In Reflection

In the mirror across the bar she is twelve. She is standing in the wings of the Big Top, breathing the scent of hay and earth and animal with deep, happy inhales. She hears the crowd’s cheer rise and fall in waves, pictures a man and a woman flying through the air in matching blue and white costumes. She looks at her own costume. It is pink. Color, Maya, color! The circus is all about color! It is the voice of her father, a voice she has never known but somehow recognizes. I want to match you and mom, she says. But you match Kimba!

“Another?” She is back in the bar, her elbows leaning on the mahogany counter, her fingers wrapped around a sweating glass. The man she has been dating for three months touches her hand. He is a handsome man and she wonders if that’s why it was so easy to say “yes” to his dinner invitation all those weeks ago.

Maya looks down at her empty glass. She doesn’t remember the last sip.

“Okay,” she says. He lifts his hand from hers, and her whole body aches in the absence of his touch.

In the mirror across the bar, Kimba lifts her gray trunk, tickling at the edge of the curtain, playing with a fraying cotton rope that hangs from the exposed metal frame above. Kimba is wearing a pink ruffle around her neck. Kimba doesn’t like the ruffle. She endures it. Maya thinks this is how she feels about her pink outfit, too.

The applause becomes a symphony. Spotlights flash by the entryway. Her father sprints past, blowing a kiss to Maya. Her mother slows, reaches up and wraps her fingers around her daughter’s pink-slippered foot. Stand tall, her mother says, then follows her father back into the darker rooms where circus acts are stitched together with sawdust and magic.

“You seem quiet tonight,” he says as her drink is refilled. He notices things. She wonders if this is why it was so easy to say “yes” to spending the night after that first dinner. She had never done that before. Not so soon.

“I’m fine,” she says. He knows this means she needs the quiet; that she’s daydreaming or remembering or sorting. He will touch her again to acknowledge this. And he does, his hand on her shoulder.

In the mirror across the bar, Maya is atop Kimba, carefully adjusting her stance to stand tall as the elephant marches behind a parade of clowns into the biggest ring of the three-ring circus. Fireflies spark from the crowd when the youngest star makes her entrance. The flashes don’t really help, she hears her father say later, on the drive home in a rusty brown station wagon. The cameras are too far away for the flashes to matter. Maya leans against the car door, watching the blurring trees. They matter to me, she whispers to the clouds.

“Do you want to get out of here?” He asks. She feels the weight of his hand on her shoulder. He wants to go.

“No. I want to stay.” When she says it, there is too much bite in her words. She knows this and wants to apologize, but instead she lifts her glass and sips, disappointed by her distraction, then surprised by the taste of pomegranate.

In the mirror across the bar, she is twelve years old and standing on the back of an elephant. Head forward, she hears in echo. Head forward and smile big. The smiling is easy; she feels like she is flying. But she wants to turn and catch her father’s eye. She imagines him standing in the shadows, holding her steady with raised eyebrows and white knuckles, confident in his teaching, hopeful in her learning.

“Where are you?” he asks. His voice is soft, almost too soft to hear above the music that’s playing in the bar. She knows this song.

You don't even have to speak,
if you keep looking at me.

She catches her breath and turns to look at him.

“Kiss me,” she says and he does. The kiss tastes of salt and lime and ends too soon. It is a perfect kiss. He pulls back and looks into her eyes, not pleading, not probing. Lingering.

In her peripheral vision she sees the girl of twelve in the mirror. The girl turns her head to see her father and loses her balance. She begins to fall.

“Whoa,” he says, catching her as she slides off the stool. “You okay?”

His hands are strong.

“A little dizzy,” she says. He doesn’t let go until a measured moment later.

“I’ll get your coat.”

“Wait,” she says. “Don’t go.” He sits back down. She turns to the mirror behind the bar. The little girl is gone. In her place, a middle-aged woman who looks vaguely familiar, apart from the tired lines on her face and the bags under her eyes.

“I look like a wreck,” she says.

“You look like a princess,” he says. “Is it okay if I say that?” Then he smiles, because he knows it’s one of the things about him she finds charming – the way he asks permission to pay her a compliment only after he’s already offered it.

“Yes, it’s okay,” she says. He’s a good man, she thinks. She reaches across the bar and rests her hand on his.

“I was at the circus,” she says.

“You were at the circus?”

“A moment ago when you asked, I was at the circus. I’ve never actually been. But I was twelve years old and wearing a pink ballerina costume and pink shoes and I was balancing on an elephant as it circled the arena. Everyone was cheering and there were hundreds of fireflies and…my parents were there. They were trapeze artists.” She is watching him watch her as she speaks. He is fully engaged, not queuing up a response, but listening for the things she doesn’t say.

He turns to look at her reflection in the mirror. She turns, too. He is handsome in reflection.

“Am I crazy?” she asks.

He lifts her hand and kisses it.

“Yes,” he says, and she hears “you’re beautiful.” She is about to cry when he speaks again. They are perfect words.

“Tell me more about the fireflies.”
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