The Cool Girl’s Guide to Contortion


In memory of Jonathan Bernbaum (1982–2016), who lost his life in the Ghost Ship Fire


I didn’t have much of an audience. Guests were few and far between, chatting nervously with one another. As if to compensate, the DJ blared the music. He was playing the Black Eyed Peas. He may have been mocking the guests. He may have been mocking me.

I was in a lyra suspended five feet off a raised platform. Front mermaid to splits. I took out the back catch in order to simplify the routine. I’d heard this tech firm was a zombie now, but they had gone ahead with the holiday party anyhow. My fee had been negotiated by my agent: five hundred dollars, yet to be collected, and shares. I had the feeling I wouldn’t get the former and wouldn’t want the latter.

I hung upside down, dismounting into a handstand, down into the splits. I raised my hands in the air and received exactly no applause. I stood up and ran backstage. This was already the second of five scheduled miniroutines. What would happen if I just left now?

At least my dressing room, tiny as it was, was an actual dressing room. It was dingy in an authentic way—on most nights this was a rock club. The venue was old; it predated several booms. There were band stickers covering a graffittied mirror. zambri. battles. fuck buddies. All people cooler than I was.

Veronica, my dressing-room mate, had left a covered plate of hors d’oeuvres for me. I was glad to see it was normal stuff: mini quiches, bacon-wrapped dates. Food got pretty weird in San Francisco. At one party, I had been offered tiny charred octopus tentacles. At a different event, only assorted flavors of foam were served. At that party, a guest got so fed up with the offerings that he decided to order several dozen pizzas. The delivery guys were greeted like heroes, but only because the pizzas were from Little Star.

You either work in tech or you work in food. Or you live in the East Bay, like Veronica and I. Now she squeezed herself into our dressing room, cocktail in hand, and offered me a sip. I normally didn’t when I was working, but was it really work if you weren’t sure you were getting paid?

I took a drink—an appletini, how retro—and she handed me her phone. I swiped through the pictures of myself performing that she had just taken. You could no longer just be a performer, you also had to be a brand. These needed to go on Instagram. Our agent, Sylvia, was always bugging us about our Instagrams.

The pictures sucked, but it was sweet of V to try.

“Busy, huh?” I asked her.

Veronica read tarot. People were lined up at her table asking if things at the company were bad or really bad.

“Yes, and nobody’s even tipping. They’re leaving their phone numbers, though. As if.”

The technical term for a person willing to date a charmless tech bro is sapiosexual. Sapiosexuals live in the city and charge takeout to their boyfriends’ cards. V liked men, but not this sort. Sometimes I wondered if that was a bad career decision on her part. I didn’t like men at all. That may have been a bad career decision on my part.

I posted a blurry picture of my dismount that had the advantage of making my ass look enormous. Then I scrolled through my feed.

“Lara is working the Google party tonight,” I said. Lara’s party had revelers, cheer. It had multiple performers on multiple apparatuses. There were stiltwalkers and flame eaters.

“Lara is working the Google party tonight,” I said. Lara’s party had revelers, cheer. It had multiple performers on multiple apparatuses. There were stiltwalkers and flame eaters. Lara was on the silks. They hadn’t needed me or my hoop. “I hate her,” I said, but it was worse than that. I loved her and we were sleeping together and we were roommates.

I wondered how much of this V knew. Unlike other tarot card readers, she was actually psychic.

“That’ll be you next year,” she said, and I wasn’t sure if it was a prediction or a consolation. Either way, I was filled with despair at the thought that my life’s work was reduced to being the paid entertainment at parties for assholes.

I was only able to live the way I did because of the boom. And yet the way I lived wasn’t so great. A three-bedroom apartment shared with four other girls. A fifteen-year-old Honda Civic. All the Lululemon that would fit in my half of the closet. No house. There would never be a house. Not unless I married someone with money. So I hated the boom.

I had FOMO. I wanted a regular paycheck and an in-office barista. I wanted to attend the cool parties, not as entertainer, but as a guest. I wanted to be recruited. I wanted to be appreciated. But not enough to give up my art.

