Jari juggled pots and pans. It wasn’t so hard. Similar principle to juggling pins, with more novelty, more cling-clang noise fun. Less equipment to keep track of because the circus brought cookware from town to town anyway.
She got the idea about pots and pans from Flannery, the concessions girl. Flannery had good ideas all the time, and Jari always told her she was too smart for the circus. Flannery countered that if she ever left the circus, the two of them would never see each other again.
Jari always thought Flannery tasted like cotton candy, but then didn’t half of taste come down to smell, and what else could you expect when she stood around peddling sweets every night?
Jari juggled frogs. It was a tricky proposition to juggle something live, what with their propensity to hop off, not to mention her ethical reservations. The Reptile Man got her onto that, when he decided to stop using any amphibians in his act—go a more purist’s route. Jari didn’t know how long she could justify caring for animals when the inanimate were easier, if not as novel.
Flannery called the Reptile Man Jari’s gateway hetero. Flannery called herself a gold standard lesbian, for never sleeping with a man. Jari thought there was something puritanical about that, though she appreciated that hooking up with the Reptile Man hadn’t turned off Flannery. Flannery understood that circus relationships invited fluidity and plurality. Everything was strange, nothing simple.
The Reptile Man asked about a threesome, about equal parts silly and serious from what Jari could read, and in either case a sleaze ball.
Jari juggled gimmicked weights, the size and shape of forty-five pound plates, that couldn’t have weighed more than a pound each. They were left over from the old strongman, who was strong but lazy. The new strongman Shel emphasize authenticity and refused to mislead an audience about his strength. Jari had no problem taking advantage, looking like some kind of superwoman tossing those things in the air like she did.
She liked the strongman from the start. Unlike the concessions girl whom she spent months getting to know over kettle corn and root beer floats before they ever slipped off from the campground for a date. Not like the Reptile Man who wore her down by shades of revulsion and degrees of rejection before she realized that she admired her persistence, heard something endearing about his lewd flirtation, and found the snake-like fluidity of his movement alluring. Sure, Shel was attractive in a more traditional, clean cut sense, but there was also a purity in him. An all-American boy who got up earlier than anyone else in the circus to tend to his calisthenics. He set squirrel traps to lock down more protein that the circus’s communal meals afforded him, which was gross, but also demonstrated something like a Boy Scout’s work ethic. Before she joined the circus, she’d been a sucker for the Boy Scout type.
There came a night Jari joined Shel by his private little fire—he’d actually rubbed sticks together to start it—while he turned a chipmunk carcass on a makeshift rotisserie. She’d borrowed some flame, setting the ends of three sticks on fire before she proceeded to juggle them—easier than it looked, no harder than the pots and pans really, but a gimmick too dangerous to use in front of a proper audience. She watched fire and hazy heat dance in his eyes.
So it came to pass that Jari spent more of her time with Shel, and so it was that they spent a night together not in a tent or truck, but in a field out under the stars, on a blanket, just far enough from the campsite to have the illusion of privacy. Unlike the Repitle Man, he liked his sex straightforward, missionary, and though he finished sooner than she’d have liked, there was something novel about watching his arms and his chest while he suspended his body over hers. His muscles were strong enough not to tremble in the least, the striations captivating.
“I think I love you,” he told her afterward.
It would have been just as well to have said it back, or to have hugged him close in a way that implied it. But for reasons she could never articulate, she told him the truth about the concessions girl and the Reptile Man. Surely, he’d understand that a circus was no place for any singular great love story. With a rotating cast of characters, each stranger than the next, sex was defined by experimentation.
Shel told her he understood, but wouldn’t make eye contact with her afterward. It was too dark to tell if he were crying when he withdrew from her altogether, and when she called out for him to come back, he kept walking, back toward camp.
Jari juggled the sword swallower’s rapiers and a series of the magician’s props, culminating in a scarf without end, forming a rainbow of color between her hands as it unspooled in a magnificent arc.
She felt poorly, and didn’t spend time with anyone after hours for a while. She slept at night. She tried to talk to Shel, but he kept to himself.
And Jari wondered if this juggling life were a dead end. How much of her life did she mean to spend with the circus anyway?
But Flannery tracked her down. Mid-show, they lay down beneath the concessions table together.
A tall man named Travis joined the circus—billed at eight foot four, called the Tallest Man in the World. Jari winked at him and he blushed. After the show, she got out the pots and pans she hadn’t touched for weeks, and showed him what she could do.