The Mechanical Bull by Jacqueline Berkman

It wasn’t until the bachelorette partiers were on their third round of Never Have I Ever that Violet, sitting under the Cactus Cove’s pulsating array of strobe lights, looked around and realized she couldn’t find any hot guys anywhere. 

“Lemme see here,” said the bride-to-be Olivia, her eyes droopy. She’d already had a couple shots and some passion fruit rum drink from the bar and was starting to slur her words. “Never have I ever…done the mile-high club thing or whatever.”

This resulted in an eruption of giggles, and at least three of the ladies threw back shots. Violet grimaced, the smell of sweat and mango e-cigarettes throbbing in her temples as she scanned the club’s perimeter yet again. She finally felt ready for a rebound hookup, but she couldn’t find any guys anywhere, hot or otherwise. Was the club’s entire population composed of bachelorette parties? That realization alone was enough to chafe at her neck, and she scratched under her turtleneck sweater until her skin turned red.

“Your turn, Violet,” Olivia said.

Violet had always loathed Never Have I Ever. She’d never understood why the questions always had to be about threesomes and fucking on planes and trying acid. Why couldn’t they ever be about things that were substantive, that demonstrated you were a serious person trying to make something of your life?  “Never have I ever not invested in my 401k,” she said, but it was clear by the group’s groans that they didn’t get her sense of humor. 

“C’mon, that doesn’t count,” Olivia said. “You’ve barely touched your shots, girl. There’s gotta be something crazy you’ve done, right?”

Violet, at thirty-nine, was sick and tired of other grown women calling her “girl,” but she forced a smile. Come to think of it, she was sick and tired of Olivia. Eight years before, they had worked together at an Insurtech company where Olivia had landed her first job out of college as an HR assistant. Violet, a seasoned human resources professional by then, had coached Olivia on how to put together a solid new-hire-orientation presentation and diplomatically answer employees’ FAQs. In turn Olivia had grown sentimental and teary and pronounced Violet her mentor, and as such, took it upon herself to reach out for career advice over the years under the guise of “checking in.”

“I’ve done plenty of crazy things,” Violet said. She gulped a shot of tequila, not because Olivia had pressured her to but because she needed it. She hoped this would satisfy Olivia and her pod of bachelorettes and that the conversation would subsequently pivot. But the women sat around the table batting their glow-in-the-dark lashes while Olivia nodded with the vigor of a bobblehead, waiting to hear what Violet had to say. 

But what was there to say? Any of Violet’s actually wild stories at this point were sepia-toned and frayed, surely lame when viewed under the scrutiny of these Gen Z bitches. Was this why Olivia wanted her there, to serve as some kind of old-time tchotchke that they could giggle at, a vintage souvenir from a lost time? Violet didn’t need this. She never asked to be an antique fixture or a mentor. She was only a woman who wanted to have some semblance of fun tonight.

“Violet,” Olivia said. “Are you alright?”

Violet nodded, though she had again grown distracted, this time by the sight of a woman skipping across the parking lot in a bride-to-be sash, white romper, and matching heels. A breeze was rippling the palm trees, sending the tips of the woman’s long dark hair flying into the air.  She was magnetic and beautiful and as she drew closer she began, to Violet’s discomfort, to look very familiar.
“I’m fine,” Violet said. “Just a bit tired.” A burp rippled through her body and ignited an esophageal eruption, tequila and stomach acids swirling in her mouth. Acid reflux, once a pesky visitor, seemed in recent years to be staking its claim as a permanent tenant. Surely this was a justifiable excuse for leaving? She could pick up some Tums at the corner store, take an Uber back to the Airbnb, pick up her car, and hit the road. If she really booked it, in less than two hours she could be back in bed in Santa Monica watching reruns of Love Island

“Nooo you can’t be tired, we gotta rally!” Olivia said. “Get a vodka Red Bull or something.” She squeezed Violet’s hand. “Or, you know, whatever you gotta do. Just don’t leave.” Olivia’s eyes were glassy, and when she smiled she had the dimpled, apple-cheeked look of someone who had never really been hurt. It was enough to make Violet’s stomach lurch, that same guilty lurch she’d endured several times in recent weeks when she had mulled over how to get out of Olivia’s bachelorette party and perhaps, by extension, the wedding. But each time she felt the urge to bail on Olivia she was stricken with memories of the day, three months earlier, when Olivia had invited her to the wedding. 

