A stranger visited my mother’s apartment and said, “I live across the street. I have been watching you and your husband for twenty years, and I notice he’s gone. I can’t believe anything but death has separated you.” She pointed through my mother’s curtains to her building. She was small and wearing a navy pants suit and patent leather flats. My mother offered her tea and cried in the kitchen. Tiny leaves were budding on the bony branches of the bougainvillea on her terrace.
I was living in Columbus, Ohio on the top floor of the nondescript house where famous woman-hater James Thurber had lived. The house sat on a forlorn street, near two highways and a thinly-populated business zone. I worked in a circus, riding a unicycle and juggling clubs. I dreamed of lions and did not pay attention to safety instructions.
The woman sat on my mother’s leather couch and said, “I am a widow, too.” My mother sat across from her and cried into a tissue. My mother said, “I miss my husband.” She saw it was easier to love a person who was no longer there. The visitor brightened and said, “We should be friends. We could go to the mountains on weekends. We could travel to Israel some time. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
I remember driving with my father to the Nathan’s on Coney Island. I remember the little wooden forks we used to spear French fries and clams. I used to play a game called “Flipping.” You would flip a charm against a wall, and the charm that came closest to the wall would win the other charms tossed there. The charms were made of metal and plastic and were dispensed in gum machines. They were beautiful. A tiny teapot, a lace-up boot, a blackened skillet with two fried eggs. The best position for a charm was to lean against the wall as if it had sauntered over for a smoke. I amassed a fortune.
My mother said to the visitor, “Why should we be friends? You don’t know me or what I think about. Maybe we have nothing in common. Being widows is not a thing.” The woman’s head moved back. My mother said, “I have to leave. I have an appointment.” The visitor wrote her number on a piece of paper and said, “Just in case.”
In Ohio, I would take baths at the home of a woman I met at the circus, and I would eat the salads and vegetables she prepared. One night she returned to her house to find me on the couch with another friend of hers. We were eating bacon and massaging each other’s feet under a blanket. It felt like she had walked in on sex, and we didn’t stop. The woman whose house we were in was wearing a black, sheepskin coat. She looked chic and out of place in her own home. She was beautiful in a careworn way with long, auburn hair. No one was looking at her.
After the visitor left my mother’s apartment, my mother looked in the mirror. Her hair was bleached blond. She still had a figure. She wondered if she had been rash to send the woman away. It had taken courage for her to come, after all. My mother felt watched and at the same time invisible. She recalled something my father had said, “If you don’t like something, walk around it.”
At the circus, I worked in the garden behind the big top. One day I was pulling up beets. They smelled like the sorrow of trapped children. There weren’t many, and I worried there would not be enough to feed everyone. In my performance, I was paired with a trapeze artist. The first time I saw him, he was on the ladder that leads to chaos. He said, “Can you bake me a gingerbread house?” I said, “I don’t bake, honey.” He said, “Please.” I baked the sides of a house, a door, and a roof. I would have built him a real house. I would have been happy being bored for the rest of my life.
My mother flew to Ohio to see me, and I went to pick her up at the airport. I was a little nervous. She got off the plane and said, “You didn’t tell me you had gotten so strong.” We sat under a tree beside a lake and watched the water lap gently against rocks. Ducks paddled out in a wedge, and it made me hungry for pie. The sky was a brilliant blue between clouds that hung low. The grass was the sharp green of chlorophyll and electricity. My mother said, “I am thinking of inviting the woman to a museum. It’s not like people are beating down my door. How bad could it be? Best case, we have a good time. Worst case, we don’t see each other again.” I said, “I would do that.” I liked suggesting things to her I would never do.
A man had taught me to juggle. He had come behind me and showed me how to toss a single ball so it returned. I said, “I can’t do this.” He said, “Yes, you can.” I practiced tossing two balls, then the magic number three, starting with two balls in one hand, tossing at angles, the balls shooting under each other, feeling each ball strike the palm and resisting the impulse to catch it, rather guiding it for the briefest moment and releasing it again. He showed me how to position my hands, plant my feet, flex my knees. After an hour, I could keep the balls aloft for three and four tosses, then the interval extended until I could execute ten and eventually twenty passes. My mind emptied.
Two young women darted past my mother and me as we sat on the grass, calling out insults or maybe just yelping for joy. I was crying. I missed the man who had taught me to juggle. He lived in another city. He would bribe me to come to his place by paying for my taxi. We would eat Chinese food out of containers and watch gay porn. He called me Mary and sometimes Mary Beth. He wanted to be on opiates all the time and asked if I knew a doctor who could prescribe for him. I did not know a doctor. Juggling had the same effect on me as opiates.
The ducks quacked softly. Their blue and green feathers caught the light. The trapeze artist was planning to move on soon, and the circus was becoming known for attracting men named Pete. Car after car on its last gasp was rattling up to the big top and coughing out a Pete. Sometimes more than one per car. I did not know where I would go next. My mother said, “You are a lonely person, and you are living a strange life. You seek out strangers. Maybe strangers are the only people we are meant to be close to.” I thought there was truth in this, and I felt like my mother’s child. She said, “I wonder which of us is more ridiculous.” I said, “When a plane is going down, do you reach for the oxygen mask first or the vest?”