My Only Hope
Written by Sarah K. Inman
Wednesday, 06 February 2008 14:15
The world financial markets crash on my birthday, but what does that matter to an English professor leading a double life as an aerialist? I’ve just been filmed for a rock video, and I’m on my way to a meeting about making a movie. More importantly, I live in the northern most Caribbean county, one that doesn’t follow the rhythms of mainland America.
One of a trio of men clinging to brown bags calls out.
“How you doing?” I respond.
“You have a pretty smile. Don’t ever stop smiling.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“You sashaying,” the man comments on my walk.
“That’s a good verb,” I say.
We meet in the casting office, on the fourth floor of the ugliest building on Prytania Street. The photo on the wall displays a picture of me and the Concussed Leader of our aerial troupe. We’re stretched across a doubles bar wearing our painted nude body stockings in a pose we named the star. My hopefulness drops a little when I notice that the photo is mislabeled to suggest that I’m absent from the picture. They’ve confused me with another aerialist, one from Chicago. I want to speak up, but soon we’re asked to follow Robin, someone in casting, upstairs.
Abandoned desks fill the empty hallway outside Paul Weitz’s make-shift office. Miniature storyboards of Cirque du Freak are taped to them. Empty book shelves stare back at us. Around the corner a lone fake white Christmas tree blinks colored bulbs. We come to discuss aerial performance, our area of expertise. There are three of us, the Concussed Leader of our troupe, the Tattooed Beauty, and me, and three of them. One man sports a “stunt man” ball cap. I comment on crash pads, hoping to find some common ground.
Instead they talk about Heath Ledger the star of Brokeback Mountain who died recently of an apparent drug overdose. They speculate on overdoses, on suicide. Funny how Owen Wilson would want to put an end to his life, they agree. He seemed so easy-going, so natural to them. Why would he do that, even try it, think about it? Is this what passes for conversation? I want to volunteer an answer because I understand the drive. It seems strange when they cannot fathom it. Perhaps they’re just being polite. Instead I ask if Ledger was the actor in Bully.
“No, he’s not a bully.”
“No, the movie Bully,” I say. It’s a Larry Clark film based on a true story of Floridian youths who conspire to kill a mutual acquaintance, the said bully of the group. Later I find out that Brad Renfro, not Heath Ledger, played the avenger in Bully as well as a young white supremacist in Apt Pupil. His death is less publicized, his work less known. Shame on me for not knowing the difference.
The Concussed Leader slaps another copy of her promotional DVD, the one I’m absent from, atop my headshot. An unfamiliar noise, that of a pile driver sounds outside. Could it be development along the river?
“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” The Tattooed Beauty’s phone rings, echoing a familiar line from Star Wars. She apologizes as she shuts off the ringer.
When they’ve had enough, we make our way back downstairs. In between floors, I’m reminded that it’s my birthday, which I share with the legalization of abortion. The subject of drinks at Mimi’s is brought up.
Back in the casting office, Robin speaks only to the Concussed Leader. “He really likes you,” she says, smiling and looking at CL. “He might want to use you two on the hoop,” she looks at the Tattooed Beauty and me quickly before turning again to CL. I’m in the periphery of her vision. “He likes the silks, too.” Then she mentions the name of the Chicago Aerialist, the other whose work presents on the promotional DVD.
“I hope you don’t feel like this is a waste of your time,” she begins to apologize and suddenly that Proustian moment, not one triggered by smell, but by phrasing, occurs. Suddenly I’m eleven and puffy in all the wrong places, standing among the girls asked to leave the ballet company audition early. Winthrop and Christine, who’s now dead, both thin, frail things, always smoking and removing their clogs to demonstrate a proper tendue, stand before us, the awkward, rejected group of girls. They thank us for coming. Their near midget daughter starred in every production. At the time, I hated her too.
I drive silently, chauffeuring the Concussed Leader and the Tattooed Beauty. No, I won’t celebrate my birthday tonight. I should call the production tomorrow and tell of her concussion, of why she cannot be on set until May, but it’s not worth the energy, not worth the money or the bit part.
Later that week, hope returns as I show off for film scouts in town getting script ideas. They seem impressed but too nice to have anything to do with final casting. When they leave, I stretch as the super of the warehouse discusses his failed attempt at suicide. He has a friendly face, white hair and good skin. He grins sardonically as he reveals that as a youth, he’d tried hanging himself from the rafters of a theater set to run South Pacific. To hide the rope burn, he grew a beard.
I dream that I’ve been dead for three days, and that I desperately want some good photographs of myself. I do a backbend over my grave. Then I try the same move on top of the little box that holds my ashes. I walk my hands closer to my feet, hoping the photographer gets a good shot. Then I look at myself in the mirror. I’m thin and almost featureless, like an alien from outer space. My hair is gone, and deep gray crescents form under my eyes. I should not be photographed like this, I decide. It’s too late for me, but I lament not living because I liked it. I wake sweating, full of dread and regret.
Most of my adult life has been spent making up for my failed vision of becoming a ballerina. Every time I perform as an aerialist, every day I practice, I am reminded of this fact. Ballerinas rehearse daily. They take care of themselves and eat well. They perform even when they’re sick and sometimes when injured. I read a book about this when I was a child enrolled in dance classes, and it sounded right to me. Performance is work, but if it’s the kind of work I love, then I’ll do it, no matter what.
As Carnival kicks into its final week, I find myself on stage at the Satyricon Ball amid shirtless backflipping harlequins. I play an aerial fairy for the queen, Carl, my agent who books most of my convention work. Dressed in blue, I begin my ascent up the silky fabric to the rafters of the old sugar mill. I wrap and stretch, elongate my muscles, pull my foot to my head and pose with perfect ballet arms. Bing Crosby’s “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking” plays. The song is not my choosing, but it’s not my day; it’s Carl’s. I’m just happy to be part of this ridiculous fantasy, one that can only exist in the southern most U.S. city. Later, we all share the stage, shirtless cowboys, drag queens and burlesque dancers. We live to amuse ourselves but want others to notice.
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