My Back Story: A Humorous Look at Muscle and Marriage

A professor pushes the limits of "in sickness and in health."

By Harrison Scott Key from Oxford American
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine May 2014

crushing back illustrationSteve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

Recently, I was trying to remember my wedding vows. I don’t recall much other than that my wife looked prettier than Grace Kelly (a disturbing thought since women who look like Grace Kelly generally do not stay married to men who look like me, unless we own small aircraft). Yet I do recall our uttering something about sickness and health. These were my thoughts, nine years later, as I lay on the couch and took abuse from my wife.

“You’re not sick,” Princess Grace said.

“I am,” I said. “I might die.”

“Your back hurts,” she said. “It’s not like you have cancer.”

“You promised to tend my infirmities.”

I don’t know how it happened: I woke one morning and was unable to stand fully upright. It felt as though the brisket of my lower back had been broiled too long in a still-warm oven.

I cataloged my most ambitious movements of the day before. There was the small box (lifted), the flight of stairs (climbed), and the BMX bike that I appropriated from a neighborhood boy, in order to demonstrate for the crowd of curious children how legends are made (ramped). Sensations rushed back of that moment when I launched from the homemade ramp’s zenith amid dropped jaws and willed my body and the bike into flight. Yet just as my rear wheel left the earth, I recall receiving a message from my lower back that indicated caution and horror, a neural communiqué hushed by the endorphins of ramp glory and the cheers of neighborhood children—until now, the following morning, when I received a new message from my back, in the form of a letter of resignation.

I pulled myself to a hunchbacked position and dressed in great agony, the way I imagine Yoda must do. I then hobbled off to work, where a colleague sidled up to me, smiling, as though possessing a secret.

“I’ve got two words for you,” he said. “Horse liniment.”

I thanked him and made a mental note to start bringing a handgun to work. I limped on, until bad led to worse. It happened during my afternoon lecture while I rhapsodized to a class about Aristotle’s use of the topography metaphor in Rhetoric.

“Think of the human mind as a map,” I said, arms outstretched. Then something snapped, as though a distant bridge gave way, and it struck me that the bridge was nearby and that it was the meat and bones and cartilaginous substances of my back.

“Oh, no,” I said, falling to my knees in a dramatic, Game of Thrones-ian flourish. But nobody came to my aid, as they were all resting, studying the insides of their eyelid skin.

 

What seems to be the problem?” my internist asked.

He has the build and disposition of a gentle, unassuming superhero: the broad shoulders, thick arms, and trim waist of a man who would probably look entirely normal driving a Jeep without a shirt.

“It’s my back,” I said.

“Disrobe,” he said.

The next few minutes progressed like many of my best high school dates, with a great deal of touching, bending, and whimpering.

“What’s wrong with me?” I said. I hoped it was something debilitating. A simple back injury would be emasculating, but there could be great glory and riches in a disease requiring a wheelchair. Something permanent, but not terminal, a malady that might lead to a career in motivational speechmaking and the lucrative field of disease memoirs.

He explained, as gently as he could, that my only malady was frailty. “You need to work out,” he said. “Nothing too rigorous. I’m 
going to give you some exercises.”

He handed me a printout of an illustrated elderly man in various postures, mostly on his back and mostly looking dead.

 

What’d he say?” my wife asked.

“It’s my muscles,” I said.

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Apparently I don’t have any.”

You could tell she did not think this was very serious, because she rolled her eyes. Princess Grace has elevated eye rolling to an art that can be practiced by only the demon-possessed and various dark wizards of irony. The iris goes up and all but disappears under a lid that flutters like a windblown sheet of paper under the burden of a commemorative paperweight. I have tried to imitate this maneuver—to show her how attractive it makes her look—and came near to severing my optic nerve.

“I have a prescription,” I said, holding it up as evidence.

“That’s Aleve,” she said.

Later, I positioned myself on all fours on our bed, attempting to 
practice one of the therapeutic poses suggested by Dr. America. The wrinkled man in the picture appeared to be imitating a male dog in the act of urination, and I could not get it right.

Princess Grace, who gave no quarter to any of my disease-based fantasies, demanded to know why I was acting like a dog about to 
urinate on her bed.

“I’m strengthening my core,” I said.

In time, after I suggested having her bathe me, she assented that yes, 
I might be in some pain. She did her duty, opening my beers for me, assisting me into the rocking chair, as though I were a tribal elder, carrying out the bag of garbage I can no longer carry. The woman has looked 20 years old since she was 15 and still does. I have always seemed much too old for her, with my premature baldness and high Gold Toe socks and love of pudding. And now, as in all May-September marriages that last, she has become my nurse.

It’s difficult to know how long this will go on, whether my core will ever be strengthened by the Congress of the Urinating Dog. But I care not. It is pleasing to watch my child bride make good on her promises. I wanted to ask her if she would fetch me a bottle of horse liniment, but I didn’t want her thinking me feeble of body and mind.

“Tell me you love me,” I said.

“You love me,” she said.

“I do, I do.”

Harrison Scott Key lives in Savannah, Georgia, and teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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