She came with the circus.
The weather was always warm in the southern states, or that’s how my memories went. The hot, sticky summer seemed to stretch on forever. No breeze moved the trees. The neighborhood cats lounged lazily in the shadows. Days oozed by slowly and at eight I found myself restless in the quiet nothingness of our small desert town. We had very little to pass the time with, and very little to look forward to save for one thing—the arrival of the circus every July like clockwork.
They always seemed to come on the driest of days, horns honking, jugglers juggling, lions roaring, and clowns hopping through the streets handing out candy and raffle tickets to the curious children. I do not remember when they started coming, only when they stopped—the year I turned twelve. But before that, every year it seemed the highlight of my summer was the circus that rolled into town, bringing colors and dreams in its wake.
I first saw the cotton candy girl the year I turned five. Standing outside the circus at her little pink-and-baby-blue booth, her smile never wavered. The first time my uncle bought me cotton candy, I looked up at her round, flawless face and was instantly lost in her dark chocolate eyes and caramel skin. Her hair was pink, fluffy like the cotton candy she expertly spun around each striped paper cone. She wore a pink dress and a soft, pearly-white smile, a smile that followed me into my dreams that night, and for many nights after.
I begged to go back to the circus again and again that year. Once we arrived, I begged for cotton candy, again and again. Again and again the cotton candy girl smiled her gentle smile at me. Again and again she spun up cotton candy and handed it to me on a thin striped cone. Again and again I looked into her eyes and heard angels sing, until the end of their run came and they packed up and left, leaving me behind with only visions of pink and caramel brown.
My parents divorced the year I turned six. After a bitter legal battle, primary custody was granted to my mother. As we drove away from the courthouse I saw the circus tents through the window of her old Subaru. Perhaps seeing my longing, perhaps trying to amend her own guilt over the chaos my young life had been suddenly thrown into, my mother turned the car and took me to the circus, and there I saw once again, the cotton candy girl.
“I’m having a bad day,” I blurted out as I stood in front of her. “My mommy and daddy don’t live together anymore.”
My mother flushed in embarrassment, and to this day I do not understand why I felt the need to tell this to a stranger with pink hair. But the cotton candy girl smiled her gentle smile and spun up a blue cotton candy on a striped cone.
“Here,” she said, “this one is free.”
The circus returned to town when I turned seven. I went to the circus twice that year, once with my mother and once with my father and his new wife. Life was changing but the cotton candy girl stayed the same.
Every year that followed I visited the circus. My friends joked that I’m obsessed with dancing clowns and monkeys riding little bicycles. My father indulged me but my stepmother did not—she was too busy taking care of my new half-brother. My mother seemed indifferent and did not inquire about my fascination. She took me every summer, at least once, sitting stone-faced next to me sneaking sips from the flask that she began to carry with her more and more often. I remembered nothing of the performers, and I spent all my allowance on cotton candy. Hot days melted together in those deep chocolate eyes.
My mother passed away when I turned twelve, “suddenly and unexpectedly” as they said at the wake. But I had seen and counted the number of vodka bottles she emptied then threw away in the dumpster behind the Seven-Eleven, and heard the things she said to her therapist over the phone, the one who listened to her woes, slept with her, then broke things off because he was, after all, married. I knew how little she slept and how much she cried, and felt her affection for everything in her life, including me, grow cold. My mother took her own life, they just didn’t figure out how.
I went to live with my father. The house was small and crowded, now with a toddling brother and an infant sister who wailed long into the night. My father escaped to the only pub in town and I holed up in my room, trying to stay out of everyone’s way. From the window of my stuffy attic room I saw the circus tents being pitched, but there was no one to take me that year.
In the evening, as my stepmother struggled to put both of her reluctant children to bed, I snuck out. She wouldn’t notice, and neither would my father, who wasn’t likely to come home until much later, reeking of cheap bourbon. The walk took nearly an hour but I found my way to the circus and there, standing near the entrance wearing the same pink dress, spinning strings of sugar from the same stand, was the cotton candy girl. As I approached, she looked up at me with that same gentle smile and those eyes that engulfed me in their darkness.
“Hello,” she said.
Her voice made my heart skip a beat. I was old enough to think myself an expert in the ways of men and women though in reality I knew nothing. I stared at her soft beauty and found myself at a loss for words. She smiled, and spun up a cotton candy. I reached into my pockets and only came away with lint—I had forgotten to bring money.
“This one is free,” she said, and handed it to me. My cheeks burned with shame and my eyes with tears as I tore into it, thoughts of my mother, my mother, the tiny house, the stepmother who acted like I didn’t exist, and my lot in a life that fit me like a poorly made shoe all felt far away in that moment. The cotton candy girl said nothing. Evening was falling and the show had long ended. She was leaving soon.
“Thank you,” I said, choking back a sob and feeling like a pathetic mess.
She smiled. “I hope tomorrow is better.”
