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That my mother used to be a trapeze artist comes up in conversation more than you might think.
Like when we're piling wood for the winter and she lifts a piece so big and heavy that even my father stops to watch. And she says, "I can't help it. Fifteen years off the wire, and the muscles stick around."
I am twelve, so she didn't quit the wire to have me. She quit to have my sister, Stella.
I'm not sure what it must be like for Stella, knowing that she caused Mom to give up something she loved.
Mom says she stayed on the trapeze right up to her sixth month of pregnancy. I'm not sure I believe that, but then there is my sister's love of balancing on the porch railing and swinging in the tree swing. "She got a taste for the air before she could breathe it," Mom says.
We live on a road in a town where there are no stoplights and no grocery stores. It is as far away from a circus or a show as you can get. I know most people don't live like this anymore, cutting their own wood for the winter, but we do. I ride the bus for an hour to get to school. Stella is saving for a car.
My dad delivers oil for a living. You're probably wondering how a man who delivers oil married a trapeze artist. That comes up in conversation more than you might think, too. My dad met my mom at the circus. He drove the oil truck there, on an afternoon when he had a break between deliveries. He was leaning against his truck in the circus parking lot eating an egg salad sandwich when my mother walked up to him and said, "Driving an oil truck is dangerous."
My dad, not agreeing, but liking the chance to seem dangerous, said, "I've had a few close calls."
Mom nodded. "I'm with the circus. I'm a trapeze artist."
"Now that's dangerous," my dad said.
"No, that's living. 'Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.'"
That's a quote from the great Karl Wallenda. Mom says it all the time. He was some circus daredevil who did a lot with the tightrope, which Mom did, too.
Neither me nor Stella liked it when Mom quoted Karl. And by the way, my name is Carl, with a C. I guess I'm named after him, but when I was born, my mom didn't know his name was spelled with a K.
Neither me nor Stella liked it when Mom quoted Wallenda because it meant that her life was "just waiting." And we knew enough about age to know that Mom would never go back to the circus no matter how many big pieces of wood she could lift.
Stella is fourteen and wants to be a trapeze artist like Mom, but both my mom and dad said no.
So that's how she got in trouble, because she had to do it behind their backs.
Stella told Mom and Dad that she was taking a college-credit English course at Walker Community College. They were proud, because it showed initiative, that she was thinking about her future. But really, every Tuesday and Thursday night that they were dropping her off at the college, she was going to the gym instead of the classroom, and Ivan Mennahoff was teaching her to be an acrobat. She had the body for it. She took ballet and gymnastics until she was my age.
"You're getting so thin," Mom would say to Stella sometimes, because she didn't know the training Stella was going through. And I know Mom was confused because Stella was eating like a horse.
But I knew that Stella was running miles and miles, and lifting weights in the basement when she wasn't at the college. And sometimes I would catch her sitting quietly by the pond with her eyes closed, and when I asked her what she was doing, she would say, "Shut up. I'm visualizing my routine."
Stella's secret training with Ivan served two purposes: She got to do what Mom and Dad didn't want her to, even though she felt it was her destiny deep within her heart, and it got her closer to getting a job as a performer and earning some money to buy a car. I know all this because Stella finally admitted her secret to me one night because she was desperate for me to rub her shoulder and right arm. It was cramping, she said, from overuse, and she needed a massage.
I was excited. I was someone my sister trusted. I was complicit. I never thought that it could be dangerous.
My mother never talked about the times she fell.
Ivan Mennahoff was a frustrated gym teacher. He, too, had been in the circus once, and my mother knew him from friends of friends, and he'd even come to our house once for dinner, although he didn't come back. He was a dark man who drank lots of Jack Daniel's. I don't think my parents ever asked him to dinner again. But he offered private lessons for gymnastics and acrobats and trapezing and tightrope walking. Of course he would take on Stella. She was a natural. And it had been so long since he had a student worth teaching. That's what he told Stella, and she told me. She was pretty sure that Ivan knew the signed parental consent form she'd given him was a fake.
