“Your assignment is to go out and do one thing alone this week. Shopping doesn’t count. You have to actually go to a place made for recreation and be seen alone. It can be a restaurant, a museum, whatever sounds good. But,” Ruth’s therapist emphasized, “it must be some place you would never normally go with or without someone. You need novelty.”
Ruth clenched her fingers into her purse on her lap. “You mean like going to a car show or something like that?” She must have made a look of disgust because Jeremy laughed.
“Yes. Something like that. What’s going on this weekend?” He asked and picked up a paper and started to shuffle through it.
“I-I’ll find something.” She assured him.
“Do you understand why we’re doing this, Ruth?” He asked as he remained behind the wall of newsprint.
“To learn to be my own person?” She asked weakly, always feeling like this was a teacher and she was the dimwitted student in class.
“Aha!” He snapped the newspaper shut, a huge grin on his gaunt face. “There’s a carnival in town. That’s just the thing for you.”
She felt her stomach flutter in response. She hated the sounds, the lights, the scary rides, the creepy workers, and the…clowns.
“Do I have to go to that?” She asked.
His face went grim and he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Ruth, because of your reaction, I’m certain this is exactly what you should do. You go to the carnival and spend a good two hours. I expect you to leave there having found yourself.”
“At a carnival?”
Well, now that she stood before the ticket booth with cash in hand watching the couples and young families with small children rush through the dirt lot and point at the brightly lit noisy rides, Ruth checked her watch.
I get to leave at 11.
Feeling out of place by herself, she nervously skirted along the Tilt-A-Whirl ride, trying to remain around the periphery. As Ruth turned the corner, she ran straight into her most hated fear - a clown!
His silken billowy costume blew in the breeze, snapping like the sails on a ship. Ruth stumbled back, terrified he would approach her. The clown pulled his mouth down to exaggerate the painted-on frown. Above his pout, a red ball created his prosthetic nose. Dark eyes clashed with the white pancake makeup and tiny bowed eyebrows were sketched in to make him look perpetually perplexed. He had a blue teardrop on his cheek. His hair was a skullcap with red wiry protrusions coiling out each side of his head. Everything about him was big, bright, and loud. Instinctively, she stepped back. He imitated her motion as if mocking her.
Feeling like the frightened child she had once been at the circus, she raced off towards the restrooms and went inside. Within the stall, Ruth held her hands to the walls and gasped for her breath.
Panic attack number one.
The rush of numbness and tingling raced through her body like a tsunami. Her lips tingled, her heart pounded wildly and she felt beads of sweat dribbling down her spine.
It’s just a man who’s paid to put on makeup and a silly outfit and big shoes and wander around the park to drum up business and festivity. He’s not coming after you, you big baby!
Jeremy was right, if she sat through the panic attack and observed it and it rose and fell and then was over. She didn’t die or go crazy.
Straightening up her sweater, Ruth walked outside again determined to pretend to be normal. She’d watched other people do many things alone like eating in restaurants and traveling and they looked very comfortable in their skin. She would just pretend she was one of those people who never thought twice about going anywhere they wanted, doing anything they desired.
Deciding to firmly try and “find herself,” Ruth wandered over to the ring toss game and promptly ordered three sets of rings to toss. The other people around the display were tossing their rings to the bottles in the middle, laughing and cheering as they tried to win a prize. When she tossed the first ring, she smiled, feeling as if she were part of the crowd. Someone next to her said, “it’s a scam, you know. The way the bottles are lined up, you can’t land one.” He offered. His friend elbowed him. “That’s not true, miss. You can do it. You just have to spin it. See?” He took his ring and spun it and it circled a bottle neck and then flung itself at the shifty man running the game.
The men laughed and Ruth found herself laughing too.
“When you open yourself up to the world and join the living, Ruth, you will find you are alive and not dead with your husband, Ricky. He would want you to live again. You’re much too young to be buried with him.” Jeremy’s words had never been so true.
Feeling more secure to try something on her own, she walked over to the Scrambler ride and gave the man her ticket. He clinked her into her little bench seat and she watched the entire carnival turn into a blur of red, blue, green, and white lights. Ruth laughed as the wind caught her long hair and flapped it around her until she couldn’t see which way she was facing. The ride continued to slam the seats to the edges of its reach and then back again, around and around. The smells of the carnival went from nasty to sweet. Candy corn, funnel cakes, corn dogs filled the night air mixed with the distant wood smoke of a fall night. She closed her eyes and laughed joyously as she was slammed yet again in her seat to the limits of the ride’s scope. The tinny sounds of the music and the dinging of the muscle hammer attraction filled her ears. When Ruth climbed down from the ride, her hair was a mess, her sweater askew, her walking unstable from the dizzying ride.
And she’d never felt so alive in the past two years!
Ordering a huge ball of pink cotton candy that matched her sweater, she wound the tendrils around her finger and nibbled it off with childish delight. Several men passed by her, watching her licking at her pink finger and looking sheepishly embarrassed for her delight. One even winked at her! Feeling a flutter of life unfold within her chest, she sighed. She felt like a woman again. She felt like she was no longer invisible. She felt as if she were interacting with her surroundings instead of just cutting through them on her way to another place, never staying still long enough to make human interactions.
