Come See the Bears
Words By Krista Ahlberg, Art By Enrica Angiolini
We drove out in the middle of the afternoon, toward a town just off the highway that I never knew the name of, heading to the best strip club in the world. The drinks were expensive, but the girls didn’t mind if you touched them. They would take your hand and pull it over their stomachs and up and up, for a dollar.
Earlier, we’d been stretched out on his bed—Taven on his back, me curled against his chest. “Thalia, I’m bored,” he said, shaking me gently until the frame rocked. “We can’t just stay in bed all day.”
“But I like bed,” I said, my fingers gripping tighter to the bottom of his T-shirt even though I told them to let go.
“I know you like bed, and bed likes you, and I like you in bed. But we haven’t left my apartment in like thirty-six hours, and I’m pretty sure even bed is starting to feel kind of weird about it.”
I laughed, but my insides felt sludgy at the thought of getting up and entering the rocky, changeable world outside Taven’s apartment.
I thought about mentioning the roller derby bout I’d been planning to go to, but then I skimmed my hand up under his shirt and said, “Let’s go to the strip club again.”
He raised his eyebrows and said, “Yeah?” and, when I nodded, “Hell yeah. I’ll get my wallet.”
Now he put on his turn signal as the building and its neon girls girls girls marquee barreled into view on our right, and I remembered the last time we were here. How he’d told me it was a dare, no, a mission, nay, an adventure, seeming to understand exactly the right words to make me feel brave enough. How he hadn’t let go of my hand as we stepped through the door. How, afterward, our breath made frosty clouds between us in the dark of his car.
I turned to look ahead, into the expanse of corn that marked the border of civilization. It looked different from last time, the bitter gray haze of winter giving way to sunlight. And that’s when I saw the sign, tacked to a telephone pole sticking up through the corn.
“Wait,” I said. “What does that sign say?”
He looked toward the club, girls girls girls dark against the bright gold of three p.m.
“Not that sign,” I told him, gesturing, and he drove up close, passing the parking lot entrance and idling in the turn lane. Come see the bears, it said, with an arrow pointing down the road.
I looked back at the unlit strip club sign, and I couldn’t conjure the smoky pink fantasy of last time, couldn’t summon up the energy to think of walking inside. I turned and jerked my chin toward the piece of paper on the pole. “We should go,” I said.
“Are you serious, Thalia?” Taven asked. “Bears?”
“I’m serious,” I said. “Bears.”
I met Taven at a bar a couple weeks after I moved to town. I’d just started my job at the campus library and was regretting going for a drink with Samantha, an acquaintance from high school who hadn’t grown out of scheduling hangouts down to the minute, up to and including conversation topics.
When I escaped from rapid-fire questioning about our former friends, I saw a poster on the wall advertising a party that night to raise money for the local roller derby team, and I leaned closer to read it. I didn’t even really know what roller derby was, but I stared at the girls on the poster, arms locked, grinning, a little bit wild around the eyes. They looked strong. They looked like they weren’t afraid of anything.
I was typing the details from the poster into my phone when I felt someone next to me. I rolled my eyes, expecting Samantha, but it was a guy, with a square face and a skinny body and long fingers wrapped around a pint glass.
“Roller derby, huh?” he said. “That’s hot.”
I rolled my eyes again and had already turned away when he put his hand on my arm—not even his whole hand, just two fingers, right below my elbow.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound that way. I mean, I don’t know anything about roller derby, but it sounds really cool…and you seem cool.” His fingers were still on my arm. I looked at them, and he took them away.
I kept looking at his fingers, how long and bony they were. Hands for playing the piano or folding origami, not for touching strange girls in bars. I couldn’t stop looking at them, and I think that’s why I said, “I don’t know anything about roller derby either.”
He smiled then, and it pushed a crease into his chin, so I smiled back. “I think I might go to this party,” I said, heat rushing around my ears, the words coming out before I thought them. “Do you want to come with?”
He looked at the poster, head tipped and eyes lingering, then back at me. “Nah, I think I’m gonna stick around here. But if you don’t end up going, find me and I’ll buy you a drink.”
