Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom
Wendy the Fire-Eater
I was not going to fall in love with Wendy the fire-eater. We both agreed to keep things casual, back when we first slept together in June. Well, what happened was we were walking along the boardwalk at night, after our first show together, and she asked if she could kiss me. I said yes. Her tongue was cold and sweet from her coffee ice cream. Then she asked if I wanted to come home with her, except could we go to my place, because her roommates were a disaster? Wendy said, “I like you but I’m not looking to date anybody right now,” and I said, “Me neither.” It wasn’t like I really needed someone to play skeeball with or make blueberry pancakes with on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t like I really needed someone to hold my hair when I was sick. I could do those things myself. The carnival lights scattered rainbows in Wendy’s black hair, and her tattooed skin smelled like paraffin fuel. She kissed me again and I forgot about the ice cream cone melting in my hand. I took her home with me and we fell into my bed for hours, but she wouldn’t stay the night, saying she had to get up early the next morning. That was how it always went, the rest of the summer.
Then it was the end of August and we were doing another sideshow, one in what felt like an endless loop. We’d long ago learned all the cues by heart. I told myself it was only because my act came just after hers that I watched Wendy every night from the wings.
“And now, her feats of fire-eating will delight and amaze you—please give your warmestwelcome to Pandora the Pyro,” the MC boomed into the microphone. The lights went down, Wendy’s music started to play, and she lit the first torch that blazed orange in the darkness of the theater. None of us used our real names, except for Zara, the lithe Russian contortionist, whose name was already dramatic enough. I hated my real name, Agnes, so most people called me A.
On stage, Wendy danced first with one torch, then lit a second, a third, and a fourth. She skimmed them over her bare arms, twirled them in hypnotic patterns, touched them to her tongue, extinguished one between her lips, and relit the flame so the audience’s eyes would always be racing to keep up. We kept the stage lights low so the flickering torches looked brighter. Another cast member waited in the wings stage left with a blanket and a fire extinguisher.
Wendy’s sinuous moves were menacing in the half-dark. She wore a black crop top and short-shorts with her hair braided and pinned back. Her face was a mask of glitter eyeshadow and glossy red lipstick, so she caught every small sparkle of light.
Her lipstick was the same red as the envelope of the birthday card I’d bought her and written a borderline-romantic message inside. It was still back at my apartment. Wendy was a private person, but she’d mentioned in passing that her birthday was next week. I wasn’t sure I’d have the nerve to give her the card.
When she finished her act and swept offstage on a wave of applause, she flashed me a smile and kissed me on the cheek, and I thought of bonfires, I thought of clouds of blue smoke left by the fireworks every Friday night on the beach, I thought of the first time I lit a joint in high school and burned my thumb on the cigarette lighter. The burn had swelled and blistered, but I didn’t make a sound, pretending to know what I was doing. Wendy rubbed the smudge of lipstick off my cheek and whispered, “Break a leg.”
The MC said, “And now, introducing the beautiful, death-defying sword-swallower extraordinaire…Violet LaRue.”
The footlights shone bright in my eyes, and I worked up the crowd to make them appreciate what I was about to do. I had painted my lips cherry red, the better to remind each onlooker how little gag reflex I had, what else they imagined I could swallow. Tilting my head back, I held the sword high and licked it for effect. Slowly I slid the cool blade down my throat, past my heart, between my lungs, all the way through the hollow space of my stomach. My eyes watered and my throat rebelled at the feeling of the sword entering my body. It was always an exercise in self-denial, compelling each muscle to relax, opening my windpipe, fighting all the instincts of my body to gag and retch.
After I removed the first sword, then swallowed another, and another, my tongue tasted metallic and sour, and the crowd roared. They couldn’t tell, but I hadn’t done it perfectly this time. An ache started to radiate from the center of my chest.
