December 2010
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Bear

by Dena Feldman
©2000 Dena Feldman

hat can you say about a shy, red-bearded mountain man who does cross-stitching? A gentle, bighearted accountant with a passion for lions and tigers, he had his framed lion and tiger cross-stitches and needlework displayed all over his house up in the Big Bear mountains. His hands were huge and freckly. He was definitely an unusual character. An eccentric, one might say. But there was a strong, safe, and honest energy between us from the very start. Typical for me, I thought to myself as I shifted in the green-carpeted waiting room chair. I have always been drawn to eccentrics.

His voice did not match his frame of 6’2" and 253 pounds. When I first spoke with him on the telephone, I was taken off guard. I had expected something deeper, gruffer, more rough-hewn. Instead, his voice was a soft-spoken tenor, almost a soprano. There was a painfully shy sweetness to that voice; it made me smile. You can never tell how someone is going to sound by how he looks. But I liked him immediately, and decided what the hell, I would meet him.

Who do we love? How do we find our ways to them? To that strange, indefinable, yet fully palpable feeling of, "Yes. I am finally home." This is how I felt with him, the man who lived in the mountains. After years of Nomadism, wandering my own white and stained desert, I had finally come to a place of shelter, a place where I could swim.

 

ow many ways are there, anyway, for a nice girl to meet a nice guy in Los Angeles today? I never thought I would ever reach the point of answering computerized personal ads. But I’ve lived in L.A. for most of my life, since I was four years old. I’m thirty-one years old now, and have been divorced for six years. My first marriage was virtually arranged for me by my mother. Old World, East European, and frightfully, Jewishly traditional in her values, my mom had me married off to my high school sweetheart by the time I was nineteen.

I was sixteen years old in 1985 and a high school senior when I met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband. Well…that’s not exactly correct. I was actually fifteen years old and a high school junior when I met my ex-husband-to-be. But at the time, he was simply my boyfriend’s older and somewhat homely brother, Neil, someone I knew by name and face and had a nodding acquaintance with. He shared a room with his brother, Dan — my first real boyfriend — and got kicked out on a regular basis when Dan and I wanted to have sex. Their mother, a strictly Orthodox Jew who was legally named Kathy but had taken on the name Tovah, would be downstairs listening to her Yentl soundtrack, wearing her wig and broiling chickens for dinner. To this day, whenever I happen to hear a song from that Barbara Streisand movie, I have immediate, secretive, sexual associations…associations of hurried adolescent sex while listening to "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" Could they hear us? Hopefully not; we always tried to be as quiet as two horny teenagers could be.

The whole scenario was heightened, at least to me, in that I was far from your average, ordinary sixteen-year-old girl. My face was pretty in a sweet, girl-next-door type of way. But my face was where my innocence ended. I lived in a secretive prison, a prison that few people knew much about. My parents, my best friend, and especially my sister had a good understanding of the strange, private, and hellish world in which I lived. My classmates knew to a certain degree from interacting with me, but only to that certain brief degree that glimpses allow, when every square inch simply cannot be covered up.

My skin was not normal. Lots of teenagers had acne, some mild, some worse. And I had met people here and there who had mild eczema on their elbows. But never in my life had I met anyone like myself, though from what I had read over the years, I understood there to be more people out there.

I had something called severe, recalcitrant psoriasis. It began when I was eight years old. My skin carried a painful, thick, irritated plaque, very much a scaly, reptilian crust, which covered about ninety-five percent of my body. My skin cells grew too quickly, simply put. Nothing contagious, exotic, or deadly like leprosy (though there had been those who had compared me as such). Just psoriasis, the stereotypical heartbreak, one of those uncommon, shameful, things that everyone – family, friends, neighbors, and strangers — knew me for but tried not to look at. I had almost no normal skin. My breasts and cleavage were covered. My neck was bright red, scaly, and raw. My legs were horribly patchy, scratched, and bloodied. My ears were full of scale and crust. I had trouble wearing jeans, for if they rubbed against me at all, I would bleed about my entire waistline.

