Villarreal, Spain, 1988
“Come,” he said, reaching for my hand as we ducked under the wall of canvas.
Sunlight penetrated the white roof of the elephant tent, illuminating the interior with a warm, peaceful glow. Down the line of swinging trunks and bobbing heads, animals shifted their weight from foot to foot, swaying rhythmically as if dream-marching in place. I inhaled the musky animal scent and felt far away from the chaotic realm of the traveling circus.
The tip of an elephant trunk, pink and moist as a pig’s snout, appeared in front of my eyes. With the finger-like protrusion on the end of her trunk, the elephant studied me. She inhaled, and it felt like someone turned a vacuum cleaner on in my face. She exhaled. Wet fermented air whooshed past me. Her trunk brushed over my ear and tickled its way along my neck, leaving a wake of goose bumps. I giggled and stepped into her touch. The elephant sniffed my clothing, paused at my waist, and then continued on to my shoes before swinging her trunk away.
Stefano, the handsome Italian elephant keeper I’d met just hours earlier, towed me along as he worked his way down the line greeting each animal in a deep, gentle voice. “Ciao, Raya. Hello, Mary. You been good girl today, Lola? And how about you, Gooli? Hola, Bambi. Yes, and hello to you, too, Kama. How my beautiful girls are doing?”
A flap of pink-edged ears, a tractor-like grumble, a mousy squeal, the lowering of a knobby head—each of the six animals returned his greeting in her own way. The troupe of Asian elephants loosely filled one long side of the tent; their presence overwhelmed the entire space.
I stood wide-eyed, transfixed by their swaying. “Why do they all move that way,” I asked, “rocking back and forth?”
“Elephants are nomads. They supposed to keep moving. To roam free. Get what they need and move on, not be chained to a circus.” Stefano’s green eyes revealed his distress. “Whether I am here or not, these animals will be, so I do what I can to see they are cared for,” he said, stepping toward an elephant.
Mary, her head the size of an armchair, towered eight feet in the air. Her eyes were pools of mahogany, her skin cracked, desert earth. I touched it. Stiff whiskers raked my palm as I stroked her jaw. Next to Mary’s ear, coarse grey skin softened to a freckled pink. Stefano watched from over my shoulder as the elephant sniffed my clothing, my hair. Her huge pupil followed me while I caressed her jowl and traced the furrows beneath her eye. When I let my hand fall to my side, Mary looped her trunk under my wrist. I stiffened. Stefano, his hands on my hips, his warm breath on my neck, reassured me from behind. My bracelets tinkled as Mary raised my arm to her eye. From behind thick-lashed lids, she stared not at my hand, but at my face. I heard her whooshing breath, smelled her animal scent, felt her craggy skin against my own. Mary held onto my wrist, moving with me as I drew my fingertip up past her eye then down to her mouth. I leaned back against Stefano. His touch aroused me. Hers thrilled me. Between the two, I could barely breathe.
HOW DIFFERENT COULD IT BE FROM RIDING A HORSE?
Crotone, Italy, 1989
“Giuseppe wants to know if you are afraid of the ostrich.”
I looked from Stefano to the animal trainer as the three of us strolled the perimeter of the elephant tent in the piazza following Catanzaro Lido. “What kind of afraid?”
Stefano hesitated before saying, “You remember the exotic number from that time you see the show? Moira’s son stands in the middle of the ring and—”
“Zebras and antelope together, then later the giraffe runs through…I remember.”
“You are watching when the ostrich comes out?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t get Stefano’s gist. “He runs around the pista with a kid on his back.”
“Not a kid, Kat’leen. Hassan.” Stefano pursed his lips. “Giuseppe asks if you will try riding the ostrich.”
My imagination soared to a land where rhinestone cowboys rode hulking birds with flamboyant plumage. I could almost hear my decorative spurs dragging in the dust. An incredulous chuckle gave way to sheer joy. “Hell yes.”
* * *
When Stefano came to call me for a trial run, he found me donning Levi’s and muttering shit shit shit over and over.
“You don’t have to do this Kat’leen.”
“I want to,” I said, belting my loose jeans with a scarf. “I’m just preparing myself to deal with whatever might happen in there.”
“By saying sheeet?”
I looked up from lacing my moccasins. “It’s something I learned from my mom.”
Despite being a well-heeled churchgoer, my mother had taught me my favorite stream of curses from the front seat of her two-door, turquoise Corvair—one of a long line of rattletrap cars my father hauled home. I remember Dad herding his four children into the car so Mom could drive us to our various lessons or Sunday services. His handlebar mustache twitched and wiggled under fleshy cheeks as he ridiculed us for squabbling over the front seat since its unlucky occupant would likely die first in an accident. But we didn’t listen. We didn’t ponder the scar on his cheek from a car crash some years earlier, and we didn’t heed his warnings. We cared only for the thrill of the road rushing at us in blurs of grey and black, for the honor of sticking our tongues out at siblings crammed into the back seat.
Victory wasn’t always sweet. The problem wasn’t the cracked upholstery leaking bits of itchy, yellow foam that clung to bare legs. It wasn’t the lap belt our safety-minded father insisted on cinching down until we couldn’t breathe. The volatile variable was whether the car would start. No one wanted to sit next to Mom when it didn’t. I can still hear the whine of the starter bouncing off the garage door, radiating down the street, disturbing Southern California suburbia as it struggled to turn over the engine. How I’d cringed against the passenger door as my mother cursed in time with the cranking engine. Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit! Both terrifying and hilarious, she rattled like the lid of a boiling pot. Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit to the sound of the recalcitrant starter.
Mom could have saved for a decent used car with the portion of her teaching salary my father let her spend. Instead, she bought a membership to AAA and used her allowance on baton lessons, football uniforms, and summer vacations. I lived for those summer vacations. By the time I’d lost my baby teeth, embers from my father’s firefighting accident had singed my parents’ alliance, so my mother hauled her children around solo in a weary four-wheel-drive International, another of her uncommon, outdated heaps. Roaming the western states, Mom made us kids pee in coffee cans for fear that stopping the truck meant losing half a day to get it going again. She bargained with the free-swinging shift stick that had long since lost its collar, Pierre the poodle slept on our laps, and Misty the malamute hurled lemon-yogurt barf on every curvy highway. While her kids learned to ride mules down the Grand Canyon and fish the wild lakes of Idaho, pan fry trout in cornmeal and bake sourdough biscuits over a campfire, Mom learned how to bind broken fuel pumps with yarn and bandage leaking radiators with duct tape. We heard shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit in the generous shade of a Giant Sequoia. Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit in the broiling heat of Zion National Park.
It’s not the hours spent stuck on the side of the road that I remember from those trips. I remember Mom playing guitar and teaching us songs around campfires, the expanse of America’s national parks, and the freedom of the open road. In light of my mother’s shabby cars and her frustration when they broke, shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit-shit could have been a motto of defeat. Instead, it was a cry of determination. My mother’s first step toward triumph on a bad car day. And on that morning in Crotone, Italy, it was my way of steeling myself for the forthcoming challenge.
Backstage, Dieter waited...