It’s high noon, the day shines like a summer Hockney, and I could be cruising down the highway with a middle-aged clown on the run from the circus.
But I’m not.
I’m in my bedroom, looking out at the corner of the lawn where Ethan pitched his little blue tent last night. I could almost pretend that he never passed through, if not for the pale patch of flattened grass. That and the suitcase.
Two days ago, my childhood friend Ethan Turner traded his 1954 Gibson guitar for the limping Ford Pinto of the youngest of the Flying Fernandos. He slipped out of his boxcar in West Virginia with just a bag and a hat and headed for a friend’s dairy farm in Maine.
When I knew him, he was a skinny thirteen-year-old with long chestnut hair and huge almond eyes. Last night he appeared on my front doorstep again, bulked out with the softness and hardness of another thirty years. He towered over me, his head haloed with merely a ring of stubble. His face was heavier, but more relaxed, his eyes nearly closing when he smiled. A beautiful smile. The last time I saw him, still in peach fuzz, he was one of the most important people in my embryonic life. Now he was six foot two, and I was a housewife.
“I left,” he said simply, after we hugged.
“What do you mean, left?” Still taking him in, having to look up.
“The circus. I’ve had enough. It hurts, you know, falling on your ass day in and day out. I got arthritis to prepare for, and Bridge to learn--uh, can I put this somewhere?” He flopped an oversized backpack off his shoulder and onto my cat.
The first time I saw Ethan was on our summer camp stage in front of 200 people, juggling primary coloured pins half his size. Steady and serious, it was all he’d ever wanted to do. Off-stage he was all angles, kinetic and loud—leading anti-war marches through the dining hall, pet rubber chicken in tow. He knew the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by heart and walked backwards until lunchtime. Today they’d call it ADHD and bring him down like a prize buck.
But the centre of his hurricane was very still, and there I could hear him like no audience ever would. And he heard me. Whatever I suggested, or protested, or could not even voice, he would consider and then acknowledge, with a direct look, a nod and “Okay.”
I followed him around like a dumb puppy on pointless walks through our small towns. We didn’t live in the same place and had no overlapping friends or venues or routines, so our time together was time in another universe, away from the acid cliques and our maimed families. Quiet in our privacy, we sensed each other’s presence like a safety net. He’d lie on the park bench while I sketched, distancing myself from the world around me in the most intimate way. I’d sit cross-legged on the sidewalk with an upturned army cap while he busked for cash for the carnival. He taught me the opening of ‘Blackbird’ on his guitar.
Then I went to college. He visited me once, early in my freshman year in New York City. But in a real restaurant I took him to, his magic trick went wrong and the white linen tablecloth was showered with glass and blood. It was the farthest apart we’d ever been. I could do nothing but pitch forward into my future, and we lost touch like everyone did before you could carry your friends with you in your back pocket.
Ethan had arrived in time for dinner, but insisted on seeing my work first, so we manoeuvred through the attic to where I kept my paintings. He sat on a dusty box of art supplies while I pulled out old canvases one by one, surprised by the weight of them in my hands. He didn’t ask how long it had been.
John was somewhere off Long Island Sound on his yacht. Ever after seven years, the only thing I’d come to like about sailing was the weekends it gave me to myself. Ethan and I shared leftover barbecue and then sat out on the patio, a couple of Coronas sweetening the memory of burnt pork.
“Nice life,” he said, voice full of respect.
“If you like that kind of thing,” I replied before I could stop myself. He raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Neither did I.
He told me where he’d been, outlining a patchwork of retail jobs, circuses and regional playhouses. He still had that slow, reassuring narrator’s voice, now an octave deeper. He was quieter all over, the gale of his youth compressed into something like a windshield. He said he’d look for settled work. Buy a suit.
“I look good in a suit,” he said, as if he’d forgotten this. It was the first time I’d ever thought of him in a suit, the first time I’d ever thought about whether he looked good or not. He did. I got up and went in for more beer.
I walked him through my own ad hoc career in marketing, patchworking through various business departments and then back out again into John’s and my attempts to start a family. After a few miscarriages we put off discussing IVF or adoption until we eventually stopped talking about children altogether. The tears made it hard to talk.
“It’s okay if you have to work up to it,” he said, dropping his open hand onto the arm of my chair. A man’s hand. Softer than it looked, for its size. When we were kids, weaving through crowds or trading limericks under the stars, our hands had sometimes found each other almost accidentally, without leading anywhere else. We had already reached the place other couples sought with their bodies.
