Failing the Trapezeby Susan V. Meyers
Late in the summer of the year I turned eight, my mother decided that we should all learn trapeze. I don't know where she found it, but one day she came home with a bar and cabling, and ordered two of my brothers to string it up in our back yard. The land out there was wide and flat and yellow from the sun. Dry grass and sometimes mud. There were horse pastures farther out, and rabbit cages, and a place for bees. Sometimes my mother raised chickens for extra money, though we didn't really need it. And there were anywhere from two to a half-dozen mongrel dogs that lived with us continuously, barking at our ankles as we climbed the sturdy oak tree and shimmied down to grab hold of the trapeze.
My brothers were good at it. A bit muscular like my father, they swung easily from the bar, tossing themselves zealously into the pile of hay bales we'd set up a few feet out. "See? You're natural performers," my mother clapped her hands. She told us stories about the tricks she used to do on her father's show—bird's nest, double traps, two-legged Russian roll—all the things she promised to teach us how to do. "It's so easy," she claimed, "because you've got it in your blood."
But I proved my mother wrong: I wasn't a natural. The bar was too big around in my stubby fingers. I couldn't lift myself; I couldn't find any kind of momentum.
"Come on, Theresa. It's easy." Mom stood behind me, grabbing my legs and swivelling me back and forth. "Like this. Can you feel it?"
But all I felt was trapped: stuck there dangling in the air between the bar and my mother's grip. My muscles ached; I wanted to be let down. She gave me one final shove, and I released the bar, grateful, plunging down onto the hard-packed dirt. "Theresa!" she screamed. "Why did you let go? Why didn't you wait?"
I looked dumbly up at her. What could I say? It never worked to tell my mother when things were impossible.
When she wanted to, my mother could be generous. With strangers, she would brag about me, exaggerating my accomplishments until her stories sounded like another person entirely: someone strong and resolute; a girl I could never imagine becoming. But with my mother, these things seemed almost possible: my future career as an equestrian, or a violinist, or an acrobat. I learned how to play along with her, smiling and flashing my eyes in quick confirmation: oh yes. So I grew up with two selves. There was my public self when my mother was with me: a beautiful girl who would grow up and do beautiful things. And a private self that was more cautious—that didn't quite believe all the things she promised.
And she did promise a lot—big, fabulous things that were difficult to ignore. Like her, she resolved, I would become a famous circus performer. "We're going to get her the most fabulous costume," she once told a woman on the bus going into Berkeley. "I saw it in a magazine advertisement: a blue-sequined leotard with a matching head piece. Very classic. And Theresa looks so nice in blue."
I hadn't seen the picture—if there really was one—but already I knew just what it looked like: trim and bright and glittering. It would make me beautiful, I was sure. It would keep her loving me forever.
After my failure with the trapeze, I felt ashamed; but I kept listening to my mother. There was still the promise of the blue-sequined leotard; there was still the chance of becoming beautiful. And Mom, for her part, decided that my brothers could have the trapeze; she would, instead, train me for high-wire performance.
The training started out with a length of cable laid out against the ground. She told me to follow it over and over with my bare feet until it started to feel like a part of my own body. Then she got two little posts and strung the cord five inches in the air. Slack wire style, she called it, so the cable slunk down in the middle, brushing against the ground. My mother left me out in the yard for hours, walking the wire back and forth. I imagined myself as a real high-wire girl, sliding carefully along that fearful cable, spinning my parasol for balance. How I would frighten and amaze my audiences; how untouchable I would become.
But when the wire went up again, this time to ten inches, our hopes were dashed. I could follow the line with my toes. I could walk and walk until my feet felt only a thin line beneath them. But I couldn't keep balance in air. We tried and tried. My mother showed me how it was done. She tried to be patient, and encouraging. But I fell again and again. The insides of my shins grew bruised from the slashing wire.
"I just don't understand!" she finally wailed. "It's like you aren't even my daughter!"
I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean, but it made me feel bad enough to die. I wasn't ever going to be a circus performer. I wouldn't get the lights and costumes and applause. I wasn't going to be beautiful like my mother and grandmother. There was something wrong with me. Some internal lack of balance. It beat against my own blood.
After that, Mom stopped introducing my as her daughter. She would say instead: "This is Theresa, the girl in our family." It was a subtle shift, but I noticed. Like always, Mom knew how to draw people to her; and she knew how to push them away.
When she was angry with me, my mother would talk about me to other people while I was in the room: "Having a daughter has been such a disappointment." As though my five older brothers had all been so easy. "I used to think having a girl would be nice. You know, after all those boys. But," she would shake her head for emphasis. "It's the girls that can really break your heart."
Usually, the problem was something I hadn't done—or hadn't been able to do. Most of the things that upset my mother were like this: little disappointments or casualties. Things her life had forgotten to give her. I wasn't pretty enough, or sociable enough. Not at all like her. My mother was vibrant and engrossing; she knew how to seduce. But I was quiet and plain. And I don't know if it hit her all at once, or if it was just a slow progression toward a truth she finally had to accept: I was not the daughter she'd planned on having.
Once, she announced to a clerk at the grocery store: "My daughter doesn't love me."
We'd been arguing; it had happened so quickly, the way it always did. In produce, things had been fine. I chose round, red apples while she bagged up tomatoes and onions. Then she asked me how things were going at school. Good, I told her. We each got to choose a state to write about for a report the following week. I was planning to talk about California.
"Oh!" She was genuinely horrified. "But all the kids will talk about California."
