Pain


It happens every single time. You go to a wedding. It’s a lovely wedding. You might even tear up when the couple exchanges vows. And then you proceed to the reception. It’s a lovely reception. They have Ornamental Thingies on the tables, and an invitingly large dance floor laid out in front of an impressive table full of Mysterious DJ Stuff. The open bar is flowing. Things are looking good.

Then they start playing music.

It’s all the good stuff – sappy old lovelies like L-O-V-E and standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You know these songs. You dance to them every week. They’re great songs, fully of swing and sass, with killer breaks made for hitting. Your feet start to tap, your hips start to swish – it’s all you can do to not grab someone and start dancing right that instant. But you don’t. That would be wrong. The bride and groom haven’t had their first dance yet. The bride and groom haven’t even arrived yet. They’re just barely starting the warming plates to serve dinner. Dancing is a long, long way off. You grit your teeth and get a hold on yourself. You can wait. Really, you can.

At long last, after the bridal party arrives and dinner is served, after the toasts and the speeches, after the couple’s first dance, and the dance with their parents, and the dance just with the bridal party, and the dance just for married couples, and God knows what, finally, finally you can dance. You head for the dance floor, eager to flash some moves. They’re playing pop music now, but it’s marginally swingable, and all those swing songs earlier gave you an itch you just have to scratch. You look around you and discover… there’s no one to dance with. Sure, there’s lots of friends shakin’ their booty on the dance floor, but not one of them would know a swingout from a hole in the wall. If you’re a girl, you realize that you are the best lead in the building. If you’re a guy you realize that not one of these girls has any clue how to follow. Maybe there’s one or two people who kind of dimly remember that one lesson in East Coast swing they took three years ago, but that’s it. You’re dieing for one good Lindy dance (just one!), but your chances of getting that? Well, let’s say you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, particularly since you don’t buy lottery tickets. You begin to be grateful that the DJ isn’t playing swing music anymore, and settle yourself down to an evening of good, old-fashioned, non-partnered dancing.

But it doesn’t end there. Nuh-uh. See, your friends, they love you. They know how much you love swing dancing, how crazy you are about it. They’ve had to sit through enough impassioned ravings about the nuances of rock steps and demonstrations of solo-Charleston moves. They know you won’t be happy unless you swing dance at least a little. So they ask the DJ to play some swing music. And he does. He plays one of three songs: either Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Zoot Suit Riot, the Brian Setzer version of Jump, Jive and Wail, or something by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Whatever he plays, it will be killingly fast, and there will be no one for you to dance with. But all your friends are watching, eagerly waiting to see how you’re enjoying the treat they so sweetly arranged.

So… you make the best of it. You grab that one guy who sort of remembers how to lead a couple of turns in East Coast and make him dance with you. You do your best to follow whatever he’s doing, even when he forgets the rock step or throws them in randomly from time to time, even when he almost yanks your arm off on an outside turn, even when he lets four breaks in a row fly by without even noticing they were there. You don’t even dare hit them yourself or throw in the slightest bit of styling. Anything unexpected totally throws him off. Tossing in a swivel might make him break down completely. You grit your teeth, and after a small eternity the song is done.

You walk off the floor, quivering slightly from the badness of the dance. Your friends cluster around you. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “You’re really good! That was awesome!” Words fail you. You retreat to the bathroom to try to regroup. The reception is far from over. The bar is still flowing. There’s a good hour at least of dancing still to go. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe they won’t play swing music anymore. Maybe…

My roommate Liv is having a very, very bad day today. Like most bad days, this one actually started last night. We had a plan to meet some friends downtown for dinner, and then go to see the East Village Opera Company, a group that performs opera songs to hard rock accompaniments. As we were eating, I could tell that Liv’s legs were already hurting. She kept rubbing them, hoping that by engaging the motor-control nerves the brain would be distracted from the signals the pain nerves were sending. I saw her doing it and expressed concern, but she was doing her best The Smile On My Face Means We’re All Fine Here, Just Fine, How Are You? impression, so I left it alone.