The evening was quietly sweating, cricket buzz in full bloom. Ethan’s size thirteen Timberlands hung well over the end of my husband’s complicated lawn chair. He leaned forward and took a pawful of pretzels. His hand was as big as my head. He pushed the whole handful into his mouth at once, spraying out the crumbs while he chomped through them.
“Monster,” I smiled.
“Monsters make the best clowns,” he said.
I laughed and wiped my face, the air cool on my damp skin. The peppery beer stung nicely along the inside of my mouth. It was getting dark.
“I should put up my tent,” he said, without moving.
“How long’s it going to take you to get to Maine?”
“If I leave early tomorrow I should get there by Sunday afternoon.”
The air conditioner kicked in above us, in my bedroom. Sealing it up. I looked at him, thinking.
He cocked his head. Then shifted in his chair. “What?…” he said.
A smile formed in my eyes.
He chuckled. “No, seriously.”
I looked at him.
“You can’t be serious.”
I shrugged. My heart was beating. “It would be fun…”
“Well, shit… Jesus, of course it would! But… what about your… what
about—?“ he gestured randomly to the grill.
“What’s a weekend? I can catch a train back on Sunday.”
He laughed. “We’d get so sick of each other’s shit we’d need another thirty years off.”
“It’s been done before.” I watched him over my upended bottle of beer.
He inclined his head briefly. “Okay. But only if you bring a sketchpad.”
I laughed, a little too hard, strangely relieved. As if it was decided, as if it was nearly dawn and my bag was packed. As if I could actually go.
He retired to his tent, his silhouette fumbling around inside like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. I wondered if he was lonely. Something about the tent stopped me from going to him. No matter how long we might talk into the night, the night would eventually end, and then be folded up into its own damp darkness while real life reared up again, blinding. I went back inside. The house was so cold my legs broke out in goosebumps as I went upstairs.
So there we’d be about now, just past noon, every window down and the air scooping the car along, racking our brains to remember if it was indeed the Pinto that used to explode at random in the 1970s.
The sunshine clarifies our whole world, and I’m sketching lamppost parades as they march swiftly by. Ethan starts doing Monty Python’s Life of Brian like when we were kids. He cranks up his volume and is starting vehemently to insist that he is not the Messiah when there is a dull thud. The car suddenly swerves and then reels a little from side to side down the pine-lined road, Ethan cursing faster than I’ve ever heard him speak.
Dust everywhere, nerves alight. “What the hell was that?” I panic, twisting to see what we’ve left behind, and in what state.
“A goddam crater, that’s what! Don’t you good people pay taxes up here?” He slugs some Dr Pepper and drops back into character, addressing his unwanted groupies. “You don’t need to follow me! You don’t need to follow anybody!”
“Ethan, I think we hit something. You could have killed it— I mean, it could still be alive!”
“What do you mean ‘something’? You mean some thing?” He glances at me, concerned. “Want to go back?”
I imagine the something lying, twitching, on the side of the road, the imploring whine of a family dog. Bloody fur, smeared limbs. “It could have been someone’s pet,” I say, as if diagnosing within earshot of the doomed. The forest opens out into meadow, then a lake, anchored by clumps of cattails.
“Shit,” he says, more out of self-rebuke than irritation. He turns around in the driveway of a dead gas station, the slowness of his manoeuvre over crunching gravel sharpening my stress. “What do we do if it’s still alive?” he asks quietly.
As we approach the crime scene, something lies just within the lane. Could be a dog. Dark. Furry. Is it moving? Oh, Jesus.
Ethan pulls over onto the shoulder. I get out of the car, and take a few seconds to shake out my legs. Then I slowly walk back to the lump.
It’s the colour of paprika. Pretty big, with a long bushy tail. Had. I lean over. It’s not that bloody, but it’s bent all wrong, and it’s looking straight up at me, terrified, as if it’s playing dead so I won’t kill it. Its pointed nose and sharp ears make a perfect triangle. I step away, hands behind my back as if the very air is infected with death.
A pick-up truck flies by, lawn mowers jiggling in the back.
I look back at Ethan, half hanging out the window like a teenager, his hands gripping the window frame. “What is it?” he calls, reluctantly.
“An ex-fox!” I yell, squatting down. The scent of iron and gravel.
“Dang.” He sounds sad.