I’d been thinking my first brave act in this new place would be to go to the party, but as I watched him walk off to rejoin his friends, I thought maybe it could be this instead. It could be talking to this guy I’d never met before. It could be letting him touch the small of my back and buy me a drink, letting him ask me about myself and tell me all about his master’s program in linguistics, letting him take me home and look at me like I was someone different than I was used to being. Letting myself believe that here in this place, with him, maybe I actually could be.
Later that night, with our bodies pressed tight, it felt like we were passing all our secrets skin to skin, like osmosis or bacteria or ghosts. And when I looked up at the shapes suspended from his ceiling and learned that he really could do origami, it seemed like a sign.
I’d seen bears before, plenty of times, in zoos and on TV, but as we drove past the cornfields, through some trees, and into a little gravel lot, I was finding it hard to picture what one would actually look like up close.
When we pulled in, two men in flannel spilled out the door of a mobile home. They looked identical, except that one had a beard and the other didn’t.
Taven turned to me. “Do you think those are the bears?” he asked, mock reverent.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re ruining all the magic and mystery.”
He shrugged, biting back a smile. “You know me. I call it like I see it.”
I rolled my eyes and popped my door open, chewing on a smile of my own, which faded when I saw how small the gravel clearing was, how the trees loomed on every side.
I tried to close the car door softly, suddenly not wanting to draw attention to myself, but the guy with the beard was already waving at us. I wondered if we should just leave right now. Then I thought of the empty parking lot, the strip club with its darkened sign.
“Hey, folks,” the bearded guy said. The clean-shaven one snorted from his throat.
“Hi,” Taven said. “We came to, um, see the bears?”
“Sure, sure,” Bearded said. “They’re right out back.” He gestured behind him at the trees that crowded in close and green behind the mobile home.
Taven looked at me again. “The…bears. Are right out back?” Both men nodded, and Taven frowned. “Like, loose? Is that safe?” He didn’t sound worried, just slightly disgruntled to find himself having to ask such a question.
Not-Bearded giggled, then spoke for the first time. “Oh, it’s safe all right.”
Bearded ran his hand up the back of his head. “Well, see, here’s the thing. We used to have bears—lots of ’em, three plus a baby one—but first they changed the laws in Missouri about keeping wild animals, so we came out here, and then a month or so ago the Illinois law changed too.”
Taven didn’t say anything this time, and Bearded turned to me, nodding like I should understand. “Okay,” I said. “So you don’t have any bears.”
“Well, not as such. They came and got the bears we had and took them to a sanctuary—not like a church, it’s like a zoo but nicer—but me and my brother, we’ve been showing bears for about ten years now, and we don’t really want to do anything else.” I glanced at Taven, who was looking between the two men, eyes narrowed. This, clearly, was not what he’d been picturing as the antidote to his earlier boredom.
Bearded was still talking. “We had a couple of ’em trained, even; they could stand up and roll over and all. But now they’re gone and we still got a business to run, so we hired some imbearanators.”
I jerked my gaze to him. “Im—what?”
“Imbearanators. Like impersonators, but bears.”
At that, Taven laughed, short and sharp. “Oh my god, Thalia, I cannot believe you dragged us out here, but this I gotta see.”
So we went to see the bears.
I didn’t go to the roller derby party, but I did eventually watch one of their bouts. I wasn’t planning to go. I had been in town for about six weeks by then. I exchanged hellos with the reference desk ladies daily, and I was hanging out with Taven a couple times a week, and that had started to feel like enough.
I still had their schedule memorized, though, and when he texted me that day, asking what I was up to, I started to type Nothing, then backspaced and typed out There’s a bout tonight. Interested? But I deleted that too. I didn’t want to watch him watch the players, and I didn’t want a repeat of the night a week earlier when we’d been out drinking and he’d suddenly started talking about how a girl across the bar was into him, he just knew it, she was giving him looks, and did I dare him to go over and talk to her? I didn’t want to have to joke back and forth until my smile felt glued in place and I said, “Taven,” my voice cracked and salty, and he finally stopped and looked at me.
So I told him I was busy and went by myself.