Proud and contented, Ruth turned, holding her head up high, spine erect, she felt taller, more slender, more graceful. She smiled with her secret knowledge and then licked the sugar from her lips when she felt eyes upon her. She turned to see the clown again. His arms were crossed over his massive chest and his dark eyes were focused on her, the painted frown accented a puzzled look as if he were trying to figure her out. When she didn’t focus on the makeup, the dark eyes looked at her penetratingly. In fact, he didn’t look at her like an innocent child companion way, but in a man looking at a woman way.
Feeling a deep warmth in her pelvis, a womanly sensation she hadn’t felt in years, Ruth looked away quickly with a sense of guilt as if her minister had just seduced her or worse, she had been unfaithful to Ricky.
She began a steady walk around the carnival grounds, no longer regarding her watch. In fact, she’d put it in her purse. She’d stay as long as she wanted, even more than two hours. Her pace picked up as she looked back to see glimpses of the white and red satin costume. The further she went from the center of the carnival, she still kept seeing him. He was following her!
Heart beat hastening, she looked around for a safe harbor. She was at the Ferris wheel now, the last ride on the edge of the forest clearing. All Ruth’s progress in one evening was going to be ruined by the last vestiges of childhood fear rearing its head. Jeremy would tell her to go to the clown and have him engage her in some trickery, but the primitive part of her mind had taken over. Heart racing, palms sweating, she handed her last ticket to the ride attendant and rushed forward onto the bench seat.
A whoosh beside her caught her attention as a blur of white and red climbed into the seat beside her. The attendant locked the bar in place.
“Sir!” She screamed out. “We’re not together.”
The attendant couldn’t hear her through the grinding of the gears as he moved her bucket up one and filled the next seat.
The clown’s satiny fabric fluttered against her arm. She withdrew to her side of the bench and looked out into the dark forest, desperate to manage a few minutes of ride beside him.
Trying not to look curious, she peeked cautiously at him. The clown was studying the distance as they continued up higher and higher until the last seat was filled and the ride could begin. He was about Ricky’s size, actually. And Ricky had dark eyes. She bit her lip and turned away. This was not Ricky. This was a stranger. One who chose to spend his evenings behind makeup and a costume where he could know what everyone else was, but they would never know what he was.
What was he?
With a nagging inner voice, Ruth imagined what Jeremy would say about now. He’d prod her on about making the clown a real person and not a fictional character. He would tell her to take his teeth away as she had taken away the teeth of her panic attacks by enduring them and doing things in spite of them.
“I know clowns aren’t supposed to speak, sir, but I was wondering. Why did you get on this ride with me?”
He turned slowly and studied her with his black eyes.
“You wanted to frighten me? You saw that I was scared, didn’t you?”
He raised one of his thinly marked brows as if confused. The exaggerated pose was almost comical.
“I’m really not scared of you.” She insisted firmly as the ride began its fast ascent and descent into the night sky.
He tilted his head to one side as if he didn’t buy it.
“See.” She insisted, putting her hand on his. He remained still. She retracted. “You’re just a man in a costume, right? I mean, I’m not a kid. Kids are scared of clowns. Adults know they’re just normal people wearing makeup.” She reached to touch the white of his face, but his hand caught hers.
“I’m sorry.” She blushed excitedly. The physical contact of a man's hand on hers was startling. It made her mouth go dry. He guided her hand to his wide muscular thigh in his balloon-shaped pants. She could feel the muscles tighten at her touch. It was a male reaction. The same reaction that tightened his hip muscles and drew his groin into a pool of heat and throbbing ache.
She nervously watched the operator leaned back against his post oblivious to what was going on in the seat as they rode back up into the dark sky. Curiously, she spread her fingers on the clown’s thigh, feeling the width of his leg, the silken fabric, and listening above the sounds of the carnival below to hear his breathing. Deep, steady, relaxed.
Realizing how wrong it was to touch a stranger’s leg, she lifted her hand. The clown looked at her. She could tell by the corner of her eye, but she was childishly afraid to look at the face too long with its grossly exaggerated frown. Trying as hard as she could, it had been impossible to discern the man beneath the expression.
His huge hand glided to her thigh, feeling her leg through her taut jeans. His hand was so big and powerful, so warm. His breathing caught.
She looked up at his face cautiously, his eyes closed as he held her leg. He seemed to tremble inwardly. The ride jerked to a stop and she gasped. The clown’s hand lifted from her thigh leaving a hot place where it had rested.
The attendant grasped their cart and steadied it, opening it up. The clown stepped out and walked down the plank and Ruth followed feeling unsure of what the usual interactions with ride attendants and civilians was. When she got to the end of the ramp, he was gone.
Certain she’d done more than enough for a night, Ruth wandered back towards the restrooms before leaving. Near the line of forest trees, she saw something bright. The clown. He was holding a balloon and his grotesquely painted face frowning perpetually.
She looked around her and realized he was staring at her. She walked over to him, unsure what to say to a man who was sworn to silence.
He held out his hand, giving her the balloon and she smiled at him. “Thank you for helping me get over my fear of clowns.”
She turned to leave, not sure what he wanted from her. His hand came down on her shoulder and she turned back, almost hoping he wanted something more. Perhaps another caressing touch. It had been so long since she’d been touched that way, she flushed with embarrassment that a clown had been the first one to reach out and connect with her physically.
It is certainly a night of firsts.
He leaned into her in the shadows of the trees. “You were frightened of me?” He whispered in a rusty voice that sounded as if it were barely ever used. “Are you now?”
She shook her head, her body shivering with arousal at the husky tremble of his voice. “I am no longer afraid of you, either. Thank you for helping me overcome my fear of…humans.” He confessed and turned and stalked off into the crowd.