No sequins or rhinestones, nothing like that. Gloves, I guess, but not white. They'd be old and worn…without fingers. He stared at her, astonished by his own blindness.
It had been in the mirror behind the shadow. It's just rags and patches, hand-me-downs and discards. You can use your same comedy shoes—just spray paint them black. But you don't have any routines, Mario. You don't have any props or gags. She meant he didn't have any money or time.
He walked into the kitchen, feeling the heat of her glare on his shoulder blades. He snatched a set of colored pencils off the counter. At the table he began to sketch a face. When he finished, he pushed the drawing aside and started another. Ten minutes later he drew a third and carried all three into the bedroom. He took out his makeup kit, stuffed his hair into a shower cap and toweled sweat off his brow.
He imagined his face as a canvas. He put on a base coat of clown white and began to apply colors: He used Q-tips to outline and erase and then patted a powder puff against the makeup. Staring into the mirror, he saw pain. They're the foundation of any face. Mario ignored the whirr of the sewing machine, Silvia's tapping foot. He tried to forget the hospital gig.
He tossed Zico's red bulb nose aside and painted his own nose ruddy. Now his Tramp began to manifest. He was unemployed and unemployable, downcast and downtrodden. His pockets held a few dirty coins and would never hold more. His walk was a splayfoot shuffle. Gullible, sunburned, woebegone, he was wounded at his core. The effort to conceptualize so much combined with the cognac and tension left him weary.
He washed off his face and fell into bed. The sewing machine went on whirring into his dreams. In one dream, a flying machine sailed past the Christopher Columbus monument; in another, a dynamo opened and closed emergency room doors. Every hour or so he roused into a kind of half-conscious insomnia. The oppressive heat had coated his flesh in sweat. Out in the living room Silvia was still at work. He called her to bed but his voice sounded like far-off thunder.
Much later he became aware of Silvia tiptoeing into the bedroom. He forced his eyes half-open, saw her set something onto the bed and realized she was going to sleep out on the sofa. An hour later he sat up, drowsy, sweaty, still adrift. He wiped his eyes. A pile of clothes sat on the sheet near his right foot. Silvia had sewn green and purple patches onto an old suit coat and added ridiculously large buttons. A frayed hankie peeked out of the breast pocket and a rope belt snaked through the loops of stovepipe trousers.
There were red suspenders, rainbow socks and a turquoise bowtie. A bright plastic tulip stuck out of a battered derby hat. Now his Tramp had clothes but still lacked a name. The alarm on the nightstand read He sprang out of bed, stuffed his new costume into his backpack and rummaged through his clown supply box. He brought out juggler's bean bags, twisting balloons, his makeup kit, an oversized plastic stethoscope and a white lab coat. On the way through the living room he paused by the sofa where Silvia slept wrapped in an old sheet.
A thin film of sweat covered her eyelids and her parted lips quivered with each expelled breath. He bent to kiss her but then stopped and went to the dining room table. On a scrap of paper he drew an arrow pointing to the center of a circle and wrote, "Official Kiss. One hour and ten minutes later he stood fully dressed in the pediatric ward of San Juan de Dios hospital. Cubicle walls had been pushed aside and young patients had been brought from every corner of the hospital. As a nurse led him around, introducing children, he told himself, I am no longer Zico.
He did a hobo-shuffle between beds and wheelchairs, twisting balloons into poodle, sword and sombrero shapes. Three semi-bald children from Oncology gaped when he offered the balloons to their teddy bears and dolls. The nurse introduced Julia, an asthma patient who giggled through her oxygen mask.
There were kids with IV drips, bandages and crutches. Most wore brightly colored pajamas, as if they had dressed up as clowns themselves. Mario stumbled and floundered toward the far side of the room, finally arriving at a lone crib. He had performed in dozens of hospitals but had never come across anything like this. He guessed the deformed infant inside the crib was a boy but it looked more like a fetus than a child. The nurse said his name was Toni, that his mother had been a prostitute and heroin addict, his father an AIDS victim.
Mario noted that the other children kept their distance from the crib, even the nurse shied away. He twisted a yellow balloon into a tiny giraffe and set it on Toni's pillow. Toni stared at it, his eyes like two chips of coal. Mario shivered and headed back across the room past a scattering of nurses, parents and gayly colored plastic toys. On the way he bumped into beds and tripped over his comedy shoes. Gleeful shouts and laughter sped him along. He did a series of clumsy magic tricks, acting more surprised than the kids when his handkerchief disappeared or his magic rope obeyed his commands.
Again and again as he flopped and blundered through routines, he felt the presence of the crib at the far end of the room. He forced himself to return, forced himself to gaze into the coal-chip eyes. He summoned every gram of will and talent into his act. Cavorting and prancing in front of the crib, he invented a new skit for his Tramp and knew Zico was gone.
He made a final circle of the ward, pressing his giant stethoscope against children's ears and feet. Afterwards he posed for photos. Some of the parents gave him tips. He took a last glance at Toni and left the hospital in tears. He stopped at the sawdust bar and drank cognac. He was too drained to chat with the barman. The clink of glasses, the hum of voices, the whoosh of the overhead fan lulled him through the afternoon.
He wandered home along the steamy streets. He felt both saddened and relieved to arrive.
