the restaurant on a bar stool, chain smoking. He preferred to carry her, he explained. He preferred her to be helpless. He had, he believed, saved her from a lifetime of loneliness. He was proud and horrible. Later, I would learn that devotees attach to the moment of the limb being severed, that the desire for sexual penetration is linked to the imagination of pain. The pole through Frida’s pelvis. The surgical saw. The moment of rupture. You are attracted to the pain of a child, I wanted to say. I was four years old. There’s nothing sexual about it. I wanted to be sexual/sexualized, but not fetishized. But was becoming someone’s fetish the only way? How was being fetishized different than being desired for having a unique, unrepeatable shape…or would the one leg always and forever be the only thing that mattered?
Here, at the Casa Azul, I am six months pregnant with my daughter. My first child, my son Ronan, has been dead for almost a year. In the dark, they are both being formed, wound around some mysterious core: the girl without conscious effort in the darkness of the womb, and the boy in my memory, in the land of the dead, which could be dark or light, here or there or nowhere, and takes a great, cracking effort to imagine. For almost two years, I have been creating a new existence with the love of my life, a man it took almost forty years and two marriages to find. He has crossed the garden to buy me an espresso from the coffee cart. I feel happy in a way that makes me feel guilty and strange to myself. I am walking around in a tactile, almost chewable darkness, shining lights into the unseen and shameful corners of my own heart. I hate this, I love that. My emotional wires are crossed, sparking in unexpected moments: I don’t cry when skinny dogs are hit in the crowded Mexico City streets, but struggle to hold back tears over a billboard advertising a Mexican cookie. I rarely cry when I think about my son, but during the last conversation I had with a friend, her face grainy on the bad Skype connection in her London kitchen, rain striping the dark window behind her, I wept wildly and with no identifiable target. What’s wrong? She asked, touching the screen as if she could reach through it. I shook my head into the tiny camera lens and said, Nothing, everything, I have no idea. At the Casa Azul, I look at my beloved shifting in the coffee queue and think, Please let me die first, and then I can see him sealed in the everywhere quiet of the dead. I would stand up and run over to him, but such sudden movements at this stage of pregnancy will make me wet my pants. Positive thoughts for the baby, I think, and close my eyes, inhale the scent of garden flowers, the sweet with the sour. The shadows of this liminal world—someone has disappeared, someone is emerging—are edgy, the ideas it brings to me unwelcome. These are crippling thoughts, I think, and almost laugh out loud.
Here, in Mexico, I am reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, who claims that “the bigness of the world is redemption.” I agree, and try to get lost in it if only for the pleasure of finding my way out again. Mexico City brims with concentrating ambient noise that is dignified in its sheer magnitude. The chime of the basilica marks the hours. Barking dogs patrol rooftops, while others nose through bags of garbage piled between the street and the sidewalk. The knife sharpener winds up and down the street, advertising his skill. Someone whistles while shaking out a heavy carpet beneath a blue tarpaulin. Sirens interrupt the sound of high heels on cobblestones, followed by the almost funereal sound of a few half-hearted trumpet trills signaling the start of a jubilant parade. A lone mariachi singer fastens and swings on a single note. The odor of frying food droops in the air like fog, like smoke, like a bad mood. The sound of hammering lifts from unseen labor. Our gracious Mexico City host serves us strong coffee in the morning when the light fills the apartment’s front room. We have drinks in the evening after the light lengthens and finally disappears behind the city’s distant rooftops, the room lit with conversation and candles, a square of brightness visible from the street. Rain patters in bursts for ten minutes, then falls for hours at a time. We wear wool ponchos to sit outside. We shiver in the subtropics. We feel pensive, but lively.
During these few days in December, Mexico has become for me like the “pure far world” of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story that features prominently in Solnit’s book of interlocking stories and memories, myths and insights. Frankenstein, an almost perfect book about the human condition, tucked inside another almost perfect book about which parts of being human make us monstrous. “Birth and death were never far apart” in the life of Shelley, who lost all but one of her children. Solnit is diagnosed and recovers from cancer, comes to terms with her mother’s progressive illness, graciously deals with a strange mound of apricots rotting in her home, watches a friend deteriorate and die, visits Iceland and is transformed, one identity dying so another may emerge. Like Solnit’s mother’s Alzheimer’s, a disease that is like a “childhood run in reverse,” Tay-Sachs disease meant that after my son was born, he was immediately turned around to his death—the distance between the two so brief, a short thread quickly snipped. I remember hitting a piñata at my sixth birthday party, the way I was marched away from the red and blue horse ribboned with gold streamers, turned in circles until I was visibly dizzy, and then sent back in the other direction, my hands turning invisible knobs in the air, searching for a door or some orienting hold in the darkness. Ronan was given a life, and then turned, still spinning, to stumble back toward his death before he had formed any capacity for memory, that prerequisite for true joy. I will never forget this, or you. I always remember how happy I/we/you were at that time. Don’t you remember? Memory is the outline of a life, what delineates shapeliness and form. We make memories, which may or may not abandon us before we die, but at least we make them. Ronan never did.
