“All my friends are tall, thin, and blonde,” my best friend said, laughing good-naturedly as we ate lunch. “It’s like I’m the DUFF no matter what group I’m in.”
DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
I looked at her, her deep-set green eyes and long lashes, her freckles and wavy brown hair. I looked down at my white, papery hands, lined with blue veins, which had minutes earlier struggled to open my wallet to pay for my coffee. My damn hands, which can’t hold things or turn the pages of a book or fingerpick my guitar with any sort of reliability.
My appearance makes me feel exposed; I worry that everyone around me sees my thinness, my cheeks scooped hollow by medication, and thinks sickness, the way I do. I worry that they see the scabs on my face and think nightmares. I worry that they see my fumbling hands and think cataplexy. I worry that it’s obvious that I am not mind-body-spirit but mind-and-spirit-against-body.
I looked back at my friend. You are not fat or ugly, I wanted to say. Not in the least. You are perfect.
That night, my friends and I went swing dancing at a jazz club in Pittsburgh. I wore a skirt that was too big around the waist, falling towards my hips, and I worried that everyone could notice. I worried about having cataplexy on the dance floor, about accidentally making a scene and revealing, however briefly, that something is wrong.
I’ve never liked dancing much, to be honest; I’m no good at it, and I feel stupid when I try. But I did dance, hand in hand with one of my friends, who was as tall and blonde and awkward as me. We didn’t know the proper steps, and were by far the worst dancers on the floor, but he gamely twirled me around anyway, first out and then back towards himself. I laughed, excited, and then stumbled as I spun back to him, my feet hitting his, catching myself awkwardly against his side. This is it, I thought. I shouldn’t have come dancing. My body can’t keep up.
But my friend said nothing, and the music swung on. For the life of me, I couldn’t nail that returning spin, stumbling every time, relying on him to straighten me out.
As the night went on, we picked up some more legitimate moves; during one, he turned me quickly, first to the left and then to the right. As he turned me to the left, we came face-to-face, and he bugged his eyes out at me. I laughed; he turned me then to the right, widening his eyes again, and I collapsed.
He still held one of my hands limp in his own, while the rest of my body laid in a pile on the floor. Get up, come on, come on. I couldn’t help it — it was funny, the face he made. I focused on thinking of nothing, on being blank, until finally I could squeeze his hand, pulling myself up, hoping he couldn’t feel how badly my arms shook with the effort.
We resumed our dancing to the brightly syncopated beat as if nothing had ever happened, trying to do a dramatic dip, made all the more fun as my neck went limp and my head fell back like it was about to touch the floor. We did the left-and-right turn many more times, and I kept my eyes squeezed tightly shut.
We even tried an overly ambitious pick-up-and-twirl move which I loved to the point of cataplexy; every time he went down on one knee, signaling to pick me up, my body froze, refusing to move closer to a sure cataplexy trigger. I would awkwardly step towards him, not even attempting to dance, and he would pick me up — what’s the proper way to do that sort of lift? We were never sure — and spin me around and around as my eyes closed and my head dropped and I held on with arms that rapidly lost their strength because it was so deliriously fun to be flying, spinning with the jumping jazz music, the cataplexy as jarring as syncopation, loose and rigid all at once, and it was all right. I felt like I fit perfectly inside my too thin, disobedient body, the way those stuttering eighth-notes fit smoothly inside the beat. I felt beautiful.
Just to be clear — I didn’t feel beautiful because I felt free. I felt beautiful because in that space, I didn’t want freedom. I didn’t feel like somebody who needed to be healed. I just felt like myself, like I was dancing in a body that didn’t quite fit with my mind to music that didn’t quite fit with our age. And it was good to exist there, in that messy glorious reality and the stumbling round in the dance.