Matt & zoe, p.7
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       Matt & Zoe, p.7

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 

  They weren’t kind words, but they’d been said in her rich, lilting voice. I treasured them.

  The first sign that something had gone awry that day was when a stranger appeared, towering over me. I looked up, assessed the situation, then stood. In front of me was a kid a couple years older than me, with powerful shoulders and upper arms. His expression wasn’t friendly, but it wasn’t hostile either. Looking back, I still think it’s possible Red set out that day to make a friend.

  His desire to make a friend evaporated when Carlina came around the corner of the building.

  Carlina with her flowing black hair, her shapely body, her tantalizing eyes.

  Red saw her, and decided… what? To impress her? He looked back at me and his eyes narrowed. “Give me those cards.”

  I started to back away, confused. I shook my head, and began putting the cards in the metal tin I carried them around in.

  His face screwed up into an angry bunch. “I said, give me those cards.”

  “L–L–L– leave me alone.”

  I was wholly unprepared for the punch. Out of nowhere, he brought up his right fist and jabbed it at my face. He connected hard, and my vision went black instantly, and I fell down on my ass. He kicked me in the side. “I said, give me my cards!”

  “Leave me alone!” He kicked me again, and I started to cry.

  “Look at the little baby cry!” Then he grabbed the box of cards off the ground next to me. “Don’t you ever touch my stuff again.”

  My last sight of him that day was when he walked over to Carlina and said casually, “Hey. I’m Red. I’m new here.”

  The remainder of that fall was terror, sometimes mixed with rage and frequent boredom and anxiety. Red was the perfect bully. He came out of nowhere, struck by surprise, and humiliated in the process. As the fall continued, he got bigger every day, while I stubbornly remained the same size. Small. I wasn’t just physically small. He made me feel small. I didn’t understand how or why this had happened to my life.

  What I did understand is that within two weeks of his arrival, he and Carlina were a couple, and I was in fear of my life every day.

  ***

  Of course, it wasn’t always that bad. That winter, when we returned to Florida, I had a reprieve from Red. He and his Dad went wherever they went for the winter, and I prepared to spend four months in school in Sarasota. School was never a good experience—I was always a stranger, an oddity, a circus freak. I was there for a few months a year; always out of sync with both the curriculum and the other kids.

  Something had changed. Carlina’s family had joined the small community of circus families living in Sarasota—they were renting a house five doors down from mine. So during those four winter months, normally a period of bewildered shock and sadness, I was on a high.

  It’s not that she noticed me. After all, she was an eighth grader and I was a seventh grader. We shared no classes. I didn’t care. I knew that somehow, this winter was my chance.

  I had little opportunity to do anything about it in the first few weeks. Dad had made the decision that this year would be my first one actually performing in the ring. I would be doing a few simple tricks—a simple crossover and a half somersault. As always, he insisted on incessant practice to make sure we were safe. I was under strict orders to come straight home from school, park myself at the kitchen table and finish my homework no later than 3:30. Once homework was done, it was back out and to the gym.

  The gym was owned by the circus, with unusually high ceilings and plenty of netting. It was here that we practiced during winter quarters—an endless procession of leaps and jumps and falls to the net. The first day that winter, I didn’t fall to the net to Papa’s satisfaction.

  “You think this is a joke, Matty? You think you’re going to screw around on the ropes?”

  “No sir—it was a mistake.”

  “You can make your mistakes when you’re chasing that girl. Not on the ropes. You understand?”

  I felt the skin on my face heat up. How did he know about Carlina? “Yes, sir.”

  He nodded, his expression grim. I could tell from Tony and Messalina’s faces that I was going to remember it. Both of my older siblings had been in training longer than I had. Tony just stared off into space—sometimes it was better to not get involved. Messalina stared frankly, her face curious, one eyebrow raised. Her wild curly hair, normally flowing free, was tied into a bun whenever we practiced. That didn’t subtract from her essential character, which was far wilder than her hair.

  “Five hundred falls. Before you cross the ropes again, you do five hundred falls. The right way.”

  Tony and Messalina gasped.

  Five hundred? That would take forever. It was crazy harsh. I started to stammer and protest, but then stopped myself. There was no point in that—when my father said something, he meant it. I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything until I fell to the nets five hundred times.

  The thing about my Dad—he was a legend in the circus world. Our family was the prime act at Ringling Brothers. He was the first flyer in history to make a quadruple forward somersault, and he was the only flyer who performed it in the ring on a relatively regular basis.

  My father commanded respect. When he said move, we moved. So I said, “Yes, sir,” then got started.

  I ran to the ladder and started climbing up. It was going to take a long time. Down below, on the floor, Mamma said something to him. His face twisted, and his lips formed a firm line. “No, it’s not too harsh. He’ll learn. They’ll be no accidents on my watch.”

  I can do this, I thought. It took about ten seconds to climb the ropes, and no time at all to fall. Unfortunately, I couldn’t start until practice was over—I wouldn’t be performing my amateurish tricks until I finished this job. It was 8 o’clock before I began. The first ten were easy… climb up the ladder, instead of the platform, and drop-down. Each time, my father grunted in satisfaction. The next ten were almost as easy… my arms and legs were growing fatigued from climbing the ladder over and over and over again. On the fourteenth fall, I hit at a weird angle, and scraped a rash down part of my back.

