Copyright is held by the author.
JENNY DIDN’T have to run away to join the circus — it came to her. But not with midgets, bearded ladies or elephant men in tow. No sir, the circus had gone out and bought itself some style. Cirque de Magie rolled into town polished but sterile, with a poster that was slick and silver.
“I’ll wait for the movie,” I said disdainfully.
“It’s not at all what you think,” she said. “The circus is not a carnival. There’s been a renaissance. The circus has class.”
“You’re just saying that because its name is in French.”
“Don’t be absurd, François. Not everything French has class.” She gazed up at the advertisement. “You’ll take me,” she said. A week later, she was gone.
It was almost a year before she came crawling back. “I need a place to stay,” she said, presenting her two broken arms.
“Absolutely not,” said Celeste.
But Jenny had nowhere to go. Her apartment — our apartment — had been sublet months ago. And we couldn’t expect the circus to cart her around.
“She can’t even urinate by herself,” I told Celeste. “And the hospital won’t keep her. They need the beds.”
Celeste was horrified. “You better not be suggesting that you’re going to be the one to help her?”
I assured her I wasn’t. Jenny had a nurse. What she need was a place to be nursed.
Celeste’s resolve buckled when Jenny arrived. The plaster casts went up to her elbows, and most of her fingers had been immobilized by splints. She couldn’t even boil water. I had never seen her balance so askew. She had always moved with natural precision and now she tottered, as if permanently drunk. The accident had broken, fractured, sprained, bruised, scraped and scarred my Jenny, but she was still as lithe as always.
“You must be Celeste,” Jenny said.
“François and I are getting married,” Celeste replied.
Before the circus, Jenny had been a gymnast. She was world class for a while, ranked in the top ten. She caught a lot of attention on the trampoline and made it to the Olympics, where she never placed. This failure dogged her forever. When she left me, I found a note on the kitchen table. “Those who can, place,” she wrote. “Those who can’t, join the circus.”
I met her at a party. At the end of the night, we ended up in a drunken stupor on the couch. She leaned into me as if we were old friends and I put my arm around her. I toyed idly with her hair; she purred. She rested her hand on my leg.
In those days, she was training all the time. She said, “Any guy who wants to date me can either walk me to the gym or from it.” So I started walking her to the gym. I’d pick her up at home at around seven in the morning and we’d walk the entire way, about a half hour. I got in great shape.
We used to kiss outside the gym. One time I forgot it was before eight in the morning and went too far. Jenny lowered my hand from her breast. I thought I was being rejected, but she said, “I’ll be done around one.”
Jenny’s first night at our place fell on a Wednesday, which was when Celeste had night school. “I’ll skip it tonight,” she said, but it was a hollow decision and she slunk away, full of grump.
“She’s going to hate me,” said Jenny. “It’s all right. If I were her, I’d hate me.” She looked at me. “If I were you, I’d hate me too.”
I’ll admit, I should have hated her. I don’t care how classy the circus is, I still felt like I had been abandoned for talking dogs and Siamese twins. But it seemed so childish to be mad at something that happened a year and a half ago. “I have Celeste now,” I shrugged.
As if to prove that Jenny wasn’t a permanent part of my consciousness, I made a dinner I knew she wouldn’t like. It was an oddly gratifying moment when he told me she hated spinach and I was able to say, “Right, right, I forgot.” I quilted her into eating it anyway. I had to feed her like a child, which thrilled me. She was completely helpless, which is always how we want ex-lovers to be when they return.
Later, Celeste came out of the bathroom in silk and perfume. She seduced me with very little effort. But she was too enthusiastic. I don’t mind fake orgasms, but I usually like them to be for my benefit.
I have never seen Jenny’s act. Celeste has. Shortly after we started dating, the circus returned with Jenny in tow. I couldn’t bring myself to go, so Celeste went on her own. “I want to see her,” she declared.
