When Melina leans over a table, everything is spangled. The sequins on her leotard catch light I didn’t even know was there. Before performances, she puts gloss serum on her hair so it shines too. All the details of her appearance are meant to catch the eye.
I saw her backstage early today. We had all heard the news. Miguel gathered us early in the morning, He was wearing worn jeans and a button-down shirt that showed tufts of graying chest hair, and that was the first time I thought of him as really being the patriarch of this circus and how one day he would be gone and Rafael or Daniel would take over. If the circus was still around. If any circus was.
Having emerged from her dressing room, Melina was sitting down in her full costume. Her hair was its familiar hot pink and her lipstick and false eyelashes were flawless, but she had her fingers interlaced and wore a solemn expression. I wondered if she prayed with her eyes open.
There is so much I know about Melina. For seven years now, we’ve been having this conversation of physical trust and spectacle. I could write a lexicon on her muscles. We’re trained to notice micro-movements, to know when “ready” actually means “ready?” But Melina always spins out anyway, not wanting to hover on the trapeze and wait for some primordial grace to well up in her.
And there is so much I don’t know about Melina. She isn’t used to being close to anybody. She doesn’t talk about it much, but I know how her relationships work. She likes men who are about to move away, men who are only in town for a month or so. Once, Melina and I kissed at a New Year’s Eve party. We were drunk and had taken ecstasy, and the moment seized us beneath a bare light bulb. Neither of us got turned on–I can honestly say that no woman has ever done it for me. But after we kissed, she pulled back and traced the outside of my lips with her tongue and I thought how it was like she was catching me this time.
I don’t even know much about where Melina came from. I think she had one great love, a long time ago. If the rumors are correct, his name was Oscar and he sold bracelets on the street. Then something bad happened (nobody knows what) and she must have had some kind of crisis because then she got her start in show business as a magician’s assistant. She learned to act cheerful when she was about to be sawed in half or locked inside a tiny box. She claimed to have forgotten how all of the tricks were done.
Wherever it was she came from, she was eager to in the spotlight, way up high, twisting through the air in a panoply of tricks. I’d had formal training and it wasn’t the time I’d held a girl in an “angel,” grasping both her feet and one arm. But it was the first time I’d held Melina that way with the dancing Technicolor lights Miguel loved so much, with the music whose beat I was convinced mimicked an excited heart.
Today the news had come down: no more live animals could be used in performances in Mexico City. This didn’t just apply to killer whales in sea shows; it applied to us. Our tigers who flew through fiery rings could be no more. Our elephants who had known nothing more than glittery captivity and the gentle commands of a trainer could be no more. Miguel had said it gently, but he had still said it: who would come to a circus anymore just for the clowns and the jugglers and the acrobats? Some of the other circuses in town were already staging protests, performing all the non-animal portion of their shows on the streets to show people how grim the future of the circus would be.
And Melina, despite her serious expression as I saw her sitting, her gaze landing somewhere over her intertwined fingers, didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t ask where she’d go next or what she would do. But when I walked by her, she turned her head slowly.
“Alex,” she said.
“Melina,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Today, I want us to end with the shooting star. Can you make that change?”
“Sure,” I said, though sometimes I still felt a bit of fear when we did the shooting star. It always happened so fast that I wasn’t sure Melina would reach me, and I feared I’d have to grab hold of her head instead of her arms, fear that I’d drop her or miss her altogether.
When the lights went up, the bright blue orbs panning the crowd and the red ones appearing a moment later, we were in position. Melina was in her hot pink spangles and I was dressed slightly more modestly, for she was still the lady being cut in half and I was the one who held her halves together. We enacted a brief courtship ritual for the crowd (her lips under the lightbulb that ecstasy-ridden New Year’s Eve) and then she made a somber show of removing her jewelry and accessories before I gave her a boost. And then we were in the air, and we were calling for each other, and my body grasped hers with a confidence I did not feel, and once again she told me she was ready to fly.
Erin Lyndal Martin’s flash has appeared in Blue Lake Review and is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly and Fiction Southeast. Longer fiction and poetry have appeared widely elsewhere.