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Wendy Brenner

I Am the Bear

I said: Oh, for God's sake, I'm not some pervert--you think I'm like that hockey puck in New Jersey, the mascot who got arrested for grabbing girls' breasts with his big leather mitt at home games? I'm a polar bear! I molest no one, I give out ice cream cones in the freezer aisle, I make six dollars an hour, I majored in Humanities, I'm a girl.

I was talking to the Winn Dixie manager in his office. Like every grocery store manager, he had a pudgy face, small mustache, and worried expression, and he was trying very hard, in his red vest and string tie, to appear open-minded. He had just showed me the model's letter of complaint, which sat, now, between us, on his desk. The polar bear gave me a funny feeling, the model had written; I was under the mistaken impression that the bear was male but much to my surprise it turned out that I was wrong. The bear was silent the whole time and never bothered to correct me.

It was part of my job not to talk, I explained to the manager. I read to him from my Xeroxed rules sheet: Animal representatives must not speak in a human manner but should maintain animal behavior and gestures at all times while in costume. Neither encourage nor dispel assumptions made regarding gender. I said, See? I was holding my heavy white head like a motorcycle helmet in the folds of my lap, my own head sticking out of the bureau-sized shoulders, my bangs stuck to my forehead, a small, cross-shaped imprint on the tip of my nose from the painted wire screen nostril of the bear. I can't help my large stature, I told him. That's why they made me a bear and not one of those squirrels who gives away cereal. I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do. I was doing what I was designed to do.

She would like an apology, the manager said.

"You say one becomes 'evil' when one leaves the herd; I say that depends entirely on what the herd is doing," I told him.

Look, the manager said, his eyes shifting. Would you be willing to apologize, yes or no. He reminded me of a guy I knew in high school--there was one in every high school--who made his own chain mail. They were both pale and rigidly hunch shouldered even as young men, as though they had constantly to guard the small territory they had been allotted in life.

Did you notice how in the letter she keeps referring to me as "the bear"? I said. No wonder she didn't know I was a girl, she doesn't even know I'm human! And incidentally, I added, when the manager said nothing, you would think she'd be more understanding of the requirements of my position--we are, after all, both performers.

The manager seemed offended that I would compare myself, a sweating, hulking bear, to a clean, famously fresh-faced girl, our local celebrity, and I was let go. This wasn't dinner theater, he said, and at headquarters, where he sent me, I was told I could continue to be a polar bear but not solo or in a contact setting. This meant I could work corporate shows, which in our area occurred never. I saw myself telling my story on People's Court, on Hard Copy, but I was a big, unphotogenic girl and I knew people would not feel sympathy for me. Plus, in the few years since college I had been fired from every job I'd had, for actual transgressions--rifling aimlessly through a boss's desk drawers when she was out of the office, sweeping piles of hair into the space behind the refrigerator in the back room of a hair salon, stopping in my school bus, after dropping off the last of the children, for a cold Mr. Pibb at Suwannee Swifty--and I believed absolutely in retribution, the accrual of cosmic debt, and the granting and revoking of amnesty. I was, simply, no longer innocent. I was not innocent even as I protested my innocence.

No, I hadn't molested the girl, but even as I'd sat in the manager's office I could still smell the clean spice of her perfume, feel the light weight of her hands on either side of my head, a steady, intoxicating pressure even through plaster and fake fur. I could not fully believe myself, sitting there, to be an outraged, overeducated young woman in a bear suit. Beneath the heavy costume, I was the beast the manager suspected me of being, I was the bear.

The girl had been shopping with her mother, a bell-shaped generic older woman in a long lavender raincoat. The moment they rolled their cart around the corner into my aisle, still forty feet away, the model screamed. She was only eighteen, but still I was surprised--I would have thought Florida natives would be accustomed to seeing large animals in everyday life. She screamed: Oh my god, he's so cute! She ran for me, and I made some ambiguous bear gesture of acknowledgment and surprise. Hey there, sweetie, she said, pursing her lips and talking up into my face as though I were her pet kitten. I scooped a cone of chocolate chip for her but she didn't even notice. Mom, look, she yelled.

The lavender-coated mother approached without hurry or grace. Her face, up close, was like the Buddha's, and she took the ice cream from my paw automatically, as though we had an understanding. The model was rubbing my bicep with both her narrow tanned hands. He's so soft, she said. I faced her, making large simpering movements, and noticed the small dark shapes of her nipples, visible through her white lacy body-suit. I blushed, then remembered I needn't blush, and that was when she reached for me, pulling my hot, oversized head down to her perfect, heart-shaped face. The kiss lasted only a moment, but in that moment I could feel how much she loved me, feel it surging through my large and powerful limbs. I am the bear, I thought. Then it was over, and I remembered to make the silly gestures of a human in a bear suit pretending to be embarrassed. The model's mother had produced a small, expensive-looking camera from some hidden pocket of her raincoat and matter-of-factly snapped a photo of me, a bear pretending to be a friendly human, with my arm around the model's skinny shoulders, my paw entangled in her silky, stick-straight golden hair.