I showered flakes of dead skin everywhere I went. I could not turn and twist easily, for my encrusted skin would crack open and bleed. I scratched constantly, shed constantly, bled constantly. My heart, full of shame about how I looked, kept me a prisoner, too afraid to be outgoing. The sheets on my bed were always stiff and stained greenish-black with coal tar creams that I slept in at night, for coal tar helped my kind of skin. Every morning I awoke, lying in a bed of hundreds of dead, wilted, thick flakes of skin like little bits of human stucco. They were unsightly, yet I was gruesomely fascinated with my own scaling, raw body and the constant, shedding skin that was an extension of me and always followed me about like the whitened, peeling shadow of a snowstorm. I saved dead skin in empty mayonnaise jars until my mother caught me and forced me to throw them out.

One month a year, I would be admitted into the UCLA Medical Center Dermatology ward for a month-long stay, where I would be tended to with special ultraviolet lights and salves and tar creams. After the month was up, my skin would be clear and normal looking. But all the treatments the hospital had to offer couldn’t get at the malfunction that was somewhere deep inside my body, manifesting itself on my skin. Only two months later, everything would return and I would live again in my itchy, encrusted prison until the next hospital visit the following year.

Strong-willed, though, my spirit somehow managed to flourish and I had friends. People are adaptable, I suppose. If the body that housed me had to be encased in diseased-looking skin, I would have to force my own soul to flourish, or at least try. Classmates knew and liked me. They thought I was shy, but funny and sweet. Was I really? Maybe I was…or maybe those characteristics were my own way of making it easier for people to look at me, for people to like me, for me to like myself.

In high school, Dan did not seem to see my skin. He was not like others, who looked, then looked away and tried too hard not to look. His gaze was admiring and unwavering. He never said a word, except to tell me I was beautiful. The one time we discussed my psoriasis, before the first time we slept together, he told me that it only made my normal skin (what little of it there was) more beautiful. I started to feel more like a teenager and less like a hidden sideshow freak, always wearing long-sleeved turtlenecks in July. I was finally a real girl. One wearing freak’s clothing, but a girl nonetheless.

But after a school year of passionate high school dating and teenaged promises of love and the future, Dan broke my heart and broke up with me for someone else. What better way to comfort myself (and take revenge on Dan) than to start spending time with Neil? It began as a friendship, turned into a crush, and six months later, Neil and I were a couple. Dan was none too pleased about this turn of events, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Tovah, however, was thrilled to have kept me in the family. Whether it was with Dan or Neil didn’t matter to her. Whether I looked like a walking, bleeding snake shedding its skin didn’t matter. My father was a rabbi; I was a nice Jewish girl and a rabbi’s daughter. Who cared that I had fucked her younger son in his bedroom while she sang along to Babs and cooked Friday night Sabbath dinner? Dan had his new girlfriend. Neil needed a nice new girl in his life. Everyone was happy.

Everyone, that is, but me. I was still only sixteen. I thought I was happy. I convinced myself that Neil was the man I wanted to be with, that I wasn’t really rebounding from my first high school romance gone awry. That I wasn’t really trying to get back at Dan. And mostly, that I wasn’t really settling for the first man after Dan who could touch my thick, plaque-ridden skin and not shudder. I could not look in mirrors naked without crying. I didn’t feel nearly as beautiful with Neil as I did with Dan, but he tried and it was enough – enough, at least, for the me I was then.

My mother loved Neil. She had not really cared for Dan. Well, she didn’t exactly dislike him…she just disliked the fact that I had had sex with Dan in my bedroom at night after she and my father had gone to sleep. "You’re shtupping, goddamit! I do not want you shtupping in this house!" Why she always consented to Dan’s sleeping over when it made her so angry was beyond me. I was just glad at the time that she did, for it meant that we could have sex at home in bed instead of on our math classroom’s desk during lunch hour (the math classroom was the only classroom that locked).