Here, in Mexico, in the Casa Azul’s fragrant garden, families mingle and snap photographs. A man sweeps the clean sidewalk with a wiry broom and a tall dustpan. I sit on a bench, cross my right leg over my artificial leg, and feel my baby kick. The new shape moves inside the always shifting shape. Each night the body is reshaped with the removal of the prosthetic, placed next to the bed within easy reach, and each morning refashioned through the act of reattachment. Each day this rupture/rebirth. The person growing hair, fingernails, and organs inside me swims in the remnant soup of my son’s faulty DNA, the freakish and delicate twining that rotted his brain and killed him. At night, and sometimes during the day, we track the living, hidden baby. Her hands and feet across the surface of my domed belly are like momentary flashes against the skin, prints of possibility, the tiny star of a hand appearing/disappearing, here but not yet. Last night, I underlined this line in Solnit’s book: “To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” We are inside Frida’s home, inside her story, her art, her world. Or are we?
We have just walked through the busy, tourist-crowded kitchen with its walls of heavy cooking pans, folk art, the long wooden dining table checkered by light from the long windows. We have gazed at the narrow bed where Frida lay when she was laid up, with its crisp linen bedding, the photograph of a dead child wearing a crown of roses hanging above the simple headboard. The bedroom of the invalid, the once-vibrant woman made one-dimensional and immobile. The place where a person lived, and then died. My son’s nursery had pink walls and a framed poster of the Big Apple circus hanging over his changing table. There was a rocking chair in the corner, near the window, where many people held him. Here, in Frida’s room, you are not allowed to sit on the edge of the bed. You cannot touch the sheets or the walls. You weave and float through these artifacts of her life, observing and imagining. We have examined her corsets and artificial limbs preserved behind glass, the parts and pieces that held her together, this story inside the story, a living woman with an artificial limb looking at a dead woman’s artificial limbs arranged on pedestals, backlit for maximum artistic effect. I know Frida, I want to say to the people emerging from the house, having looked at her bed and her empty wheelchair positioned in front of the canvas, as if waiting for her to arrive. I know her, and you do not.
This is, of course, a lie. My physical ailments are no stand in for another’s. I might know Frida least of all because I assume that I do, and therefore my lens is cloudy with the not-knowing of thinking that I know. It’s an epistemological puzzle only ever partially solved, for how could I possibly know her? I don’t speak her language. I have never been hit by a bus. I have never thought of myself as artistic or edgy. I have never sheltered a dissident thinker, or been at the center of my nation’s artistic consciousness. Although like Diego and Frida, there are twenty years between my partner and me, he has never cheated on me with a sister. I can’t draw. I have never painted anything. I’ve only worn a corset for a “sexy photo shoot” that a photographer offered me as a gift to cheer me up when Ronan was very sick. I have never liked being stared at, have always been, without question, ashamed of my body, for its lack of a leg, for the strange artificial stand-in, but overly attentive to the rest. Push-ups to make the arms shapely. Cardio to stay lean. Squats for the one leg, to keep it trim. Sit-ups for the taut stomach. Make it right, hold it together, stitch up the parts that you can, adorn and show off the parts that are “normal.” The great subterfuge of the selective “hide and reveal” of which I am an expert. Suddenly, as the holder of my daughter in the drum of my stomach, I also want to be seen as the holder of the secrets of this dead woman’s body. I am more of a voyeur and a violator than anybody here. The exposure I want is based on fabrication and falsehood, linked to ego and the despair of sharing with Frida the elements of her life story that nobody wants to share, while simultaneously fearing them, shunning them, wanting to set myself apart from her story, dying to look away.
