Monday, April 28, 2008

The Bear Suit

Oh sure, sometimes it was fun at birthday parties and family gatherings. Inevitably, someone would nudge Nella on the arm, and say, "Hey, why don't you go put on the bear suit!" This had been going on for as long as Nella could remember, and before that, even. After several promptings, she would go and dig into the dark corner of the hall closet, behind the coats and the grey suitcases, until her hand felt the familiar dark brown fur. First she'd push her feet into the bottom paws, then she'd slip her arms into the sleeves and pull the shoulders up over her own before reaching down for the long zipper. The head piece was always a little tricky, and when she was very young, she'd need help hoisting it up, but after awhile she became inured and it was quite automatic.

Nella would walk out into the living room, or out onto the back porch--wherever the family was gathered. She'd raise up her arms inside the furry claws, and she'd raise her knees to make her steps larger. Then the game would begin. Nella would say something quite ordinary, like, for example, "I'd like a cup of lemonade," or "Could I trouble you to pick me up today after school?" and her entire family would do their best imitation of horror. They'd open their mouths wide, gasping, and either run or make a mock screaming sound. After a minute or two, they'd all break out into laughter, after which they'd ask her to do it again.

Nella could not even remember where the bear suit came from. She vaguely recalled that it had belonged to someone in her father's family. She couldn't even say why it was she who was always asked to put it on. That's just the way it had always been, and Nella knew that her being a good sport was part of the game. One day, as her family once again prepared for a celebration, while the food was cooking and Nella set the table, just as the excited murmurs that always preceded such gatherings began to mount, Nella felt the strangest sensation in her chest. It was a tightness, accompanied by the cold, dry feeling she got in her trachea when she sucked on a Wintergreen Life Saver. The step of her heartbeat felt a little stronger. She felt just a twinge of nausea.

For several moments, she just busied herself with preparations and tuned out these feelings, until the tightness also moved behind her neck and into the tops of her shoulders. After she finished placing all of the flatware, Nella went to get a drink of cold water and sat down. She began to think, with dread, about the bear suit: it never truly fit. It was hot. Without even having it on, she remembered the sweaty rivulets she always felt tickling down her back, even on a cool day. She would always have to juggle the bear's head atop her own, tilting one way and then another so the bear's eye holes and her own would align and she could see where she was walking. Her sight was so obscured that even when she could hear the muffled peals of her family's laughter, she couldn't really understand what all the fun was about. And the zipper stuck, so when she was ready to remove the suit and rejoin the festivities, there were always several minutes of struggle.

Right there, Nella decided: she would not put on the bear suit today. Her voice echoed inside her head, as her breath quickened.

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