grammar of diseaseIf pain is a language, I have the accent on my tongue. I do not yet dream in pain, but a three-year immersion has stripped my skeleton’s previous fluency. Now I am a child in this land without good parking spaces.

(10:30) Today my husband and I talked about my calcified hip and aching hands, the awkwardness of a threesome with pain. We parked outside my therapist’s office, claimed the flowered couch and spoke about those ball-and-socket hips: so essential for knocking socks. The words came small, with squinting, like picking lice. A hundred geese cursed and laughed from the glinting marsh beyond the open window.

The therapist, who emails me pictures of her baby goats, asked me to describe the pain as a number. They never ask the pain’s name, which could be Fucker or Bunny. Then: Do you think you are the pain? I crunched my forehead to agonize in Venn Diagrams: Am I coterminous with my disease? Overlapping?

It appeared that sex runways would have to be reconfigured, sex flight patterns remapped. The therapist smiled with optimism about the daunting industrial project of transferring a teenager’s habit onto this irritable bag of Tinker Toys.

* * *

My body thinks you have rheumatoid arthritis.

This morning, (9:08?) pre-sex-talk, I saw a friend’s picture on Facebook: dyed jet hair, three-quarter profile, sharp lips in a punk-rock smile as she held the drumsticks aloft.

Later (11:45) I parked alongside the yellow-orange brick library and remembered the gold-tinged image. I winced: Be careful not to hurt your wrists and shoulders with all that banging. I saw in my mind a skeleton drummer, x-rayed with thick knots of danger.

No, wait—that’s me. Not her. She’s fine.

What grammar of disease operates beneath the surface of my skin and mind? As I called up the image, I reanimated Jenny with my own chemicals, crafted a tiny diseased punk-rock hazard. My body makes little bodies like itself.

I found Susan Sontag’s On Illness as Metaphor in the stacks; it was about cancer, TB, and I felt shamed to be complaining, grateful to have the language of lifespan.

I am neither well nor doomed. Sometimes I watch your soft bodies not in pain and can’t remember. I push forward, each day of appointments a wager.

* * *

(12:30) The afternoon brought a kitchen-table meeting about assignments and syllabi along with an ache like rung metal. In two hours the January clouds had seeped into my joints in a diagonal drift from the west. I tasted a pressure system change: the flavors sharp or dull, the directions inward or out, pulsing like a Northern Lights I had mindlessly devoured.

Synovial fluid in my joints is inflamed in an autoimmune festival, my own personal Burning Woman, a conflagration semi-controlled with drugs but without cure.

One colleague, a rock-climber with enviable forearms and shoulders, sat across from me and talked Native American literature. I was distracted by the roaring of his body’s utter silence, astounded as he angled fingers or turned a palm: he seemed to feel no pain, nor did he bargain with his skeleton. I wanted to interrupt the syllabi talk to ask if he hurt anywhere, but I did not.

I am new at this; such ideas still run like a secret world underneath this one. I am at a child’s level of pain-chatter. Later, perhaps, I will learn to constitute and imagine a range of bodies inside me as a child learns to imagine minds unlike her own. Maybe I will not always have to ask: Can I show you mine, can I see yours?

* * *

(3:00) A final hot-chocolate cafe meeting, free wifi and essay-talk, the writing itself a bliss of disembodied mind-union, but then I had pushed it too far.

(4:45) I pulled on E into a gas station and shut off the car with a premonition like a migraine aura: it’s cresting. It wants more room. Freeze.

I closed my eyes to see it, big and stupid. The attention this morning made it bolder. My pain stretched out and preened like a stuffed lion with a Farrah Fawcett mane, proud and full of itself: Ruffle my head. How could I hate something so mute? Goddamn floppy aimless pain, unsightly as my pilled and grayed stuffed animals from childhood, those transitional objects so close to us they seem to have our faces, our first containers for love and for loss.

Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Crab Orchard Review,, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

Photography by Paul Bilger