Keah Brown | An excerpt adapted from The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me | Atria Books | 2019 | 17 minutes (4,556 words)
My longest relationship has been with chairs. We are very happy together, committed and strong, in sickness and health till death do us part, etc. There are arguments and disagreements as in any other relationship, but we apologize and make up before nightfall so we don’t go to bed angry. The notion of love at first sight is a little cheesy but true. Chairs and I have traveled around the world and back again. We cuddled on the beach in Puerto Rico, shared stolen glances in the Virgin Islands, danced the night away in Grand Turk, and gave some major PDA in the Bahamas. My chairs are loyal, with vastly different personalities but an equal amount of appreciation for the butt of mine that sits in them. A few of them like to play it cool: they don’t want me to think that they care as much as they do, and I let them believe that it’s working. After all, sometimes you have to let your partner think they have the upper hand, to work toward the long game of the bigger thing you want later. However, you and I, dear reader, we know the truth. The chairs in my life love me, and I honestly can’t blame them.
My favorite place to canoodle with my boo is at the mall. I love shopping. It brings me the kind of joy that I imagine having a child brings to a mother. Shopping is euphoric for me. It is my personal treat after long days. When shopping, I always feel like anything is possible, like the world is at my fingertips, waiting for me to step out in my new outfits and live my best life. Several times, I have bought a few items I’ve forgotten to wear and have found them months later with their tags still on.
In new clothes, I feel like I am debuting the best versions of myself to the world. I like to wear them where I know enough people will see me, because if enough people don’t see your cute outfit, did you even wear one at all? In these moments, I enjoy the audience I often receive just for existing. In new clothes, I don’t care who stares. Strangers are often looking for a show from me, so why not give them one? If I am going to stand out, at least I will look cute while I do it. New clothes are great for all those reasons — as well as for the option of pairing them with beloved older pieces already in my wardrobe, as an excuse to wear those pieces one more time. And, of course, the smell and feel of new clothes is a beautiful thing.
When I am at the mall, I often ask myself, “What can I buy that I certainly don’t need?” Ice cream, a cookie, a pretzel? All three. How many items of clothing can I buy without trying them on? I believe my record is four full outfits and a cute pair of shoes. You can never have enough of the thing that brings you comfort.
I love going to the mall with my friends Felicia Kazmierczak, Christine Goings (“Tinni”), Jenny Cerne, and Leigh Rechin. They are fast walkers and know by now that three stores in I’ll be wheezing like I ran a mile. They are great friends, always asking if I am all right and if I need to sit down. They even slow down for me, waiting patiently for me to catch up. Still, I refuse to sit, because I love a challenge. I seem to enjoy pushing my body to its limits, feeling unsatisfied until I am using a clothing rack for support while pretending to look at a shirt that is either hideous or too small for me. Sometimes I sneak to the back of the store, where the shoes are, just to catch my breath out of my friends’ line of sight. Despite their unending kindness, I still feel embarrassed when I do this.
When I give in to my body’s protests, I find refuge on the benches outside my favorite stores — despite how immensely uncomfortable they are and seem to be proud about it. These benches are not technically chairs, so they don’t feel the love for me, they don’t care for my comfort, and I try not to take it personally. I also aim to spend not too much time on them, but desperate times call for desperate measures and my aching bones don’t care about my strained relationships. I liken these benches to the kids in high school who spend so much time trying to convince everyone that they don’t care about anything or anyone — yet in their attempts, it is clear that the opposite is true.
If you don’t need to rest with the help of chairs the way I do, you’re lucky, not in the sense that those who do are unlucky, but because the ability to navigate the world without giving a second thought to accommodations must be very nice. In the event that you do, welcome to the club, friend. I know how exhausting life can be, but maybe someday we will sit next to each other in the comfortable and soft chairs we deserve.
During our freshman year of college, my friends and I spent ample amounts of time at house parties chair-dancing in old recliners and stained couches, swaying to songs that were much too fast, and giggling uncontrollably the way you do when you’re tipsy and have the energy to stay out all night. When we stayed in, we did so to play card games like Threethirteen and Poophead. We played on the floors of our dorm rooms and in the empty common room, sitting in the tall wooden chairs for hours listening to Pandora until we were too tired to keep our eyes open. I miss those tables and chairs as much as I miss my friends. They were not particularly comfortable or exciting, but they were a part of my college experience, the nights when I knew that I had been chosen by the right people, people who were okay with Dragon Berry rum and ginger ale in plastic cups and laughing until I cried and almost fell out of those chairs. People who sat with me while I rested my bones and allowed me to pretend that I was not beat and a little bruised. People who sit with me still.
