Now I realize it was my own silly fault for yanking the story after 36 hours. I have not edited it further, so it still remains a story written over a 6 hour period with eating and childcare breaks.
I noticed his eyes when I took his champagne glass. They were gold with a little green. Green-gold, which is an unusual color, but also there was something different about his gaze, or I wanted there to be. I looked back steadily without speaking and turned to take the glass to the bar for a refill. There was power in my gaze, there always is, but this felt different, too, maybe also because I wanted it to be.
Could I feel him watching me in any way that was unlike the way they all watched me? Walking in my elaborate costume which revealed the shape of me, the muscles defined from vigorous training, everything physical and female and yet somehow other than the bodies of their wives or the women with whom they socialized and worked. An illusion, I know. We are all flesh, and they must know it, too, but an illusion that had always worked and always would.
One of the rules is to let them believe it’s against the rules. That it’s spontaneous and forbidden and unique, when in fact everything is carefully orchestrated and we are taught how to negotiate every little thing. Artifice, all of it, and all for them, although even they have to know, really, that it’s a game, a transaction, like any other.
The other rule is never talk about yourself. Never tell them about being two months behind on your rent, your four-year-old kid sick with the flu, or how your daddy used to come in your room at night. Don’t, not even if, especially if, they might want to see you as somebody’s mother, someone’s daughter, somebody wounded, or some woman they’d meet for lunch at a cafe on a weekday afternoon. You are a mystery, someone who entertains but does not exist outside of her entertainment, your entertainment. You, for example, are someone who is paid to flip and fly through the air at a weekend party for the rich and powerful. You are someone they watch and maybe wonder, what would it be like to be with someone so flexible, so firm and limber. Such a tired fantasy, from your perspective, but for each of them, so fresh and exciting.
And some of them, not knowing that you could, you would, do just about anything for a price—that I would, could, do anything—only ask to caress the tautness of your thigh, which is almost nice, sometimes, except when it’s not. Except when you’re desperate, for money, for something touch can’t really satisfy, but is the only thing you can get. Or when you’re weary and feeling old and wondering what happens when you can’t fly anymore.
I wonder sometimes if any of them would have recognized me at the market on a morning, if it would even occur to them to look. Of course, that second rule helps. I am no real person at all, not one who selects fruit by hand by squeezing it for ripeness, not one who haggles over the price of fish. I look nothing like my entertaining self at the market, of course. Not in costume, my hair down or in a braid instead of the elaborate spray and pins affair. I go most mornings, like most people, although most of them, the party-goers, send others for them. Servants or assistants. They themselves would only be there on a lark. Let’s go to the market, they might say. Let’s blow off work this morning and pick out some ripe peppers. Perhaps we’ll cook tonight. Some recipe we saw prepared on television. It’ll be fun.
Meanwhile I take my bag home as always, with or without a child or two in tow. The child or two or not will go to the state school while I go to the gymnasium to train. As other workers head to the restaurants, the bus depots, the factories and offices where they labor the day away, I put on my plain leotard and practice the twists and jumps I will perform for tips on the weekends. I train with weights. I run. I stretch. I perfect my routines which should never be exactly the same, although similar enough for those who’ve seen me before to remember me.
There are many of us training at the gymnasium, and not all of us work parties. When I was younger I competed. I earned no salary, but my expenses—housing and food and clothing—were covered. I could have gone into the circus for a steady wage when I grew too old to compete, and might have, if something hadn’t caught an agent’s eye. The agents watch us and decide what best suits us, for what we are best suited. It would be too simple to say it was beauty. I do not think of myself as beautiful. I look in the mirror like all women and notice my flaws. My ears are not quite straight, so that when I wear shades, they are always crooked. Other little things like that. I think it is more a vulnerability or appearance of fragility, while it is often the opposite, a cold, hard inner shell that is not easily penetrated. Or something they know, because they are men, too, that appeals to men.
I would not say that the others who train with me, the circus workers, the young competitive gymnasts, do not judge me and those like me. But there is not much energy left for much disdain, as hard as we have to work. And there is the knowledge that there isn’t much choice for any of us. We have certain training and now certain skill; these are our options and we move through them as we are directed until we can’t anymore. Then, we don’t like to think what we will do later. What will become of us.
I have years left, barring injury, and maybe some others for whom I am responsible now, maybe more responsibility than I had when the state transported me to meets and games, and I had only my youth and promise. I don’t think about it often, except when I do, and then, too much.