I feel as if I can still taste cotton candy on my lips.
I jerk back to the present. I’m thirty, it’s a damp, cloudy, summer day and we have just buried my father. My brother Ryan, ten years younger than me and a cheeky brat on his best days, is in the car next to me. Over the years we have not always gotten along, but in adulthood we’ve found, through mutual deprivation of our father’s affection, that we do not make the worst of brothers.
“You just ran a damn stop sign. What the hell are you thinking about?”
I run a hand through my hair. What had I been thinking about? It all seems so vague now. I ease my foot off the gas pedal as we pull up to a red light.
“Circus is in town,” Ryan remarks, glancing to the right toward the fairground just outside of town.
“Is it?” I look toward the erect orange and purple tent in the distance. How many years has it been? “You know, they came a lot when I was a kid. I think they haven’t been here in almost two decades now.”
“Yea, dad used to talk about you and the circus when we were little. I remember.” Ryan drums a hand on the dashboard. “Damn it, Jake. Why’d he have to go and die? I mean, I’m not even sad. Isn’t that terrible? I know I should be but I’m just freaking not. He was never there, you know? He always acted like he cared so much but he didn’t. And then he just died.”
I hear the frustration in his voice and wish I had a good answer for him. But even though I had ten more years with our father than Ryan, it did not help me understand why he did not know how to love. It’s a bit unfair, I suppose, that I have had enough time to accept the kind of man our father was, and Ryan has not, and now he never will.
“Hey,” I say, turning the car. “Forget about it. Let’s go to the circus.”
Ryan arcs a brow. “Are you nuts? We just came from a funeral. We’re supposed to be at the reception in an hour.”
“Yea, and you’re stressed. I am, too. Would you rather go mope around with a bunch of relatives we never speak to or go blow off some steam? My treat.”
Ryan chews on his lip and says nothing, but I can see the thought of trying to comfort more weeping, overweight aunts is making the offer too tempting to decline. I drive toward the circus.
It looks the same.
The moment we step into the fairground memories come flooding back. The scents, the sounds, the colors and lights—they’re all exactly the same. The tent and the clowns and jugglers look exactly like the very first time I laid eyes on them at five years old, when life was simple and summer days were lazy and slow. I stroll through the rows of stands and mini tents slowly, savoring the moment.
Ryan sidles off to the side and tries out a few carnival games and shouts to me that he will catch up with me later. I barely hear him. I’m approaching the tent and my heart is quickening for no particular reason. It’s ridiculous, after all. Nearly twenty years have passed. Even if she is still here, she would be an older woman now. But still I hope, and . . .
And there she is. I can’t believe my eyes.
Nothing has changed. Her face is still round and flawless, her hair a cloud of soft pink floss. She’s wearing a different pink dress now, one more in keeping with current fashion and hugs her gentle curves. She’s spinning up spool after spool of cotton candy for eager children, and smiling at them with her dark chocolate eyes. I approach her as if in a dream.
“Hi,” I say as she looks up at me. “You wouldn’t remember me, but . . .”
She looks at me without recognition, then smiles. I lose my words, feeling five years old again in her presence.
“Can you take a walk with me?” I blurt out.
She regards me curiously, but the smile does not leave her eyes. She looks me up and down, then glances at the sky. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “Looks like rain.”
“Just for a few minutes,” I say, nearly pleading. “Please. I’ll pay for any sales you might miss.”
She looks at the sky again, then at my desperate face, and says quietly, “okay.”
We walk around the fairground, around the back of the large tent, to where it’s quiet and secluded. I tell her how much the circus meant to me as a child, and how her small gesture of kindness brightened an otherwise dark time in my life. She smiles and says little, but her smile is all I need. I tell her she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and, in the heat of the moment, asks if she could stay after the circus leaves. I don’t even know her name, and at the moment I do not care. I only know that she is finally here again, and I am finally a man who can stand before her as an equal.
She looks at me and hesitates. I fear I have scared her with my eagerness.
“Okay,” she says easily after a moment. “They can always make another.”
I cannot believe my ears. That beautiful word, that simple “okay.” I hear nothing else and in a moment of excitement I throw my arms around her and kiss her, just as the heavens open up and a torrent of rain pours over us. I pull away, laughing at the absurd timing of it all, but the sound dies on her lips as I look at her face.
Her features are drooping, her eyes sagging off the bridge of her nose. Strings of sticky red sugar run from her lips to mine, and quickly wash away. I watch, completely and utterly helpless, as her body begins to collapse into itself, like so much wet cotton candy. Unhurried, she raises a hand to her face, where now only one eye remains.
“Ah,” she says. “Well, that’s a shame.”
She reaches out and touches me. Her fingers are sticky, melting. She smiles with her shapeless lips.
“I’m glad to have met you,” she tells me, and melts away into a puddle of soft pink and caramel brown, the colors of my childhood dreams.