A Backstory

By  |  July 16, 2012

Recently, I was trying to remember the vows of my wedding. I don’t recall much from that day, owing to fatigue and the residual effects of enough English beer to have tanned three or four beaver pelts. There were several cakes, I remember, and roses the color of butter, and my wife looked prettier than Grace Kelly. I found this quite disturbing, as it occurred to me that women who look like Grace Kelly generally do not stay married to men who look like me, unless we own small aircraft.

Yet I do recall our uttering something about sickness and health. These were my thoughts, nine years later, as I lied on the couch and took abuse from my wife.

“You’re not sick,” Princess Grace said.

“I am,” I said. “I might die.”

“Your back hurts,” she said. “It’s not like you have cancer.”

"You promised to tend my infirmities."

“Yeah, well try giving birth to three children.”

Princess Grace is always doing this, reminding me that she thrust three live human people through a hole in her crotch. She seems angry about it, reminding me that I’m the one who put them there. (“Where else was I supposed to put them?” I always ask.)

Apparently, the very fact of childbirth should preclude all pain-related complaining by all men for all time. I could have my arms ripped off by the world’s largest gorilla and she would say, “At least it was quick. Try taking thirty hours to pass a watermelon out of your birth canal with no medication.” But I cannot hear her, because the gorilla is beating me to death with my own arms. 


I don’t know how it happened: I simply woke one morning and was unable to stand fully upright. It felt as though the brisket of my lower back had been broiled in a still-warm oven. I pulled myself to a hunched position and hobbled to the kitchen, leading with my head. 

“Oh, please,” Princess Grace said. “You’re so weak.” 

“No, it really hurts this time,” I said.

I cataloged my most ambitious movements of the day before. There was the small box (lifted), the flight of stairs (climbed), and the BMX bike that I appropriated from a neighborhood boy, in order to demonstrate for the crowd of curious children how legends are made (ramped). Sensations rushed back, of this moment, when I launched from the homemade ramp’s zenith amid dropped jaws and willed my body and the bike into flight. Yet, just as my rear wheel left the earth, I recall receiving a message from my lower back that indicated caution and horror, a neural communiqué hushed by the endorphins of ramp glory and the cheers of neighborhood children—until now, the following morning, when I received a new message from my back, in the form of a letter of resignation.

I did not remind Princess Grace of the bicycle incident, as it would only be catalogued in the evidence room of her memory for future depositions and prosecutions. Instead, I lowered myself to a supine position in hopes of having gravity collaborate with the wood flooring to help straighten me out. 

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said, stepping over me to fetch her coffee. “You’ll be fine.”

“All I am to you is a speed bump.”

I laid there for the remainder of the morning, until she and the children departed for school. They mostly ignored me, although one of my daughters used me as a sort of park bench, sitting on me to eat her breakfast.

Finally alone, I pulled myself to a hunchbacked position, dressed in great agony the way I imagine Yoda must have, and mounted the Vespa for what turned out to be a tortuous commute through the mid-century neighborhoods of Savannah. I moved slowly, feebly throughout Arnold Hall, where I work, and no one said a thing, except for a colleague who noticed my limping. He sidled up to me, smiling, as though possessing a secret. 

“I’ve got two words for you,” he said. “Horse liniment.”

I thanked him and made a mental note to start bringing a handgun to work. I limped on, until something worse happened during my afternoon lecture, as I rhapsodized to a classroom about Aristotle’s use of the topography metaphor in Rhetoric.  

“Think of the human mind as a map,” I said, arms outstretched. Then, something snapped, as though a distant bridge were slowly giving way, and it struck me that the bridge was nearby, and that it was the meat and bones and cartilaginous substances of my back, and that I was going to die.

“Oh, no,” I said, falling to my knees in a dramatic, Game of Thronesy-type flourish. But nobody came to my aid, as they were all resting, studying the insides of their eyelid skin.


“What seems to be the problem?” my internist asked, as he settled himself onto a stool.

He has the build and disposition of a gentle, unassuming superhero: broad shoulders and thick arms and trim waist of a man who would probably look entirely normal driving a Jeep without a shirt. He’s not a large man, but everything about him screams fitness, protein shakes, and the dedicated consumption of legumes. He’s in his forties, I’d bet, with a model-worthy head of silvery hair that seems to have no plans for retreating into the interior of his scalp. He is, in short, exactly the kind of man you hope will be your doctor, if you are an emotionally scarred woman between the ages of twenty and seventy who has no qualms about removing her clothes in front of Captain America.

As for me, I don’t mind disrobing in front of him, because I like to believe he has a tortured inner life that the horror of my nakedness cannot match.

“It’s my back, doc,” I said. 

“Take off your shirt for me,” he said.

The next few minutes progressed like many of my best high-school dates, with a great deal of touching, bending, and whimpering. It was an awkward moment, also, because Dr. America and I frequent the same café, where I am usually in the corner, brooding, thinking of myself as a visage of controlled existentiality, as though I am prefiguring the dark Kierkegaardian voids of my own and many other possible lives. And perhaps I appear to be that. But when Dr. America enters, he knows about things that others do not, like the rash. This was the reason for my last visit, before the back thing. And so, when others observe me at the café, they might think writer. When he sees me, he thinks ointment. And now, he’s also going to think weak.

