The Performerhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/bn35.jpg?fit=1080%2C1080&ssl=110801080Rebecca AckermannRebecca Ackermannhttps://i2.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/RebeccaAckermann.jpg?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
The Patrons want me to check the app as soon as I wake up so they don’t miss a chance to tell me what to do. This morning, before my toes touch the floor, they decide I’ll shave my legs in an eighteen-minute-long shower, wear a yellow sundress that stretches tight across my belly, and eat fried eggs for breakfast with a side of pickles. Bigboy276 bought the pickles. “Sour for a sourpuss like you,” he messages with his payment.
The Patrons decide I’ll walk my golden lab mix Andy along the beach. They urge me to poke a large jellyfish I find splayed on the wet sand and to let Andy take it in his mouth and shake his head until jelly limbs fly in all directions. Then Monstrmn007 pays premium for me to dive into a freezing Pacific wave. Andy tries to drag me out but only catches dress between his teeth. Yellow cotton clinging to my skin, I return home to change, even though one Patron requests I stay soaked for the rest of the day.
I have PG-13 rules: no sex and no violence, rare for Performers on the app. I don’t earn as much as the others, but the point never was to get rich. After I lost her, Performing offered cool relief when nothing else could. It still does.
The Patrons pay me to walk out into the middle of the street in front of my apartment and scream until my voice goes rough. Then they have me watch their favorite shows until it gets dark.
Jeff gets home from his shift and kisses my hair as he passes the couch. The Patrons have tried to pay me every day to break up with Jeff. They bid on different insults to yell as he changes in the bedroom, but I decline them all. Jeff loves me. He lost our baby too, but he can get out of bed on his own, he can choose what to make for dinner.
Some days, she is a puzzle I can’t solve. Unviable means not feasible; an impossible child can’t die because she could never live. But my body still arcs in the center where she used to be. Jeff is healing; my body and I, we can’t yet.
The Patrons don’t know about her. They want me to do crunches, crush her room out of my middle. “You’ll be so hot with a flat stomach,” LAsurfxx messages me with a premium offer for lipo. I decline them all. But I accept requests to pinch my belly skin between my thumb and my forefinger as I lie on the couch. I accept money to growl “gross” at the flesh. I can hear Jeff sigh from the kitchen. He hates the app.
The next morning, a new Patron requests I take a long bubble bath. My big toe rubs against the rubber mat we stuck to the tub when I got pregnant the first time. In the almond-scented bubbles, I pretend my body never contained anyone but me. The same Patron asks me to trace “I love you” into the fogged mirror, and the tinny chime of an accepted bid floats out the open door. When I emerge from the bathroom, the other Patrons pay me to put on my old, too-tight jeans.
“What are they having you do today?” Jeff asks as he slips on his work shoes. He’s left a muffin and some bacon by the sink in case they allow me to eat it.
“The beach again,” I say, my stomach growling.
“Don’t let them convince you to do anything dangerous.”
“What’s dangerous?” What I mean is the worst has already happened.
“It’s not your fault,” he says for the millionth time and reaches out to rub my arm before he leaves. His touch summons goosebumps; her ghost lives in his fingers. I call Andy for his breakfast and tug on the collar of the fluttery orange blouse the Patrons picked out for me.
The new Patron requests I buy myself a latte from the expensive place on the way. The others grumble about my caffeine intake and try to pay me to go keto. I decline.
My regular Patrons send me a group message to complain about the new one, who won’t collaborate or respond to their friend requests. I tell them to work it out. They pay for me to write “I am only a puppet, I belong to the Patrons” two hundred times in a notebook they picked out last week.
The doctors made me choose how they would take her out, made me decide how much to feel, pick which day would be her last inside me. The wrong answer rotted behind every door and yet they made me weigh each equally: rot, rot, more rot. I would’ve picked to keep her, but that choice was not mine.
The Patrons request I do scripted dances to their favorite songs by the water. LilWestrn78 wants me to shout into the surf, “We’re all just meat in bone cages!” I’m considering these offers when the new Patron makes a request. They’ve won so many bids that a yellow star appears by their username.
“Forgive yourself.” The Patron says they’ll pay premium, three times over.
“I can’t accept this,” I type back. “I know it’s you.”
The Patron makes the request again. Then a third time and a fourth.
I close my eyes and see her swimming in the dark. She’s too far, she’s always been too far away, and I can’t catch her. I open my eyes, but she was never there.
I’m on the sand, tears dripping off my chin. Andy tongues the palm of my hand and I let my head fall into his salty scruff.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, artist, and designer in San Francisco. Her essay on making clay food in quarantine was published in The New York Times and you can find her sculptures on Instagram @rebeccaackermann. If you prefer bad jokes, you can find hers on Twitter @rebackermann. She’s spent time writing at the In Cahoots and Wellstone Center in the Redwoods residencies. In a previous life, she was an editor at New York culture magazines Index and Heeb.