One night I was browsing the Internet for something useful. I’m not sure what I was looking for. But it had to be there, right? I had found so much already. There was a fetish chatroom for acnephilia. A review of Asperger’s. Grumpy cats. I looked for something to buy. One thing led to another. I followed a link to the Illinois State Military Museum. For only $2.99 I could purchase eleven minutes of live video stream. Eleven minutes. That’s four more than what was offered by the Smithsonian. Even my husband, who had fallen asleep yet again with the television on, couldn’t gripe about that.
The video was fuzzy. It was difficult to see what was happening. I saw glass. I saw a big wooden leg with a nice leather boot on the end. The caption on the video stream said Santa Anna’s Artificial Leg. I read the biography of the leg. I watched it. I watched that leg for eleven minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe history was being made in my bedroom.
I bought another eleven minutes. Only this time they switched the camera angle. Now they were streaming a dart board belonging to the Boris Koschei.
I called a taxi. I had to see it for myself. A leg like that should be seen in the flesh. I gave the taxi driver all the cash I had and told him to drive all night. He didn’t complain. He just looked at me sitting on the curb in my wheelchair with a duffel bag and scratched his head.
“Where exactly do you want to go?”
“Take me to see Santa Anna’s leg,” I said.
Never once have I missed my own legs. Most amputees complain of phantom limb pain, or suffer hallucinations of when they had legs, but that was never my problem. Sometimes I get on the Internet and join these message boards for people who had lost arms and legs or something else. It’s amazing the kind of feeling that empties out in the words of strangers.
I was the first patron when the museum opened the next morning. Santa Anna’s leg was on display in the back. I got as close as I could to the velvet rope. The room smelled musty, like someone had shelled pecans the night before. The woman next to me said the leg had been stolen and used in a baseball game. I think she was lying.
I looked around for the cameras but didn’t see any. I wondered if I was on the Internet right now. I wondered if people were leaving their houses right now to come and watch me. That scared me. I had left everything behind: husband, children, part-time jobs. What if someone did the same for me? I couldn’t be their attraction. I didn’t want to be here when they arrived. I had to do something. Honestly, if not for Santa Anna’s leg I would not have known what to do.
I lifted myself out of the wheelchair. I stood there on my amputated legs, my phantom legs.
“It’s a miracle,” the woman next to me said. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at Santa Anna’s artificial leg.
My phantom legs led me out the door. I didn’t wobble on them like an infant. They didn’t hurt. Not even a little. I suspected my phantom feet would walk me to the nearest church, or pause to wriggle toes in the grass. Maybe they wanted to run or bend at the knee. When I first started moving I believed they would walk me back through the door of the house and kick my husband in the balls and press the heel against his throat until he choked. See? the phantom feet would say, she’s not useless.
My phantom legs surprised me by walking into a diner and ordering a slice of key lime pie. I recognized the diner. I had seen it on a “Best of the Best” awards competition online. In the window was a sign: Best Key Lime Pie in the Midwest! This was probably the best day of my life. I ate three slices. I hardly recognized myself in the mirror across the counter. I admired my phantom legs, long and silky smooth. Maybe I would drive to the coast and get them tan. I could already feel the salt spume between my toes. I had to keep the phantom legs moving. Santa Anna would have never lost his leg to a cannonball if he had not paused to survey the battlefield. He might have done more than the Alamo with two legs. He might have kept marching North. We might all speak Mexican. Haunted things stop being haunted when they move.
“That’s quite an appetite you worked up,” a man said as I finished the last bite of pie.
“Girl’s gotta eat,” I said. Normally, I would not have said anything to a man like this but I had seen Santa Anna’s leg. Things were different.
“I like a girl with an appetite,” he smiled. He put his hand on my leg. My phantom leg. I could feel him rubbing skin that was not there. “It’s strange to find a girl with an appetite these days.” He paused. “I like strange.”
“I like strange too,” I smiled.
He took me to a strange fleabag motel. You always hear about a place like this on the news. Where the child drowns in the pool or a prostitute gets her throat slit or the runaway girl overdoses on heroin. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not to me. Not today. Not now that I had seen Santa Anna’s artificial leg.