I know it will keep me awake all night, but I can’t see what I can possibly do. I glance at the car—Ethan’s retreated. As I walk back I almost feel something pulling at me, a life that died the moment I became aware of it.
In the car we don’t look at each other, sit in silence. “You okay?” I put my hand on his on the stick shift, then withdraw it.
“I had a band once called Road Kill,” he says. If he had any hair left it would be hanging in his downcast face, and I might have smoothed it back. I might have touched his face.
“Well, I hope you looked better than that,” I say softly. “C’mon, let’s go.”
He starts the car up slowly, out of respect, and we’re off again. The breeze gradually brings us around. The occasional farmhouse or trailer home marks our progress until enough objects have passed to render the incident effectively over. I turn on the radio and pick up my pencil. I visualise the thing, bloody and broken, waiting a while to be sure, then lifting its sore head very slightly, peering down the road after us with its one working eye, then awkwardly shuffling off into the woods, heavy with pain, wired with relief.
I see it lying just as we left it, as dead as it had been alive, fur waving wearily to every passing juggernaut.
We’d talk. For my part, I’d start out with who I am but probably keep slipping back to who we were, compelled by his generous silence and square shoulders to walk him into every dark corner of my life in between as if it would mean he had been there after all. Like a divining rod for pain.
He tells me about the fluorescence of the circus, how it can blot out tedium. Or hurt your eyes, like when your father’s just died. I discover that knife-throwers are compulsive gamblers but never touch booze, and that there are more jobs connected with a large circus than there are in my hometown.
Maybe then he’d tell me what happened with the woman he nearly married. I’d assumed it was the usual story—he panicked, couldn’t commit, found someone younger. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was her fault, breaking his heart, running away with her dentist, or Jesus. She joined some cult in search of solid ground after years trying to find a hold in his Krishnan arms. And knowing him, he might even say, “I followed her.”
“Did she listen?” I ask.
“No, I mean, I tried to join too. Went along, listened to the guru.” He jabs an invisible quotation mark in the air.
My eyes widen.
“But I couldn’t. I’m sitting there in a hippie circle listening to this guy talking about how many nails went into each of Christ’s limbs. I’m trying real hard to believe, but my head’s going ‘I just don’t buy this.’ And I wanted to, I really did.”
The tires press seams in the road, over and over again. “You can’t decide to believe,” I say, gently.
He looks in his rearview mirror before pulling out to pass an RV. “No more than you can decide to be happy.” He glances at me. I ignore it. “I called for a while. They let you call. I figured the least I could do was hold the back door open for her, in case things got hairy, you know, in case they brought out the cyanide Kool-Aid.”
“Sounds like she’d already had some.”
I wonder if John would have joined a cult for me. Committed to a life of ritual worship and duty. Prayer.
I say, “Marriage is a cult too, Ethan.”
As we pass into the state of Connecticut, he says, “At least you get a choice of beverages.”
And I whack him.
We’d talk about these things, then slip back into silence, listen to the road, the telephone poles beating black rhythm across the relentless hood. Every bump bringing back the dead.
The ageing masculinity of his profile is startling.
In the late afternoon, hungry, we stop off at a farm shop. I give the bumper a wide berth. It’s rusted nearly away anyway, so I’m spared an accusation.
It’s cool out here, and we take our time. Ethan noses around the fruit stand, delighting in the things he’s missed living on popcorn and hot dogs. I walk to the edge of the cornfield, breathing in its comforting dust, dodging gnats. The earthy smell of the countryside takes me right back to summer camp. When I look over at Ethan, something shifts in my chest. He’s making friends with the lively Jack Russell that belongs to a little girl in a designer tie-dyed dress.
The checkout is set up under an old oak. The lady at the register looks like everyone else’s mom in high school, in a crisp pink Oxford shirt and a bright blond bob that is razor sharp. A farm shop clerk, not a farmer. She narrates my produce as she enters it into the register with squared-off, colourless fingernails. She doesn’t look like she has any smell at all. “Four oranges… five apples—“
“Two apples,” I say, checking my basket.
“These two,” she says, and then gestures behind me. “And your husband’s.”
I turn. The girl is mesmerised. Ethan’s juggling apples, taking a confident bite out of the same one each time it comes around. All the while looking straight up at the invisible arc as if it is his gaze that is supporting the whole system.
