The four of us went to dinner after the art show, which had consisted of a man and woman hula-hooping naked next to each other for what felt like two hours but was probably closer to twenty minutes. They stood on a platform lit by two hot, merciless floodlamps in the dark lot behind the gallery, their bodies vibrating with effort, their breath coming in breaks and starts and hydraulic gasps. I kept thinking quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-slow, like I was watching a waltz. Their figures were average. Unremarkable. But something about the lighting was vulgar, insulting. The word “grotesque” kept rolling over in my head. Their bodies looked like something from an antiquated anatomy book in the glare, all chunks of illuminated white muscle and tendon and fat.
Once they finished, everyone else clapped and I grabbed a soggy can of beer from a Styrofoam cooler propped open by the stage. Then I went inside and read a printed-out excerpt from the New York Times review of the performance, scotch-taped to the gallery counter, which called it both “brave” and “electric.”
Dave, Angela, and my husband came inside to locate me. We agreed to drive to a trendy Mexican place downtown where they served Frito pie and strong mezcal cocktails against a dour curtain of Joy Division and Slowdive on the stereo.
Angela had been my roommate in college and was still the woman I felt closest to in the world. She and Dave were renovating their bright, concrete condo downtown on a block that skirted the edge of complete despair that was Skid Row. When we took our seats at the heavy wooden table at the restaurant, she was telling us how their new sink had arrived, but when they tried to install it themselves, it had been a disaster. Actually, Angela said, a “debacle of the first order.”
I always thought one of the best ways to gauge a romantic relationship was to see how one person responded when the other one was clearly exaggerating a story. Did he or she look uncomfortable but emit a small smile of complicity, avoiding eye contact with anyone but the storyteller? Roll their eyes and throw a hand across the other person’s chest like they were protecting them from an imaginary car accident and butt in to loudly correct them? Indulge them, carving out some kind of sick, sly private game between themselves, so engrossed in each other they thought the miserable little secret wasn’t clear to the rest of us?
Dave stared through his ice-skating-rink thick glasses into a bowl of chips while Angela recounted the dozens and dozens of rolls of paper towel she had wasted trying to sop up the flood in the kitchen, how the dog barked so loudly she thought the neighbors would call the cops and how it had literally gotten so wet running through the geyser of water that she had to chase it around with a blowdryer for the rest of the afternoon, how the handyman buzzed up to the loft from the lobby at least six times claiming he couldn’t get the elevator to work, eventually getting so angry that she literally had to give him an extra $300 bucks to take the stairs and come fix the damn thing. I watched Dave’s obscured eyes rest on Angela and the wry little lift of his lips, fond but knowing, and knew they’d probably stay together for a very long time.
After the entrees were delivered into the near dark of our corner table and I’d let another cocktail spiked with honey and mezcal burn its way down my throat, Angela brought up the hula-hoopers.
“What do you think that piece had to say about sex?” she asked.
“I think it was actually meant to replicate the act of sex,” Dave said, propping a flannelled elbow on the table. “It kind of followed the same cadence. They were apart but in sync.”
“And it did seem to end with a kind of furious orgasm,” she added, running a hand through her black bob.
“I didn’t think it was about sex at all,” I said. “I think everyone just thinks so because they happen to be a man and a woman exerting themselves while naked.”
Angela just kind of looked at me with one eyebrow cranked up. My husband nudged my foot with his boot softly, either an admonition or an encouragement, I wasn’t sure.
“Sex? Too simple,” I said, dunking a chip into the pot of queso in front of us.
On our way home, my husband asked why I had been so rude to Dave and Angela.
“It’s just art! Everyone gets to have an opinion,” I told him, putting my high heels up on the dash.
I was secretly incredibly irritated. I saw nothing sexual in the performance. I thought the circles they drew with their hips were broader. It was about disconnection. It was about how even when you try to match the rhythm of another person there is an orbit between you, like the rings around a planet that will keep you apart in significant and frustrating ways. It was about pretending and how even the most intimate relationships have some element of fakery. We fake it till we make it. We act as if. That’s maybe the biggest part of what draws us closer, isn’t it? All the trying for it?
That night, we got into bed and laced our legs together like we usually did at night while we made our separate journeys from waking to sleep. I moved my hand across his strong, warm back and let my hands rest in his tumble of brown hair. I admired the way men seemed to evaporate so quickly and deeply into sleep, like it was just a matter of finding a black hole and falling fearlessly into it.
While I blinked in the dark, I thought about the hula-hoopers and wondered if they were a couple offstage. I couldn’t sleep, feeling my husband’s ragged breathing come in irregular gusts against my neck. I tried to match his pace but knew my lungs were too small to ever really do it for more than a brief, blissful second, when the world would open up its unknowable tempo and invite us both inside for a tiny, fragile measure, the kind that was always sure to shatter before you could even realize what it was about.
Lindsay Miller lives and works in LA. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cleaver Magazine, SpringGun Press, and Black Heart Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter if you really want to at @lindsaylmiller.
–Art by Mario Mencacci