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Phantoms : Nairne Holtz

Anna picked up her crutches and pushed herself from her office through the dining room to the living room. She really should have her prosthesis on, but it was so uncomfortable. When she had been fitted with it a few weeks ago, she had thought she would be able to put it on and walk right away. Wrong. She nearly fell over with her first step. Her stump was so slight and tender that it was hard to put weight on it.

She stood in the dark looking out the window. It was ten o'clock, and Kathy wasn't home. Anna no longer bothered to ask Kathy where she went after work, where she spent most of her time on the weekends. By now, she wasn't even sure she cared.

As if on cue, a little red Neon pulled up in front of their house and stopped. Kathy got out of the passenger seat and turned to wave at the driver. The driver unrolled the window and leaned her head out. There she was, illuminated by the porch light, the woman whose presence Anna constantly felt, but whom she had never seen. She had long hair; she was pretty. Anna thought her jealousy had been amputated along with her limb, but she felt a residual twinge.

Kathy hung her coat up on the coat-stand, which, like the rest of their house, was Mission-style—controlled serenity. When she turned on the hall light, she noticed Anna. Guilt crept across her face, but she covered it with bluster.

"Shit, Anna, you nearly gave me a heart attack. I didn't see you there!"

Anna kept her voice calm when she spoke—she knew that upset Kathy more. "If this is your idea of being discreet, it isn't working."

Kathy got quiet. She fiddled with an earring. Her small gold earrings didn't match her oversized hockey shirt and jeans, but Kathy religiously wore earrings. She was not particularly feminine; it was something she grasped at to protect herself. "I've been meaning to talk to you."

"Spare me." There was a shaky feeling in Anna's chest that came from feeling rage, and, at the same time, being afraid of expressing her rage. "We can't afford to buy a computer-controlled leg system for me because you're such a closet case that you never asked for me to be included in your generous benefits. But you had no problem coming out at work to someone you wanted to fuck."

"I'm sorry. I know you're disappointed in me—that's nothing new." Kathy offered an apology, but couldn't quite manage to sever the frustration from her tone.

Anna's voice shrilled. "I wish it had been you. I wish you had lost your leg. Bruises and whiplash—you got off cheap."

Sometimes Anna felt as if her missing leg were still there, and she would catch herself trying to take a step with it. But other times, like now, she felt as if an evil spirit had made her invisible. Invisible to Kathy. Kathy's lover was real while Anna was the poltergeist, knocking stuff over in their house.

Kathy came over to where Anna was standing. "I'm sorry. I still love you, you know."

Anna exhaled. She felt stronger tonight—strong enough to admit that normal people didn't live this way. "Look, I don't want to hear it. I've had enough, and it's time we made some decisions. I want to sell our house and use the money to get a decent prosthetic limb. If there's any profit left over, we can split it. I also want the car. If you don't like those terms, well, I could sue for support, you know." Anna didn't know if that was true, but Kathy would never want to do something as public as go to court.

Kathy raised her head, and she and Anna looked at each other like cats meeting for the first time. Kathy bent her head down first. "Fine, whatever you want." Her voice was as dry and gritty as sea salt. She didn't look at Anna as she went into the hall and got her coat. She didn't turn around as their life together crumbled like five-day-old cake.  She told Anna she would talk to her in the morning, and then she left.

Anna sat down on the bench, laid her crutches on the floor. She was surprised to find that she no longer felt anger or betrayal. What she felt was not very much at all. Like when it occurred to her to ask the doctors what they did with her leg, and they told her it had been cremated. A person couldn't grieve what they had already lost. And their break-up had begun on the night of the accident. The accident just meant they hadn't gotten to finish it at the time.

Anna's leg had been neither broken nor fractured. Her knee had been dislocated severely, crushing the main artery, cutting off the blood supply to the rest of her leg and foot. Her leg had to be severed, but there had been barely a cut or bruise on it. The destruction had been hidden, much the way the destruction in her relationship had been.

