Men yelled. Engines belched. A truck rumbled past spewing black fumes. The previous evening, this dusty lot in northeastern Spain had exploded with elephants, trumpets, and showgirls. Only a circle of worn dirt marked where the big top had towered, and the circus’s allure seemed to have faded with the spotlights. I teetered at the edge of the emptying field, squinting into the morning sun. But I was hungry for adventure and hungry for a new direction, so I took a deep breath and hauled my full-sized backpack into the commotion of machines and men.
The boss inspected Colin and me by the light of day. Speaking to my breasts, he explained how I’d dance at night and work in the cafeteria by day.
“But I don’t cook,” I told him in Spanish.
“You’ll learn,” he said and pointed to the far side of the lot. “Wait in that car. The driver is the only one who speaks English.”
Colin and I settled into the tattered seats of a white Citroën and watched workers maneuver great blue rolls of tent onto waiting trucks. A camper bumped and creaked past us, fighting every inch of rough ground. Grit crept into the car and coated my clothes, my eyes, my tongue. I rolled up the windows and baked under the glare of the Spanish sun until Colin choked me out of the car by filling the small space with cigarette smoke.
Beyond some trucks and an acrid pile of manure, three elephants swatted flies, swinging their stiff tails like Chaplin swung his cane. Their droopy rear ends swayed in unison, back and forth, back and forth. The closest elephant observed my approach. Short black hairs covered the knobs on her immense head, and her ears were so pink, webs of blue veins showed through the skin. The elephant seemed docile and gentle and not at all like the animals I’d seen perform, but I kept my distance. She soon looked away, focusing instead on the heavy chain binding her, using her trunk to trace its path from her front foot to an eyebolt on the truck’s side.
Hearing a commotion behind me, I turned to see a man tugging on a rope coming around the front of a nearby semi. Dark curls. Hazel eyes. Pink cheeks. A tank top and jeans that were once white. The boy in blue from last night looked like a naughty angel. A sheen of sweat highlighted the contours of his arms as he struggled with whatever pulled the rope in the opposite direction. A couple of curses later, a skittery zebra followed a cloud of dust into view.
I eased closer as he tethered the animal to the truck’s bumper. In English, I asked, “Does it bite?”
The young man looked at me. His mouth twitched as if he wanted to smile, but his cheeks never followed through. “Sometimes yes. Sometimes no,” he said, and tromped away.
I wanted to pet the zebra, if only because he’d insinuated that I shouldn’t. When I reached out, the zebra squealed, twisted his striped rear toward me, and kicked. I quickly swiped my finger along its side and scooted back to the Citroën.
Half an hour later, the naughty angel stuck his head in the driver’s window. “I am Stefano,” he announced, lighting a foul-smelling sausage of a cigarette. Thick smoke poured from his mouth.
“You’re not bringing that in here, are you, Stefano?” I asked.
“My name is STE-fano,” he corrected. “Not Ste-FA-no.” He drummed his fingers on the roof of the car. “The cigarette, is a problem?”
“Listen to her once and she’ll never give up,” Colin called from the back as he tapped the packet of Drum tobacco in his pocket.
“Cigarettes kill, Colin, especially that stuff he’s smoking.”
“Ducados,” Stefano said, “I smoke out here.”
“Thanks. I’m Kathleen. Nice to meet you Ste — um, how do you say your name again?”
“STE-fano,” he said. “STE-fano. Nice to meet you, Kat’leen.”
“It’s Kathleen,” I corrected. “There’s an H in the middle, after the T.”
“Got it, a T and an H.” He pulled on his cigarette and asked, “The zebra, she bites you, Kat’leen?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“Good, good.” The corners of his mouth nudged dimples into his cheeks, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Stefano pumped his cigarette a few times, tossed it, and climbed in. Maneuvering the car over ruts, around trash piles, and out of the lot, he glanced at me and said, “So you think you want to join the seercoos.” His voice sounded thick — a result, I figured, of the harsh tobacco he smoked. “And you,” Stefano continued, twisting his rearview mirror so he could see Colin. “Boss says you’re going to work with the elefanti. Is hard work, leetle money.”
“Colin is me name.” His voice sounded insipid compared to Stefano’s. “Best of England and Wales right here in your car, mate.” Colin leaned forward. “Actually, the elephants are only stepping stones for me.”
Stefano looked confused.
“I juggle,” Colin explained. “No way they’ll have me working with animals once they see what I do with me clubs.”
Stefano cleared his throat and swerved into the passing lane to get around two circus trucks, using the oncoming lane as if it were his own. “When you are ready to leave, you go. I keep working with my elefanti.”
We drove through orange groves and sped past dusty coffee bars and two-building towns. Stefano played the road like a video game, whizzing in and out of traffic as if he could mitigate any mishap by inserting another coin. I averted my eyes and leaned my back against the door. Coastal wind ruffled my hair and morning sun warmed my shoulders. I studied the man beside me, enjoying the way his soft brown mane curled tighter and tighter as it swooped down his neck and the way his shadow of a beard emphasized the flush in his cheeks.
Stefano caught me staring. The playful bow of his lips affected his entire face, stretching his dimples and crinkling his eyes. “Tell me, how it happens that an Americana becomes a dancing girl in a Spanish circus?” That story could have started two weeks earlier when I decided I had to get off the orange-pickers’ bus, or two months earlier with my arrival in Amsterdam and the wild road trip that followed. Or maybe it started two years earlier when wanderlust tempted me out of my office job to follow the Grateful Dead. Perhaps the swinging-door façade of my family’s motel-home flickered through my mind, but I did not dwell on those long-ago days. Wherever this journey had started, a Spanish circus was not my destination.
“By accident,” I told him, rolling my shoulders. “I bought a one-year open-ended ticket to Europe and came looking for adventure. Amsterdam, Paris, Perpignan . . . and here I am.”
“And here you are.” Stefano grinned.
Excerpt from Love in the Elephant Tent: How Running Away with the Circus Brought Me Home by Kathleen Cremonesi, ECW Press, May 2015