Letting go

A journalist tracks a trapeze artist around the country to satisfy an erotic obsession. Now he wants to marry her. Will she make the leap?

Published June 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The arrival gate was crowded with people, but I knew Luis hadn't come. I'd missed my scheduled flight to Green Bay, and there had been no way to let him know. I'd left a message with the central office in Hugo, Okla., but was told he might not get it until morning. When at last I arrived, the sun was slipping into a verdant, Midwestern flatland, and the shadows cast by the full, summer trees were already dimming in the last light. I found a taxi outside the airport, but I wasn't sure where to go. It was hard dating a man in the circus.

"Welcome to Wisconsin!" the taxi driver's voice boomed over the din of traffic as he opened my door. His taxi was a boat-size Chevy station wagon with a back seat so wide I felt like a child sliding over the vinyl. "Where're you headed?"

I tried to remember if Luis had mentioned any specifics about where the big top would be set up, but I could think of nothing. Everything had been carefully planned, and I'd ruined it. Luis was to pick me up in a borrowed car, and then we'd rush to a nearby motel until it was time for the first show to begin. Much of our relationship was played out in inexpensive motel rooms: Noelia, his 12-year-old sister, playing diving games with other children in the outdoor pool, Luis and I deliriously engaged in erotic acrobatics inside. He lived with his brother Angel, his uncle Weegi and Noelia in a small motor home that followed the five-ring animal circus from town to town. They were known as the Poema family, a fifth-generation trapeze act from Argentina. And he was the great Luis Poema.

"Did you happen to notice that the circus is in town?" I asked the cab driver, not having directions to give him.

"Sure did. They came this morning and set up in the Brown County Fairgrounds. Posters are all over the place."

"That's where I need to go."

"The circus?"

"Yes, please." The man shrugged his shoulders and started the car.

"Whatever you say!"

I considered Luis an innocuous addiction, like a travel bug. Though our relationship threw everything in my life off balance, I just couldn't stop. The adventure of keeping track of him was like the thrill of exploration. He had been raised as a vagabond, always mobile and unreachable. And in order to be with him, I had to move as well. He sent me plane tickets whenever a two-night gig appeared on the circus itinerary, but sometimes I got impatient and drove across the country just to see him for a night. One time, when I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye, I traveled with the circus through rural Indiana, following the posted black-and-white arrows to New Castle, Connersville, Scottsburg and Salem.

The trouble was that Luis and I had nothing in common. I was working as a small-time, bilingual journalist with plans for graduate school; his entire life was contained within the fantastical world of the circus. I would listen to him talk about his childhood as we lay in bed, damp and languid from playful wrestling and sex, and nothing he described was familiar. While I had been trapped within the somber halls of a Catholic elementary school in Colorado Springs, Luis had been in Mexico or Brazil learning to juggle fire or do a handstand atop a human pyramid. He was like an exotic animal that I dearly loved, but that didn't quite belong in my ordinary life.

"Have fun at the show!" The taxi driver pulled my bag from the trunk and left me at the edge of a grassy field. The giant red-and-white-striped tent towered above a sprawling collection of motor homes, trailers and trucks. I picked up my bag and walked over the flattened grass, through a maze of mobile kiosks and animal pens of zebras, giraffes and hippos. A long row of miserable-looking elephants was chained up beside an open tractor-trailer. They stretched out their trunks and swayed rhythmically back and forth, as if to some unheard melody. When at last I found a gap in the line of animals, I slipped through and headed for the main tent.

"God damn it!" A middle-aged man with leathery skin appeared out of nowhere. "What in the holy hell do you think you're doing, lady? You don't walk through a bunch of elephants like that! Do you have any idea how crazy stupid that is? Christ, don't you ever do that again, do you hear me?"

I recognized the man as the lion and elephant trainer. My face burning, I muttered an embarrassed apology and hurried away, nearly tripping over a long cable that ran from a roaring generator. It seemed I was always bumbling around the circus grounds like a tourist in a foreign country, always groping to understand its customs and protocol.

I wandered beneath the slanted row of taut rope, stretching the polyvinyl toward an endless series of stakes pounded into the ground. When I came across an open flap I poked my head inside. The interior space was immense and mostly empty. A team of Mexican men in blue jumpers worked to assemble the bleachers, and two teenage boys stood in the far-right ring juggling multicolored pins.

"Venga, Noelia! Ya!" Someone was yelling from above and I looked up to find Luis hanging by his knees from a swinging trapeze. He was waving his arms in frustration, yelling at his sister. "Come on, Noelia! Just try it once!"

Noelia's tiny body swung in counterrhythm on the other trapeze, her little hands gripping the bar, her face pinched with concentration. She was only a child and I could see that she was afraid.

"Now!" Luis yelled, and Noelia hurled herself into the air, pulling into a single, backward somersault. With ease she caught Luis by the wrists and they floated through the heights together with preternatural dexterity.

"Carajo!" Luis angrily shook Noelia free and let her fall to the net. She let out a squeak and dove gracefully down, bouncing several times into the air, like a girl on a trampoline. "At least try the double, Noelia! You're almost 13, for God's sake!"

Noelia scowled, pushing out her thick bottom lip and puffing her cheeks. But then she saw me approaching and squealed with delight.