Another rule is that you are not to eat the food and drink the drinks the guests do. This one is subtler but, really, relates to the other two. Of course you eat, you are human, but the guests never see you do it. You serve, you exist on another plane, you do not run in the same circles or perform the same cycles. This perpetuates your mystery, the wonder of your intimacy with them when you provide it. For you, of course, it is just your life as a worker. You eat separately, you perform your skill if you are lucky enough to have one, you serve food and drinks, you reveal nothing while appearing to be fascinated by every word they say, and sometimes you suck a stranger’s dick. It is all work, and you pretend none of it matters more or less than the rest. Except when it does.
I was lonely this weekend, which isn’t the way I like to be on the weekends. It is dangerous to be lonely at a party. I mostly leave my loneliness for the market mornings or the subway rides to and from the gymnasium, although that too has not always been without a consequence or two. At the parties, I almost always am able to lose my loneliness in the act, in the physical exertion of appearing to fly; the muscular energy required to provide the momentum and maintain the landing is usually enough to eliminate the emotion, all emotion. The exhilaration that I still feel from the motion itself and from the audience who sees me as something exquisite, something other, in a way that is different from all the rest of my transactions with the world, this is usually enough to block everything else. In some ways I am only me when I am flying, although of course that isn’t true. I do what I was trained to do, and after that I serve refreshments and do other things I have been trained to do.
I returned with his drink and met his gaze again with a smile. I suddenly felt my loneliness rise up and stick like a lump in my throat. I only lifted my chin a bit higher and recalled what it felt like to soar. It came through my eyes, I think, because he said, “You are remarkable. How do you go so high and still land on your feet?” The same question asked over and over every weekend, but maybe I wanted to hear sincerity in his voice, not just hunger for what I could do for him, so I smiled and shrugged.
“Practice,” I said. The same answer I always give, but I said it like it was the first time anyone had asked, as if he were really interested in me. Not in the me who goes to the market, who binds her wrists and ankles in tape for training, who may or may not sing a child or two to sleep at night, because that is not allowed, but in the me who flies. The me that on the weekends, more than the rest of the week, is the real me. The flying me who is, not to overshoot a metaphor, above the rest of the things I do. Especially the rest of the things I do for money.
The way you live, in a flat, in a building, with other workers, means you don’t cross paths with them very often. You are here and they are there, even in the same city or riding the same train. You know more about their lives because their lives are the ones written about in magazines and dramatized in movies. Your life is uninteresting to them because it is mundane. It is filled with the things that are done behind the scenes, without notice. The rooms which are silently cleaned, the trash which is mysteriously collected, the food that is miraculously prepared. You would resent it more if it weren’t such a solid and immutable fact of life. Of your life and theirs. Yours is to serve and theirs is to be served.
Yet. There is something human and real about handing another person a drink while looking them in the eye. Our fingers brushed and neither of us flinched or dropped our eyes. We connected in the same way that any two people connect or transact. Maybe, certainly, it was only temporary, but I felt exhilarated. How was this any different than any other weekend after I performed, when I mingled, and served, and pretended to be fascinated, and sometimes pretended to be persuaded to be touched or fucked? Only in perception, perhaps, only because my loneliness let me feel something beyond the confines of the script. The script someone taught me, and maybe the one someone, less formally, had taught him, too.
We didn’t move quickly. I took a seat beside him, eating and drinking nothing, of course. I had had water and bread and soup after my performance, in a back room, before washing away the sweat and freshening my make-up. I was not hungry or thirsty, although I would have like to clink glasses with him. To, even in this ridiculous costume, break bread with him. So I was not pretending when I demurred his offer of refreshment, but I was lying, and it made the loneliness sharp again.
I spoke into it, “Do you get to the parties often?” A standard, clichéd, acceptable question, but I felt like I wanted to know. Had he been here before? Had he seen me before? What did he expect from me? Even these were questions I asked myself every weekend, with every guest who engaged me, but this time they felt different, as if a part of me needed to know his—this green-gold-eyed man—his unique answers.
His smile was disarming, as were his eyes, and the way he looked down and spoke almost shyly. “This is my first one,” he said. He looked up with a crooked, nearly awkward smile. “I only got into this one because my supervisor came down with the flu.” I smiled with him, which brightened and straightened his mouth, and we seemed, for a moment, old friends sharing an old joke.
