Apr/May 2004  •   Spotlight

He Slips, He Falls

by Fleur Chapman

Jean-Paul is on a platform, holding the trapeze, looking down. He can't see any faces, but he feels the concentration, the expectation in those eyes. Four hundred eyes, burning in the darkness.

He breathes, once. Steps out. Flies, his body carving an elegant arc through the air. Lets go of the bar on the upward trajectory, then a moment of pure freedom that lasts a second, and forever.

Sometimes Jean-Paul laughs at this point. He can't help himself. But today he doesn't. Wonders if this is what dying is like, before Pierre's strong hands grab him around the wrists, save him once again.

They swing together for a while, tumble through space, leap onto the platform in unison. Take a bow, arms around each others' shoulders. Slide down the rope.

Later, in Pierre's trailer, Jean-Paul says, "I'm sorry."

Pierre shakes his head.

That night, Jean-Paul dreams he is mauled by the tigers. He romped with them as cubs, stops by every day to ruffle their fur, feed them treats, but in this dream they turn on him. Suddenly, teeth bared, claws ripping his flesh. He screams, in the dream, wakes up sweating.

Another week, another city, and Jean-Paul is on the high wire. Holding the balance-beam, sure-footed, knowing where to tread. The wire bounces with every step, and Jean-Paul softens into the movement, becomes movement.

Perfect equilibrium, but today something is different. As the wire rises, he has a mad impulse to launch himself off, no bar, no safety net. To capture that moment when every cell in his body is alive—in sync, but free. Once he intercepts the thought, he becomes fearful. Freezes for a moment, there on the wire. Wobbles a little.

The crowd gasps, fathers telling their kids "Don't worry, it's all part of the act." But it isn't. Jean-Paul's act has always been about grace, beauty, perfection.

Pierre is waiting for him, outside the Big Top. "You'll have to tell your father," he says.

"I can't," Jean-Paul replies.

Same city, different night. Jean-Paul takes his position, holding up the trapeze. He feels a little flushed. He has argued with Pierre, about the act and other things. "Always the risk taker," Pierre had said. "Always wanting to push to the limit."

Jean-Paul wants to include an extra somersault in tonight's show. They have rehearsed it many times with a net, but his family has never, ever used a net in front of an audience. "It has to be pure," his father always said. "That's the most important thing: it has to be pure."

He is not feeling too well, has that sick feeling of nerves. He has doubts. But tonight is the last night of the tour, and he wants to end with a flourish. He feels sweat on his palms, dusts them with powder. Waits for the drum roll, the hush from below. Steps out.

Swings. To and fro, to and fro. With every repetition, he grows in confidence. The motion, the beauty, stuns him every time. As he curves upward with the bar, he holds his breath, releases. Swoops, curls, on his own trajectory, once, twice, three times. He has done it!

On his way to Pierre's outstretched arms, Jean-Paul thinks of blond hair, cropped short. A thigh muscle, twitching. Green eyes.

He arrives a moment late. Pierre is already swinging back, hands reaching, reaching, calling his name. Their fingertips brush, try to grip, but Jean-Paul is feverish, weak.

The crowd gasps. He slips, he falls.