  “Do that one over,” Papa said.

  I kept my mouth shut, and swallowed. Up the ladder I went, then dropped down. This time I hit correctly, but I felt pain where the rope had scraped me.

  I was on jump number thirty-four when my father said, “Keep going. When you get home tell me how many you did.” Then he turned and walked out, leaving me alone in the gym.

  My first thought was, does he expect me to keep going? I could just go home and tell him a number. Even as the thought ran through my head, I grabbed the ropes, planted my foot on the ladder and started climbing up.

  It was midnight when I staggered home. I don’t know how I got there, because I was moving in an exhausted haze. My body was incredibly stiff, and what had started out as a single rope burn had turned into ugly red welts all over my back. My biceps and thigh muscles ached, my mouth was dry as the Texas scrub country, and under the surface I felt a seething rage.

  When I opened the door to the house, I immediately saw that Papa had the living room to himself. He was sitting on the threadbare couch with a copy of Variety in his lap. The magazine was unopened; the television was tuned to the Tonight Show.

  We met each other’s eyes.

  “Hundred and fourteen.”

  He nodded. His face stretched into the same grin he always had when crossing the empty space in the ring. Then he nodded.

  “Good job.”

  Papa was a stern man, and not one to hand out compliments. At his words, I felt a wave of emotion… Pride, mixed with an extraordinarily powerful love.

  It took me twelve days to make those 500 falls. For virtually all of them, I was alone—nobody stayed at the gym to count or make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. They didn’t have to. Something inside me drove me to completing that monstrous task. When it was all over, on the last day, my father wrapped his arms aro
und me, and said in a rough voice, “Matty. I’m proud of you.”

  I don't like you that way (Matt)

  During the two weeks when I was learning to fall, dropping into the net over and over and over again, I was exhausted.

  Every day at 7 o’clock, I was on the school bus, no matter how I felt. Papa insisted I learn to fall. Mamma insisted I keep up on my school work. Between the two, there was little time to sleep. As a result, every morning I fell asleep during that thirty-five minute school bus ride. It didn’t matter how loud the kids were around me.

  It was on a Wednesday of the second week when I woke up suddenly, my heart pounding as I bounced on the seat on the bus. I gaped in shock.

  Carlina was sitting in the seat next to me, a concerned look on her face.

  “Are you okay?” she asked. Up until that point in our lives, I don’t think she had ever spoken more than a dozen words to me. Winter quarters was always a little different than being on the road. Here, we were amongst strangers. We were surrounded by hundreds of kids at the school who looked down on us, harassed and bullied us, and treated us as if we were aliens. Even though Carlina and I had little or no contact when the circus was on tour, here we shared a common bond none of the other students had.

  I nodded. “Yeah. I’m just tired.”

  “And stiff. I saw the way you walked out of the house. You look like somebody beat you up.”

  I tried to hide my reaction. After all, it was only a few months before that Red beat me up in front of her. “My dad is putting me in the ring next season. Training.” I shrugged.

  Her eyes widened a little. “You’re going to fly?”

  I noded. I was trying to keep my cool, stay collected, and look a little blasé about it. Inside, my heart was beating so hard I could feel the pulse in my ears. “It’s not a big deal.”

  “You can say that, your parents are the stars of the show. It looks like a pretty big deal to me.”

  I was reminded then that Carlina’s father had once been one of the stars himself—an experienced trick rider who performed dramatic stunts on horseback in the ring. I didn’t know when it happened, but he’d lost his right leg in some kind of an accident. At least I assumed it was an accident. He no longer rode, but he did help take care of the horses and train many of the riders.

  “It’s—it’s—it’s just a job. Everybody makes a big deal about flying. Nobody even asked me if I want to fly.”

  “Do you?” She tilted her head and studied me after she asked the question.

  My breath caught in my throat, and I felt like I was going to fall into the pool of her dark brown, almost black eyes. I shrug. “I don’t know.”

  The bus came to a stop. I felt a pinch in my chest at the knowledge that we were going inside and she would never sit with me again.

  That afternoon, when she climbed on the bus, her eyes met mine and she smiled. Then she sat down next to me.

  ###

  I never asked her about Red. Were they… Boyfriend and girlfriend? He was a lot older than me, and they had spent much of the fall around each other. I didn’t want to know—because part of me couldn’t forget my humiliation when I met Red—knowing that she had seen what happened, and went off with him anyway.

  It’s hard for me to describe the depth of the crush I had for Carlina. For three years, I’d watched her as we toured with the circus all over the country. She was the most graceful thing I had ever seen… Always clean and perfectly dressed, even as the rest of us stank of sweat and unwashed clothes. She was a crowd favorite—riding into the ring on her white horse with her hair flowing back fast as the wind. I knew she’d never have anything to do with me—she was a year older after all. At that age a year makes a big difference. Plus, she was incredibly beautiful—luscious hair, big cornflower eyes, perfect skin.

