A Circus

circus at night

“I’ve got this thing,” Mary said, brushing the braided hair from her face “this thing that goes on in my heart during the climax of movies and books. All the emotion. You know? When it builds up, it hurts, so I always just skip to the end.”

“What?” I paused mid-bite, my barbecue beef brisket hanging just inches from my mouth.

“It’s like a condition. It hurts my heart right here.” She pointed at her chest and laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh. It was an embarrassed one. “I should probably tell my doctor. That’s why I watch Korean TV dramas. They’re very emotional. It’s sort of like my own therapy.”

I took a bite. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had a hard time understanding what she was saying. Climaxes are the best parts of movies. Why would you skip it? Why would it hurt your heart?

I wanted to tell her that it couldn’t be safe. Stories are like creepy aunts: when she smokes in the car, you ALL smoke in the car. You pick up secondhand emotions from stories. It’s how we become invested in them. You feel the protagonist’s joys, their pains, their triumphs and their heartbreaks. It’s how the magic of cinema works. Not for one moment do you think you’re Miles Teller, but you’re part of his obsession as he drums his way to the top. You feel all his emotions. They build up and build up and then…

They release at the climax. It’s called the catharsis moment. If you just skip to the end, you never get that catharsis. They swill about inside you, just like nitroglycerin, and can blow up from a tiny bump.

It couldn’t be safe. I didn’t say anything, though. I simply savored the fact that Mia found some sriracha for my sandwich.

I just didn’t know Mary that well, so hearing that she couldn’t enjoy the best parts of everything I love came as a shock. This was our first day training, and I couldn’t get a read on her. There were some things I could pick up: she’s a very fast learner, but terrified to fail. Smart but self-conscious. She probably lived a really sheltered life.

Out of all the people I’ve trained, she’s the only one that has ever quoted the supplementary training material back to me. It’s really uncomfortable.

Most confusing and annoying of all, though, is that she never made any decisions.

When you train someone, one of the first things you do is teach them how to make a french press. They get to pick any coffee they want, and then we make it. It was a dream come true when my trainer trained me.

“You mean, any coffee?” I asked, wringing my hands, my eyes wide with wonder usually reserved for kids whose parents pretended to be Santa. Who, you mean he really is real?

“Yep, just go grab one,” Sunny told me.

My hand trembled as I reached for a bag of Kenya. It was heaven.

Mary just stared at me. I thought she might have misheard, so i repeated myself. “That’s right,” I said proudly, “go ahead and pick ANY coffee you want.” She still didn’t move. “That’s right,” I said, “any one at all.”

Mary just shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I blinked. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Just pick one,” she told me, shrugging, as if she was the trainer, “I’m bad with decisions”

“But you can pick any coffee you want!” I repeated.

“You should pick it.”

I shook my head. “I’ve tried them all.”

“Okay.” She just stared at me, her face utterly expressionless, like a fish or something.

“Fine,” I growled, “we’ll do pike.”

Pike’s place is the worst coffee we had at Starbucks. We made it, and it tasted like garbage.

“Is this how it’s supposed to taste?” Mary asked me, the subtext here being did you do it right?

“Of course it is,” I snapped, the subtext here being god I hope I did. “We just need to pair it with a pastry. That’ll bring out the nutty flavors.” I gestured to the overflowing pastry cart. “Go ahead, pick any pastry you want.”

Mary stared at the cart. “Anything catch your eye?”

She shrugged. “You pick one.”

I stared at her, my face unreadable, like a fish or something. “What?”

“You’ve tried them all. Pick something good.”

“But you can pick any pastry you want,” I said, “surely you have a preference.”

“I’m bad with decisions.”

It blew my mind. When given a choice, how can you simply choose to not choose?

I’ve met people like her before. The sort that refuse to make a decision, but freely complain when you’re forced to make one for them and they don’t like it.

I chose the pecan tart. It made the coffee taste awesome.

Mary didn’t like it. She doesn’t like caramel.

Even rats like caramel.

I bit my tongue as steam billowed out of my ears like a train whistle.

I just moved to the next part of training.

We learned how to warm food, clean the lobby of the store, restock the case with drinks and sandwiches, and brew coffee before we finally went to the espresso bar.

I showed her how to make a latte. She made me one. It was pretty good, so we went on to mochas and caramel macchiatos. She made them all easily and well.

“How are you feeling on the espresso drinks?” I asked her.

“Pretty good.”

“Do you want to practice some more?”

She shrugged. Some people are fast learners, so we went into making iced lattes and other easy drinks.

“Are you good on hot bar drinks?” I asked her. She laughed at me. Her eyes went wide, like I just asked her if she heard that her mother died.

“Good? I’ve only been doing this for twenty minutes.”

I narrowed my eyes. “But you shrugged when I asked if you wanted to practice some more.”

“I’m bad with decisions.”

I grabbed a cleaning rag and involuntarily squeezed all of the sanitizing solution out of it. I gestured sharply to the bar.

“Let’s practice some more.”

The rest of the day went back and forth like that until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was on edge, jumping at any slight annoyance, barely holding it all in check.

We finished training at 9:00, but we were scheduled for thirty more minutes. I asked Mary if she wanted to leave early. She asked me if I did instead of answering. I told her we could stay if she wanted the hours. She asked me if I needed the hours.

My head nearly exploded. The shift needed our help closing, so we stayed. Mary did dishes. I mopped in sullen rage. Steam rose from where I gripped the mop.

We finally left at 9:30. I told Mary bye, and that i’d see her tomorrow.

I got in my car, turned on the lights and…

The parking lot is divided into three sections: The garage, the outdoor lot, and the far lot over by sports authority, where we had to park during the holidays.

There was a circus in the far lot. It took up the whole thing. A giant circus tent, with lights, one of those test of strength things, a ticket booth, popcorn stand, and all sorts of other attractions. Banners waved in the air, and multicolored lights on strings covered the whole area.

Carnies rushed hither and thither building the tents. Maybe some of them were performers, too. The tent wasn’t up yet. they were probably going to be working late into the night.

A circus.

A fucking circus in the parking lot.


So I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried. Tears ran down my cheeks, and all the frustration and anger flowed out of my. My spring unwound.

It was a real catharsis moment.

I wiped tears from my eyes. I thought about Mary, and wondered what she’d think about the circus, but then I realized that she never would, at least not tonight.

I had walked Mary to her car. She had parked in the parking deck, and wouldn’t drive by the circus on her way out. She might not even know it was there until tomorrow, and tomorrow was a new day.

The timing was all wrong. She’d see it driving into work, look at it and just go “huh” and then drive by.

Parked in the wrong part of the lot. Jesus…

She wasn’t kidding about skipping the climax.

I laughed all the harder. I just sat there in my car and laughed for a long time.

I’m sure the carnies watched me as they built their tents. To the right of the construction, all the performers from the freak show probably stared at me as I howled like a loon in my car, all alone in a parking lot, under a street light.

The bearded woman would lean over to the frog kid and whisper in a voice deeper than Vin Diesel’s “what a weirdo.”

She’d tug on her beard as the frog boy licked his face.

“No kidding,” he’d say, “no kidding”


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