The Mechanical Dancer by Richard Risemberg

She had become my girlfriend, under conditions: the main one being that I never refer to her as my girlfriend. “So how do I introduce you to my friends?”

She smirked — she was good at smirking; her face, with its freckles and sharp eyes, was built for it. “I do have a name, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But I didn’t know it till our third date. You’re kind of cagey about personal details, you know. It makes life difficult.”
“Life is difficult. Deal with it.”

That was Lisa all the way. We finally devised a protocol that worked: I would introduce her with a fake name. And in fact she is not called ‘Lisa.’ Neither is she called the name she gave me on our famous-to-us third date. Actors can drive you nuts, and she was, rarity of rarities, a working actor who made enough to squeak by in LA, though she was neither tall not buxom nor particularly pretty in her daily life. When she landed a gig on a TV show or a movie, instead of her usual catch of commercials, she played the girl next door, the aging tomboy, the sharp-tongued therapist, in for a scene and then forgotten. She could dress up well and look glamorous, she was svelte and poised though not naturally endowed with the twin qualifications Hollywood favors, but she was too honest, and her headshots included her real face, her short brown hair, her narrow build. And so she got the mousy-neighbor gigs, for the most part. She didn’t care. She would rather have been doing theater, but there was rent to pay. Although we split that now.

When I met her she was playing a mannequin in a store window, startling passersby when she suddenly changed poses or winked at them. Encased in pancake, falsies, and wig, with clothes that cost more than our rent draped on her, stiletto pumps on her feet, she looked the goddess. I made a date by gesture through the glass, and of course I didn’t recognize her when she ambled in, short, slim, plain, wearing jeans and sneakers. Then she sat down, straightened her shoulders, gazed imperiously past me, and became a goddess again, freckles and all. I was hooked, even though she wasn’t fishing. Somehow I managed to keep her interested, and we worked our way into what is now called a “relationship.” Of course a “relationship” can be anything, good or bad, but it might be love. Though she’d never admit it if you asked.

My friends didn’t get to meet her for six months, and then, in a gesture that smelled of an uncharacteristic insecurity, she dolled herself up for party we’d been asked to, wore heels, covered the freckles. No wig, at least, but she spiked up her short brown hair and dyed it punky pink, just to confuse the issue. My friends were duly confused, but she was a hit. “I gotta have my fun,” she said. When a particularly officious buddy asked her what she did when she couldn’t sleep—his standard question of strangers, god knows why—she told him she liked solving quadratic equations in her head. It was true that she could solve quadratics in her head, but I had never known her to be insomniac. In any case, it shut him up. He had trouble balancing a checkbook.

So there we were, me with my lightweight coding jobs for tightfisted shopowners trying too late to hop on the digital bandwagon, Lisa reveling in the humiliations of the acting life because, as she put it, “It confirms my cynical views of human nature.”

“Is that why you’re with me?” I said.

“Naw. I’m with you to see if I can figure out why I’m with you.”

“And when you do?”

“No worries, kid, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

And then came the mechanical dancer gig.

Maybe it wasn’t as stupid as playing a mannequin, but it was stupid enough. A department store—the same one that had hired her to play a dummy in their window—changed a showroom alcove into a tiny proscenium and hired her to play a robot. They dressed her in bright chrome-colored tights, skirt, and top, and covered the rest of her with silver pancake. She actually shaved her head for the gig, which did not particularly please me, but what the hell, it was a paycheck. And as short as she kept her real hair, it would grow back fast. Then, every fifteen minutes, she would begin her robot dance, prancing with stiff-limbed grace to some cheesy EDM and growing progressively herky-jerky until she pretended to lose control, veer all over the stage, reel about madly, and at last collapse onto a convenient fancy bed, on sale for two weeks only at one thousand eight hundred dollars, such a deal! All while keeping a perfectly blank face, then relaxing into a chrome-plated but recognizably human girl as she hit the duvet. Leaning on her elbow and smiling at the audience as the curtains closed.

Of course the sales crew hovered at the fringes of the crowd ready to move in on suckers as soon as the applause faded. And there was applause; she drew a crowd. The routine lasted about five minutes, and the stage was a little above floor level, so the store’s good little shoppers could see her gyrating from across the vast room. And naturally the music was loud. I don’t know whether the act sold any beds, or any more beds than they would have sold anyway, but you could trust the client to sign her checks on time.

I’d meet her on her lunch break, in the bleak fluorescent light of a bare room reserved for employee comfort, where she drank a smoothie, carefully, through a straw, so as not to smear the makeup. She made enough money to buy one and a half beds from the two-week gig, and that’s all she asked of it. We already had a bed.

Sometimes she wore a wig on the street during those two weeks. This was a flip from the usual, when she’d have to wear a wig over her short mousy hair to look more Hollywood for a job, and could be herself in her off hours. Then again, she was an actor: being herself was not in the job description, as she loved to point out. Sometimes I wasn’t sure who the hell I was in love with: the sharp-witted tomboy, the occasional glamour girl, or the mechanical dancer. When I tried gently to inquire, she snapped back, “I’m all of them, buddy boy. The way I see it, everybody’s phony through and through, playing some damn role or another. The difference being I don’t pretend otherwise.”

“But you always come back to yourself between gigs….”

“How do you know that’s really me? For that matter, how do I know it? Look, our parents gave us scripts to live by, which they got from their parents. And then our schools did, and now our bosses do, damn their souls. The difference is, mine are real scripts, on real paper, and they go in the trash at wrap. How about you?”