The chair I am most committed to is actually a deep brown couch in my living room, where I do almost everything, from TV watching to writing about TV and talking to the people who star in the shows. I often choose to sit on the far left of the couch because it has been kind to me as the comfiest part of the chair. In reality, I am sure that it is just the section that has gotten used to the shape of my butt — by force, not enjoyment — but she never complains, either way.
Now, this couch, let’s call her Vivian. (Trust me, she looks like a Vivian.) Vivian isn’t into PDA. She keeps to herself, very quiet and demure but confident. She gets me in a way that the bench from the mall does not. She cares about my comfort and well-being, and she doesn’t push me to spend money I don’t have. I love her in the way you do a well-worn partner with whom you have weathered many a storm. Though she isn’t as old as she seems. She expects more of me the way the people closest to you do, because they know your potential.
Vivian is stern but caring. She knows her worth and purpose and understands when to make herself uncomfortable in order to make me move. She has my best interests at heart and provides the kind of comfortable and easy relief that you might take for granted, convinced that it will always be there no matter what. We can sit in silence without the urgency to fill the space with words, the way one can when one is not trying to impress the other thing or person in the room. Together we have seen many rejections and acceptances, as many good times and badly aching bones as you’d imagine, as well as the in-between, the not-good-but-not-bad days. The days when I can’t be productive enough to write at my computer but can brainstorm in the Notes app on my phone. She doesn’t make me feel like I have to apologize even when I do. I will love Vivian long after she is gone or long after I am living with new couches and chairs to fall in love with. Vivian is the best of seats. Don’t tell the others.
The seats in coach are named Brandon, not those in first class. I have never been in the first-class seats, but I’ve named them Oscar after Oscar Isaac because he is dreamy and they are the dream.
Sometimes, when I can get away, I have a lover’s tryst with a seat we can call Paul. Paul is your everyday movie theater seat. He’s comfortable and likes to cuddle and be the big spoon. I imagine he’d wear flannel and chop wood if he could, maybe light the fire for our fireplace if we had one (and he were a human person) or make me coffee with one cream and four sugars, just the way I like it, while the night stretches on but we are not yet tired. He is adventurous but prefers the indoors. We have a lot in common. He loves films as much as I do and hates bugs. He understands that I can never recline my seat too far, otherwise I will fall asleep — and no one wants to fall asleep on a date. We speak quietly and quickly about one day watching a movie that I have written, because we believe in the possibility of that happening. While we are busy believing, the last preview ends and the opening to the film begins. We are never together long enough, only a couple of hours maximum, but when we are together it is magical.
The true magic of our relationship is the ability to enter new worlds together. Paul and I don’t get to see each other often, because movies are expensive and he can never get away from work, but when I sit in him, he takes away all my worries, eases my hip pain, and allows my imagination to run wild. He is so supportive of my dreams and reminds me to always work toward them even when they feel impossible, especially the big ones. We have watched so many great movies together and a few very bad ones, but we always have great stories to tell later, regardless. Paul is patient. He has to be, for the way he is treated by other moviegoers. I made him a promise early on that I would never treat him the same way some do when they leave messes in his home. This promise may be the very reason that whenever we see each other, I always have the best view of our date-night movie.
Outside of malls, home couches, and movie theaters, I tell my own stories to crowds of strangers, some of whom have become my friends. I have sat on studio set couches for morning shows like AM Buffalo, chairs atop stages like the ones in Portland at the Affect Conf and at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, for the Radical Women’s Night Out panel. I have sat in a comfortable but oddly shaped chair during a disability and ethics symposium keynote speech at DePauw University. My words have allowed me the opportunity to travel to places I have never been to, and to get to those places, I have to sit in a certain seat — let’s call him Brandon. Brandon is your standard small and uncomfortable airline seat. He’s got a bit of an attitude problem, but it is an understandable one. He is already bored of you before you meet and would happily relay your most embarrassing secrets that you told him in confidence if he could. The seats in coach are named Brandon, not those in first class. I have never been in the first-class seats, but I’ve named them Oscar after Oscar Isaac because he is dreamy and they are the dream. Anyway, Brandon is small and uncomfortable and bearable only once you think of being elsewhere the entire time you are together. (Elsewhere like your planned destination.) Brandon doesn’t believe in personal space; he can’t, since I sit atop him, and someone else, often a stranger, sits right next to me on his brother. Still, Brandon has taken me to new places, so I cannot be too hard on him.