She didn’t seem to mind as much once I was shtuppingNeil in my bedroom instead of Dan. Well, she didn’t like it, but instead of encouraging me not to shtupp, she pushed me to shtuppas a married woman, although I was only a newly-turned-seventeen-year-old about to graduate high school. "If you’re going to shtupp him, goddamit, GET MARRIED!"

Neil and I moved in together when I was eighteen, in order to escape the constant "if you’re going to shtupp then get married" chant that was being drummed into my ears. Unfortunately, though, my mother’s "get married" caterwaul continued by phone and visit on a regular basis. My father, the rabbi, had no opinion, except for the fact that Neil was a nice boychik. But my father’s lack of voice did nothing to override my mother’s siren yowl. The brainwashing was complete.

Neil and I got married when I was nineteen and he was twenty-four. I needed him, or thought I did. He needed me to need him. I thought I was happy. The fact that my weight had skyrocketed from 140 to 215 pounds at my height of 5’3" did not cross my mind as related to my marriage, nor did the fact that I had now developed something called psoriatic arthritis, a form of arthritis caused by severe psoriasis. Yet, I felt a strange worm of resentment towards Neil wriggling in the pit of my stomach. When Dan looked into my eyes and told me I was beautiful, I was astounded and touched. When Neil uttered those same words, I felt contempt for him in his attraction to me.

As my weight increased, so did the emptiness inside me, leaving only that worm of bitterness, like a burning, wormy shot of tequila slithering down my throat. I spent most of the year I was 21 years old in a wheelchair while the arthritis had its way with me. It is from this experience that I discovered one of life’s great truths: you WILL let somebody wipe your ass for you if you are in enough pain, even if you think you won’t. I promised myself that after a year’s time, if there was no change, I would kill myself. Hours of fantasy filled my mind. How would I do it? Was I mobile enough to make it to the bathroom for a bottle of aspirin and the kitchen for our hidden stash of rum? And if so, would I be able to open the bottle? Details spun lazily in my mind for weeks, ultimately unfinished. The unending, knife-blade pain slowly abated after eight months. I was grateful to once again be just a simple psoriatic, flaking and raw but walking and wiping on my own.

In 1991, when I was 23 years old, my doctor offered a new form of treatment to me. "It’s called PUVA. The P stands for Psoralen, the pill you take that makes your skin ultra-sensitive to the ultraviolet alpha rays. Then an hour later, you come into the office and stand in the UVA light box. Works like a charm for almost all of my severe cases." There were serious side effects: potential cataracts, kidney damage, nausea and constant itching. I did not care. I began treatments. Two months later, I was in true remission for the first time in my life. I was free. I could feel my old soul shedding away along with my layers of dead skin flakes and crust. My disbelieving hands flew to my now-normal body in the solid dark or night over and over again, trembling, almost frightened by the lack of familiar roughness they found there.

Everything between Neil and myself changed. The fullness of the change was frightening, cosmic, overpowering. I tried, but no matter what, could not stop the rock that had begun rolling down the hill of our marriage. By the time I was twenty-five years old, we had divorced.

 

ver live in a closet? I mean literally: come home from work at night, have a little dinner, then go to sleep on a pile of dirty laundry in your closet. The first room I could really call my own room after I moved from my apartment was actually the closet belonging to my younger sister, Leanna.

I didn’t have too many options. Moving back in with my parents was out of the question. My sister was living in a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate of her own. This roommate, a short, chunky lesbian named Lisa with a sarcastic sense of humor and strangely petite ankles for her beefy frame, had the bedroom. Leanna had constructed a dry wall in the living room, creating a tiny bedroom nook for herself. She had just enough room in her nook for her twin bed and dresser.

I called her in a panic, and she calmed me down. "Sure, Nonnie! Sure, come stay with me. It’s just that it’s going to be a bit tight. Would you be okay sleeping in my closet? There’s just no other place, and you know how Lisa is…" Leanna made turning a living room closet – albeit a roomy one – into a temporary bedroom the most logical and everyday idea I had ever heard.

