Learning To Look All Over Again

After writing two articles about losing part of the body he worked hard to create, Steven Sickles figured he was finished. "Even I was bored with my stories," he says. "I thought I was done, but I guess you never are." Here, published together, are "Working It Out," Steven's first essay and "I'm Ready For My Closeup," his last (or perhaps more accurately, his latest). Compare and contrast, reader.

Working It Out

by Steven Sickles

When I was in high school, before Donna Summer even had a record deal, my friends and I wandered through our existence reading, writing, and painting to the sounds of Donovan and Leonard Cohen. We were longhair intellectuals. Fearless and buoyed by our own self-righteousness, we fought to maneuver funds from new gymnasium equipment to improve our pathetic library collection. We were loathed by our peers and befriended by our teachers.

The idea of training with weights was laughable. What a waste of time! How self-indulgent and narcissistic could you be? Besides, the results were monstrous. And, of course, everyone believed that one day those gorgeous bulges would deflate to messy masses of fat.

Many years later, after a bout with hepatitis B, I was alarmingly thin and yellow. I was finished pretending I wanted anything other than another man in my arms at night. And, yes, I could finally admit it—I love muscles! Who, after all, did I think I was kidding for all those years? I was the kid who would swipe Charles Atlas advertisements from the back pages of Esquire magazine, while waiting for a haircut, to squirrel away in my closet. Later, under the sheets, I would drool over their ragged edges, a flashlight ruining all that expensive dentistry in an attempt to keep both hands free. A confusing concoction of envy and lust for an adolescent boy.

But how was I going to ensnare a beefy boy with my skinny ass? if I wanted a man with muscles, I reasoned, I'd have to get some of my own.

As a fat adolescent, I had tried to curb my appetite and do some weight training just to keep from going completely to hell. The dusty reminders of my lack of discipline still lay in my parents' basement. But this was different. This was going to be my last chance. I was all of twenty-eight years old. If I did not stick to it this time, I would be hopelessly out of shape forever, capable of attracting only myopic octogenarians, never to know the thrill of rock hard flesh against my own.

So I marched off to Fourteenth Street in New York City to buy two twenty-five-pound dumbbells. I tossed them around in my Chelsea studio apartment, imagining I was giving Arnold a run for the money.

From these humble beginnings I found I could train regularly. More importantly, once others noticed, my passion was confirmed. Several years later, after abandoning my insecurity about joining a gym and becoming a regular at Gold's, I was obsessed, confident, and proud of my new physique. I wasn't going to win the Mr. America title, but I could appear in a bikini without embarrassment.

Self-indulgent? Narcissistic? Sure. But, I reasoned, it was like working on a sculpture that would never be done. A work-in-progress. Besides, I had always been timid and insecure. Now, I was self-assured. Vain, surely, but not conceited or arrogant. I had never thrown a punch in my life, but at least now I looked as though it might hurt if I did. This was good.

Then on February 23, I996, I became ill with meningitis and the world I had fashioned started to unravel. Complications from the disease caused my blood to clot. Two occlusions settled in the arteries leading to my right hand. In the weeks following my hospital stay, I was weak, pathetically thin, scarred, chemically dependent, and unable to sleep—but I was alive. And there was more. The clots were gone, but over the next two months the fingers on my right hand curled and blackened like charred wood. Gangrene. In May they had to go. I was now living proof of the hazard of placing too much value in personal appearance. My elegant hand, a marvel of design and function, had been replaced with a blunt spade.

Today, this pathetic appendage resembles a sightless desert mole, but it once was as gruesome as something out of a Vincent Price movie. It's amazing to me, looking back, that I agreed to have the nasty thing photographed before the amputation.

My friend Mark I. Chester runs a Tuesday evening gay men's sketch group. For years I have been both a model and one of the artists. Mark is a fine photographer, whose milieu is anything left-of-center. His sexually charged photographs are at once alarming and provocative. He approached me about the possibility of documenting in black and white what had happened to me. And, incredibly, I said yes.

Often misinterpreted, the photographs that resulted are viewed by some as an objectification. Critics are repulsed by what they see as my blatant exploitation. To my mind, the value of documentary photography depends heavily on context and intention, so these pictures seem no more exploitative than the Life photographs of war-torn Viet Nam or photos by Diane Arbus. But it's not my point here to defend them. What's more intriguing to me is my view of the whole process then, and my reaction to seeing the photographs now.

