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Like any young girl, I’d had my fair share of crushes. There was the blonde boy in my second-grade class who I used to daydream about on a daily basis, and my red cheeks matched the color of my hair any time he’d walk by.
There was the boy on my high school newspaper. We were co-editors, and I spent meetings thinking not about the upcoming story assignments or proofing a new layout, but studying intensely his piercing eyes, wavy brown hair I desperately wanted to tousle and the way his orange shirt brought out his smile.
And then there was Him. My first love. I was sure of it. It started innocently when I was 13, where I referred to him as “a major babe” in my journal and morphed to deeper feelings of envisioning myself growing old with him. I found myself falling for him. Hard. I analyzed every chance meeting we had in those tattered journal pages. What did his body language mean? What was he wearing? How long did we talk? What did he say? How did he say it?
But for some reason, I could never muster the courage to tell him – or any of these other crushes – how I felt, not because our differing personalities may have gotten in the way, but because I could feel my disability already had. And I was crushed.
“Why am I 20 and never had a boyfriend?” I wrote in my journal in 2001. “No boy has ever been interested in me. Am I deficient in some department? Do I turn guys off with my disability? I really want to experience true love, but I wonder if that could ever happen to someone as ugly and undesirable as me? I want guys to take me for who I am and look past my disability. Can't they find someone to love in this invalid body?
By the time I transferred to a major university a year later, my childhood bubble finally popped. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hide. And what I could see made me feel even more exposed. Hoards of beautiful blondes scurried around in their tank tops and flip flops. They had perfect, slender legs. They had cute tan arms. And on those tan arms usually hung an equally tan boy’s arm. Couples canoodled by the fountains in the center of campus, laughing and giggling. Some even whispered sweet nothings into each other’s ears, probably prose filled with words like “I love you” and “You’re beautiful.”
And there I sat, literally, in my wheelchair, watching romance blossom right before my very eyes. It looked so easy. I was left feeling, well, empty. In my world, where all the twentysomethings around me could easily couple up, I stood somewhat on the outside, peering through the window of a life I desperately wanted but would never have. I even started to feel like an invisible ghost that no man could ever see “in that way.” My crushes had systematically dissolved – unresolved, of course – as silently as they had come. It was amazing how good I got at hiding how I felt.
“I’m a feminist. Who needs a piece of arm candy?” became my mantra. I put on my shield of armor and vowed never to take it off. I didn’t want anyone to see what lay underneath – in my eyes, a deformed, scared little girl.