by Tori Ellisen
This is inauthentic. This is fucking forced. The women around me aren’t acting out of genuine desire. They’re performing. They’re recreating scenes from movies and doing what they assume men do. They have no idea what men do. If we were men, this room would smell like grim desperation and bitter alcohol. This room smells like whimsy and fun. It smells like cranberry cocktails, peppermint floor polish and SunBum sunscreen. Pink streamers are taped above the fireplace and neon swimsuits are drip-drying on the dining room table. A festive table centerpiece is in between the swimsuits, filled with rosy pink carnations and dark chocolate.
“Earn your money bitch,” Becca yells with an affected accent.
He has a lisp. He arrived with a duffel bag but never unpacked it. He’s dancing to a song that I recognize from Magic Mike even though I never saw the film. Dancing poorly, I should say. His hips swish in a stilted way. His movement is reminiscent of early 2000s video game characters and Disney World animatronics. Still, most of these women are hooked. Dollar bills flutter to the floor in fistfuls. We’re throwing them like confetti, like they mean nothing. The stripper can’t catch them all. Two dollars fall onto the laminate floor and land in margaritas puddles. Industrial, modern green lilypads. The stripper dances over to Paisley and runs his hand up the bronzed shaft of her leg. His fingers extend upward.
“Looks like we have a wet bride,” he says.
“You like that, don’t you?” Katie yells in response.
He doesn’t like it. This is his job. He lifts Paisley into the air and holds her above his head like a hunting trophy. He presses her up and down like a giddy, blonde dumbbell. His face is blaring red, but it doesn’t surprise me that he can toss Paisley around. His muscles are enormous – the kind of muscles that look big and pillowy and poppable. Even his veins look poppable. They circle around his arms like thick, wriggly worms. They look like parasites. I can see them squirming under his skin.
“Do you ladies wanna play a game?” he says and tosses Paisley over his shoulder.
I see Paisley’s asscheeks squeeze as he adjusts her on his shoulder. Everyone woos. I woo. I hate him. I hate his polyester cowboy hat which still has a Party City tag on the inner rim. I hate the way his lisp caught on the ‘s’ of ladies and made him pronounce it ladiesh. I hate that we paid him to be here. I hate that most of all. My brain sends me forward to a sick image – he goes home to his real partner, a woman he actually loves, and tells her that a bunch of loser bachelorettes paid him hundreds of dollars before he even took off his shirt. She laughs at us and tucks his hair behind his ear. She snuggles up to him and places her palm on the soft center of his chest. She whispers to him that someday, once he gets his real estate license, life won’t be so complicated.
What am I talking about? They aren’t loser bachelorettes. I’m the only loser here. Elise, on my right, teaches a class at Yale about food ethics and homesteading. We put her in charge of all our meals for the week, so now the refrigerator is full of things like pickled beets in unlabeled green mason jars and home-fermented wine. She arrived before everyone else to stock the pantry with different kinds of milks and nut-butters. (This will, supposedly, spare all those with dietary impediments from a cruel and unusual death.) Elise paid extra money for cruelty-free, non-GMO, BIPOC-grown produce. That’s important, according to her website. Although, we’re splitting the food bill so I’m not thrilled about her conscience. My projected portion of the total cost was six hundred dollars. For that kind of money, I expected culinary masterpieces, straight from the Ivy League. It was hummus and pitas today. Regular, beige, grainy hummus and pitas. Yesterday, Elise told me that she’s worried about turning twenty-four, because she doesn’t have a boyfriend and wants to have kids.
The stripper starts his game. It’s called “Ravaged by a Savage.” He tells us that we should put money in Paisley’s dress, stick it wherever we can, and he will take it out with his teeth. We woo. Paisley blushes and lays down on the floor next to the sharp teeth of our stilettos. Her party dress is white, because she’s the bride. The spilled margaritas are green. They seep into each other. The bottom of her dress begins to look like the failed tie-dye of an inept Girl Scout. Paisley is too drunk to notice. The green creeps upward.
“Ready. Set. Go.”
We swarm her. I jump out of my seat. I tuck three dollars under Paisley’s bra strap and snap her shoulder by accident when I let go. Jannelle lifts the bottom of Paisley’s dress and stuffs two dollars in her underwear. There aren’t many places to put money. Her dress was made for cling. The result is that the dollars stick out of the perimeter of her dress like feathers. She’s a human pinata and he’s going to crack her open. Ready, set, go. The stripper drops on top of Paisley in a ‘69 position. Her legs are the only thing that we can see. They’re kicking, flopping around like a caught fish and shaking. From my vantage point on the couch, the stripper is doing something indistinguishable from oral sex.
Janelle shouts, “Get it girl!”