Why my sister always ensnared herself in such bizarre living arrangements, I did not know. She was twenty-three years old and strikingly beautiful, with dark curly hair hanging nearly to her waist, and blue eyes with unusually dark eyelashes. Strangers – you would be surprised just how many – regularly asked her if she was wearing false eyelashes for one reason or another.

Leanna seemed to gravitate towards weird and dysfunctional people and situations. I didn’t know it then, but at the time, she was working at a place called Lady Laura’s House of Bondage and Domination, on La Cienega Boulevard. Leanna received twenty dollars per customer…men who would whip or spank her with a variety of belts and paddles while she wore lingerie. She was also a receptionist for a hotshot Beverly Hills law firm, and sold marijuana to her lawyer bosses on a weekly basis. My sister would eventually, by the time she was thirty, become a registered nurse and work for an occupational therapist specializing in hand injuries, but neither of us knew that then.

And so I moved into my little sister’s closet for my first month of single life. I still had the same job I’d been at for the last two years, editing insurance-related law at a publishing company in Chatsworth. There is little to write, entertaining or meaningful, about the editing of insurance-related law. It felt almost appropriate to arrive at work from awakening within a closet and huddle in a purple-carpeted cubicle to read Worker’s Compensation and Motor Vehicle laws for eight hours. It was at this point in my life that I discovered another riveting truth: in most states, a man will receive only twenty-two weeks’ worth of financial compensation for losing a testicle on the job. However, if a man loses both his testicles in that same accident, the amount of compensation suddenly quadruples. Every body part had its price. This was a favorite topic at lunches amongst coworkers.

I was free. It was 1993, and I was scraping by on seventeen grand a year. Barely enough to get me out of the closet and into my own tiny, boxy studio, but I did. I had a room, toilet, shower, closet, sink, and hotplate. I was twenty-five years old and had never really dated, except for Dan and Neil.

Country music and "Achy Breaky Heart" was at its heyday. Newly single, I took up line dancing and two-stepping with a passion born from the combination of old repression, newfound excitement, and a sudden spurt of bravery. I immediately dropped thirty pounds, bringing me down to a more svelte and acceptable 185, and a size 18. I wore low-cut blouses with fringed vests to show my cleavage yet hide my abundant waist.

My line-dancing phase taught me something I had not known before: there are men who want to have sex with 185-pound women, or at least those who are willing to. I couldn’t grasp the concept of a man having sex with a woman to whom he wasn’t attracted just for the sex act itself. Thus, I savored like a rich dessert the idea that men were attracted to me, to me, to the girl who used to shower skin onto carpets of dressing rooms, her face hot and hanging, eyes avoiding mirrors. According to my ever-Puritanical mother, I shtupped anything in pants and cowboy boots. According to her, I was a country-dancing whore.

My father’s only comments were never aimed at my divorce; he was simply pleased that I had followed in his footsteps of musical taste, country music lovin’ and guitar strummin’ rabbi that he was. All he said were things like, "Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash are true country, not these new fakes like Billy Ray Cyrus. Achy Breaky Heart, my ass." Then he’d flip back to whatever sermon he was writing that week.

Even for the newest of single girls, though, one-night-stands with cowboys eventually do grow old. Or perhaps sometimes, something that was meant to last for only a night stretches out, and lasts for years. Maybe Ian was simply a two-and-a-half-year stand. He and I met on the freeway during rush-hour traffic. My car had broken down and I had pulled onto the shoulder. Leona, the person with whom I always traded crises, was living in London at the time. Lady Laura’s behind her, she worked as a short-order cook in a pub now, dishing up quiches, Marmite sandwiches, and pickled eggs to drunken Englishmen till from suppertime until three o’clock in the morning, and attended massage therapy classes during the day.

Ian pulled up alongside me on the shoulder of the 101 freeway, his face darkly handsome, and spoke into my window. "Need help?" His voice was soft, with just the hint of an accent, not British but something close. He turned out to be from Bombay, a Catholic Indian. He carried a tiny New Testament in his glove box, hidden a respectable distance away from his pack of ribbed Trojans.