When I slid into the last row of bleachers in the converted college gym, all the girls were already sitting at the center, in a double row like musical chairs. My eyes caught on one girl with curly hair sticking out from under her starred helmet, and at the start of each jam I found the star and followed it as it zoomed around and crashed and glided. I listened to the skittering thud of skates on track, felt a thrill as the jammer went up on her toes to pass people on the outside, jumping and landing like she wasn’t afraid she’d shatter.
I went to the next bout too. When I told Taven he said, “So does this mean you’re going to become a derby girl?” I thought of the way we’d both looked at the girls on the poster. I wondered whether, if he looked at me like that, I would be able to see myself that way too. And the next week I drove to the kiddie roller rink and asked to rent a pair of skates. I was hesitant at first, but pretty soon I forgot why I was there, forgot everything but the air in my face and my feet beneath me, each glide powerful and strong, the plastic walls of the rink sliding away in my peripheral vision.
I kept going back. I also fell, a lot. One night, I wiped out hard coming around a corner, tripping on the front of my skates and tumbling, then grinding, my hip heavy and hollow against the rink floor. When I came to a stop and sat up, my bones ached and my forearms were raw and bleeding.
“Holy shit,” someone said. “That was a truly beautiful fall.”
I looked up to see a woman a few years older than me leaning over the side, a helmet dangling from her hand. I recognized her curly hair, and embarrassment bucketed down on me. I took a breath to get rid of the crying feeling, then stood up and started wiping myself off, which only got blood on my shirt. “Thanks.”
“Seriously, I have to commend you. That was a sight I feel privileged to have seen.”
Her voice was friendly, but I knew she had to be making fun of me, and the longer I stood there, teetering in the middle of the rink, the more the tears threatened to rise behind my eyes. “Well, glad to be of service,” I said, limp-gliding to the exit.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Falling’s how you know you’re really doing it. You gotta wear those bruises like a badge of honor.” By this time, I was clomping across the carpet in my skates, and she called after me, “Do you want me to help you get cleaned up?”
“I’m okay,” I said, waving over my shoulder without looking back at her.
The next day when I saw Taven, he was obsessed with my bruises and scrapes. “You look like some badass warrior girl,” he said, running his fingers over my hip, grazing my arms with his nose, making the scabs tickle.
“God, you’re so weird,” I said, pulling my arms in, reveling as the new shapes of myself pressed together. But he pinned my wrists above my head and continued to examine me, then to kiss the places where I’d been hurt. I loved the sensation of his lips against my skin, soft on all my tender places, and the contrast of his firm fingers holding my wrists in place.
I was breathless, cracked open, sure he could see my thoughts on my face, read all my secrets on my skin. He leaned down and very gently kissed the center of the bruise on my elbow, and I loved him.
As we followed Not-Bearded down the winding path that led deeper into the trees, Taven reached out and grabbed my hand, linking his fingers in mine. Something pulled inside me, then soft, velvety sadness blanketed down, anticipating the moment he’d take his hand away again. Which part was the love, I wondered, the pull or the sadness?
I looked around for bears, but I didn’t see anything until Not-Bearded pointed up ahead. By a tree about twenty feet away was a woman. She was wearing a brown onesie with a hood, which didn’t completely contain her bushy gray hair. It pushed out around her face, upon which she had drawn a nose and whiskers. She scratched at the tree in front of her with mittened hands.
“What,” Taven said softly beside me.
“There you go,” Not-Bearded said, hitching up his pants. “Nice thing about not having real bears anymore is we don’t have to worry ’bout cages.”
I shivered. The woman didn’t seem to see us, just kept pawing at the tree, making little grunting noises. As we got closer, I saw a look of intense concentration on her face.
“I’ll let you kids at it,” Not-Bearded said, turning and ambling back the way we’d come.
Taven slid closer. “This is batshit,” he breathed in my ear. “Do you think she actually thinks she’s a bear? Do you think they put up a job posting on a furry website or something?”
“Stop it,” I whispered back. I didn’t want him making jokes. I felt so sad, looking at the woman scratching a tree as though her life depended on it. Or maybe as though her life was inside it and she was trying to tear it free. “Let’s keep going.”
