After contracting polio as a child, Sandra Gail Lambert progressed from braces and crutches to a manual wheelchair to a power wheelchair—but loneliness has remained a constant, from the wild claustrophobia of a child in body casts to just yesterday, trapped at home, gasping from pain. A Certain Loneliness is a meditative and engaging memoir-in-essays that explores the intersection of disability, queerness, and female desire with frankness and humor. Lambert presents the adventures of flourishing within a world of uncertain tomorrows: kayaking alone through swamps with alligators; negotiating planes, trains, and ski lifts; scoring free drugs from dangerous men; getting trapped in a too-deep snow drift without crutches. A Certain Loneliness is literature of the body, palpable and present, in which Lambert’s lifelong struggle with isolation and independence—complete with tiresome frustrations, slapstick moments, and grand triumphs—are wound up in the long history of humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
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About the Author
Sandra Gail Lambert is a writer of both fiction and memoir. She is the author of The River’s Memory. She was awarded an NEA fellowship based on an excerpt from A Certain Loneliness.
Read an Excerpt
Three of the Places
I called them ladies-of-the-valley. In 1960 we lived in Norway, and down the hill from our house was a forest. It seemed so very far away. It probably wasn't, since I was only six. Deep in the woods was a place the sun reached through to the ground, and at the edges of the light, in its shadow, the flowers spread over the forest floor. I'd sit among them and smooth the skirt of my dress around me. The bare skin between my panties and the top thigh band of my braces pressed into the wet slickness of the ground. The white pearls of flowers about to open would perch on my fingertips, and they seemed to have no weight. Cars, construction, my mother's voice, and the confusions of where to sit on the school bus or why no one sat with me and the relief of reaching the classroom and the kindness of the teacher also lost any substance. The honey perfume of the disturbed plants rose around me.
It turns out that lily of the valley and all of its parts — stems, roots, flowers, leaves — are poisonous. It slows the heart.
Three years later the woods, which by then I thought of as nothing but an empty lot (and now know were a remnant of massive virgin forest), were cleared. But there was still the hill behind my house too steep to build on. I'd walk up it as far as possible and then drop my crutches and scramble with my hands to the top where I'd sit among pine needles and low-bush blueberries. I'd reach and reach until I ate a circumference of berries. From there, through trees, was a view of mountains in a blue mist. The muscles around my eyes rearranged themselves, and I could focus into a far distance. When I was young I thought that seeing far away, like through a telescope pointed at the stars, would let me see into the future. Now I know that telescopes show us the past. They show us the light of stars long after the star itself has exploded and gone dark.
When I was thirteen I could name a lot of what I needed relief from. Not being allowed to stay up and watch television programs the rest of my classmates watched, the pain of the contraption put on my legs at night that was supposed to untwist my bones, a tattletaling little sister: I could describe these affronts at great length and with the unrelenting harshness of a teenager, but only in my head. I was considered almost too old for a spanking, but not quite. A door slammed in reaction to parental intransigence, or a poorly timed and so overheard screaming argument with my sister could still lead to the quick rattle of a buckle, the slick sound of a belt pulled through loops, a humiliation. I had learned to be careful. And I had learned the comfort of stolen alcohol. But also, sometimes, in our front yard, a deep winter sun would slant through the grove of silver birch. The ice coating the limbs exploded in light. The white of the trunks became translucent, and I'd put my hand out and imagine it sinking through the bark.CHAPTER 2
"You are so inspiring."
In my experience, it's impossible to shut them down once they start, but I try. With each hand gripping a rim, I make a hard spin toward my last dryer. I open the glass door and angle the wheelchair close. It reassures me that, except for the rhinestone glasses, the woman appears to be my age and therefore can't have any crippled-up grandchild to talk about. Just in case, I put my head deep into the drum.
