Three small beanbags rest in my right palm, waiting flight. They are meant to be globes in our spinning solar system: moon, Earth, sun. The moon leans against my middle finger, the Earth rests in the hammock between my thumb and forefinger; the sun, built of bright yellow burlap, rimmed in floppy orange triangles, hangs on the edge of my palm, halfway gone. I shift the sun to my left hand, close my fingers around it, turn my palm up; both arms are poised at right angles.
“Ready?” Uncle Joel asks.
I nod, nervous, but I am ready—Uncle Joel has trained me for this moment.
The moon leaps first; the moon arcs a foot over my face. The moon swaps with the sun for my left hand. The sun launches towards the Earth, the Earth escapes and leaps over the moon. One-two-three, one-two-three—I can hear Uncle Joel counting under his breath. I have to make it to thirty. Thirty cycles of the one-two-three; only after the moon returns to my right hand thirty times will he grant me the title. One who can juggle.
Uncle Joel juggled fire: giant matchsticks, ignited; skinny logs, aflame. We watched, transfixed, sitting in the dark parking lots of hotels that hosted our family reunions. When he juggled, Joel wore high-top basketball shoes, mesh shorts, and a tie-dyed T-shirt. He had short hair, an earring looped in his left lobe. He stood in the triple-threat position; he stood like an athlete. He still looked healthy then; his knees were supple and sprightly, his stomach flat and full. While my cousins gazed at the bleeding trail of light that followed the firesticks, my eyes watched Joel’s. He looked beyond the firesticks, past the light to a spot in darkness. His head didn’t bob up and down as the others’ did, following the spinning bursts of light. He stayed steady, gaze fixed ahead, and he told me he had to lose focus on each firestick in order to see them all.
Was it that summer or the one after—was I eight or nine?—when my hair dripped wet onto loose pajamas. My hands wanted to juggle, but my dad wanted to talk. I sat on my palms so that they would not flutter in one-two-three. H-I-V, my dad said. I nodded. The letters floated as unanchored and abstract as three beanbags that are meant to look like a miniature solar system.
Joel taught fifth grade and he made art. Strong clay sculptures and solemn acrylic faces. Joel created; he pulled from thin air things the rest of us didn’t see.
H-I-V floated through his body for years, four-five-six and then I don’t know when exactly, the V spun the wrong way. The V pivoted, mid-air, and landed facedown in a sharp pile of A. He could have, but he didn’t drop the I and the D, didn’t slip into a tangle of stringy S. He juggled until his fingers became too brittle, his reflexes too slow, his attention too vague.
“Megan,” Joel asked me once, after he retired from teaching, already an old man at fifty-four with throat cancer and no immunity. When he retired from teaching, I was in college and he started calling me, in the evenings, just to talk. “Are you straight?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Okay,” he said. “You know, no one ever asked me that.”
“Did you want them to?”
“I guess I just wanted the chance to say no.”
When Joel retired, he started making sculptures out of his leftover vials. Long needles shooting skyward, translucent prisms of plastic. When Joel retired and I told him I was thinking of going to South America after college, he said he’d meet me there—he had always wanted to travel the world.
One-two-three, one-two-three. I make it to thirty-seven before I drop the moon. Joel was fifty-seven before he became one of the thirty million dropped. By that time his body was brittle and out of place, knobby like the inside of a beanbag. By that time I imagine he was ready, ready to be dropped or ready to be held somewhere else—in some other body, on some other planet. The moon drops on the hard tile of my parent’s kitchen, but maybe Joel was caught, swooped out of the air at the last moment and cradled in someone else’s palms.
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