She and Kathy had been coming home from visiting Kathy's parents, who lived in the country. A light snow fell and melted as it hit the car. Anna switched on the wipers. Kathy had had a few beers so Anna was driving, which she didn't like to do. She and Kathy were arguing—their fights had become a persistent, low-grade fever—when, suddenly, Kathy asked Anna if they should split up.

Anna kept her eyes on the road. Surrounding the road were fields of crisp snow glittering in the moonlight. She felt raw and cold, as if she were being rolled in the snow, even though it was warm enough in the car that the side windows were slightly fogged. "Do you?"

"You don't seem to like me anymore," Kathy whined. "And there's this woman I'm interested in, and she's interested in me."

Anna squeezed the steering wheel wishing it were her lover's throat. She had been mad at Kathy for a long time without knowing why. Having a legitimate reason felt good. "Who is she?"

"Don't worry, it's not one of our friends. I work with her, and we haven't done anything yet." Kathy checked the side-view mirror. "You should move to the right a bit. That jerk is trying to pass you."

Anna followed her gaze. A brown Subaru was tailgating them. The driver pulled out and passed her, then zoomed back into her lane. The person was driving like an idiot, but any annoyance Anna might have felt was sucked whole into the swamp of Kathy's betrayal. "Are you in love with her?"

"Anna, watch out!" In slow motion the brown Subaru looped towards her. Black ice. The driver must have hit black ice. A dark shimmer on the road, Anna could feel it, but she hadn't seen it.

In the weeks that followed the final break-up, Anna and Kathy put their house on the market. Kathy moved in with the other woman, and Anna rented a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise. The building was hideous, with carpets the colour of mildew, and Anna realized, to her chagrin, that she missed her lifestyle more than she missed Kathy. However, her new place had an elevator, which was easier to manage with crutches, as well as a convenience store on the ground floor.

Anna wasn't mobile enough to go back to work, but nor was she sick. The pain she experienced was occasional, usually occurring at night: the phantom limb phenomenon. Her leg felt as if it were reattached, as if someone were twisting her foot up to her knee and around the other leg. The pain was real, although it was happening to parts of her that no longer existed. It reminded her of how she felt about Kathy: what hurt, what Anna missed, was what they had once had.

Using her prosthesis was still uncomfortable. Anna practiced standing on just the prosthesis; good balance would help her to walk. Standing with no knee, calf muscle or ankle, using only her hip for support, she managed for a few seconds before gripping the wall. She felt herself regress to age two both physically and emotionally: she wailed. By the end of the week, however, she was able to stand for a full minute.

She tried using the prosthesis on different surfaces: cement, grass, gravel. She had to think about every move she made. A misstep could so easily result in injury. What was once ordinary—escalators, revolving doors—were now landmines.

She ran into a couple she knew: Debbie and Donna. Nurse and vet. No kids, a clowder of cats and a beagle, which Donna was walking on a long leash. The beagle tried to lick Anna, but Donna immediately reined him in.

"Stop that! Down, boy!" Donna's voice spiked the air. When she managed to get the dog to sit, she glanced at Anna and then away: the guilty slide of her eyes across Anna's body wasn't sexual as it had once been.

"Sorry we haven't called," Debbie said. "We haven't talked to Kathy either. We didn't want to take sides."

"I wouldn't expect you to." As the words left her mouth, Anna realized that she was lying. She wanted someone to take her side, to say that Kathy was an asshole, that Kathy shouldn't have strayed, emotionally anyway, and that it was her fault Anna had lost her leg. Kathy had no right to talk about breaking up while Anna drove along an icy country road.

"We've been busy. It's that time of year again—the breast cancer march. Are you going to be participating– " Debbie's hand flew to her mouth.

"I don't think so," Anna replied.

"I'm really sorry." Debbie looked so stricken that Anna almost laughed.

"We should be going." Donna jerked the dog forward, and Debbie scampered after them with an apologetic smile.

