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In my freshman year of college, I made a plan to get coffee with a former English teacher, whom I’ll call Mark, during my fall break. This first-name basis that students had with their teachers was a linchpin of the progressive private high school I attended. Whether it was because of this institutionalized egalitarianism or his personable, warm energy, Mark always seemed like less of an authority figure to me and more like an uncle.
Most mornings, Mark and I would run into each other on the 1 train as we both made the exodus from the Upper West Side to Gramercy. In these 20 minutes first thing in the morning, we talked about his family and mine, the books we liked, and the best bagel in Manhattan. I remember feeling a rush of excitement when Mark would share mundane details about his life with me, it made me feel like we were truly friends. I hoped that he had thought of me as a precocious 16 year old, but in my heart of hearts I knew he probably thought I was just a lonely nerd who liked to read.
Yet now, with what felt like an immeasurable amount of time and distance from high school (i.e. four months), I wanted to impress him and prove that I was thriving. I’d regale him with my own critical perspective on Hegel and my love for As I Lay Dying, and I’d show him how I was a well-liked, certified “cool kid” with friends. I had even gotten into doing stand-up comedy.
I met Mark outside of the school lobby, feeling relieved that I wouldn’t have to step through those doors again. Mark greeted me and gave me a slightly awkward side hug. We walked to Everyman Espresso, a proletariat title for a coffee shop that charges $4 for a latte. While he was in the bathroom I ordered myself an iced coffee. I made sure to pay for myself—I didn’t want there to be any awkwardness.
“So what have you been up to? What’s new?” Mark asked when he returned.
“Well, actually, I’ve started doing stand-up comedy,” I said, expecting to elicit some awe and admiration.
“Oh wow, are you talking about your hand?”
I felt my body tense. This topic had always seemed off limits. Indeed, one of the most distinctive features about myself is something I avoided discussing at all costs in my comedy routine: I was born without a left hand, a condition that makes it hard to type, climb, or chop a clove of garlic. As a child, this was merely a source of frustration: It prevented me from swinging from the monkey bars or twisting my hair into a high ponytail. But in my teenage years, my hand became a source of deep insecurity. I hid behind cavernous sweatshirts, my armor against the world. When college started, I began wearing a prosthesis, which drastically changed my sense of self. I felt wildly more confident with it, as though I was able to be the person I never felt I could be. I wore sleeveless shirts, I took up space, and most significantly, I tried to forget who I was before.
“Well, actually...” I pulled up my sleeve gradually to show Mark the prosthesis I was wearing.
“Oh wow… that’s – I mean that’s great,” he said, his eyes widening.
“Yeah uh, I- I know, it really is. I feel a lot better about myself now, I guess.”
“Well I’m happy for you. I remember how you used to hide it – your hand, I mean.”
In my teenage years, my hand became a source of deep insecurity. I hid behind cavernous sweatshirts, my armor against the world.
There was only a slight lapse in the conversation but it felt like an eternity. I remember how you used to hide it kept ringing in my head. Here was the one person who I felt respected me, but maybe he saw me in the way I feared everyone else did: A weird kid who was profoundly self-conscious. I forgot about Hegel and Faulkner, about all of my new friends and all of the new things I had pushed myself to do. I felt a lump form in my throat.
“Yeah I guess I did. But like I said, I feel a lot better about myself now.”
“Even if you’re wearing a prosthesis, I still think you should be talking about it. That’s good comedy—putting words to all that. And you’re not one to shy away from a challenge.”
I smiled lightly. Mark was speaking to me with such candor, yet this honesty was not the kind I craved. I felt exposed and belittled. I needed to cut this conversation short while I still had some dignity left. “So tell me about how the year is going. Any changes to the curriculum?” I mustered. And just like that we got on a different track. We didn’t return to the topic of my stand-up comedy for the rest of our time together, and I couldn’t shake how I felt for days.