A little girl with dark hair is throwing a fit in the door of the small gift shop in the corner of the garden. Inside, her mother examines a white dress embroidered with flowers that hangs on a mannequin, touching it carefully. She turns to say something sharp to the girl in Spanish, who sits in the doorway and wails more desperately. The truth, of course, is that I know nothing. The baby-stone shifts in my pelvis.
In Diego’s 1931 rendering of Frida, she is nude and unassisted, her body an outline of charcoal lines, spacious curves, a living space filling up the blank space of the artist’s imagination. Her form is lithe and strong, wiry and slightly masculine. Her body is uncovered, unsevered, owned and inhabited in a way that it will never be again once it is ruptured, violated, altered, changed, or scarred. When a body becomes a body that nobody will envy. When it is no longer a body that people want to fuck.
This last thought surprises me with its force, its bitterness and truth: that being disabled means knowing that you are not somebody others want to fuck, without wondering about logistics, without imagining the exposure such activity might require. How will it work? What will go where? Or, as one guy once said to me, What if I, like, freak out? Why this should occur to me at this moment, I have no idea. Why it should matter to me is an even greater mystery. It goes against my careful feminist training, my intellectual thinking, and, quite frankly, the truth about my lived life, in which I’ve had plenty of sex/fucking, although I’m at a loss to describe the distinction I’ve just made between these two enterprises, if indeed that’s what they are. But the dark thought spools onward: that a woman is a good woman, which means a desirable woman, when other people want her. Want to be her, see her in a particular way that I have never felt seen, but always wanted to be: as an object of desire, as some delicious bone to grapple over. Do the devotees frighten me because they view amputees as too desperate and pathetic to refuse their advances? Are the depictions of Frida’s struggle with embodiment appealing because they create a freak show of the mind, subtly revealing this notion that envy is the route to desire and desirability? I watch the temporarily able-bodied stream from the staged museum of Frida’s home to sit in the gallery, where film reels move against the screen in grainy black and white images that flicker and blur. I have always wanted to be objectified—loved for the body, not for the mind. I know this desire is shameful as any sexual fetish predicated on helplessness, but it takes arrow-like shape regardless and arcs through the air, searching.
Sitting on this bench in Mexico, reading this book with which I have become obsessed, I am deeply ashamed of the turn my so-called enlightened and overly educated brain has taken. I studied religion and women’s studies almost exclusively in college. Join the struggle, Rapp, I think, and remember trotting down a tree-lined street in a small town in Minnesota in 1992, urging people to “take back the night,” and end the violence against women. Where is that virginal, book smart girl? Do I not remember all those impassioned papers I wrote about the thieving, potentially violent male gaze and the viewer/viewee power relationship? Wasn’t I a member of Feminists for Change, a group of women who kicked off our Birkenstock sandals to nestle into falling-apart couches in a dusty room, at the end of an even dustier hallway, in a turn-of-the-century building named after a Norwegian king, to discuss gender bias under a poster of Frida Kahlo’s lightly mustachioed face? Where is my feminist stance about the equality of all bodies? What happened to my belief in sisterhood? “If numbness contracts the boundaries of the self, empathy expands it,” Solnit reminds me. I have fallen far from the empathy tree into a disturbing numbness here at the Casa Azul, a place I have long wanted to visit.
I want to feel a part of Frida, but I feel nothing at all except happiness—occasionally undercut, but also strengthened, by despair. I am in love, about to have a child, coming to terms with my son’s protracted illness and death. Where’s my gratitude for the “resurrection of my life,” as one person described it to me in an email. I don’t believe in resurrections. I don’t believe in happy endings, either, and yet I’m in one, writing one, as Frida did, telling stories instead of being told by them, as Solnit implores us to do. I write and write and write. And yet Solnit also admits that “writing is speaking to no one.” It is a “conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not yet born, the unknown, and the long gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.” A conversation with the body, with the world, with the living (my girl) and the dead (my boy), with the unseen and with the ego; and for Frida, with the easel and especially self-portraits, where she explored the gaze of others inside the gaze she returns, a story within a story. That same brainy college girl who talked intellectual and big in her long papers, written by hand in a sun-filled room, never said a word in class, muzzled (crippled?) by fear of being wrong, of being looked at/examined/categorized as she spoke. As if the mind, like the body, could be found faulty. Silent apart from the rambunctious, intimate, exclusively female world of my dormitory, I tucked myself into libraries and fell into the mind, hoping it would release me from the body. All around me, people were making plans to lose their virginity. I read more Cicero, more Plutarch, more Hegel. Being naked in the light, or in the darkness, in front of anyone, in front of myself, was to be named. I preferred to remain anonymous. The option was…what? Those men, their need like a dirty blanket, leering from behind plastic plants at the Dallas Hilton, men in a generic, overly air-conditioned bar saying your pain is what draws me to you? I could not be that woman on the stool, lumpy and immobile, waiting for her husband to lift her up. I could not bear it.