“What do you mean? I’m a pretty obvious guy.”

“Are you now? You put on that lost-puppy act, but you’re pretty sharp yourself. You look like a bum but you’re a curated bum; you make enough money you could play the phony if you wanted to. But not playing the phony is phony too. You get what I mean? The thing is, you believe in your role, and I don’t.”

“So what about, well, love and all that?”

“Who the fuck knows what that means?”

“But why are you with me then?”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t real. I just said that no one knows what it means. Hey, let’s eat. Real food, I’m tired of smoothies, damn it.” And so we found a café and ate.

Her wig was crooked, but when I told her she just laughed and took it off, then hung it on the hatrack by the table. So there she was, stubbly shaved head gleaming over the freckles on her shoulders…she was wearing a spaghetti-strap dress that she used to claim she hated, looking half Hollywood and half gutter, and maybe the two aren’t all that far apart, when some big-bellied fellow with a beard ambles over in his faded t-shirt and introduces himself. It was an aging middle-deal producer whose wife-of-the-week had dragged him out shopping, and he’d seen the mechanical dancer act. He invited himself to sit down with us, which induced a worried-looking waiter to trot over asking what else we wanted, which, unfortunately for his tip, was nothing. Mr. Producer offered us some booze, but Lisa stated blankly that it was too early for peons like us to drink, which he let glide by, so I knew an offer of some sort was coming. And it did: he threw out a compliment or two, said she shouldn’t be doing such stupid gigs, given her obvious talents, and asked if he could introduce her to his favorite agent, who would move her up in the world.

Lisa looked at him and spoke as coolly as any movie gunslinger, “I don’t do porn, not even soft-core. So fuck off.”

Mr. Producer got up without a word and left.

I ventured a question: “Was that really a good career move? Even I know his name. He doesn’t do porn.”

“Maybe not by your standards. You’re far too much a guy, despite your saving graces. Probably wants me to play some bald lez love interest that gets dumped after the girl-on-girl scene when the lead decides to go straight after all. You ever seen any of his films?”


“Then you can fuck off too. He also still uses the casting couch, so no way. In this day and age, he’s a short-timer, even if he doesn’t know it. Also, lots of guys hate him too, it’s not just women.”

“He was just quoted in the Times…”

“Yeah? Well, his next quote will be relayed by a lawyer. I like my agent, even if she does get me dumb gigs like the robot dancer.” Then she smiled, a real smile, as far as I could tell. “Also, she scored me a paying role in a play, and it’s supposed to run six months. So,” she laughed, “now that that belly disguised as a man is out of sight, let’s have champagne!”

She gestured to the waiter, who ambled over with considerably less alacrity than he’d shown when Mr. Producer was resting his fat ass at our table, but brightened slightly when he heard what she wanted. It was not a cheap bottle, so I could tell she was seriously happy. Wasting money on display was not part of the Lisa protocols. I asked, “You making enough on the theater gig to justify this?”

“Fuck, no,” she said. “It’s a bit more than I’d make at a retail counter somewhere. But listen: it’s what I want to do. A real play, by a real playwright. And if he wasn’t drunk when he wrote it, it should be good.”

“You haven’t read it yet?”

“Just the scene they gave us for the audition. I didn’t mention it before because, you know, counting chickens and all that. Hey: here’s to art, paychecks, and the end of the universe!”

We clanked our glasses. The champagne sizzled under our noses, and the universe didn’t end, which was a good thing in my book, though I never could figure out Lisa’s opinion on this puzzling matter of existence. She always added that line to a toast. We drank half the bottle right there, and took the rest home, wrapped in the wig. Lisa actually held my hand as we walked, we lived three blocks from the café. Though thanks to the champagne it felt like four.

I guess the playwright had been sober: the play was good, as far as I could tell. I’m not a theater person, but I got lost in the story, and I could hardly recognize Lisa in her role. Of course I brought her flowers, which she accepted with grace at curtain call and then gave to a homeless woman who was camped out by the stage door. She was giddy with pleasure, which was not a frequent occurrence with her, and we had a very good night when we got home. The next morning was a Sunday, so we slept in, then I made us scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast, and we drank a split of champagne we’d bought for the occasion.

Our dining table was tiny, as befitted our little apartment, but we kept it by a window and could look out on the world as we ate. The top of a small tree reached to the windowsill, and sometimes the neighborhood hummingbird would sit on a twig just outside the glass and look left and right over his domain for a while, then rocket off somewhere. Neighbors passed by walking their dogs, and sunlight fell on the leaves of the little tree. It was the first time I’d seen Lisa that relaxed in months. She leaned back in her chair and stared out the window for a while, sipping her champagne. There was a fleck of egg on her lip, she felt it and licked it delicately into her mouth.

“You know, that damn play,” she said. “It’s really good. I don’t know if it’ll lead to anything bigger, but I don’t care. It’s good right now.” She turned her head and looked at me. I’d never seen her looking soft before. There was no trace of the mechanical dancer. “And we’re good right now, too. Aren’t we?” I nodded. She went on: “I gotta confess, I’m a little in love with you after all. Let’s toast to that, huh?” She lifted her glass, I lifted mine, we clanked, and then she said: “Here’s to love, whatever the fuck that is. And the end of the universe. But not yet. Not yet. Please.”

1 thought on “The Mechanical Dancer by Richard Risemberg”

  1. A snapshot of two people working in and out the reality of their lives. And it ends upbeat on the low down. Definitely worth the short read for me.

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