We skirted the woman, and soon we reached a guy who looked about thirty, sitting on the ground to the side of a little clearing. He too was wearing a makeshift bear costume—brown sweatpants and sweatshirt, face paint smeared along his face and neck.
“Hey,” he said as we warily approached.
“Hi,” I answered. “Are you supposed to be talking to us?”
He shrugged. “I mean, no, but who’s gonna stop me? A couple of wackjobs who are paying me to pretend to be a bear? And not even paying me very well.”
Taven laughed, but not barbed like before. “How’d you even get into this, anyway?” he asked.
The guy leaned back on his hands, stretching muddy sneakers before him. “Saw a post on Craigslist. Haven’t had a job in a while, and I thought it might make a good story. My name’s David, by the way.”
“Taven,” Taven said, dropping my hand to shake his. I waited for the pull, for the string connecting us to go taut, but I had to concentrate hard before I felt that familiar tug below my sternum. Taven was saying, “So what’s up with those dudes back there, anyway? And that lady…?” More laugher, the sound ringing out round and full in the space between the trees.
But I didn’t want to hear what David had to say about the woman with the tree. “I’m gonna go on ahead,” I told Taven. “I’ll just meet you back at the car.”
He caught my eye and mostly stopped laughing. “Okay,” he said, then held out his hand as though in warning, his voice going deep. “Do you feel safe out there alone? There are bears in these woods.” David guffawed, but when I looked at Taven, I could tell that there was a real question underneath the joke. That he would go with me if I asked him to, even though he thought it was all batshit and punchline.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said, stepping into the trees.
It was Taven’s idea to go to the strip club, but we did it because I wanted to. After a few months, I would have told anybody who asked that we were dating. (Not that anybody did ask, because I had blown Samantha off until she stopped texting, and I hadn’t seen the jammer since that night I’d run away from her at the rink.) But then, one night in early February, we were lying on his bed, looking up at the cranes as usual, when he got up suddenly and started pulling on his pants.
“Shit,” he said, “I totally lost track of time. I’ve got a date in fifteen minutes.”
I sat up too, and my heart dropped, suddenly untethered. “What?”
He grinned. “I met this girl in my phonology class, and we’re getting drinks tonight. She made a ‘bilabial’ joke, and I knew I was in. She’s really cool, I think you’d like her.”
I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying with my heart flopping dramatically from side to side, blood whooshing. “What? Is this, like, an especially cruel way to break up with me?” My voice was shaking, and I hated that. I pulled his blankets up around my chest, huddled more firmly into the spot I had thought of as mine, but which suddenly seemed suspect.
He laughed, looking up from doing his belt buckle. “What? No, of course not. You know how into you I am. But I told you that I’m not really big on monogamy.”
That was true. The first night we’d met he’d talked at length about how societally prescribed dating rituals didn’t make sense, just look at history and biology and the short span of human life. About the world being full of beautiful people and opportunities that he didn’t want to cut himself off from by just dating one person, and he didn’t want to cut anybody else off either. It had been equal parts shocking and intoxicating, and then he’d leaned in close to me and said, “When I say beautiful people, I’m talking about you,” and I could feel his breath on my neck. He’d said, “Come on, I’m flirting with you,” and I’d considered that maybe I was letting myself be limited to what I’d been taught to want; that I’d moved here to give myself a chance to be someone I’d never been before; that if there was anybody to try something different with, it would be this boy.
But he’d never mentioned it again, not explicitly, and I had allowed my mind to veer around the possibility that I wasn’t the only one he was dating, had pushed away the thought every time he said he was busy or didn’t answer my text for hours. I’d thought that he would prepare me for it, ask my permission before he went around asking out other girls.
“Thalia?” he said to my stiff silence, the churning whirl behind it. “You knew this was how I am. But if you’re not okay with things being like this, it’s okay.” I looked at him, his crumpled forehead, and for a second I thought he meant that if I wasn’t okay with it then he wouldn’t go on the date, he would stay here and we’d forget all this. But then he leaned over me on the bed, his eyes serious. “Are you okay with this?”