I’ve known Paisley since elementary school. We were in a gifted and talented program together. We went to a yearly math camp where pastoral old men tried to get us to create theories about probability, just in case one of us was a genius. Now, Paisley is an engineer for Boeing. She hasn’t come up with any math theories, but she does make sure the planes don’t fall out of the sky. Her fiancé is an engineer too. Back when we were little, Paisley and I used to build sagebrush forts in the park behind my house. We would clear out a section of foliage to make hundreds of rooms, elven mansions, and twist flayed, stiff branches over our heads to make ceilings. Before we grew out of it, we had ten forts, complete with stone furniture, an herbal apothecary and a pulley-based delivery system that utilized braided cattail reeds and bobby pins from my mother’s closet. Today, Paisley is wearing lacy red underwear with black stitching. I can see it beneath the stripper's nose.
I’m dissociated; I can tell. I’m floating above my body to cope. That’s a thing I’ve always done when I get upset. I become like a spectral anthropologist, swimming around in the air, observing rather than participating. Really, I have no right to be stressed about this. I shouldn’t be. It’s a male stripper so my ethical boundaries shouldn’t factor here. No. Pretentious. Ethical boundaries. It’s not ethics, it’s fear. It’s basic bad memories. There’s a watermelon White Claw in my hand. That’s basic too. This is probably what being in a sorority feels like – all the matching outfits and synchronized chanting; the smell of vomit and Victoria’s Secret and fermented femininity. I doubt I would have fared well in a sorority. Still, I wish I went to college. All these bitches went to college except for me.
They’re not bitches. I’m being bitter. I’m judging them because I feel inferior. Janelle, on my left, was one of my high school friends. Then, she wasn’t sure if Asia was a continent and spoke in semi-coherent Pretty Little Liars quotes. Whenever I walked into her house, I could hear Disney Channel advertisements playing somewhere in the background, because her parents let her watch TV all day. Janelle’s room was filled with glittery Jonas Brothers posters, stuffed Webkinz toys and endless EOS lip balms. Today, she has a PHD in Computer Science and runs a seminar about efficient cloud computing. That’s unimaginable to me. When I arrived at the house yesterday, she was in one of the rooms watching old Hannah Montana episodes on her tablet. It was like nothing had changed. Everything has changed. She’s a leading figure in her field. She has a TEDx talk and a Wikipedia page. The stripper walks over to her, now done with Paisley, and buries his face between her breasts. They pop out of her dress but she doesn’t care. She leans back and laughs. I can see that her right nipple is perfect. It’s candy-pink and symmetrical.
“Do push-ups!” Katie squeals.
This is all a game; that’s what this is. This is what normal people do. Normal people pay a stranger for an hour of sex acts and laugh like it’s a game. Normal people scream, “Do push-ups!” and laugh when his mouth twists at the corner because they’re holding the money so he has to do what they say. He can’t do push-ups. He’s built for bulk, not dexterity. That’s okay. Normal girls woo and don’t care and laugh.
Becca says, “Bad boy.”
I assume that’s normal too.
Yesterday, I told Margot and Janelle what I do for work. I shouldn’t have, but I was drunk and felt like being honest. Plus, they asked. They guessed. And, they thought it was cool. They asked me about the glamorous parts like going to fancy dinners and getting new clothes. I swear, they looked jealous, even when I told them about the grit. Sex is fun and fascinating to them. That’s a privilege they have. It’s all fluffy handcuffs and lingerie. Not: fluids, smells. My brain is somewhere in the ceiling when the stripper walks over to me and mashes my face into the rough crotch of his denim jeans. He’s not hard. Men can’t fake it like that. The one good thing about having a hole is that it functions in the absence of pleasure. Arousal: optional. Bring your own spit.
Margot and I sit in the bathtub – which is enormous, essentially a pool – because the AirBnB owner forgot to turn on the heat for the hot tub. His excuse was that it’s the middle of summer, but the hot tub water is frigid, filled with brown leaves and convulsing dead bugs. I hear Becca tell the owner, “We paid for a house with a hot tub. Obviously we expected to use it.” She’s yelling into the phone. The owner, in a crinkly, speaker-phone voice, retorts, “It’s 95 degrees in Las Vegas.”
There are balloons in the bathtub. We didn’t fill them with helium, so they float on the surface of the water like pink lily pads. Jacuzzi jets are embedded into the sides of the bathtub, which pump out a pleasant bubbly froth. This is one of five bathrooms in the house. I pick up a balloon and bump it into the air. Margot knocks it back to me with her foot. The bottom of her hair is in the water, frizzing her curls into puffy orange knots.
“Do you know what the schedule is today?” I ask.
Margot counts the activities off on her fingers, “Drag show, hiking, art show, club, gambling.”
“Isn’t that a lot for one day?”
She shrugs, “By the way, you have to pay Katie back for your ticket to the art show.”
“How much is it again?”
“One hundred and twenty dollars.”
