“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”[1]

A scorpion rash is creeping its way up the back of my right hand. Everything feels like an emergency in the bend of the not-yet-morning, and this scaly, crimson rope winding towards my wrist is no exception. I’m awake because, well, I’m always awake now, and my middle-of-the night inclination not to scratch is losing out to an unbearable, unrelenting itch. I hold my arm up to the bathroom mirror again. In the light, against our apricot colored walls, the rash seems to be alive.

Breathe in, and out. I should try to go to sleep, but that’s harder than it would seem. As an accomplished hypochondriac, I imagine waking up, encased by urticaria. Going to urgent care is not a possibility; neither is the ER. My governor is on television every morning, screaming about the fact that no state will lend us their ventilators. What doctor has time for a hand rash? But, I reason, what if this is the virus, too? Isn’t that what “novel” means? Nobody knows what the fuck symptoms may suddenly appear? Slow down, I repeat, over and over, running my hand under the ice-cold tap water in our bathroom sink.

Twelve hours later. I’m sitting on the living room couch, still wearing pajamas. On a little Zoom pop-up screen, a middle-aged white woman sits, smiling at me through the computer. Her graying blonde hair is pulled into a low ponytail, and she’s wearing a white coat, which looks at odds with the background of porcelain tchotchkes on the bookshelf. 

“So, I saw the pictures you uploaded. That looks really painful.”

“You could call it that,” I laugh.

 We run down the list of possibilities. I’ve never been allergic to anything before. I haven’t eaten anything new. If anything, my diet has narrowed significantly: more crap than usual. I haven’t touched anything new. It’s March, so there are no mosquitoes. I’ve had chicken pox twice. God help me if it’s bed bugs.

“What about gloves? Any chance you bought new gloves?”


Like the rest of New York, we’ve stocked up on the disposable kind, to provide a third line of defense. Soap, hand sanitizer, and gloves, I tell the doctor, proudly. We don’t have masks yet, because the government says not to buy those. But we haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been just – sitting – in a third-floor  apartment of a pre-war brick building, for weeks now, not going anywhere. Peering out at a place that used to be a city.

“Okay, you can’t wear those anymore,” the doctor says, confidently. “You’re allergic to them.” Satisfied that she’s solved the mystery, we disconnect; me, to do something about the itch, and the doctor, to god knows what.

“Humpty Dumpty had a great fall”

Objects I have recently tripped over:

fence, pothole, hose, branches, power cord, my other foot.

Injuries from falling that I have recently sustained:

broken finger, scarred shin, bashed-in knee, skinned hand, skinned elbow, fluid build up in my other knee, glass in foot, broken finger again, minor concussion

  Like every other being on Earth, I am bound by gravity. In truth, I wish I were even more closely bound. But I am off-kilter, off-balance, unsteady and unsure. I see the world through one eye, and then the other, forever taking turns without notice or permission. So when I am set in motion, I frequently tip to the Earth, having momentarily confused sky for ground. It isn’t a long trip down, for I never grew very tall. But I land with remarkable damage. I bleed and bruise terrifically.

As a child, my parents spoke up on my behalf; to combat the laughter and the sneering that followed their child around. They told people I was clumsy, excusing the embarrassment that my condition must have caused. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that my brand of clumsy had a proper medical name: central muscular hypotonia, a cousin of cerebral palsy. It explained why my neck tilted back, why I walked into walls; why I fell all the time. It explains why I can’t catch a ball, can’t drive a car, can’t ride a bike. 

I fall with appalling regularity; it’s shocking how often I fall and don’t die. Once a week, twice a week, sometimes more, I must rearrange my body parts, inspecting the damage from the most recent crash. The bruises I wear turn an array of grotesque colors. Now, I have learned to brace myself over the years (with elbows or hands), and am usually quite fine. But often enough, there’s some kind of wound. I survey the damage, deciding what to do and who to tell.

If I can see a doctor, I will. Broken bones do not tether themselves back together, and I am paranoid about infection. I know that my trust in the medical establishment is rare. But both of my grandfathers were doctors; one a pediatrician, the other a surgeon. I grew up not just surrounded by physicians, but with a trust and respect for people who healed. Especially because I am so broken.

My mother, though, is always the first call. She’s a former nurse, and can tell when I need stitches, looking for depth, severity and a certain shade of unoxygenated red. She asks about symptoms, side effects, swelling and again, hon, how did that happen? Why don’t you watch where you’re going?

 My husband, who can be remarkably calm, tends to sigh. “You’re okay,” he coos, even when he’s in another room and hasn’t even seen what’s happened. He can be concerned, but if I’m calling him from miles away, he sighs loudly. “Just come home, then. Get in a cab if you have to.” He’s a patient man. But being on alert, once or twice a week, for fifteen years? It puts a fall into perspective.

When the pandemic started, my mother bothered me all the time. “Please be careful,” she’d warn. She asked me not to run outside; told me to always watch the ground in front of me, which has a tendency to disappear from my line of sight. This is always good advice, of course, but more somber when they’ve had to put up tents in the park to cater to the dying.

“You can’t just go to a doctor now.”

Parts of me are black and blue and green, yellow, crimson and pink and brown.

Parts of me, for a few seconds, can fly. I want to heal.

“Threescore men and threescore more,”

Doctors I’ve seen in my life (a partial list)

ophthalmologist, ophthalmic surgeon, pediatrician, neurologist, neurosurgeon, endocrinologist, internist, gynecologist, orthopedist, orthopedic surgeon,  gastroenterologist, psychologist, psychiatrist

Non-doctors I’ve seen in my life who practice medicine: too many to name

Every glass shatters differently, like constellations that spread across the sky. If I’m lucky, the break is simple – two or three enormous pieces, easily disappeared by vacuum. Other times, a glass tumbles to the ground and explodes with impressive consequence. Our cupboards, from which they fall, aren’t all that high, but an unfortunate angle, or a bounce against the counter, can make all the difference.