It had been a brisk day in early spring. Olivia, whom Violet hadn’t seen or heard from in nearly a year, had reached out about grabbing coffee and catching up, which was surely code for needing a favor, and originally Violet had declined. But Kurt, Violet’s boyfriend of ten years’ standing, had taken to holing himself up in the recording studio for increasingly longer stretches, and when the weekend rolled around, another blank, shapeless mass of time with no structure or plans, Violet told Olivia that her schedule fortuitously opened up. She’d suggested a cafe five blocks from her place so as to justify to herself that she wasn’t the kind of person who was so desperate for plans she’d deliberately inconvenience herself for someone she didn’t particularly like.

Of course, when they got to the cafe, the conversation was ninety percent about Olivia: her horrific boss (did Violet know of any companies hiring?), her fabulous fiancé, Dave, and her upcoming bachelorette party and wedding—which she absolutely insisted Violet must attend. But Violet was surprised to find she had actually enjoyed the afternoon, and had found it an entirely pleasant and entertaining distraction from her own life. It wasn’t until they stood up and exchanged hugs that Violet fished through her purse and realized her keys were missing. She’d called Kurt to see if he was home, but he hadn’t picked up.

And what was notable, what was the whole reason that Violet was here right now, suffering under the Cactus Cove’s unrelenting strobe lights, was that on that day, Olivia hadn’t missed a beat. She told Violet she should come over, meet Dave, hang out for as long as she needed until Kurt picked her up. Violet, flustered and unsure of a better alternative, took her up on the offer. 

The rest of that afternoon had gone as seamlessly as it could. Olivia’s coffee table books and her IKEA shag rugs and her tabby ginger cat were all very nice. Even Dave with his unironically backwards cap, Dave who didn’t hesitate before plopping another steak on the grill when Kurt still hadn’t called back by dinnertime, was very nice. And when the hours continued to tick by and there was still no response from Kurt, when evening unmistakably shifted into night, when Violet had nervously insisted that he was probably in “intense work mode” and she’d hear from him any moment now, they agreeably set up the air mattress and wished her a good night. That’s where she twisted and turned for a few hours before Kurt texted her at 1:30am to say that he was on his way. She’d fumed when his Corolla rolled up the driveway, had yanked open the passenger door ready to let him have it, but he’d usurped her chance, announcing as soon as she plopped into the passenger seat that he wasn’t in love with her anymore and would be moving out.
“Don’t worry,” Violet said now, squeezing Olivia’s hand. “I’m not leaving.” She took another shot to double down on her commitment, the neon strobe lights softening and coalescing into a dreamy, psychedelic blur.

“Hey! Did y’all notice there’s a mechanical bull in the other room?” Olivia’s maid of honor Kelsey shouted as she returned from the bathroom, strutting in her flamingo-pink strapless dress and wedge heels. “I’ve never ridden one of those! Er, never have I ever,” she said, her lips curled into a drunken, sheepish grin.

“Ooo, that’s a good one, girl!” Olivia said. “I haven’t either.” She leaned in to conspiratorially wink at the rest of the ladies. “Maybe I’ll find myself on it by the end of tonight, at the rate I’m going.” 

The group laughed, and Violet threw back a shot with a swashbuckler’s bravado.

“Omg, way to go, Violet!” Olivia said. “Tell us the story!”

Violet smiled coyly. She could see herself as she’d been back then, a full decade ago: her hair down to her waist, wearing size two jeans, and Kurt, her brand-new boyfriend, cheering her on as she mounted the leather bull. “Oh, it was a long time ago,” she said.

Just then a color-coordinated party of six women burst through the door carrying bouquets and balloons, with the familiar-looking woman from the parking lot, much to Violet’s concern, leading the pack.

“I can tell it’s a good story by the way you’re blushing,” Olivia said. “Give us some deets!” 