And suddenly it is plain as day why nothing in my life has ever been easy. The work shoes, my very small talk, the men I have come to arrangements with. A lifetime of misshapen thoughts becomes a tune on a Spanish guitar. I should have played the guitar. A friend, a husband, art and work—one emerges from the other like a string of coloured handkerchiefs. Or not. It’s a sad thought for someone who left the circus in childhood. But it means that I’m okay. More than okay. Though a little old, and alone.
But when I turn back to the lady’s expiring smile I fall back into my life as heavily as Dorothy’s house to earth, and just as inevitably. I pay her and walk away before Ethan falls back to earth too.
Come nightfall, I’m driving, and Ethan is scat-singing under his breath, drumming on the map book. He breaks off and says in the Southern drawl that, apparently, I am the only one to hear in his voice: “What say you to the Dew Drop Inn?”
The place begs to be sublimated into pop art. It’s something out of Hitchcock—flat-roofed, double-storied concrete with K-mart blue trim and balustrades. The glowing trapezoid out front promises TV, a pool, and adult ‘ovies. The Pinto practically tractor beams up to the cracked plate glass window of the reception office.
The office is slapped awake by striplights, shiny on the dark wood panelling, jangling the out-of-step vertical blinds. The peeling linoleum is speckled gray. I’m thinking about slipping that waxy little motel soap into my sticky hands, rather than what I’ll say when the receptionist asks, “One room or two?” Which, of course, he does, barely looking up as he takes my credit card and bangs it into the card reader. In the silence that follows, Norman Bates looks up at us with raised eyebrows, as if to say, Listen folks, believe me, this is nothing, this is about square footage is all. But it’s not.
Because we did use to sleep together, Ethan and me. In our clothes, on a mattress on the floor, at four in the morning when we were barely teenagers. Always touching somehow, his elbows poking me in the ribs or catching on each other’s long hair. We never got much rest, but rest wasn’t what we needed. We held vigil through the night with candles, melting them into empires—wide, fat church candles, drippy, hippy layered pyramids, others elegant and tall. We’d stream and sculpt the glowing wax into hills and caverns and damn near climb into them and never look back. And here we were again.
The clerk is handing over one key when Ethan says, “Two,” and we both start moving again.
Twenty minutes’ walk down the highway is a faux rodeo bar. We splash out on steak and fries, sit awhile with our beers to unwind the miles. We make up a backstory for the two old men slumped on barstools with a covered pet cage on the floor between them. I wonder what I’d find inside if I hadn’t left my sketchpad at the motel. I watch the girl behind the bar, who is barely 18 and wears a tube-top and feathered earrings, and who glances up more than once at Ethan, who laughs with his entire body. Who has not even noticed her.
I feel protective of him, or something. “Think you’ll ever settle down?”
“Love? Company?” Tube-top sets down another two beers. “Maybe a vegetable patch?”
“Sure, I’d love all that.” He jams the lemon slice down the bottleneck with his thumb. “But I think the fact that I haven’t had a relationship in seven years speaks volumes.” He looks at me.
I look back. “What’s it saying?”
“Look.” He leans forward on his elbows on the sticky little table, his beer dismissed. “Even my car is doomed to self-destruct.” Then, changing down a gear, he says something like “You know, when we were kids, our thing, our little romance, it meant a lot—”
“Romance?” I am dumbfounded. Little?
He blinks. “Well, I don’t know what else to call it—“
“Connection, maybe, bond?” I suggest, thrown by ‘romance,’ smarting from ‘little.’ Sorry I interrupted.
“Connection. Yes. It felt… like we were kind of above all the usual boy-girl stuff. I know it sounds corny, but it was almost—spiritual.”
Or is it me saying this? Because this is exactly the way I felt, have always remembered it, but almost like it was my own private fairy tale. Like catching the faint sound of my own language in the hot cram of a foreign crowd. Everything blurs. I hold tight to his arm without a sound. He leans in, strokes my hair. His eyes beam like my mother’s when I come home.
“I missed you,” I manage.
“I missed you too.”
“This, this thing,” I gesture awkwardly between us. “It’s very… unusual.”
“I know,” he says simply, quietly, certainly.
I am fluttery-tense, high, almost breathless. Some distant rational part of me wonders how it can be so quiet and still while this huge chaotic river of something roars from the centre of my chest towards him, surrounding all of him. I very much want to be touching him.
And it dawns on me with a kind of dumb stupidity that this feeling is love. And that it is absolutely effortless.
The jukebox is spent. I’m heavy with tiredness.