Stella's performance debut was the 6th of April as part of the college's talent show for family weekend. She told our parents she was reading an English essay at the show. Once they were there, she said, she would surprise them with her act and they would see how good she was on the wire and have to let her continue.
The day of the show, I was fidgety.
"What is wrong? Ants in the pants?" my mom said. We were loading ourselves into the car to go to the gymnasium at the college. Dad had dropped Stella off hours before so she could "practice her essay." But I knew she went early because she needed to change into her sequined leotard and warm up her muscles.
I was complicit.
It took my dad a few minutes to figure out what was going on when we walked into the gym, but Mom knew right away. She took one look around and led us to the very front row of the bleachers, closest to the high wire. She was very quiet and said, just once, as she sat, "Oh, Stella."
She was the second act to go on. Stella entered that gym like a kaleidoscope turning. The lights dimmed, and she climbed the ladder to the top of the tightrope. My dad said, "Can we stop her?" but my mother shook her head "no."
There was no music. No sound from the audience. The announcer simply said her name, and Stella stepped out onto the wire.
Seated next to me, my mother tensed up as if someone had stuck a pin in her arm. Ivan stood on the ground at the end of the wire, farthest from where Stella began.
Stella's posture as she walked was impeccable. My dad held his breath.
Stella was halfway across the rope when my mother stood.
"She will fall," she said.
I don't know if it was the way that Stella hesitated, only a second, when she reached the middle of the rope. Or if it was how her shoulders were hunched just a bit as she continued her walk. But somehow Mom knew.
Stella would fall.
I could take my eyes off my sister only for a few seconds at a time to watch my mother move quietly out onto the floor of the gymnasium. I could see she was trying to be invisible, her movements as fluid as a ballerina's. No one from the audience noticed her but me and my dad. He was rooted to his seat, his hand pressing too hard down on my left knee.
Stella would not be able to see our mom out on the gym floor from where she stood on the wire. The gym was too dark, the spotlight nearly blinding her.
And Stella fell.
She didn't scream. She made just a slight noise, an "Oh" noise, the noise that you make when someone startles you from behind, but then you turn quickly enough to see that you know them and your scream is stifled.
The audience gasped.
My mother was right there.
My mother, with her trapeze muscles that stuck around, caught Stella.
The weight of the impact barely bent her knees.
Stella lay across my mother's arms like a wet child pulled from the water.
When Ivan, running to where my mother stood, finally reached them, my mother held Stella out to him and he took her. My mother said something to him, before she sank to the floor, but I couldn't hear what it was.
My parents were never really angry with Ivan because, as they saw it, it was not him who hid Stella's training from them. "But he didn't use a net!" I heard my dad hiss to my mother once, but she shushed him and said, "Neither did I." And after six months of being grounded, Stella was allowed to go back to training with Ivan. It was my mother who talked my father into this.
On Stella's first day back, Dad stood in the gym next to my mother, in front of Ivan, and demanded that they use a net every time Stella was on the wire. My mother shrugged. In the car on the way home, I sat in the back seat, and my mother said to my father, "You know that they won't use the net every time," and Dad said, "I know."
While Stella was grounded, we talked a lot because she was stuck at home and she was bored. She told me about how it felt to be on a tightrope, and how she had just been learning to fly on the trapeze. She liked the trapeze better than the rope, but it was harder. I asked her if she remembered her fall. She did. I asked her what it was like when she was falling. "It was like being on the trapeze," she said, which is why she hadn't screamed.
"And when Mom caught you?" I said. "When Ivan came over? What did she say to him?" I imagined it was something angry. Profane, even.
"She said 'my life was on that wire.'"
"No, Carl." Stella sighed. "She meant me." Then Stella touched me on the face, and went to the window and was quiet.
I'm not sure what it must be like for Stella, knowing she caused Mom to give up something she loved, because that never comes up in conversation. But now, after Stella's fall, when Mom says the Wallenda quote, it occurs to me, and I think it does to Stella, too, that she says it more for us, than for her.
She wants us up on that wire. And when we are, she'll be waiting.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.