She told me that Jenny begins her act on a small platform, three feet by five, seventy feet off the ground. A second aerialist stands on an identical platform thirty feet away. Between them is a gaping expanse, dominated by a single hoop, wafer thin. Down on the ground, a painted ringmaster introduces the act. Then Jenny and her partner flip through the air. Sometimes she is the catcher and sometimes she is caught. While suspended on a single trapeze, the two of them crawl over each other, seemingly defy gravity, move into impossible positions. Celeste was impressed. “She’s so flexible,” she said. This didn’t surprise me – I had slept with Jenny for months. At the end of the act, the hoop is set on fire. Jenny is on one side; her partner is on the other. The manoeuvre is simple, if terrifying: they fly out, release, pass each other as they leap through the hoop, catch each other’s trapeze, fly back. And of course they do this without a net.
They had been practising the big finish when the accident happened. The hoop wasn’t on fire, thank God. Jenny vaulted from the trapeze, but the force caused the bones in both arms to splint. Disorientated, she toppled through the hoop and crashed against her partner. He flipped back and somehow caught the rim. Jenny, though, toppled through space. By now, the radius and ulna of both arms had snapped. Because it was a rehearsal, the net was up. She hit it as some terrible velocity, bounced twice and cracked her arms against the metal edge of the net. She got more fractures, sprained her wrists, twisted six of her fingers.
The amazing thing is that when they examined her, they found that her arms had been fractured for nearly three months. There had been an earlier mishap. Jenny had believed herself unharmed and was never examined. Those fractures had probably been little more than slivers. “There was a little discomfort,” Jenny told me. “But I thought if I worked through it, it’d go away.” Each time she flew, the fractures got worse. She should have known better, but athletes are used to pain. And they love denial.
Not Celeste. During Jenny’s stay, she fully embraced her jealousy. “I think you should write at the office,” she said to me.
“You’re being silly,” I told her. “The nurse is here.”
Celeste, though, saw the nurse as a servant. And servants, she believed, answered to whoever they served. So I went to the office like the rest of the world. Celeste was pleased, but the joke was on her: my new book was about the circus. I was writing its history, ostensibly to prove that it hadn’t changed at all. It’s a book I’ve never finished. My thesis is untenable: the circus has gone through a renaissance.
Jenny called me at the office for all sorts of reasons. “Where do you keep the sugar?” she’d ask and like a puppy I wanted to run home and show her. She still couldn’t feed herself. At first Celeste enjoyed watching her suffer. (“We’ll get her a trough,” she quipped), but eventually her meals became more sympathetic. No more finger foods, no more chilli con carne.
Once or twice she took Jenny shopping or to lunch. And she invited her to help with the wedding preparations. Celeste loved to remind Jenny about the wedding. She particularly loved to ask Jenny’s opinion and then ignore it. “And we won’t be able to invite you,” Celeste would say. “There simply isn’t enough room.”
One night, I found Celeste washing Jenny’s hair. Jenny stood over the sink in a bar, her plastered arms covered with a towel. She was white with suds and Celeste, dappled in water and terrycloth, was adding more shampoo.
I had of course envisioned Celeste and Jenny together, but I didn’t care for this twinkle of possibility. Fantasies are better when they’re indelicate and improbable. The very eroticism of the moment disquieted me. “I’m going to the movies,” I said. But I went to the office and pretended to write. I purposely lost myself in the travelling troupes of nineteenth century Germany.
At about two in the morning, I decided the image of my Celeste and my Jenny together had faded enough that I could go home. The light was on in Jenny’s room. “Celeste’s asleep,” she told me. “Keep me company?”
I did. She learned into me and I toyed with her hair. She rested her hand on my leg. Things suddenly felt inevitable. Before I knew it, I had stripped Jenny naked except for the casts.
“Christ!” Celeste exclaimed when I told her, much later. “I never thought you two would do it while I was in the house.”
“But we didn’t do it,” I said. Jenny had smelled too much of soap and shampoo and Celeste.
Painted entirely in earthy hues, Cirque de Magie had set up shop not in some old cornfield or parking lot, but in the biggest damn theatre they could find. Six hundred seats, three levels, the exact sort of theatre one imagines Booth shot Lincoln in.
The whole day left me unimpressed. There was a ringmaster and clowns and some lion jumped through a hoop. “Looks like the greatest show on Earth to me,” I said dryly. But even I had to admit there was nothing of Barnum and Bailey in Jenny’s circus. There was a sincere effort to make the experience ethereal. The music could be best defined as Haunting Gospel.
Jenny’s eyes were everywhere and she could barely keep still. “This is an existence,” she said. “It’s ancient and noble and full of tradition.”