It seemed like I had no way to win. When I did expose my underdeveloped left hand, the stares of others felt like a searing sting. Yet even with my prosthesis, the comfort I felt in my own skin seemed fragile, as if the sense of self I’d constructed could fall and shatter at any moment. In my freshman year, my new friends soon found out that my left hand, seemingly so life-like, was in fact a pale, silicone imitation. The first time this happened I felt a pit grow heavy in my stomach: My secret had been found out. It was a Saturday night in September. The air was sticky with that cloying, end-of-summer heat. There were a gaggle of us, all dancing with the lights off in someone’s cramped dorm room. My new friend Katie, blue-eyed and American Girl doll-like, grabbed my hand to twirl me around and quickly realized something was off. I met her shocked expression and sputtered out an explanation, growing as red as the boxed wine we’d been drinking. The charade was up. I worried that Katie saw me as I saw myself: ugly.
As college went on, I grew more comfortable with people knowing about my disability. Yet even so, the idea that my deepest insecurity could become common knowledge terrifies me.
Last year, “The Hysterics,” the stand-up comedy group I performed with throughout my time in college, began planning a benefit show to raise money for the last private abortion clinic in Connecticut. We wanted to draw a big audience and so we booked Crowell Concert hall, a venue that can accommodate over 300 people. I had to cobble together a set but I was tired of all my jokes about how my preferred party activity is monitoring the pile of coats on a bed, or the time some boy accidentally booty called my father instead of me. I liked to think these tales are unique to my experiences, but in truth, they could be told by anyone.
When I first began performing, standup felt like a mode of escapism. When the lights went up I stepped into my onstage persona. With a mic in hand I was in control of the narrative. Yet over time, this habit of deliberately divulging only certain aspects of my life did not feel liberating. Instead, it had started to feel like a self-imposed restraint of what I could and could not say. I was frustrated with my instinct to retreat in fear of what people might think.
Over time, this habit of deliberately divulging only certain aspects of my life did not feel liberating.
A couple of days before the show, my friend Cam and I were talking out our potential sets. Cam can do knockout impressions, construct hilariously deft stories, and have the audience wrapped around her finger with a single line. I laid on Cam’s bed with my feet against the wall as we tossed around various ideas. As we talked I picked at the skin around my nails, a habit that had only gotten worse with age. Across the room Cam swiveled in her desk chair and threw a pink stress ball between her hands. Each time she palmed the ball in her left she gave it a firm squeeze.
“Ok ok, what do you think of this: All I’m saying is, “The Pixar film, Ratatouille, set my expectations for the vegetable-based dish, ratatouille, unreasonably high” Cam said, looking at me expectantly.
“Ha! I like that,” I responded, continuing to pull at my skin. “Cool. I think I’m gonna do the bit about how I lick peanut butter off the spoon like a dog and also the Sex and the City one. What are you gonna do?” Cam asked.
My finger started to bleed.
“Uh, one of the things I’ve been thinking about telling is the story of how before I left for college, my mom’s way of coping was taking pictures of me sleeping.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s so weird,” Cam said, giving a half-hearted laugh. “You can definitely do that.”
“I mean, I was also thinking about how I could tell this one story that happened last spring.”
And so I began to tell Cam a wild story about someone who sought to empathize with me over my hand but had completely and hilariously missed the mark. Even with Cam, a person who had been my friend for most of college, this story felt deeply vulnerable. My hand was the focus of the narrative. Without even looking, I could feel her staring at my prosthesis as we talked. But at the end, Cam burst into laughter. “You have to do that bit in your set!” she exclaimed.
In truth, I had been holding onto stories like these for ages. I knew they went deeper than my other one-liners and bizarre anecdotes. I was still terrified, but I wanted to tell the things that were honest, that rang true. For so long I had been drawn to stories that could be told by anyone. Now, I felt the stories that I’d buried start to stir.
As the event drew closer, my anxiety worsened. My head was full of everything that could go wrong: What if I forgot a critical joke, or what if there was a chorus of pity laughs? Even worse , what if the entirety of the act was met with deafening silence? I asked myself why I was so bent on doing this. Was a part of me trying to please Mark? Had this idea stuck with me merely because it had first been planted in my head by an authority figure who seemed to “get” me? Or was this something I truly wanted to do?