Back in her car, Anna sat bawling until she felt a rising thickness at the back of her throat. Her friends were actually Kathy's friends, all of them bound together by playing sports, something Anna had never enjoyed that much and which was certainly not a priority for her now. Their friends were relatively attractive, successful lesbians who played golf and organized feminist fundraisers. If they had been straight men, they would have joined the Kiwanis Club and collected money for disadvantaged children. Instead, they were gay women who carefully ferreted out all the other appropriate gay women and dismissed the fat ones, the white-trash ones and the young activists with shaved heads. Anna hadn't grasped until now how insubstantial her connection to these women was, how much she disliked them.

Anna surfed the web for information on female amputees, thinking perhaps she would join a support group. To her surprise, sex ads popped up on her screen: pictures of tiny, blonde women in wheelchairs. Anna clicked on a few and discovered that becoming a tran femoral (a word that made her think of transsexuals crossbred with wild cats) amputee gave her a niche market value in the sexual economy. There was a category of fetishists, typically men, who were attracted to amputees and who called themselves devotees. Anna wondered, was their desire fucked up or subversive? A misogynist attraction to perceived helplessness or a willingness to see beyond society's narrow definition of beauty?

Anna skimmed webpages and forum threads on the issue. A webring led her to a personal page by a man named Andrew Bryden. He was, by far, the most articulate and literate self-identified devotee she'd found. He condemned a group of devotees who had held a conference at the same time as the National Association of Amputees in order to harass and stalk one-legged women who rebuffed them. He urged devotees to come out of the closet about their sexuality and to educate themselves about the issues and oppression disabled women faced. Anna wished Kathy had been as indignant on behalf of their relationship. "If our relationship makes people uncomfortable," she'd say, her voice as tight and measured as the half teaspoon of sugar she permitted herself to put in her tea, "I'm not going to throw it in their faces."

Impulsively, Anna emailed him. I'm a lesbian who has recently become an above-the-knee amputee. Do you think being a devotee is similar to being gay?

He emailed her back that night: A month ago I was having dinner at the Del Mar with my girlfriend (well, now, ex-girlfriend), and the waitress mistook us for a mother and son. Paula is thirty-five, five years older than me. That night she was wearing a tight black turtleneck with a short blue latex skirt, and she looked really hot. But to other people, a woman in a wheelchair cannot be sexy, cannot attract partners. Our desire for each other was invisible, which happens to lesbians (at least where I live)—you know, they're just spinster teachers who live together to save money.

The Del Mar. Anna and Kathy had eaten there often: an old diner in a part of town yet to be made over for a yuppie clientele. The no-smoking section was an afterthought, six booths at the back where a grey fog accumulated throughout the day from the cigarettes of the diner's working-class customers. Kathy loved the homemade hamburgers and fries; Anna liked the neon blue sign and the kitschy '60s-style motels that ran along the strip. They made her think of adultery and private investigators working divorce cases, which, in retrospect, seemed appropriate.

Anna typed Del Mar in the subject line and emailed Andrew: I live in London, Ontario. Do you?

Close. Sarnia, he replied. Kathy's parents lived just outside Sarnia.

Anna reread his first email. Her hand went to what was left of her leg—thigh and an elastic sock that reduced swelling. She had a hard time imagining someone finding her hot. She and Kathy hadn't had sex since the accident, although, to be fair, they had been having problems in that department even before Anna had lost her leg. She typed another question: What is it you like about amputees?

Flawed beauty. Scars you can see.

Anna didn't know how to respond.

Another email arrived from Andrew. I also like good-looking women wearing eye patches. What's your type?

Anna wasn't sure she had enough experience to classify her desires. She had been with Kathy for ten years, and, before her, she'd had a few boyfriends. She replied, I think it is more of a feeling I get from someone, the way they look at me or touch me.

