Plucky

by Rhoda Olkin

I don’t mind being disabled so much as I mind being short. Okay. I mind a little, but not like I used to. Not like the time Mark Feely said to Phil Hamilton that he didn’t understand why a cripple came to a junior high dance anyway. That time hurt beyond tears, but we were only 13 years old then, and we’re not 13 now. I’ll bet even Mark Feely doesn’t say things like that anymore.

But, as I was saying about being short, it’s not so great. You can’t ever be chic or svelte or have stature and presence unless you’re tall. I worry about this whenever I’m meeting a guy for the first time. Since my divorce from Joel a few months ago I’ve started dating again, so I’m meeting a lot of guys and worrying quite a bit about being too short. The guys are very polite about it, but sometimes you can just tell; they’re thinking words like “shrimp,” “puny,” and “runt” to themselves, all the while making small talk and pretending to want to get to know me. Sometimes they even ask me out for a second date, just to cover up. It’s so phony.

Did I say I started dating again? That’s not really accurate. I never really dated before I got married, three years ago. So how did I ever get married in the first place? I tricked Joel into loving me, I guess. I always thought I was lucky to get him, and I left when I realized he was lucky to get me. It was classic, really; he cheated on me every chance he got, ’til I figured it out. I’m sure his other women were all tall. I heard his new wife’s not much over five feet, though. Go figure. He probably cheats on her, too.

Anyway, I was telling you about dating, and how I worry about my height, what there is of it, when I meet someone new. I used to worry about being disabled. There was a time when I felt really bad about it, even defensive, like I’d been born a Protestant in a Catholic town. People would make comments that would really bug me, and I’d go away feeling mean and angry. To make myself feel better, I used to categorize people’s comments into types and give each type a name. For instance, some people would say really stupid things like “after a few minutes of talking with you I don’t even notice your handicap anymore,” like maybe I’d suddenly become undisabled or something. I called these the “you’re so cute I didn’t even notice you’re in a coma” types. Then there were the “some of my best friends…” types. They’d tell you about some friend of an aunt’s neighbor’s cousin, or something like that. And some people, I mean people with two perfectly good legs, would actually say to me “you’re so lucky!” Lucky not to have died, of course, is what they meant. To me, lucky is keeping the two matching legs you were born with and growing up to be tall.

But the one that always got to me most was the type I called the “plucky little disabled person” type. Here’s an example. One from my own life, in fact.

I was at the doctor’s office, just having a routine physical. I’m sitting on the examining table wearing one of those paper gowns, into which I’m sweating quite a bit. My legs – one good, one not so good – are sticking out over the edge of the table, but not too far since there isn’t that much of them, what with my being short and all. The doctor comes in, and right away he looks at my chart, trying to find an explanation for such an odd set of legs, but he doesn’t find it in there, since I’m a new patient. So he asks about it, and I tell him, of course. And then he tells me all about one of the medical interns or residents or whatever they’re called who is also disabled but is a real good doctor and all and really well liked, and who never seems to complain that his disability slows him down because he just seems to have adjusted so well, and isn’t that wonderful? Could you die? I just smiled, naturally, but I had some pretty wild thoughts about what to do with the stethoscope hanging around his fat neck.

See, the point is, if you’re disabled, you’re not supposed to have problems, because then people think you’re not adjusted, or you have a chip on your shoulder. You’re supposed to be plucky.

I don’t know how I got off on all that. I started to tell you about what it’s like to date when you’re short, like I am. Take last Saturday night, for instance. I went to the Cafe Beaujolais to meet Henry, a friend of a friend. A blind date, you could say. He isn’t really blind, that’s just an expression. I’m the disabled one. Not that he knew that, at first, because I was already sitting down at a table when he came in. Sometimes, sitting down, I feel tall; I sit a lot.

I knew who Henry was as soon as he walked in the door, because he didn’t look nervous. Most men look nervous unless they’re on a date and trying not to. Then they look in control, like they could walk into Baskin‑Robbins 31 Flavors and choose, right off. “Pistachio,” they’d say masterfully, like there was no other choice. Anyway, I caught his eye and waved. He came over and we shook hands.

“Hi, I’m Jean. And you must be Henry,” I said, and smiled. I can be downright charming when I try.

“I must be,” he replied. They all say this; I try to overlook it.