I didn't understand what worried her; my mother was always so quick to identify life's little dangers. I shrugged. I told her I liked California.
"Oh Theresa," she tossed a package of ground beef into the cart. "You'll never get through life like that." We turned onto the aisle for condiments. Ketchup, and relish. And a long line of pickles. We would have hamburgers that night. I didn't like hamburger night because it always made my mother moody. She hated slapping those little pink patties into shape. Usually, I did it for her.
"You've got to be more creative," she was saying. "How about Texas? You've got your roots in Texas."
My mother complained that her children didn't care enough about their roots. But she cared. She told us stories about our history—which was really her history. That radically unstable childhood of hers on the circus: thrilling, but traumatic. We were expected to understand how our lives were connected to it all—that it made us who we were. But I didn't want to believe it.
"I've never been to Texas, Mom." I stared at the wall of pickles—big and green and overwhelming.
"I know, baby, but I can tell you all about it." She considered: sweet, or dill. "You always tell us things. Why can't I just write something myself?"
"Well!" She grabbed a jar and dropped into the cart, where it thudded against the meat, so little pink bubbles foamed out along the styrofoam edges. "I didn't know you were so ungrateful." She grabbed the cart. "After all I've tried to teach you."
Then there was silence. Always, there was silence. That was my mother's favorite way of letting you know how you'd disappointed her. So it wasn't until we got to the check-out that I found out just what she was thinking: "Girls are so complicated." The man at the register nodded. He looked down at me, and I could tell he figured I'd done something bad. I didn't look at him. I crossed my arms and stood there without saying anything. As usual when something went wrong, I went inside my own head: I didn't think I was complicated. I didn't know what was so difficult about writing a school report on California instead of Texas. I looked at my mother: You're the one who's complicated, I thought.
I got mean because there wasn't much else left to do. Besides, it was easy: I'd been watching my mother for years. And, like hers, my meanness was subtle; it was based on things you couldn't quite point out: a careless comment, a forgotten promise, disdain painted on like genuine concern. I was insidious; I was cold. I befriended one day and rejected the next. I knew how to look at someone just so, and snap my eyes away at the critical moment, so they were left wondering what on earth I had been thinking.
I started out slow, the way children do: testing the boundaries of things. How much could I away with? How far could I press my own small guilt? "Amber Higgins doesn't have real front teeth." I told people's secrets, pretending not to realize that they had been shared in confidence. Or I spoke openly about things that other people tried politely to cover up: "It's too bad Samantha can't go on to fourth grade with us. It's only because she has that problem so she can't read. It's like a disease; she can't get rid of it."
The children at Holy Spirit Elementary were serious and dutiful. They came from good families—the best. You could tell. So they were easy to pick on because they were quick to trust; they hadn't yet learned how unforgiving the world can be. After each small deception, they stared at me with wide, unclasped eyes—the tearful lining of disbelief building up at the corners like stale milk.
Girls who liked me were my best targets. Because they trusted me, the reversal was that much worse: not just meanness, but betrayal. So I pretended kindness; but later on, I took it back—leaving people stunned in the blinding light of rejection, trying to figure out what it was that they had done. And the worst part is that I understood their helplessness: that, like me with my mother, their sad fate had nothing to do with them. There wasn't anything I wanted, except to know that I could hurt people. And hurting people was wrong: I knew that. It made me sinful.
At mass on Fridays, Father McDougal warned us about the devil getting into our hearts. He said sometimes it happened without a person even knowing. This made me feel better—because then it couldn't really be my fault.
So I thought about the devil being in my heart the day I withheld Mary Jane Price's lunch from her until she could sing backwards the entirety of the National Anthem. Every time she missed a word, I threw some small piece of it into the trash. She was in tears by the time she finished. I felt sorry for her: It was terrible, sometimes, the way things happened.
I was eight, and I hated my mother. One day I told her, and she cried. When my father got home that evening, I knew he'd found out because he took me into his study—a place I never went. I knew this meant things were serious, but all I could think about were all those books lined up against the walls: neat and rigid and clean. Nothing else in our house looked like that.
"Children don't hate their parents," he said. It wasn't a scolding; it was a statement of fact. "It's not natural." My father was like this. He understood the world: what was possible, and what wasn't. For him, life seemed to fit together very evenly. Except that other people were always failing him, forgetting how things worked.
"Theresa," he put a hand on me, trying to get me to look at him, "why don't you love your mother?"
I shrugged, but he kept looking at me. His face was square and severe. I expected it to grow red like it did when we were in traffic: flushing out from the jaw in cottony clumps like fish scales. He breathed hard and shallow at moments like those: his eyes coming small and angry all at once. He was tragic, I thought. But in the quiet, sweep-it-under-the-rug kind of way. Not like my mother, whose upsets were always loud and painfully apparent.
"You don't hate her, Theresa." It sounded like a plea—something he was asking me not to do.
So I shook my head.
Then he did something that surprised me: he put his arms around me and held me. I waited. He had never done that before. But suddenly it was so easy: I folded myself into his lap and stayed there, smelling the thick odor of pipe tobacco in his clothing, and another scent that I didn't know yet: whiskey. He was a lonely man—his whole life he'd been lonely, no matter what he was doing or who he was with. I don't know how long we stayed like that. It was a strange and lovely moment. Intimate, but incomplete. Because there was something missing: an emptiness waiting to be filled up. My father needed something from me that I didn't yet know how to give.
"Oh Theresa," he breathed. "You're worth so much more than you think you are."