“To tell you the truth, I barely remember,” said Violet, offering a good-natured chuckle so the group wouldn’t think anything was amiss. She told herself to keep cool. Because even if the woman at the front of the pack did look very similar to Kimberly Caldwell, Violet assured herself she must only be a doppelgӓnger. It was beyond absurd to imagine that both Violet and the employee she had fired just the day before could be at the same nightclub in the desert, two hours outside of LA, on the same night. 

Still, Violet kept her eyes on surely-not-Kimberly as the woman shook her mane of lustrous black hair and made her way to the bar, blending into a mass of glittery faces shrouded in purple light. She watched not-Kimberly’s group of bachelorettes dangle credit cards like fishing lines, and throw back their heads in laughter to reveal mouthfuls of purple teeth. And when a remix of “California Dreamin’” came on, she watched not-Kimberly clap and pull her friends into a group hug before they proceeded to shake their hips and sway their hands in the air. Violet determined there was no way that Kimberly Caldwell, who just yesterday had been sobbing in her office, could possibly be the same woman as this jubilant bride-to-be. 

 But then Violet and not-Kimberly locked eyes, and not-Kimberly froze: her hands perched, Thriller-style, in the air, her eyes squinting under the harsh strobe lights as she tilted her head to the side, her mouth slack with something like astonishment.

 Violet, face burning, made a production out of studying the stamped cactus on the underside of her wrist, trying to come to terms with the fact that not-Kimberly was, in fact, Kimberly. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said to Olivia’s bachelorette party. She was doing her best to block out Kimberly, who was floating in her peripheral vision, but she could still see her: arms folded, whispering into her friend’s ear, the friend now, also, looking in Violet’s direction. “I need to use the bathroom.”

Violet tried to remain focused as she followed the signs to the bathroom, but as soon as she turned the corner, she grew disoriented. The walls, no longer canvases for strobe lights, were now barnyard red, and the linoleum floor, which in the previous room was a dizzying array of neon patterns, was now covered in peanut shells and hay. A pool table and diner-style jukebox stood off to the side, with pages of songs splayed out like an open book. And in the middle of everything, surrounded by padded red leather cushions, stood a lone and silent mechanical bull. What the Cactus Cove’s upper management could have possibly been thinking when they designed this nightclub eluded Violet. All she knew was that the whiplash-inducing decor was inspiring a fresh surge of agitation, a need to turn around and confirm that Kimberly Caldwell was not in fact trailing her before she kicked open the Ladies’ W/C door with the urgency of a suspect fleeing a crime. 


The women’s bathroom resembled neither an EDM club nor a saloon but rather a hunting lodge, complete with wood-paneled walls and taxidermied deer heads jutting out over a row of cast-iron wall sconces. Heavy metal blasted through the speakers, giving Violet aural cover for five seconds of a good, cathartic scream. She then rinsed her mouth in cold water and, after surveying her reflection along with that of the three deer heads, considered her conundrum: how (and even if) she should approach Kimberly. But also: what on earth was she supposed to do if Kimberly approached her?

Kimberly Caldwell was hardly a new problem. She’d been an ever-present thorn in Violet’s side for the past three months. After all, it was right around the time that Kurt had moved out that Violet—eager to channel her energy into other areas of her life and prove that, unlike Kurt’s declarations otherwise, she was an empathetic and transparent communicator—instituted an “Ask Me Anything” human resources questions and concerns box at the office. 

Her intentions were to spearhead a more transparent work culture, to provide a means in which employees could anonymously share what was on their mind. It hadn’t taken long for Kimberly Caldwell to emerge as one of the most prolific complainers, submitting a series of non-anonymous qualms over several months. There was the complaint that Kimberly’s boss frequently called her his assistant even though her title was account executive. There was the complaint about the colleague who had told Kimberly that her rotating medley of work blazers made her look like a prude. There were the complaints about the team happy hours Kimberly was perpetually excluded from because she was the only woman on the sales team, and the complaints about the work lunches where, to quote Kimberly directly, she “tagged along like an afterthought, always at the end of a table sticky with beer,” and the shame she always felt at the way her coworkers gawked whenever a curvy woman walked by.