I'm in my late thirties now and for all my laundromat years I've known never to smile at anyone or to catch an eye, but these days I'm using a wheelchair instead of braces and crutches. Physically, the laundromat should be easier, since I can carry big loads in and out on my lap, and it's 1988, so places are starting to have ramps. But the wheelchair also means a whole new barrage of comments. I've delayed doing a wash until my sheets are gray and a rash has spread under my breasts, maybe from the sheets but most likely because of the towels. No one comes into my bathroom or my bed but me, so no one knows, so I can live this way. But now my work clothes, after rewearings and despite strategic spot washes, have become unacceptable.
"Really, so amazing." The voice is directly behind me. I wedge farther into the dryer and pretend to retrieve a sock. It's steamy, dark, and quiet — until the woman's voice echoes around my head.
"My niece, poor thing — it's a tragedy for her parents really. She's afflicted like you. It's a miracle the way you do for yourself like this, and I'm going to tell them I saw you. It'll give them a little hope. Now my brother's wife, she's a saint."
There's a mute button in my head for these moments. I push it. I grab a towel and plop myself out of the dryer and onto the wheelchair seat. The towel is flecked with bits of tissue. I pick at them. The woman's mouth is still moving. Her glasses sparkle as they move closer. Her eyes reflect in the bright, watery way I've come to associate with the overly religious. They, more than most in my experience, lack the ability to notice social cues that tell them to shut up and go away, far away. Her lips have an unctuous sheen. I'm in anticipation of having my head patted. I'll listen forever, but they don't get to touch me.
"But I always say, God doesn't —." The monologue stumbles as I snap the towel out between us. Twice. It cracks at the woman's chest. "Oh look, my machine has stopped. Honey, I'll be right over there if you need any help."
Now that the confrontation is over, I reach for more laundry. Next out is a handful of underwear. I fold each one into careful thirds and avoid snagging a nail on the lace or black silk twisted among the cotton. My mind wanders around the thought of not wearing underwear anymore. Now that I use a wheelchair they're a hassle to pull up and down and sort out under my pants. But the silky ones caress my thighs the way water does when I swim. Just those, I decide, I'll keep. And a cotton pair for doctor visits. The others can be thrown away. And again, as I figure out another, easier way to live with this new wheelchair, my lungs leap as if they can expand all the way into my shoulders. My spine lifts as well, and the word liberation comes to mind.
My head is jerked forward as two arms snake around my neck, overlap on my chest, and squeeze. "Jesus loves you" comes a whisper in my ear, and the moistness of the woman's breath drips onto my neck. The world contracts — I contract — to just the space between her arms. It's as if there's no air. I gasp and pull at the arms on my chest. They tighten in response. I try to yell, but my breath is too ragged. I'm sure I'm suffocating. One of the arms is near my teeth.
I do not bite through the flesh down to the bone. Instead, I imagine the far horizon of a prairie and the rush of air just before a thunderstorm, and I'm able to inhale past the pressure, and I can see more than the puckering of skin around the erect hairs on an arm, and this woman can no longer diminish me. So I don't bite her. But she is assaulting me. I grab a deeper breath despite the way it stinks of her and sink my nails into both of the soft forearms hard enough to hurt. I'm careful not to break the skin. I'd go from "inspiring" to "she attacked me, officer" pretty quick. The woman tries to escape, but I hold on and turn my head to bring our faces close.
"Fuck you, bitch, and fuck Jesus. Touch me again and I'll call the cops." I let go, and the arms whip back. Footsteps rush away. I pull my shirt away from my body. It's damp where the woman touched me. Why are these people always sweaty? I wipe my neck dry with the clean underwear before I lob them into the trash bin. At least fuck is still the magic word for her type. Past combinations of damn Jesus, screw Jesus, or a fuck off without the Jesus have been less effective repellents.
