A young woman with a prosthetic leg hopes to make the world a more empathetic place. If only she didn’t have to do it on first dates.
Rob and I had been talking on Bumble for about a month. We matched while he was apartment hunting in New York City. He was handsome, funny and well-educated, with roots in Boston. He could do his job from almost anywhere and said he was moving to New York just because, and I liked that. We stayed in touch.
After he arrived and moved into his new place, we switched over from app messaging to texting, the crucial next step. Those first few days of texting, we were deciding among restaurant recommendations in the East Village.
“Trust me,” he wrote. “I’m settling in as fast as I can!” And then, finally: “Let’s try one of these places early next week?”
“That’d be fun!” I wrote.
And just like that, I was torn over what to say next. I still don’t know how soon I am supposed to bring up the thing — if I’m supposed to bring it up at all. If I should wait until we meet to say anything, or if I should say nothing. Because maybe he already knew. But I had no way of knowing if he already knew. I would have to ask.
That’s what runs through my head when I’m on dating apps as a young woman with one leg. You would think that my photos would give it away. If guys actually scrolled through all four of them. After a few years on these apps, I am still in shock over how many guys miss this detail in my photos. Is “detail” even the right word? Having one leg is definitely something, but is it bigger or smaller than a detail?
I’m 25 and a third-year medical student, but I’ve been dealing with this in one way or another for most of my life. When I was 6, my mother noticed that my right knee was suddenly larger than my left. She thought it might be an infection, but no. It turned out to be an aggressive osteosarcoma (bone cancer) that led to many months of chemotherapy and ultimately to an above-knee amputation of my right leg.
That is one story of my life, but it’s hardly my only story.
I decided that I would be direct with Rob. It made me uncomfortable to meet without knowing if he knew about my prosthesis. So, at 8:32 p.m., in the middle of our texting, I wrote: “Just so there are no surprises, you know that I wear a prosthesis on one of my legs, right?”
Twenty minutes later, there was still no response. My next move was to open up Bumble, and that’s when I saw that our chat history had been wiped clean, replaced with: “Rob ended the chat.”
I fumbled with my phone and texted him the first words that came to mind: “That was really harsh.”
“I’m sorry,” he wrote.
We never spoke again.
Did I cry? No. Did it sting? Yes.
My dating app profiles are carefully curated with photos. My first and second only show my face. That counts for a lot in the world of dating apps. My third is bolder: It shows me kneeling. A careful observer will notice my prosthesis. My fourth photo leaves no question: I am standing with the prosthesis on full display.
I never know how many photos a guy has scrolled through before we match and start talking. I have heard that after a guy makes a match, some are more diligent about looking through all the woman’s photos. Maybe that explains why I match with guys who never start conversations or delete me within minutes.
I learned from a young age that, as an amputee, my dating pool would be smaller. In college, I enjoyed going out every weekend dancing with friends. Often, a guy would start conversations on a dark, crowded dance floor and sometimes get me a drink. Then we would walk upstairs to a lighted room to talk, where he would glance down and see my legs below my skirt and find an excuse to wander off.
One guy who didn’t wander off later told me that our mutual friend had given him a heads-up before introducing us, saying, “You know she has one leg, though, right?”
I was not asked to date parties. I couldn’t wear heels going out because of my prosthetic ankle adjustment. And I had to watch what I drank so that I could safely walk up and down the stairs of house parties. It all had to be planned in my head, every time.
I don’t have a plan for explaining over dating apps how I lost my leg. In fact, telling guys how I lost my leg is the last thing I want to do on a dating app. Sometimes I’ll say, “I had bone cancer as a young girl.” Keeping it simple.
I cringe at the responses: “Oh damn.” “I am so sorry.” “You must be so strong.”
On dating apps, I don’t want to be thought of as being that kind of strong. I don’t want to talk about chemotherapy; I really have to be in the mood for that. On apps, I just want to know if we can go out to dinner or grab a drink on Friday night.
When I think about Rob, I know I dodged a bullet, but I also wonder about what would have happened if we had met, if I had not mentioned my leg. Friends are quick to say that he was not meant for me, and they’re right. Yet might something good have come from us having met? Perhaps.
I doubt Rob has ever gone out with an amputee before. I imagine that guys who don’t have amputees in their lives have their own thoughts about what dating one is like. Many have preconceived ideas about women who look like I do — seeing us as potential friends, but not potential girlfriends.
If I hadn’t mentioned the leg, Rob and I would have met for dinner. When I arrived, I might have caught him off guard with my walking limp, as he made note of my prosthesis. He might not have been into it then. But he would have had no choice but to talk with me, to engage with me, at least for a while, as an actual person. And my hope would be that from that night on, whenever Rob saw other amputee women, he would no longer be able to escape into baseless misconceptions and generalizations about who we are.
He would have a face to put to it. Perhaps he would remember me and think of the night we met, and maybe he would think of how little it all mattered then. Even if he were to drop things with me afterward, just to be able to humanize the abstraction would have been valuable. Doesn’t change happen one person at a time? After all, in my life, there have been many Robs.
Rob doesn’t know, and will never know, that I walk around with an above-knee prosthesis for 16 hours a day as a medical student. He doesn’t know that I swim twice a week, that I’m part of an adaptive rock-climbing group, that I ski on one leg and go out dancing on weekends.
He doesn’t know that I’m a summer camp counselor for young amputees, or that I plan limb loss education events around the country. He doesn’t know that showing my prosthesis in public doesn’t bother me, that I proactively take care of my body, and that I travel independently.
Since that episode, I haven’t mentioned my leg during conversations on dating apps. I have no desire to slap a warning sign on myself. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about how to make other guys more comfortable with meeting me. I do not wish to do that at all.
Recently, I remembered a different Rob I met years ago, an investment banker I dated for a bit. On our second date, we sat at Morgenstern’s eating ice cream. He glanced at my leg, I glanced at him, and he said, “You don’t need to tell me anything about it. That’s up to you.”
I kissed him that night. He called things off a few weeks later because he said I deserved so much better — a typical line, I suppose, from the kind of guy who tries but ultimately can’t move forward.
But he was right. I did, and do, deserve better.
Yet I think fondly back on that night for the reminder: I do not owe anyone my story. Being comfortable around my body will always be his responsibility, not mine. And when it comes to opening his heart beyond his fears and preconceptions? That responsibility, too, belongs to him.
Alexandra Capellini is a third-year student at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.
A version of this article appears in print on May 23, 2021, Section ST, Page 6 of the New York edition with the headline: His Comfort Is Not My Responsibility.