“There’s nothing as compelling as trouble,” I say to the audience. “Trouble is exciting. Trouble is fun. When you and your friends are doing something crazy-stupid, everyone has to be on their game. If one person screws up or isn’t paying attention, you’re all going down. That’s why I do circus. We all have to be on our game, all the time, if one of us screws up, we could die.”
The audience shifts. I’m not quite sure how I’ve gotten here from the post-show question, “How did you start doing this?” But some of them are still with me, and that’s who I talk to.
“So whatever you’re going to do when you leave here, when you can choose what to do again, make sure it’s as exciting as whatever got you in here. If you can get a job that’s as much fun as trouble, do it. Be a fire-jumper or a ski instructor or a lifeguard. If you have to work a boring job, find a compelling hobby, something you can look forward to at the end of the day, that takes all your focus, that’s as compelling as trouble.”
I’m signaled that our time is up. The audience leaves the gym in groups, according to the good-behavior hierarchy. Teenagers in identical grey sweatsuits and shower sandals, Secure Level C. Secure Level B, young men and a couple of young women in khakis and plain grey t-shirts stenciled with ‘McLaughlin Youth Center’. The last group hangs back, Open Level, privileged to wear their own clothes from home under a tight dress code, no belts, no shoelaces, no shorts, no tank tops. They sit in the bleachers and watch us take down the aerial rig on the slippery gym floor, acrobats and aerialists working as a team, knowing what comes next, the choreography as precise as surgeons, “Lifting! Set!”
When the last piece of equipment is in the security screening area, a reinforced-glass cube between two sets of heavy double doors, we shake hands all around, "Thanks for coming to the show," as if it was a choice. Open Level lines up to leave the gym, and a dark-haired young man with the wide, dished face of an Inuit hangs back for a moment.
“Is this really as good as trouble? Like, stealing a car. Is it better than that?”
“Yeah, it is,” I say.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve done both. This is better.”
Apparently, I threatened my father with a knife. Or maybe just the words, I’ll kill you. But the rage was deep enough in me that my parents picked me up at Haircrafters, where I had my first job, and I spent my first four days in the adult mental ward (there were no beds in Children’s) in my blue salon pants and white uniform shirt, sleeping in a medical gown, until they brought me some clothes.
Every morning we were woken at six, to be interviewed by a nurse before being released to breakfast, white bread and fake scrambled eggs, a fruit cup of diced peaches and one-half a pale, tasteless maraschino cherry. I could never remember if I’d had a bowel movement the day before, so I said yes or no alternately. I mentioned a few times that becoming healthier might involve getting some sleep.
I had three roommates, one after the other, all adults losing their jobs or their lives to Florida’s Baker Act, under which one can be hospitalized against one’s will if determined to be a danger to self or others. Seventy-two hours of evaluation, extended if the state deemed fit. Seventy-two hours of not being able to call your boss or your kids without bumming a quarter from the nurse station for the hall payphone.
No-one was believed about anything.
My last roommate, a blonde girl in her early twenties, brought in for driving over 100 on the wrong side of the road—manic-depressives were usually brought in while manic—woke each night complaining that bugs were crawling on her.
“They keep telling me I’m hallucinating.”
I didn’t have an opinion.
One night the lights snapped on, the night nurse coming in to the blonde girl standing on her bed and shrieking as an enormous Florida palmetto bug—like a roach, but bigger—flew to the ceiling. The girl pointed and yelled, “Motherfucker! Hallucinate that!”
I stole my boyfriend’s car from the school parking lot. I drove 100mph, without a license, across the five-mile bridge in the middle of the night. I skipped forty-seven days in one semester and aced the finals. I left Latin II without a pass, the teacher not caring enough to stop me or perhaps just tired of privileged white kids who did what they wanted, and huddled in the library, reading my way through Stephen King and Lloyd Alexander and Piers Anthony.
The bus came at 6:40. School started at 7:14. Some mornings I thought I’d be OK if I could just get some sleep. Most days, though, I couldn’t face it, couldn’t face being weird and unpopular and spit on, so I skipped.
When I babysat, I stole Fleetwood Mac albums and food and pills from the parents’ medicine cabinets. I never took any, but it was nice to know they were there.
At the hospital, the psychiatrist told my parents I was depressed, and put me on pills of my own. I don’t remember if I felt any better, just that it wasn’t lithium, the miracle drug all the adults were getting, and I put on ten pounds.
They let me come home, and that summer I lived with my aunt and started reading tarot cards on the street, walking slowly past cafés in the Market with a sign: “Fortunes Told.” The outreach workers first mistook me for another social worker, then let me be—I had a home to go to. My aunt left me blissfully alone as long as I had a job, and I sold shoes at the mall a few hours a day, but the street was my main income. My group was musicians and panhandlers and Skinny Puppy Steve who proudly showed me his bankbook, over a thousand dollars saved from his welfare checks. Steve and I took a bath together and shared one towel after using our hands to squeegee off as much water as we could. At seventeen he was two years older than me, had lived alone that long.
