Marie Carter

From The Trapeze Diaries

“The trapeze man, slim and beautiful and like a fish in the air
Swung great curves through the upper space, and came down like a star
- And the people applauded, with hollow, frightened applause.”
“When I Went to the Circus” by D. H. Lawrence

I am scared of heights. I have an early memory (maybe I was five) of climbing the stairs of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with my parents and my brother. My father was having trouble with his hip at the time and only got so far up the stairs. He was walking with a stick. He was also afraid of heights. I remember my mother taking hold of my hand and pulling me out of the stairwell and onto the balcony of St. Paul’s. I had recently seen a horror movie about a woman who had jumped from the building of her roof.

“Why is the woman screaming?” I had asked my mum. “What happens to her when she falls?”

“She dies,” my mother had said.

At St. Paul’s Cathedral, my mother gestured with her hands and said, “Look at the lovely view,” but I was too scared to admire it. I walked around the circular dome with my back pressed hard against the wall, not daring to look down. My mother and brother leaned over the edge.

Before trapeze class starts, I have to fill out a card with an emergency number. Since I am originally from Scotland and I don’t have any family in the country, it is difficult for me to think of who I should put down as an emergency contact. A friend or my boss? What if I fell off the trapeze and broke my neck? Who would be the most useful person for them to contact? Will they mind being contacted?

It is somewhat disconcerting to sign the release form. The words “accident” and “death” appear several times.

Fear is a Teacher
The Aerialist says that people are going to cry. “You’ll get angry and frustrated. You’ll definitely bruise and you’ll probably be scared. But that’s where we want to go. Let fear teach you. Though we don’t want anyone to get injured and it’s good for you to have a healthy amount of fear.”

An Accident
The other day in trapeze class, a thirteen-year-old student, Cathy, fell from the bar. She wasn’t doing any funky moves when she fell; she simply piked, lost her grip and crashed onto the mat. She had, at least, the good sense to tuck her head in as she fell. She wasn’t terribly hurt but she was in shock and embarrassed. For half an hour, she lay on the mat crying until her mother came to pick her up. The Aerialist stayed with her until then, soothing her, telling her not to apologize and saying that she did the right thing by tucking her head in.

The next week, The Aerialist told us she had survived with no injury. While talking about Cathy, The Aerialist said, “Adults are different from children. They have this mental system they can check into, but kids think they can do everything.”

I wish I could remember being like that as a child, but I was sedate, cautious and fearful.

At the circus, I watched a clown drag a wary man onto the stage. He’s protesting and trying to pull in the other direction back to his comfy seat. He is worried about what they’ll make him do but I don’t know what.

A clown once dragged me from my seat and I was worried he’d make me do a handstand or a forward roll.

The Low Bar
The Aerialist hangs a trapeze with a low bar. It is so close to the ground that when she does a front balance, the trapeze touches the floor.

She says she wants us to work on the ropes. She demonstrates, flipping up into a pike, holding on with her hands half way up the ropes. She comes back down, then gripping the bar with her arms, tucks her knees to her chest. “If you can hold this for fifteen seconds,” she says, “you’ll be ready to use the ropes.”

When it’s my turn, I try to hold the position but I can’t be there for more than five seconds. Coming off, I hit my foot on the bar. Despite being close to the ground, the low bar feels more dangerous to me than the high bars. Perhaps because I’m not used to working on it, or perhaps because it looks deceptively easy.

People have been known to drown in the bath.

Downtown Manhattan
I watched the bodies jump from the Twin Towers on 9-11. At first it looked like rubble and debris but when I borrowed someone’s binoculars, I could see they were people falling like acrobats. All the office workers were out on their roofs gawking as though it were The Greatest Show on Earth.

My mother was frantic - she knew I worked in downtown Manhattan but she had no idea how large downtown Manhattan was. She was sure I had been killed until she received an email from me assuring her I was alive and well.

Soon after, she visited me and from Brooklyn Bridge I showed her the enormity of the area that is considered downtown Manhattan. Something like relief came over her face.

Once, I met an air stewardess and I told her she was very brave. Every time I fly in an airplane, I told her, I think I’m going to die. It doesn’t seem natural that this large piece of machinery should be in the air.

“But the pilots are so well-trained,” she said. “They are taught to deal with every possible emergency. Airplane crashes are so rare. Think about the maniacs that drive cars and how little training they’ve had. Think about the amount of road accidents you’ve seen.”

“But when I’m in an airplane,” I said, “I feel so out of control. I cannot leave the aircraft until I arrive at my destination. If something were to happen to the plane I couldn’t take control of the wheel or jump out of the plane.”

“Often, when we think we have control, it’s an illusion,” she says. “Were the office workers in the Twin Towers in control? All they were doing was going to work. If someone robs you at gun point, are you in control? All you were doing was walking down the street.”

Her words give me some comfort but there is no way of rationalizing our fears. One of the most daring aerialists I’ve ever seen, said she’d be scared to work in a bar.

I have never been punched or beaten up before and yet it remains one of my greatest fears.