It’s always, ostensibly, my own fault. My eye muscles are poorly developed, and my clumsy hands are impeded further by a slowness to react. I really should take my time, but I don’t. I don’t even look when I’m reaching for something. I’m thinking about choosing the bourbon, or the whiskey or the rye – out of the corner of my gaze, here comes the snifter, slipping to the kitchen floor.

“Fuck,” I yell.

“What’d you do?” Patrick shouts from the bedroom. But he knows.

And then, because there’s nothing else to do, I get to cleaning. This, in fact, is an tricky experience. We live in an old building that was once a hotel. Our miniscule kitchen holds a sink and a half-fridge; a stove and some shelves. It can comfortably fit one human, cooking or cleaning. Definitely not two, and even the one can’t really turn around. The appliances are jammed together in such a way that corners and crevices are impossible to reach.

When I break a glass (which is often) I hope to be wearing shoes; shoes and pants. I hang a garbage bag on the front door, get down on all fours, and begin the unlikely task of gathering the fragments. Because I do not see well to begin with, and because the shards tend to tuck themselves away and hide, it’s always a guess how many I’ll capture. I can wipe them away with a wet rag, sweep and vacuum and pick them by hand, and still, I leave some on the floor. Maybe they’ll disappear.

It won’t be long before one shows back up. Days or even weeks after an incident, I’ll be barefoot at home, because I never learn. I’ll be putting away groceries, and I’ll know. In my big left toe, or the back of my right heel, glass will meet flesh. No blood; just a moment of misery, followed by an ache with each step.

I could have it checked out, of course. Not during a pandemic, but in general, sure.

Phrases I then Google: “glass in foot”; “glass in foot bloodstream”; “can you die, glass in feet.”

          I announce to my husband that I need the at-home surgery. Patrick is not a doctor, of course. He teaches musical theatre, but he is used to this, and to me. He sighs, sterilizes a pair of tweezers with the fire from our burner, and tells me to lay on the bed. I pull my cushy blue headphones over my ears, pump up Duran Duran to an absolutely criminal volume, and brace for the removal.

“Cannot place Humpty Dumpty as he was before.”

The year that my life imploded, I was thirteen. Aside from my physical disability, I’d been an unstable child, prone to dramatic tantrums, with a predilection for the morose. But the bewildering influx of hormones, the summer after sixth grade, was intensified by my apparent arrival in the land of mediocrity. I graduated from the gifted program at my elementary school, but the middle school deemed me not quite clever enough to join the honors classes, where all of my friends were headed. So, into the breach of seventh grade: new school, no friends, new hormones, new menstrual cycle, and an already messed up body; if I hadn’t been trampled by anxiety and depression, someone would have had to have invented them, especially for me.

How many mornings did I resort to faking sick that year? A dozen? I’d wake up paralyzed, unsoothed by sleep or the primary colored flowers that stretched across my wallpaper. As an adult, I know there are medical terms to describe it, but within my barely teenage frame, I felt a million miles inside myself, unable to inhabit life.

“I’m sick,” I’d call down the stairs. My father would have been out the door already, and thus it became my mother’s burden to get my better-natured siblings to their school bus, and then, to deal with me. What I could not articulate was what being sick meant; the constricting feeling in my throat and chest as I fumbled with my locker, the burn behind my ears when other girls mocked my walk or my hair – the way my mind completely went to sea when a teacher started to talk. I only had one word: sick.

“You feel fine,” my mother said, tapping the back of her hand on my forehead. “You want me to go get the anal thermometer?”

My mother, the nurse; she took claims of illness seriously.

Because I faked illness fairly often, weighing what to do on any given morning was a serious debacle. Some days, I just got dressed and existed at school. Other mornings, I searched my body for the instinct to fly. Dipping past my mother, tumbling down the stairs, past the kitchen, then the laundry room; I’d crash into the playroom that had been long abandoned and cluttered with Amway products. Slam. The door had no locks, but the pronouncing thwack of the door sliding into its frame made the house shudder.

The problem was simple. My parents could not discern what was wrong, and I couldn’t tell them. But what is the language for wanting to disappear? Even for a poet, which I imagined myself to be, describing fog is lugubrious, if not impossible. How do you communicate feelings you hardly understand?

Most teenagers yearn to be left alone; I needed someone to look closely, to see the intersections where my life was misfiring. With no tactics to break the cement in my mind, and no tools to combat the restlessness and panic, every day burned itself alive. I wore my feelings like an ugly backpack. Everyone could see, but few dared to comment.

By the time my parents sought professional help, I was shattered, deep in the muck.

[1] All lyrics are cited from: Ritson, J. (1810). Gammer Gurton’s garland; or, the nursery parnassus, a choice collection of pretty songs and verses, for the amusement of all little good children, who can neither read nor run. Harding and Wright.

AMY COOK is an MFA candidate at Pacific Lutheran University (Rainier Writing Workshop), and participated in the 2021 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Creative Nonfiction.  Her work has been featured in more than twenty literary journals, magazines and anthologies, including Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, great weather for MEDIA, The Other Journal and Apricity Press. She was a finalist for the 2023 ProForma competition (Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts), a finalist for the Disruptors Contest (TulipTree Publishing, 2021), a semi-finalist for the 2022 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize, and received an Honorable Mention from the New Millennium Writing Awards (2022). She is a reader for the literary magazine CRAFT. 

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