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The Slow Motion Circus

The First Chapter from My Novella, 'The Rungs on the Ladder'

It’s a helpless mind that wanders so completely that it cannot retrace steps or patterns. Events and places from my past seem to be fleeting back and forth between conscious enigma and the reality for which it was at the time. Every brilliant little speck of happiness, every impulse I long for is hiding somewhere out in the open, like a wild beast waiting for its hunter.

I spend my nights recanting the blissful nothingness of my adolescence. Adolescent? I guess that’s what I was. It was only a few short years ago, but it might as well be a lifetime. A lifetime of mistakes, of love, lost and forgotten, of births and deaths and every meaningless word spoken in between. I wonder if things might have been different if my mind had forced itself to find some sort of path or at least a compass reading along the way, instead of wandering aimlessly along the road like I have. I suppose it’s no use wondering. The past stays where it is, most of the time.

If I could explain what those nights had meant to me, I probably should have realized at the time what I was being shaped into, but that’s impossible. No one ever knows anything until it’s too late to turn back or change their mind. I find myself thinking too often of first kisses, puppy loves, meeting faces, learning names, learning secrets, and learning what happened along the way.

My lamp flickers in the window the same way it always does, and my thoughts return to the present. The cigarette resting between my middle and index fingers has all but gone out. I guess I live too much in the past, or so I’m told. Not told by anyone, but by my own racing thoughts speeding through the dark alleys of my mind. Right now, though, I let them slide away with the setting sun as I slowly crush out whatever is still burning from the butt of my smoke. I then turn away and saunter back inside to my lonely apartment.

Barely furnished but all mine, my apartment sits blocks away from the streets that border what we call downtown. Most of my friends live in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown in a sort of collection of lost and haunted souls; tormented. A vast majority of us have common interests and themes that we carry with us as we try with every fiber of our being to create something out of nothing and attempt to make the world around us a better place for everyone. We do this because inside our heads we’re just lost and wandering, trying to make the best out of what we have. I know and see the creativity in all their eyes and the magic created baffles me at times. I feel as if no one expects much from me, though. Perhaps they mostly think of me as an outsider, even though I’ve been around for years.

My one true friend, the one that I can be sure won’t abandon or judge me for my faults, lays contently on the back of the couch staring at me with big green eyes as I sit down on the seat below her. But, she suddenly becomes distracted and turns back to the window just in time to see a stranger drive by. Then, as soon as the car has passed, she descends from her perch, noticing that I am lost in thought again. As she pours all her constant attention into a fleeting glance, she crawls across the books and empty plates and glasses that litter the old worn out coffee table that I’ve forgotten to clean up again. She then gives me that one true desperate look that says that I’m the only thing that’s worth worrying about at that moment. The simple sound of drowning purrs comforts me to some extent; the one and only real comfort that I have these days.

As most things do, though, the moment fades. She returns to her perch on the back of the couch to study the ever-growing darkness through the window and attempts to pinpoint any subtle movement that may be lying in wait. I too, have become impatient with my mind and being in it. I start to feel haunted by the loneliness and isolation and soon begin studying the cracks in the wall and tiny pieces of dust floating through the air above the opening at the top of the lampshade sitting next to me. Each little moment in time is still here in the present but probably remains meaningless to anyone that doesn’t take the opportunity to stop and notice how they keep building up and are eventually hurriedly swept under the rug. It happens without much thought or consequence really, we’re just digging a hole to have something to escape from.

I sit and I wait for something, anything to happen. After only a brief moment of impatience, I grab my old coat from the back of one of the chair surrounding my tiny kitchen table and head out the door and into the now darkening night. I begin to walk aimlessly down the broken sidewalk and through the familiar streets, vacant now except for the occasional passerby in an empty car or truck heading home or maybe to some establishment that feels more like home than the empty shell of a room that they lay their heads down to sleep. Maybe they’re trying to escape the place that they keep all of the material things they’ve ever owned, the things they haven’t yet discarded for something better or greater or newer, things that keeps their minds frantically at ease believing they’ve still got a place in the rat race. Maybe they’re heading in for the night shift where they work away while everyone else sleeps in, in order to earn maybe a dollar or two more an hour just so they can afford to make payments on a house they’ll never completely own and that they’re never in. Or it’s in order to make payments on a car that they only use to drive to and from that job. Or maybe they do it to send their only son or daughter off to get a decent education at a school that only cares which tax bracket their student’s parents are in. Maybe ultimately that son or daughter will learn to resent that parent for never being around for the little league games or the dance recitals and for leaving them a broken economy that that particular parent had no hand in destroying personally. But, then again, we all get lumped together into some class or group away, for whatever reason. Maybe that passerby is on their way to their house right now to kiss that son or daughter on the forehead as they sleep because they had to stay late at the office to engage in an unscheduled meeting with their new secretary. Maybe that son or daughter will never know about that meeting until their parents stop talking, file for divorce, and their dad moves into a shady one bedroom apartment on the other side of town and they end up spending half of their time between the two parents. They’ll end up having a new mom named Stacy that is closer to their age than their dad’s. Their mom eventually remarries a recovering alcoholic named Bruce that she met at a twelve-step meeting that she started going to because she couldn’t put the bottle down after she found out that her husband was sleeping with another woman that was half her age. Or maybe that passerby is none of those things. Maybe none of those possible scenarios are true and my overactive imagination has villainized a complete stranger and made them out to be something they aren’t at all. Maybe I make these scenarios up out of boredom or maybe my depression and restless thoughts have grabbed a real hold of me once again.