Inside these blue and yellow walls at the Casa Azul, inside the black and white reels of Frida, decades ago, limping in her voluminous, leg-concealing skirts across this manicured yard, where the real-time mother has now emerged from the gift shop to comfort her screaming daughter and stroke her hair, I feel like nothing more than a crippled girl. I don’t know if the anger vibrating through me is because I am crippled, or because I’m still angry about my anger, or because I’m angry that it all still matters to me so much when my son has died, I’m about to be a mother again, and the man I love is buying me an espresso from the cart on the other side of the garden. I’d like to disappear into this bench, but there’s no chance of that. People notice the belly. People see this part of me, but only this part. They smile, I smile back. If my son was alive and with us, the same friendly and curious people might stare at his blank and sightless eyes, or wonder why he didn’t move. If I were wearing shorts, they would stare. When Solnit discusses creation—of a life, of a story, of a world—she understands that what disintegrates must experience a metamorphosis. This, she says, is “the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.” I miss my son. I love my man and my growing baby with an intensity that could light the garden with three separate fires.
Why do we (I) love Frida? I wonder. What special claim do I think I have on her if I’m thinking my anti-feminist thoughts in this fragrant garden on an overcast, pleasantly warm day in Mexico City? Is it because people who have never had a major operation, or have had one from which they’ve recovered with few visible scars, tend to romanticize pain and suffering, or simply have the space and time to imagine how they would imagine another’s pain? Does this explain Frida’s popularity? Is this a story that eats its own tail? Those of us who know the truth of others’ prurient stares realize that the viewing of any body deemed strange/abnormal is immediately sexual/sexualized. The question what does she/he look like naked? creates an image that isn’t captured in the “artistic portraits” that photographers are fond of taking of women’s bodies, the angles airbrushed, the faces hidden, hair arranged (usually swirled around their head in a fuzzy halo), the curves lit by manipulated light, limbs arranged on beds with lacy pillows and deliberately rumpled sheets in ways meant to look natural, and, of course, inviting in a particular way, the body prone, waiting to be claimed, plucked, fucked. Look at this, don’t you want this, don’t you want to be this, don’t you want to have this, come and take this. Unlike the temporarily different, who often use their stories as currency to gain affection and a fearful respect, we hide. And yet the allure of the freak show is the same as the allure of these simplistic, staged photographs: that what was once hidden is allowed to take sudden, beautiful, unashamed shape. An idea, a thought, an image, a person, a being. What is wrong with your baby? people used to ask me about my son. I touch my belly and hope this girl will emerge, strong and kicking, as one of the people who moves on the other side of abnormality, in the world of the normal. What is wrong with you? I’ve been asked countless times, and now ask myself, and I don’t mean the body, but the mind, even though I no longer believe in even their partial separation.
Strangely, I have thought my way into the idea that disability is, as a concept, sexy in both an expected and unexpected way. This comforts me, but only momentarily. Overly observant as outsiders must always be in order to survive in the world, Frida was not a woman who was easily or comfortably observed. People noticed everything about her, and this created an allure that no “normal” body could. She was not a cliche. She was resilient and fragile, vulnerable and fierce, visible and invisible, a living study in both/and versus either/or. I think my bitter, broken, blaming thoughts and also believe that she was beauty itself, both the form and the ideal, which is always more complicated than we’re told it is—even in women’s studies classes—with its unexpected trappings and mazes of angles, planes, colors, imperfections, and asymmetries. She knew a particular beauty, and other people knew it as well. Was she content with that? Will I ever be with mine? Is anyone, anywhere, ever?