On the evening of the show, all of “The Hysterics” gathered in the green room of the concert hall. My friend Emma had brought a case of Mike’s Hard Lemonade for everyone, and we waited for the seats to fill. Time seemed to move unbelievably slowly. In the 45 minutes before the set I felt the tick of the clock reverberate through each notch of my spine. Suddenly the MC was introducing me and I walked on to the stage.
The lights were glaring and I felt myself begin to sweat under their heat. The audience was a swath of classmates I knew and did not know. I could make direct eye contact with the girl I shared an ex with, a fairly new friend, and a secret crush. I gulped and began.
So I was born without a left hand and I wear a prosthesis. That was it. The hardest line. And it was over just like that. I had peeled off the Band-Aid to reveal the cut I had closed over.
I let out the next line: It’s not something I’m ashamed of, but at the same time, it’s not something that I love to broadcast. Like, I’m not walking into a room of new people being like, “Fake hand! Who wants to touch, eh?!”
I was doing it, and people were laughing. I leaned in. I felt reassured in the fact that there was nothing I could do now. The hardest part was over, and now I could let the words fall from my mouth.
I had built up this moment in my mind for ages and now it was over.
Almost always, when people find out I have a fake hand, they brush past it because either they feel awkward or they don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable. But this isn’t always the case. One time I was drunkenly peeing in the bathroom with someone I had just met and she starts looking at my arm and is like, “Dude what’s going on with your hand right now?” And I’m like, “Oh it’s fake, it’s a prosthetic limb,” and she gets so apologetic and starts going on like, “I’m so sorry, I really do feel like I should say something vulnerable about myself to make you feel better. And I’m like, “You really don’t need to. I’m fine.” But she insists and says,“One time in the third grade, I shat myself and I had to go home to change my pants.” I’m looking at her and I’m thinking, "I hate to break it to you my friend, but that is not the same."
The crowd burst into laughter. I kept going. There was this time I was playing cards with my friend Thomas, and it’s hard for me to hold cards. So I’m trying to prop them up on my thigh and they’re all spilling on the ground. And Thomas goes, “Do you not know how to hold cards?” and I was like, “Actually, no I do not.” I explained to him why and he was like, “Oh my god fuck, I’m so sorry. Look,I don’t want this to sound insensitive, but do you know Buster from ‘Arrested Development?’” Then I said, “Um, excuse me? Do I know Buster? The fictional character from a television show who gets his hand eaten off by a seal and wears a hook for a hand in the remaining seasons? Yes, I do. But that is purely coincidence.”
I had built up this moment in my mind for ages and now it was over. The lights went down. There was a chorus of applause, especially from the corner where my friends sat. I felt a sense of relief and a rush of accomplishment.
For so long, the thought of making this aspect of my body so publicly legible seemed like an impossible feat. But now, at the top of the summit, my prior fears and anxieties seemed small and inconsequential. Years ago I had thought that talking about my hand in stand-up would be disastrous. In my elaborate, nightmarish fantasies I imagined my peers would scream in horror, perhaps even gouge their eyes out when I revealed my true self. I shuddered to think that strangers would recoil at my touch. Perhaps I’d walk into the cafeteria to find everyone pointing at me and laughing. However, my delusional brain seemed to be giving me too much credit. In the weeks after the show, my life resumed as normal. Those who did not already know about my difference did not seem to mind or even think twice. The one who cared the most deeply had been me.
And so this set hadn’t been about Mark, even though he had acted as the catalyst. It hadn’t been for or about anyone else but me. I had done this for the version of myself who, as a kid, had blinked three times fast in front of a bathroom mirror and hoped magic would change her. This was for the person who had been so utterly terrified of her body being exposed to the world that she hid, perpetually, under pilled sweaters. I had done this to to prove to myself that I could lean into the things that scared me. I had done this to prove that my own body wasn’t something to fear. For so long I believed that sharing the truth about my disability would reduce me to a synecdoche, that I’d always be the girl with the hand. But after I had brought my whole, unadulterated self into the light I realized others saw me in a way I didn’t always see myself.
And now that I have opened up this box, I see a trove of potential material. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had an experience related to my hand and my immediate thought was “I have to put this in my standup.”
Edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy and has a master's degree in media communications.
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