“This trip is incessant,” I say.
Margot shrugs. She’s my favorite. That’s not for any real reason. Margot works for an underground literary magazine and designs their layouts. In her freetime, she collects vintage teacups, animates funny Youtube videos, and smokes a shitton of weed. I ask her for all my movie recommendations, because she’s seen everything. Her hair is enormous and curly and red. Also, she understands me. But, that’s the part I don’t like.
I bump the balloon out of our reach by accident. Margot picks up a new one and tosses it into the air. These balloons were a part of a color-coded spreadsheet that I received by email last month. They were in the section titled “decorations,” which estimated a one hundred dollar contribution per person. There are seven of us here, excluding Paisley who didn’t have to pay. I squeak my thumb against the balloon and wonder if it’s designer. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was such a thing as designer balloons. I check the rubber for patterns, logos that I can google later. None appear.
Becca paces into the room, holding her phone between her ear and shoulder. “We might have to pay him to turn the heat on,” she says.
Margot groans. I spike the balloon toward the water with all of my strength. It arcs downward impotently. It skims the floor and Becca kicks it back our way.
I remember when I first saw Becca here. I exhaled. I magnetized toward her because her skin spoke of outsider, of someone like me, someone like the people on my street, someone who I could smirk at when the group talked politics and share a moment with, about how naive these women are, about how little they understand regular people. Stupid. That was before I noticed the way that Becca’s shirt hung – glossy and vibrant blue. It looked like the delicate filigree of a butterfly's wing. Like, many butterflies had been farmed, and had their wings plucked, to sew into her shirt. So, I suppose I was being racist. In the game of life, class beats race nine times out of ten. Her father is an extremely famous actor.
“It’s gonna be over one ‘k’.” I watch Becca type into her phone. “That cool with you guys?”
Margot nods and I nod too because I saw Margot’s eyes flick toward mine. Becca swishes out of the room in her green swimsuit, her calves pumped and perfect and oiled. Margot’s eyes are on me again. There’s a question buzzing over the water. It slams into my collarbones. Jesus, I shouldn’t have been honest with her. She’s making assumptions. I have money. I don’t want to pay for this, but I have money. My suitcase has a little bundle of bills in it, tied with a rubber band. Some of the bills are in envelopes that say, “For Sasha,” because I didn’t feel like taking them out. That doesn’t matter. Cash is still money, even if cashiers despise me and bust out their little security pens and gawk.
“Hey Maya.” Margot throws a balloon high into the air. “You know you don’t have to do all the excursions, right? I’d stay back with you if you didn’t want to go.”
“I can pay for it.”
“I meant cause you’re sober.”
The side of Margot’s lip twitches upward. I splash water at her with my forearm. She flicks water back at me with two fingers. Some of the water drips onto the heated tile and sizzles.
“I’m not sober this weekend.” I knock the side of my seltzer against the tub. “It’s impossible to be sober at a bachelorette party.”
Margot laughs, low and baritone, and raises her own gleaming can into the air. It’s ten AM. We sip together. Other places where it’s impossible to be sober: The Hyatt, The Regency, The Mariot, The Renaissance, The Deca. I told Margot I was in AA six months ago, while we were planning this party on Zoom. Six months ago was six months ago. Promises are like chalk drawings to me; they wash away in bad weather.
It’s loud in here. I can feel the pounding bass of the music hit my skin like a physical force. It reminds me of Hawaii, of stepping off the plane and feeling the heat impact my body. It cost eighty dollars to be here, in the loudest, bumpiest room. Men shout from every direction, decibels higher than they usually do. I wonder if men will buy me drinks or if that’s just something that happens in movies. The second Indiana Jones movie is inexplicably being projected onto one of the gray concrete walls. I tip my drink at Mr. Jones. He doesn’t respond, which is fair.
I’ve never been to a club. Actually, I’ve never even been to a bar. Those are the sort of places you go to when you have friends, a life, money. My self-destruction has always been a private ordeal. That’s screwing me over right now. I’m standing like a lost flamingo in my suffocating pink dress. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do because nobody told me the rules. Just a minute ago, I handed my debit card to the bartender and she asked if I wanted to open a tab. I said, “Yes,” and then she walked into a different room. She hasn’t come back with my card. I’m still waiting for her. I’ve been waiting a while. That could be normal or she could be robbing me.
I sip my drink.
I sip again.
I don’t know what to do. My group of women has already dispersed into the mass of humans. Within minutes after arriving, they had already set off and swirled into the crowd. I suppose I haven’t lost them, not really. I know where they are. I can hear Katie somewhere ahead of me, woo-ing. (By now, I am familiar with her particular birdcall.) She seems like an okay person. I didn’t know her before this week but I gather that she works in Washington D.C. as an aide to a senator. She’s an ideal woman, I think. She has that thin, blonde, catlike look that borders on beauty cliche. Tonight, she wore a green satin slip-dress and a cropped leather jacket. Her hair was tied with a Gucci argyle bow. Right now, I watch her swirl to the front of the room, dancing between two men. Her dress lifts up when she twirls and shows the bottom crease of her ass.
