When I was twelve, my cousin Evie ran away and joined the circus. She lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her friend Amanda, who was volunteering with PETA, dragged her out one night to the Ringling Brothers’ Circus to protest. Amanda was holding a sign that said Full of Rage—Free the Lions from Their Cage. She handed Evie one that said Stop the Blindness, Let’s Try Kindness.
Evie didn’t expect to fall in love the minute she got there. She watched the acrobats on the trapeze, the plate spinners, and the woman dancing inside flaming hula hoops in awe. She grinned at the pogo-sticking and the unicycle riding and the knife throwing. She saw the dazzling colours and the festive crowds, the wild energy and the happiness everywhere she looked, and she had the feeling that it was where she belonged. She put down her sign and disappeared. She made friends with the tightrope walkers and the ventriloquist. She flirted with the devil-stick juggler, who had long hair and an open smile. She went back every night for a week and a half until she finally met the owners and begged them to let her join. She was seventeen and fighting with her parents. She didn’t want to go to college or get a nine-to-five job. They always described her as being rebellious.
I didn’t know she was so amazing.
She sent me an email after her first four months on the road. I’m basically an animal janitor, she wrote. I pick up elephant shit, lion and tiger shit. I help groom the monkeys. They’re incredibly sweet, and everyone treats them really well. It’s pretty cool to travel by train and see so many different places. The sense of community and family is really something else.
After a few more months, she sent me a postcard. Hey Mona, All those horseback riding lessons were finally worth something, she wrote. They taught me how to ride the elephants. I get to wear these amazing feathers and flapper outfits. I have a red leather halter top that matches the red harness on my elephant, Dorothy. We do simple tricks, but I’m learning. You should come out and see me sometime, if we ever actually get to Canada. Come meet us here in the US! I miss you.
PS Me and Andrew, the devil sticks guy, are totally in love. You should meet him. He’s great.
My mom always brought Evie up. “She was such a bright girl,” she’d say and sigh. “She could’ve done anything; she didn’t even finish high school. Can you imagine?”
I could. I did. I imagined Evie all the time.
I was exactly her age when she ran away. My life, however, is neatly bound. I’m a high school honours student. I got accepted into McGill, Columbia, and Duke. Duke is in Durham, which is relatively close to Raleigh. I was accepted into the Fuqua School of Business. My parents had big plans for me. My father is the CEO of SolarFlex—the biggest environmentally-friendly plastics company in North America. My brother, Lance, is a chemist who does research for my dad’s company. My sister, Anastasia, just started grade ten and is considering going into law. She did her first internship at my dad’s company this past summer. My dad’s head lawyer told my sister that she wouldn’t be surprised if she was running the legal department at SolarFlex one day. That’s all Anastasia needed to hear. She’s a sucker for flattery, just like the rest of my family.
My mom is the kind of woman who is still regularly told how beautiful she is, even at fifty-four. She’s five feet ten and thin, with high cheekbones, green eyes, and barely a single line on her face. When she was a teenager in Raleigh, she was stopped by a modelling agent in a mall food court. She modelled for Woolworths and Sears, and was in ads for Camel cigarettes. Her big break came when she was sixteen, when her agent suggested she try out for beauty pageants. My mom was Miss Teen USA in 1970. There’s a framed photo of her in our family room: a black-and-white shot of her wearing a sequined dress and sash at the moment she’s crowned. She has this way of penetrating the camera like she’s having a conversation with whomever looks at her. When my mom wants anything from anyone, she fixes them with that look. She calls them “ma dear” and makes them feel like the most important person in the world. She speaks with a slight southern drawl. She says pin instead of pen, and whale instead of well.
She met my dad when she was in Toronto to do a photo shoot. My dad was doing his MBA. He had a meeting in the same building as her shoot. She was wearing a dress that barely covered anything. Her arms and legs were wrapped in vines and twigs. There were tiny flowers in her hair. She was barefoot and both her feet and hands had visibly been dipped in soil.
“It was for a revolutionary, environmentally friendly campaign,” she explained.