Bay Area boom haters wanted everything to be reset. If we lived inside the valley (no, not the Silicon one, the other one), we’d be looking forward to the rapture and investing in gold and seeds. But we were liberals, so instead we decried gentrification and waited for the stock market to crash again. And would we be happy then? No, probably not, no more happy than we were now, but at least we’d be right.

Odysseo was Cirque de Soleil with horses, and it was enjoying an extended run in San Francisco. I had auditioned. I had not been acquired. The students in my Monday night contortion class had all gone and loved it.

“New rule,” I said, “nobody is allowed to talk about Odysseo.” So the room was silent, the better for all of us to concentrate. The class was small, limited to ten so that I could stretch each person individually. The women in my class wanted to learn the splits and they wanted to learn handstands. They wanted to work on their back extensions and their bridge variations. I pushed and pulled on them, sitting on them if I had to. The safe word was Shakespeare.

The last ten minutes of class before the cooldown was Instagram time. Class was in Berkeley and most of my students were in college. The girls would fetch their phones and take pictures of one another. This was their reward for working hard during class. For some of my students, I suspected it was the only reason many of them came. Whatever they had mastered or nearly mastered, they were eager to post. They wanted to impress other people. # fitspo # workhard # bendy # notlikeothergirls


The next week I flew to Orlando to audition for cruises and theme parks. Not that I wanted to move, but there were only so many gigs in the Bay Area and I was hardly booking any of them. Lara subbed my classes for me. I worried my students would like her better. That they would spend the entire class period talking about how awesome Odysseo was and posting things on Instagram. I told Lara to emphasize conditioning. I worried she would let them skip their ab exercises because she liked to be liked.

There was no art in Orlando. No neo-Cirque. But I liked the city anyway. I liked the airplane, liked the Marriott. If I’d been truly middle class, I would have hated these things. I would have loudly complained about business travel. But I almost never got to go anywhere, and this felt like a vacation even though it wasn’t.

It was nice to get out of the apartment. The thing with Lara had started and I had no idea how to end it, only that it had to end. We’d moved into our crowded apartment two years ago, but had never been alone there together until two months ago. That’s when we hooked up for the first time. She blamed it on the alcohol; I blamed it on having the place to ourselves.

My room at the Marriott was my own personal fortress of solitude, air-conditioned and with fifty-seven channels. I had a view of the pool. I could have a cheeseburger delivered to my door. I know people hook up when they are on business trips, but I could not imagine sharing this room with anyone.

Of course, everybody does polyamory these days. But not everybody is good at it. Lara was good at it. I was not. Lara had a girlfriend who had a boyfriend. Lara’s girlfriend referred to her boyfriend as her “partner.” Lara’s girlfriend and her partner had this amazing loft in Jingletown, near the water. They had high ceilings and they’d rigged up silks and a pole for Lara to practice on. They kept inviting me over, but I worried that their version of Netflix and chill would be an actual sex party.

I’d had to pay my own way for this audition, but my agent had assured me it would be worth it. There was a good chance I’d get a contract, which would mean months of steady work. Months of focusing on my craft and no auditions, no entertaining at parties, no teaching.

Auditions are the worst. The people who evaluate you are always going to be skeptical and ungrateful. They’ve seen your Instagram and your YouTube performance videos. They have your headshot and your resume. They don’t think you’re good enough, but they’ll give you a chance to prove them wrong.

The audition room in Orlando had mirrors on all sides. There were canes, and silks hanging from the ceiling, but no hoop and no pole. The audition panel was the same as it ever was: a friendly looking white woman with blond highlights and a blazer, a sour-looking woman of indeterminate ethnicity, and a Russian guy. Sometimes the Russian guy is Chinese.

“Where’s the hoop?” I asked.

“We already have a lyracist,” blond highlights said. So corporate. Lyracist is not a word, but that’s what businesspeople do. They pollute the language.

And the pole?