Cassandra emerges from the crowd and dances toward Katie. Cassandra is also perfect but in a different way. Tan, toned, athletic, she works for the National Park System and protects the trails. We went to high school together and she was very popular then. It appears that hasn’t changed. Unattractive men are orbiting her. A dance circle is forming around her gravitational pull. She has an approachable kind of beauty – the kind of beauty that breeds trust accidentally. It’s a Preschool teacher's beauty, a Christian’s beauty, wholesome. Her smile was on every page of our high school yearbook, big and sparkling and white.
Katie pulls Cassandra into her personal space. They grind against each other. Katie leans forward and rubs her ass into the crotch of Cassandra’s black flowy pants. Men watch. The men have trendy mustaches and expensive silver watches. The men are too drunk to hide the enthusiasm on their faces. Their eyes cast red lines like the string on a conspiracy theorist’s bulletin board. Those strings are pulled taut, pinned with tacks on this sapphic display. I want to walk forward and cut those strings. I want to erect walls to protect my dancing women from being impaled by those beams. I want to— No. Nevermind. I’m wrong. This homoeroticism is being performed for the men. That’s the point of it; I can see that now. They want to be watched. Honestly, this is probably why we came here. Paisley took off her “Bride To Be” sash in the Uber so that men would flirt with her. She stuffed the white fabric into the bottom pocket of her bag.
I see a dirty orange couch in the corner of the room and walk toward it. Nobody else is sitting there. Everyone else is dancing, playing a sexual game of chess. That’s what normal people do; they know the rules and the script. As I walk, I can hear Paisley shouting over the noise.
“Look at how hot my friends are. Aren’t they all so hot? Look. She’s my friend and she’s my friend and she’s my friend and she’s my friend and–”
I can tell that I grew up in a wealthy area because everyone from my high school is rich or famous now. It’s an odd thing to contend with. My highschool crush is starring in a Netflix horror series about bloodthirsty manikins. He has fan pages and movie deals and obsessed teenage fans. One of the girls I knew from third-period history class is now a successful musician on the Billboard charts. Her parents bought a music label to launch her career in bubblegum indie-pop. It’s been bizarre to watch the lives of my classmates unfold. I see their TED talks. I watch their fledgling businesses hit market. I see them in politics, in the arts, interviewing on daytime television. I notice them at the Olympics. I watch them ascend up and up and find their seats in the pantheon of human significance.
I remember one day, when I was in middle school, a grave little man with a purple briefcase came into our auditorium and gave a speech. He made a lot of fluttering hand gestures. He called us, “The future leaders of the world.” His words were passionate enough that spit droplets flew out of his mouth and illuminated under the theater lights. People laughed at that. People laughed at him too, I think. I wasn’t really listening. Either way, at the time, I thought he was telling us platitudes. I thought it was inspirational nonsense, meant to motivate us. It wasn’t. He was right. We were the future leaders of the world. Anyway, most of us were.
Paisley is losing steam. I can tell because her shouting is becoming more slurred. She’s had fourteen shots by now and we will probably have to take her home. I turn and see her swaying in the center of the room, luminous in sheathes of pleated white. Her tall heels are dragging across the ground, supported by Jannelle, who is holding Paisley up by the waist. Paisley lurches forward into a man, who grabs her sloppily by the waist. Jannelle swats the man’s hand away. She’s a good friend. She knows that Paisley’s sensuality is for the purpose of attention, not infidelity.
I find a spot on the stained orange couch and sit down. I stare at my group of normal women and watch them dance. Janelle spins in a circle with Paisley, making sure to keep a wide distance from any errant feet. Janelle’s purple skirt twirls out like the broad fabric of the parachutes that we used to play with in elementary school. Paisley smiles but doesn’t open her eyes. She’s barely conscious. The men watch, but my women don’t care. They’re not afraid of anything. They blur in my view and then spin out of sight. Men close the gaps behind them like liquid.
I leave my body and find a nice place to rest near the industrial lights on the ceiling. There’s a good area near the HVAC, so I settle in. I know that I am not meant to be with these spinning women. I am not for them. I am for their husbands, someday, when they’re both forty-five and wealthy enough to not notice a missing three hundred dollars every now and again. He’ll leave his tech job for an hour during lunch. He’ll bring me a bottle of wine. He’ll ask where I’m from and be surprised by my answer.
He’ll say, “How did you end up doing this?”
I’ll say, “Long story.”
But it isn’t.
Tori Ellisen lives and works in Portland, Oregon. This is her first short story.