Then we went to the concert. I was enjoying it some, partly because I love opera so I’m familiar with the music, but it wasn’t thrilling me. The way they transposed the orchestra parts for electrical guitar, etc. was cool, and they had some very nice effects. But their vocalists just weren’t up to the challenge. It was a man and a woman, fine vocalists, but much more rock singers than opera singers. And friends, opera demands some serious chops. They didn’t have them. They couldn’t stand up to the music, and they especially couldn’t stand up to their own accompaniment. They were good, almost great, but the “almost” was heartbreaking. The saddest was when they did Nessun Dorma, and turned what should be a freaking powerhouse show-stopper of a song into something merely nice. Plus, the lighting was a little annoying, all rock-concert strobey. That works great in an arena, but we were in the smaller formal theatre where they usually have ballet performances. It was a little much.

At one point I leaned over to tell Liv something about the aria. As soon as she turned to face me I knew she was not doing well, but was trying to hide it. It turns out that strobe lights, loud music, and a low, throbbing bass are a bad, bad combination with anti-convulsant medication (which Liv takes as part of her medical treatment). I wrote her a note on the program asking if she was ok and if she needed to go home. She wrote back that she did, but that if I would give her my house key (she had left her keys at home since I was with her), she would grab a bus. When Liv starts talking about buses, she was ready to leave yesterday. Thankfully the handicapped seating was at the very back of the theatre so we were able to quietly slip away. It was good that we left when we did. Liv threw up once on the way to the car (discreetly down a sewer grating), once while we were driving home (opening the door while we were at a light), and once into the yew bushes beside the porch when we finally got there. It was pretty bad.

This morning Liv was looking some better, although still far from recovered. She was leaning against the counter talking to me while I was eating breakfast and got dizzy. I suggested that perhaps she shouldn’t go in to school today, but after thinking about it a little she decided that she would anyway.

When we left the house, Liv was loaded down as usual. Imagine a small woman in a wheelchair with a very large, blue backpack jammed with anything you might possibly need for several hours studying slung on the back. Slung underneath the backpack is a gym bag, packed tight with bathing suit, towel, etc. All was well until she went to roll over the curb on her way to my car. This is usually not a problem. We have an unusually low curb, and Liv is very good at going over them. This time… no.

I heard a whump! and looked up to see Liv sprawled on her butt in the gutter, her bags magically separated from the chair supporting her back, and the chair rolling towards the center of the street. One of Liv’s shoes had come off from the impact. It seems the chair had gone off balance and started to tip over when she went over the curb. Her big bags hit first and came off. The chair slid out from under Liv and, freed from the weight, popped back upright and continued on its merry way. It was so startling and unexpected, and the picture she made was so comical. It was like something out of a movie or a cartoon – even down to the shoe coming off. Plus, it had been raining all morning, so the gutter she got dumped in was full of water.

I retrieved the chair, Liv got herself back into it, and we continued on to school. Liv did her best to dry off on the way, but was only partially successful before I dropped her off at the library with a hug. I haven’t talked to her since, so I don’t know if the badness has continued. I do hope it hasn’t. This is quite enough for one day!

I remember the first time I got a blister from dancing. I’d only been dancing a few months, but I’d heard people talking about dancing so much they got blisters. That, plus the vague memories of foot machismo from my childhood ballet days, gave me a sense of awe at such things. Those must be the real dancers, the ones who were really passionate and cool. Then I organized a mini-swing dance for some friends from out of town, complete with a lesson (taught by other friends who had also just learned) and dj-ing by yours truly. It was in a basement with a patterned linoleum floor over concrete, and I danced in my socks. By the end of the night I had a truly impressive blood blister on my big toe. It didn’t hurt at all, and for the first time, I really felt like a dancer.

I also remember the first time I looked at the strap of my favorite pair of Bleyers, and realized that it had been worn out from much dancing. (Well, and from the buckle slicing it to pieces, but who’s counting?) Then there was the first time I got dumped on my butt (jerky lead doing bad Lindy to a Balboa song + follow with balance issues = disaster), thankfully coming out of it with nothing more than a bruised hip and a dose of humility. Each time it felt like a hurdle successfully cleared, a challenge behind me. I had punched another hole on my swing dancer card, proved once more that I was no poser or amateur, but a real Lindy Hopper.

Last night I was at a dance, part of a regular event the next large town over throws every Saturday after Thanksgiving. I danced quite a bit, and had some truly lovely dances. The problem is, well, my shoulder hurts today. A lot. It’s the muscle of the biceps, and also something in the joint itself that twinges when I hit certain positions, or turn the key in my car ignition. It’s pretty painful. My roommate Liv, no stranger to shoulder injuries, has diagnosed something to do with the rotator cuff, and advised ice and ibuprofen. I’d heard other follows complaining about rough leads, and I’ve danced with guys that left me feeling like I’d been doing push-ups. There’s also been a very few times when Something Unfortunate happened, usually because I wasn’t where I should have been, or didn’t keep my frame. Still, this is the first time it’s been anything like this bad, also the first time that I can’t pinpoint when it happened or who did it to me.

