down at the circus

so i grew up in a small town. granted, it had a university and all, but basically, it was tiny-town. casey visited it once, and declared it “children of the corn” meets “pleasantville.” my childhood entertainment consisted mainly of making dams in the street gutters, so when they flushed the system we could play “sea wars.” i also got in on the game of choice in our neighborhood, kickball, but since i was a girl my involvement was infrequent at best. mostly, i read a lot, and tried to stay out of my siblings way.

but lo and behold, one day early in my seventh year, i heard a phrase that would change my life. the circus is coming to town. my parents, being the proud but weary progenitors of five children as well as a struggling business, rarely had the time or money to take the whole brood out on the town. but i think they wanted this for us, a moment of unfettered childhood delight, and made the decision. we were going.

we were going! i thought i was going to expire with anticipation. i checked out picture books from the library about elephants and tigers, and practiced my ringmaster skills in the privacy of my room. yeah, i’ve always been a dork. on the day, i could barely contain my excitement. my two older sisters, being 15 and 16, were completely teenage-blasé about the whole thing. my older brother, at age 9, was torn between the little boy and the macho man. i could tell he was out of his mind like i was, but trying to hide the hell out of it and be cool. my little sister, at age 3, had no idea what was going on. so we’re walking up to the coliseum, seven strange mormons in the middle of iowa going to the circus.

my mother splurged outside the gate and bought me a glossy booklet from a vendor that detailed the performers and acts. this is why i love my mother. she knew i wanted it so badly, and though it cost some ridiculous amount of money, she bought it just to see the look in my eyes. i still have that program today, and flip through it occasionally. i imagine the look in my eyes is the same.

as we bought our tickets, a clown came up to us and started trying to get my little sister to laugh. she, of course, immediately started wailing and burrowing herself into my mother. she’s still creeped out by clowns to this day. i, of course, thought it was magic. the clown, orange hair like electricity and covered in purple and yellow polka dots, asked my parents if any of their children would like to be part of the show. mouth agape, i could only nod as my mother pointed to me and said “this little one would.” the clown stuck a big orange sticker on my shirt, winked at me, and took off down the walkway, limbs akimbo. i thought i was going to burst. i heard a ringing in my head. then i realized it was because my brother walloped me in protest. he had wanted to be the one, but hadn’t said anything; i think he was angrier at himself for not saying anything than he was at me for wearing my circus heart on my sleeve. my dad upbraided him and made him apologize to me. i didn’t care. i really didn’t. i was going to be in the freakin’ circus.

we sat ourselves on the bleachers, which would have been uncomfortable had i not been standing practically the whole time in order to see as much as i could; the high wire acts, the tiger tricks, the clown skits and the dazzling ringmaster in his red sequined jacket and black silk top hat. i drank it all in, lapped it up like a thirsty pup. and then came the elephants.

holy freak, they were huge to me back then. decked out in fluorescent rainbow feathers and fringe and flanked by showgirls whose headdresses were half as tall as they were, they trundled into the ring at the same time as the ringmaster called out to the children in the crowd with orange stickers. we were to come down and stand in the middle of the elephants. scared out of my mind, but determined to do this (i was always unnaturally stubborn) i waved goodbye to my family and headed down the steps to the ring, where clowns were stationed to lead us to the center. i noticed that some kids were crying, and had to be taken back to their parents. others had brought their parents along. i was alone in my fortitude, and i felt so proud of myself. i am cara, hear me roar.

when we were all herded up, and in close proximity to the elephants, i noticed that they had contraptions strapped to them that formed a sort of six-seated saddle with guard rails on their backs. no way. no freakin’ way.

uh huh. we all got hoisted up on the beasts, strapped in, and we started moving. i remember the surprisingly smooth gait of their walk, their leathery skin and bristly hairs, and the incredibly high view as we paraded around the ring a couple of times. it seemed an eternity of bright lights, calliope music and a little bit of vertigo, to be honest. willing myself not to be sick, i clutched tight to the rails and smiled until my cheeks hurt. i wanted to wave, but didn’t dare let go.

and then, all too soon, we stopped. after getting lowered down and led back to my family, i watched the rest of the show in a strangely restless state. it all ended in a dazzling finale, but i can’t tell you much of what happened after my ride. i couldn’t sit still. i couldn’t focus. we walked back to the car amidst the throngs, and though i was still smiling, i also ached. it wasn’t until years later that figured it all out. the little girl in me had realized, high up on that elephant’s back, that the way she saw life was never going to be the same. that she would always be waiting to get back up there, and take a ride into the bright lights and lilting music of a life full of wonder and surprise. and that, most likely, it wouldn’t happen again. i should never have let them take me down.

the most amazing thing about this story is that it isn’t true.

yes, i went to the circus as a kid. i don’t really remember much, though, and i certainly didn’t ride an elephant. everything else is a figment of this fragmented mind.

but you trusted me, didn’t you?  yeah, you did.

did i betray that trust?  maybe. it all depends on whether or not you liked the story.

some would say that it doesn’t matter if you liked it or not. i still lied.

i would say that truth is relative, and trust is rare. and forgiveness… well, forgiveness isn’t always possible.

because you should never let them take you down.

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