Jan and Lou went to the circus. Originally, they started dating because both their names had just one syllable and this was all meant to be simple. Their lives were organized in a syllabus of sorts—a schedule of what everyone else wanted to see them do.
June 11th read, “Go to the Circus.” So they did, only they took the number 9 bus instead of the number 82 train, and ended up five minutes late, cutting Jan’s favorite part, the tightrope walker, short.
Instead of watching the whole performance, Jan saw only the tail end, the part where the lady dipped her toes beneath the rope into air like tepid bath water, then simply climbed down.
The little girl in the seat next to her said, “Ma, when I get older, I want to walk the ropes.”
“We all do,“ Jan meant only to think, but said aloud instead. The little girl looked at Jan as though she’d said nothing, but the little girl’s mother glared at Jan because she, too, had wanted to walk the rope.
All three girls sat in awe of the lady in the leotard, who crouched on the mat below the rope, now, and rubbed her eyes with her hands. If she was sad, they all wanted to be sad.
Lou asked what Jan was looking at, but instead of answering, Jan asked Lou to buy her cotton candy. She thought it might make up for missing the leotarded woman stretch her legs taught over the braided rope and twirl over the crowd. Lou walked to the concession stands with a few quarters in his hand.
Lou had brought back periwinkle fluff instead of the carnation-colored candy that Jan wanted. She ate it anyway, and smiled, but its taste soured on her tongue.
Lou crunched on popcorn so loudly Jan couldn’t even hear the girl in front of her clapping robustly at the lion tamer’s whip and cane. The little girl’s hands tapped together and came away and went back again, but her muted glee fell so low on Jan’s ears that she could only hear Lou’s crunching of popcorn, the kernel skins wedging themselves between his teeth and gums. He offered Jan a sip of his flat soda, and the bits of kernel stayed on her tongue after she gulped. She sipped more to rinse them away, but they kept coming. More and more kernel film stuck to her tongue until she had taken the last sip of the pop.
The little girl’s mother dangled a fiber optic souvenir wand over the girl’s head, and the girl leapt at it like the seal with the circus ball. The little girl missed. Whenever her fingers should have reached, the mother pulled it centimeters higher than she could touch—even on her toes.
She hoped that the next day the syllabus would read, “Write your own list, then do everything on that list in reverse order.” Jan would write, “Buy a leotard and something fiber optic” at the bottom. Just above that, “Buy blue cotton candy.” Jane looked at Lou’s nose, how the tip of it twitched every time he spoke or laughed. She wondered if he ever hoped for anything on the syllabus. Maybe he wondered why they had a syllabus. Jan knew she wondered, but instead of thinking too hard about it, she imagined that her balanced letters on the list would dip just below the lines on the paper, like toes, their curves caressing the edges steadily like the arches of feet.
Every day could be a circus. She could read the list again.