She is filling in as a pole fluffer again. The pay is bad. The street cred is okay-good. The story is pretty good. She is kind of into the poetry of it, even of the phrase itself, two nondescript words, nondescript but also seemingly contradictory—hard, soft. Good, bad. Mostly, it is because her friend Denise needs her to say yes, and so she says yes.
She met Denise years ago eating lunch at the place on the corner of Sunset and Echo Park Ave. They were fast friends. They both worked nearby. They both wore a lot of dresses in those days. It is funny to think about these days, versus those days—these being what you have, those being out of reach—especially on days when she is filling in as a pole fluffer. A lot of tasteful dresses in those days, where the fabric tightened over nothing, nothing was too tight or low or high. Denise was a little bit plump, but her dress would have been tastefully accommodating of her plumpness. Nothing squeezing anything. Tasteful dresses, where you couldn’t see any evidence of underclothing, no bra straps sliding out of place, or lacy tips of anything, but you also couldn’t see any evidence of lack of underclothing. Her own mother had been very clear on that point. None of those thin fabric skirts where your butt cheeks swung around like wobblecakes. Because if your butt cheeks were jiggling around, you were wearing a thong, or nothing at all, and then it was a slippery dippery slope from there, my child. And be sure nobody can see your bra, but that everybody can see that you’re wearing a bra! Nobody wants to see your real breasts, no evidence of real breasts, my child! Cover it up, cover it all up, like white icing on a cake, make it smooth and sealed, all around. No peeking, no telling what kind of cake is under there. No telling if it’s good, or bad.
It is not the most glamorous thing, pole fluffing, though when her supportive friends come to cheer her on in the smoky audience, they tell her she looks very good in her outfits. She does not know where Denise gets these outfits, but she is always ready with some new outfit. Denise calls her, frantic, someone is sick, or some misunderstanding about the schedule, can she please come in and do the show tonight, and she agrees, and next thing she knows she’s looking up directions and driving to some new pop-up venue, and Denise is pulling her into some back door and shoving into her hands a shopping bag with a half-dress and maybe a couple of accessories. Usually, there is time to smoke a joint before digging into the shopping bag. A mask, or strands of beads, sometimes some shoes, a feathery hairpiece, a long cigarette holder, elbow-length gloves. There is a cloth bag, also, with a pile of silky-looking towels—the tools of the trade. They are surprisingly absorbant for looking so silky—must be some infomercial magic cloth. Whatever it is, it makes quick work of absorbing the oils and grease and sweat on the pole on the stage. Which is what she does, in between the burlesque pole dancing sequences. Wipe down the pole. In a sexy way, while wearing a flimsy lingerie evening gown with half the gown missing. Fluff the pole. Don’t think about it. Just fluff it.
She turns her mind into a pole of fluff. The mind has taken the shape of a pole fluffer. Who knew what this was, what she was doing, with this pole, this fluff, a barbershop pole, hypnotic swirls, candy cane stripe fun. It never ends, eyes turn into the swirls, begin swirling in reflection, swirling in tandem. She can’t see her reflection in anyone’s eyes anymore, this usually marks some sort of psychotic break doesn’t it?, break from others, their love, break from yourself, yourself away from yourself, yourself parting from yourself, outstretched fingertips slipping, can’t quite reach. Hover in midair for one more moment. Notice the gap between fingertips. Far-gone. They will never, ever touch.
Fluff the pole. Don’t think about it. Add a couple of pompoms, cheerleader pompoms, one at each end, one at the top, one at the bottom. Her twelfth-grade English teacher had also been the cheer coach. Mrs. Summers. Cheercoach Summers. She had perfectly even white teeth and perfectly even blonde hair. There was a very straight part on the top of her neat yellow head. Sometimes she wore sweater sets, and sometimes she wore athletic-looking white T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up a little in a couple of very even folds. Her daughter was Lacey Summers, which everyone thought was great, because it sounded so porny, and Lacey had long straight hair, more of a dirty blonde, and whenever something moved out of place, which was rare, and they saw her bra strap, it was blindingly white. She had never seen such a bright white bra strap, in her life. Maybe it was just how it was pressed against her golden shoulder. So white, so clean. First snow.
Fluff the pole. Good or bad?
When she was thirteen, she was obsessed with the idea of being good. The summer after seventh grade, they took a family vacation to Marseille, and stayed in a hotel that consisted of six guest rooms. They had to go up the elevator in three trips, each ride up in the rickety little box could only carry one parent and one daughter and one large suitcase. A backpack could fit if it were sitting on top of the suitcase, but could not fit if it were strapped on one’s back. The old man at the front desk gave her a large eight-by-ten photograph of himself, it was a glossy black and white publicity photograph, he was a magician in addition to owning the little hotel, and in the photograph he had a deck of playing cards fanned out in his left hand, and his right hand gestured in the air toward the cards like a shadow puppet, mysterious and a little bit menacing. Voilà, he inscribed onto the photo with a black marker. And then, Philippe, signed with a flourish, his marker ending in midair, his autographed name trailing off into space.