Now, it’s true that along with the lovely dances there were some not so nice ones with newer guys, and some guys who have been around long enough that they should know better (this includes anyone who’s been dancing over a year and still Lindy’s like he’s clogging). I didn’t know a lot of the guys at the dance last night, so I didn’t always realize that I should have begged off until I was already in the middle of the song. I was aware of sometimes having to be very careful with my frame, and that my arms had gotten tired by the end of the night. I didn’t realize how much I was hurt until I woke up this morning and didn’t want to move my arm.

So… who was it? The experienced dancer from Far Away who liked to lead lots of reverse spins using the upper arms? The jerky clogger-Lindy boy? The guy from the scene with lots of turnover who mostly dances with new girls, and leads like it? The brand-new guy who’s so tense in his upper body it’s a little like dancing with a robot (all hard metal and no give)? Or maybe all of them combined. Sigh. I’ll know better next time. Meanwhile, I’ll ice my injury, and chalk one up to experience and the risks you take when you’re a real swing dancer.

Yesterday Liv almost passed out in my bedroom.  She was standing, talking to me, bracing herself with her arms on the edge of my desk.  She’s supposed to be on her feet for so many minutes every day as part of her physical therapy, though it’s hard to get them all in.  I finished a sentence, and turned to look at her.  She was gripping my desk extra hard, had gotten a sick look on her face, and was turning pale.  I asked if she was ok, and she nodded dismissively.  Liv and I share an intense dislike of being fussed over when we are trying to get through something (pain, discomfort), so I let it go for a moment, continuing on with the conversation watching her closely.  It sounded a little like this:

“And then it depends on whether or not my boss decides that she needs me to and I know you said you’re ok but I’m coming over there just in case.  I’m going to put my arms around your waist, ok?”

Liv had turned even more pale, and right when I got my arms around her was when she started to slump over onto the desk.  Thankfully I was supporting most of her weight, and was able to lean her back against me, then slowly ease her to the floor.  She sat there with her head between her knees for some time.  I moved around the room getting ready for work, watching her out of the corner of my eye.  After a while she spoke.

“I’m ok now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  I’m just going to sit here for a while, though.”

“I think that would be good.” 

That’s the most we talked about it until that evening when she told me she had called her doctor, and neither of them has any idea why she would have turned faint like that.

I don’t write much about the realities of living with a disabled roommate.  This is partly because, although Liv is in a wheelchair, she is so phenomenally gifted that I don’t tend to think of her as disabled.  She just has some extra challenges she has to face in her daily life.  I know so many people with their own particular challenges (mental disorders, addictions, physical problems) that this almost seems normal to me.  I myself struggle with a learning disability and sometimes near-incapacitating asthma.  This is part of why we get along so well.  Both of us know what it is like to live with suffering.  We understand pain on a practical, everyday level.  We take for granted the reality that there will always be one more challenge to face, one more wall to get over, one more thing to get through.  It’s not something to complain about, and there’s no point in making a big deal about it.  You face it and do what’s necessary to get through.  Sometimes it’s alright not to be ok, sometimes God has a wicked sense of humor, and sometimes black humor is the best way to cope.  If you can laugh at something, no matter how unpleasant, it becomes a little easier to bear.

At the same time, I know that Liv is vulnerable.  I also know that her daredevil spirit doesn’t always want to acknowledge that vulnerability.  Consequently I tend to watch out for her, especially when I see her standing or doing other things that are hard for her.  We pick the places we park so that wherever she needs to go will be downhill.  When we’re “off-roading” (wheeling over grass or similar) I get behind the chair and push.  It’s not something special, just the way we work.

Liv looks out for me too.  One of my disabilities is ADD.  Sometimes I would forget my head if it weren’t attached.  Liv reminds me of where we’re going (I tend to go on autopilot and start heading for, say, work when I meant to be dropping Liv off at the school library), the things I need to bring with me, etc.  She asks me whether or not I’ve taken my medication, and helps me wake up in the morning.  And she’s patient with me, knowing that while it may take me a while to get to things like, say, sweeping the kitchen floor, sooner or later it will be done.  We take care of each other.  It works out pretty well.