STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 36    October 2009


We Do Not Speak of Graceful Things


by Roxane Gay



As a little girl Madeline took ballet lessons twice a week. She wore a pink leotard and a tutu and pointe shoes. She stood at the barre and went through the motions between a half dozen other little girls also perfectly appointed—demi-plié, elevé, tendu, rond de jambe. And then there was the music. Even if she wasn't overly fond of ballet, she was fond of the complex instrument phrasing and harmonies of classical music. She lost herself in the symphonies and études, the concertos and suites. She learned to love the routine of it, the rigorous regimen required of grace.

She took the job at House of Pearl Gentlemen's Club because her boyfriend Stefan said it was the Cadillac of strip clubs—60,000 square feet of prime pussy. "A fine piece of ass like you would fit right in there," he said. "And I can keep living the lifestyle to which I've become accustomed." Madeline smacked his chest, then smiled down at their infant son, Joseph, asleep in his crib. "Your daddy is worthless," she cooed to the sleeping boy, then walked out of the room. Stefan followed, shouting, "You're kidding, right?"

Madeline is bone brittle broken glass. Strangers say she is full of fire but she only smolders. She does not burn. She walks slowly cutting a wide swath. Her eyes are hard, black stone. Her body is long, lithe, strong. Her body sees things. Her body knows things.

There's a mirror on the back of her bedroom door. That night, as she considered her options, she stood in front of the mirror sucking her stomach in, tracing her rib cage with her fingers. "I am a fine piece of ass," she whispered. She looked at her long black hair, bone straight, cascading down her back, her strong chin always jutting forward, the dimple in her left cheek, the slender length of her neck. Madeline slid her hands over her breasts, slightly swollen with milk, then down the flat of her stomach. "I am a fine piece of ass," she repeated. She pressed the palm of her hand against the wall and hummed an étude and practiced the barrre routine from her childhood—demi-plié, elevé, tendu, rond de jambe.

The men come to watch her. They come to want her. She copes with the attention by losing herself in the music, by feeling the beat in her skin. It doesn't matter what's playing. She can dance to anything. She moves across the stage and twists around the pole. She closes her eyes and lets the heavy bass hold her to the ground like gravity. She exhales slowly, feels the music pulsing through her muscles willing them to grind and split and stretch.

Sometimes, when she's feeling nostalgic, she appears on the stage wearing a bright pink sequined bra, a tutu, and five-inch, pink patent leather heels. She stretches one leg over her head until it is parallel with the pole. She grips the warm metal with her slender fingers, perfectly painted nails, and swings herself around until she is facing the crowd, revealing the nakedness and pink folds between her thighs. She hums Swan Lake, first the horns, the strings softly playing in the background, and then the crescendo of the entire orchestra. Her heart pulses brightly, angrily.

The House of Pearl is an upscale club but there is no pretense about the true nature of the transactions taking place. The girls dance provocatively, slowly removing their clothes in elaborate strip teases as a preliminary negotiation for more intimate exchanges. Those take place in the back. Madeline tolerates the real work but she cuts her would-be lovers with the sharpness of her tongue. The clients try to charm her, ply her away from the House of Pearl for more long term and exclusive relationships with fringe benefits like secret apartments and black credit cards. She tells them business is business, that their offers are repulsive. The clients smile uncomfortably. They choose to believe she's teasing because the truth hurts.

Madeline leads her clients into the back, a heavily perfumed space divided into two-dozen suites. She always works out of 17. She queues songs on an MP3 player—mostly R & B. She can't fuck strangers if she's not listening to music. She goes through the motions. She is skilled enough to make her clients think they're special. When they think they're special they tip well. She loses herself in the lyrics. She loses herself in slick pretty men singing about licking up and down and bumping and grinding and holding meetings in bedrooms. She gets so lost she forgets where she is and what she's doing. She forgets who she is. She is the most popular girl working at The House of Pearl.

When she returns home to Stefan and Joseph, she tries to love them as best she can—it is easier with the boy. He is sweet and clean and hers. She kisses the soft palms of his hands and many nights, she sleeps with him in his nursery, singing him sweet songs and making him promises she will keep. Madeline hardly allows Stefan to touch her. She cannot stand the sight of him. Instead of having sex with Stefan when she gets home, Madeline takes a long shower, watching the effluent of the club—the smoke, the booze, the men and their genetic material—trickle around then down the drain. Afterward, she lotions her entire body, dresses comfortably and sits next to Stefan in bed. She drinks a glass of wine with slow, careful sips. Madeline tells Stefan about every man she's slept with that night, normally three or four and never more than six. She relays the encounters in sharp relief—relays a whore's taxonomy, classifying her clients by profession, physical characteristics and acts performed. She tells Stefan about the lawyer with the small hands who fisted her, the tax accountant with broad shoulders who fucked her against the wall, the structural engineer with the curved spine who spent his hour feeling her musculature with his long fingers. It is the price he must pay.