By the time I catch my breath and stop to look around, I’m standing downtown on Main Avenue looking down Eleventh Street under the lights of the pavilion with cars swimming all around to the left and to the right. It’s too many cars to worry about any sort of possible scenarios or the possible life circumstances of the unsuspecting passengers. So, I begin stumbling down Eleventh in the open air of the muffled voices of the people passing from ahead and behind and I take notice of the familiar faces that I recognize from nights past. I don’t dare acknowledge any of them for fear of any sort of awkward encounter on either part. Instead, I choose to continue to dog paddle down the sidewalk past the drowning lights of shops closing down for the night, between groups of friends I will never be a part of, and around smiling couples that are holding hands and making silly faces of peace complacency at each other. Then, out of utterly nowhere, I hear a strangely comforting voice shout my name from across the street and it wakes me from my seemingly endless sleepwalking.

It’s then that I see my dear friend Laura standing in the middle of the sea of wayfarers, smiling a smile that could hold you like a newborn baby, tender and safe. Her piercing blue eyes seem to punch right through me like a prizefighter at the sound of a bell. They had me frozen in place like the fear that holds me from confronting my own emotions, as nameless and faceless strangers brush right past me. Her eyes dance like diamonds from the heavens, reflecting perfectly off the flickering street lamp and the neon bar sign that sits directly above the spot where she stands waiting, with arms outstretched. Her unkempt, dirty blonde hair rests carelessly under a faded black, oversized fedora she undoubtedly had picked up earlier that day from her favorite second-hand shop or had acquired in some drunken exchange a night or two before.

As I stand in the slow-motion circus of the downtown nightlife, I slowly watch her thin red lips mouth my name until the noise of the street and the people around me finally come back into focus. I muster a half-crooked smile and raise my arm for a slow, simple wave in her general direction. Her tiny hand quickly appears from the tattered sleeve of her ballooning hand knit sweater and she motions with her index finger, held adorably close to her rosy cheek, and begs for me to wade across the busy street and join her on the other side.

All the noises of the night time in the city seem to fade into one long orchestrated number with only time as the conductor. At my own fear of loneliness and unacceptance, I lend a hand by dancing across the staves of Phillips Avenue. With each resounding note played as an abrupt honk of a car horn from an annoyed driver, I nearly become their hood ornament several times over. I end my contribution to the score with a final splash of a dirty puddle of water from the morning rain and a sharp falsetto from Laura as she pulls me in for a warm, heavy hug. I can’t help but feel like the luckiest person in the whole world, if only for that brief embrace. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re waiting around for something that has never happened and you don’t feel ever will. It’s that hollow, longing feeling you get when you’re nostalgic about something that hasn’t happened yet, always trying to run back to a feeling you’ve only felt in the fantasy of a ghostly dream sequence.

Just then, over Laura’s shoulder, I notice an elderly couple, in perhaps their seventies, study a bronze statue of a young girl playing the violin. It was as if they were trying to remember better times or praise the memory of a daughter or granddaughter that has since passed away and today would have been her birthday. I shed a tear for their possible loss as Laura and I pull apart from our embrace and she grabs ahold of my hand firmly with her slender fingers, sporting painted nails that matched her rosy cheeks, though they were half chipped away from wear and the nervous biting and picking of worry. She asks me how I’ve been and other formalities with a sincerity so intense it almost seems flippant. Her interest perks at every response as though we hadn’t seen each other in months or years when, in reality, it had been a week at most. I, always guarded, lie and say I’m fine. She can tell, though, by the look of pensive anguish on my face that I’m hiding something from her and not expressing my true plight of emotional self-destruction. She doesn’t pry, just stares deeply and hints of a place of comfort in her company like I am some lost, strange, ragged puppy that she found and needs to take home and care for. But, like me, she too needed guidance in navigating life and the crisscrossing patterns of her heart-shaped sleeves. Together we were just two wandering children in a sea of dust and smog, holding each other in thought with a lustful sense of time and space. It was as if the world was our oyster and we had developed some sort of shellfish allergy.

We could have been anyone to the people whispering around us. Maybe they thought us to be some long-lost lovers, reunited in a small midwestern city for the first time since we departed after an estranged separation some years before. Maybe we came back into each other's arms after much heartache and longing and had experienced a grand adventure of far-off lands and failed romances because in the back of our minds we couldn’t stop thinking about one another. Maybe they thought all of this because people like believing in real love and hope and dreaming that things can actually happen like they do in the movies; a place where one can experience the excitement and sorrow of love and loss all in the span of two hours.

Laura and I wandered down the cavernous avenue, her hand pulling mine as if I were her small child. We were looking to escape from the lying and cheating, unkind eyes of the street lamps and all they see. In doing this we slowly find ourselves navigating the same lonely, familiar path we have taken many times before. Each stone on this road I know by name and each one calls back to me as we pass by. They know what most others don’t and have seen the bleak, desperate and the strong-willed of heart in the exact same light. All those souls have walked in the same shoes and each ghost that floats by has had the same face. We were one in the same to the night. A messy collage of poets, painters, musicians, and preachers. We called the night our own like it was the last one left in the bread line we have come to know all too well. We sang songs of heartache and happiness and told our stories and sermons to any ear that dared to plant their feet near enough to hear. We wanted to be loved. We wanted to be free. We wanted for just one night to stop all the madness of the world outside and the spiraling of our minds and just live untethered and unbridled and not worry about tomorrow.

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