They left then, the mother never speaking a word, and they were all the way down the aisle, almost to the other end, when the produce manager stuck his head around the corner right in front of them and yelled my name, I had a phone call. The model looked back once before they disappeared, and though she never saw my face--I wasn't allowed to take off my head in public--it was obvious from her expression that she understood. It was an expression of disturbed concern, the way she might look if she were trying to remember someone's name or the words to a song she once knew well, but there was something else, too, a kind of abashed sadness that looked out of place on her young, milky face.

__________

I could imagine how she must have felt, having once fallen in love with an animal myself in the same swift, irrevocable way I imagined she had. The Good-Night Horse, he'd been called--that heading had appeared beside his picture on the wallpaper in our cottage's bathroom at the Sleepy Hollow resort, and the words stayed in my head for years, like a prayer. The wallpaper featured reprints of antique circus posters and flyers, the same six or seven over and over, but the Good-Night Horse was the only one I paid attention to: he was a powerful black shape that seemed to move and change form like a pile of iron shavings under a magnet, quivering slightly. He was muscular, a stallion. I was six. "Katie is masturbating," my mother said, in her mock-weary, matter of fact voice.

I would lie on the floor on my side under the toilet paper dispenser, my face a few inches from the wall. The Good-Night Horse was shown in a series of four different postures. In the first two pictures he was wearing boots and trousers on his hind legs, but in the wild third picture, my favorite, he was tearing the trousers off dramatically. Clothes were flung on the ground all around him, his tail swished in the air, and the trousers waved wildly from his mouth. In the last picture he was, with his teeth, pulling back the covers of a single bed with a headboard, like my bed at home. "The World's Greatest Triumph of Animal Training," the poster said.

There was no problem with my masturbating, because my parents were agnostic intellectuals; they had given me a booklet called "A Doctor Talks to Five- to Eight-Year-Olds" that included, as an example of the male genitalia, a photograph of Michelangelo's statue of David. The photo was small and black-and-white, so you couldn't really get a good look at what was between his legs, but it appeared lumpy and strange, like mashed potatoes, and I found it unsettling. The book had already given me a clear picture of sexual intercourse: it was a complicated, vaguely medical procedure in which you were hooked up to an adult man and microscopic transactions then occurred. And though my parents had said, "You're probably too young to picture it, but someday you'll understand," I could picture it--I saw an aerial view of me, naked, and the statue of David lying side by side on a white-sheeted operating table, me in braids and of course only half his height. But this vision was the furthest thing from my mind when I looked at the Good-Night Horse.

I wasn't stupid, I knew people didn't marry horses, or any other animal. I just wasn't convinced that the Good-Night Horse was necessarily an animal--the more I looked at his picture, the more he seemed to be a man in some important sense. It was not his clothes, or the tricks he did, but something both more mysterious and more obvious than that. He reminded me a little of Batman, and, like Batman, he might have a way of getting out of certain things, I thought. He was sensitive, certainly--his forelock hung boyishly, appealingly, over his eyes, and his ears stood up straight, pointing forward in a receptive manner (except in the trouser-flinging picture, where they lay flat back against his head)--but you could tell that he was in no way vulnerable, at least not to the schemes and assaults of ordinary men. He was actually more a man than ordinary men, and something began to swell in my chest unbearably after a few days, weighing me down so that I could not possibly get up off the floor, and my father finally had to carry me, sobbing, from the bathroom--I was sobbing not only because the Good-Night Horse and I could never meet, but also because I understood with terrible certainty, terrible finality, that I would never be happy with anything less, anything else.

And it was true that no man had yet lived up. I had been engaged once to a social theorist who was my age but refused to own a TV and said things like "perused" in regular conversation and expected what he called my "joyous nature" to liberate him, but it ended when I discovered while he was writing his thesis that he had not gotten around to treating his three cats for tapeworm and had been living with them--the cats and the worms--contentedly for weeks. And now, at twenty-eight, I only dated, each man seeming a degree more aberrant than the last. The last had been a stockbroker who was hyperactive (rare in adults, he said) and deaf in one ear--he yelled and slurred and spit when he talked and shot grackles with an AK-47 from his apartment window but was wildly energetic even late at night, boyish and exuberant and dangerous all at once, a little like the horse. On our second and last date, however, he took me to an Irish pub to meet his old college roommate, and the roommate engaged me in an exchange of stomach-punching to show off how tightly he could clench his abs, only when it was his turn to punch mine he grabbed my breasts instead, causing the stockbroker to go crazy. He dragged the roommate out onto the sidewalk and pushed him around like a piece of furniture he could not find the right place for, and I kept yelling that it was only a joke, I didn't mind, but in the scuffle the stockbroker's visor--the kind with the flashing colored lights going across the forehead band--got torn off and flung into the gutter, its battery ripped out, and when the fight was over he sat on the curb trying in vain to get it to light up again and saying, "He broke my fucking visor, man," until I told him I was taking a cab home, at which point he spit, on purpose, in my face.

