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Once, I had friends. Sufficiently satisfactory friends they were, too, providing the necessary services and benefits that foster an above-adequate childhood. Perhaps I wasn’t the smartest or funniest, or the most handsome or friendly, but neither was I repulsive, in any sense of the word. And being perfectly average, I found those that were just as ordinary as I to satisfy those inherent human desires: companionship and social interaction.
Born April 14th as the clock hands settled on 9:24 AM, Pacific Time, I was a healthy baby boy of 7.2 pounds. My parents lavished on me all the care and attention I could ever need. I slept when I wanted, ate what I wanted, pooped when I wanted. As an infant, life was great.
Toddler-hood was no different. I was an intrepid learner, eager to unravel the mysteries of the world. Where do ant trails lead? How does water become ice? Why does the sun move and the sky change colors? And for what I couldn’t figure out, I invented explanations.
Years passed. I was introduced into the world of Grade School, where I found others of my kind and temperament. One of them, the boy with whom I had the best relations, was called Brennan. We did the things all little boys do: play-fought, exchanged Pokémon cards, set up pranks and frustrated our parents’ attempts to tame us. You know, the usual stuff.
But everything changed with that spiteful and unrelenting force of nature we call adolescence.
If life is a war, it came as an ambush. An air strike on my vocal chords, an invasion into the chemicals of my brain, a bombardment of my previously clear pores. All over my body, whether I liked it or not, a battle waged furiously on.
Brennan could empathize. When I noticed his voice dropping octaves below and his height shooting upward at an unnatural pace, I knew I wasn’t the only one going through with this. It was an awkward time for both of us, but we found comfort in our mutual discomfort.
Then came the fateful swelling. Barely noticeable at first, it began a minor attack on my skull. But after a few months of unnoticed growth, I felt a strange sort of fullness when I wore hoodies and baseball caps. Like the empty space between my ears and the fabric was somehow…contracting?
Self-conscious, I started wearing bigger hats and sporting longer hairstyles. But soon, the hats began to feel tight and strained against my bulging forehead, and my friends joked that my lengthy tresses made me look like a girl. Shortly after, hat stores ran out of sizes for me, and my black mane only contributed to my large-headedness. I was out of options.
I asked my mother about the source of my unusual symptoms. “No one else has a head that grows like a balloon being pumped with helium!” I complained. “Why do I?”
She smiled at me, and patted that bulbous lump of meat atop my neck.
“It’s Big Head Syndrome, dear. Your great-grandfather had it too.”
“Well, why don’t you? Or dad?”
“It often skips a generation or two.” Seeing my distraught face, she cupped as much as she could of it in her small hands.
“Oh, cheer up, darling! It’s not injurious or painful to have a…a condition like yours. You may even find there to be good outcomes!”
I couldn’t imagine any at the time, but I held my tongue. I held my tongue and dutifully nodded my weighty head.
At school, things got worse. My so-called “friends” disappeared and joined the ranks of other pretentious teens who sneered down at me. Even Brennan and I drifted apart, almost at the same rate of separation of my two ears. It was only because he moved that we evaded that sticky and unpleasant process of ending a friendship.
By the time I turned 16, the damage was irreparable. I would never be an ordinary boy, or have an ordinary life, again. Friendless and bizarre-looking, I dragged myself through every waking moment, hoping someone would reach out to me. When no one did, I became religious, though I had never harbored any god-fearing or adoring thoughts. I had to grasp at the only thing solutions I saw possible: magic and, because magic was probably unreasonable, religion.
Those were my darkest days. I could write pages of the teenage angst so ubiquitous on internet forums and social networking sites, but I’ll spare you the trouble of reading it. Let it suffice to say that I was alone, as much so as the last survivor of a tragic shipwreck. Think Rose after Jack’s death in Titanic.
Then one day, while driving back from school, I saw an advertisement for a carnival posted on a billboard usually obscured with graffiti markings next to the highway. A portly man with a handlebar mustache spewed fire bearing dazzling yellow words.
“Come see Caesar’s Circus—the greatest show on earth!” read the blazing text. “Astounding Acrobats, Fantastic Freaks, and Mystical Magicism await!”
Wait a moment—Fantastic Freaks? The words piqued my interest. Could they relate to what I’d gone through? Perhaps even help? Caesar’s face—rubicund from his fire-breathing exertions—grinned alluringly down. I had to take a look.
I drove onward with newfound purpose.