The motel had a strange poetry about it. I would have never seen it before. There are moments when you see the world up close and all the phoniness just melts away and you’re left with the real. The key lime pie was real, best in the Midwest. This stranger was real. And for the first time since I could remember, I was real.
The man was nice enough to carry me through the doorway, like some runaway bride. We kissed. We touched.
“I like your arms,” he said, placing his tongue on a divot in my shoulder shaped like a peach pit.
“I like your legs,” I said.
I felt the tingling all the way down into my toes, like I was six years old again and stuck my finger inside an electric socket. Once, my daughter tried to stuff her grilled cheese sandwich inside an outlet. We had to go on the Internet to get directions of how to properly clean electrical wires. I imagined my husband was searching the Internet right now on how to microwave a pizza. Or maybe he was searching for me. Maybe he was searching how to weep over a missing wife. Maybe he had paid $2.99 and discovered my empty wheelchair in the museum. I pictured him on his knees in the closet praying a prayer he had found on the Internet, the prayer that would bring me home.
“I have to go,” I said, surprising myself.
The stranger had removed his shirt and pants. He looked weird. Not just because his teeth were crooked. No, this guy was first-class weirdness. On top of his pile of clothes was an artificial arm. It loomed on the nightstand, almost like a tourist waving hello. Hey, baby, it called to me. The plastic was coffee colored. The fingertips looked slightly burnt. There were straps and belts and hooks, like something from a Star Trek episode or a museum of torture.
“Is that—” I hesitated. The words burned on my tongue. “Is that the hand you used to touch me?”
The stranger stood up. God, he was huge. Like an Adonis, only without the muscles. I had seen one of those statues on the Internet. Then I realized it was not just the one arm he was missing. He was missing both arms. The other artificial arm was halfway across the room, like discarded salami. Between the two of us we almost had enough limbs for a complete person.
“You asked for strange, baby,” the stranger said doing a little shimmy with his torso. The hair on his chest looked like crop circles. Maybe he shaved with a razor in his mouth. It was cute, I guess.
I pulled away. I felt betrayed. He had touched my phantom legs with his artificial hand and I had felt it but now I felt nothing. My insides tangled like a game of cat’s cradle.
“I have to get home.”
I tried to stand but could no longer feel my legs. Not my real legs. Not my phantom legs. I looked. There was nothing there. Just amputated space.
“Don’t worry. I’m fleshy where it matters,” he said.
I had no idea what that meant but I wasn’t staying around for this kind of strange. I wanted grilled cheese in the electrical outlet. I wanted bills I couldn’t pay. I wanted my half-baked marriage to the man I loved almost as much as the Internet.
Pushing the armless stranger aside, he rolled off the edge of the bed like a wet cigar. I took half a step with my amputated legs and fell on the carpet. Whoosh. My nose was bleeding. I could feel the stranger’s breath on my leg stumps. His face was bright red. He was trying to bite me. “Bitch!” he screamed. I couldn’t blame him. He was desperate, just in a different way. Once he even reached out to slap me but found it difficult without arms. Part of me wished he would touch me again with the prosthetics. As I crawled away I turned and watched him flop across the floor towards his prosthetic arms. It was a little mesmerizing watching him use his mouth and feet to strap on the arm. It belonged on a video stream on the Internet, but I could not stay to watch that miracle.
My husband picked me up outside the motel. The prosthetic man had left hours ago. Hair neatly combed and shirt buttoned, arms at his sides like two corndogs at the State Fair. Just got in his car and drove away without a word.
We drove home in silence. Through the farms and the cities and the lost battlefields Santa Anna never saw. It was quiet. Even the kids were silent. It was such an awful strangeness in that silence to hear the smallest things.
“What was it this time?” my husband finally asked, sighing heavily and putting his hand on my leg, my amputated leg. His touch felt a thousand miles behind us.
“I found the best key lime pie in the Midwest,” I said.
He nodded slowly. It was obvious he didn’t believe me, even if I knew the Internet never lies.