I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t known, that he should have been clearer. But he had told me; getting mad would just be petty, immature, missing the point. I knew if I said I wasn’t okay with it, this would all end. And that felt like giving up. A mature person would compromise. A brave person would fight to keep this.
So I said, “Yes.”
He tipped his head, really looking at me. “Are you sure?”
I could see in his face, the hesitant lines around his mouth, that he could tell I wasn’t. But I nodded, then nodded again, and I saw him decide to believe me, to let this be my choice. And I loved him for it.
“Okay,” he said. He smiled and kissed me soft, his still undone belt buckle pressing into my stomach, and all my insides tugged me toward him.
As I put my clothes on, I tried to think about what someone who was cool with this would say, and I decided on, “I don’t know if I would be able to keep up with dating lots of people at once. It’s overwhelming enough to touch just one person.” Which was almost certainly a failure where coolness was concerned.
He glanced at me. “Is it overwhelming for you, to touch me?”
“A little bit,” I admitted, thinking of the way I sometimes counted beats of my heart before I was daring enough to reach out my hand to him. “I don’t know. It can be scary. I haven’t really touched that many people.”
“Really?” he asked. “How many?”
“Three.” I wondered if I was ruining his idea of me and felt a mingled twist of regret and relief.
He raised an eyebrow. “Wow, how did I not know that? I love that.”
He nodded, considering. “Yeah, it’s different from most twentysomethings. It’s fascinating.”
He hadn’t asked, but I felt like I needed to explain. “Well, I had that one boyfriend for all of college, long-distance, and we didn’t even have sex until junior year. And then after we broke up, I hooked up with someone at a party and figured that counted as my rebellious phase.”
“And that didn’t make you want to have more rebellion? See more people naked? In my experience, usually the more you do, the more you want.”
I hesitated, the truth heavy in my mouth, wanting to tell him that I had never wanted anybody until him, not really, never felt the draw of someone in my bones and skin and hair follicles. But it was too vulnerable, so I just shrugged.
His eyes brightened. “I have an idea for you. Have you ever been to a strip club?”
I snorted. “Um, no.”
“We should go!” he said. He grabbed my hips and shook me so that I stumbled into him, and he wrapped his arms around my waist. “It’ll be fun. You can touch so many people. And I can watch you touch them.”
That’s when he started in on his talk of dares and adventures, and I thought, I could do this. I could go to a strip club and I could be okay with him going on a date with someone else. This was just another way to be brave.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, yeah.”
“Yes!” he said. “Awesome. We can go this weekend.” He grabbed his jacket, then turned to me again. “And I promise, no matter what, that you’re the only girl I’ll go home from the strip club with.” His mouth curved, teasing, and he traced an X over his heart before leaning in to kiss me.
I walked on through heavy silence until I heard rustling up ahead. Another imbearanator lay on a branch. A girl, with a sharp chin and big eyes, wearing one of those animal hats with the long flaps that end in little mittens to tuck your fingers into.
She dropped, landing in a crouch. “I’m a bear,” she said. “Grrr.”
I laughed, but it caught in my throat. She scanned me up and down as she stood, eyes darting like she was taking in every detail, memorizing me.
She reached out toward me, and I stepped back. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to. Touching is sacred, you know? It’s how you find out all the secret things people don’t know how to say.”
“What?” I said, crossing my arms against my body on instinct. “How do you even know I’ve got secrets?”
She shrugged. “Everybody’s got secrets. I’ve got secrets.” She looked at me consideringly. “I actually am a bear. That’s the big one.”
“Um, okay,” I said. “I’ll be sure to tell the guys out front about your commitment to the bit.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, them. I don’t care about them. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up, staying here without a cage instead of going to some sanctuary, which whatever they tell you is just a zoo with better square mileage.”
I looked at her. It was an odd character to play, for sure. A bear pretending to be a person pretending to be a bear.
She sighed. “You don’t believe me. I get it. Do you want to touch my tail?”
“Um,” I said. She turned around and pointed her butt toward me, like I’d said yes, like there was no reason why I wouldn’t want to touch her tail.