“So is war,” I said.
“Honestly,” she said. “Why don’t you just go home?”
Years later, Celeste said, “That’s how the world is divided. There are those who like the circus and those who don’t.” It was fortune-cookie philosophy, but by then we were married, so I pretended to agree. The circus isn’t the only thing full of tradition.
Gradually, Jenny became less dependent. By the second month, she was able to use her hands. She brazenly dismissed the nurse. “I don’t need you to wipe my ass anymore,” she declared. I’m not quite sure how she managed it after the nurse left, but then Jenny had made a career out of agility.
“Is the circus taking you back?” asked Celeste.
“I have to audition,” said Jenny. “To prove I can still be of use.” There would be physical therapy and an exercise regime. Jenny was optimistic. “Even if I can’t go back, I’ll think of something. Perhaps François needs a research assistant.”
“François does his research alone,” Celeste said flatly.
The casts were sawed off on a Wednesday. I stood next to Jenny as they did it. Her arms had always been beautiful and I’d worried a lot about them. I didn’t want to think of a Jenny who had lost those magnificent arms. But they were still perfect.
“I need to shower,” said Jenny, merrily seizing me round the waist. “Join me?”
I declined. I didn’t want Celeste coming home to find us both smelling of soap.
Jenny didn’t move out right away. When Celeste brought up the subject — I never did — Jenny switched topics smoothly.
Another month went by. “You have to be the one to say something,” said Celeste. “At least have the nerve to ask her to pay rent.”
“That seems a little crass,” I said.
“Fine, then we’ll adopt her.” Celeste eyed me. “But then, you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
When Jenny began making daily trips to the gym, Celeste refused to let me escort her. “She comes home late,” I argued. “We’re in a bad end of town.”
“I’ve been coming home late for months,” said Celeste. “Suddenly we’re in a bad end of town? You two are exhausting. Why don’t you just run off and be done with it?”
Jenny thought Celeste had a point. “What sort of affair is this, anyway?”
“A lousy one,” I admitted.
“If you’re going to feel guilty,” my Jenny huffed, “you might as well earn it.”
I never earned my guilt. I tried, but we remained pathetically sexless.
“Don’t give yourself a medal,” Celeste said later, when I was trying to mend fences. “You don’t get points for impotence.”
I pleaded with Celeste for understanding. The past had rolled back into town. Could she blame me for my confusion? Love was simple for her. For me, it was as perplexing as the circus itself. With so much colour and distraction, you never know where to look.
In perfect Jenny tradition, I tried to write Celeste a succinct note. But a note could be moot. Celeste wasn’t oblivious. I just wrote “Bye”; she would read between the letters.
I thought I’d surprise Jenny. It was the day of her audition and I had to go into the city to meet my editor. I told Jenny, “Take the train into town when you’re done.” I got a hotel room, thinking I’d tell her there. I laid my one-word note on the kitchen table and left.
Jenny never showed and no one answered when I called. Celeste probably killed her, I thought wildly. When I checked out of the hotel, though, the concierge said he had something for me. He handed me a familiar looking paper. Jenny had added nothing to my handwritten “Bye”.
When I got back, Celeste was blissfully drinking coffee while the washer cleaned the sheets Jenny had slept on.
“The circus?” I said.
Celeste nodded. “Apparently, she’s as spry as always. You’re not going after her?”
“I never wanted to join the circus,” I said.
“And if she leaves the circus?” asked Celeste.
My inability to reply postponed our wedding for six months.
At someone else’s wedding, Jenny and I had once danced to Gershwin. She wore a simple black number that was sleeveless, so I got to have those fantastic arms around me. I think the song was “Embraceable You,” but I may be romanticizing things. It could very well have been “Treat me Rough.” Whichever it was, I was singing along.
“You’re going to serenade me, then?” Jenny winked. She pulled me closer. The song ended and we stayed for the next one. Again, I knew the words. “You must come here a lot.” she said.
The band played the same song at my wedding two years later. I shot a dirty look at them. I hadn’t thought of Jenny in weeks.
“Don’t play that anymore,” I told the band leader.
“Fella doesn’t like Gershwin,” the man said.
“No,” I said. “Fella does not like Gershwin.”
They played Cole Porter the rest of the night.