by Bo Balder
part 1 of 2
The hump just crept up on me. An unposed barbecue pic taken by my brother made me realize that the dowdy lady with the bump on her nape was me.
I told myself it was no more than a little premature middle-aged slump, some excess back fat on my spine. When I looked into the mirror from the side, my mother stood there, as if I was thirty years older and my vertebrae were clinking in on me.
When I turned around, my not-yet aging face stared back, frowning. I smoothed the frown away, but the shallow grooves remained, like aerial photos of the traces of an ancient civilization under a plowed field.
I bought a book about fitness, and toning tubes to strengthen my wing muscles, as the book recommended. That ought to stop the humping.
The spring weather arched glorious blue skies overhead, and people’s worried winter faces turned to the sun like reviving flowers. But I hid my neck in scarves and kerchiefs, and I started growing out my chin-length hair. The bump seemed too prominent to display in low-cut tops, especially to work.
One Sunday morning I was bent over, rubbing sunscreen on my youngest, when I felt a hot little finger poke my neck.
“Mommy has a hump,” my daughter said.
Shame broke out all over my body and I straightened up so hastily I banged my head against the screen door.
Two sets of big eyes peered at my shoulders, not meeting my eyes.
“Can you turn around so we can see?” Alice asked.
I kept my face turned toward them. “No, you can’t. It’s not very polite to comment on people’s appearance, as you very well know, young lady!”
“You’re not people,” Nicky said. “You’re my Mom.”
“I am too people. And it makes me sad if you mention my... appearance.”
Alice started to cry. I’d come down too hard on her. But that night I asked David about the hump again. It was hard to undress under his tired, but attentive eyes, although the glimpse of my naked self in the mirror showed a still trim figure. Dave shone a flashlight on my back. The chill air-conditioning draft, full on although it was only April, gave me goosebumps. David probed the hump with cool fingers. His lips kissed what should have been the top of my spine.
“There’s a tiny little pillow up there,” he said. “It’s nice and squishy. C’mere.”
He assured me that only the recent introduction of the word backfat in the English vocabulary made me aware of its existence. Being a linguist, he thought that people couldn’t think about stuff they had no words for. Could even be true.
But the hump didn’t go away, not in my mind or in reality. Alice would tug my scarf over it before she would allow me to accompany her out of the house. At Nicky’s day care center, the teachers’ eyes would slide away from me in excessive politeness. I invested in scarves and shawls in cool light fabrics, because breaking out into hot flashes at work was even more premature than a Quasimodo spine.
“Not Quasimodo, hon,” David said. “He had a spinal deformity. Yours is just a little accumulation under the skin.” He no longer kissed it and called it cute.
He meant well. But I stopped sleeping on pillows because the hump got in the way.
Spring changed into summer. The water supply became undependable. I packed three bottles of water a day for the kids, because the school and the day care center couldn’t guarantee sufficient drinking water. All that bottled water started to press on our budget, and also my hours got cut. I drank less, to save on household expenses. We couldn’t bathe as often, or launder our clothes as frequently. The garden died, a sad, brown ruin.
One day, as I was standing in a Starbucks line on my lunch break, my last indulgence, I spotted another one. A tall guy in a furtive overcoat, absurdly overdressed in the heat. And it didn’t work in the least; the bunched fabric splayed from the hump, and the way the hem rode up at the back only called attention to his deformity.
He noticed me, too. We stared at each other across the street. I realized that my scarf and my longer hair didn’t actually conceal my hump, just like his raincoat didn’t. The gap between me and the woman behind me revealed itself as being abnormally wide. My discomfort at seeing my mirror image like that, destroying my inner picture of myself, roiled in my stomach. Yet not a drop of sweat broke anywhere on my skin.
I fled from the coffee line, from the man’s stare, and returned to work.
Later that day my boss offered me a couple of hours’ work from home, otherwise he’d have to let me go. The economy, you know. I didn’t see how the hump could influence my ability to answer phone calls, but he said a person’s confidence was reflected in their voice.
David started calling me Moby. I had no defense against the name and the accompanying mental image.
One morning I woke up, hot, but surprisingly comfortable for the first time in weeks. David wasn’t beside me. The room was silent. I heaved myself up, staggering under the weight of the hump.
David sat before the TV, still in his sleepwear, watching the blank screen.
“What is it?” I asked. David watching TV was such a strange sight that I skipped the burning question why he wasn’t in bed with me. Something was wrong.
“They just announced power cuts all over the state. People are asked to stay home during the day and come to work at night.”
So that was why the AC hadn’t been on. Why had David caught that early broadcast? Oh. He’d been sleeping on the couch. He kept his eyes away from my back.
“So are you going to go to work?”
He inspected his fingernails. They needed cutting. “We’ve been asked to work from home as well. The university can’t guarantee regular working conditions, and they’re sending all the students home.”
“What will you do? Are you getting paid?”
“He said we would. I’ll write that article I’ve been putting off. My grant proposals. Plenty to do.”
“But you have tenure!” I said. It had made me feel so safe when he got tenure.
“Yeah. I still do. But who knows.” He gestured to the TV. “The president may be declaring a national emergency even as we speak.”
I sank down on the sofa next to him, trying not to notice how he shifted his body away.
“You missed the water shortage? The heat? Crops failing and cattle dying?” His sarcasm bit deep into my already fragile confidence.
“Of course not! It’s just...” I couldn’t find the right words to explain what I meant. There had been summer droughts before. But the economy had never ceased functioning. Students sent home from college? Who ever heard of such a thing?
But a week later, as we all sat clustered on the sofa, watching the one hour TV per day with the fascination of addicts for their drug, the President said something worse. He urged people to leave the big cities, all those who didn’t have essential jobs.
“People of the stricken states, go to your parents or siblings, your holiday homes. Spread out over the nation, so that it will be less of a burden to supply the cities. Make this sacrifice for your country. It will only be temporary. For those of you who have no suitable refuge, emergency housing will be supplied.”
David got up, eager to be away from me and my hump. It rested on the back of the sofa. Alice loved to nestle against the hump, caressing the soft, squishy mass. It was only outside that she was ashamed of it. David couldn’t even bear to meet my gaze, and this was worse now that we were both home.
“I’m taking you guys to my parents,” he said. “Start packing.”
Copyright © 2013 by Bo Balder