“Our clients are not looking for a pole dancer at this time.” Again, I resisted the urge to correct her—the preferred term is pole performer. Pole still suffers from its association with strip clubs. But it’s also a circus apparatus. Even Cirque du Soleil has pole performers. I heard about this one part of Odysseo where they have a carousel with actual horses and performers on the poles, and just the description of it from my student was so magical I wanted to weep with jealousy.

Gigs in Orlando weren’t like that. It was going to be more vintage circus, vaudeville inspired. Huge grins and sequined leotards. Pantyhose and pink lipstick.

Anyway, they wanted to see my floor routine, so I did it. And then they wanted to see my aerial routine, so I did it, even though it isn’t great. My spatial-visualization skills have always been weak, and as a result, I have trouble understanding many of the more difficult wraps. Really, you have to be good at math to be good at silks. I am good at neither.

Finally, they wanted to see my canes routine. Problem is, I didn’t have one. So I admitted this.

“Improvise something,” said corporate.

I’d messed around on canes before, but never really felt they were the best showcase for my talents. I placed my hands on the platforms and did a straddle mount into a handstand. Canes routines were all inverted contortion. I put together some moves as they came to mind, and after I dismounted, I saw something I didn’t expect, which was two and half looks of genuine astonishment.

“You are so creative and versatile,” said corporate, in a way that made me think I’d gotten the job. I walked out of the room satisfied. I passed the room of girls waiting for their turns. They were in an adjacent studio, warming up. The heat was on high and they were all trying to psych each other out with their oversplits. I am so versatile and innovative, I thought. I have something they’ll never have.

As it turned out, they would go with someone else. Someone thin and Russian. You can never be too thin or too Russian. Come back next year, they said. Next year I’d be twenty-five but my resume would still say twenty-two.

After four-and-a-half days in Florida, it was time to return to the Bay to hustle for gigs.

“Carla is hiring performers for her book release party,” Lara said. Carla was Lara’s girlfriend. “Two hundred dollars, but you have to perform in the nude.”

“What? That’s below my fee and anyway, why does it have to be in the nude?”

“Because it’s for Carla and it’s a party for her new book about threesomes.”


Tickets to Carla’s party were forty dollars, but came with a complimentary copy of Ménage a Fun. Lara got me in for free.

I remembered the vow that I had somehow forgotten—to never accept any sort of invitation from Carla. But what was I supposed to do, leave?

The party was held in a warehouse in East Oakland that also served as a studio space for Burners. Outside, there were vegan food trucks. Inside, there were interesting light installations and refurbished school buses. The school buses were designated “cuddle zones” and there was a bar with five-dollar cocktails that had sexually suggestive names. It dawned on me that this book release party was also a sex party. I remembered the vow that I had somehow forgotten—to never accept any sort of invitation from Carla. But what was I supposed to do, leave? I wanted to see Lara’s performance.

I was not there alone, thank God. I had convinced Lara to put one of our other roommates, Stephanie, on the guest list. Stephanie was an acrobat and aspiring modern dancer. She taught kids’ gymnastics classes and auditioned for modern dance companies, but she only landed gigs with the weirdest troupes. Lots of rolling on the ground and dramatic recitations of poetry. Lots of flinging your hair around. Not much money or actual dancing, but she believed, like all of us, that her big break was around the corner.

Stephanie agreed to join me on the dance floor. The DJ was playing Beyoncé, very dance friendly, but we were the only ones out there. I was dancing like a normal person and Stephanie was flinging her hair. Maybe after so many weird shows she had forgotten how to dance like a normal person? Maybe she had never known how? I, being a normal person with normal dance moves, was a little embarrassed to be on an empty dance floor. Where was everybody? I scanned the perimeter of the room. There were couches against the wall, and on every couch there were one or more persons having sex. Maybe everybody who would normally be getting down was actually getting busy.

So why should I be self-conscious? Was I worried these partygoers were going to judge me or my dance moves? There were better things to judge at this party than my running man or Stephanie’s hair flinging—like the people having sex over there or over there or over there.