One year I lived not far from Paris and had a lover I visited frequently. I loved that—having a lover—and it was made even more enticing by the fact that years before he had loved me, I had known it, but pretended as if I did not, which made him love me more. I lied and said, I’m not sure, when he expressed his feelings, which was girl-code for no I don’t want you, but I wanted to see what would happen, and what happened was not a surprise. I drew away, and he came forward more earnestly. The push/pull game of dumb desire. The flailing, unhinged dance of the ego. With this boy, I was the girl who went off with others just to see how it would affect him, waiting to see what I could make him do for me. Delight and disgust were bound up together and eventually spilled into legitimate affection, making me monstrous in a delicious, culturally sanctioned way. To inflict pain rather than be the canvas upon which it is wrought is the oldest argument for war, either intimate or epic. I could see, of course, sickening as it was, addictive as it was, that playing with this man had nothing to do with my old, self-obsessed obsession about whether or not I was fuckable, attractive, pretty, or just not-a-freak. I was simply unavailable and selfish. The work of deception made me feel crafty and safe. That year I wore my hair like Frida’s, two long ropes crossing the top of my head and held in place with bobby pins. Twice a month, on Friday, I took the train from my apartment in Geneva, walked through the neighborhood fish market in its final hour, and waited in the hot stairwell of my lover’s building, my sandaled feet stinking of guts and bloody bones, my misguided, needy heart beating fire.
I saw myself living in France, making a new life in France or in some other, any other place, as if a new language and a new passport would change my body, my mind, my everything. I dreamed about that distant island, this paradise shore. A new identity will fix it, I thought, because something must. Full of power and shame, I turned away from what was good in myself in order, I thought, to feel good in the body. Your great talent is to seduce me, my mistreated lover said to me over a bucket of wine in a streetside café. The spring air was cool. His hands were hot and rough across my head, tracing the braids. It is no great talent, I thought, to choose one you don’t love in order to escape your own life. The last time I saw him, I turned around as I entered the train car, saying, I don’t love you, I never loved you. Saying nothing, he pressed his hand to the glass and slapped it, as if slapping my face, as the train slowly pulled away. It wasn’t the last time I lied to a man about my feelings, but it was the first time I understood what it meant to do so.
Frida was talented. You cannot turn away from her paintings. Frida was self-conscious. You cannot avoid it in the photographs taken of her. Frida was vain. Long before the age of internet pornography that amputee devotees traffic in, she knew that having a different body made it a fetish, a whole body milagro like the body-part specific ones people hang from their necks, hoping for miraculous healing, a sudden solution for their various ailments: a leg for a broken foot; a whole heart dangling at the sternum to help heal a freshly broken one. In the black and white photographs arranged outside her preserved rooms, Frida lies in her bed, a fat, fancy ring rising from each slim finger, a bright flower in her hair, smartly dressed, pressed, and arranged, and she is earnest. She rises above none of the petty concerns and worries, and I love this about her. I cannot turn from her story; instead, I am forced to reckon with my own. She painted her corsets to be objects of beauty, even after her body had been rended like a garment of grief, even when her leg was gone, her back twisted. She was playful with her pain, adorned it, advertised it. She knew, like Solnit, that “every illness is narrative,” and that there is no story that stops death. Death is work; it must be worked toward, walked into. Ronan shifted and struggled and fought to die, even through the morphine syrup; he wasn’t raging against death, but toward it, and we tripped behind, screaming, pushing him forward, but also wanting to hold him back. Identities die (this man’s wife, this boy’s mother) and are reborn (this man’s fiancee, this girl’s mother). New identities emerge to solve a crisis, Solnit writes, and I want to believe this. My mother, largely stoic through Ronan’s final moments, long hours later sat down on the couch after his body left the house and wept, saying, I hate it when they take them away, evoking the entire world of the dead of which Ronan was the newest member. Who was I then? I wonder. Who am I now?
Frida also knew (and now, on my bench, I feel a wrenching, embarrassing pride) that desire cannot resist decay, and that we all bide our time in the land of miraculous, unadulterated desire. At some point our bodies defy us, we become part of “the terrible exile of the abhorred” that those of us with disabilities recognize if we do not fully know, remarkable to nobody. And of course, eventually, we die.
I stare at the pyramid in the center of this garden and think I am broken, because I should be happy in the world, and instead I’m tugged beyond the borders of my own body into my own faraway land, the contours of which are both known and unrecognizable, and in this place I am not a feminist, or a good and kind person, but a damaged and bitchy pregnant woman, still grieving, unkindly wishing on other women the kind of despair that comes from being invisible to the gaze of the other that I have so ardently dissected, criticized, and occasionally been able to dismiss. I am the sad, solo star of my own little reverse fairytale. I am fit to be no girl’s mother. I cannot guide any woman through this brutal world that will judge her the way I am judging the judgers and the judged in this inescapable game of looking. I feel my own smallness, my own resistance to the generosity Solnit describes, and which makes me love her book. My grief has gone underground. Sublimated, it still remains, trembling and alive, waiting, ready to show me who I really am.
