(Fictional monologue for an actress, theme: artistic experience. Performed at Orcas Center, Monologue Night '09)
I turned 18 yesterday, but for me that doesn’t mean much. A regular girl would be able to have a regular sweetheart and ride in his regular car to a regular movie. But I have a church and they’ve kept me neatly in the fold.
When I was four a neighbor called me “a little Renoir.” She said it with the forced French accent that people use when they want someone who doesn’t speak French to think they do. I was drawing sailboats in the dirt with a willow branch. She was talking about my hair and the navy blue dress I was wearing. But my father had never looked at art in books. He set his hand on top of my head like a heavy crown and replied, “She’s an artist alright.” He added a humpf, as if the word artist was a euphemism for something even worse. “Knew straight off,” he said. “Just by the way she puts carrots on a plate.”
I was seven when he told me, "Teachers and nurses are good careers for a woman." He said it as I climbed down from the trampoline. My forehead was wet and my legs were shaking because I had jumped too long. I hadn’t been able to stop myself. I was looking at the circular shadows my white skirt made on the rubber when the sun shown through the thin material. The small black tides widened from the center like the surface of a dark lake when a stone is dropped in. It hypnotized me. I wanted to keep it inside myself forever, that image. I wanted to recreate it. I wanted someone else to see what I saw and then know what I knew. I wanted understanding.
So when I quit jumping, and he gave the choice of two careers, I didn’t think anything of it, except that a teacher seemed the better of the two.
For my fourteenth birthday he gave me three horsehair brushes and 12 oil paints, the colors so good I wanted to taste them one by one. But he took me out of Saturday art class because it conflicted with my church studies. I asked him, “When will I paint?” and he was surprised. He told me I could paint when my chores were done, and for the last four years that’s exactly what I’ve done.
Yesterday, a circus came to town. A real live circus. They raised an enormous tent in an old sheep pasture. Yes, it was red and white stripes. No one knew they were coming. No one I know anyway. I snuck out. I’m not the kind of girl who is allowed to explore places alone. It starts out real dark in there, inside the tent. And it smells awful at first. Soiled hay. And there’s cigar smoke and the voices of the people, so raw . . . the whole thing made me nauseous. I had to fold my arms tight against my stomach and hold. You have to sit on hay inside. It itched my legs. I checked my calves for fleas. The man next to me wore only his undershirt. I’ve never seen that before. His arms floated to each side of him because his middle was so swollen with fat. He had a gold wristwatch and rings that glittered. He smelled like he was perspiring beer. When his popcorn fell on my lap, I acted like I didn’t notice and silently recited the lie I was going to tell my father. I think for a moment I even wished for my father’s hand to hold.
In the tent, a spotlight came on. Then the clowns came out in their colored silks and white faces. They zipped around in these teeny, tiny cars, foiled like Easter candy. They made figure eights in single file, then they’d spilt apart and cruise in no pattern at all. They threw water balloons in the shape of flowers at screaming children in the front row. Then two of them were looking opposite ways. They were sailing for a head-on. In the back someone shouted, “Look out!” and both clowns put their hands to their ear in unison, as if they were trying to hear. They crashed and were thrown from their cars into cartwheels. A crazy house alarm sirened through the tent. Red lights flashed on cue in a circular pattern across the crowd of faces, which were laughing gap-jawed and wild in the strobing light. It was beautiful. The man in the undershirt gripped his cigarette between his teeth and smiled. His belly rippled with tides of laughter. He elbowed me as he clapped and gave me a wink. And we were friends.
What struck me then, the real art of it, was that they meant to do it. The clowns. They meant to crash. I realized they had practiced the routine probably a hundred times. In lay clothes. With no flashing light or snare drum. They learned, studied, perfected their art so that when they did it right, when their vision had finally been mastered, they would give us something . . . transcendent! Imagine. To incite, in an entire crowd of people, the exact same emotion at the exact same time. Tightrope walkers. Trapeze fliers. Lion tamers, sword swallowers, fire dancers. Even the seals. They were all artists. Successes. Emotional wranglers. They had the power to force people stop and look a little longer. To make the people watching know what they knew. I didn’t know understanding like that was possible before last night.
After the show, I hid behind one of the trucks that read Degas Family Circus while they took down the tent. They don’t look like any family I’ve ever known. Not father, mother, and child seen-not-heard. They are a muddle. They pull flasks from their jackets and pass them around. They fight over cigarettes and clean towels. Crouching there, I saw them as half-dressed, human cartoons. Like little Impressionist paintings against the plain canvas of grass and sky. They swore and grunted while they pulled their stakes from the soil. They weren’t even aware of the striking images they made while they spit and scratched. Works of art, each one.
After a few hours, they lit a bonfire. I stole closer to them in the dark. A woman wearing a blue wig and black garter belt stockings with a housewife apron noticed me and said, “Look what the cat dragged in.” She handed me a chunk of cheese in a napkin. She gave me a second look but didn’t ask what she wanted to. She began feeding playbills into the fire. They read “One Night Only.” The clowns and the strong man took interest in me. They fingered my hair. They were surprised it was real. They looked at my shoes. One asked, “You lost?” and I shook my head. Then their curiosity was over and the blue wig asked, “Hey, Farm Girl, you joining us on the road in the morning?” That’s when I heard my own heart beating for the first time, and it hasn’t stopped since. “Do you think I can do what you do?” I asked. A purple cowboy hat said, “Sure. Nothin’ to it,” and threw his head back to drink.
I confess. For a minute I wasn’t sure I could join them. I thought of my mother. And you know, I think when something really important is about to happen, it’s impossible not to hesitate. Just so you’ll remember the moment. I still don’t know if I can do it, if I can be as precious as they are, as full of talent and . . . artistry. But when she asked me, you know, are you joining us, all I could think of was a trampoline. The supple false floor giving under my weight. The rising higher and higher with each jump. The sun shining through my skirts. And being hypnotized by the beauty of circles, of fire rings widening. My father, well, he’ll never understand, but art is . . . art is sacrifice. I’m 18 and old enough to know this now.