Backstage in our communal dressing room, Wendy sat in a ripped wingback chair with a half-eaten loaf of Wonder Bread on her lap. She liked to eat bread after performing to soak up the noxious fumes from the fuel. Zara the contortionist perched on her lap, with the sequins of her tiny leotard pressed against Wendy, and the two of them laughed. Zara’s hips were narrow where mine were curvy, her sharp collarbones showed through her pale skin, and her arms and legs were half the size of mine. I didn’t resent her for being small, but I hated how she fit on Wendy’s lap much better than I could.
Maybe Wendy was having sex with Zara, too. Why should I care? In past years I’d traveled around from sideshow to sideshow, slept with MCs and bearded ladies and bartenders. Zara kept telling some story to Wendy. I poured myself a glass of cold water, sat in front of the mirror, and dabbed my mascara where it had smudged from tears and sweat under the hot stage lights.
“Ten minutes to curtain call,” the stage manager said from the doorway.
“Thank you for ten,” all of us said. The snake charmer was sneaking sips from a flask on the tattered chaise longue in the corner, Jorge who lay on the bed of nails was probably outside smoking a cigarette, and through the intercom I could hear the human blockhead on stage, narrating all the nails and power drills he was putting up his nose.
After the curtain call, Wendy gave Zara a more-than-friendly hug but still wanted to come home with me. I didn’t ask if she was sleeping with Zara. I didn’t want to know.
At my apartment, Wendy took a shower and came back to bed dripping and clean. She closed the door behind her to keep in the cool air from my window air conditioner. My roommate was a bartender and rarely got home till after four. Wendy’s lips were tender from small burns, so she kissed me only briefly before opening the drawer of my bedside table where I kept my vibrator.
She paused. “What’s this?” she said. She held the vibrator in one hand, but in the other she held up a red envelope. I’d forgotten I tucked it in the back of the drawer.
“Nothing.” I reached out to take the envelope from her hand.
“It has my name on it,” she said quietly.
“Leave it alone,” I said. I shut the envelope back in the drawer.
Her brow furrowed. To cover my embarrassed silence, I kissed her neck, her earlobes, and down to her breasts. In response, she arched her back and reached out for me. She used the vibrator and her strong hands to make me come. Next I went down on her while she buried her fingers in my hair. For a while I felt good, like this was enough.
Afterward she stayed longer than usual, putting her arm around me while I lay my head on her shoulder. The familiar smell of her skin filled me with a calm sense of security. A mix of light sweat, paraffin fuel, sex, and my shampoo. Her arms were smooth where the fine hair had been singed off.
Finally, as I was starting to get sleepy, she turned her head to stare at the ceiling. “I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said. “I’m leaving for California next week.”
“Oh,” I said. I pulled away from her shoulder, and the ache in my chest throbbed again. “Why?”
“There’s a show hiring that pays better. I’m tired of the city. I gave notice and lined up a friend who can fill in for me the last month of the season.”
“Oh,” I said again. I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling, too. The air conditioner cycled off and it was so quiet I could hear the kitchen faucet dripping. “Are you staying out there?”
“Probably. I wanted to give you back the shirt you lent me.” She pulled my favorite T-shirt out of her bag and lay it on the bed. She had washed and folded it, so she must have planned ahead.
“Thanks.” The word came out flat and strange.
Then she was getting dressed and pulling on her boots. I wrapped the sheet around me and watched as she gathered up her things. I walked her to the door.
Wendy stood there for a minute. She looked a little bit sorry, or a little bit relieved. “Take care of yourself,” she said and kissed me on the cheek.
“You too,” I said.
After I closed the door behind her, I took the red envelope to the bathroom and dropped it into the sink. My face in the mirror didn’t look like my own. I lit a match and held it to the corners of the paper until it caught. I switched off the light and watched the envelope burn, watched yellow turn to orange and crumple into ash, until it went dark.
Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom's work appears or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Catapult, Post Road, The Offing, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. She's a queer, disabled writer who was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.