Notes on a Painful Lack of Subtlety


Hold out your hand, palm up. Now curl your fingers over to touch your palm. I’m not even asking you to make a fist.
     There came a morning when I could not stand upright. Seeing me bent, and the wretched look on my face, she became somehow offended: “What’s wrong?” she asked, with a tone of annoyance. I was stunned.
     “I’m in pain,” I said. “My back.”
     It is a familiar discussion. I should get a massage. With what money? I should see a chiropractor; my insurance will definitely pay for that. Really? Okay, where is my policy packet? Where did we put it? We don’t know? Because I can’t look online; there is a technical problem and Molina has already told me they cannot help. And this is already known, already said many times before. And it is a handy little circle for anyone not me: Did you know people’s eyesight stops degrading after they get glasses? One prescription is all anyone ever needs. No, really, it’s not like people suddenly forgot something. But, yes, when I say I need new glasses, I’m asked why. And then the same people who doubt my eyesight degrades, such that they are puzzled by the idea that I might, after seven or eight years, need new glasses, suddenly think my health insurance will pay one hundred percent of the cost for this something that I don’t need. What it comes down to is that I need the family Costco card, and maybe a ride, and the answer is that nobody wants to outright say no, but I really should have learned to stop asking by now.
     A chiropractor? I don’t know if my policy covers that; we already know I don’t know. Which is the point of pretending we don’t know I don’t know. Because what I’m asking for is not exotic, or deep tissue. It’s a little bit of human contact, something I have done for other people many times over the course of these same years, and the answer is simply that nobody wants to come right out and tell me so explicitly, “No, I want you to be in pain.”
     Let’s not start on relationships; long before we utterly fell apart, my last partner simply refused because it was too stressful to help. For a little while, my daughter would walk on my back for me, but then my mother decided to start telling her, “Don’t do that. You’re too big. You’re too heavy.”
     So it has been over years since an adult has tried to help me with back pain. Oh, wait, there was the gift certificate for a massage, and while a scandal would later bring down the parlor chain, what was actually discouraging was the stress of pissing off the people who ran the place by using a gift certificate already paid for when I was too poor to afford the regular service subscription they wanted to sell me. There really isn’t anything to wreck a massage quite like upsetting your masseur by being having to repeatedly explain you are poor. Nor is there anything quite like trying to explain to those close to you that this sort of thing is discouraging; I don’t know why, but people around me think it’s a thrilling thing to have to tell people you don’t have enough money to buy what they want to sell you.
     But it’s been fifteen years since even loved ones have been willing to help. It’s just a little bit of touch, a little bit of pressure, just the slightest bit of relief. But it’s been over fifteen years since an adult human being has been willing to do anything to help other than tell me how to spend money that I don’t have.
     Hold out your hand, palm up. Now curl your fingers over to touch your palm. I’m not even asking you to make a fist. I’m not asking you to drive deep into my flesh, nor even to touch the skin. What I am asking is that you please help me. And for whatever reason, the answer remains, no.
     So, unable to stand erect, confronted as if I am committing some offense for not looking bright and chipper enough for not having slept as a result of writhing agony, there was nothing left to say, except, “I’m in pain!” And I cracked, faltered, and begged: Hold out your hand, palm up. Curl your fingers. There’s this thing people do. I’ve seen them do it, before. And you put your hand on their back and move it around lightly. Really, I’ve done it for other people, before, too. My God, it’s just a little relief, please, I don’t understand why nobody will help. It’s been over ten years, and nobody will help. Please. I’m … in … pain.
     And for all the humiliation of that plaintive, desperate tone, the answer left no room for doubt: “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Of course they will help. You just need to ask.”
     And then she turned her back and walked away.
     And I honestly do not know what combination of words will work. I mean, if all I need do is ask, then what kind of idiot am I that in fifteen years I have been unable to get anyone, friend, family, intimate partner, to help me with this pain.
     Really. I just don’t understand.

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