They bonded immediately; he told her all about his plans, and she believed in him. They married within six months, and within two years, my dad’s company was a huge success. They bought a six-bedroom house in Rosedale. We went to private schools that had entrance exams and uniforms. I went to a Montessori nursery school. My mom thought it was hilarious that for three months when I was four, I wanted to sew buttons all the time. She’s still convinced that I harbour secret dreams of being a designer. She can’t fathom why I’d ever want to go live in a place she worked hard to run away from.
I have four months left of grade twelve. Six and a half months before I move there. Unlike my sister and brother, I’m not hugely popular. It was a choice. Sometime last year, I quit the basketball team and started buying my uniform two sizes bigger than I actually wear. I’m a ponytail and sweatpants girl. I’m not comfortable in anything that fits tightly.
When we were kids, my mom loved dressing my sister and me up. She used to put us in matching outfits: white Moschino blouses with tulips on the front; mine were gold, Anastasia’s were pink and green. We had matching little skirts and patent leather shoes.
That was when it happened.
I look different now. I started gaining weight when I was ten, and I never stopped. I binged on ice cream, on pasta soaked in butter. My parents had a live-in housekeeper who’d make me whatever I wanted. They tried to put me on diets, but they never really stuck. My parents even sent me to fat camp. I lost twenty-three pounds in upstate New York, but gained it all back in Toronto within weeks. My mother was always disappointed in me for not looking more like her. She would never admit it, but I can tell. I can see the faint outline of disgust in her eyes when she looks at me, all unkempt now. Her bottom lip curls inward as she takes all of me in, and there’s a lot of me to take. Anastasia was her mirror image, and I had been too, when I was young. Anastasia’s body is beautifully toned, and whenever she wears anything revealing I worry about her and beg her to change.
I’ve never had a boyfriend. When my two best friends talk about fooling around with guys, I never know what to say. It actually makes me feel disgusted to hear it, and I know they think I’m a prude. I don’t know how to tell them that I’ve gone further and done more than they ever will.
When I was a kid, I was so cute, all tiny limbs and little teeth.
The most confusing part was that even though eventually I realized it might not be normal, I never asked him to stop.
I never said, “Stop or I’m going to tell Mom and Dad.”
A part of me kind of liked it. That’s the sickest part, right? It kind of felt good, sometimes. I’d never gotten that kind of attention from anyone. Everyone was always busy being really successful. No one ever found out because no one ever looked very closely.
My mom was the head of the PTA of every school I went to. She drove carpool and organized my school’s fashion show for charity every year. She thought my brother was being kind to want to play with me after school every day. She knew she was leaving me alone with him, but I guess she didn’t really think about it. She was always telling him what a good brother he was to me, and we’d exchange a secret smile after, like if only she knew how good. He told me not to tell Anastasia because then we’d have to do this with her too, and he just wanted to do it with me. I was special, he said.
By the time I was ten, I knew for sure that it wasn’t right. And I was becoming sneakier, getting more and more careful to hide it. I started feeling guilty that I was letting him. I thought about other things when he was with me, in my room, supposedly helping me with my math homework. I thought about the circus when his rough hands grazed against my thighs. I thought about clowns and tightrope walkers, elephants and bears, when my vagina turned wet like spit. I thought about sequins and the crowd’s applause when he put my hands on his lumpy hardness. I thought about Evie and escaping, and I smiled.
I told my mom that I really needed a tutor after school, and she got me one, this woman Melissa, and my brother started staying away. It happened less and less until he stopped hanging out with me completely. I was twelve.
He met this girl a few months later at his university. Her name was Natalie, and she was a psychology major. They’ve been together for four years now and are getting married this October. Luckily, I’ll already be in North Carolina.
I can’t go to his wedding. I can’t squeeze myself into a lilac taffeta bridesmaid dress. I can’t pose for pictures where he’ll stand with his arms around me. I can’t make a speech about what a perfect couple they are. I can’t dance just because everyone expects me to.
I don’t plan to stay in my university classes for more than a month. I want to be just like Evie. I want to run away beautifully and dramatically. I want to meet a new family who’ll take me in. I want to eat all the pulled pork, hush puppies, and pecan pie I want. I want to stop caring about what anybody thinks of me. I want to be untethered. I just want to be free.
Excerpt from For All The Men (and Some of The Women) I’ve Known copyright 2016 by Danila Botha. Reprinted by permission of Tightrope Books, Toronto. www.tightropebooks.com