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The most difficult boyfriend seats, though, are those in waiting rooms. They aren’t comfortable and they aren’t supposed to be, no matter how long you are made to wait. As a trusted source who has spent most of her life in and out of doctors’ offices — from the waiting rooms for specialists to hospitals before surgeries and follow-ups for post-ops — I can tell you that these chairs are necessary yet terrible, and not simply due to their exposed stuffing or dull colors. There is the anxiety, too. Hospitals in particular make me anxious; they always have. Every surgery I have ever had was necessary, every operating room table I sat on before lying down was sturdy enough to do what it was supposed to do. I have been very lucky in that I have experienced no complications or problems during surgery, but my anxiety does not care for facts or reason. Sitting in those waiting rooms for follow-ups through weeks and months always left me petrified that something had gone wrong and I would have to go back under the knife.
The loss of control is where the true manifestation of my anxiety begins: the fact that you’re put under and you have no idea what is being done to your body, but you lead with the hope that it is the right thing, as strangers cut into your body in an effort to make it better. The reality is that I frequently cut myself open in the figurative sense when I share bits of myself with readers and audiences, but the idea of being cut open in real life will never not worry me despite the many experiences I have had. My fear is doubled when a loved one is in the position of appointments or surgeries, as my loved one and I wait for test results or to get blood work done. The act of waiting to know whether everything is going to be okay or not is the hardest part, and no chair could make it easier. Yet at the same time, despite my fear of these chairs, they do provide a semblance of rest for my body, and that is what is most important.
I guess this is the point where I tell you why I love or fear so many chairs and need to sit in them. I’m not lazy or tired, though sometimes my exhaustion makes the need to sit in those chairs necessary. I don’t give chairs names and personality traits out of obligation. I do it because I find humor and fun in it. In reality, who doesn’t need the mall benches or the comfort of a friend’s car from time to time? We all sit in movie theater seats and dream of life-affirming travel. But the reason I have to often sit and rest is because of my cerebral palsy.
My cerebral palsy is the annoying but endearing best friend in your favorite romantic comedy: the friend who doesn’t end up with the love interest but who seems happy with her life as it is (so you don’t necessarily feel like justice wasn’t done by the time the credits roll). The friend who causes you quite a bit of strife, but you can complain because she’s your friend. (If others tried to, you’d shut them down, even if they were a little right, because at the end of the day it’s all about loyalty, and you should at least be loyal to yourself and your people.) Cerebral palsy doesn’t always return the favor, though. Our love is a little one-sided. A thing she likes to do is make my body ache at the most inconvenient times, like when I’m shopping or on vacation or at the movies. We both end up losing. Sometimes, if I’m unlucky, she will tap the pain into the fight while I’m already sitting down and not doing anything extraneous. I think she does it so that she can keep me on my toes, but I think it’s a bit much. Secretly, I think she likes being the center of attention; after all, in all these places, she makes people stare. Often people stare at us so hard they run into things and could catch flies with how wide their mouths hang open. That part is funny once you get past the initial agitation. They behave as though they’ve never seen someone limp before, as though there is magic in my scarred and bent fingertips.
You should get to know who or what you are spending hours sitting atop out of courtesy…For the long-term chairs in my life, we establish ground rules very quickly…For the temporary chairs it is like speed dating.
When I sat in a rolling desk chair at a summer park office job just before I started college, I felt like a real adult, one who would tell the visiting children that those fingers were magic, could grant three wishes if they believed hard enough. I told them this because I was ashamed at the truth, which was that I thought there was nothing beautiful about them. But I found solace when I was able to sit back down in my rolling desk chair once more. Rolling desks chairs are fun for the obvious reasons — I have never met a person who didn’t love to spin in them — but those chairs also never cared how I looked, didn’t watch my confusion about how to navigate a room. They never asked questions, just kept me up and able to do my work, to answer phones in an effort to prove my competence and pretend I wasn’t bothered by the questions the children asked me. Despite my love for her, I was so embarrassed of my rolling desk chair back then, like the teenager of a parent who tries too hard to be cool when dropping his kid off at school.
The key to living fully and as well as possible is comfort, and I’m grateful for the chairs and seats that provide me not only with comfort and joy but also relief from what would otherwise be unbearable pain. That’s the truth of disability I was once so scared to admit was an aspect of my experience: the pain. Living in a culture that is eager to view pain under the arc of motivation or as a tool to lean in to because it will ultimately lead us to surpass whatever obstacle is in our way gives me pause in my explanation of my own pain. I try not to talk about the days when I can’t believe that my body wants what is best for me as I lie and then sit on my bed with packs of ice and a heating pad — but I should, because they are a part of me as much as the cheesy tweets, the essays and articles, the good days.
Sometimes my beloved chairs are not enough to heal me and I have to pull out of things that I would have loved to participate in otherwise. Chairs are not as healing as they should be, and that is where modern medicine comes in. There was the time when I could not go to my friend’s birthday dinner two years in a row because on each night my hip was screaming in pain. There are the times when I’ve had to bow out of local festivals because of the strain walking long distances would put on my legs. There was the time when I missed a full day of activities at a conference because I was both sick and in pain, and the time I had to stay back during the night-out portion of my friends’ bachelorette party because I was in so much pain I was crying at the restaurant. I cursed chairs for not being enough to get me up and moving.
