The first thing I learned at college was that you need two hands to operate a keg. I only have one; I was born missing my left arm just below the elbow. You might think that adolescence was hell for someone like me, but once my classmates knew who I was and that I had one hand, they barely teased me about it. It wasn't until I started partying that people made comments about my disability.
It's complicated being someone that likes attention, dressing up, and talking to strangers but is also made uncomfortable by those same things. I was always aware that I was different; even beyond my disability, I have a pretty distinct style. (Today, I always dress in black and top off my outfits with a choker and thigh-high boots.) But I wasn't profoundly aware that other people saw me that way until I got to college. Leave it to drunk people to say whatever they think.
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I attended my first Hofstra University frat party with my suitemates, Karina and Alexa. Upon meeting me, they didn't say anything about my arm, presumably because they had already figured it out from Facebook. On the first night of Welcome Week, I was putting in my earphones and getting ready to watch Sex and the City reruns when they burst into my room and shoved a beer in my hand. I didn't have a choice: I was going out. I got decked out in 2011's best—ripped jeans, Uggs, a stretchy nylon tank top, a rhinestone choker that said "kiss," and a trucker hat that said "Just Be A Queen." To say that I was shy and didn't like being looked at would be a lie. I was excited—until I saw the keg. I would have to pump, pour, and hold my red Solo Cup at the same time. I could have scooped my cup into the huge tub of jungle juice, but I was warned not to.
"Hey, do you need help?" a guy with spiked brown air and fake Chanel earrings asked me. (Jersey Shore was still on the air.) I nodded vigorously.
He poured my beer, tilting the glass like a pro. "You're really beautiful, you know that?"
I couldn't resist his charm. "Thanks," I said, crossing my arms over my chest in a way I imagined was flirtatious. The one-handed version of this gesture is that I grabbed my stump.
"That's so cool," he said, pointing towards my arm. "Can I touch it?"
In my head I was screaming. No! No. No! I said, "Sure."
Drunk girls in line for the bathroom called me inspiring.
I was used to strangers asking me what happened and replying with the boring, standard, "I was born this way," but having someone ask to touch it threw me for a loop. Sometimes children would reach up to feel my arm without permission, but I expected better from adults. I'd thought this kind of direct discussion of my disability would be rare at college, where people are supposed to be older and wiser, but it happened all the time. I was asked, "What happened to your arm?" at every party I went to.
For a while, I went along with it. It'd be a damper on the night if I got upset every time someone mentioned my disability, so I always just answered casually, happily. Once, I drunkenly showed a group of other drunk people how I tied my shoes, and they applauded like I had just, ahem, single-handedly performed the entire Hamilton score.
But although this wonderment at my ability to perform basic tasks was patronizing, it was probably preferable to being rejected because of my disability. I was out to some people in my life at this point, but there weren't many other queer women at my school; I often flirted with frat guys mostly out of boredom, maybe even because I wanted to be "normal." Once, a guy I was talking to at a party asked what my tattoo said, and I coyly lifted the side of my vest to reveal it—inadvertently drawing attention to my missing left arm. How he didn't notice before then is beyond me—blame it on the jungle juice. Before I could finish my spiel about being born this way, he muttered, "Nah, nah, I don't fuck with that," and left.
Even more annoying than the questions or the rejection were the congratulations. Bartenders said they respected me for going out. Drunk girls in line for the bathroom called me inspiring. Guys assured me I was "still pretty." My suitemates told me how brave I was.
Still, getting ready with Karina and Alex was a ritual I soon began to cherish. We'd chug beers and line up in front of the mirror to do our makeup side by side—thanks to yours truly, we had a large, disability-friendly bathroom—twirling around in our bras and underwear and spraying each other with tanning guns, leaving brown footprints on the tiles.
The spring of my freshman year, I decided to wear my cosmetic prosthesis to the opening of a new bar. Though I got it in high school, I had never worn it before; mostly, Karina and Alexa used it to prank people: We'd leave it in beds, in the showers, in the laundry room. We'd sing into it like a microphone. I was fine with this; initially, I'd hated it for what it represented—an attempt to appear normal. But for some reason, that night, as we all lined up in front of the mirror, I found myself unhappy with my Daisy Dukes and T-shirt. I was too tired to answer questions. I was sick of the congratulations. I felt like something was missing—I found myself wanting to wear the prosthesis. Looking normal sounded pretty good.
When there are burlesque performers shitting on stage, it's really hard to be shocked by a girl with one arm.
Eventually, I grew sick of college parties—they're objectively bad—and craved a group of people that I could better fit in with. I got rid of my obnoxious accessories, started dressing in all black, and focused less on getting drunk and more on queer theory and feminism. I had also ended my brief fling with my cosmetic prosthesis—it just didn't feel like me.
But my break from partying was short-lived; staying in also didn't feel like me. I enrolled in a sociology of nightlife class and soon became fascinated with Club Kid culture—the outrageous costumes, the way partying was almost sacred, their unapologetic freak-dom. I became close with my professor, Victor, who was a misfit, too—a successful, cool, well-connected misfit. When he invited me out to The Box, an exclusive burlesque club in Manhattan, I felt like Cinderella going to the ball. I carefully curated my sleekest, blackest ensemble and didn't dare wear my cosmetic prosthetic.
After that, I started going out in Manhattan and Brooklyn regularly. Sexy bars, hotel basements, exclusive clubs, enormous warehouses—I loved it all. The only comments I received about my appearance were in praise of my increasingly outlandish outfits—when there are burlesque performers shitting on stage and squirting into shot glasses, it's really hard to be shocked by a girl with one arm. We were all freaks; my arm didn't even really register. Each time I went out, I pushed my look a little further. Grey lipstick, a septum ring, a dog collar, platform sneakers, a strappy bra and sheer top. Clubbing felt less like recreation and more like an identity. My life began to revolve around what I was going to wear next, what I was going to drink, what club we were going to, who we knew so we wouldn't have to wait on line. I didn't even really think about my disability.
Today, I prefer to go out restaurants and bars instead of clubs, but my experience of partying continues to develop. I still love playing with my look. I still get stared at. I'm still asked rude questions. But now I feel more in control of others' responses to me. Four months ago, I started wearing a state-of-the-art, bionic prosthetic—jet-black and robotic, this arm is a huge departure from my cosmetic prosthesis; there is nothing normal-looking about it. I love the way it pairs with my leather jacket, boots, and O-ring bag. It's the perfect accessory for a night out, and I want people to notice it: Fellow revelers come right up to me and tell me how cool it is, wonder about how it works, and ask if I can give a high five or the middle finger. This attention doesn't bother me the way frat guys petting my stump did (and probably still would); it's not every day you see a cyborg arm. And as I get older, I have more patience for people asking me questions. I know how damn cool my arm is; I'd probably compliment someone like me, too. Reciting the same speech gets a little boring, but I enjoy educating people and seeing them actually listen.
As human, as female, as queer, as fashionable, as disabled, and now as a cyborg, I know I'll never escape the gaze. Getting dressed up and going out is part of who I am, and getting approached by random people comes with that package. But now, with my bionic arm and my (slightly) more mature roster of hot spots, I feel less vulnerable when it happens. I'm already used to people staring—now I keep them looking long enough to actually see me.