I Can't Lift My Arms Above My Head

I can't lift my arms above my head. With my particular disability, it is ever so hard to live in this city: the bodegas place the toilet paper on the high back shelves, the cabs won't stop for a kicked out leg, and goodness knows I don't make much of a straphanger on the subway. Instead, I flail about the F train, scattering groceries and ungraded term papers every which way until a kindly stranger offers me a seat, into which I collapse, curse my fate, and beg the gods for clemency.

You see, I wasn't always a horrid cripple. In my carefree youth, I was able to play all the games thought up by the other children involving complex jungle gym maneuvering and pole climbing and tree dexterity. I swung about the yard at recess, a tiny Tarzan, unstoppable and triumphant. In high school, I captained the swim team and worked at the Gap; my mornings were full of long, powerful strokes requiring the complete range of motion in my shoulders and rotator cuffs, and my afternoons blazed vibrant with the folding and stacking of hundreds of loose fit jeans and ribbed pocket t's, sometimes using my toned bi- and triceps to lift perfectly symmetrical piles to heights of 6 feet and above. I never needed to use the rolling stepstool.

And then there were the nights, oh those nights of youthful passion that now linger in the memory, glowing orange and pink and blue as they waft through my dreams. Lifting Candy Fleischmann from the bed of my truck, her soft, tight, sweatered armpits filling my upraised palms as she giggled her way to the ground, was ever a young man more privileged than I? That summer I learned to judge emotion by the heat beneath the arms of a buxom blond, letting my fingers revel in that moist, fuzzy darkness and dream of what was yet to come. Days my dad needed to borrow the truck for work became a waste. Cool crisp cotton became a turn-off: after school, lifting those unworn, untainted shirts up to lie dormant on shelves for weeks, maybe months, I could feel a little something in my soul flicker and die. It was only in the sweaty, delicious armpits of Candy that I wanted to rest, and those lifeless shirts and skirts and jeans and socks gradually built up and pressed against my fragile heart until I could take it no longer and turned in my resignation from the Gap and strode out of the mall into the twilight parking lot to see Candy there, my siren on her rock, perched fetchingly on the wheel block of the F-150. I lifted her down and knew paradise.

When did the gods rob me of my one true love? It occurred, not in a flash of lightning, not in the blink of my teenage eye, but in a process so drawn out and distended that I thought I might never reach the end. After the final swim meet of my junior year, I detected a slight twinge in my left shoulder as I lifted my arms in victory to wave at the crowd from high atop the winner's stand. I wrote it off as fatigue from the extra 500 IM I'd swam earlier to fill in for Frank Dexington, who was in South Carolina visiting his grandparents, and to this day I cannot take Frank's incessant, grating apologies for vacationing on a meet weekend, as they only serve as a reminder that my injury-no, my disease-is not a product of any earthly incident, not a simple effect of a cause that might have been prevented. No, I am afflicted, and had I thrown myself from that podium the instant I'd felt the twinge I may have been saved.

It has taken me these long years to reach a conclusion but, now discovered, it has settled in to stay like a horse bedding down for the night, burrowing long, ungainly limbs into soft, fragrant hay: I cannot lift my arms above my head because in those days of hubris, false pride, high school invincibility, I lived as an untouchable. It never occurred to me that to revel in the underarms of a beautiful girl might be a sin, or that throwing high signs to my parents in the bleachers of a swim meet awards ceremony could lead to such torment. Was it my upbringing that led me to such a place of overconfidence? Did the self-assurance instilled in me by my loving mother and true-hearted father somehow offend you, oh gods, to such a degree that you would rob me of the only things I cared about: Candy, swimming, and the ability to reach up in celebration of the athleticism you granted me? Why give me these gifts if only to take them away? Why give me Candy if only to force her to stand on the ground in front of me forever more, the top of her five-foot-two-inch frame barely meeting my own cold, unfeeling armpits?

Ah, but it is these questions, I believe, that led me further down the dark path to my eventual paralysis. As I slunk through college, disappeared into graduate school, and became a ghost in the back left corner of my Comparative Religion PhD seminar, I stopped trying to overcome the incredible weight pressing at all hours upon my biceps and triceps and shoulder blades and relented to the terrible pain, stooping and slouching and resigning all movement to that which could be done from the elbows out. My typing accelerated, and I can now crochet. But oh, to hail a cab in this heartless city! To swing freely from scaffolding in front of the library as I see so many of my students do each day! To leap from the embankments of Riverside Drive into the cold, sweeping Hudson and conquer it with a few deep, punishing strokes!

These things are not for me to know, but I can savor them in my mind, the same way I lie back into bed each night and savor the memory of thick cloth mingling with the pads of my hands to bring me joy. You see, the gods have not yet contrived to take away my dreams and for this, I thank them nightly. And when the lights go out, I fade away into a world where, should we meet on a high cliff overlooking a crystal blue ocean, I could wave hello to you and then dive with assurance into the waters of my youth.

About the author:

whitney pastorek personally visited each and every one of the nearly 500 painted cows that graced the New York City area this past summer.