At first the complaints irritated Violet—she saw Kimberly as the squeaky wheel, the kind of self-centered Gen Z archetype who fixated on her own personal story while lacking any desire to give constructive feedback that would serve the greater collective workplace. Besides, what woman in the working world hadn’t been mistaken for an assistant, or dealt with some “boys will be boys” misogyny? Violet certainly had.

At some point, Violet’s attitude shifted. It must have been a month or so after Kurt had moved out and she tried going back on the dating apps, only to be bombarded with grainy dick pics, that a nauseous rage surrounding all of the men in the world settled in. She began, with regard to Kimberly’s situation, to feel something closer to sympathy. 

In the mostly male executive meetings, Violet, once indifferent, now grew increasingly frustrated with the “boys club” culture of the company. It was the kind of place, she now realized, where complaints like Kimberly’s would only continue to mount if she didn’t do her part and step in. But when Violet finally gathered enough material to paint a comprehensive picture of Kimberly’s situation to the CEO, he’d said only that he’d heard from more than one employee that Kimberly Caldwell was a certifiable “pain in the ass,” and that they’d be better off getting rid of her.
So, the matter had been decided: Kimberly was being let go, and Violet was the one who needed to do it. She wasn’t happy about it. For a day or two she considered quitting herself, or even filing a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But then she forced herself to face reality: this sort of shit happened everywhere, and she couldn’t afford to lose her own job. She told herself this layoff would be like any other—an unpleasant, bureaucratic song and dance that required gritting her teeth and getting through it.

When Violet called Kimberly into her office, she followed the same playbook she did when she terminated other employees: she used whatever dirt on them was available. In this case, Kimberly had performed $10,000 below her projected revenue and been late for three client-facing meetings over the course of the past month. This was grounds for the company to terminate her, effective immediately. Here was the severance agreement, contingent on a signature declaring she would never sue. (Kimberly had started crying, saying this was all the worst timing. She was planning a wedding, she was about to have a bachelorette party. In the moment, the words had gone in one of Violet’s ears and out the other, as they always did when she had a script to get through.)

 “I’m sorry,” Violet had mumbled to Kimberly, offering a box of tissues as she powered on.  

Here was the set of instructions about how to apply for COBRA health insurance. Here were the forms pertaining to how to sign up for unemployment. When Violet finally asked, in her perfunctory way, if Kimberly had any questions, Kimberly asked, “How come you don’t have any photos?”

This, more than anything else, was the moment that had caught Violet off guard, taking her out of the structure of her script. Violet felt a flush spread across her face as she looked around at her office—her beige desk, her drooping succulent, her box of tissues. The truth was that she used to have pictures, a lot of them: with her parents, with her sister, with Kurt at the Grand Canyon and Ojai, and Joshua Tree. But then after the breakup she purged all of the Kurt photos and felt like a loser only having family pictures around, so she removed all of them. She convinced herself that the new drabness of her office was a strategic decision, that it was better in a job that entailed both firing people and overseeing payroll to keep things neutral, to avoid evoking emotions that veered outside the realm of calm.

 But she felt that sharing this explanation with Kimberly, with her bloodshot eyes and mascara-streaked face, wasn’t going to cut it.

“We’re done here,” is all Violet had said, and it took all of her self-control to make sure her hands didn’t tremble as she dumped a pile of papers into Kimberly’s arms.

With hindsight, Violet supposed she could have ended that meeting on a more compassionate note. Even a “good luck” would have been decent. But it seemed to Violet now, applying a fresh coat of red lipstick in the Cactus Cove’s chaotic bathroom, that the window to make that correction had closed. The last thing a bride-to-be wants, in the middle of her own bachelorette party, is to have the bitch who fired her come up to her and remind her of the awful incident. Still, not acknowledging Kimberly at all seemed callous, and unbearably awkward.