During the shoot, I was mystified by Mark's regular departures to compose himself. My feelings of denial were so strong that I couldn't imagine he could be so moved by what he saw. I tried to remain affable and cheerful, my vanity and cooperative spirit overpowering any thought of how I would ultimately react to seeing a frank reflection of how I appeared to the rest of the world.

To this day, I am unable to look at any of those pictures, except those in which my right hand is obscured. In fact, any picture taken before my illness or since, that includes a view of my hands, is difficult for me to look at. None is on display anywhere in my house or office. Although my hand is healed, I avoid looking at it, even in a mirror. Pictures taken prior to I996 fill me with a sense of longing and loss. The pictures taken by Mark are, for me, the stuff that nightmares are made of. Current pictures are hard to look at, like bravely smiling images of a friend or relative who has died. My eye is drawn to the hands. I never see anything else.

So what do I do, now that I feel well again? In the days following my release from the hospital, I was pleased to be alive and breathing fresh air. But as I recovered more of my life the way I remembered it, I realized it could never be as it was. What was I going to do, now that it appeared I would be unable to train as I once did? I had put too much stock in the way I looked to toss all that aside, simply because it might now be even harder to do.

After three months (and twenty pounds) I went back to the gym to see if I could reverse the direction my saggy butt was heading in. I was, after all, still vain, gay, and single. Surprisingly, there were many exercises I could manage, given what was left of my right hand and the fact that, even after the amputation, I still had a wrist. After several designs and many months, my prosthetist and I came up with a device that helped me to pull weights towards me, thus allowing me to increase the poundage and number of repetitions for each exercise, and to train all body parts again.

Okay, I can't do just what I did in January of '96. I will certainly never enter a physique competition. And I will forever look with envy at the big boys in the gym. For me, the value now is in the trying. The standard isn't the same, but the point is identical. The push to see what I can accomplish, how I can mold myself with stubborn determination, hasn't changed.

Two years later, I still shy away from photographers. But when I put on my rubber hand, and a pair of worn jeans, and walk around the streets of San Francisco, I can still turn the heads of handsome men. It's probably the body I refuse to let grow old gracefully, but it could be the goatee. I like it. I'm keeping both, just in case

1998 Steven Sickles


I'm Ready for My Closeup

by Steven Sickles

I have written two articles about the loss of my hand and how it effected my ability to pursue my two avocations, weight training and painting. The response to those articles was overwhelmingly supportive, and surprisingly (at least to me), not at all patronizing. I wrote the first for my friend Bob Guter when he edited a magazine called Able-Together, the second for his webzine BENT. In both cases, Bob persuaded me that I had talent with words and something worthwhile to say. Flattery will get me to do almost anything, so, naturally, I agreed to try.

Once the essays were published, I felt that I had said all I needed to say about adversity, the strength of the human spirit, and my need to find a way to live comfortably not in the body I was given but in one which circumstances had forced me to adopt. I thought it was time to move on, to forget about my problems, to stop reminding others by my whining. Even I was bored with my stories. I thought I was done, but I guess you never are. So, here I am, trying again.

Bob suggested a follow-up article to my first piece, "Working It Out." "Why?" I asked. "I've said my piece about discipline, stubbornness, and self-image. What more is there to say?" He pointed out that a large part of what I wrote was about placing too much importance on self-image, on how dangerous it is to pursue physical perfection when anything can happen at any time to rob you of the world you made for yourself. But, he asked, wasn't there still a monster lurking in the shadows? He was right. To this day, more than five years later, I still wrestle with that monster—photographs! Let me tell you about it.

I think I've come pretty far regarding my wounded self-image. I stopped wearing my pricey, largely ineffective, and ultimately pointless cosmetic prosthesis—the Rubber Hand. I even entertained the notion of selling it in a recent garage sale!

I wanted to look like everyone else and for a year that rubber thing meant the world to me. I even wore it to go get the mail. Then, one day, as my surgeon and my prosthetist both predicted. I let go of it—completely. Well, there's a triumph.

After five years, I have recovered a lot of muscle and even put on some that I hadn't had before. Most days I don't even think about my handicap. Sure, I bitch when I have to screw my prosthesis on the gym machines. I want to scream when I have trouble opening a juice jar. And if I drop my keys more than three times, you might regret knowing me. But, most days, things are not exactly crappy. It's just the same shit that all of us with disabilities have to face.