You can’t join their world, you know that. It’s not something you even dream about. You can’t put on a business suit and suddenly become a lawyer, a business executive, or a high-level government functionary, the kind of woman he might sit next to on a flight or marry. You cannot become his lover or his wife. This is not something you even want.
Your mother, who died in a flat identical to the one in which she grew up, the same exact flat in which you grew up; your mother, who worked double shifts to get your through your first training camps before the government saw your potential and took over the bills; your mother never even dreamed about that. It is true she also never dreamed you’d end up working parties, and you try not to imagine what she would say if she’d lived to see it. She did live to see your own flat, government-supplemented, nearly twice as large as hers, but still a worker flat. This was what she aspired to, to have a talented daughter, to see her in a decent flat, maybe to have her marry and have her own children with no need to work double shifts at the factory. Yet your life, despite the bigger flat, is not much different, raising your child or two on your own, working your own kind of overtime, but perhaps with less hope.
“Are you going to perform again?” he asked. An unexpected question, so I looked at him quizzically, not answering. He gestured toward me and then touched his own chest, suit-clad, with a silk tie. “Your costume,” he said. “Do you have another set?” He smiled the almost awkward smile again. “Is that what you call it, a set?”
I shrugged non-committally. “I might.” He seemed to be waiting for me to elaborate, so I said, “We don’t really know how long the party will last, so we are prepared if we need to. If we need to do another set.” This wasn’t true, not really, as everything about the party was carefully planned. The truth was the guests, we were told, wanted to see us in our costumes. It kept us in character. If we were not in character, of course, we would have had no business being at the party at all.
He was speaking again. “It seems, I don’t know, strange, for you to be serving me drinks.” He seemed to blush a little, and I had to lean closer to him to hear him above the chatter of the other guests. “I mean, when you can do that.”
My response, my trained response for questions for which I am not prepared, is bemused silence, so I smiled slightly, warmly, to encourage him to continue. I wanted him to continue.
He waited, too, then said, “I mean, I’m glad you brought me a drink. I’m glad you sat down to talk to me. I feel out of my depth at this party. You are being kind, I think.”
These parties are often held in houses, although compared to your flat, or even your building, these are houses of a different order, from a different world. The performances are often held in large banquet-style rooms, no stage, with the guests arranged at tables around the perimeter. Any equipment needed is set up in the middle. Any springs or mats or bars are placed and moved again for the needs of each performer. Like a theatre in the round. It is different than competing, but not so different once you begin your routine. Then it is just what you do, what you have always done.
The advantage of the houses are a multitude of other rooms for other aspects of entertaining among the elite.. Smaller rooms to eat more private meals or hold secret networking or power-brokering sessions. Some of the guests stay the night with their wives or lovers. Others only come for the evening, for the performance, but might need rooms for the quick dalliance. All of this is planned for; it is pre-arranged which rooms are for what purpose, and you, of course, know where they are.
“Kindness,” I repeat, leaning toward him again, because the guests around us are clapping for another performer. “To bring you a drink? To sit down to talk to you for a moment?” I smile and soften my eyes so that my words do not seem harsh or sarcastic. “I think you must be short of kindness in your life if that is how you define it.”
He blushes again. “Maybe kindness is not the right word. I’m out of my depth, I said. It’s true. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
This is the moment when I could, if I wanted, touch his hand lightly, look up through my lashes, and ask him if he wanted to go somewhere more quiet. I don’t have to, nor do I have to do anything specific when we get there. I have discretion. I have choice. I could leave him and find someone else. I could even take the night off, although I would make only the tips from my performance and begin to alert my employers to my ambivalence. Which we all have, but can’t reveal, not at a party. Not while working.
I almost do it—touch his hand, ask the question—but the moment passes, and we sit in comfortable silence, watching the next acrobat. I know her, of course. We all know each other, and I tell him about her medals, her places in recent meets, more recent than mine, truth be told. He tells me about his company, details I store away for future conversational use. He tells me about his brother who has just gotten married, his father who has just retired and is going stir crazy without any meaningful work to do. He talks to me as many of the guests have talked to me, with no assumption that I would be bored, with no particular questions about my brother, my father, my life beyond of this costume, this performance.
Which is as it should be. The way it is supposed to be. The kindness has passed, the kindness which never really was the right word, anyway.