"Diana!" She hurried toward me, running awkwardly in the net. I took her into my arms and kissed her on the head. Luis pulled himself upright on the trapeze and gazed down at me, smiling coyly.

"I thought you had changed your mind about coming," he called down.

"I missed my plane." Luis winked, held his arms out behind him and let himself slide backward from the trapeze. With his body slightly arched, he seemed to descend in slow motion, as if he had tamed gravity itself. After two open flips he landed on his back, bounced into the air, tucked into a double somersault and ended on his feet. Then he sauntered casually to the edge of the net and, gripping the thick fibers, flipped his legs over his head and appeared upright before me.

"Mi amor," he whispered, wrapping his arms around my waist. His pale-blue tank top was damp with sweat, and I ran my hands along the bare skin of his arms, still hot from working the trapeze. My fingers moved over the solid swelling of his biceps, across the prominence of his clavicle and back to the ridge of his shoulder blades. He pressed his mouth to my cheekbone and sighed. I felt his eyelashes lightly grazing my forehead, and wondered, for just a moment, if I would ever have the nerve to let him go.

We walked past the miniature go-carts and kiddy trains that lined the front promenade to the big top, and the warm evening air filled with carnival smells. It was a dizzying aroma of popcorn and cotton candy laced with the earthy pungency of animals.

"Do you want to try the trapeze this time? Maybe in the morning?" Luis asked, taking my hand. "Just to swing on it, you know. I'll help you."

I shook my head. "Too afraid of heights."

"Just trust me." He stopped and looked at me, pressing my fingers to his lips. His eyes were hopeful. They looked at me as if at a television screen, not seeing who I was, only the projection of who he wanted me to be. I knew that he saw a lifetime partner who would work by his side, hurling herself confidently through space and into his grip each day. He saw the mother of the next generation of Poema family performers, who, like Luis, would begin learning the trapeze at age six. He saw all of these things that never would be.

"I don't know," I said, not wanting to spoil the moment. "We'll see."

I had irrational fantasies of my own. Obsessed with culture and education, I tried to inspire Luis to learn things he didn't care about. In the motel room that night, we lay huddled in the middle of the giant bed, reading a Spanish translation of Hemingway's short stories. Our hair was wet from making love in the bathtub, and the television set had been turned down. Luis rested his cool head on my chest as I read aloud from "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

"If Macomber killed the lion," Luis interrupted, "why does everyone think he's a coward?"

"You have to wait and see."

"But why doesn't this guy just explain everything from the start? Then you don't have to wonder." I sighed, and continued reading. I had brought the book as a gift for Luis, in an attempt to spark some interest in literature. But he pulled it from my hand and rolled his body over mine, biting my lip.

"Come on, Luis," I said, disappointed. "It's a really good story."

"This is a really good story, too."

I sulked, but he kissed my ears and bit my neck until I gave in, indulging in the one unmistakable thing we shared. We were engaged in a fruitless tug of war, each trying to pull the other into a place they didn't belong. And in the end it was always the same: Confronted by the other's resistance, we would retreat to the safe ground of our erotic passions.

As always, we spent the next day walking around the circus grounds with Noelia, eating at Denny's and sitting in the Poemas' mobile home, watching Mexican soap operas. I didn't mind. It was nice not to worry about work, to resign myself to relaxing with Luis without my usual need to do something productive. After the first performance, we left Noelia at home and went back to the motel, to make love with the television on. The events of the day were always the same, frequent enough to feel routine, but infrequent enough to maintain their charm. For me it was like a well-earned vacation, a segment of fantasy-like leisure that prepared me for the purposeful work of reality. For Luis it was everyday life.

"Don't go back tomorrow," he said as we walked to the big top for the second show. Luis was dressed in white tights and a body suit, with small, silver sequins. It revealed every curve and detail of his body, and I wasn't allowed to touch him, for fear he'd get too excited.

"But I have to work on Monday." We walked in silence, and then Luis nudged me with his hip.

"Pero ya me quiero casar," he said with a shy smile, looking down at the ground. "But I'm already set to get married." I laughed and nudged him back, playing it off as a joke, but I knew he meant it. Things were getting serious, and I had to make a decision.

I could hear the music of the Wheel of Destiny booming from the tent up ahead. It was the act just before the trapeze, where a man and his wife ran blindfolded atop a spinning wheel that rose and fell.

"Listen, it's almost time for you to go on!" I said, "It's the end of the Wheel of Destiny!" Luis grabbed my hand and we ran for the tent.

That night I sat next to Shenanigans the Clown and watched Luis on the trapeze for the last time. Whenever I saw his body flying through the air, twisting and flipping like a leaf in the wind, I always held my breath. How could anyone be so fearless, I wondered.

The crowd cooed and gasped with astonishment, applauding wildly. Of course for Luis the trapeze was second nature, the reason he'd been born. While I often felt lost and without direction, his life was already decided. His expectations and needs were simple and defined, and I envied him that more than anything. But it was too late for me; there was no going back. As daunting as they were, my goals had been set. And my life couldn't be an eternal vacation.

"Your boy is really something," Shenanigans said, giving me a quick wink. I smiled and nodded. The recorded drum roll rumbled out of the speakers, building up the suspense for his final feat. A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd, and I held my breath and waited.

By Diane Weipert

Diane Weipert is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

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