by Emma Margraf
After four or five hits of pot on prom night, the hotel bed felt like the most amazing place I’d ever been. I was still in my discount-find dress with shoes kicked off and my date, James, was smoking his share of pot out of a small ceramic pipe. James was still in his suit shirt but without his jacket and tie. We were sharing a suite in San Francisco with two other couples. We paid for it with our part-time jobs and some contributions from our parents after giving them a complicated argument for why this was a rite of passage they should support. The pot was James’s contribution – not part of the argument. I laid there wondering what I expected out of this moment – James and I were exes at this point – he was with someone new. He was with me because we had history, even though at the time I didn’t know what history meant.
I was certain my doctors wouldn’t be ok with the pot smoking, but I was young and, even with a number of chronic conditions piling up, it didn’t seem to matter. I would realize the direct consequences decades later. My doctors were perplexed by my propensity for illness and injury and by my head size. I had to get a graduation cap special ordered.
My friends were in other parts of the suite with their boyfriends, and they all had muddied expectations as well. They wanted to lose their virginity, and also didn’t. They’d pulled us off the dance floor, because of their anticipation. James and I lit up when the hits came on, goofing on dance moves and swinging each other around during the slow songs. I bristled at the way the photographer moved me around and told me to try and look pretty. I could hear James mutter to himself, come on man. So much of this didn’t feel as fun as it was supposed to be.
Come on man.
As we’d been walking into the hotel that night, James and I both noticed a look from a frenemy of mine. She used to copy my answers in Government class and somehow still get a higher grade. She called me an ugly duckling under her breath one day, thinking she was the smart one. I didn’t know she wasn’t at the time.
I was self-conscious about my dress. The only other formal dance I’d gone to was the year before, and my drunken father spent more money than was appropriate on a dress I liked because it looked like Marilyn Monroe’s dress in that famous picture where her skirt flies up. This dress was more mainstream, a struggle to find, and one my friends liked. James turned me around toward a large mirror in the lobby and put his arm around me. It was the first time I realized that our outfits matched.
“LOOK at us!” he exclaimed, “I mean LOOK at US. We are FLY”.
He wouldn’t let up until I agreed that yes, we were fly. We were.
Doctors don’t ever tell you that you look fly. My doctors have always been sort of surprised when I even did normal things, like join the basketball team in seventh grade. When I did, I got unsurprisingly injured. The injury led to one of my favorite moments in my short sports career: too many girls on my team fouled out, so my coach put me in and told me to stay on our side of the court. When the other team came back with the ball I would be right there, arms in the air. It would be unexpected.
Doctors don’t talk to you about those moments. Doctors never ask you if you are going to prom. Or at least mine don’t. Sometimes I find myself trying to tell them I am normal. I am here. I am a person who lives a real life.
Come on, man.
My girlfriend Erin jokes that between me and our Great Dane, she loves big heads. She loves us both intensely, and it soaks into all of her daily choices. She came home one day from Costco jubilant, excited by a possible victory: she’d found a helmet, and she thought it might actually fit. I pulled it out of the box and put it on while looking at her hopeful face as she jumped up to push my hair into the sides of the helmet.
I love movement, and a helmet means that I can get on a scooter again, or an electric bike, or get my roller skates out. Wearing short shorts and a Star Wars shirt she’d given me for my birthday, I put on my skates and practiced in the house, smiling the whole time.
She and I have moves like James and I used to, only better. We have danced in the street in New Orleans and Las Vegas, but also in the Christmas aisle at Home Depot, where we bought a singing avocado that we dance to in our living room. We met in a Zumba class, where she was the teacher and I was the student. I fell totally in love with the way she taught us to Samba, the way she expected everyone to constantly improve, and most of all, the way she loved the music. It was thrilling.
After a few months of Zumba, I felt comfortable enough to move up to the front rows of the class, closer to the mirrors, with more of a spotlight on my body, my arms, my legs, my big head. I knew that some of the men who collected outside the door to watch us wondered why I would feel so confident. I knew some of the women in the class would feel that way too. I kept dancing.
“Don’t stop, make it pop, D.J. blow my speakers up
Tonight Imma fight ‘till we see the sunlight
Tik Tok , on the clock, but the party don’t stop no”
Our hands waved above our heads, back and forth as we strutted down towards the mirrors and backed up to our spots, singing along to a song sung by a woman twenty years younger than most of us. A song sung by a woman who would later sue her handlers to get her freedom back.
Leaving class one day to get water I heard a YMCA staff member telling a guy to stop staring at our class.
Come on, man.
That guy, that look, that feeling — like the photographer at prom, like a boss who said I was easy to get to know, like the frenemy who told me I was the Ugly Duckling. I didn’t get overtly bullied for my big head, mostly because I grew up in communities that took bullying seriously. But it was baked into our culture. When folks referred to mainstream kids, they didn’t mean me. Everyone knew I was in a wheelchair as a kid and you don’t bully someone who used to be in a wheelchair. And the big head isn’t her fault, you know? She’s sick.
Come on, man.
What the mainstream folks didn’t know was that the wheelchair protected me. I didn’t get conditioned to feel like I had to look a certain way or to be a certain way because the wheelchair made me a nobody to everyone except those that really loved me. I didn’t get invested in rituals like the prom because no one expected me to be a part of them. When I did participate, the narrow view of beauty that came along with the ritual felt like a shocking inability to see the whole world.
We’d spent more money than any of us had to spray our hair high, layer on makeup, and put on pretty dresses. That part had actually been kind of fun, all four of us girls moving in and out of the bathroom, trading makeup and curlers and hair dryers along with gossip. The terribly overpriced terrible dinner was the first of many I would pick at later in life at weddings and fundraising dinners, but I didn’t know it at the time. Then my friends wanted to leave early, cutting our dancing short, racing to their expectations.
And so this is how James and I found ourselves clothes on, laying on a hotel bed smoking enough pot to make up for the fact that we wanted to be dancing. The dancing was like the time on the basketball court, like roller skating, like Zumba. We talked and laughed about the awkward people at prom that were Not Having Fun and whispered about the occasional sniping we heard from the next room, where it didn’t sound like things were going well. I woke up the next morning in my dress, with a blanket pulled over me, James asleep on the couch nearby.
I was listening to Allison Janney on a podcast last year reliving some of her time on the tv show The West Wing twenty years ago, and she said she looks at her younger self and thinks that she had no idea how beautiful she was. Folks have always told me I looked like her. I’ve always thought she was beautiful. Were people making it clear to her that she wasn’t considered beautiful too? Are we the same? I think about her looks vs. her career and her life and I don’t long for her glamour, but I would give anything to spend time in the same room as Martin Sheen, to trade dance moves with Dule Hill. Dule Hill danced with Savion Glover on Broadway.
Erin and I now live in the country, across the street from an inlet that produces some of the most sought-after oysters in the world. She read an article about the science of oysters and champagne and why they’re paired. Soon, we’ll go down the street for the oysters and have some champagne delivered. If we feel so inspired, maybe we’ll put on dresses and have our own prom. We’ll eat at the farm table my dad made me using the discarded wood from a millionaire’s mansion’s floor and dance in the living room or outside on the deck, under the country stars.
Emma Margraf is a Northwest writer whose work can be found in Folks, Entropy, Chronically Lit and more. She lives with her girlfriend and her Great Dane on a small inlet in the forest.
Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of Second Chances, is no exception. Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.
Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here