It was summer. I was five years old, and my mother had taken me to a park in Chattanooga, the town where I grew up, to paint banners for a kids’ parade taking place later in the week. I was on my hands and knees in the grass, smearing tempera paint over rolled-out expanses of white kraft paper, but my heart was elsewhere. It lay across the field and under a pavilion where a swarm of other kids—older kids—were tumbling on floor mats, juggling and clowning, teetering across low-slung tightropes. They were all a blur of giggles and flailing limbs and bright colors. They were having so much fun.
They were at circus camp.
I saw them perform a few days later in the kids’ village at the festival. It’s a hazy memory now, but I know they were all in costume, I know the crowd laughed and cheered for them, and I know all I wanted in the world at that moment was to one day be up on that stage, too.
The circus camp was held every summer, and my obsession was such that I—an infamously impatient child—was willing to wait two whole years until I met the minimum age requirement. But when the summer of my much-awaited seven-year-old eligibility finally dawned, so did tragedy: The man in charge of the camp had moved the operation to Europe somewhere—Brussels, maybe? It didn’t matter. I had waited more than one-fourth of my life for circus camp, and now it was gone.
I shunted the disappointment deep into my soul, where it lay dormant for the remainder of my childhood. I grew up, kind of. I went to college. I moved to Decatur. And it was here that a mural on the side of a building on East College Avenue called to me. “CIRCUS CAMP,” it read in bold, childish scrawl, buttressed by clown faces and an arrow pointing down a side street to the wonders beyond.
It was unrelated to the circus camp of my youth, I knew. But I felt like it was daring me—to nab some glimpse of what might’ve been, to seek revenge on my thwarted dream, or to at least finally disabuse myself of the nagging notion that, if given the early exposure I’d so craved, I might now be making my profession not as a stumbly writer but as a glittery, spandex-swathed acrobat swinging from the ceiling at every Cirque du Soleil show from here to kingdom come. I needed to know what I’d missed, needed to gauge the depth and width of this particular gaping hole in my existence.