Beneath a brown sweatshirt like David’s, the girl was wearing some sort of furry pants that formed to her leg, following the thick curve of calf muscle into the knobbles of a knee and widening around her thigh. And at the top, a little stubby mat of hair.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Touch it.” She did something that made it wiggle up and down, and I followed the motion with my eyes. In the silence, I counted out five heartbeats. Then I touched the lump of fur, scratchy and warm under my fingers. The girl spun around while my hand was still outstretched, and my fingers slid along just below her stomach with a scrape of molecules against molecules that rattled up my arm.
“See? Tail.” She smiled, showing teeth too large and long for her mouth. I jerked my arm back. “It’s okay,” the girl said. “I don’t bite. I mean, I do, but I won’t bite you and blow my cover.” I didn’t say anything, and she looked at me, her eyes gobbling me up again. “I want…”
Then she tugged up the hem of her sweatshirt, revealing a strip of stomach above the fur pants. I didn’t remember feeling a waistband when I’d touched them, no elastic or zipper. “Will you touch my skin now?” she asked. “I want to know if it feels real to you.”
A bug zipped past my ear, whining, and I jumped. My pulse beat in my fingers as I looked at the indent of her belly button, the fur just below. Touching is sacred, she’d said. I thought of tracing my hands across Taven’s back, of secrets itching to be spilled in the dark, of the yearning climbing up my throat, to know if the things I wanted could survive outside myself, if he could give them form and substance. Night after night, it seemed inevitable that with every touch my body would communicate what I couldn’t: the hurt every time he waxed poetic about another girl, even though I’d told him I would rather know than not know; the fear that eventually he’d look away from me and not look back; the knowledge that the strip club wasn’t just a fun, sexy thing we’d done together, but something that highlighted all our contradictions.
In the shadow of the trees, I stepped closer, I could smell her, like she’d gone two days without a shower and slathered herself in honey. Then my hand was on her, and her skin was skin—warm and a little dry. My fingers brushed the fur below her stomach, and I definitely couldn’t feel a seam.
“It’s part of me,” she said. “I could make it skin too, but it’s hard to keep your whole self changed for very long, and I need my energy to hold on with these stupid hands.” She took her hands out of her little mittens and clapped them like crab claws, fingers to thumbs. Then she reached for my wrist, pulling my hand off her, and her fingernails were yellow and thick and filed to points. I pictured her sharpening them by scratching on the bark of a tree, the way the woman had done, and while that had been sad and hollow, this sent a shiver vibrating up my neck. I stepped away, but she didn’t let go. “So does it?”
I nodded. “It feels real.” I swallowed, the sides of my throat sticking. I glanced at my hand, but it looked the same as it had before. I listened for my heartbeat, like I would be able to hear if my secrets were still rattling around safe inside my chest or if they’d whooshed out desperately at the first invitation.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, running one finger down the center of my palm. My chest hurt, and I realized I was holding my breath. Then her eyes snapped open. “I think you know how to fix it. Your problem.” Her fingers moved to circle my arm, pushing my sleeve up. She lingered over the purple-yellow bruises on my bicep, and despite the nails, her hands were gentle.
“He didn’t give those to me, if that’s what you think,” I said. “I’m practicing, to join a roller derby team. You know, roller skating.”
Her hand trailed back down my arm, pins and needles and heat. She said, “You gotta be tough to do that.”
“I am tough,” I said, but I swallowed my breath and the words came out sounding small.
“Out here, maybe,” she said, stroking the calluses on the heel of my hand. “But here”—she tapped above my heart—“you’re just a big bruised peach.”
“You don’t even know me,” I said, pulling away with more force. She stepped toward me and stroked her fingers down my neck instead, and I wondered what my skin felt like to her. I thought of my veins running sticky juice through my insides, pumping just beneath my bruises. She was tracing precise lines, like she knew exactly where those veins were.
“No,” she said, letting her hand drop, looking at my eyes. She blinked, and hers seemed to drink the reddish light coming through the trees. “But I love peaches, and bruises.” She spread her palm wide, pressed it down on my chest. Not anything like the way you’d slide your hands up someone’s skin for a dollar, and not like clinging to a person you hoped would never let you go.
