If you’ve spent any time around The Nervous Breakdown over the years, you’ve probably run into Lenore Zion’s writing. She’s wickedly funny and smart, often scathingly so. It just so happens that she’s the newest author on the new TNB Books imprint, with her just released book my dead pets are interesting. For her WWFIL piece, she tells about her introduction to The Freak, in the flesh and in literary form.
When We Fell In Love by Lenore Zion
There’s nothing I love more than a good physical deformity. Thalidomide babies (otherwise known as flipper babies), good old fashioned amputees, the Elephant Man (whose official diagnosis was neurofibromatosis type 1), good old fashioned extra limbs, and so on and so forth. I’m a little bummed that Western medicine has significantly decreased the number of birth defects, and I’m extremely bummed that our state of political correctness has prevented the expansion of traveling freak shows. People used to be proud of their deformities. Those tails and flippers and mutated extremities weren’t something to be ashamed of, they were money makers! The freaks in freak shows were the ultimate inspiration to me – talk about making lemonade from lemons.
I was in Spain. And I was young. I hadn’t grown into an adventurous person yet, and I remember being terrified at the possibility of getting lost in the foreign streets, as though taking a wrong turn would surely result in my getting horrifically raped in a dirty Spanish alleyway and then stabbed, left for dead in that alley, naked and bleeding. In the mornings, I’d leave my little hotel and walk down to a café I could see from the window of my room. It was part of my safe routine that prevented alleyway rapes and stabbings, and for a week and a half, it was effective. I hadn’t been raped! Or stabbed! But then, one morning as I made the one-block trek to get my breakfast, there was something new in the landscape.
He had what looked like a papier-mâché cone affixed to his face. I couldn’t make out a nose or a mouth. The mound of excess, lumpy flesh enveloping his face concealed all human facial features, with the exception of one very small eye peeking through his face tumor-thing. The eye was bright blue and therefore very noticeable. He was propped up against the wall of a building with a cardboard box holding a few coins and bills in front of him. I’m embarrassed to say that I stopped dead in my tracks and stared. The questions flooded my mind – how did he eat? Speak? Was this Elephant Man twelve or sixty? I gawked at him, even after I realized I was gawking, and then I quickly walked away.
I looked out my window the next morning, and there he was again. I’d have to pass him on the street or take a different route and risk being raped and stabbed, left for dead, naked and bloody. Social discomfort around tumor face man versus unwanted penis, knife, humiliating discovery of my dead body. I chose to pass the man again. And, what do you know, when I came within a few yards of him, again, I froze. I completely understood why this man had to beg for money. This man could not work at a fast food chain flipping burgers. He couldn’t work in telemarketing – I wasn’t even sure he could speak. He couldn’t work retail. There was nothing, no option for this man. I stared until I made eye contact with his blue eye and then I
Day after day, I involuntarily stopped and gaped at this man. And the second to last day I was in Spain, he lifted his hand and begged me closer with his index finger, also grossly misshapen. As though spellbound, I lurched forward in his direction and found myself standing just inches away from his blue eye. He brought his deformed hand to mine, and placed a piece of paper into my fingers. I accepted it in a crumpled mass and held it, maintaining eye contact. He maintained as well, giving me the impression that I was not excused until I looked at the paper he’d given me. I flattened the creases in the balled up paper, each crinkle magnified in sound, as I could hear nothing else around me.
Written on the piece of paper were two words: Geek Love.
I looked back up to the Elephant Man. From an imperceptible source, he spoke to me.
“Read it,” he gurgled.