Stefan came to the United States just after the fall of Berlin Wall. He was thirteen and had lived his entire life in East Germany. He never speaks of his life there. When Madeline asked about his childhood, he said, "The world is a hard place." Stefan loves everything about America. He loves that he can buy things and own things and get more things. He loves that an American family took him in and gave him designer clothes and treated him as if he were a part of it all. He loves the music, especially rock and roll, and often suggests songs for Madeline to dance to. In high school, Stefan sold weed from his locker and maintained a steady commerce. When he graduated, he kept on selling weed until he got arrested at 26 and served three years. Since then, he has worked as a collector and enforcer for a low-level thug named Bootsie who hired Stefan because he loved the Die Hard movies and enjoyed Stefan's accent even though those two things bore little relation.

Once or twice a week, Madeline will catch a glimpse of Stefan slouched in a dark corner of the cavernous club receiving a lap dance from another stripper while he drinks watered down whiskey. She looks past the hungry men with their arms in the air and their trembling lips. At times, Stefan feels as if she is staring right through him. He stares back. He spreads his legs and leers at Madeline, his half smile all yellow teeth and saliva. He squeezes the stripper's ass, his blue eyes dull with anger as he watches his girlfriend's gyrations. Madeline narrows her eyes. She too refuses to look away. She leans forward, her ass cheeks spread around the pole, her long hair brushing the stage as she twists her torso from side to side. Then she whips herself back up and drops back down to the stage, spreading her legs so wide her pelvic bones ache as she raises her thighs and vibrates her entire body. Sweaty dollar bills are thrown her way. Rude things are shouted above the bass thump. Madeline continues staring at Stefan. Her anger rolls into rage. She tastes blood. He always looks away first. He surrenders, pushes the stripper humping his lap away. He continues to watch Madeline contorting her naked body, letting strange hands reach for her. When her set is done, she joins Stefan. He sneers at her, his wet upper lip curled. He'll say something angry, his eyes full of resentment and she'll say, "You brought us here."

Bootsie has always had a thing for Madeline. He likes to visit her at the club, too. He never wastes time with a lap dance. He just nods toward the back door and Madeline swallows hard and thinks of Joseph at home with his nanny and then she forgets Joseph so she can do what needs doing. Forgetting. She is a master of forgetting. Bootsie is a dangerous man. He grew up in a rough part of town, was jumped into a gang at the age of nine, started running the gang at fifteen and quickly amassed a petty empire and enough power such that no one tells him no. Madeline met Stefan after he had been working for Bootsie for a little more than a year. When she first met Bootsie at one of his nightclubs downtown, Bootsie pulled her aside and whispered into her ear with hot, alcohol-soaked breath that she should leave the little Nazi. Later that night, as they drove home, Madeline told Stefan, "He's a bad man. You shouldn't be working for him." Stefan laughed, slapped her thigh, and said, "Ja wohl, Schatzi. I'm a bad man too."

Lately, Stefan has insinuated Madeline should quit her job, let him support her. He has been promoted. Stefan is now Bootsie's right hand man. Madeline knows he is only Bootsie's right hand man until someone more ambitious comes along. "I know the job was my idea, but you can quit now," Stefan said. Madeline bounced Joseph on her knee, smiling at her child, giggling when he smiled back. "I'm not quitting my job anytime soon," she said. Stefan slapped her face with the back of his hand. It wasn't the first time. She didn't let it bother her anymore. Madeline tightened her grip on Joseph, the sting of Stefan's hand sinking into her cheekbone. She kissed the top of Joseph's head, still soft, pliable. Her voice cooled. "If you touch me again, I will break your wrist." Stefan laughed, but he backed away.