I backed away. “I’m going to go find my boyfriend,” I said, the word slick and foreign in my mouth, too sweet to taste good.
“You’re not tough,” she told me as I walked away. I looked over my shoulder, and she was already halfway up the tree, tail wiggling, not even looking at me. “But that’s not bad. Sometimes bruises make you tender instead of rotten.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said to her dangling feet, rubbing my chest where it radiated warmth.
“Bruises aren’t your problem,” came her voice from the trees, and in the gathering darkness I could no longer be sure which tree she was in, couldn’t see her at all.
The night we went to the strip club, I clutched Taven’s hand as we walked through the door into the smell of sweat and perfume. In the entryway, as the guy was checking my ID, Taven turned to me and said, “Are you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to. We could go do something else.”
I turned to him, opened my eyes wide so he could see there was no hesitation hiding in the corners. I felt like I had those first times at the rink, everything fluttering and sliding but finally coming to rest on something solid, the knowledge that I wanted this. “Yes,” I told him. “I’m sure.”
We sat in low chairs in front of a stage, and I watched Taven sliding over dollars and hands, paper and skin. The music was so loud I couldn’t hear my own heart pounding, though I knew it was because a blush pulsed in my cheeks and ears. Taven’s hand was warm when it squeezed mine, slipped a dollar into my palm.
When he did that, he made it so easy. Almost all the steps had already been taken, and all I had to do was hold my hand out, wait for a girl to take my dollar, then spread open my fingers and let my hand be drawn up over plasticky, lotioned skin, blood tingling in my fingertips. The act of reaching out over and over made me giddy, until I started to feel numb.
My last dollar, a girl took my hand and pressed it to her waist, leaned in close to my ear and asked me, “How’s your night?” and “Is that your boyfriend?”
Sensation returned then, and I could smell her powdery perfume and feel her skin, firm but velvet-soft. I said, “I don’t know,” suddenly sure that I would cry right there in the middle of the strip club. She met my eyes and hers were green and then she leaned down and pressed a kiss to the side of my neck, and it felt so intimate and so strange all at once.
After, Taven asked, “What did she say to you?” and I told him, “Nothing,” because this night had been so good and I didn’t want to cry.
I don’t know if he believed me, but he didn’t ask again. He raised my hand up to his mouth, and I felt both kisses burning, drops of fire in the hot room.
When we left, it was deep dark beyond the streetlights ringing the parking lot. The glistening unreality of the club followed us out into the cold, and it felt like we were right on the edge of the known world. It felt like anything was possible.
He turned on the car and we sat looking at each other while the windshield defrosted, and, for a second, I thought that he was going to say he loved me. But instead he turned the key and said, “So how’d you like it?” and I said, “I liked it,” and he said, “I can’t wait to feel your hands on me. Watching you with those girls really turned me on.”
I looked out the window. I had done the brave thing, reached and touched, but it hadn’t made me feel the way holding his hand or curling into his bed did. I wondered if they could both be bravery, or if one was something else. He put his hand on my thigh, and I felt the warmth of him through my jeans, coiling deep in my stomach, almost pushing out the cold disappointment as he drove us away from the dark, toward the pinpricks of the city.
When I got back to the mobile home, the last rays of the sun were slanting down and Taven was leaning on the hood of his car.
Bearded swung open the door as I reached Taven, asking, “So did you enjoy the bears?”
“Yes,” I told him, an automatic response I couldn’t stop. Then, “They were very frightening,” which was the truth.
He bowed his head with a mock flourish, then grinned at me. “Why, thank you kindly. We’d be very much appreciative of a positive Yelp review, if you felt inclined to give one. Always trying to drum up more business, and there’s nothing like a firsthand account.”
Taven unlocked the car. “Yeah, we’ll do that. Thanks very much.” As I slid in, he muttered, “Yelp, my ass. I paid that guy twenty bucks for this, which I’m pretty sure means you owe me a lap dance when we get back.”