Deep in the dryer I find a still-hot towel. It burns as I use both hands to press it hard against my chest. The heat seeps in around my heart. I breathe the faint flower perfume of old dryer sheets.CHAPTER 3
Figuring It Out
My nine-year-old wrinkled fingers gripped over the edge of the pool, and I leaned my head back to gasp with effort and with triumph. I'd swum farther than I ever had. My coach's bare feet stepped between my hands. Through a smear of chlorine rainbows I could see stout calves and then hair that thickened up thighs and curled around the crotch of a gray, utilitarian bathing suit. She leaned over, and echoes bounced off the tiled walls as she yelled into my water-muffled ears. I lip read veldig bra and en gang til — Norwegian for "very good" and "one more time." This adult, unlike so many others in my life, never said something was good unless it had been. I didn't think I had any strength left, but she wanted more, so I imagined myself a dolphin leaping as I pushed against the wall and twisted. The muscles that moved my arms through the water sang to me, to my breath, and I stroked until my body rode the surface and momentum was restored.
When she decided we were done, I sat with bent-over shoulders on the side of the pool and gulped steamy air in a thrill of well-earned exhaustion. I'd figured out when to breathe, my hand hardly splashed at all coming down into the water, and I'd swum forever. My coach squatted beside me and allowed that I might be ready to learn the butterfly. I was as happy as a serious little girl ever got.
I shouldn't have been there according to the doctors at the military hospital. They said my spine was too curved for exercise and then put me in a plastic corset. They agreed with my doctor at the Warm Springs Polio Foundation that as soon as the Air Force reassigned us back to the States, I should have surgery to insert steel rods and then be flat in bed for six months. The last set of surgeries had been on my legs when I was five, which was almost half my life ago. Only blurred memories remained, but as the doctors talked, my body contracted and folded in on itself. My arms had wrapped around my knees in protection and comfort.
Norway had socialized medicine, so my parents thought why not make an appointment. This doctor said I needed to be stronger or things would get worse. Get rid of the corset, he said. How about swimming, he suggested. They had a program. Already I'd learned to worry about patronizing volunteers with their syrupy voices, but this woman, who was now telling me that I'd done well but that next time I'd do better, who lifted me up in her arms and carried me to the showers, she was a retired Olympic swim team coach. And I was one of her athletes.
Norwegians believe that in the winter, after a warm swim, one must close the body's pores. A quick, naked roll outside in the snow is acceptable, but we were in downtown Oslo, so it was the showers instead. My coach reminded me that this was part of the training and shifted me over her hip to reach for the faucet. I closed my eyes. My breath stopped with the first groan of the pipes. They knocked and shook until a spurt and then a full flow of cold-thickened water hit my back. She rotated us twice, and it was over. Once again, I'd endured. A sense of worthiness lifted my head over the coach's shoulders as she carried me to a bench.
She left me there with my clothes, towel, leg braces, and crutches. All around women wandered naked except for their shower caps. My coach stripped off her bathing suit and chatted with friends, their bodies loose and easy in the damp heat. Even though I put on an undershirt before taking off my suit and hunched long johns over my rear end right away, and no one spoke to me, I felt accepted. One at a time, I positioned a leg brace on the bench while I watched these women through my lowered eyelashes. Bare thighs moved in and then out of my field of view and flexed their wet muscles and rose into a thickness of hair. I slid my legs between the braces' aluminum rods until the top edges tucked into my groin. I lifted my feet into the attached saddle oxfords and paused to stare without staring at a woman reaching for her bra. For a moment the bottom curve of a breast lifted into view. I belonged because I was a swimmer, a good swimmer, maybe better than some of them, and because of the knowing that comes before knowing when you grow up to find a home in women's bodies.
I tightened and tied shoelaces and buckled the sweat-softened leather straps over my knees and around my thighs. In a long forward stretch, I maneuvered the waistband of my pants around the shoes and worked the fabric over all the places it caught on the way up. I was seal skin–booted, wool-mittened, and had my down parka zipped before I fit my arms into the crutches and used my hips to kick both legs straight. The spring-loaded knee locks snapped into place as I stood.