A few days later at physiotherapy Anna watched a man—who was an amputee—do push-ups. Anna had seen the man before, even knew a few things about him. He was francophone, had won medals in the Paralympics. He was short, trim with a broad chest, shockingly muscular arms, and a slim, wiry leg. He was perfectly made expect for his missing leg: a butterfly who had a wing pulled off by a cruel child. He was a cocktail of masculine strength and determination, difference and vulnerability—the same qualities Anna found attractive in certain lesbians. Just like that, she got Andrew's desire.

Kathy left messages on Anna's voice mail, mostly saying that she hoped Anna was doing okay. Anna didn't call her back. Kathy left another message saying they had received an excellent offer on their house; would Anna please call her back? Anna's line always seemed to be busy; was the phone off the hook?

Anna was online with Andrew. She messaged him before she called Kathy back: I'll be able to afford a computer-controlled leg. A leg with sensors in the foot that will tell the knee when and how much to bend. A leg that will allow me not to "think" about walking anymore.

Andrew replied: I know that's good news for you. For me, women being able to hide their amputation is disappointing.

Do you only date amputees?

Yes. But I wasn't with my ex just because she's amputated. And I won't date just any female amputee.        

After their exchange ended, Anna discovered that Kathy had left her another message: "We need to meet to sign the agreement of purchase and sale. Your line is still busy."

Anna didn't want to talk to Kathy so she pressed buttons on her phone that allowed her to deliver a voicemail: "Send the documents to me by courier." Their relationship was an empty house, rooms with the doors pulled closed. Anna didn't want Kathy melting through any of the walls.

A few months after the break-up, Anna decided to go out to a bar by herself. She drove to the Robin's Nest, a lesbian bar that had managed to survive for twenty-five years. The place was located in an old agricultural society building and reminded Anna of going to the Legion with her father. The music alternated between dance and country and western with the odd polka number thrown in.

Anna left her leg in the car. She was fairly comfortable with her prosthetic, but she wanted women to know upfront that she was disabled, so she went into the bar on crutches. To her surprise, a woman immediately brought her a drink. A tall, heavy butch with grey hair worn in a brush cut. Anna could barely make out what she was saying above the din of the music, but Anna could clearly imagine what Kathy would have had to say about the woman: "Lesbians should make an effort not to be pathetic stereotypes." Anna wasn't Kathy's first female lover, but Kathy was hers, so in the beginning Anna hadn't known enough to disagree with her.

The woman who bought her a drink began to finger Anna's long red hair, giving her an unexpected ripple of desire. Anna suddenly wanted this woman to fill her up, to fuck her with a dildo, something she had unsuccessfully begged Kathy to do. Anna wanted to be forced, to cover her memories of Kathy with bruises. A slow song came on at a lower volume, and Anna tuned into the woman's words.

"When I was about your age, I had a girlfriend with red hair just like yours. Met her in a bar in Niagara Falls. I kept trying to buy her drinks. I was so stupid I didn't get that she was a call girl. But I talked her into going out for dinner with me, and we became lovers. I thought she was the love of my life, but shit happens." She leaned her head down to look at the ghost of her lover in Anna's face.

The woman wanted to have sex with Anna to feel the echo of her old life with a previous lover. Anna felt her attraction vapourize. She realized that she was no better: she wanted to fuck this butch to tell Kathy, fuck you.

"Do you want to dance?"

"No, I have to leave now."     

When she got home, she sent Andrew an email. Tonight a woman tried to pick me up because she has a fetish for redheads.

A week before Anna was scheduled to get her new prosthetic, Andrew emailed to invite her to a "play party" he was organizing in his home. There would be fetishists and people into S/M dressed up and playing with "toys."

It will be really transgressive, he wrote. "Transgressive" was his word of the week.

Anna felt Kathy's judgment perch like a gargoyle on her shoulder. Freaks, Andrew's friends would be freaks. She IMed him: Are there going to be a bunch of guys coming onto me? Because I don't think I can handle that.