In Frida’s paintings, a record of what came from her mind when her body was gone, there exists in her return gaze only what she allows. The rest is hidden, held back. When you are made differently there is so much you don’t show, so much of yourself that lies out of view, only to be revealed in a moment of trust. This is full exposure, much more interesting than a photograph of someone’s naked body partially covered, retreating from the camera, the proportions of the shape expected, the face unseen. Much more interesting than a strip of fabric that only covers half of the whole. Much more engaging than a man obsessed with a woman’s perceived helplessness. To love someone when you have a broken body that evokes the history of every broken body that has come before it, which is a way of evoking the notion of the body itself, requires deep surrender. This is the body, given for the viewer, and I realize that I have only ever done this with one person, ever, in my life, in spite of all the sex and fucking that was supposed to make me feel worthy of attention, respect, love—and he’s on the other side of the garden.
There’s something sexy about a decision to put something necessary on, to take it off, but only for one set of eyes. This must be true. I want it to be true. Frankenstein’s monster, a being with a good and kind heart, could not understand this—that his difference was part of what made him necessary, part of what made him normal—in part because everywhere he turned he was met with disdain and disgust at his form. This lived contradiction broke his heart, made him murderous. He could not be in his body and feel like a man, as I so often have felt that I am not a proper woman here, in this body, this woman’s body that is making another body, a little girl. Crippled and proud! my amputee friend and I would chirp to one another from our separate beds in the convention hotel room we shared. And then we turned our backs to one another, retreating into our private and unspoken grief, made more miserable because we pretended it didn’t exist. I want to stand up and say to these museum goers that they don’t get to have it all. That you don’t get to have a whole body, and then pretend to know Frida’s story, or mine, or Ronan’s. I want to say to every devotee everywhere, none for you. I want to say that you don’t get to claim that you’re an artist if you have not suffered, although who am I to quantify or qualify suffering? In this garden, I long to say, you get nothing.
But what do we/I learn in this museum that documents the reality of transient existence, as all museums do, with their artifacts of lost time? Have a look at the bed where Frida’s body was. Can you truly imagine another’s dead child, missing foot, failed love affair, truncated life, busted pelvis, new beginning? In Jerusalem, after a long and sweaty wait, you can touch the stone where Jesus’s body was supposedly washed after it was taken/removed/cut down from the cross. Some, through wild tears, kiss the hot beige stone that is the size of a picnic table, rubbing the surface with desperate hands. A fantasy of intimacy, a delayed salvation. My French lover and I thrived on the distance between us. A fantasy of love, a missed connection. Devotees love because their desire is both hyper focused and exclusionary. A fantasy of devotion, a conditional respect. In the glass room below the bedroom, have a look at the leg Frida wore on her person with its fancy red boot, now disembodied/disconnected. “Things that never lived don’t die,” Solnit reminds me. Corsets and legs and false feet are ex-votos that live on in the world without their owners. Months later, a pediatrician will ask me if my leg is something my daughter might “inherit,” the way my son inherited the genetic disease that killed him. “Not unless she’s buried with it,” I say, and think of the bright pop of red in Frida’s shoe, the ragged edges of her corsets like the palm fronds that litter sidewalks after a rainstorm. This memory of color and texture is what keeps me from standing up and slapping him.
The sorcery of grief and illness is powerful, an unstoppable tale at the end of which all people don’t emerge, or else they stumble into a fierce light, wholly changed. I’m sitting in the garden, but in my mind I’m in the glass gallery with the parts Frida left behind, the parts that didn’t die with her, that the public will inherit: her legs, her rings, her winged corsets, the ragged and miraculously preserved artifacts of her disappeared body. Is it her pain, or her freedom from pain, that we celebrate? How are we devoted to her, and to one another? What does true devotion require? What mental and physical perversions/reversals are necessary for us to keep living on in this ruptured world? This line from Solnit, this question, sings in my head, but has no answer: “Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who tells your story?” Fairytales, Solnit says, are about getting into and out of trouble; our most important stories are about turbulence. Out of one darkness and into one light. You enter a forest that forges you, and eventually escape it to enter another.
We are born through moments of rupture, again and again, I tell my writing students, myself, my therapist, my friends, anyone who will listen. In this moment, as my love brings me the espresso and I take my first delicious, bitter sip, I wish it could be otherwise.