He turned his smile on me, a teasing one, but I wasn’t in the mood to be charmed. I felt drained, like I’d been running through the woods for hours, only to emerge and see more trees ahead.
“I don’t want to go to the strip club today,” I told him as we pulled onto the road. “Not now.”
He looked into the rearview, the sunset painting colors on his face, strips of pink and gold. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want.”
I thought about that in the silent miles as we drove away from the edge of things, back toward the center. Whatever you want. When we reached the city, he said, “So, where do you want to go, then?”
“Let’s go to the bout,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. He looked away from the road and met my eyes. “You should join the team next time they have tryouts. You would look good in those short shorts and weird tights they wear.”
“I know,” I said. He laughed and I realized that he’d misunderstood me, because I wasn’t talking about how I’d look in tights. I could have laughed with him, but instead I said, “I am going to try out. I was already going to.”
My voice was too loud in the small car, and he looked at me with eyebrows up and said, “Okay.” Placating, as if I might turn feral.
When we pulled up, I put my fingers on Taven’s wrist as he reached for the key, scratching my nails lightly up his arm. Not hard enough to leave a mark. You could only leave marks if people let you, anyway.
He smiled at me. “Your hands are so soft,” he said. But I didn’t feel soft. I felt like a peach pit you could break your teeth on. I felt like walking into the dark at the edge of the world.
“Actually,” I said. “I kind of want to go by myself.”
He turned off the ignition, making my fingers slide down his arm, thunking on the console. “Are you mad at me?” he asked. “Is this because of what I said about the short shorts?” I shook my head and he said, “Then did I do something else wrong? Is it about the bear thing? Because I know I made fun of it but if you want to dress up as a bear in your spare time or something I will totally support you.”
“Taven.” I remembered all the times I’d felt so close to him, the way I’d been sure that he could see what I was thinking, if only he tried. That he could make me happy, if only he wanted to. But I’d never actually told him anything.
“Remember at the strip club,” I said, “when you asked me what that girl said to me?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“She asked if you were my boyfriend and I said I didn’t know.” I looked across the car, my eyes steady on his. “But I do know.”
A pause, and then he said, “I know,” voice soft, eyes sad, like for just a second he wished the answer could be different.
I thought of the questions I’d been asked: Is that your boyfriend? Are you okay with this? The answers were never going to change. I knew that the source of my sadness wasn’t just the other girls, the ghosts of their kisses on his mouth, but that I’d had a picture of how it would be, that first night when I looked up at his ceiling and saw those paper birds. I’d had the idea that I could get used to this, that it could be mine.
I thought of what I’d been told: You know how to fix it. Your problem.
“Thalia,” Taven said. “Is that what you’re mad about? Me not being your boyfriend?”
“I’m not mad.” My mouth trembled; my voice didn’t shake. I reached for the door handle. “You might have done something wrong, but also I let you do it, so I don’t know.” I pushed open the door, put one foot on the pavement.
“Okay,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he knew what I meant. I wasn’t sure it would matter if he did. “Do you want me to pick you up after?”
“How will you get home, then?”
“I’ll run home,” I told him, climbing out of the car. “Because I’m a bear. Grrr.”
“Thalia,” he said. “If you’re mad we can talk about it.”
I thought of the people I’d met today, dressed up as something they weren’t, yet with their selves still poking through. I considered that while I’d been trying to bury it, my sadness had been seeping out, leaving tiny holes as it passed.
I thought of the way my skin had stretched and mended itself after every fall, my body’s own brand of magic. I could still feel those tender, mottled places where Taven had kissed me and my blood surged up toward his lips, asking me to be the person he seemed to want me to be for just a little while longer. But I could also feel the muscles that had formed beneath my bruises, and I wondered if being brave could look different than I’d thought it did.
I reached through the open window, and Taven gave me his hand, laughing a little. His fingers pressed into mine, skin on skin and nothing in between. When I breathed in I could feel my heart heavy and solid in my chest, knew the ways it had grown and strained and changed and would change again. After all, a heart can be a lot of things.
“I’m not mad,” I told him. “But I gotta go.”
Then I turned and walked inside.