People don't have actual sex at play parties. They just whip each other and stuff. It'll mostly be straight couples into B/D and leather. I'm a rare breed. Look at it this way: you won't be the only disabled person. My ex-girlfriend will be there.

She emailed him: How will I know who you are?

A picture arrived in her inbox. Her invisible friend became visible. He had shaggy dark hair and the slender androgyny of Jim Morrison. He was dressed entirely in black with punkish leather wristbands. He

The following Saturday, Anna drove to Andrew's place. She was "lucky" to have lost her left rather than right leg. She could drive an automatic without too much of a problem. She easily found the old Victorian cottage that he owned. Leading up to the door of the house, he had built a cement ramp for wheelchair access.

Anna swung gracefully up the ramp with her crutches; she was getting quite good with them. Her arms were stronger than they had ever been in her life, and her stump was light, could be moved effortlessly. She could have worn her prosthetic, but she knew it would please Andrew to see her stump.

A nearly naked man opened the door. He was pale and skinny with stringy grey hair and glasses. He wore only a chain-mail vest, and his dick was contained in what looked like a black leather purse. Anna felt a kind of shock. She had not been this close to a penis in over a decade. She knew she should have been prepared for this. But she wasn't.

"Hi, I'm Richard. Come in, come in. Let me take your coat and your shoe."

Richard handed her a wooden chair and Anna sat down. He leaned her crutches against the wall and removed her Doc Marten. Then he hung her coat in a closet and handed her her crutches.

"I'm the houseboy for the evening, so let me know if I can be of service in any way," Richard said. "Food's up ahead."

Anna followed him down a hall and into an open-concept kitchen, dining and living room. It was not a large space, but the cool colours of the walls—guava, lime, grey—made it seem roomier. The furnishings were mostly student-style, a futon couch and record album covers tacked to the walls, but there were also a lot of chrome materials that appeared to have been plundered from hair salons, salvage yards, and doctors' offices. A hubcap from a truck wheel served as a coffee table, and a medical exam table held an array of dishes. The twenty-odd guests were chatting with each other and serving themselves. Anna spotted some pesto tortellini in a bright green shade that suggested it was freshly made.

"Would you like some pasta?" Richard asked. Anna nodded. He picked up a plate from the end of the buffet, spooned on pasta and Greek salad, and handed her the plate. He held up one finger, whisked off to return seconds later with a chair. Anna sat while he perched on the floor.

"How do you know Andrew?"

"I was surfing the web for stuff on female amputees and found his site. I'm not really part of the scene. I feel like a bit of a fraud."

Richard peered at her through his glasses. "I bet you think we're a bunch of sick puppies."

"I'm not judgmental," Anna lied. "How did you meet Andrew?"

"Same as you. Most of us met on the net."

Looking around her, Anna wasn't surprised. The guests wore glasses and amulets, and despite their tight, revealing latex and leather, this wasn't a crowd that went to a gym, although there was one tall, striking Goth girl swanning around. For a culture so devoted to being on the edge, fetish and S/M had an essential nerdiness. A straight couple sat on the couch not far from her. They didn't look like geeks: they were dressed in ordinary clothes rather than vampy fetish wear. He appeared to be in his fifties and had the straight spine and neatly tucked-in clothes of someone in the military. She was First Nations and had to be twenty years younger. She had short black hair and was sloppily dressed in ill-fitting big jeans and a T-shirt. She was snuggled in his lap.

Richard delivered a bottled water to the older man. "So what are you up to now that you've retired from the force?"

Anna leaned forward in her chair so as not to miss this conversation. A police officer into S/M was somehow sinister—yet intriguing.

"I'm running a small security company. Winterizing our summer home," the man said.

"Beating my ass," his lover interrupted with a wink at Richard. Both men laughed, and the older man stroked the woman's hair.

"Something caught your eye?"