She was sitting with her family at a cafe when her goodness was tested. The table was very small, and round. There were four of them. The four of them were sitting around a round table, but somehow it felt like she was sitting facing her sister and mother and father, being interviewed, or interrogated. Beatrice had found a pack of cigarettes in a drawer of the desk in the hotel room, and had brought it out with her, and they were all trying to get her to smoke a cigarette. Not a whole one. Just try it. Come on. We’re in a cafe in France. We have to all smoke a cigarette! She had refused. She thought back to the big banner. She had signed a big banner, just a big swath of yellow butcher paper really, that had been taped up on the outside of the auditorium at the end of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D! A! R! E! DARE!). Just last May. She was never ever going to smoke a cigarette, ever, or do any drugs. Ever. Why would you do that. The special guest D.A.R.E. police officer had brought in a jar of black tar, that was the tar that sat in your lungs if you smoked. She couldn’t believe she was sitting there, and her family wanted her to smoke a cigarette with them. What a circus. She sighed a little, as if they were children, and stared moodily over at the Frenchman at the next table over with his tousled hair and raggedy scarf. Save me, she thought.
At least the bakery next to the hotel had been mostly good. Except that one morning, when they got those croissants, and there were little yellow ants crawling around all over inside of the croissants.
When she was nineteen, she was obsessed with the idea of being good. She was in love with a guy, and he was in love with her, but he was a musician, and he had a musician girlfriend who was mentally unstable, and who was always on tour. Whenever she and the musician saw each other, they would exchange letters that they had written to each other when they were not together, when they were in their respective homes late at night, or while waiting in the car for something, or while at work. I don’t know, she had written, how long I should expect myself to survive off of being good. Solely off of being good. Being good meant she and the guy could be best friends, being good meant bringing up his girlfriend in conversation all the time. Talk about her, be good, talk about her as if she were in the next room. He was a philosopher-musician, the worst kind of person, nothing to hold on to, except words and sounds. His idea of being good was to stay with his girlfriend, because he loved her too, and because she was depressive and she needed him more. Whereas, she—well, she did not need him, because she was good and that meant not needing anyone or anything, especially not needing anyone with a girlfriend, except as a friend, except as a friend who demanded nothing.
Once, they did mushrooms in the park by his house, out in Valencia, where he lived because he lived with his brother, who was in school at Cal Arts, and while lying on the warm dry grass, she had realized she was in love, in love even with his cargo pants. But afterwards, when they were trip-recounting, she lied about it, to be good, and told a funny story about realizing she was in love with the playground, and wanting to marry the churning apparatus, and the wobbling wooden planked bridge, and the squeaky sun-cracked rubber swings, and she even made up something about how she had decided the playground’s name was Jungle Jim, and how she had hallucinated that she and Jungle Jim would be married, and would slide down the slide together, in a drug-logic kind of way the playground was going to be able to slide down its own slide, with her, the blushing bride.
Denise’s friend’s friend, who is in town for some art show and who stops by the strip show, comes home with her after they all go to the diner, and crashes on the couch. She rambles on at length about pole fluffing. Although he was there, so how much more is there? Fluff it, swirl around it, fun fun fun. Magic-towel-sweat it, he deadpans. He gets it. They laugh and laugh and laugh.
In the morning, she tells him to come lie next to her in the bed. He clambers over onto the bed, nearly knocking over the plants on her side table. Watch out!, she laughs. Watch out for Count Draculus the Cactus! And Jordan Cactuslano! Oh, he says, his hands hovering over her sleepmatted hair. Such a pretty flower. Such a pretty egg. Good egg. Hard, boiled, egg, she says. Shards, spoiled, egg, she says. Chimera between her legs, chimera of a body. Chimera of a head. Ladies and gentlemen, he says, standing up on the bed suddenly, in his underwear, let me present this newfangled creature…we call her…a woman! Voilà! She is half virgin, half whore. Half vamp-tramp-working girl, half innocent, proper housewife! They laugh and laugh and laugh. Sis boom bah! Break yourself, away from yourself!
She shuts her eyes. She does not part her eyelids. She thinks of writing a song, a spoof of a spoof, called The Detachable Vagina Song. Still shut. She tests them, for the gluiness of sleep. She keeps them shut. She doesn’t move. She stills the morning. She stills the world. She wills him to still. The sheets beneath her, and him, are dark forest-green. The covers are askew. The window is on her right. The glass is not clear. Her ex-boyfriend had remarked upon this before, that her window was dirty. She windexed it, once for herself, twice for him. She couldn’t clean the outside of the glass, how do I do that, she had asked him. Doublepane. He hadn’t answered. Was it not important?
Such pretty flowers, he says again. She doesn’t make a sound. She doesn’t move. I would rather be beautiful than pretty, she says. Beautiful has something dirty, bloody, harmful about it. There is blood on your hands, with beauty.
Well, however it is, I like it.
Oh yeah? she says. You like my however-it-is flower?
