Your ex-lover has built a circus outside your window.
It’s the kind of thing you might have found cute five years ago, when you first heard him say “I’m an artist” and “I make things for a living” and you hadn’t wanted to scream through your empty apartment, to tear down your memory of him.
It’s also not for you, the circus. Not some Taj Mahal love temple. Definitely not an “I’m sorry—I love you—take me back” statement through his medium.
It’s the kind of thing that might have made you laugh, before his long studio nights became a harbinger of something worse. Your window overlooks a municipal field, and you’ve watched him for weeks against the ragged dark of the forest, as he hacksawed boards and nailed mini-stages in place, often by tiki-torch light, his body rippling with a sweaty fury.
Now, on the third night of the circus, you decide to attend. You’ve kept the shade drawn the previous two nights, but now you open it, stare out at the lights, the tents, the costumed actors. His new lover has hung looping strings of paper lanterns from all the windows, including yours, and they shake in the wind, like small tethered moons trying to get free. You don a turquoise fishtail dress, tight, hypnotic and walk outside to the ticket booth as though entering the underworld.
Inside the gates, you trip over costumed cows and girls with serpents’ tails.
“Watch it,” they hiss.
It’s newly dark, and stars pinprick the sky, but the circus is lit like day. There are funnel cake stands, vendors selling butterfly masks, stilt walkers and jugglers: It’s more successful than you hoped it would be. A firecracker erupts into red fingers over the sky, and you glimpse his new lover: She’s dressed as a sunflower. Her legs and torso are green, her arms are painted a leafy jade. A massive phallic stalk sways over her head, topped with a flapping paper mache blossom, and you feel like a minnow, baited yet indifferent.
She is easy to follow. You trail her deeper into the center of the circus, weeding your way through throngs of veiled women dancing and undulating to the beats of bongo drummers. You stalk her through the coils of a human labyrinth, with walls that frown and grin back at you. You know she is leading you to the very heart of the circus, to him. Maybe the minotaur will be there too, you think, waiting to devour you whole.
You follow her to the puppet tent, where you find your ex-lover setting up for the next show. On the walls, hang strings of puppets you know he must have made. Over your heads, a mobile of white sewn birds—doves, you decide—orbit like planets.
“Moshi moshi,” you say in Japanese, the fun way you used to great each other.
“Hey Val,” he says, as though you are old news.
You remember the roughness of his hands from sanding plaster. His hoarse loud laugh, endearing. He is thin, maybe homely, but his shoulders are strong from cutting wood. There is something about his face, dark hair, light skin, that never left you. He was the first man who sketched you naked. The first for whom you avidly baked. Once, over Christmas, you sewed him an entire quilt, and you’re not the domestic type.
You wait for him to observe your turquoise dress, your earrings. You stand and wait, but he moves away, sunflower girl at his side.
The dove mobile goes round and round, each one fat and fake, like a Christmas sewing project. They go round, round, until you are sick of watching them, sick of his flickering eyes on everything but you, and you seize a dove, yank it. It’s like picking a giant stuffed berry, and the mobile pops loose and you are left holding a string of white doves.
“I think this is mine,” you say. You have no idea where the lie comes from. It’s preposterous that it could be yours, but you insist that it is.
“What the hell?” he says. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Oh please,” you say. “You don’t remember? When I made it for you?”
He steps close to you, and you smell his familiar scent—sweat, sage deodorant, bad breath. “Why are you lying?” he says.
You’re worried he’s going to say much more—throw your whole past under the bus, but he doesn’t.
Sunflower girl is suddenly there. Her painted leaf hands are restraining him.
“Keep it,” she says to you. Then to him: “We’ll make more.”
Outside, you tear the doves one by one from their leash. You think of decapitating them as a kind of protest, but instead you slit their seams, pull out all the stuffing, everything, until they are just shells that drop like empty popcorn bags. The last one, you save and take inside to your room, tuck it into the warm feathers of your comforter, hold it all night against your bare skin.
Joy Baglio’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House’s Flash Fridays, New Ohio Review, and F(r)iction, where she was the winter flash fiction contest winner. Her work recently received the fiction Honorable Mention in the 2016 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest. She holds an MFA from The New School and is the founder of the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop in Northampton, MA where she teaches writing. She is at work on short stories, too many flash fiction pieces, and her first novel. Find her on twitter at @JoyBaglio or visit her website at www.joybaglio.com