I continued to dance while reminding myself that an empty dance floor is not such a bad thing. Every party in the city that had a dance floor always had way too many guys on it. There would usually be at least one sweaty guy doing an earnest robot dance. Sometimes there were several such Robotos. They wanted you to be in awe of their unearned creat­ivity, like Much Moves, So Wow. But the robots had not found Oakland, not yet, thank god. And this party seemed to be mostly lesbians. Thank god, thank god.

The best dance-floor dancers are never trying to impress anybody but themselves. My roommate Jasmine is the best twerker ever. She can drop into pigeon pose and twerk. She is always innovating and improving her twerks. Not because she gives a shit about the male gaze, but because her curiosity is always pushing her to the boundaries of her art. She teaches erotic pole, and the waitlists for her classes are a mile long. Still, she has never to my knowledge done the thing that Lara was going to do tonight, which was perform naked.

Lara wasn’t going to perform until 11 pm, which was still an hour away. I guess time moves slowly for the sex-party attendee who isn’t interested in watching or having sex. I wondered if I was going to run into anybody I knew. I wondered why I hadn’t already, and then it happened, as if I had conjured an acquaintance purely through channeling my intentions.

“Juliana!” I said.

“Where do I know you from?” she said in a flirty way. I could definitely have sex with Juliana tonight if I was willing to do it while other people watched (which I was not).

“Lululemon!” I said.

“I don’t work there anymore,” said Juliana.

“Of course you don’t. Neither do I!” Nobody worked at Lululemon for more than six months. It was a horrible job. It had all of the weird mind games of a tech startup, but none of the stock options or career-building potential. At Lululemon, we had daily pep talks about how to align our growth mindsets with our sales potentials. Good product sold itself, and if you ever missed a target, it was because you didn’t want it bad enough.

Lululemon had the good fortune to come along at precisely the time when affluent white women were ready to start feeling good about their butts.

But the discount was amazing. And they really did make the best pants. So flattering. Lululemon had the good fortune to come along at precisely the time when affluent white women were ready to start feeling good about their butts. The point of a Lululemon job was to work there long enough to build a professional wardrobe. Then you could quit. I had put my time in. So had all my roommates.

“So, are you headed upstairs?” Juliana asked.

I think this was how people at this party asked each other if they wanted to fuck. “No, I’m waiting for my friend to perform,” I said, which sounded sexual, but wasn’t.

“Oh, okay,” she said.

Did she know this was just an excuse? That I wasn’t at all into this scene? I had grown up in the valley and I wanted what everybody else there wanted: a wife. If I could have had a girlfriend in high school, I would have probably married her. But I couldn’t, so instead I moved to Berkeley without realizing that monogamy was over.

The thing with Lara was such a huge mistake. It made me nervous and anxious to feel like I was hers but that she wasn’t mine. (“Why do you equate commitment with ownership?” she asked me once, as if I were an instrument of the patriarchy.) There was a no-drama rule among our roomates, and I was pretty sure if they found out about us, we would probably be asked to leave. Fine for Lara—she could move in with Carla and Sven or some other indulgent couple with tech money and a loft. But I would be screwed. Our apartment was rent-controlled and I could no longer afford to live in Berkeley. My budget would limit me to faraway suburbs with bad traffic and worse coffee. Art deserts populated by Trump supporters.

Why had I come to Berkeley in the first place? And why had I majored in sociology and not computer science? Why did I keep trying to join the circus and why did I keep failing? Why didn’t I have a wife and a real job?

More doubts and questions would have unspooled if it weren’t for the emcee. She was on the raised stage set up between two cuddle buses, announcing the roster of performers. Lara was up first, and I raged internally at the injustice of this. Lara was not ordinary burlesque (most of which was trash—no need to work on your form and technique when you could get huge applause just for showing off your tits), she was a true artist. She should go last. She was the best thing these ignorant lesbians were ever going to see.

The spotlight followed Lara out to the stage as the first notes of a Shostakovich string quartet began. I had seen this routine before, which was officially titled “Awash in a Sea of {{Transcendence ]]” but which she jokingly referred to as her Little Mermaid routine because of the ways her limbs rippled. Tonight, instead of her usual spandex costume, she was clad in paint. Streaks of glittery blue and green went up one ankle, up her thighs, around her nude-colored thong, and over her left breast. Bridge walk to handstand to stag and then splits. Somersault dismount, and when she turned to the audience you could see her other nipple was covered with a heart-shaped pasty. This wasn’t exactly the nudity I had envisioned. It was a tease, it was better. I pushed through to the front of the crowd so I could get a closer look.