At the exit to the outside, my shoulder pushed at the thick door until I could wedge it partway open with a crutch tip. With a practiced sideways step, I rotated my body around the crutch and was through the space just as my arm pulled out of the way. The door slammed shut a breath of an inch from my knuckles. It had become a sport to execute this maneuver in as showy a way as possible.
Our family station wagon idled at the curb with steam swirling out of the tailpipe. My father made a blurred gesture at me from behind the frosted window, but I paused in the entranceway. The skin around my eyes tightened, and my lips puckered as the cold froze each molecule of moisture in my exposed face. I felt clean. The window of the car rolled down, and cigar smoke roiled into the air.
The window rolled back up.
My father understood discipline and accomplishment. He would be impressed with my new number of laps. It would be a good ride home. My shoulders pitched forward, and the easy strength of my arms swung my body through the crutches. The joy of those moments between the building and the car was that I knew who I was. I was a swimmer. I tucked my chin and smiled. Ice crystals shattered and crackled around my mouth, over my cheeks, and along my temples.
The Air Force moved us back to the States, and there were no pools to swim in. My parents said that everything cost too much, and everywhere was a long drive. Swimming dropped out of my life. My mother signed me up for the Girl Scouts. It had never been easy for me to join in with groups, but I earned badge after badge, more than anyone else, until my sash was heavy with them. I was smug about this. The other girls made sure I found out that the troop leaders were dumbing down the requirements for me, even the nonphysical ones, like how many books for the reading badge. I threw out the sash. I told my mother I'd lost it. I told my mother I just didn't want to go anymore. I missed my coach with her sparse, overearned praise.
We returned to the surgeon at the Warm Springs Polio Foundation, who yelled at his nurse and called her incompetent and useless and some other word I wasn't sure of. He told her to go back and get the right X-rays this time. My mother moved closer to the door, I shrunk low on the exam table, and my father sat to attention. But the nurse stepped up to the light box, hit her finger against my name at the bottom, and glared at the doctor. The doctor peered at the nameplate above her fingernail. He slapped an older X-ray up beside the first. He looked from one to the other and then sat back and gave us the good news. My spine, the dangerous upper part of the curve, had straightened, and no surgeries were required.CHAPTER 4
Well-Nourished White Child
I read the old hospital chart. "Well nourished, white, three years nine months old. Previous surgical procedures on left hip, left knee, and left heel cord." I don't remember the child. I know from my mother there were two surgeries and two body casts. I don't remember that I lay by myself, covered in plaster from chest to knees, on bleached sheets in a small, windowless room at the end of a hall, but my mother tells me it was so.
The child looked at green walls through the rails on a metal bed. I've seen a photo, although I've made up that the walls were green. There must have been a chair, an overhead fluorescent light, and a sink in the corner with a shelf that stored ointments and hard soap. I can almost remember a metal trashcan with a lid that clanged shut over an encrusted bandage or dirty diaper.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Certain Loneliness"
Copyright © 2018 Sandra Gail.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments 1. Solace: Three of the Places 2. The Laundromat 3. Figuring It Out 4. Well-Nourished White Child 5. Atlanta—1968 6. Sex Objects 7. Complex Math 8. Atlanta—1984 9. Becoming Lazy 10. Rolling in the Mud 11. Open-Water Swimmers 12. Pass the Hemlock 13. Poster Children 14. The Art of Budgeting 15. Mosquitoes 16. Negotiating a Life 17. Dehiscence 18. May or May Not 19. Atlanta—2007 20. The Last Period 21. Immoderation and Excess 22. Looking for the V 23. Yielding 24. I Am Here, in This Morning Light 25. Pride Goeth 26. Horror in the Okefenokee 27. I’m Fine, Thank You 28. The Blind Girl and the Cripple Get on a Plane 29. The Swimmer Source Acknowledgments