Saturday, October 18, 2014

My First Black Eye

(Fictionalized Memoir of an Indian American)

        “You’re up first sweetheart. Go ahead and drop your dress.”
        “Drop your dress or you’re out.”
        Ah Vegas. I was there with my good friend Steve, and his friend Chris. A day earlier we were walking around Treasure Island and stumbled upon a country bar with a mechanical bull.
        The three of us stepped into the bar. It was still early and unusually empty, so the familiar smells of wood, veneer, stale, spilt alcohol and mildew were the first things I noticed. Steve and Chris went straight for the bar to order drinks. I, not being a drinker, bee-lined for the mechanical bull.
        I’d always wanted to ride a mechanical bull. There were so many things I always wanted to do, but never did. Things were different though. There I was in my 40s, divorced, in Vegas with friends. And, right in front of me, a mechanical bull!
        I just wanted to ride. So while Steve and Chris were ordering their drinks, I was talking the guy at the controls into letting me give it a go.
        I took off my slippers and stepped onto the air mattress barefoot, making my way– first sinking in, then stepping up, slowly getting over to the bull.
        Steve walked over to the edge of the rink, “What’re ya doin?”
        “I’m gonna ride the bull,” I replied holding onto the pommel.
        Looking skeptical, “You don’t really want to do that, come on.”
        “Yeah. I do.”
        I put a foot in the stirrup and easily heaved myself up almost like I was getting onto a motorcycle.
        “Are you ready?” the guy at the control asked.
        “Ok, so one hand up in the air at all times. Don’t be afraid to fall. The air mattress is all around you. It’s impossible to get hurt.”
        I tried to keep my eyes from having that deer in headlights look, tried to be cool. It was my first time, but I wanted to seem relaxed and not so stiff. I raised my left arm, my hand in a fist, my elbow slightly bent, vaguely aware I was a brown person in a white bar making a Black Power salute.
        A signal buzzed, and the bull started out slow and rhythmic. I relaxed into the motion as the bull started to pick up pace.
        I could ride into the faster bucks, and really had to work to relax my arms and neck. It got faster. And faster again. Just when I thought that was it, it got even faster still. There was no rhythm anymore, my nylon pants had some grip, but I really wished for my jeans. I was at the bull’s mercy now. There was no keeping pace or following pace. There was only keeping my bones together while I was thrown about like a rag doll.
        Finally, I let go. I let go and went flying, back first, eyes closed, and I sank. I was unsteady and disheveled making my way through the sinking air mattress to the exit. I heard applause, from somewhere. The guy at the controls took my hand to help me down. As I was putting my slippers back on, he produced a clipboard and told me, “Hey, sign up for the competition tomorrow night! It’s ladies only and you’re a natural. There’s a $1000 prize if you win, and you totally could.”
        As I was signing the paper, because, man, I could really use that money, I was trying to get a sense of my surroundings. Had he been extra gentle with the controls? Is this for real? I finished signing in, my name first on the list, and the three of us left the bar.
        “Come back tomorrow at 8pm sharp!” the controller guy called after me.
        The next day, we came back early. I handed my camera to Chris to take pictures, and Steve and Chris went back to the bar again. I checked in and went to go stand in line with the 3 other women. Who by the way, were gor-geous! 24-26 years old, one blond, one brown-haired, and one black woman. Chatting with them, I realized I was the only one who had ever been on a mechanical bull before–this very one in fact!
        A crowd of men and a few women were in the bar now, and it was hard to see their faces then much less remember them now. I remember big bellies, button down shirts, work pants, glasses, bad hair, and name tags. There must have been a convention.
        I was ushered to the front—having signed up the day before. Then, the same controller guy looked up from his controls.
        “You’re up first sweetheart. Go ahead and drop your dress,” he said.
        “Drop your dress or you’re out.”
        “I heard you. What do you mean?”
        He gestured to the banner that I was seeing for the first time. It said, “Bikini Bull Riding.”
        “Bikini? I don’t have a bikini on. I didn’t know.”
        “Well, make a decision. Drop your dress or you’re out.”

These are the thoughts that fired in my brain:

        My parents. Them telling me, “Do things that will make your family proud.” But they weren’t there… and, I am an adult. It was no longer about them anymore.
        Tank tops. The fact that I wore one for the first time when I was 26 years old. Not really wearing skirts and dresses that showed my calves and knees until I was in my mid 30s.
        Being controlled. My ex husband not allowing me to talk on the phone in my house. Making and finishing up my calls, even to my mother, brother and best friend, in the car. Getting yelled at for talking to people at dinner parties.
        Nope, it was time I lived. I get to choose.
        I was aware of the gaze upon me. They did not know me; they did not care about me. I represented all women to them. I would be on stage. It was their gaze. I knew the scars, I knew the accidents, the achy knees, the plantar fasciitis, where the bruises were when my soon to be ex husband wouldn't stop throwing things at me, the extra work it now took for my muscles to remember their shape. It was my body, and I knew EXACTLY how old it was and is.

        All these thoughts fired through my head one after another in a split-second before… Before I reached behind my neck and released my halter dress. It dropped onto the floor in a puddle at my bare feet. There I was in my underwear.
        I stepped onto the air mattress. There was a rushing sound in my ears, and I felt myself disassociate from my body. I glanced at the crowd and saw all the men cheering. I saw Chris with my camera, stunned, and next to him, my good friend, Steve… who looked like he was about to throw up. I pointed straight at him and then pointed at the door and mouthed, “YOU! GET OUT!” He moved fast, without question. Satisfied, I gave Chris a nod to take pictures, reached up for the pommel and swung my leg over the bull.
        I vaguely remember little things… I hadn’t noticed how soft the covering of the bull was through my pants the day before. I noticed there was no way to grip the bull with bare skin, not at all. I squeezed my knees and thighs tight against the sides, lifted my arm and gave the controller the signal to start.
        He started out at the gentle setting. But what was kind of cool the night before was not at all right in my underwear. I couldn’t think about the jiggling, whether I had stretch marks or varicose veins. The crowd got loud, and cheered as the controller spun the bull around for them to see the only two things they cared to see jiggle.
        As the bull got faster, I got more angry. Angry at the crowd, angry at the controller, angry at Steve… Slowly, I realized I wasn’t being forced to do any of this. I didn’t HAVE to do this. But, I HAD to do this.
        The bull started moving faster and my knees kept slipping on the sides. Before it got ridiculous, I let go and let myself fly off the bull backward. The crowd was a blur, my arms were stretched out, my back and neck hit the air mattress… and then, my legs kept going, and going… until my knees came up and over, and I kneed myself in the eye!
        Someone brought me ice in a bag for my eye. The rounds continued, then finished, many of the details a blur. I came in second. At the end of it, I sent all the people in the women’s restroom out and pulled Chris in so he could block the door. I put my clothes back on like an assemblage of useless armor. My arms and legs felt like rubber, my eye was throbbing. I retied the halter behind my neck and slipped my shoes back on. I turned to Chris and we walked back to the room and I felt numb.
        Steve was moody and upset sitting in the room when we got there. I took ibuprofen, and put my ice on the table to get a better look at the beginning traces of my first black eye—it was swelling and red.
        My first black eye—self-inflicted.
        My first black eye—blossoming like the flaw in my argument for dropping my dress in the first place.

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