Personal Space

By Laurie Clements Lambeth


Houston, TX


I take my grocery shopping seriously. Lists derived from recipes, coupons, different stores mapped throughout the city for different items. Greek yogurt? Sure. The mega store actually has the kind I like best. You want coffee and artisan bread? Central Market. Tofu hot dogs and Tofurky slices? Whole Foods.

As a grocery store patron with multiple sclerosis, I use my blue disabled placard to park, especially when it’s hot outside, which is almost always the case in Houston, where I live. Heat slows nerve conduction. Any misdirected messages between the central nervous system and whatever it controls (walking, for instance) have a large chance of being further misdirected, a cell-level version of the time I received a card from England via Brazil, or most recently, my in-laws’ package of English tea which first stopped in Jakarta. I like to imagine a little conductor in my brain, with his little striped hat and overalls, getting sweaty and confused, and then the sparks catch light. Sensation alters. Fatigue sets in. In the period of an hour my legs can weaken to wobbling. So I plan ahead, even if I’m able to walk well. I’ve been doing this since I was first diagnosed at seventeen. Back then I grew accustomed to the stares—she’s not disabled enough; look, she can walk. What a cheat. Now that I’m older, it’s more believable, shall we say, that I might need that parking space. But I still try to look young and stylish, so some people still stare, shake their heads. In general they do not, however, pull into the striped zone alongside my car and wait for me to get out so I can prove it.

There’s always a first time. A few months ago a man pulled his black SUV up alongside my parking space and stayed there, engine running. I tried to tell myself he was simply waiting for a space, or maybe a person inside the store, but I was also afraid he had a gun, had a thing for brunettes, or was a stalker. He didn’t budge, and the weather inside the car got warmer. I gathered my things and opened the door. Once I stood and took a step, the SUV tipped around the corner, passenger window open, heading the wrong way down the lane. The driver hung his head out.

“Funny, you don’t look like a cripple,” he shouted.

Yes, he said the c-word, and not that other c-word, but one with the same intent. Actually, it would have been “funny” if he had used both. He could have used it on Inside the Actor’s Studio as his favorite curse word and audiences would applaud its originality. I wondered what century, or Faulkner novel, he’s from. And I responded with some rather unoriginal swearing of my own, demanding he donate to the MS Society, my throat going hoarse in the process.

More recently, well into my current MS exacerbation, legs shuffling, left hand unable to grip things like steering wheels, I looked the part. No question about it: exhausted but fabulous disabled woman. During some flares I use my cane for support and propulsion, and as a clue to those behind me that my gait is not because I am drunk or ornery, but because it’s the only way forward. With a weak left hand I worried that my one free hand would drop something in a crowded store, so I left the cane at home. Sans cane and other such helpful encumbrances, my husband and I headed to Central Market, known for all things gourmet. It is a tourist destination. People awe at the mushroom selection. Or the cheese department. For me, Central Market is the grocery store with the best fleet of mobility scooters. The best place to go when my legs aren’t doing what my brain is telling them to do.

Last weekend, though, the only scooter available was pretty old, wide and unwieldy, seat torn. The red paint had chipped on its edges, and additional metal bumpers protruded about six inches from the scooter body. I sat down, unplugged it, and flipped the switch. This was my ticket to chug through the store, charging cord swinging off the back like a tail. I was once able to steer a seventeen hundred pound untrained horse, but the scooter beast proved more rigid and stubborn. Trying to cultivate patience and temperance, I avoided the crowds around samples of salsa or olive oils. Too many boxes and bodies obstructing the path.

Each time I have an exacerbation and begin dabbling in what Nancy Mairs refers to as a “waist-high” existence, which I would say is really ass-height (don’t get too close), I measure the reactions of others. Once a man asked my husband, who has never driven a mobility scooter, what it was like to steer or brake. Checkout clerks have given him eye contact and conversation instead of speaking with me. Last weekend proved that for the most part this particular cross-section of humanity had evolved. They moved when I said excuse me, understood the struggles I had with steering, and didn’t seem to mind when I parked in the aisle, right in front of what they needed. And they actually spoke with me. I existed.

Except at the bakery. We were testing the rosemary bread to imagine how it would pair with a summery yellow squash soup. Let me map out the scene: I sat parked next to the table where the loaves were set out. My husband stood facing me at the corner of the table, tasting a sample of the bread, trying to decide between rosemary or multigrain. Between us, the filled wire basket at the front of the scooter. Then from behind came a khaki-sleeved arm, over my head.

“Let me just get this loaf and get out of your way,” I said. It was meant to sound polite but with an edge. The bearer of the arm, who was reaching for a sample and stuffing her hands with more samples, said, “Oh, I didn’t realize this was yours.” I didn’t know what “this” was to her, or whether she felt awkward or just irritated by my presence that she hadn’t before noticed, so I clarified:

“I’m buying this,” I said, holding the bread. “This,” I said, swirling my useless left hand over the basket, “is mine. I am here,” meaning, you just reached over my head to get free food. I think I scared her away. She hurried off, fists full of bread. I hope the scare was the good kind, the kind that might make her think about people who live below her belly. I don’t think anyone likes being under someone’s armpit, crumbs from a hand falling onto your hair so that when you get home you mistake them for dandruff. That scooter, although it wasn’t mine, was part of me at that moment. It was my space.

My best friend, when she was pregnant, existed in excess, protruded into the world in a way that compelled strangers to reach out and touch her belly, as if they had divine permission. She noticed herself taking a step back as a hand approached. She became for them less human—less deserving of personal space—when her body took up more space. Sitting low in the supermarket, I existed in lack. But the wire basket and motor made me take up more space: excess. An extraordinary body whose space is denied because people don’t want to acknowledge its possibility. And I am only a tourist in this body, this hunk of metal, plastic handlebars (like horns) and torn cushion.

When I was visibly healthy, according to the man who said I didn’t look like a cripple, the space I parked in was legally mine to use, but that man, pulled uncomfortably close to my car, determined me unworthy and drove away. Shaken and hoarse, I headed toward the supermarket entrance. A woman stood waiting for me in the foyer. She smiled, benign, and I returned a grin. Wasn’t that weird, I thought, as I opened my eyes wide, blew my cheeks like I was relieved to survive or something. My leg was growing numb from the stress of the parking lot encounter. This woman seemed familiar with my experience, and she tilted her head warmly like the Virgin Mary does in religious paintings. As she drew out her shopping cart and offered me one, she leaned in close.

“Remarkable. Seeing you today is just like looking at a reflection of m
yself ten years ago,” she
said. Maybe she has MS or chronic fatigue or some invisible disability, I thought. A kindred spirit. We walked through the sliding electronic doors, approaching Mylar balloons and flowers. She went on: “before I had anger management meditation. That saved my life, oh yes.” Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.

I couldn’t say to her, “You’re mistaken. I’m usually a calm person. I am not your mirror. I’m nothing like you.” How could she believe me? As we pushed our carts side by side, she felt too close. Anger was the only disability she perceived. And because I could, at that time, walk a little faster than I do now, I leaned on the cart handle like I would a walker, and subtly pressed my trolley toward the free cookie samples, away from her. Soon my hands would be full of crumbs.


Laurie Clements Lambeth’s book of poems Veil and Burn was selected by Maxine Kumin as a National Poetry Series award winner in 2006. She lives in Houston, TX and she is the official Gulf Coast Correspondent for POTB.