I never actually planned on joining the circus.
I’d planned on going through high school with one girl, who I could covertly get to second base with in movie theatres and clumsily hook up with in my mom’s house while she was out of town. I would get high with her for my first time, and when our school had a dance, I’d have someone to go with, to watch the other horny teenagers.
But wouldn’t you know it, a parental divorce in eighth grade can stunt one’s emotional growth. While some girls probably wouldn’t have minded seeing me from the child I was to the lesser child I would be in four years, Lane (the girl of my thoughts, affections, and literally my dreams) did. Drifting into the ranks of those whose feelings were unreturned, I did what everyone else did: I joined the circus.
By the end of high school I’d been the in a few sword-swallowing acts, with my fingers performed various acts of ventriloquism that produced words of praise, guided directions, and outright confusion. I’d even found a partner for the acrobatics. I was no skilled performer yet, and had only become halfway decent at “the Excited Labrador” by the time college started.
In college, I discovered performers far more talented than myself. I was still in the grips of a different emotional fixation, and since all hope for romance was tied up, I stepped up my game, and learned to perform in this new, bizarre world of continuing education. I learned to juggle multiple partners at once, perform oral gymnastics between the thighs of another, and even explored a profound interest in the … tightropes. Although I always knew that true happiness for me lay in making these discoveries and enjoying these acts within the bounds of a relationship, I became more and more infatuated with my role as a performer, and the reputation and ego boost that came with my growing skill. By the summer before senior year, I’d become so focused on my talents as a performer, and my abilities at finding new and different people to perform with, that I’d forgotten my original purpose. I’d gotten so lost in living up to my character that I forgot about my own happiness.
But last summer, a girl and I decided to leave the circus together. I was excited to finally hang up my mask for senior year. We spent the summer apart, her in Ithaca and me in New York, and I was so ready to get back to spend my final year living out all my dreams from before the circus clouded my perception of myself. Then she broke up with me a week before I got back.
With all my plans for senior year suddenly dashed, and my emotions frayed and torn, I plunged into a self-destructive freefall. I performed with anyone I could, trying to use the surge of immediate ecstasy to blot out the emptiness that followed. It didn’t work, but my performances were at their best yet. I was a gifted ringleader with a painted-on smile.
Someone tried to catch me. I held out a hand to her, knowing that she was someone for whom I could leave the performer’s life, and she took it, with faith and trust that I would understand how much better I was with the circus life behind me. But I’d grown so attached to the life, so convinced that it was the only way to avoid heartbreak, that I shined the spotlight on any flaws I could find, and some that weren’t even there. I came up with reasons to rejoin the circus without ever really knowing why, and I followed that momentum right back into the big top, looking around once I got there, trying to figure out how my feet had led me back to this place.
It wasn’t until after I joined up again that I realized how tired the other performers were, and how empty it all felt. It was then that I realized what the circus really was for me. I had thrown away something real for something that was all just pretend. But painting a smile on my face didn’t mean I wore a real one, and I’ve finally learned what I need to do to in order to finally achieve the kind of happiness I’m looking for: I need to pack up and leave the circus.