(This story was originally printed in Curiosities Magazine)
So you’re drowning in gambling debt and you have pissed off a girlfriend or three. On your smoke breaks between acts, you’ve been jumped by said girlfriends’ spurned boyfriends one too many times. The only thing left to do is disappear—with a bang, of course. You are, after all, a showwoman.
Now, you might not be an escape artist, might not have studied under the great Houdini, but you do have a trick up the sleeve of your bedazzled leotard. You used to date the circus’ fortune-teller, back before she eloped with the strongman. One night, stargazing while high on bay leaf smoke, she told you a secret, the biggest secret of them all.
Obtaining a black hole isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Find the peddler of the bizarre and the arcane who usually sets up shop next to the corndog cart. The peddler’s eyes shift from your scarred face to your twisted body. “Be careful. These things are volatile.”
Ignore his warning and his pitying look, then tuck the folded black hole in the hidden pocket on the inside of your flat cap..
So, it cost you pretty much a lung and a kidney, but hey, years of smoking and alcohol abuse have already damaged yours. Now you have what you wanted: your very own portal to outer space. You’ll need to hone your swimming skills if you want to backstroke your way through the various galaxies and dimensions, away from everyone and everything you know. There are no fancy swimming pools anywhere near the circus, so you’ll have to make do with the algae-choked pond at the outskirts of your campsite. Swim fifty laps a night in the weeks leading up to your thirtieth birthday, when you will say goodbye to circus life once and for all.
On the third night, you’ll realize that you’re not alone. Irene, the magical creature tamer watches you, crouched amid the cattails like one of the beasts she has eating out of her hand. Continue your laps in the turbid water and do not engage her. To her, you’re probably just another wild animal she wants to tame.
Avoid all distractions. Once you’ve decided to disappear, there’s no going back. Ask the ringmaster for a salary advance and stock up on enough booze to drown out any stray second thoughts. When you’re floating through space, who’s going to miss you anyway? Avert your eyes from Irene, perched at the clay-caked edge of the pond night after night as you swim under the moonlight, minnows tickling your toes. When she holds out a clean towel for you, ignore her hands lingering on your water-slick skin.
Give away your meager belongings. Gift your glittery costumes and rhinestone-studded fascinators to the rest of the acrobats and tightrope-walkers in your troupe. The clowns can take your wagon after you’re gone for all you care. The short-term friends you made in the gambling halls and seedy bars around town can go fuck themselves.
You hesitate when it’s time to unearth your mother’s wedding ring from your suitcase’s secret compartment. It’s a slender band made of white gold, topped with a diamond the size of your chewed pinky nail. Close your fist around the ring and fix yourself a drink.
That night at the pond, don’t dive into the green-black depths right away. Approach Irene, who sits cross-legged atop a jagged boulder.
Tell her, “I’ve got something for you. You’re the only one I can trust with it.”
You’ve noticed before how she adopts the behaviors of her various beasts. When she cocks her head to the side like a phoenix and steps toward you with the unassuming fluidity of a griffin, glide the ring on her finger. At least she’ll have a use for it, pretty thing that she is..
When the beast tamer kisses you by the starlit pond, don’t kiss her back. Hold your breath so as not to let her scent of eucalyptus and summer rain flood your senses.. Most importantly, don’t grin like a fool once you’re back in your wagon later that night, wide awake in bed with your fingers touching your upturned lips.
Spending too much time on goodbyes is a sure way to raise suspicions, or, worse still, grow sentimental enough to pull the plug on your meticulously constructed plans. Send your mother a single letter that starts with ‘Ya old hag’ and ends with ‘I love you.’ Your colleagues and so-called friends only like you when you’re drunk—don’t waste any more energy on them.
Don’t think about Irene. Don’t think about Irene.
Don’t sit at your tiny scrapwood desk in an inebriated frenzy and pen her a letter.
Unfold the black hole and spread it like a tarp across the big top’s sawdust ring a few hours before you open the show. No safety net, nothing to break your fall from the tightrope above. The night of your thirtieth birthday, climb the red-painted ladder stretching high into the air like you’ve been doing every day since you were fifteen. Don’t scour the packed bleachers for familiar faces. Don’t look down once you have both feet on the platform. Just wave and blow hollow kisses under the glare of the spotlights.
Fill your lungs with air and—
The crowd’s confused murmurs drift up to your ringing ears. You turn around to see Irene climbing up the ladder after you. You thought you had calculated every little thing, but this is definitely not part of your plan.
“What are you doing?” you ask, half-convinced she’s one of the apparitions your fortune-teller ex used to ramble about.
Irene steps onto the narrow platform and holds tight to the rail, the color drained from her face. You would think she’d try to talk you down in the soft cadences she uses to soothe her creatures. Her voice is shrill, however, her eyes sparking with incandescent anger. “I found your farewell note. Come down with me this instance, or so help me, I’ll feed you to my chimeras.”
Although your cheeks are stretched into an immovable smile, the spotlights’ beams turn blurry and dappled through the film of your tears. You eye the tightrope. The braided wire is pulled taut between the two platforms, which resemble floating islands in a vast, uncharted sea. You won’t be needing a balancing pole, not today. Your right foot, shod in a soft leather slipper, settles on the tightrope.
You prepare yourself for the fall.
“No!” Irene shouts. She relinquishes her hold on the metal guardrail and wraps her arms around your waist from behind, anchoring you in place. “You fiend. First you give me a ring and kiss me silly, then you try to disappear on me. I won’t let you.”
You go slack against her, let her pull you back onto the wooden platform. The crowd stirs below; the ringmaster’s booming baritone tries to maintain the hard-won illusion of control.
Her fingers caress your nose, crooked and broken from too many falls, your scarred palms, your ever-aching knees.
You think of the black hole waiting for you below, the dark and quiet of outer space you so crave. Everything is too loud here, too bright. A million unsolved problems will be clamoring for your attention in the morning. But if you close your eyes and focus on Irene’s body against yours, you can believe you’re being hugged by the galaxy and all its myriad stars.