Her father was a copper miner like his father but time was not on his side. Before long copper didn't matter the way it once did and then there was no more work so there were no more ballet lessons. Madeline's father, a short stocky man with a fondness for card games who was always cracking his knuckles, took her out onto the front porch. He fidgeted, cracking each finger until they turned red. He sat next to her, covered her tiny knees with his rough ground hands. He said, "You'll always be my little ballerina, but you can't have no more lessons." Madeline nodded as if she understood. For a long while after that, she hid in the alley behind the ballet studio every afternoon, using the brick wall of the building as her barre. She practiced her demi-plié, elevé, tendu, rond de jambe, humming loudly to music heard faintly. Sometimes, she cried, particularly when she peeked around the corner at the end of class and saw her friends running to their mothers in a blur of pink tulle. Then she took hold of the wall again and followed the brick pattern with her fingertips. She tried to master grace.

Madeline has a plan. She wants to fall asleep without feeling the hands and bodies and mouths of strange men on and inside her. She no longer wants to smell them on her skin, even after she has showered. She wants to find a father worthy of her boy. Stefan is not a good father but he is very invested in the idea of an American family and his American boy. He won't let her and the boy leave without a fight. She doesn't mind fighting. When she's ready, she will leave. The one thing she truly loves about Stefan is that he's not intelligent. He believes her when she tells him she's only making a fraction of what she really earns. Some nights she tells him a figure so low she's certain she will be found out. She knows she should stop taking chances but she wants and has yet to see how far she can go. Stefan has no understanding of the value of a hard day's work. This surprises her, given what little she knows about his childhood, and yet it doesn't.

On the day she's ready to leave, Madeline crawls into bed as the sun rises. Stefan is asleep on his back, snoring lightly. Madeline lies on her side and stares at him. She tries to remember what she once found attractive in him. There is a bit of stubble on his upper lip. The grayness of it makes her nauseous. She traces the tattoo, an arc of barbed wire around his right nipple, with her fingernail. She is not gentle. She leaves an arcing red welt. He stirs, slowly opens his eyes.

"How was work, babe?"

"I fucked your boss again. R. Kelly was playing and Bootsie had me bent over in a really horrible position. I think I pulled a thigh muscle but the song was great."

Stefan groans, covers his head with a pillow. "Why do you tell me these things?" he says into the pillow.

Madeline reaches for the pillow, throws it to the floor. She has no mercy when it comes to administering penance. "He didn't want to use a condom," she continues, "but I insisted. After him, there was a guy from Cleveland, a drummer in some kind of band. He had long fingers and a long cock and I can still feel him inside me. He smelled like onions." She kisses Stefan on the cheek. "How was your evening?"

He moves so quickly that later she almost marvels at it. His hand squeezes her throat and he straddles her, pushing Madeline onto her back. She swallows hard, digging her fingernails into his bony wrist. "Enough," he says. "Enough."

"What do you think you're doing?"

He presses his thin lips against hers. She can feel him hard against her thigh. The heat of his frustration wraps her body like a second skin. Slowly, she peels Stefan's fingers from around her throat. She speaks so softly he can barely hear her. "There won't be any going back to what we once were." She forgets she and the boy are leaving so he might look into her eyes and believe they have a chance. So he might stop, leave her be. It is harder to forget this time. All she can see is Stefan's narrow body, stronger than she remembers. She tells herself he is a customer. Only then does she see past him and start to forget who where what.

In the end, she waits for Stefan to fall asleep while she burns next to him. In the living room, she turns the music up loud, paces the room until her legs are sore. She waits until the bass pounds through her muscles. Until the treble pierces her heart. It is like she is back in the club, sliding up and down with her back against the pole, knees pressed together, her arms reaching up to nothing. In the kitchen, she gets a glass of water, adds a few drops of GHB she bought from a girl at work. She looks in on the boy, her sweet Joseph and closes the nursery door. She returns to the bedroom. For a long time, she stares at Stefan, sleeping and smug, naked. She pokes his ribs. He doesn't stir. She slaps his face. His eyes fly open. "What the fuck?" he groans. Madeline smiles down at her child's father. "The bruises will disappear. I will forget you. Your son, he will never know you." The music from the other room sounds distant but she can hear. She is hiding in the alley behind the ballet studio. Demi-plié, elevé, tendu, rond de jambe. Grace. She hands him the glass of water. "I thought you might be thirsty," she says. He drinks the water quickly, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "You confuse the hell out of me," Stefan says. He laughs, closes his eyes, sighs and passes out. Madeline packs a few things for herself and the boy. She calls Bootsie and makes him an offer he won't refuse. She and the boy will be safe. They will be free. She will never again think or speak of Stefan. She is a carnivore. She can eat her own scars.



Copyright©2009 Roxane Gay


Roxane Gay's work appears or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Annalemma, DIAGRAM, Monkeybicyle, Keyhole and others. She is the associate editor of PANK and can be found online at