AMBIKA THOMPSON

★ ★ ★ ★

THE CONTORTIONIST

By Ambika Thompson

Oksana stood on her hands, her head tilted forward so she could see the target. She bent her torso so her legs would be parallel over her head. It was my job to give her the bow, the arrow, a wink for luck, but she didn’t need luck. She was a pro. The wood of the bow was smooth, polished, curved to perfection like her body. Two halves making a whole. She took the bow in her left foot and pulled the arrow back with the toes of her right foot. She focused on the balloon. She always wanted a blue balloon. She told me once the colour of the sky on a clear day is her favourite colour. She let go of the arrow and it shot out in a perfectly straight line popping the balloon. The crowd cheered as she unwound herself. She looked over at me. It was her turn to wink. She winked at me every night.

The Russians wanted to know what it was like in Canada. Do you have bears in the streets, they wanted to know. The three trapeze artists. They performed with their shirts off, their skin rippled and chiselled. It was obnoxious. They never put their shirts on unless they had to. Unless their nipples risked being cracked off at the seam from the cold. The other dancers gathered around them, leaning on their forearms listening to the Russians in their heavy accents. Sometimes they spoke German. Sometimes English. The dancers were all German except for myself and Ivka, who was Swedish. Ivka was attached to me until the Germans let her in—they never let me in—then she pretended not to know me anymore.

The Russians wanted to know if I missed Canada. They missed Russia. They said Canada and Russia are alike. Cold. Inhospitable. Wild animals. “But we have vodka. Cheaper than water,” they said. They were from Moscow, a city with the population of all the Canadian cities put together. A city that if you put all of those Canadian cities together, you’d have a city surrounded by Lake Ontario and the Pacific, and the Atlantic, and the arctic circle and rivers instead of roads with the CN Tower stacked on top of Parliament Hill surrounded by Vancouver high-rises with a fence of trailer homes. They could put it in the very centre of Canada, longitude-wise, just outside of Winnipeg.

I was a split second slower than the other dancers. I was a split second slower at everything, but no one noticed for the most part except Oksana, she noticed. She noticed everything. She told me that I needed to concentrate. I don’t concentrate anymore. Nothing seems worth concentrating for.

When we came out in our matching outfits, while the men changed the ring for the next act, I would see Oksana peeking through the curtains. I knew she was watching me and would tell me later that I was always a split second off like a clock who had become unwound. She said I’m too dark, too pessimistic. She could see it in the way my body moved.

She was not from Moscow. She was not Russian. She was from a village near Odessa. A black sea queen. She didn’t colour her hair blonde like all the other women in the circus. Her hair was dark. Black. She kept it that way. The colour of her sea. When she was drunk she told me that she’s a witch as she ran her hand up my leg. But she stopped there. She threw her head back and opened her mouth in a wide laugh as though she could suck in the entire universe in one swallow.

She didn’t like the Russians, or so she said. She told me in hushed whispers in her broken English as we cleaned up after the shows, “They, those, they are not good ones.” She told me that about all the men in the circus, except the clown. She liked the clown. The clown had one leg but no-one ever noticed. His other leg was prosthetic. He’d show it to Oksana whenever he could. It seemed perverse to me. He took advantage of what Oksana would do for him. He asked more from her than anyone else. It made me jealous.

When I was jealous I’d tell her about the Vegreville Egg, a giant sculpture of a Ukrainian Easter egg in Alberta. I’d seen it once driving to Rosetown, Saskatchewan as a child for my father’s family reunion. We stopped and snapped photos of ourselves under it. No one else was there to take a family photo. Always one of us was missing. When my father had the film developed he cut me out of one of the photos and glued my disembodied head onto another photo, one with him, my mother and my sister. It stayed on the shelf next to our TV until I moved out, long after my mother and my sister left.

Oksana wanted to come and see the egg with me. She wanted to see the other World’s largests sprinkled throughout small towns in Alberta. The World’s largest Pyrogy, Kubasa, Oil Lamp, Mosquito, Badminton Racket, Beaver, Mushroom, and Piggy Bank were all in Alberta. Maybe they weren’t all inspired by Ukrainian Canadians, but a lot of them were. I’m from Alberta. My parents aren’t Ukrainian, but sometimes I think they made the World’s Biggest Loser, but I never told Oksana that.

“We can rent a convertible,” she said, “And drive through the prairies in the summer with the wind blowing through our hair.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we’d probably be pelted to death by june bugs, grasshoppers, horse flies, cowboys and heat.

* * *

The circus was in Berlin for Christmas when Oksana broke her arm. It wasn’t during her act. She was beautiful and majestic like always. When she performed the audience, full of holiday cheer, lifted her to the sky. Afterwards she’d gone outside to look at the stars. Look at where the crowd had taken her. The sky was crystal clear that night. Light pollution at a minimum. She had slipped on a patch of ice while she ran her finger along O’Ryan’s belt and down to where his penis would be. The doctor told her it would take several months to heal and that she would probably never be able to do her act again, at least not nearly as well as she could before.