There were things I learned from him. Ian, who bought me expensive gifts and took me on weekend trips on a regular basis. Ian, who told me often that he "preferred slender women" and told me never to wear horizontal stripes. Who told me he loved me only once in two and a half years, whispered into my ear after using his hand to make me come in the dark on a cold New Year’s eve. Who bought me groceries and petted my hair when I flared and couldn’t walk for six months. Who told me one night, after coming home from going out for dessert with two friends, that I ate like a pig, then had angry sex with me after I cried. Ian, who partnered me at a West Coast Swing Dance weekend workshop. And Ian, who wouldn’t put moisturizer on my back one night when my skin had gone crazy and flared after my first of four hand surgeries for the arthritis. "What do you expect me to do? Come on. I mean, why don’t you just say, ‘I’m a leper; rub me down’?" That sentence, that falsetto assuming of my voice for that split second, still rings in my ears sometimes when I awaken from a dream of my past, dreams that I am once again lying in a bed stiff with coal tar, in piles of skin-made confetti.

We left each other at the same time I left PUVA. I had been given ultraviolet light treatments for the last twenty years. Its effectiveness had worn down; my grace period was over. Instead of normal-looking skin now, I bore what looked like a light heat rash, or chicken pox. Red freckles graced my body like a livable, mild, yet shameful token of what lurked inside me. I felt like the woman in The Scarlet Letter, yet my letter was not branded on a dress, but instead dispersed over my body with dozens of telling marks. My doctors taught me how to inject methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug that weakened the liver, into my thigh each week, to take the place of my holy light.

Pain and anger is a powerful combination. My mind became solely, obsessively, grievingly focused on diet and exercise. I would be the "slender woman" Ian had always needled me to be. If I was condemned to be a leper begging to be rubbed down when scabbed, I could at least be a shapely one. In five months, I dropped from 185 to 135 pounds, and stayed there. He gave me this gift with his inflicted pain, this gift of untapped strength I found lying fallow until then.

A new truth of life presented itself to me then: being thin does not mean that you will meet nice men. If anything, the men I met when I was fat were of better emotional and mental quality, perhaps due to their open-mindedness about bedding a fat woman.

I cannot write too much about Michael. Just a few sentences could sum him up, really. He had been in the army, stationed in Germany. He had a four-year-old daughter back there, and cried when he talked about her. He had an evil temper and drank heavily; yet oddly enough, Michael was at his sweetest when drunk. On the few occasions that I cried in front of him, he would mutter, " Damn it, Nonnie, stop sniveling." Michael loved to cook spaghetti and chicken enchiladas for me; he was an excellent cook. His sex drive was surprisingly and disappointingly low, he spoke military-talk in his sleep, and after three or four or five breakups, we went our ways.

Leanna returned from London a certified massage therapist, wanting to become a nurse and soured on men after a failed British love affair with a repressed computer technician named Flash. I decided to leave my insurance-editor’s job and return to school to earn my master’s degree. The two of us took up house together, eccentric and successful roommates, each sister finally with her own bedroom and closet.

 

leaned back against my mountain man stretched out on the couch. The radio was on very low, the local Big Bear station counting down the last hour of 1999. His legs were on either side of me, my back against his stomach and chest. There was frost on the windows. I could hear tree branches scraping against the roof in the crisp, breezy thirteen-degree air. Snow blew off of the mountains and turned the air misty and ethereal, like dancing, teasing, flirty clouds of cold white confetti.

We settled into each other, butter melting into butter. Our shapes fit well, like two jigsaw puzzle pieces that finally, after much searching, get clicked together so satisfyingly by the person assembling the puzzle that there is an involuntary sigh of contentment. I could feel his body moving with breath, and see his red beard out of the corner of my eye when I looked up. His large and freckly hand lay on my stomach almost shyly, as if it wasn’t sure whether it had permission to be resting there. It had been three months, and this was the closest our bodies had yet touched.

