Sex? Yes please. In college, I thought about it, wanted it and schemed how to get it, just like anybody else. But, physically, I’m not like everybody else.
I have a rare form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia. My life — a series of surgeries. So, how do you look at yourself as a sexual being when you’ve lived your life as one long medical marvel? Sometimes I felt it would take a whole army to lose my virginity.
As it turns out, I wasn’t entirely wrong.
I met Eric after 9/11. My sorority sister and I joined a pen pal website and worked together making care packages. On a whim, I found myself in North Carolina meeting my Marine pen pal face to face before his second tour in Iraq. He had said he never met anyone with dwarfism before and I had never been to the beaches of the Carolinas. It was new territory for both of us. Eric stood six foot. His dark hair perfect in a high and tight cut. He smoked cigarettes, used the F-bomb as if it were a comma, and tattoos snaked up both of his biceps and around his back. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. I felt vertically inadequate, but I ached to be his.
At 25 years old, this was the first adult relationship I had ever been in. It was what I always dreamed of. But, instead of relishing in it, I shied away physically because of my insecurities. When I looked at myself naked in the mirror I could see nothing but the vestiges of my operations to correct my bowing bones.
Whenever we were together, Eric liked to brag to his friends about the bone lengthening procedure I underwent as a teen and the struggles I had overcome. I lengthened my limbs a total of 14 inches, the most anyone with diastrophic dysplasia has extended. I stood not at 3’6″, but 4’10”. It was hell to accomplish. To Eric, it was also proof I could endure any obstacle the Marine Corps tosses our way. It turned him on. Still, I didn’t feel sexy.
“Your skin is so soft,” Eric said while he moved his fingers over the deep rivets left behind in my flesh from medal rods, staples and stitches. To me, my scars felt like rubber. Then he moved my hair to one side and pulled my lips toward his. His other hand moved to my thigh. “I don’t feel well,” I’d say quickly. And the night would end.
There were questions that overwhelmed me — could I be with an able-bodied guy? What would it be like? Could I handle him? And the question that begets all others: Would I be good despite having dwarfism? I believe every woman with a handicap asks herself similar kinds of questions. The truth is having dwarfism means stiff joints and tight muscles, and the pain makes average movements difficult if not impossible. Never mind the concept of grinding. It’s a good day if I can get my own socks on. Do a maneuver like the Wheelbarrow? Absolutely not.
Another dilemma: Because I have dwarfism, am I socially allowed to be with a man of average height or does he have to have some sort of little person fetish first? A seemingly taboo discussion, I’ll admit I never had an interest in other little men. It’s just my preference and it means nothing more than the fact that I find brunette men more attractive than blonds. Then again, I’ve never been courted by a man with dwarfism, either. My truth may sound harsh, but to a woman who has spent her entire life fighting the “dwarf label,” the suggestion to date “my kind” is far more discriminating.
The weekend before my third trip to North Carolina, my girlfriends and I binge-watched movies with steamy romantic content and hot actors. The subway scene in Risky Business, Dirty Dancing, Jarhead and Oh God! That volleyball scene in Top Gun. They only seemed to rub in the fact I was physically incapable of loving a man — much less a Marine — the way society says a man should be loved.
Then Eric called.
“I did some reconnaissance on the hotel we’re staying at on Wrightsville Beach. We’re right on the water. It’s really nice.” I felt a sense of panic. The beach meant wearing next to nothing. And to me that meant revealing everything. I went from dreaming about being intimate in college to trying to avoid it altogether.
Eric was right. The room was beautiful. It was a suite with direct views to the ocean. At night we sat together on the balcony in each other’s arms laughing and snuggling. We kissed enough to make our lips fall off. Eventually we moved to the bed. Eric smelled like smoke and carbon — the aroma of being on the battlefield. In some ways, I joined him there. I was my own worst enemy by allowing my disability to get in the way of something I wanted, something I deserved. Love. What about me did he find so damn beautiful, anyway? I didn’t understand it. But, I didn’t have to. Cliché or not: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Eric loved and appreciated everything I had been through. To him it separated me from the others he had been with. It made me unique in his world. If I couldn’t appreciate my accomplishments and get over my insecurities, then how could I show empathy when he deployed? The answer was scarier than being completely naked, because it meant losing Eric.
On the bed, he slid his hand under my blouse, rubbed the small of my back and then thumbed the button of my jeans. I let the salty breeze that pushed off the water take me out to sea. I finally let go.
For the next two days I walked around our hotel room in my bra and underwear. Sometimes wearing nothing at all. I even showered with the bathroom door open. It was the most free I had ever been in my life. No, I can’t do the Wheelbarrow or the Reverse Cowgirl or mimic the lovemaking moves in the movies, but I could love Eric in my own way.
Later he said, “I love you. You’re the strongest woman I know.”
I have come to learn those uncertainties of performance are not singular to myself, nor are they unique to dwarfism. They are universal to both men and women of every shape and size. Especially when we realize just how much we care about our partner.
A short time later I returned to Massachusetts and Eric left for Iraq. He called me just before he turned off service to his cell phone. “Promise me that you’ll write?” he asked sweetly. I promised. And then he said something I never thought I’d ever hear: “Thank you for that night in Wrightsville. It will give me something to think about while I’m over there.” What he didn’t understand was the pleasure was all mine.