Difficulty with function is one thing, but how I look, how my appearance is reflected back at me, that's something else entirely. After all the strides I've made, and despite being pleased with my regained muscles, I still feel self-conscious. I still hide my hand under the table when I dine out. Standing, waiting for the light to change or getting a drink at the bar, I put it in my pocket. I put it behind me. I lean against it in such a way that it can't be seen. I still call it "It." It's like a retarded son I've always loved. I've learned to live with him, even be proud of him, but for all that he still embarrasses me.

If I find it so hard to keep that hand in plain sight, why in heaven do I continue to allow it to be photographed? How do I view those photographs once they are printed? Why do some bother me more than others?

I recently attended my parent's 50th wedding anniversary in Florida. Being one of six children who financed the party, I was the frequent object of someone's candid camera ambitions. When I saw those grainy, poorly posed snapshots, I was hurtled back five years ago to a time when all I wanted was to keep my right hand out of sight. These days it's not always in my pocket, but when I saw it posed ridiculously on top of my niece's shoulder, or saw myself gesturing with both hands during an animated conversation with my aunt, I had to keep myself from ripping those pictures to shreds. Two months later nearly all of them live at the bottom of a drawer in my desk.

OK, so what's up with the nudes? Why are they different? There are no pockets, no tables to hide behind. Shouldn't these be even more troublesome? Well, yes, they should be—for anyone who isn't me.

What people cannot see is the fat child I was, thoroughly self-conscious and shy. I have discovered that through hard work and buckets of sweat, I can garner a lot of desirable attention. When that happens, no one, including me, is aware of "it." A lot of people mistake my infatuation with my appearance for arrogance. But, truly I'm as impressed as anyone else. When I see a photograph that exhibits the now impressive body I was so embarrassed by as a child, I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl. But at the same time I feel completely detached, because inside me, forever and always, is that fat caterpillar who doesn't recognize the beefy butterfly he's become.

When I'm naked, or barely clothed, I see a vital, funny, handsome, sexy, muscular guy, an image that has precious little to do with my own perception of myself. Like my paintings, the body I inhabit strikes me as a gift, something I had nothing to do with.

There is one photograph that I will cherish forever. It was taken when my friend Mark I. Chester asked me to play a supporting role in one of his photo shoots. The subject was a guy from Los Angeles named Bruce, who had asked Mark to photograph him. Bruce is a member of MOD (Men of Discipline). It is not surprising that man with a fetish or two might seek Mark out. Nothing phases him. He has a penchant for dark and sexually left-of-center photographs, but what made this request unusual was that Bruce had lost most of his right hand to a childhood accident. He was in his mid-forties when he asked Mark to photograph him. For the first time in his life he was willing to put his damaged hand on display for anyone to see. Permanently. In photographs.

Since my experience was so like Bruce's, Mark asked me to join in the session. He took several photos of me, many more of Bruce by himself, and a series involving us both. Of the many striking pictures that resulted from that afternoon, one stands out for me. I am standing in profile, in a jockstrap, in front of a plain gray background. My body is turned to the left, clearly revealing my right, fingerless hand. I love this picture. Not only does it show my body to best advantage, it doesn't pretend to obscure my hand, and I look . . . happy! My smile is unmistakable, guileless, charming. Best of all, when I show this photograph to men, I have to point out my "different" hand.

In the five years since I lost my fingers I have fashioned a body that completely distracts the viewer. Thanks to that body, I don't have to hide my hand in an effort to charm and beguile before playing the I've-got-a-secret card. I can put my hand in the open, unafraid of being dismissed before a man gets to know me. That assurance is what all of the nude photos reveal. In the ordinary party snapshots and vacation pictures, there is no body beautiful to distract the viewer—or me. It's those ordinary pictures that still make me pity my sad little ineffective, desperate-to-please right hand.

It's no wonder I moved to Palm Springs, where clothes are always optional. Recently, during the Gay & Lesbian Rodeo there, I was bitten by the country bug and I bought me a cowboy hat. Deciding to test its sex appeal, I donned a pair of worn, torn jeans, my pointy black boots, and the hat. Opting to forego a shirt, I ambled into "Sidewinders," a local bar, only to encounter yet another camera, wielded by a man about my father's age. He asked if he could take my picture. I was so flattered. "Take two," I invited.

© 2001 Steven Sickles


Steven Sickles
is, above all else, versatile.
His paintings illustrate his previous BENT article,

"Five-Finger Exercise."





BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2001