We amble back along the warm asphalt, walking the thick white line at the side of the road like a balance beam. Ethan clowns around a little to lighten me up. Every time I hear a car approaching I regret the light it will bring. It’s a sweet night, something is fast running out, and I hook my arm through his.
And although we move smoothly, chatting in weary staccato as we approach the door to Room 42 as if this were the most normal thing in the world, as his thick fingers fumble with the huge plastic keychain, I register that my heart sits a little higher in my ribcage. Because a cheap motel is a cheap motel. And we did use to sleep together.
I reach out and stop him.
He looks up.
I take the key from him, stand there.
He straightens up, leans against the doorframe, waits.
I work up to it.
The ghost of his hair hangs in his eyes.
I reach up and pull him down to me, his mouth to mine. He accepts my kiss and straightens up again all in one movement, like an uncle. He holds out his hand for the key and says good night, generously smiling me the benefit of the doubt.
I reach up again.
He catches my wrist, puzzled. Tilts his head, holds out his other hand again, giving me another chance to give up, without giving myself up. Vertigo rises in me like too much beer.
“Whoooa,” he says quietly, pulling back a little, his fingers tightening around my wrist. His eyes go a sadder shade of love. Mine are full of tears. Cheeks burning. Fuck. His head shakes, saying “No, no, no, I—that’s not—” Casting around, serious, sorry, already a million miles away. I am falling into the void, breathless, off a very high wire, and if I don’t breathe, and turn, and start moving right now, I will come face to face with the fact that there is nothing beneath me but concrete splintered with glass.
He lets me go. White lines herringbone me across the parking lot, along the shabby weeds that line the edge of the badly lit sidewalk, towards a garage blinking white and red far across a dark field. Swishing through the scrub with a strange calm, I smell wildlife, skunk laced with the smell of evergreen, but see nothing. I walk a long time until I notice I’m walking, and then I turn back.
Back at the motel I sit on the edge of a bony deck chair by the pool, staring down into the blue cavity of the pool, collaged with leaf mould and crushed beer cans. Cramped into myself, single shivers hit me like starting rain. The shaft of gold slicing through the gap in Ethan’s motel room curtains is the only light gracing the whole hulking rat trap. It’s quite beautiful, and I couldn’t have captured him better myself. I always knew our feelings had nowhere to go, that our thing was its own destination. I just wanted to rest there a while. To lie together again in our private place, hear each other in grown-up silence.
“I am so sorry,” I would start, when I saw him again. But it would never be the same, or enough, and every time we talked about it or didn’t talk about it, the words would clutter up the space between us until we could no longer see each other.
So the next morning, when my childhood friend Ethan Turner knocked on my back door, polite as an undertaker, I yelled that it was open and carried on digging through the freezer for the real coffee. “Good morning,” he rumbled into the kitchen, all the more grown up and alive and sexy for his very innocence.
He set down his damp bundle of deflated tent and then went upstairs to use the bathroom. I made an omelette, and while we ate we made small talk as if expecting any moment to be interrupted by the weight of all the stuff in my house. As if he knew I wasn’t coming.
And in fact, when I told him, he looked up at me a while. Nodded. He gestured with his mug to an empty chair. “Sit with me before I go.” I hugged his head to me for a moment, kissed his prickly, warm crown.
When he left it was like hugging Mickey Mouse at the gates of Disneyworld. Loss blocked my throat. My head hurt. He folded himself into his low car and just about managed to turn it around in our driveway, carving wide, graceful scallops in the pebbles. We waved to each other as he turned into the road, and I watched him disappear. I couldn’t believe he fit into that car and knew for certain he’d never have fit into mine.
It had cooled overnight. In the bedroom I hoisted the windows open and summer drifted in, all warm breath and a distant ice cream van jingle. On my bed I noticed an old half-filled sketchpad that Ethan must have brought down from the attic. As the jaunty tin music started again, I took my suitcase down from the top of the closet. After checking nothing had been left inside, I tossed in the sketchbook and started to empty my drawers.
About the author: Paige Sinkler, writer and award-winning photographer, was born in America and aged in England. Her work has been published in and on magazines like Obsessed with Pipework, Litro, Every Day Fiction, alliterati, and Cursive Script, and she blogs for Litro magazine. She is completing her MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University, where she won first prize in the inaugural writing competition for the Kingston Writing School. She lives in Guildford, but you can find her at www.paigesinkler.com and tweeting as @pfsinkler.
Photo: (c) Ivana Vasilj via Flickr Creative Commons