So I could understand how the model might feel. I could see how, from looking at me, the miserable, small-minded Winn Dixie manager would believe I had no business comparing myself to her, but, not being a bear himself, he did not understand that appearances meant nothing. I was a beast, yes, but I also had something like x-ray vision; I was able, as a bear, to see through beauty and ugliness to the true, desperate and disillusioned hearts of all men.

__________

It was not difficult to figure out where she lived. She had been profiled earlier that month on Entertainment Tonight along with her sister, who at twelve was also a model, and the two girls were shown roller-blading around their cul-de-sac, and I knew all the cul-de-sacs in town from having driven the bus. So, a few days after I was fired, I drove to the house. To be a bear was to be impulsive.

It had been a record-hot, record-dry July, and the joke topic of the radio call-in show I listened to as I drove was "What have we done to antagonize God?" Callers were citing recent sad and farcical events from around the world in excited, tentative voices, as though the jovial DJ would really give them the answer, or as though they might win something. Only a few callers took the question personally, confessing small acts of betrayal and deception, but the DJ cut these people off. "Well, heh heh, we all do the best we can," he said, fading their voices out so it would not sound as though he were hanging up on them mid-sentence. Asshole, I thought, and I made a mental note to stop at the radio station sometime and do something about him.

The model's house was made of a special, straw-colored kind of brick, rare in the South, or so ET had said. I saw the model's mother step out onto the front steps, holding a canister of Love My Carpet, but when she saw my car she stepped quickly back inside. The model's sister answered the door. She was a double of the model, only reduced in size by a third and missing the model's poignance. Her face was beautiful but entirely devoid of expression or history; her small smooth features did not look capable of being shaped by loss or longing, not even the honest longing of children. This would be an asset for a model, I imagined, and I could see where the mother's Buddha-nature had been translated, in her younger daughter, into perfection: desire had not just been eliminated, but seemed never to have existed in the first place.

"I am a fan," I said, and, perhaps because I was a girl, showered and combed and smiling, I was let in. I had also brought, as props, a couple of magazines which I held in front of me like a shield, but I was not nervous at all. I understood that I had nothing to lose, that none of us, in fact, had as much to lose as we believed. I sensed other bears out there, too--my fierce brothers, stalking through woods and villages, streams and lots, sometimes upright and sometimes on all fours, looking straight ahead and feeling the world pass beneath their heavy, sensitive paws.

The model's sister led me past ascending carpeted stairs and a wall of framed photos to the back of the house, where the model's bright bedroom overlooked a patio crowded by palmetto and bougainvillea, visible through sliding glass doors. A tiny motion sensor stuck to the wall above the glass blinked its red light as I entered. The model was bent over her single bed, taking small towels of all colors and patterns from a laundry basket, folding them, and placing them in piles. "Fan," the little sister said, and the model straightened and smiled and came forward, her perfume surrounding me and sending a surge of bear power through me, a boiling sheet of red up before my eyes. For just a moment as we shook hands I was sure she would know, she would remember the feel of my paw. But then she stepped back and my face cooled.

"I'm a huge fan," I said.

"Well, thanks, that's so sweet," she said. She had taken the magazines from me automatically, just as her mother had taken the ice cream at the store, and was already scribbling across the shiny likeness of her face. "Should I make it out to anyone?" she said.

"My boyfriend," I said, and I told her the stockbroker's name.

"You're so lucky you're so tall," she said, handing the magazines back. "That's my biggest liability, I can't do runway. Well, thanks for coming by."

I looked around at the white dressers, the mirrored vanity, not ready to leave, and was shocked by a short row of stuffed bears set up on a shelf on the wall behind me. They were just regular brown teddy bears with ribbon bows at their necks, no pandas or polar bears, but they stared back at me with identical shocked expressions, another motion sensor glowing on the wall over their heads, unblinking. "Nice bears," I finally said, forcing myself to turn away.

"Oh, I've had those forever," she said. "See that one in the middle, that looks so sad? I found him in the street when I was six years old! Doesn't he look sad?"

"Yeah, he really does," I said. The bear was smaller and more lumpish than the other bears, with black felt crescents glued on for eyebrows.

"I used to make them take turns sleeping in the bed with me," the model said. "But even if it wasn't his turn I let him, just 'cause he looked so sad. Isn't that funny? I used to kiss him thirty-two times, every night, right after I said my prayers."