Something about the inside of his left thigh felt unusual to me. It felt as though there was a depression at the highest point of his upper inner thigh, right before the groin. I couldn’t tell for sure. I shifted mildly and pressed close to the inside of his leg. Yes, something was definitely different there. His leg was not fully formed, or a part of it was missing. I was curious…but I did not want to ask about it and force him to confide anything in me before he had brought himself to open to me naturally.

He spoke as if I had asked a question out loud. "There’s a big piece missing from that leg."

I was still leaning back on him, relaxed, my eyes closed. His face and body were behind me; I could feel his warm breath in my ear when he spoke. His voice was soft and pleasant, like a slight, shy laugh was held inside. I said the first thing that popped into my head. "Why?"

The breath by my ear continued. "Well, I don’t remember it, but I was attacked by a bear when I was four." His voice was gentle and matter-of-fact. "There’s a big piece missing on my back, too. My parents have told me all the grisly details about it, but I really don’t remember it at all." His voice was so gentle, so gentle. A wind chime sounded in the outside air like music echoing in an underwater cave.

My body was still pressed against his left leg. I turned onto my side and put my hand high up on the inside on his thigh. My mountain man lay there and did not move, blue eyes hidden by his closed eyelids. I could see the deep concavity in his leg by the groin once I laid my hand upon it; my fingers softly dipped into his leg several inches deep as I ran my hand up, then back down, dipping again into the deep U of his inner thigh.

I tried to imagine what must have happened. A bear grabbed this once-four-year-old boy, maybe shaking him by the back until a piece of meat tore free, then dragged him by the leg over leaves and dirt. Did he utter a cry? Did the bear release him on its own volition, or had his father, yelling unintelligible things, run out with a rifle and shot the animal dead in its tracks?

I stood up and moved behind him. My hands, like inquisitive little animals not belonging to me, gently pushed my mountain man’s shoulders until he sat up on the couch. My hands ran gently down his back. The gouge was not difficult to find. There was a huge hollow right below his left shoulder, deep and wide enough to hold at least half a cup of water. I lay my cheek against it while white flakes of ice hit against the window. The radio’s voice announced there was only forty minutes remaining until the new millennium.

I moved in front of him, my red-bearded mountain man, in a dream of color and sound and heat within ice. I could not feel my hands as they gently, surely pulled my clothes from my own body while he watched. Naked, I stood before him as white, frozen flakes of ice tapped against the window behind me. There was no squirming, rueful feeling of exposure as he looked at my body, glowing gold and speckled red from the fire burning in the living room fireplace behind me. My drifting mind went to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid and how she must have felt, standing at the rocky shore for the first time, beautiful and unsure, wobbling on legs lovely yet awkward and ungainly.

He had not moved, only gazed at me, his crystal blue eyes steady and limpid. I moved to him, naked, and stood behind him once again. My hands, bold yet gentle creatures unattached from my arms, pulled his shirt over his head. I looked down at the puckered skin covering the missing chunk of his back. How large had the wound been as a four-year-old child? How deep had the gouge dipped? I lay my hand in the hole below his shoulder. His body was warm, peaceful. The skin where my hand lay was lusciously soft. Was he even real? Was he a fantasy of mine, and I would awaken in bed at home, alone? His name never floated through my head when daydreaming of him; he was simply my mountain man, the man of lions and tigers far and away.

His strong arm, furry with red curls, reached behind him and took hold of my waist. A flash of memory – something having to do with my waist and blood — tried to surface but immediately disappeared in the gentle, warm, milky whirlwind of his hands on my skin and his mouth on my mouth.

 

t was Valentine’s Day, a time for lovers. I sat in one of the many green-carpeted chairs in Waiting Room 1 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital right before the first Valentine’s Day of the new millennium, waiting to have the lumps under my left arm examined. They had surfaced suddenly, with no explanation. The hospital was located on Edgemont Street, right off of Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of where sleazy Hollywood becomes sleazy Los Angeles.