Because I was in love with her I quit the circus too.

We got a small two room apartment on a sublet on the fifth floor that overlooked an old atheist, communist graveyard. I told her that when her arm was better, and we’d saved up enough money we could go to Canada. I got a job in a pub under the table and put all our money in a sock in the freezer.

I knew, and Oksana knew, that it should have been me to fall, even if I wasn’t there. I was the less talented one. The little dancer that couldn’t. Oksana was depressed. She didn’t leave the apartment, instead spending her days planning our lives in Canada imagining the World’s Largest Lives. I told her I don’t care where we live. She could decide. But not Alberta. Anywhere but there.

We shared a bed, a mattress on the floor that we’d found on the street, disgustingly stained. We tried to ignore that fact. She slept with her back towards me. I sometimes watched her breathing when I came home from work and she was already asleep. Her body gently moving up and down. Her breath was sour, it filled the room up with her smell. I was afraid to tell her that I wanted to kiss her.

When the Russians were in town again on summer break they came over and we got drunk together on vodka that they picked up at the Russian shop. They said it wasn’t very good, wasn’t real. They still missed Russia. They all still wanted to know about Canada, still. I told them about how the cocks are circumcised. I was very drunk one night, the room spinning in circles, when I talked about all the inappropriate blowjobs I’d ever given. About being sixteen and working in a bar in Quebec and fucking my boss on a pool table after the bar closed. Back then I thought he was fifty. He was probably only twenty-five. And about my co-worker who put his cock in my hand and without me moving he filled my hand up with his gunk. I always wondered how he did that. But the Russians weren’t listening when I told these stories. I told them for Oksana. I talked quickly enough so the others couldn’t understand. They laughed when I said cock. They thought I was telling jokes about dicks in top-hats with candy cane canes. That’s what Oksana told them. She told me that her mother would have killed those men. Her mother would have beat them with a rolling pin until their eyes were dislodged from their heads. That’s what she told me.

She thought I was soft. I knew that she started sleeping with Serge, the eldest Russian. I could smell him on her when I came home from the bar. He smelled of rye bread and whiskey. Never liked vodka. She didn’t tell me. I didn’t know if it was because she knew how I felt, or she was afraid I would leave without her. I didn’t mind. I didn’t tell her that I didn’t want to live in Canada. I didn’t want to go back. Before the men in the bars and their uncircumcised cocks, there was my father and his fists, and the girls at school who stopped me on the street in their fancy cars and punched me in the face because I fucked their boyfriends. Which I did. It was always true what they said. I fucked them all. When I fucked them I forgot about my father and that my mother left me with him. That’s why I fucked their boyfriends, but they had never bothered to ask.

Sometimes when I came home from work she was trying to get into her circus position and would somehow have managed to get the crossbow up in her feet, but she was less graceful. She was defective. Before she was sharp lines and confidence. The new her was snaky and unfocused. She was always trying to aim at herself in the mirror.

One night I came home and the mirror was smashed. The arrow laying within the ruble of the splinters of my reflection.

I worried that she was in love with Serge but I was afraid that if I asked she would leave, and because she was fucking Serge I started fucking my boss at work. I fucked him on the pool table. It felt like home.

Oksana thought living in Canada was going to be great. She’d become addicted to Degrassi. Life in Canada was always a moral story on how to be a better person. She liked that.

Oksana decided on the Yukon the week before she left. She said she liked the cold, the rivers that ice over to skate on and snowflakes that burn your cheeks from the wind. She said we could start a family, live in an igloo, and get huskies that would pull the kids home from school on sleds. That was when I knew she knew how I felt but we still didn’t talk about it. I told her ok. Let’s do it. And she smiled out of the corner of her mouth as she struggled to stand on her hands before lifting her legs up over her head. She winced and her legs toppled back down making a thud on the linoleum floor in the kitchen that we never bothered to clean.

“You did it a few weeks ago,” I told her. Though I’m not sure she really had. I wondered if she’d smashed the mirror with her fists when she had failed, made it look like she hit it with her bow. I’d gotten her a new mirror so she could keep practicing.

We went to bed that night and she faced me this time and rubbed my arm with her good arm, and said, it’s going to be beautiful in the Yukon. I told her that I agreed, but I knew that we both knew that it wouldn’t happen.

I was at work still when she left. I’d let my boss fuck me on the pool table again because I knew she was going to go. Before I went to work that night she was dressed in her circus costume in the kitchen drinking orange juice out of the carton. I told her that she looked good. She told me that it was over. I didn’t know whether she meant the orange juice, or us. She kissed me on the cheek as I left and thanked me for everything. I told her that it was going to be great, and I’d see her later. She smiled that vague smile she did when she thought what I was saying was stupid.

