“Dr. O’Brien told me about your, um . . . act of love,” says Syd, the therapeutic-shoe salesman, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I was totally moved.”
For a minute I think he’s talking about sex. Then I realize he means the kidney. Of course. It’s not that I ever forget I donated a kidney to my lover, G., twenty months ago; it’s just that, for me, that single act pales beside the myriad “acts of love” it takes to keep going, to keep on loving, day by day, a person who is chronically ill.
G. and I have been together for six years, during which I’ve watched her change from a vibrant, active person into someone who lives with constant pain and can barely walk a city block — sometimes not even that. Two years ago, when her kidneys failed, I had great hope that the transplant would restore her health. I was, as it turned out, enormously naive. G.’s kidney function is fine these days, but the long-term complications of her diabetes have progressed relentlessly.
We’re here at the shoestore today because G.’s foot ulcer has opened up. Again. This is the third time — the fourth if you count the original ulcer, which began as an ordinary little blister on the sole of her foot, caused by a new pair of tennis shoes. Since G. no longer has any sensation in her feet, the blister grew, without her realizing it, into a deep, seemingly unhealable sore. It stayed that way for eight months, all through dialysis, the transplant, and beyond, held in stasis by the treatment the doctors prescribed (diluted Betadine on the bandage, moistened morning and night), but never closing, never shrinking. Finally, in desperation, I began to try natural remedies — first aloe vera, then a comfrey salve — and watched a new layer of skin close over the hole in just a few weeks.
But before that there were months of depression and fury: G. chafing at the wheelchair, the immobility and indignity; me overwhelmed by the extra burden. We’d been so ready for G. to feel better, finally, after the months of illness and then the surgery. And she did feel better — she was walking quite a bit — until the doctors scared her into submission with the A-word: amputation. Even now, at the end of the twentieth century, doctors commonly cut off the nonhealing toes, fingers, feet, and even legs of diabetics.
Although the aloe and comfrey helped close the ulcer, the tissue on the sole of G.’s foot remained permanently fragile. G.’s podiatrist referred us to the therapeutic-shoe store, where G. laid down five hundred bucks for a pair of custom-made shoes. They were supposed to protect her foot, and did, for a while — until, six months later, the insoles wore out and had to be replaced. Unfortunately, the technician who made the new ones didn’t properly carve out the special area designed to keep pressure off the old ulcer site. So the sore opened again, putting us right back where we’d been months before: G.’s tears, depression, and rage. Her dependence on me, and her profound resentment of that. My resentment of it. The awkward bulk of the wheelchair, creaking, needing to be pushed.
This time the ulcer healed faster, and we were OK for a while — until the next time G.’s insoles were replaced, and it happened again.
When the ulcer was open and G. had to get up from the wheelchair — say, to walk a short distance, or climb stairs — she used a thick, knee-high, removable cast with part of its foam sole chipped away to protect the ulcer. The cast was big and heavy and ugly. We called it “the ski boot.” “Going skiing again?” I’d ask every time G. put it on; she’d glare at me and then laugh. What we didn’t realize until later, however, was that the ski boot’s heel was a good inch and a half higher than that of G.’s left shoe. Over the weeks, her left ankle began to burn and swell. The strain of compensating for the boot’s extra height had given her Charcot’s joint disease, another condition common in diabetics, which causes hundreds of tiny microfractures in the bone. Even after the ulcer healed, G. couldn’t walk without excruciating pain — the pain of not just one broken bone, but many. So Dr. O’Brien ordered her a custom-made plastic cast that keeps the ankle immobilized when she walks. It’s thick and hot and uncomfortable and, as far as we know, permanent.
Maybe this is why I almost start to cry when Syd refers to my “act of love.” I can’t think of anything to say in reply, so I just nod. (G. once hinted to Dr. O’Brien that she was thinking of suing Syd; the doctor said, delicately, that the therapeutic-shoe business was a “dying art,” and that Syd’s shoestore was the best in town.)
We leave the shoestore, and I drive the few blocks to Ocean Beach, the long, dirty, magnificent stretch of coast at the city’s edge. It’s a perfect day, breezy and warm. I park so we can see the surf, since I know G. won’t want to get out of the car. We roll down the windows and sit.
“I’ve got good reason to be depressed,” G. tells me.
We sit in silence for a while.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” she says angrily. “You don’t understand what I go through.”
We’ve had this conversation before, and it goes nowhere. So I decide to go somewhere, instead. Without a word, I get out of the car and walk out onto the hot sand.
I ’m lying on the sun-warmed side of a dune, squinching down until the sand molds itself like a pillow to my back and neck. With my head turned to one side, I can see the wind whipping the tops of the waves into a soft meringue; I see the whole wide blue expanse.
There’s a guy sitting on the dune across from me, maybe twenty-five feet away. He’s got a light jacket on, and a backpack next to him. He says nothing; I say nothing. Good neighbors. I close my eyes.
When I open them again, I see that the man is masturbating, and very openly.
It’s midafternoon and there are other people around, although, with the dune at the man’s back, no one but me can see him. And I have sunglasses on, so he can’t tell for sure whether I’m looking at him or not. His cock, fully exposed and oiled, glistens dark pink in the sun as he rubs it up and down. He removes a small plastic bottle of lubricant from his backpack and carefully squirts some more on.
My first response is anger and disgust. I want to get up and leave, or make him stop, or at least make him feel ashamed.
But then I hesitate, and the spinning vortex of my mind slows down, stops, and begins to turn in the other direction. I don’t actually feel threatened; the man has made no attempt to approach me, and even if he does, help is close by.
And so I become a voyeur of the exhibitionist. I lie there against my dune and watch him dispassionately. Oddly enough, this seems to make him nervous, and he begins to jerk at himself more frantically, losing his easy rhythm. I almost feel sorry for him. How painful it must be to want so desperately to be seen, and at the same time to fear it so much.
Then I have an impulse, one that makes me even more uncomfortable than the man himself: I imagine traversing the few feet of sand between us, lifting my skirt, and sinking down onto his cock. Taking his confusion, his hunger, into myself. Sharing mine with him.
To distract myself from this idea, I think of things I could say to increase the distance between us again: “Since you’re giving a show, maybe you should sell popcorn.” Or, as G. once said to a guy who’d pulled up next to her at a stoplight, naked from the waist down, “Hey, that looks like a penis, only smaller!”
But perhaps it’s best that instead I give the man the one response I imagine he doesn’t expect: a cool, silent, naked gaze. Syd’s comment keeps reverberating in my head. “Act of love,” he said. I’m still wondering what that means.
When I get back to the car, G. seems softer somehow. She says she’s tired of being so angry. She says she learned something important from watching me walk away.
There’s a school of thought which holds that we don’t have to love our teachers in order to feel gratitude for the lessons they bring. Oddly, just a few weeks ago, before this most recent bout with the ulcer, I was thinking about healing, both physical and emotional — wondering, in fact, whether it was truly possible — when suddenly G.’s foot came to mind. I realized then that the hole on the sole of her foot had given me the most tangible, irrefutable proof I’d ever had that healing does occur. I’d seen the ulcer shrink, seen the new skin grow. I’d watched it happen.
Tonight, lying beside G. in bed, I examine her face, every pore and crevice of it, seeing there all the pain we’ve gone through — feeling it, too, in my own body — and all the love, equally inescapable. It’s another one of those turning-vortex moments, when, to my surprise, I see just how much we have to be grateful for; how joined we are, even as we grapple with our allotment of suffering — which is not so different, finally, from the suffering of anyone else, even the man on the beach.