The entourage of patients waiting along with me to be seen by a doctor was an interesting one. An old woman with fading dyed-black and gray hair muttered to herself in a wheelchair as a nurse with a strident voice called, "Mrs. Guttierez, you stay right there! Wait till I come to get you!" A young couple, both with bright blond hair and blue eyes, huddled together eating French fries out of a bag and watching football on the waiting room’s television set anchored to the wall. An identical couple, but with dark brown skin and hair rather than blond, read together from an English/Spanish dictionary and murmured back and forth to one another. A stoic looking Asian man with a high forehead and wire-rimmed glasses stared straight ahead. A lone woman, nervous, sat hunched over chewing her nails, her wedding band glinting in the florescent lights.

I caught the eye of a teenaged Latin boy for a moment. He looked about fifteen or sixteen years old. He had thick, curly, dark hair and a very handsome face. He wore faded jeans and a T-shirt with the number 43 ironed on the chest. He sipped at a soda clutched in his hand. A Burger King bag and cup sat on the floor at his feet like obedient pets. The cup was full of what looked like strawberry milkshake, nestled in a brown cardboard drink holder.

We smiled at each other briefly, then he looked away, shy. A moment later, his head swiveled up as the door leading to the examination rooms opened. A tall, rawboned woman hustled out, all shoulders and elbows. Her skin was fair and freckled. Her long, thick auburn hair was frizzy and flyaway. She wore bright, frosted purple lipstick, purple eyeshadow, and eyeliner extending beyond her eye to create a "cat’s eye" effect. Her white T-shirt and black jeans were skintight, and she wore a glittery, narrow, rhinestone-studded belt.

The teenager’s eyes lit up. "Mom, I got you a shake!" It was only then, when I heard his voice, that I noticed his eyes were set unusually closely together, and that he had Downs Syndrome. He got awkwardly to his feet, trying to clutch his own soda, a paper Burger King bag, and his mother’s strawberry milkshake at the same time. The boy held the tall, pink-tinted cup out to her. "Look, Mom! I found the caffy-teria!"

The woman ignored the proffered milkshake and spoke sharply, brusquely. "Okay. C’mon." She hurried towards the waiting room’s exit doors, jerkily, shoulders turning sharply with each step.

The teenaged boy turned to follow her. His face was a picture of perfect tension, creases furrowing into his young, brown brow. Our eyes met again, and I offered him a tentative smile. I received nothing in return. He looked down, then away, then hurried with a clumsy gait after the woman with the long auburn hair and glittering rhinestone belt.

I watched the two of them as they left the waiting room, one striding away aggressively, one trailing behind, unhappy. What had been wrong with that woman? Was she pregnant and here to see about an abortion? Was she a crack-addicted hooker with a sexually transmitted disease, leaving her Downs Syndrome teenaged son home alone at night? Did she just have a basic, run of the mill sore throat, like so many people get in February? Or maybe she had cancer.

My thoughts turned back to myself, myself and my mountain man. It already seemed like forever since last night, forever since we lay naked together in the back seat of his truck, his warm mouth on my neck and his huge hands on my back. What would he think if I had to tell him that yes, the drugs and injections had finally worked their evil side effects, and that I had cancer now on top of the skin and the arthritis? Would one more medical problem be the straw that would break his camel’s back? Would he turn his own beautiful and mutilated back, and wash his hands? Or would his feeling for me, his new and strange love, prevail?

And if my haunting, fantasy-like worries eventually came to be, and the drugs, like evil friends I could not give up, eventually killed me, would he be sorry to have ever met me? Would he hold his pain against me? Would he stay in touch with Leanna to comfort her? I did not want to hurt him with my pain.

Somehow, though, my mind could just not let me imagine his walking away. The image tried to form, but my imagination drifted and wouldn’t create the picture. Perhaps I was only able to imagine what I believed, and I did not believe in him as one to run. There was shelter; there was his warm circle. My eyes closed and I leaned back in my chair.

Instead, I wanted to win myself as my prize, the self I tasted in my mouth when I kissed him. The strong me. The survivalist me. The beautifully scarred and marked woman of me. I could now look in the mirror naked for long moments at a time without averting my eyes. Looking and looking and looking, eyes and body locked in awe, neither fearfully tearing away.

©2000 Dena Feldman

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