Her skin glowed under the bright lights, and her somersaults left trails of glitter on the stage, as if she were a magical snail spirit.

She had made changes to this routine. She moved in a more supple way, ease on her face, no sign of concentration. It was as if the moves were intuitive. Her skin glowed under the bright lights, and her somersaults left trails of glitter on the stage, as if she were a magical snail spirit. She wasn’t like me, she wasn’t into feats of strength, she didn’t muscle her way into things. She floated, she swam thorough the air like it was water.

Four minutes passed without my noticing, and then it was over. I was in the very front, clapping and cheering louder than anyone. No one could admire her like me. She deserved huge crowds and a circus ring all to herself. Or else a stage with a heavy velvet curtain. She deserved an actual string quartet to accompany her, not just a recording of one. She deserved fans who would ask for her autograph. She deserved more than the hate I kept trying to feel for her but couldn’t. She must have heard my cheering. She took her bow and then tore off her pasty to reveal a perfect pink nipple, washed pale by the bright light. Finally the crowd roared. She tossed the pasty right at me, and I jumped up to catch the sticky heart with my fingertips. She winked at me to let me know that she knew what I knew. She felt what I felt. I winked back. I know she saw it.


The next day Lara came to pick up her stuff. She had decided to move into Carla and Sven’s loft. She told me that things didn’t necessarily have to be over between us, and I said okay but only because I couldn’t think of the right thing to say. When she texted me later, I ignored it. After three more texts from her and a call I sent straight to voicemail, I realized I was ghosting her. I wasn’t trying to. I just needed more time.

I got an invite to perform at a warehouse party and I decided to take it, despite the low rate, because I needed an excuse to get out of the apartment. I try not to ever accept less than I am worth. Contortion is hell on the body, and I only have a finite amount of performances left in me. Sometimes, when I am feeling morbid, I try to calculate how much more my body can take. Five shows a week, at most. Seven more years, if I’m being optimistic. I’m going to have to move on at some point. The only question is now or later. Maybe I should become a waiter or a sex worker. This is what everybody else seems to be doing. Those seem to be the only middle-class service jobs left.

But after my warehouse gig, I stayed to dance. Days later I went to a different warehouse party, even though I hadn’t been hired to perform. I just went to do drugs and have fun. I met strangers, I met artists. I started to go to enough parties that it became part of my routine.

I still thought about Lara a lot, even though we hadn’t spoken for a month. I checked her Instagram once a day. She and Carla and Sven seemed to be easing into a cozy polyamorous domesticity. She made a hot chocolate and took a selfie while drinking it. She adopted a kitten and named it Jonathan. She posted a picture of herself doing a handstand wearing leg warmers she had crocheted herself. I wonder who had taken this picture of her. Was it Carla or was it Sven? Did it even matter?

Then Ghost Ship happened. I wasn’t there. I had a gig in the city that night. I was new enough to the scene that I only knew one of the victims, a well-known VJ from Berkeley, but some people lost so many friends. At Highwire they erected a memorial for their two baristas who died in the fire, and at Arbor Café they put up a sign warning customers not to ask about it, lest the surviving employees have to talk about the tragedy with every customer they rang up.

I took the fire as a sign. It was finally time to join the migration. Everybody worth knowing was moving to LA or Portland or Seattle. Even Brooklyn was cheaper. The landlords were sucking us dry, they were tearing us apart. They were killing us. The art of contortion is not just about getting yourself into impossible positions, it’s about getting out of them too. Often, getting out is harder.

I had to come up with an escape plan. First, I needed to stop checking Lara’s Instagram completely. I would only check it every other day and then I would cut back to never. Then I would feel like myself again. Then I would move somewhere that was almost as good. Then I could find someone new. Then I could be someone new.