The circus was a mad, buzzing castle, emanating with the life of a hundred eager citizens from a town that hadn’t seen such a lively fete in ages. Red and gold minarets with proud-flying flags saluted visitors as they stepped into the pulsating throng of entertainers and guests. And there, in the heart of it all, stood Caesar himself, enticing small children with saccharine sweets and coaxing their parents to purchase tickets and souvenirs.
“Come one, come all, to Caesar’s Circus, where the fun never ends! Fortune-telling? Fire-breathers? Acrobats and dancing elephants? We’ve got ‘em all!” He twirled a matching red baton around in his pudgy hand, brandishing it with a loop and a flourish. The effect was impressive.
Wow…I thought to myself as I tried to weave through the crowd surrounding him. He looks just like his poster.
“Ouch!” A lady said as my cheek collided with hers. An inevitable accident—Me and small spaces don’t mix well. “Watch where you’re go—”
“Sorry!” I muttered as I fought to the front of the crowd, trying to avoid that familiar expression of surprise and revulsion I knew would spread over her face once she caught a good glimpse of me.
But as soon as I had escaped one confrontation, I found myself inadvertently getting thrown into dozens of others. Before I knew it, I was surrounded.
I should have known better than to try to force myself into a crowd. I should have known it would be like trying to fit a balloon in a rat hole. I should have known I would never be wanted, anywhere.
So, cautiously, pleading “sorry!” at every turn, I edged my way into the background, trying not to attract anymore unwanted attention. And it was working, until—
“You, the big-head in the back! STOP RIGHT THERE.”
For a second, I was frozen. Then, I ran.
“STOP! STOP NOW, BOY!”
I didn’t know where I was going, but I wouldn’t stop to let myself be mocked and ridiculed by whoever was after me now.
Unfortunately, not being blessed with a reliable sense of direction, I soon found myself lost in the circus whirlwind, letting my assailant catch up. He put a hand on my shoulder, and I knew I was trapped.
I took a deep breath and turned around, preparing myself for an attack. I found myself face to face with none other than Caesar himself, flushed and panting, who had apparently left his other guests to pursue me. His black eyes, twinkling with joviality and ambition, darted around the edges of my cheeks, and finally alighted on my own.
“Well then,” he wheezed, his face as ruddy as his billboard counterpart. “Now that you’ve kindly stopped running away,” a scowl darkened his rosy complexion, “Can you at least give me a name?”
Guess there wasn’t any way out of this. “I’m M-Michael,” I managed to stutter.
He gave me a hard, but not unkind, look that suggested curiosity and—did I imagine it?—awe.
“M-Michael, eh? Hmm. You’re some specimen, you know that?”
“What?” Was he calling me some kind of scientific freak? A genetic mutation? An abomination of nature?
“I don’t have to be here, you know. You’re the one who followed me, so if you’re just going to stand there and insult me, I’ll leave, right now. So if you’ll excuse me—” I tried to shake him off, but his grip tightened.
“Insult you?! Absolutely not! In fact, I mean to congratulate you. Commend you. Praise your parents for bringing such a child like you into the world!” He regarded me silently, pressing one sausage-like finger to his double chin.
“Now I know you’re mocking me.”
Caesar cocked his head, judging me, no doubt. He started again, more cautiously this time.
“Michael, son, do you see me laughing? Pointing? Doing anything that would normally be considered hostile?”
I didn’t say anything. It might be a trap. Caesar took my silence as a tacit realization.
“I didn’t mean to insult you, kid. I’m just saying you’re…very different from other people.”
“But of course,” he said hurriedly, “you’re already aware of that little fact.”
“Ya think?” He smiled warily.
“Bet you get a lot of flak for it.”
“I’m used to it, I guess.” I pretended to be interested in something on my hands, pointedly avoiding his gaze.
“Well…” he continued, “I for one think you are stunning. And in a good way, I mean. And I want to offer you a place in my troupe.”
I snapped my head back. What? A place in the circus? Could I? I had to admit, it sounded too good to be true.
“You’re pulling my leg.”
He furrowed his brows. “I never joke about business.”
“I’m only 17.”
Caesar swore and quickly apologized to the surrounding parents, who shrouded their children’s ears and threw him dirty looks.
“Oops.” He took a breath and recomposed himself.
“Sorry, ma’am, sir!” To me, “Nevertheless, the offer still stands, for when you turn 18.” He checked a wristwatch I hadn’t even noticed until then. “Whoa, I’d better get going—I’m supposed to be in the ring in two.” He started to take off, but before he taken three steps, he turned back to me.