  We didn’t have any classes together that winter, but we did have the same lunch. The circus kids tended to be left on their own—we weren’t in school for the entire year, and the other kids called us—at the most charitable—freaks. So Carlina and I fell into the habit of eating together every day. I always brought a bag lunch – leftovers of whatever Mamma had made the night before. Sometimes it would be lasagna or spaghetti in a thermos. Sometimes it would be sandwiches or leftover stew. Carlina got the school lunch every day. It usually looked awful, and I never understood why she did it, until our third week eating together, when I realized that she was on the free lunch program.

  Tactful as always, I had said, “let me see that.” I was pointing at her lunch card.

  She flushed red, and stuffed it away in her pocket. “No.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s just a lunch card.”

  I shrugged. It didn’t matter to me, except to wonder why the circus was paying her father so little that she could be on the free lunch program. Her father had been with the circus for many years. It didn’t seem fair that he should be struggling so much financially just because there had been an accident.

  ###

  One week after that word spread around the school: at the beginning of December there would be a winter formal dance. I’d never paid attention to such things before, although I did remember there were some the prior year. I didn’t attend. Nor did anyone I knew.

  This year, however, the formal presented me with a quandary. Carlina and I weren’t dating. Were we? I honestly didn’t know. We’d spent a lot of time around each other over the last few weeks, but that was at school. Every day I fell a little deeper under her spell. Every day I put myself in greater danger of being broken.

  As the date of the dance approached, whenever it came up in discussion I would get stomach cramps, sweaty palms, tension in my chest. How could I possibly ask her to a dance? She was in eighth grade. I was in the seventh.

  She was thirteen. I was twelve.

  She was beautiful. I was nothing.

  On the Thursday one week before the dance I got myself into trouble. It was 8 p.m., homework was done and we had all eaten a light dinner then headed to the gym. It didn’t matter whether or not final exams or anything else were approaching. My father insisted we practice three nights a week and on Sunday afternoons. I was standing on the platform when he shouted, “Matty! Get down from there!”

  I jerked in position, and started to open my mouth and ask, “What?”

  Before I could get the word out my father screamed, “Silence!”

  I knew better than to make him angry at this point. I dropped in a ball to the net, scrambled to the edge and dropped to my feet in front of him. “Yes, sir.”

  I almost trembled as he approached so close that our noses were touching. “Why aren’t you paying attention? I called your name twice! Do you think you are immune to the laws of physics? Or the laws of our home? Have you lost your mind?” I took a breath, but didn’t even attempt to answer the onslaught of questions. First, because my involuntary inhalation flooded my senses with the smell and taste of his cologne. Second because even I knew they were rhetorical questions and that he didn’t expect me to actually answer them. Not when he was screaming.

  “Twenty laps.” He was stern as he pronounced the sentence. “Then I want you to explain to me what you were thinking about.”

  As I began what was going to be a very long run—one time around the gym was about a third of a mile—I started to give serious thought to what I needed to say to my father. He would expect a real answer from me, but I could hardly tell them that I was thinking about Carlina’s breasts. But that’s what I had been thinking about. I tried to avoid such thoughts when practicing or in the ring—because it’s all too obvious when wearing tights—but I had fallen victim to my own scattered brain.

  At the point he first screamed my name—for the third time apparently—I had just pictured her lips slightly parted as I cupped my hand on her right breast.

  Of course, I had never done any such thing. I was twelve. And Catholic. Mamma would have had a heart attack if she had been able to see into my b
rain. Perhaps the running was what I needed to tire me out.

  I was on my third lap when the answer came to me. I would need to tell at least part of the truth—that the winter formal was approaching and I didn’t know if I should ask Carlina to the dance. It presented a number of problems over and above the question of which you say yes. I had no clothes to wear to a dance. Did guys wear suits to dances? Tuxedos? Or were khakis and a shirt okay? Should I buy her flowers? I didn’t have the money for flowers. I didn’t have the money to pay admission to the dance. None of this was good news.

  By my fourth lap around the building, I was sweating profusely despite the fact that it was late November. And not just because of the running.

  Practice was nearly over by the time I finished running. I joined my brother and sister for the last few drills, then as a family we walked back toward home. For the walk home Mamma led the way. Papa tapped me on the shoulder, and we trailed behind the group.

  “Are you going to tell me what that was all about?”

  I tried to gather myself for a second, then spoke. “Papa, it’s—it’s the winter dance.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “A dance, I see. What is it about this dance?”

  I snuck a couple of glances at him when he was speaking. It was the strangest thing. Underneath his giant eyebrows and mustache, he had a glint in his eyes, and he was grinning.

  Did he find this amusing? I felt my face flush.

  “Papa… I want to ask Carlina to the dance. I don’t know if I should. And I can’t afford it anyway.” I pause for another breath. “Are there some extra chores or work I can do to earn some money?”

  “You never asked to do extra work before.”

  That wasn’t true. I always tried to be helpful to Mamma around the house. I let it go. “Please, Papa?”

  He nodded once. “Of course,” he said. “You should ask young Carlina, and I’ll make sure you have the money.”

 
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