One night, several years ago, on my way home I was almost raped. The man didn’t have any weapons but I was scared to hit him in case he retaliated. Instead, I struggled to run away and screamed until a car stopped and the couple inside came out and scared him off.

The Aerialist has been teaching me knee hangs on the rope, a trick that has left the nastiest blackest looking bruises on my legs as though someone has been beating me up. I have been thinking this is what it must feel like to be punched. In that case it’s not as bad as I thought and I wouldn’t feel as bad fighting back if it happened again.

Miguel and Juan Vazquez trained for the quadruple on the flying trapeze by boxing one another every day because it was good for their reflexes and because it got them used to feeling sudden blows to the face, shoulders or chest in case they should collide in midair.

The Fire Eater
I am reading a book about fire eaters. One of the fire eaters describes how fire fascinates her. In the name of art, she has received third degree burns, singed her hair, gone to hospital twice, burned a favorite dress and her mouth stinks of petroleum. She is intrigued by the way the body heals. She is thoroughly aware of the dangers her profession entails and she’s had plenty of horror stories that would put anyone off but she can’t give up.

“I love watching fire. It’s so beautiful,” she says.

It is not the fire in the photograph that I find beautiful. It is her, and the way she looks at the fire and touches the fire. I can’t imagine doing what she does. I don’t love fire enough to accept the risks.

Later she says, “I can’t imagine wanting to be a trapeze artist. I’m scared of heights and there’s too much danger involved.”

Daily Dangers
I am talking to a stranger in a coffee shop who is asking me, “If you fell from the trapeze, what height would you be falling from?”

I try to explain that I’m not concerned about these things right now.

“I have a spot,” I tell him, “and there are mats below. Besides, your body is not going to let you do anything you’re not capable of doing.”

What I don’t mention is that trapeze takes an enormous amount of faith that no accidents will happen.

Juan Vazquez, a professional trapeze artist says, “Every time I go up I ask the Lord to help my brother and my daughter, and I have an angel that protects us.”

Since I have started trapeze I have become more aware of the innate dangers that challenge humans on a daily basis. I wanted to ask the man in the coffee shop, “When you cross the road, how do you know a car won’t run the red light?”

I am becoming more scared of the daily dangers that I face. I have read in The New York Times that a man was stalking women who lived on their own. He would climb into their rooms and rape them. Despite having no air-conditioning in my apartment, in the summer, I turn on my fan and close all the windows. I am jittery at night. At the slightest noise, I walk toward my window with a baseball bat.

These days when I go to the circus, I find myself less interested in the acrobatic feats and find myself watching the shadows on the tent wall, the lighting person, the technicians and the riggers.

At one show, I watched hooded figures back stage and guessed which performers were hooded and what act they were about to perform. I watched them getting ready, taking their cue. I noticed when they made subtle mistakes and could see from their breathing how exhausted and sometimes stiff they were. I know the technical names for various poses now. I noticed the back of one performer’s shoes were scuffed.

My friend was sitting next to me eating popcorn. She was telling me how much she likes the juggler.

“He’s not as exciting as the aerialists,” I said. “Nobody ever died from juggling.”

Heart Attack
When I was twenty-one, my father died of a sudden heart attack. He was a simple man who would do anything for peace and quiet. My mother said my father died the way he wanted to die. No fuss, no pain, no long drawn-out illness.

My friends say, “Whatever next? Are you going to go sky-diving? Is someone going to shoot you out of a cannon?”

They assume I am a thrill-seeker because I’m an enthusiastic trapeze-artist but that is not the case. Every time I learn a new trick in trapeze I am very scared and cautious.

Tino Wallenda, a famous tightrope walker says, “Everyone thinks I’m a dare-devil but that’s not true. I’m simply an artist and safety is my number one concern.”

The Slush Pile
Once, at work, while reading through the slush pile, I came across the work of a fifteen-year-old that was extraordinarily good and different. I was thrilled to come across his work and later shortly after we published him in the magazine, I wrote to him asking him to send more work but I never heard back.

My boss wasn’t too surprised. “Some kids feel uncomfortable by what poetry brings up emotionally. It gets too close to the core.”

Aerial Poetry
I have often heard the aerial arts described as poetry.

“When you write a poem you have to care about every word,” The Aerialist says. “When you’re up in the air, you have to care about every trick and transition.”

I’ve noticed that some people are uncomfortable when they watch aerial artists. It gives them a sense of discomfort because after it looks as though the aerialist has come too close to death.

Circus Skills Are Life Skills
The Aerialist says that circus skills are not only useful for the circus but they are useful for life.

“You can carry heavy boxes and large volumes of luggage. You can balance on ladders.”

I read a book about a circus fire that took place in the fifties in Hartford Connecticut. Many of the spectators burned but all the acrobats got out by climbing over the scaffolding.

Marie Carter is the editor of Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland (Hanging Loose Press) and has had work published in Hanging Loose and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. She's currently polishing off her creative non-fiction book, The Trapeze Diaries.