Violet sighed. The night was wearing on her nerves, and there was only so much a person could take. In the name of self-preservation, she felt she had no choice: she needed to walk over to Olivia’s table, deploy the upset stomach excuse, and leave. Nodding with resolve, she kicked open the W/C and walked back across the saloon. In the background, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” was playing on the jukebox, and a crowd began to gather around a woman in a Grateful Dead t-shirt and jean shorts riding the mechanical bull, her blonde hair, with each gyration, flying in the air.

Violet stopped. So this was where all of the men were. Gathered together: some short, some tall, some hairy, some bald, some sipping their beers and some tugging at their baseball caps, collectively hooting and hollering, transfixed by the woman on the bull, who looked like she was barely a day over twenty. How had she even gotten in here? Violet bet she didn’t even know who the Grateful Dead was, that she’d probably bought the shirt at a vintage shop because it was on sale and she wanted to seem cool. 

And yet, the sight of the woman’s long blonde hair unnerved Violet, made her grasp at her own chin-length bob. She was still standing in the Cactus Cove, but her mind was somewhere else, thinking back to her long-haired days, and more specifically the day of her last mechanical bull ride.

She’d been on a third date with Kurt: they’d gone to Ricky’s Cantina and Karaoke Bar and sat together in a big red booth, laughing at peoples’ earnest but hackneyed attempts at singing the greats. Laughter had lubricated them, made them lean in closer and marvel at every little thing they had in common: how they hated hiking and loved Mexican food and adored cringe comedies where all of the characters had a knack for embarrassing themselves. Kurt bought every round of drinks that night, and whenever he returned he squeezed back into the booth, his hand resting on her thigh as they whispered witty banter into each other’s ears. She knew it was entirely up to her when they decided to pay the tab, and knew with complete certainty that they were going to return to her place and fuck. And as eager as she was to do just that, she wanted to bask in this feeling of power for a bit longer. So she signed up to ride the mechanical bull, turning around only once while in line to wink at him, to watch him survey her with a kind of crazed lust, as if she were a prized possession that he wanted but did not yet have.

It was a while ago, sure, but she told herself not that much had changed. Sure, time had passed. She now had more cellulite, as well as a daily routine that involved two types of foundation and a cream to address the bags under her eyes. And she was no longer with Kurt. But she told herself that these were minor details, asterisks, hardly anything that altered the core of who she was. 

As she watched the Grateful Dead woman cartoonishly face-plant onto the rubber padding, Violet realized that she could do a much better job. No, she would do a better job. Cellulite and puffy eyes be damned, she was sexier than ever—hell, she was in the prime of her life—and she needed everyone at the Cactus Cove to know it. She needed to ride the bull. So she returned to Olivia’s bachelorette party with a plan that had revealed itself as if it had been there all along. 

“Truth or dare,” she said, drumming her hands against the cocktail table.

 “Umm, we weren’t playing Truth or Dare,” said Kelsey. (And really, Violet thought, had there ever been a bachelorette party in the history of the world that hadn’t featured someone named Kelsey?) It was infuriating enough to make Violet want to punch something. Instead, she cleared her throat and surveyed the rest of the group.
“Well, I pick dare, and I dare myself to ride the mechanical bull,” Violet said, throwing back another tequila shot as the girls’ blurred faces continued to survey her with bewilderment. “See y’all over there!”


After a nod from the operator, Violet swung her leg over the leather saddle and grabbed the strap, the rope chafing against her palm. Her body remembered the moves: she knew she needed to edge her way to the front of the saddle, to keep her left hand on the strap and her right raised in the shape of an L. She knew she needed to keep her toes turned outward, like she was prepping for a midair plié in a cowboy ballet. On the jukebox, some imbecile decided to play “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and even though the fiddle agitated her, she gave the operator a thumbs-up, determined to not let anything get in the way of her ride. 

When the bull sputtered to life, Violet swung her hair from side to side, looking out into the crowd of men. “Ride it cowgirl!” some shouted, snapping pictures on their phones.  “Get ’er done.” Her breath quickened as she gyrated, the pressure building between her thighs. She blew aside a wisp of hair that fell over her lips and then leaned all the way back, and the collective outcry of the men sent electric currents zinging through her body. I’ve got them, she thought. They’re eating out of the palm of my hand. She sat up again, running a hand through her hair, and then down her chest. Her thighs banged against the steel bull, and though she felt the sprouts of tenderness that would soon turn black and blue, she refused to lose focus.