“What’s wrong with me?” I said.

I secretly hoped it was something debilitating. A simple back injury would be enfeebling, emasculating, but there could be great glory and riches in a disease requiring a wheelchair. Something permanent, but not terminal, a malady that might lead to a career in motivational speechmaking and the lucrative field of disease memoirs. 

“I don’t know how to say it,” Dr. America said. “You need to strengthen your core.” He swept his hand across the snug, tailored waist of his shirt, where his carbon-fiber abs lay dormant for weekend display on various beaches. He explained, as gently as he could, that my only malady was frailty. “You need to workout,” he said. “Nothing too rigorous. Just the occasional crunch. Do you know the crunch?” I explained that I was the kind of man who prefers to use crunch as a verb or an adjective, but he only smiled the smug smile of those who feast on ambrosia from the navels of Polynesian virgins. “I’m going to give you some exercises. Very basic,” he said. “It won’t even feel like you’re working out.” 

He handed me a printout of an illustrated elderly man in various postures, mostly on his back and mostly looking dead.


“What’d he say?” my wife asked.

“What’d who say?”

She rolled her eyes. Princess Grace has elevated eye-rolling to an art that can only be practiced by the demon-possessed and various dark wizards of irony. The iris goes up and all but disappears under a lid that flutters like a windblown sheet of paper under the burden of a commemorative paperweight. I have tried to imitate this maneuver, to show her how attractive it makes her look, and came near to severing my optic nerve.

image

                                  The princess, and the fruit of our loins.

“Are you crippled? Is it a disease?” she said.

I wanted to lie, to invent something, a rare ailment not yet searchable on WebMD, but I decided not to deceive my wife. It would be too much work and might require the remembering of conversations, a responsibility I long ago delegated to her.

“It’s my muscles,” I said.

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Apparently I don’t have any.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere.” 

“So I guess you have to start working out.”

“I already walk.”

“Walking is not hard,” she said.

“It is if you don’t have any muscles.” 

You could tell she did not think any of this was very serious, that it was nothing compared to having an angry opposable-thumped biped scraping the inner walls of one’s pelvis in preparation for effacement and cervical dilation.

“I have a prescription,” I said, holding it up as evidence. She took it.

“This is just Aleve,” she said.

“I have to get physical therapy,” I said. This was no joke, I explained. There might be war veterans there, and others who have overcome impossible odds and been featured in local newspapers for their demonstrations of courage. She gave me a look that suggested the newspaper industry had no interest in my story.

I went to physical therapy and briefly believed it was the wrong location, as the room looked like something from the earlier scenes of Awakenings, when everyone is drooling, and I noted that many of the patients were old enough to have been veterans in any number of nineteenth-century wars. My therapy consisted of being rolled around like a ball of frozen dough and then being attached to a car battery.

“I didn’t know we still electrocuted people like this,” I said to my therapist, who said nothing. As the energy pinched and washed through my core, I noted with sadness that here I was, not yet forty, and needing to be electrified so that I might regain the ability to walk upright.


“How was it?” Princess Grace asked, as I positioned myself on all fours on the bed, attempting to practice one of the therapeutic poses suggested by Dr. America. The wrinkled man in the picture appeared to be imitating a male dog in the act of urination, and I could not get it right.

“They electrocuted me,” I said, lifting my right leg into the air.

“Oh,” she said. “I used to get that done all the time in ballet.”

“Of course you did.”

“It always felt good to me,” she said. “Warm, like a massage.” 

The woman gave no quarter to any of my disease-based fantasies, and demanded to know why I was acting like a dog. “I’m strengthening my core,” I said.

“Please, not on the bed.”

In time, after I suggested having her bathe me, she assented that yes, it was possible, perhaps, that I might be in something resembling pain. She did her duty, opening my beers for me, assisting me into the rocking chair, as though I were a tribal elder, where the children poked me with wooden spoons to see if I was alive. She even presented me with a gift.

“What’s that?” I said.

“A cane.”

“How sweet.”

“You’re an old-timer now!” my five-year-old said, taking the cane from my lap and wielding it like a broadsword. She held it high over my head, about to put me out of my misery.

“Yeah,” the three-year-old said. “You’re our grandfather now.”

I watched Princess Grace going about her day, preparing dinner, carrying out the bag of garbage I can no longer carry, seeing to the needs of the younglings. The woman has looked twenty years old since she was fifteen and still does. I have always seemed much too old for her, with my premature baldness and high Gold Toe socks and love of pudding. And now, as in all May-September marriages that last, she has become my nurse. 

It’s difficult to know how long this will go on, whether my core will ever be strengthened by the Congress of the Urinating Dog. But I care not. It is pleasing to watch my child bride make good on her promises. I wanted to ask her if she would go fetch me a bottle of horse liniment, but I didn’t want her thinking me feeble of body and mind.

“Is this what it will be like when we’re old?” I asked. 

“You are old,” she said, as the grandchildren flogged one another with my cane.

“Tell me you love me,” I said.

“You love me,” she said.

“I do, I do.”

Harrison Scott Key is a contributing editor at Oxford American. His writing has been featured in The Best American Travel Writing, the New York Times, and Outside. His first memoir, The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and his second, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, was released on November 6. Watch the trailer for his new book here.