"Thirty-two," I said.

"My lucky number," she said brightly.

"But you don't kiss him anymore," I said.

She stared at me, frowning. "No," she said. She stared at me some more and I just stood, my arms hanging, as a bear would stand, waiting. "Well, I better get back to work," she said.

"On your towels," I said.

She put her hands on her hips and gazed helplessly at the towels, as though they had betrayed her. "They're dish towels, isn't that queer?" she said. "I got them from a chain letter. My cousin started it, and I was second on the list, so I got, like, seventy-two of them sent from, like, everywhere. Isn't that pathetic--she's, like, twenty, and that's her hobby. You can have one, you want one?"

"Seriously?" I said.

"God, take your pick," she said. "I guess I have to remind myself sometimes that not everyone's as lucky as me, but, like, dish towels, I'm sorry."

I had to brush past her to get to the bed, the snap on the hip pocket of my jeans rubbing her arm. I took the top towel from the nearest stack, a simple white terry cloth one with an appliqué of a pair of orange and yellow squash. "Thanks, I'll think of you every time I use it," I said. I held the towel, stroking it. It was not enough, I was thinking.

"Well, thanks for coming by," she said. She had moved to the doorway and stood looking at me in the same way she had looked at the towels. The row of bears watched from over her shoulder, the slumped, sad one seeming braced by its brethren. I imagined the model and her soulless sister laughing at me after I'd gone, at my terrible size, my obvious lie about a boyfriend.

"I really have to get back to what I was doing . . ." she said.

"I'm sorry, I was just so nervous about finally meeting you," I said, and I could see her relax slightly. "I almost forgot to ask, isn't that funny? I hate to ask, but do you by any chance give out photos?"

"No, you'd have to contact the fan club for that," she said. Her face was final, and I turned, finally, to go. "But actually, wait," she said. "I do have something, if you want it."

What happened next was certainly not believable in the real world, but in the just, super-real world of the bear it only confirmed what I had known. She slid an envelope out from beneath the blotter on her white desk, picked through it with her slim graceful fingers, and pulled out a photograph which she passed to me hurriedly, as though it were contaminated. "Here, isn't that cute?" she said, laughing in a forced way, like the DJ.

There we were, her and me, her small, radiant face beside my large, furry, inscrutable one, my paw visible, squeezing her small shoulders together slightly, the flash reflected in the freezer cases behind us, making a white halo around both of our heads. Something seemed to pop, then, noiselessly, as though the flash had just gone off around us again in the bedroom. Like a witch or spirit who could be destroyed by having her photo taken, I felt I was no longer the bear. "He's so cute," I murmured.

She snorted, but it had no heart to it, it sounded like she was imitating someone. Then, for a moment she no longer saw me; she just stood there looking at nothing, her dark blue eyes narrowed, the faintest suggestion of creases visible around her mouth.

I had to take a step back, such was the power of her face at that moment. Then she too became herself again, and we were just two sad girls standing there, one of them beautiful and one of them something else. "Well, good-bye," I said, and she looked relieved that I was leaving--but also, I thought, that it was only me deserting her and not, as before, the heartbreaking, duplicitous bear.

On the way out I encountered her mother, who had materialized again beside the front door. It was the simple gravity, the solid, matter-of-fact weight of the woman, I decided, that made her silent appearances and disappearances so disconcerting, so breathtaking--wasn't it more impressive to see a magician produce from the depths of his bag a large, floppy rabbit, to see the ungraceful weight of the animal dragged up into the light, than to watch him release doves or canaries, already creatures of the air, flashy but in their element? "Good-bye," I said. "Sorry."

She smiled and did not step but rather shifted several inches so that I could get past her, and then stood in the open doorway, round and lavender, smiling and watching my retreat. Only when I was halfway down the walk to my car did she say good-bye, and then her voice was so deep and strange and serene that I was not sure if I had really heard it, or, if I had, if it had really come from her.

__________

I did use the towel and sometimes think of the model when I used it. The photo I didn't frame or hide or treat with any ceremony, but I looked at it often, trying to experience again that moment of transformation, that rush of power that had gone through me in the seconds before the photo was snapped.

But after a few months even the memory of it became weak, I was after all no longer the bear and could no longer remember well what it felt like to be the bear. The animal in the picture appeared only to be a big, awkwardly constructed sham, nothing you could call human. When I looked at it I felt only confusion and shame. How had I become that shaggy, oversized, hollow thing? Once I had been an honest little girl, a girl who had to be dragged away from the object of her love, but somehow, somewhere, everything had changed. How had it happened, I wondered. I studied the photo as though the bear could answer me, but it only stared back with its black fiberglass eyes, its grip on the real human beside it relentless.


Wendy Brenner's story collection, I Am the Bear, has won this year's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and will be published by the University of Georgia Press late in 1995.

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