”This very short story is expansive, vast, with longing and ideas of possibility.” —R. O. Kwon, contest judge and author of The Incendiaries.

Natalie White, Untitled, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Natalie White, Untitled, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.


Circus Girls

by Dorothy Bendel

Winner of the 2019 Flash Contest

The woman at the grocery store checkout points to my shirt and says oh, Cirque du Soleil…are you a performer? and I say yes, I'm an aerialist. She slants her head. I clarify: You know those people who swoop over the audience on long ribbons—silks, we say—wrapping and unwrapping themselves, twirling, tumbling? That's me. 

The woman straightens her head, sucks in air while scanning a meal replacement bar. Cool

I could tell her I was issued these clothes to man the gift shop that crowds are ushered into when a performance ends. But why tell her the truth, that I sell overpriced glass sculptures of clowns balancing on balls for tourists to bubble wrap alongside the souvenirs they've purchased at Disney World? 

Why insist I am not one of those bodies bound and suspended, unfurling for all to see?

 I tell the barista I am a trapeze artist when I stop for coffee before hitting I-4. I've had time to think about my imaginary job and this sounds more fitting—a body swinging from place to place, from home to homeless shelter, a body tossed from father to partner, a body hit and thrown. A body always reaching out. A body bruised.

The barista says that's awesome and hands me a coffee, faint scars lined up neatly on her forearm like a barcode. I pretend not to see.

I cross my arms when the man at the gas station notices the writing on my shirt—the script centered across my chest—sweat slithering from his sideburns down his neck. He reminds me of the men waiting in their cars outside the shelter, the men looking for girls aching for someone to take their hands before they fall.

The man pumping gas relaxes his grip, lets the nozzle hang, unhinges his jaw to speak. But I’ve already heard what he might say in the voices of other men. Before he can speak I half-scream I am a performer!

The next day at work I refer to the show as a circus and my boss nearly asphyxiates. It is an artistic exhibition. I consider saying but “cirque” means… I cut open a box instead. He leaves and the gift shop empties. Bursts of music rattle from the theater. I sneak in and watch scenes from a show I cannot afford to see in its entirety: young girls who've been flown over vast bodies of water to jump, flip, and balance on each other so spectators can ooh and ahh and use words like exotic to describe the experience to their friends.

One girl leans forward so the next can climb on her back, and then another—the last spinning a diabolo, her hair glittering in heavy lights from above. These girls force smiles at the people watching. I think they might collapse and my body tenses, but they don’t break apart. They’ve played these roles a thousand times before. The girl on top bends backward and flips away like it is nothing. I can feel my body moving with her, my spine lengthening, the shiver of release as she lands and lifts her arms into a V.


Published September 15th, 2019

Dorothy Bendel's writing appears in Catapult, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, and additional publications. See more of her work at dorothybendel.com and follow her @DorothyBendel

Natalie White is a provocative and progressive feminist artist, best known for her self-portrait work in giant polaroid photography and her contributions as a “muse” to the work of many of today’s art and fashion luminaries, such as George Condo, Olivier Zahm, Will Cotton, Spencer Tunick, and Sean Lennon. “Feminist by nature, riot by habit”, Natalie White is a leader in advocating for female empowerment and self-affirmation through art. White first gained attention internationally as a young model. She is notably the first American ever to be featured in French Playboy. Reclaiming the objectification of her body as her own art in 2013 at Who Shot Natalie White, a retrospective from twenty five artists for whom she had been a muse, White debuted herself as a solo artist. She also has performed at the Art Basel Miami Women in Art benefit in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Center.