She opens her thighs, beneath the heavy duvet. He closes them back together firmly, with a sense of finality, like he has just finished reading the last page of a very long book. She opens them again, clenches experimentally. Make the movements of squeezing when there is nothing, and soon, there might be wet, enough to make your mouth water. He gets up off the bed and goes back out to the couch, she hears him rustling, as if finding something in his pockets. He comes back and kneels on the bed, with a belt in his hands. She is surprised, he does not seem like the type of guy, this messy unkempt dude, to be walking around wearing a belt. But perhaps he is the type of guy to wear a belt for the sole purpose of being able to use it while having sex. She is startled, and pleased, that her brain has been able to come to this conclusion. She grins at him, her pussy suddenly gaining a heartbeat, she holds out her wrists.
In the mornings, she likes to have her back toward whomever it is, be facing a window, have the first things she sees be an empty field outside, a cold drifting fog.
When she was twenty-four, her father left her mother. It was kind of a late-in-the-game kind of thing, for sixty-year-olds to be separating themselves from their partners of almost forty years. She did not have forty of anything, had never done forty of anything. Forty ounces to freedom. Forty ounces was nothing. Weighed nothing. A bodiless light. Not so light as that, she could not see the light, any light, anywhere.
When she was twenty-four, her boyfriend of two years was bad. She herself was bad. There was something bad about her. Her boyfriend liked for her to sit on him, while he talked to other women on the phone. Sometimes he would lie on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, on the rug in the living room, and call his coworker Pam about something work-related, that would lead to just talking about random things, and she would step over him, and sit down on his butt, and give him a back massage. His hair was getting long then. She would try to get a sound out of him. She could take off all her clothes, she could pull his sweatpants off while he lay there, chatting away to Pam about her brother’s upcoming visit, she could position her naked body and lay it right over his, her tits pressing into his warm bare back. He could squirm. She could stay put. He could wiggle and roll himself over so that he was lying on his back, and use one arm to wrestle her back into position on top of him.
In Bucharest, a young man had once taught her a game. He had claimed it was a game everyone knew, a party game, a European game it must have been. One person would lie on the ground, stomach down, eyes closed. And then someone else would have to lie down on top of the person on the ground, body on body, also stomach down. And then the first person, the person on the bottom, would have to try to guess the identity of the person lying on top of him or her. No sounds, no movements. If that first person guessed incorrectly, a third person would then lie down on top of the second person, and the second person would have to guess who the third person was. If the first person guessed correctly, the game would start over.
This sounded like a bad game. But she found herself wanting to play it all the time. Walking on the street, in Echo Park, in Eagle Rock, in the winter, in the summer, anytime, she thought about this game. She thought about it while she was lying on top of her boyfriend, but also while she was in line at the grocery store. Make a game out of nothing. Make rules and order out of air. Guess who is hurting you. Start over, do it again. Feel trapped.
In the afternoon, alone once more in the house after Denise’s friend’s friend has gone, she stands in front of her vanity, brushing her teeth. She looks at the old black-and-white photo of Philippe the magician-slash-hotel-owner. She wonders what he is up to. She should set him up with her dental hygienist whom she just discovered was a dental-hygienist-slash-comedian. She stares at the photo. Voilà. Voilà what? What was he showing? Empty space between his hands. This was it? Voilà-here-you-go-have-this-nothing? She says this out loud, and can suddenly detect the taste of gummy colas in her saliva, even through the mint of the toothpaste. She sniffs her snot in, hard. More sour saliva. She wishes she still lived in Little Tokyo, in that gigantic trapezoidal room in the loft with twelve-foot-tall windows where she could smoke a cigarette inside the house.
Voilà! A pop! of air in your eyes, forced open, not by anyone else, only by your own volition. Open. Popped open after the force of orgasm, under greasy forest-green sheets, legs scissoring like frogs under the covers. Popped! Open! After twenty-four minutes of meditation on dirty wood floorboards, white linen curtains billow, balloon. Pop, you will feel this puff of air in your eye, as part of your eye examination at the optometrist’s office. See better, see more clearly, see more seeingly. Oh, I do, she nods at the vanity mirror, vigorously.
She wants to believe. Things are getting better, all the time. She looks down at Count Draculus the Cactus. She had named it to remind her of Bucharest. A frigid and gray city. Piles of layered rags masquerading as human, half-lifted out of manholes in the middle of the sidewalk, people descending into the urban earth for warmth. It was apocalyptic, neon billboards advertising something with half-naked women’s bodies draped in parallel, identical, evening gown bathing suit combos. Denise would probably think those outfits perfect for pole fluffing. City full of wolfish dogs, eager, baring teeth, sad and sharp, slipping by. Once, the same night that young man taught her that strange party game, she got lost in an endless maze of Communist-era housing blocks. Two dogs slunk over in the snow. She felt suddenly drained, drunk, ice-cold, defenseless. Maybe the dogs here were so weak as to not pose any real harm? She had half-turned to look at one of them. She thought she saw, in the reflection of its eye, the possibility of one last burst of desperation, to survive, to make room for itself, to tear apart. She lightly cups her hand around the cactus now, testing the sharpness of its spines on her skin.
This story is an excerpt from All Roads Lead to Blood, available here and everywhere books are sold.