When I came home from work and all her stuff was gone, including some of my stuff. The little porcelain doll that sat on a toilet that I picked up off the street corner and put on our empty book shelf next to a German dictionary, which she took as well, along with most of my underwear. She hadn’t left a note so I waited for two weeks in case she came back before I told the landlord that I was moving back to Canada.

I’d hidden her crossbow in the cellar the night she left. It was after she kissed me on the cheek then told me that she was going to have a shower. I’d thought that if she couldn’t find it she would stay. When I was moving out I put her crossbow near the garbage bins in the courtyard. I saw a little girl in a dirty polka dot dress pick it up and run across the street with it. I never saw the bow again.

Berlin Lit Q & A

This month’s fiction “The Contortionist” comes from Berlin-based writer and managing editor of literary journal Leopardskin & Limes, Ambika Thompson. Leopardskin & Limes is one of TWW’s favourite literary journals, where their aim is to bring out the best poetry and stories that they can get their grubby little mittens on.

This month, we asked Ambika what she’s been up to as a rising star of the Berlin literary scene. The answers involved being a chunky monkey, women with roller skate bombs attached to their feet and a magic stopwatch that controls time….

  1. You: are a prolific writer, currently doing your MFA, are one half of the Riot grrl cello punk band Razor Cunts, create collages, photos and artwork, run the online literary mag Leopardskin & Limes, and raise two kids. How the hell do you balance all that? Tell the truth – have you cloned yourself?

And I get 8 hours of sleep every night! Hey, you do tons of stuff too so you know the secret, which is lots and lots of amphetamines, a magic stopwatch that makes time and everything but you stop, and also having no social life.

Recently I had to talk myself out of signing up for a Spanish course. This was a growing moment for me to actually for once realize that I couldn’t do everything I wanted. I think I have issues about my own mortality. I want to do all of the things all of the time, but then I try and I can’t. This is what prompted me to apply to do an MFA. I think I realized that I needed to focus, that doing many things that I love is awesome, but that I wanted to just really get in the writing, ‘cause I was feeling like I just couldn’t keep up with myself.

But I’m not really doing all the things all the time though anyways. I have to do things in chunks. I’m a chunky monkey and a jerk of all trades. I also waste tons of time. I’m really good at that.

  1. What would you do with your time if you could clone a couple more of you?

I am terrified of clones, especially clones of myself. I think a lot about this. Would we get along? How much like me are they? Would they be better versions of me, ‘cause that would piss me off? Am I supposed to control them? If they’re like me, they’d hate being controlled. I’d be conflicted ethically. Plus, I can’t even get my kids to clean their poop stains out of the toilet, how could I control clones of me? They’d overthrow me. But I could start a band with them called The Clone Whores. (Star Wars reference, in case you didn’t know.)

Seriously though if I had more time I’d become a comedian. No joking.

  1. Leopardskin&Limes is one our Berlin buddies in the literary magazine world, and we love the vibe. What kind of poetry and fiction are you hoping to receive in 2018?

I would love if we could get translated works, which we really don’t get any of. The majority of submissions we get come from the States, and I feel like culturally the States defines so much of the world. Everybody is watching Netflix, reading the New York Times bestsellers. Well, not everybody, but you get me. I fear this cultural homogenization, and it would be nice to get work outside the English speaking and/or American bubble. That said, so say I conceded and got me some clones, I’d probably like them to go out and find these great works in other languages. They could learn the languages and do the translating. I think that’s putting clones to good work. Also, a few people have commented that a lot of the fiction on L & L is about animals, so probably more animal stories, cause also if I had more time I’d become a zoologist. Otherwise Jane (Flett) is doing a great job with the poetry! I love the stuff she publishes. And I love what you guys are doing. I mean it’s all kind of exciting and it’s nice to create platforms to share other’s works. But I do wish I had more time to spend working on the journal. You’re right, we need clones.

  1. What’s your favourite thing you’re working on right now?

It’s always the most recent thing or things. So for now it’s a poetry chapbook called Girl Band, a short story about a Quebecois woman who thinks she’s a Greenland Shark, a play about Angela Merkel and her personal assistant being witches and destroying Canada, and a semi-post-apocalyptic novel about women having roller skate bombs surgically attached to their feet, skating the abandoned, no-zone autobahns of Germany in order to try and stop the flesh eating robots invading from Poland.

  1. Any New Year’s writing resolutions?

I really need to finish one of the novels I’m working on and send it out into the world, and not start another one – at least not until NaNoWriMo. Otherwise just seeing how my work changes, and hopefully evolves from being in this program. I’m feeling pretty optimistic today, tomorrow on the other hand…

Ambika Thompson is a writer, musician and parent. She has been published with Electric Literature’s Okey Panky, NPR Berlin, Fanzine, Missing Slate, and was in Crab Fats Magazine‘s “Best of” compilation (2017), as well as other places. She is one half of the cello riot grrrl band Razor Cunts, the fiction & managing editor of the literary journal Leopardskin & Limes, and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Guelph University. ambikathompson.com

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