Anna turned at the sound of the voice. Andrew was looking at her with an amused expression, and she realized he had been in the room all along—he was the tall, sexy Goth chick! His long hair hung loosely down his back, and he was wearing a black vinyl dress with high boots. "You make an amazing girl." With one of her crutches, Anna pointed to a spot on the floor in front of her. "Turn around and let me see you."

"You've been watching me since you came in," Andrew replied. Nonetheless, he turned his back to her, put his hands on his hips and tilted forward slightly. He was wearing platform heels but didn't wobble. Anna was used to women who were like men, but not men who could be women. Girly boys were the opposite of boyish girls, and yet they were the same: one gender haunting the edges of another. Anna supposed she did have a type after all.

A woman in a wheelchair rolled up to Andrew. She was thalidomide-affected, with flipper arms and legs, but everything about her—from her cool, long-lashed eyes to the revelation of her tiny body in a clingy dress—said, Make no mistake, I'm hot stuff. Anna guessed she was the ex.

"Anna, this is Paula. Paula, this is my friend Anna," Andrew said.

"Nice to meet you," Anna said.

"Oh, I'm sure," Paula said. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and zipped away to another part of the room.

For that sensation of being left in the dust, Anna thought, nothing beat being on crutches while the other person was in an electric wheelchair. She was about to ask Andrew why Paula was being such a bitch when it dawned on her that Paula was jealous. Anna could have told her she didn't have any reason to be, but tonight, somehow, things were different.

Anna heard a squeal and looked over to see the Aboriginal woman lying across her lover's lap, squirming and swearing as he spanked her. They were fully dressed, he used no instruments other than his bare hand, and yet what they were doing struck Anna as being more intimate and raw than anything else at the party.

He took his hand away. "Pull down your pants."

She shook her head, her cheeks staining red. "No, Daddy."

"What did you say?" He raised his hand above her ass.

She got up from his lap and with her eyes on the floor, she unbuttoned her jeans. She pulled her pants to her knees revealing large, plain white underwear that covered her whole butt.

Anna watched them, compelled and guilty, the way she used to look at car wrecks before she wound up in one. She had read the theory of safe, sane and consensual, but it was hard to watch an Aboriginal woman submit sexually to an older white ex-cop without thinking about residential schools and sexual-abuse lawsuits.

Andrew kneeled in front of Anna, blocking her view. "The deal is, tonight she has to do everything he says."

"They disturb me."

"Because it turns you on," Andrew said. "I'm turning you on—does that disturb you, too?"

Anna opened her mouth to tell him no, no way, but the words stalled. When she'd fallen in love with Kathy, she'd checked the lesbian box. Her feelings for Andrew were erasing a part of herself she took pride in. Leaving her homophobic girlfriend to date a man? It was a bad cosmic joke.

Andrew leaned over the chair Anna sat on, put a hand on each of her shoulders and kissed her. As he twisted his tongue in her mouth, desire spun through her. She remembered how humiliated she had felt by Kathy's puzzled reaction when Anna shared some of her fantasies, but she knew whispering them to Andrew would be sowing seeds in a garden. Anna felt his hand reach under her skirt. Soon she would have her permanent prosthetic limb and be able to pass unless you looked closely enough to realize that everything wasn't quite as it seemed. Kind of in the same way she and Andrew would appear as a couple.

"Can I touch it?" Andrew asked.

Anna understood that he meant her stump. She nodded. She had shaved her half-leg this morning; maybe she had known all along what was materializing, what would be inevitable once they met in the flesh. Her old girlfriend was the ghost, loving Anna but hating what that made her, while Andrew was real.

His hand traced her smooth, puffed flesh. Her stump was sensitive to pain, but what she hadn't known, until now, was that it was sensitive to touch, to pleasure. Her cunt caramelized like sugar sweating in a hot pan. She both wanted him to never stop touching her there, and for him to pull up his skirt and fuck her—while keeping his boots on. Guess she had fetishes, too.

Andrew pulled away from her. "We can't do this here. I could get busted for running a bawdy house."

Anna picked up her crutches. "Then take me where we can."