 But it was right around then that “Cotton Eyed-Joe” came to an end, and in the moment before a new song was selected, Violet heard a bunch of men laugh. For the first time since she’d mounted the bull, she wondered if she was the source of their wisecrack. Why had no new song been picked yet?

“Is this some kind of joke?” a woman said. Violet looked down and saw Kimberly Caldwell standing at the front of the crowd, arms folded. Her question hung in the air like a taunt, and Violet, hands growing slippery, lost contact with the strap. Her legs swung in the air and she flipped onto the padding, a burning sensation rippling across her back.

“Seriously, is this your idea of fun?” Kimberly said, climbing onto the rubber padding. “Run into the person you unjustly fired and celebrate with a good ol’ romp on the mechanical bull? Are you some kind of sociopath?”

“Oh, come on,” Violet said. Several of the men in the crowd OOO’ed. There was still no music playing, and she wanted, more than anything, to sit down somewhere quiet and ice her back. “Let’s not be dramatic.”

“Miss!” the mechanical bull operator yelled at Kimberly, hastily leaving his post and waving his hands in the air like a manic referee. “You need to step out of the ring.”

She needs to step out of the ring!” Kimberly yelled, pointing her finger at Violet. “She takes pleasure in other people’s pain.”

“That may be,” said the mechanical bull operator. “But safety regulations are safety regulations.”

A group of men started shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight!,” and the chant grew louder each time they repeated it. That’s when Violet, propping herself up on her elbows, saw Olivia emerge at the front of the crowd, a drink in her hand and her face streaked with sweat. “What the fuck is going on over here?” Olivia said, hoisting herself onto the rubber padding. She glared at Kimberly, the two of them mirror images of one another in their white rompers and sashes, before turning toward Violet. “Are you okay?” she said, offering her hand.

“All good over here,” Violet mumbled as she accepted the help, doing her best to ignore the cracking of her knees and the heckling from the crowd. She was still quite drunk but felt the glimmer of sobriety appear in her mind’s eye like a coming attraction. “Excuse me,” she said, trying to exit the ring to her right. But Kimberly moved to the right as well, blocking her path.

For a moment, Violet wanted to tell Kimberly to lighten up. She wanted to say that she was sorry for what Kimberly just went through, that she was even more sorry for her own part in it. But Kimberly needed to know the truth, which was that life was hard, and men were awful, and she was going to have to deal with it. Fortunately for Kimberly, she was young and beautiful and about to get married, so she would be fine. She would win. 

But then Violet saw Kimberly’s glassy eyes, saw the way that anger furrowed her mouth into a bright red line, and she realized that Kimberly’s charmed life wasn’t the point—she could still be scarred by the blatant injustice in the world, in whatever experience with it she had.

Yes, Violet understood. Yes, she could have said something compassionate. But instead she looked out at the heckling crowd, and then down at her turtleneck dress, which was still riding up above her underpants, the bright lights mercilessly exposing the cellulite on her legs. She pulled her dress down, her face burning as she kept her gaze focused on the floor.

“Kimberly, you need to get out of my way,” Violet said.

“And what if I don’t?” Kimberly said.

 As if on a cue, another “OOOO” erupted from every corner of the room before the chorus of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” started up again, a deafening boom that vibrated in Violet’s chest.

And before she could think it through, and with more tequila-flavored reflux bubbling up her throat, Violet let out a cry: for the rug burn from hell, for the bachelorette party from hell, for everything that was so frustratingly wrong as to lead her to push and hit and kick, to do precisely what the men asked.

Jacqueline Berkman is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned an MFA from Lesley University. The short film Panofsky’s Complaint, based on her short story “Picking Locks,” was screened at the Brooklyn Short Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest, and more, and her short fiction has been published in The Write Launch and Ginosko Literary Journal, among other publications. Follow her on X as @JackieBerkman and IG @jackieb232.