He sits down and notices I have a glass of white wine and says it looks good, and he thinks he’ll have one of those too and can he get me anything. So I let him buy me another glass of wine and then we settle down to chatting. He’s a really good talker and listener too and he keeps the conversation just rolling along. But the thing I like best about him is the way he has to keep pushing his glasses back up to the top of his nose when they slip down, which they do a lot. I don’t know, somehow it just makes him seem like a regular person.

Well, with all that wine in me it isn’t much time at all before I have to go to the bathroom, but I try to hold it in as long as I can, so as not to have to stand up and reveal my stature. But pretty soon I say “excuse me for a moment” just like it was no big deal, and I stand up, real casual, and walk towards the bathroom. I’m in there for a while, not that anything I’m doing takes so long, but just so my face won’t be hot and flushed anymore. Then I walk back to the table with my head up, just like a tall person would.

Then the most remarkable thing happens. Henry smiles at me like he’s glad I’m back, and when I sit down he says “what happened to your leg?” like he really wants to know and isn’t just being polite. Do you understand what I’m saying here? He doesn’t say anything about my being short; he doesn’t even look like he’s thinking about it and trying not to. So I answer him and tell him all about it and he listens like he’s hearing the score of a baseball game on which he has a three‑dollar bet – you know, interesting, but not earth shattering. And he asks a few questions about it, and I answer straight and he answers back, and next thing I know we’re just chatting about this and that. I try to make him laugh so his glasses will slip down his nose, and it seems like I do a lot of laughing too.

After a while I realize I don’t even know what he does when he’s not laughing and pushing up his glasses, so I say “hey, I don’t know what you do.” He tells me he’s an archeologist for the city, that every time someone wants to put up a building or something, they need a report of some sort and he goes on a dig and fills out the archeology part of the report. I may be mixing this up a bit, though I’m listening real hard, but I’m busy being impressed because I figure he has a bachelor’s degree and maybe even a master’s and I’m starting to worry just a little bit about whether he likes me or not. But I recover enough to ask a reasonably intelligent question about whether he was supposed to be looking for endangered wildlife like baby newts or anything like that, but he says No, that was for the biologists on the team, and then I really am impressed because being part of a team sounds so much more important than just having a job.

Then he asks me what I do and I tell him about the store where I work and I almost tell him I’m part of a selling team but stop myself just in time. But I talk about the public like maybe I know a thing or two, and about how the store has a radio on all the time and how it makes me crazy.

Then we talk about music for awhile and Henry tells me he plays violin and I say “I’d like to hear you play” before I can stop myself. Could you die? A first date with an archeologist no less, and I practically throw myself at him.

Later that evening he walks me out to my car and says, “may I see you again?” Real old‑fashioned, you know, but sweet. So I say “yes,” because I don’t feel he’s being phony. And I stand with my back leaning against the car door and he stands real close looking down at me. I’m so busy wishing he would kiss me, which he does, that I forget to worry about being short.

That was last weekend. Henry is going to call me tonight. I know he really will call because he said “I’ll call you Tuesday.” Men who aren’t going to call you say “I’ll call you,” or even “I’ll call you next week,” but never “I’ll call you Tuesday.” I’m a little nervous, I don’t mind telling you, because I’m going to tell him I can’t go out with him anymore, and I’ve never broken up with an archeologist before.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I must seem like some kind of crazy, turning down a great guy like Henry. But unless you’re short like I am, you just can’t understand; you have the wrong perspective. You have a tall perspective, and a tall perspective says that when you find someone who obviously isn’t going to forget your birthday, someone whose glasses slip down his nose in a way that makes you want to kiss the tip of that very nose, a man who is, in short – excuse me – just like Henry, then you hold on to him for dear life, and hope you never have to let go. And if I were tall that’s probably exactly what I would do, too. But I’m not, and there’s no use pretending.

You see, the reason I can’t go out with Henry anymore is that he was so wonderful; we had the perfect date. It was a date I want to remember for a long time, just like it was. For one night, for that one perfect date, I forgot I was short. I couldn’t bear to see Henry again and suddenly have him look at me in a way that would make me know that he was noticing I didn’t have much in the way of stature. Maybe someday I’ll have whole stretches of time where I forget about not being so tall, or even when someone could say to me “Hi shorty,” and I wouldn’t feel like cutting that person off at the knees, but would just say back “Hi yourself, tall‑y.” But not yet. I’m just not that plucky.

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