Just another show, always the same. Different towns, different slack-jawed rubes crunching peanuts and candy apples and watching you from the seats, but always the same routine. The scenery was different but the night itself never was. He could jump a month into the future or past and it would be just like tonight.
Xavier sat on his unicycle and pedaled himself out to the center of the ring, five clubs and his lucky Zippo engraved with a tiger in his oversized hands. The ringmaster was announcing him, but the words just washed over him like the faceless hum of the crowd. He pasted on his most brilliant fake smile as he lit the clubs and then began his juggling routine, riding smoothly around the ring as the flaming clubs circled in front of him. All of it—the cheers and applause, the music, his legs pumping the pedals, the work of keeping the clubs in the air—was just a haze.
Until…that time two acts after him, that moment he lived for. That time of night that kept him chained to the big top instead of getting out of this crazy life once and for all. That time of night when his heart and breath seemed to stand stock-still.
Simon. The tightrope walker. The only one he had ever given his heart to, and he didn’t even know it. Every night Xavier watched him up there, every night he felt his love for him surging up urgently in his chest, every night he made plans to finally tell him the truth after the show was over…and every night he lost his nerve.
Tonight, just like always, he went through the same thing. He watched him up there, so confident and brave on the tight wire high above the ring, only the blue-and-white striped umbrella and his skill keeping him balanced and alive, and he rehearsed in his head exactly what he would say to him, exactly how his warm lips would feel against his own when he leaned over to kiss him at last, at last, at last.
But tonight something felt different when he thought about it. His hands did not begin to sweat and tremble. He felt as if maybe he could finally, after all this time of longing in silence, pull it off.
Xavier knew that Simon would be heading right back to his bunk on the train after his act was over, that he never stayed to watch the rest of the show or socialize with anyone. He decided he would meet him there. It was now or never.
He hurried to the car fast enough that he beat him. “Oh, hey Xavier,” Simon said, smiling at him. He quickly looked away, knowing the beauty of his large brown eyes would make him lose his nerve if he let himself meet them.
“Hey. I was wondering if I could talk to you about something.”
“Yeh, of course. Why don’t you come inside?”
Xavier followed him in to the car. None of the other performers he shared it with were there right then. This really was his big chance, maybe the only one he would get.
“So what’s up?”
Xavier took a deep breath, then finally said those words that had been locked inside his head screaming to get out for years.
“Simon…I’m in love with you.”
A pause, then—laughter. He was laughing at him. It was his worst nightmare of this moment coming true.
“I should go,” he said very quietly, moving towards the door and hoping he would at least make it back to his own car before the first of the tears building up in his eyes spilled over.
“No, no!” Simon quickly said. “I’m sorry, it’s just—I can’t believe it took you so long.”
Savier’s face reddened. “You knew?”
“Of course I knew. I’d have to be a fool to not notice the way you look at me.”
“Well, do you…I mean…” He wanted desperately to ask if the feeling was mutual, but the words were sticking in his throat.
Simon laughed again. “Do I love you? Yes,” he said simply. “But let’s take it slowly, ok?”
Xavier was so overjoyed at hearing his feelings were returned that he would have agreed to anything right then. “Of course, of course,” he said. “However you want to do it. Whatever you want.”
“Well, I’m sorry to have to do this to you right now but I’m really completely exhausted. So can we talk about this some more tomorrow?” Simon asked.
“Yes, of course. Goodnight, see you tomorrow.”
Xavier went back to his bunk, but he was too excited to get any sleep that night. He just stared at the ceiling and felt the gentle rocking of the train as it brought them onward to the next town, thinking about Simon, feeling happier than he had ever been in his life.
The following afternoon was filled with all the usual hubbub of getting the tent set up and preparing for that night’s show, and Xavier didn’t even get to see Simon until just before he was ready to perform. He did his own routine feeling even more distracted than he usually did, but this time with joy rather than disenchantment. Then, he rushed backstage to find him.
“You always look so sexy up there on the wire,” he told him. “It’s so dangerous!”
“Yes, but that’s what makes it exciting for the crowd.”
“I hope you’re not so tired tonight. There are some…things I’d like to do with you.”
“Yes, I think that could be arranged.”
“Simon, you’re just about up!” someone called.
“All right, I’ll see you right after I’m done.” He turned to go.
“Wait!” Xavier called. Simon turned back to him and he took his face in his hands, kissing him incredibly deeply. All those years of suppressed longing poured into that single kiss, and he seemed to be floating in midair. He wanted to stay in that moment for the rest of his life.
Simon finally pulled away from him. “See you soon,” he said.
Xavier followed to watch from the sidelines as he always did. But this time, for the first time, he would not have to be trying to get up his courage.
He heard the familiar booming voice of the ringmaster as he watched Simon climb the ladder. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the death-defying Simon Marsh on the highwire! Too brave for a net! Only his umbrella and his perfect sense of balance keeping him from certain death!”
The spotlight fixed itself on the wire, the rest of the ring in darkness. Simon’s was the only act of the night with no music because he said he wanted the crowd to have all their attention focused on him, to think about what a dangerous routine it was with no distractions. He stepped out onto the wire, and Xavier felt the usual rush of his love for him.
It seemed like it was in slow-motion, but he knew really it only took an instant. The slipping of his foot, the tipping of his body, the way he seemed to hang suspended in the air for a moment, and then the terrible fall. Everything was absolute silence for a minute, and then there was chaos—children screaming, the other performers rushing to where his body had come to rest. Xavier couldn’t make himself run to him, couldn’t handle the idea of seeing him that way. He just stood where he was, the others rushing around him, his heart having made the plunge at the same time Simon did.