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When he pushed the door open, the apartment was dead quiet. His gaze went to the dining room table. The sewing machine was gone. In its place lay his note. He stood motionless for a long while and finally took off his backpack. He went into the bedroom. Staring into the smoky mirror, he christened his new character, Toni the Tramp. If on that day—the last day of swimming lessons—you would have asked the four year old me why I did what I did, I could not then and I cannot now tell you. My actions at the pool that summer afternoon remain an enigma even after all these years.
I walked without stopping. Fixated on a singular endpoint, I conducted my mission as though locked in a tractor beam pulling me toward the mother ship. When I finally reached my destination, I pressed myself between kids who were double and triple my age to secure a place in the growing queue. To this day I wonder whether I was fully aware of what I was doing. Though knowing my personality, I feel certain I must have been determined to be one of them —the competent, confident kids I had studied all summer long—the daring few who jumped off the high dive.
Still, I cannot say precisely what motivated me to go. Whatever it was dwarfed my fear of the water. When it came to swimming, I felt hopelessly inept—leaden. My strange slapping arms could not carry the lump of my body across even a very short stretch of the pool. I sank, gasped, choked and begged for mercy. My teacher was unimpressed with my progress.
I really hated those lessons. At four I knew nothing of confidence, talent or success, yet the will to achieve ran deep in my veins. I wanted to be like those I admired—able to scale the foot ladder and jump fearlessly off the high dive. Some kids tried to push me out of line, telling me I was too little to be there; but I set my stubborn jaw and stood steadfast.
Until, of course, I was far enough up the ladder that the people began to appear smaller. All at once I realized that I was punching above my weight. I longed to back down, to return to the safety of my shallow-end place near my mother where I could just dangle my feet in the water. I held my breath, sucked in the fear and tried to back down the ladder, but the kids further down began to jeer. Even at age four, I understood peer pressure. The taunts coming from below were more intimidating than the thought of moving forward. I continued reluctantly upward until the sounds of my pounding heart drowned out the heckling.
When the top of my head reached the upper rung of the ladder, my wide blue eyes stared straight down the long, white springboard.
This was the end of the line. The two stick legs of the boy in front of me disappeared from view and the girl below me poked my bottom impatiently. I heard a splash before the crowd cheered. Although I desperately wanted to reverse down that shiny silver ladder and skulk away, I edged my hands onto the sides of the platform and pulled myself up robotically. The kids were calling for me to hurry up, but everything slowed to a halt. The plank seemed to go on forever. It wobbled up and down as I tiptoed cautiously toward my fate. With each step, the springiness of the board almost unhinged me.
I neared the edge and scanned the horizon for my mother—for any familiar face—one last time. That was when I reached the end. The view from the top was astounding. Suddenly, my mind was alive. I recall that moment with the greatest of clarity even to this day.
The pool below appeared much smaller and the blue water sparkled, dancing cheerfully in the afternoon sunlight. The sight was dazzling. The people also looked different, more like moving dolls than humans. To a four year old who could barely swim, hated swimming lessons and was afraid of the water, this change of perspective was heady. I glanced back at where I had come from.
The irritated faces of the kids waiting their turn in line stared back at me. Reversing back along the quavering board and down the ladder, not only seemed the less attractive alternative, it appeared virtually impossible. I drank in an enormous gulp of air, a single, life-giving breath that summoned the force of courage. In that instant, my lungs held inside them a power far greater than me.
Seconds before I jumped, I grew calm in the awareness of what I must do. With eyes wide open I moved my right foot forward and willed myself to step off, entrusting my whole being to the air. The free-fall presented an entirely new feeling of exhilaration and the moment I submerged into the water was a sublimely victorious experience. The vastness of the deep water embraced and empowered my reed-thin body. Electrified, I soared gracefully to the surface. Without faltering, I instinctively knew what to do. I stretched out, slicing my arms through the water.
Momentarily without teacher, peer or parent, I languished in those few triumphant moments in the deep end of the pool. Achieving what no one expected, what even I did not conceive I could do. As I neared the side of the pool, a commotion grew. People were on their feet and at least a dozen outstretched hands were waiting to pull me to safety. Wrapping a towel around me as the strong arms of surprised strangers guided me to the side, my relieved mother just shook her head. In that moment I lost my smallness and felt what it was to be big—giant, in fact.
Eventually I would learn to fiercely occupy that liminal space between the free fall and the jubilant surfacing in the deep end. I would change and change and change again. I was certainly not the first four year old in the world to terrify her mother by slipping away and engaging in a random act of risk-taking. My mother was perhaps the least surprised of everyone at the pool. Only a year earlier I attempted to invent my own circus act by standing on the handlebars of my tricycle trying to do what I had seen the ladies who rode the horses at the circus do.
Because three-year-old children are clueless about gravity, I lost my two front teeth that day. We all come to unexpected intersections that funnel us down the path of choosing between two options. Before you lies a choice with far reaching consequences and unfathomable long-term effects.
Behind you is your familiar story, your entrenched pattern—the devil you know. Nonetheless, with one foot already committed to the air and the other wishing it could turn back, you step quietly into the void hoping against hope that your wings will unfold. Life, like all good stories, begins at the point of departure. For me, that brazen step into the deep end was the first of many.
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