When chairs are enough, though — and they often are — joy is always right around the corner due to their replenishing powers. Joy is waiting to be noticed by my relieved eyes. Whether that joy comes in the form of watching two of my best friends get married, having lunch dates on Vivian with my aunt Regina, graduating from college, and going viral and being interviewed by major publications, it is joy that keeps me moving forward. My joy is possible in part only because in the midst of it the chairs are there, waiting patiently for me should I need them. The relief is contingent on both the joy and pain because it comes when my body hurts so intently that the most I can do is lie back and prop up my leg and remind myself that even on my worst days, my cerebral palsy has gotten me this far, so she must not be that bad. Relief comes when I narrowly escape the pain I was so sure was inevitable. I wouldn’t be the me I know (and finally like) without the CP, and maybe that means it is worth something, even with the way it can make my body ache and throb.
If there is anything CP has given me that is good, it is the opportunity to meet and fall in love with new chairs and new seats, to get to know them on first sit-dates as we discover what level of comfort will be offered to my body and how long the comfort will last. You should get to know who or what you are spending hours sitting atop out of courtesy. We get to know each other, the things we like, what we don’t, and because all great relationships have boundaries, we do, too. For the long-term chairs in my life, we establish ground rules very quickly. We have to, because when it feels right you just know and do not have the time to waste. For the temporary chairs it is like speed dating. Will we be fine together for a day? A night? A moment? We are not looking for commitment, just temporary comfort on my part, and to be used on theirs. There is still work I must do alone. I work not to use my chairs as crutches so that I remain inactive and antisocial when my anxiety manifests itself as phantom pain. The good news is that I can do my work while they do theirs. They work to provide me with moments of rejuvenation both big and small. Once we are past the first sit-date and the defining of the relationship, we enter the lovey-dovey phase. Here we are a well-oiled machine, a weather-worn and tested love of the ages.
In this phase of our relationship, I spend as much time as possible in my chosen chair despite every request I get to leave it and be social. We are inseparable, excited to watch TV, write, interview, and relax together. The love is new and therefore I see no fault in the chair that I have chosen, ignoring red flags like their color, thin cushioning, or rickety legs. We can’t both be barely holding it together, but sometimes that’s how it happens. In this phase, I am always trying to look my best whenever I occupy its space, trick it into believing this is what it will always get from me even though we both know the truth. I also find myself being uncharacteristically careful with what and how I eat while in the chair. I am careful not to spill on it and damage what we are building together. It is very easy to see why I am single in these moments, because I am genuinely concerned about how the chairs will perceive me. We will eventually fall out of the infatuation phase but remain close enough to reach an understanding that we want the same thing: to be meaningful to each other’s lives.
The truth is, chairs are a meaningful part of my life and the lives of disabled folks alike who need a moment, a place to just be as the world moves around us at whatever pace it chooses. Chairs are a functioning reprieve from the harsh realities of the world, and they often give us tickets to see it in all of its beauty and problems, because no one place is perfect — but it is nice to be in places that come close.
As I’ve already made clear, I love chairs, and I wrote this essay not just because I was trying to be funny (though I hope you laughed a bit) but also because all too often we equate sitting and resting, taking breaks and catching our breath, with inherent laziness. There is a belief that we must always keep moving and pushing ourselves well beyond our limits to please others or their ideas of who we are supposed to be. This is a philosophy that has proved to be harmful for many people. I sometimes buy into the idea against my better judgment, too. I push my body to its limits and beyond because I try to be the person who strangers expect, the disabled girl who is beating the odds, despite my knowing how ridiculous that notion is. I recognize the fact that I sometimes don’t practice what I preach, but that’s why, for me, chairs are not just punch lines to an essay or a joke but the objects that keep me able to rest up and in turn be active in my body. While I continue to acknowledge that rest can also keep me healthier and energized enough to be lively in the long run, this also means that I have to acknowledge that no disabled person should have to be active or constantly moving to push themselves past unhealthy limits to be valued. There is no right or wrong way or reason to rest in your chairs when your body is telling you to slow down.
Chairs are amazing and don’t get the credit that they deserve. Have you thanked a chair today? Maybe hug the next one you see and remember that they are there for a reason and they are helping people in small and big ways. They keep the people you love able to participate in your lives in a way that they might not be able to otherwise.
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Keah Brown is a journalist, freelance writer, and activist. She has written about living with cerebral palsy in Teen Vogue, Essence, Catapult, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the State University of New York at Fredonia and she has a love for popular culture and cheesecake. She lives in New York with her family.
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