“Think about it, a’ight? And you can ask Montagna” he pointed to a tent on the right, “if you have any questions about…well anything! Catch ya later, son.”
And with a pat on the shoulder and a tilt of his hat, he sprinted off, panting forcefully with each step. I barely had time to bleat “Wait!” when he had slipped back into the sea of people and disappeared. With his departure, a girl with almost unbelievably long legs and a garish red costume emerged from the tent Caesar had pointed out. With the costume and her height, she looked like a piece of cherry taffy that had been stretched way too far by the candy machine. She was almost eight feet tall.
“Did someone say my name?”
With crossed arms and springy chestnut hair undone in flyaway wisps, Montagna wore an air of nonchalance that was somewhat intimidating, though she seemed only barely older. She looked me up and down expectantly.
“Um. Hi.” Gulp. “Caesar said I should—er—talk to you about maybe joining the circus.”
“I see.” She tilted her head, watching me skeptically. “Walk with me,” she said, or commanded, possibly would be a better word.
Despite her daunting demeanor, Montagna proved to be quite talkative, and even amusing. After a few minutes of light conversation, we were laughing, and I realized I was actually enjoying myself. But one question nagged at me at the back of my mind, burning to be asked.
“Montagna…does it ever bother you?”
“Your clarity and precision in speech is just too much.”
“Being called a freak, I mean. Does it bother you?”
“Oh. That.” She let out a little sigh and shrugged. “It used to. Not anymore though.”
“I guess…well, I dunno.”
“Your clarity and precision in speech is just too much.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “I guess…I realized that since everyone’s nuts inside anyway, we’re actually lucky because we at least don’t have to hide it. In a way, it’s kind of like a gift. A weird, twisted, paradoxical gift.”
“Huh.” I’d never thought of it like that.
We paused at an almost-deserted balloon booth and Montagna gave the toothless old vendor some change. “Green one, please.”
The vendor clipped a balloon the color of a watermelon rind and gingerly handed it to her.
“Thanks, Vinny.” She passed it off to me.
“Here, you can have this,” she said. “It’s a metaphor.”
“Okay. For what?”
“It’s not hard to figure out…Especially with that big head of yours.”
“Ha ha, very funny.” But I smiled.
“I’m only joking.”
“I know.” For some reason, her teases didn’t sting. Around her, I didn’t feel the familiar shame for being different.
It was getting late, and we had reached the entrance.
“I guess you’d better get going.”
“Yeah. You should too. Thanks for everything.”
We shook hands, and her fingers felt like anchors pulling a drifting little boat into its dock—safe and secure at last. I didn’t want to let go.
“I hope we’ll see you around. Cheers—” She waved and returned to her world. Taking a last, luxurious look at everything she belonged to, I felt a surprisingly strong sense of regret and a longing to rush after, to have her take me back to Caesar, who would embrace me with both arms and welcome me graciously with that big, booming voice of his.
But instead, I threw my hands in my pockets, and trudged reluctantly back to my car.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. The images and memories of the day, of Caesar and Montagna, floated wispily through my head like incense smoke.
Theirs was a tantalizing offer, I had to admit. But was it one I could accept?
The question kept me tossing and turning, denying any hope of settling into a comfortable sleep. Finally, I gave up the effort and decided to get out of bed. The days were getting warmer, and I needed to open the window for some fresh air in any case.
Taking care not to wake my parents, I tiptoed over to the window and carefully unhinged it. A slight breeze caressed my face as I slid it open, and I smiled, relaxing from the relief of cool air against my skin.
Something to my right started to bob with the invasion of the gentle wind, and I saw that it was the spring-green balloon Montagna had called a metaphor. I grabbed the string with one hand, halting its playful oscillations, and plucked at it thoughtfully.
No doubt having a head like mine had its limitations, but, as I discovered today, there could be opportunities too. I could reach heights my peers couldn’t even imagine; I could float into skies full of dreams and glittering stars. I could meet mountains, tour with fire breathers and maybe find a place where I could really belong. I could do anything I set my mind to.
With newfound resolve, I held the “metaphor” out from my window, and let go. It glided a little, this way and that, a wavering beacon of emerald, until it was carried by a gust stronger than all the others, and disappeared into the night.
As it floated away, I wondered, where do balloons go after they’re released?
For now, I can’t say for sure, but one way or another I’m going to find out.