Curtain up. Lights fade in. A Japanese-American woman in a deep red costume stands center stage in spotlight, head down. Her left hand covers the left side of her face. Fingers straight, rigid — guards in a tight line.
The cold air of my practice room burned my nose and grabbed my shoulders, folding them forward. Snow covered our upstate New York home, once a church from the 1800’s. We never heated the entire house. It was too expensive. While the wood stove blazed in the main living area, this room was left icy, a meat locker. No need to waste energy on a room my husband and I weren’t using.
She raises her chin, slowly, dramatically, the spotlight filling her exposed eye. Her left hand stays over her face. In the dark theater sits the audience, vast, shrouded, nestled comfortably in their velvet seats. Her hand stays over her face.
My company’s last gig was at the beginning of March. It was one of the weirdest events of my career: a 60’s-inspired-Beatles-Love-Show-meets-Alice-In-Wonderland circus extravaganza in the middle of a swanky rustic lodge on a lake. At one point during the night, I was a jellyfish; later, a streak of neon executing aerial acrobatic feats from a piece of white silk suspended from an imposing steel structure. We performed for gobs of money and an audience of 20. It wasn’t “us”, wasn’t our brand, but the clients were kind people and the show was paying the bills during our slow season. For that, we were grateful.
It’s been six months. Six months since that last round of cheers and applause. Six months since I peeled my body out of my migraine-inducing pink dayglo costume. Six months since I repacked my bag full of rigging equipment. And six months, seven days and fourteen hours since it dawned on me that a virus on the rise was swatting my career into the sunset. I had asked the Universe for a sabbatical…just a little break. I needed to figure out who I was again after being lost so long in a profession that kept me happily on the stage, on the road, on my phone…and completely disconnected from my heart. I didn’t mean to shut the world down, and I wasn’t quite ready for this long of a break…I just needed a minute to quiet the cacophony of “shoulds” in my head. I got that minute…and 262,999 more. I stared across the room at my duffle, untouched for six months, now a historically preserved time capsule.
Quiet music eases in, dissipating the thick silence. Soft, slow chords pressed into piano keys guide shallow breaths into the moment. Slow, deliberate, she lowers her hand to reveal her whole face, the left side disfigured. Her cheek is swollen, round. Her eye looks like it is formed out of soft clay. Misshapen, half-closed. She continues to stare out into the audience, both an invitation and challenge to look fully. As the lyrics of the song begin to pour out so does the flow of her movements, beckoning the audience to come along for the journey.
I closed the door behind me and began the long walk to the center of the practice room, pulling my hood tightly around my head and shoving my hands into my pockets. My left cheek ached: a deep, dull, pressure, like I had slept on a pillow of granite. I hadn’t noticed until now. I rarely noticed. It had probably been hurting for a week. This pain in my face, it never registered immediately. It could be days, weeks before I noticed. And still, as soon as my radar clocked the discomfort, it fled my consciousness; this time, my attention monopolized by my bare feet moving forward, rolling against the chilly floorboards. It’s always easy to forget.
Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know disfigurement was a legal disability. I didn’t know being Disabled wasn’t centered on any one medical condition. It simply meant humanity wasn’t ready to let me in. The onus of disability has never been on the people living it. The term is an indictment of society. I should have known this all along. I didn’t want to know. And I had never before considered all the ways in which I had lived as a Disabled person before. I prided myself on my short memory of these things. And I couldn’t, until just months ago, fathom how to wear this new piece of identity without it pinching at the sides and rubbing raw the illusion still clinging, threadbare. I didn’t want this to be me. I had worked too hard in life to be seen as “normal.” I suppose a career in circus took away any chance I still had left.
She approaches her midnight blue aerial apparatus: two canvas loops hanging like long slings, side by side, in front of her, just within reach if she stands on tip toe. Her chest is stiff, forward, open. Floating a hand above her head, she reaches for one of the two loops. Have we met?, reads her face, head tilted slightly sideways. Her wrist nestles in the curve of the soft canvas while her fingers wrap upward, gripping.
I eased myself toward the floor, kneeled before my purple duffle, briefly closed my eyes. Running my hands over the sturdy nylon, I located the cold metal zipper tab, ripping it sideways like a bandaid, eliciting a high squeal from the bag. A pile of circus rigging straps poured forth, entrails from an open carcass.
She lets her body sink, her weight taken by one hand, blue canvas strap squeezing tightly around her flesh, bone. Pointed toes push off the floor sending her body into a rotation, feet lifting. She spins slowly, a carousel suspended.
The night of our last gig, we received a hefty tip from the client. Back in the dressing room, we filmed a video of us “making it rain” with the cash, dancing around in all our ridiculous fluorescent camp. We agreed we would never share it with anyone because it was so tasteless. Deep down, I knew that while this was true, it was also because that video was the GIF of my career.
She touches her feet to the stage, grounding. Her face reflects the spotlight out to the darkened house, her eyes locking with hundreds she can’t see. Mischief glides across her lips.
