by Annam Manthiram
When we made love, the white never came off his face.
I met him after a rodeo in Kansas. He was the clown that got himself bucked Christopher Reeve style and had to be taken to the hospital; my mother was his bed-mate. The two got along well, though my mother said it frightened her that he never cared to wash away the clown parts. She didn’t ask him to of course, that being his livelihood and one wouldn’t ask a member of the NRA to put aside his guns.
It was my mother’s second day in the hospital; she’d been admitted for a quickie hysterectomy. She told me that they didn’t take their time with a woman’s vagina once you were old, so she was in and out of there in less than a week. During one of her naps, the clown had asked me for a drink of water. Both of his arms were in casts, and he explained that he was tired of bugging the nurses for help because all they wanted to do was laugh.
“They see a lot of sadness around here,” he said. “I suppose they get to needing some cheering up, but I’m too tired for all that now.”
When I shoved the curtain aside, I saw that he was fully dressed in the manner of a stereotypical clown, complete with a red bulb nose, pasty white makeup, and a curly yellow wig. He looked more like a pastiche of a clown than an actual clown.
“I’m Dolores,” I said.
“Dolores. I like it.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I stood, holding the plastic tumbler of water to his lips, feeling awkward that I was a party to something so private. The act of drinking seemed so naked. After he was done, he asked me, “Dolores, would you like to go out sometime?”
That was how it started.
After his casts were off, I saw that his forearms were large and tender like the premium meat my mother went bonkers for at the deli down the street, and once he and I figured out how our joints fit, we spent most of our time at my house.
He was a patient but passionate lover: always asking me if I was satisfied, and if I wasn’t, he tried his best until I was. To be with a clown wasn’t in the scenarios that got me hot in those romance books I read, so I usually closed my eyes during sex.
When I visited with my mother, she’d ask me, “What does he really look like, under all that?” I told her he was handsome, but I never spoke the truth: that I had yet to see what he really looked like.
Several months into our relationship, I grew tired of being the girl who was dating the clown. I was a plain girl with average brown hair and cat-like eyes. No one had ever stared at me before, but now everyone stared at us wherever we went. I didn’t like the attention; he seemed oblivious to it.
At first, I liked how he’d create balloon animals for the kids who smiled at us. Later, it annoyed me, and I was annoyed at myself for disliking the parts of him that were so selfless. It was hard to separate who he was from what he was. The two blended together, and I wasn’t certain it was a bad thing.
I came clean to my mother about his permanent disguise, and she said it wasn’t respectable and likened it to those freaks who made their way through town from cities like Los Angeles or Seattle.
“Make him show himself. It’s not right,” she said.
Still, I waited. It wasn’t the right time to ask that of him, and I was unsure of where all of this was going.
“He makes me laugh. He’s useful,” I said, when my mother pestered me again. Earlier that morning, he’d changed the light bulb in my kitchen without a step stool. He was tall.
“Does he wake up that way? What does he look like coming out of the shower?”
“I don’t know. He never showers at my place.”
“Dolores, you sure have a way of catching them.”
On our six-month anniversary, he took us to the best restaurant in town: a faux-authentic Italian eatery run by Indians. The food had a slight curry taste to it, which I liked. It gave it an edge.
I wore the blue-green blouse he said reminded him of kelp, and he wore the clown suit with the brass buttons, but we were declined seating because of his clown face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was supposed to be a special night for us.”
“Let’s order pizza,” I said. We drove to his place.
I had come to appreciate his house, for it was completely opposite of who he was. He said the house had originally belonged to his grandmother, who’d had a disdain for anything embellished or garish.
“She didn’t believe in furniture,” he said. As a result, there were expanses of empty space intermingled with Technicolor clown gear, kind of like a modernist art exhibit.
In the living room (the area most sparse), he fed me slices of cheese, and I licked his fingers afterward. He tickled the insides of my ears when I drank soda and told me how much he cared for me.
“I’m starting to love you a little,” he whispered. We held each other close, the puffy sleeves from his outfit grazing the inner parts of my elbows until his stomach gurgled and he reached for another slice. Halfway through eating it, a round of tomato sauce squirted over his face.
“Crap,” he said.
“Here,” I said, extending a napkin. He dabbed at it lightly, but the sauce was already starting to crust.
“Go use the bathroom, rinse it off,” I said. He shook his head no.
“It’s okay, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s disgusting. Wash it off,” I said, my voice starting to get a little louder.
“No,” he said.
“What is your problem? It’s not right.” I found myself using my mother’s words, unable to stop.
When we became more concerned with the volume of our voices than the substance of our sentences, he locked himself in the bathroom. I waited and waited and waited for him to come out. Finally, I dozed off on the floor next to the pizza box that was already starting to gather ants. When I woke, I saw that he had fallen asleep in his bed, the crazy kind where your legs twitch and your mouth moves. His face was white like a chocolate moon, the sauce completely gone.
The next morning, I tried to call him, but he didn’t answer. I went to his house, but either he wasn’t home or he didn’t want to come to the door. After two weeks, he called to say he thought it was best if we didn’t see each other anymore.
“Because you want to change me, and I don’t want to be changed.”
“I don’t even know what you look like, for real.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No!” I shouted. “You’re not a real fucking clown, okay!” I waited for a response, but all I heard was silence.
“Goodbye,” he said.
I felt our breakup like a broken bone. For six straight months I cried. Only in the mornings, when I realized he was gone and that I was the reason he had left.
A year later, my mother died from complications related to her hysterectomy. In a small town like ours, there wasn’t much I could do in the way of filing a malpractice suit. I accepted her death the way I accepted most things that were difficult in my life. I slept a lot and watched the junk TV my mother was fond of. It made me feel like she was still here.
At the funeral, the clown showed up. He was dressed in black this time, no cartoonish garb, but his face was still painted and his wig still yellow. Angry that he’d ignored me for over a year and now chose to make a statement after my mother’s death when I really had nobody at all, I moved to tell him to leave, to fuck off.
When I drew closer to him, I noticed he was crying. The tears were coming down faster than he could wipe them away. And as he rubbed at his face, harder and harder, trying to get at the tears, his face was still white, the tissues still clean. I then touched his face, kissed his lips. While we hugged, I pulled at the back of his wig, but it was rooted solidly in place. We separated, and I looked at him for a long time.
“It’s you,” I finally said.
“Dolores, it’s always been me,” he replied.
I nodded, and we held hands as we went to say goodbye to my mother.
ANNAM MANTHIRAM is the author of two novels, The Goju Story and After the Tsunami, and a short story collection (Dysfunction), which was a Finalist in the 2010 Elixir Press Fiction Award and received Honorable Mention in Leapfrog Press’ 2010 fiction contest. She is proud of the fact that her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in many cool places.
Annam’s fiction has also been nominated for the PEN/O’Henry Prize and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories anthology. A graduate of the M.A. Writing program at the University of Southern California and a 2010 Squaw Valley Writers Conference scholar, Ms. Manthiram resides in New Mexico with her husband, Alex, and son, Sathya. So far, she is quite enchanted.
You can visit her online at AnnamManthiram.com.