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May 14, 2009

What the Guys I Date Don't Know

Born with a rare condition that left her body malformed, Carla Sosenko dates in dark places and dreads the big reveal.

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carla sosenko

SITTING PRETTY
The author, Carla Sosenko has perfected the art of revealing just enough.

Photo Credit: Perry Hagopian

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On this first date in a long string of first dates, I'm in a dimly lit bar on New York's Lower East Side, bewitching a stranger with my hip wit, my shiny blonde hair, my ability to keep pace with his drinking. This guy (we'll call him Joel) likes me. I can tell, but then he says so: "This is the best first date I've been on." It's a nice sentiment, but I've heard it before, so I swallow it with a swig of PBR. It's easy to do when I know he hasn't even seen me yet, not really.

I was born with the rare circulatory disorder Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome (K-T), which translates differently for everyone who has it. For me, it means my right leg is larger than my left and trails slightly when I walk; my back is an uneven, fatty slab with a dense lump above the waist (which a guy in high school once called a meatball); and a gigantic port-wine stain reaches around my broad torso and down toward my right thigh. I know it could have been worse. I might have been blind; I might have needed amputation. I know that I'm lucky.

But K-T definitely complicates things. Tonight Joel hasn't a clue. The dating site where he found me promised that my body type was Average, and as far as he can tell, it is. What else could I have chosen? There was no space for categorizing just my left leg as Slim and my back as Not at All Back-like. No casual way to mention K-T along with my taste for Middle Eastern food and mistrust of cats. I can conceal my body for a time, to a point, with clever dressing and maneuvering, so what Joel sees stacks up to the pictures I've posted: yoga arms, bony clavicle, long, graceful neck in full view. And my pretty face — my beautiful face, if I choose to indulge the flattery I've heard on occasion.

He's cute, but nothing terribly special, so when we go on a second date and I struggle to stay awake ("Wow, you play guitar? How fascinating...and rare"), it'll be easy to let him go.

I've let a lot of men go, for much lesser reasons than boredom. Tell me you're happy to be out with someone smart and attractive and see if I call you again. E-mail me to say you think I'm pretty — watch what happens. After one date, a med student named Noah IMed to say that my body-type designation of Average was off-base. "You're slender," he said. Noah had seen me in pieces — I'd made sure of it. Then I made sure he wouldn't see me again.

Because they're so disposable, first dates never make me nervous — especially when I stick to my routine. I meet the guy at a bar I've been to so I can take into account the lighting, the dress code, the chairs. Once there, I keep my arms pressed against the drooping jowls of my sides, and my left leg crossed over my right. I flip my hair, display adequate knowledge of indie bands, and thank the bartender each time he refreshes my drink. I think about my sculpted shoulders and that line about how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. If my companion suggests something spontaneous mid-date, as a lawyer named Steve once did ("I have an idea — burgers at Shake Shack!"), I'll politely decline and hope he doesn't think I'm difficult. I'll get over it if he does.

But if I make it to a third date, it means I like the guy. That's when I imagine myself as Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game: When my secret is revealed — when my date chivalrously ushers me through a door and gets a good look at my back, or kisses me and glides his hand over a ridge he didn't know was there — I am abandoned. Which is why I rarely let things get to that point.

Sometimes, though, my desire to be understood is overwhelming.

I met Ross through a mutual friend, but it turns out he'd previously written to me on Nerve.com and been disappointed when I didn't respond. (A little digging through my inbox revealed the reason: He'd specified a weight range in his profile, and even though I fell into it, I'd decided he was shallow.)

The first two dates were uneventful, but we were intrigued enough to keep trying. Our third date was a series of small tragedies. While going through the standard getting-to-know-you banter, the topic of tattoos came up. Did I have one? I shook my head. "Not even here?" His hand hovered over the small of my back. My heart sank, but I tried to relax.

It was a hot night, so I slipped off my Daryl K zip-up. I had on a short-sleeve Marc by Marc Jacobs top underneath.

"Wow," he said. "Do you work out a lot?"

"Yoga, mostly." I waited a beat before putting my sweatshirt back on in the airless, humid bar.

He stared at me. "Why'd you do that?"

"I'm cold."

"No, you're not," he said. "You didn't like that I noticed your arms."

"It's not my arms," I wanted to say. "It's just, who knows what you'll notice next?" Instead, I changed the subject, and soon we were in the street together, a confusing tension hanging over us. When we passed a psychic shop, I told him I'd always wanted to have my palm read. "Here," he said, grabbing my hands, a flirtatious peace offering. "I'll do it." As he looked at them — not ugly, but large with gaps between the long, skinny fingers, another side effect — he exclaimed with a laugh, "Your hands are so weird!" Before Ross knew what was happening, I had planted a dry peck on his lips and jumped into a cab.

At home I knew the real tragedy had been in not seizing an opportunity. So I sent Ross an e-mail explaining everything. His response was an eloquent missive that built to this: He thought I was beautiful. He'd thought it before and still did.

As we fumbled in our dating over the next few months, our attraction was undone by our preternatural ability to frustrate each other. When we ultimately failed as a couple, it wasn't because of my body. Even our astounding chemistry couldn't make up for the fact that we just couldn't get along.

Which meant a lot, since my body clearly had been an issue with other guys, even if we'd never discussed it. Like the one who lent me a pair of shorts to sleep in after a second date and never called again, or the guy I went out with for more than a month who disappeared without warning, then came back a year later seeking friendship. I'd never even had a conversation about my body with my most serious boyfriend, a wonderful man I dated for a year-and-a-half, not even after his mother grabbed me the first time we met and said cheerfully, "You look different from behind!" Ross was proof that I could reveal myself to someone and he'd still want me.

My story doesn't begin or end with K-T. I have a full social calendar, a job that I love, excellent clothes, a teeny-tiny nose ring, a filthy mouth, and a badass triangle pose. Most important, I have family and friends who care about me — and if one of them were in my position, I'd tell her that any man who judges her as harshly as she judges herself isn't worth knowing — and I'd mean it. I'd curse a lot and say she doesn't owe anyone an explanation. I'd say, "Repeat after me: 'I'm unique. Got a problem with that? Your loss.'"

So I've updated my dating profile. I don't name my condition, I don't describe it in detail, but there it is, a small, vague shout-out to my uniqueness ("I was born with a bizarro congenital disorder that affects my body a bit") and an invitation to take me or leave me. Now when a guy tries to decide if I'm date-worthy, he can consider the shininess of my hair, the bands I like, and K-T. Because if I can learn to relax a little about it, to love my lumps and bumps, maybe someone else will, too.

Carla Sosenko is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently working on a memoir.


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