Rummaging through my duffle I pulled forth my trusted apparatus: two blue canvas loops joined together at the top by steel rigging. I cradled them in my arms and looked to the pulley in the middle of our room from which these usually hang. Could today be the day?
She winds up and this time, whips her body around. Centrifugal force makes her fight for every move thereafter. She pulls upside down in a full split and then shifts her body over so she is folded, balanced over one arm, releasing the other hand from its grip. The untethered strap flies around the other flaunting its freedom.
Grief is an interesting companion. It’s never a single-issue candidate. I remembered clawing my way into the entertainment industry, fielding every question that started with “What happened to your face?” with an answer from a grace-filled tongue and a smile that knew they wouldn’t fire me on the spot. They never did. That only happened from a comfortable distance, delivered through an email or third party.
Years before my career, I remembered feeling weightless when I was just learning to carry my body in the air, as if a force greater than myself kept me afloat. I remembered feeling free. I remembered the first time my feet left the ground, I realized my body already carried the knowledge of flight from lifetimes before. Oh how I missed those moments of true confidence.
She makes a quick grab, secures the unbound sling, threads a leg through the loop. One pretty pose is followed by another just before pulling her full body to rest, cradled in both straps. She stretches out, looking blissful, tracing her fingers along the lengths of her torso.
And then I think of the wondrous ideas for shows, shows that held true meaning, resonating in my head…shows that would never be made because, who would pay for them? And I think of how I bent my spirit, stuffing it into a package labeled Marketable. The cardboard creased and bulged awkwardly at the sides. I thought of all the time and creations I lost because of the stamp on the side of the box: Fragile. Handle with Care.
But I also remembered that same package traveling around the world. I remembered being a proud, full-time artist making a good living while “beating the system.” I remembered the smiles and delighted cheers, even in dark moments of national disaster. It was during those times that I maintained some iteration of purpose and fulfillment.
She pulls her knees in tightly, spinning out of control before extending once again to slow down, catching just a second to breathe before tucking in again. After wrapping, weaving her body in, around, through the canvas, she readies for her first big trick, she reaches an arm out to the audience as she balances precariously at the top. She takes in their cheers of encouragement. They simultaneously know and don’t know what will happen next. She tucks, throws herself forward, catching the canvas by her knees at the bottom before flipping right side up again. The audience jumps, taking a full second to absorb what just happened. She takes a beat before climbing for her next spectacle. Breath returns.
It’s all so complicated, because I loved my career: the excitement it brought, the personal triumph, the validation it instilled. I met so many good people who embraced me for who I was. But my validation was always in flux, always surrendered to the ones who held my paycheck; or to the standing ovations (or lack thereof); or to those few directors who wordlessly altered my costumes to cover my asymmetrical face.
She curls into a ball before flinging herself backwards. Her head plummets towards the stage, the canvas catching her ankles at the last second, keeping her suspended. Pain is corralled, swept away by adrenaline, masked by a smile. She allows gravity to elongate her frame, arms reaching for her sky, the ground. A moment of respite.
I convinced myself that what I was doing was an art in and of itself: flying under the radar, cracking the code of what pleases the most people to make the most amount of money. I disassociated from every basic component of myself that I thought unpopular. And I hated myself for all of it.
She wraps for her final drop. The landing is never 100% guaranteed. It scares the shit out of her every time. A breath. And then she lets go, breath suspended. Dive forward. Flip up. Dive again. The final rotation lasts only a split second, but with eyes closed, it feels like flight. She catches by armpits at the bottom, landing upright. She fights the force that tries to bounce her out of the safety of her apparatus. A sharp breath in. She reaches both hands up, grabbing the apparatus and easing her body down until it touches the nape of her neck. The loops compress uncomfortably around her cheeks. She lets go, floating both hands away, suspended in time. This small patch of vertebra and muscle now supports the full weight of her body. She relaxes into the discomfort. Taking hold once again, she pulls up before her feet drop lightly to the stage. The music has not ended yet and she sashays forward confidently, greeted by an already-cheering audience. She throws one hand up into the air triumphantly, looking skyward while the final lyrics of the song ring out –“This is me.”
I had never been me, not on stage or in the street. How could I have been when I had spent my whole life casting unwanted bits of myself into unreachable depths?
I pulled the apparatus to my body, weaving my fingers in the thick canvas. I curled around my duffle bag, surrendering to the cold wooden floor, knowing it would soon be warmed by the heat of my body.
She blows a kiss to the audience. Lights fade. She runs offstage to get ready for her next act.
About the Author
Sora J. Kasuga (she/they) is a professional circus artist. Her memoir reflections sit at the crossroads of her many identities, exploring what it means to be Japanese-American, Disfigured, Neurodivergent, and Queer, all while sculpting a life outside of tradition. When she and her husband are not performing, they live a quiet existence in a converted church in Central New York.