I joined the literary magazine. I became friends with a guy with a stutter who wrote cannibalism and bleak landscapes, dystopia before I knew the word. He was a better writer; I won prizes for socially acceptable poetry with just enough white-girl angst.
My tenth grade English teacher assigned journals, and stressed, "A journal is not a diary." Three pages a week due on Fridays. I wrote,
I am lying in bed after fucking Matt, watching the ceiling fan. I feel like there is a red X on me, that everyone can see, that I will never be anything more than the X.
The X was in red Sharpie, blotting through the paper. I turned in nine pages. My teacher asked me to please not write anything more like that. But I was filled to the mouth with rage, rage that must claw through silence, and I wrote a lot more like that.
If you didn’t want it, you shouldn’t have asked for journals.
It’s only as an adult that I realize she was probably worried she’d have to Baker Act me.
When we choose students to be in the circus show, in our outreach program, the number one consideration is attitude. Ability is helpful—you’re not getting into aerial silks without a pull-up—but attitude means more, it means the student will work, work past pain and exhaustion and frustration to get to joy and accomplishment.
The coaches watch the students during “Play Day” and “Audition Day” and note who they want, write down the numbers from the stickers they wear in the center of their chests, “Put ‘em in the middle, not under your hair!” When the students go home, we agonize over legal pads, horse-trade and advocate, “She was so sweet but she’s not a trapeze girl, can someone else pick her up?” And then we ask the teacher, “Is there anyone we’ve left out? Is there anyone who needs this?”
“Andre needs this,” says the steely-gentle teacher in Mississippi, reminding us of the slight, quiet young man who isn’t on our list. We put him in a group act where it won’t matter that none of us remember him or what he could do.
Andre comes to every rehearsal, when he’s called and when he’s not. Sitting in the auditorium is better than going home, his teacher tells us. He’s not quick and he doesn’t smile, but he lets the six year old girls climb all over him in the acrobatic act, tiny blondes in scrunchies that match their shorts, pointing imperiously to the mat, “Andre get down so I can get up!” one more step in the continuum of Mississippi race relations.
He watches the aerial rehearsals, and on the third day I say, “Andre, get up here—you might as well learn something, you’re here.” He cycles through silks (bad feet) and hoop (hurts bad) before we settle him in aerial straps, which hurts worse but in a way he can stand. We’ve never taught a student straps, it’s not really an achievable act in a two-week program. But Andre learns enough, four decent moves, and we rig him a flight system that lifts him ten feet and teach him that everything looks better spinning. In the show, he has a short solo, and when the audience goes crazy, he looks down and then glances up and smiles.
I call it the Dread, now. The feeling that black, icy water is licking my feet, creeping up my mental beach, whispering in my ears while I drive home alone after rehearsal, what does an airbag feel like? The twitch of the wheel, the press on the pedal, oblivion, would be so easy. I know now that the right birth control pill matters a lot, that I shouldn’t drive alone at night when the Dread comes, that sometimes it’s best to go to a neon-lit Formica-countered space and write until it leaves me empty, which is better than full of sadness. Sometimes I remember to call the people whom I’d want to call me if they felt this way. Sometimes I can tell them something’s wrong, instead of pretending I called to chat and hoping they notice.
Sometimes I know it’s temporary.
The kid with the stutter has grown up and started a writing contest, and in almost a year of writing every week, writing as much as I wrote in tenth grade, personal essays and fiction and poetry filled with white-girl angst, the Dread recedes, my brain reluctantly conceding, this is pretty compelling. We get two free passes, it's possible to take a week off and stay in the contest without writing.
I can't risk it.
After the show, Andre carries equipment and un-knots straps and stacks carabiners until nearly midnight, when both cars are loaded and we are done. I check with the teacher first, is it allowed? and then ask Andre to come home with us for pizza. He nods without smiling, and waits patiently by the car until we’ve collected our check and the last of our personal bags. At the table, he is polite and soft-spoken, careful not to eat too many pieces, not to take anything that isn't offered. He tells us, when pressed, he wants to start a business making flyers for events, graphic design—he’ll friend us on Facebook.
We wrap up the leftover pizza and look for an excuse—“Andre, we’re leaving tomorrow, take this or it’ll go in the trash,” and add condiments and frozen food, eggs and milk, two shopping bags full, “Hey, do you like meat loaf?”
I drive him down a street of broken windows and cars on blocks, graffiti tags on doors hanging ajar, weeds encroaching on cracked driveways. His home is dark but for the blue glow of a television in the front room. “Your folks home?” I ask. He shrugs.
Later, he Facebooks us,
can I join yall?
And he can’t, right now, we gave him food and attention because it was practical to give, we gave what we could in two weeks to one of seventy kids, gave him more, knowing it would never be enough.
Not yet, but keep us posted on what you’re doing, I message back, thinking, I hope it’s as compelling as trouble.
whipchick is fine now, which is what you're supposed to say.