There’s a level of trust required to shoot a dart across a stage and into another person’s open mouth that few people can achieve. I think of the birth of my son, the way the world fizzled to black as the doctor threaded the needle between my legs to break my water; of how I came to, hospital bed tilted back so my legs were high above my heart, the doctor’s hand firm on my arm, her face close to mine. “It’s not what you planned, but we have to deliver your baby now,” she said. “I don’t have time to explain why. I will later. Right now, I need you to trust me. Do you understand?” I couldn’t remember this woman’s name. We’d never met before I opened my legs for her to pierce my birth. I nodded. It wasn’t a lie; I trusted her, innately. What else could I do?
Each performance, the stakes must feel that high, in order to achieve success. No matter if the audience numbers five or five hundred; our ten minutes onstage is life or death, precarious as birth, as liminal a place.
Ten minutes was the exact length of my son’s birth, a tidy coincidence if you want to draw a line between the life I live now and the one I left behind in that operating room. Ten minutes from the time they wheeled me into the operating room to the moment they lifted him from my abdomen and above the curtain, so I could see for myself his screaming purple face. I had asked ahead of time not to hold him; I didn’t know if I would be able to let go. Twelve years later, I cannot quite remember his face—the shape of his nose, the tiny eyelashes, if his eyes were crumpled-shut or open wide—nor can I remember the timbre of his first cries. I see only the doctor’s curly brown hair frizzing at the edges of her surgical cap, haloed in the neon holy light of the overhead fluorescence. It had been close, she explained to me later. “When we opened the uterus, we noticed the nuchal cord, wrapped around his throat three times,” she said. “It’s lucky we operated when we did, there was barely any blood flow left.” An ominous beginning, I thought, then freed myself of the worry. His life was no longer mine to fret over. Let his new mother, his postnatal mother, make metaphor of his life.
My partner and I wear matching black catsuits pinned with rhinestones sparkling fuchsia, violet, emerald, and gold beneath the spotlights circled high above the stage. Before each performance, my partner tucks his penis, a trick taught to him by one of the drag queens who performs across town. We appear onstage as silhouettes, our faces obscured by black cat-eye masks. The only thing identifying about us is our hair; his a carrot-orange flame atop matchstick body, mine a long black curtain fringed by a thick bank of bangs. Both pass for our original coloring, though of course neither is. Vegas is rife with talented hairdressers—expert secret keepers, liars by trade.
We wanted to call our act “Electrum,” but that was already taken by an upcoming Cirque du Soleil show. Instead we settled on “The Apparent Path,” one of the definitions of “arc,” ripped right from the dictionary. A placeholder, I thought, but then, like so many temporary things, it stuck. The full definition—“the apparent path described above and below the horizon by a celestial body”—inspired our outfits, each of us meant to embody some kind of galactic sensibility. Mostly, we looked cool.
I learned dart blowing one night in the back of a bar, from an older man long retired from the act but eager to pass on his knowledge. Everything about him was deteriorating—eroding hairline, crooked nose betraying a lifetime of fistfights lost, drooping earlobes and nipple rings and soft pouches beneath his eyes. Even his tattoos, scaling his arms and legs and reaching across his chest and down into his loosely-belted pants, were indecipherable, made hieroglyphic by time.
“People think it’s a party gag, some kind of magic trick, but there’s no smoke and mirrors to it,” he said. “It’s an art.”
We practiced that night then many more, first with stale pretzel rods pooled in cups lining the bar, then with real darts. Only once I’d mastered the hand throw would we progress to blow darts, the actual prop used in the act.
People—mostly men—assume I came to Vegas for a fresh start, but the truth is I was born here, same hospital as my son. Nowhere else intrigued me enough to leave. Not everyone working on the Strip has a sob story, but sometimes I let strangers graft those kinds of backstories onto me. Easier than unspooling the real story; more interesting, too. Alcoholic family, abusive stepfather paired with a mother steeped in denial, trouble at home, trouble in school, crack, vodka, fentanyl. Everyone has their own idea of the worst thing that could happen to a person.
When the man who taught me his art died, I started looking for a partner. It wasn’t the type of thing you put an ad out for. I tried to discern potential in passersby, sniff them out the way the old man had done me. I needed someone serious, someone willing to believe in me, in something as outrageous as an act. Someone in need of money and bereft of the everyday scruples that caused most people to—wisely—gasp at the audacity.
I found him at the bus station, performing sleight of hand tricks to a small crowd with nothing better to do as they waited for their way out. He seemed almost to be performing the tricks for himself, those gathered merely background to his own amusement. He hadn’t left a hat upturned in front of him, though someone had tossed a dollar bill where one might be, others adding handfuls of coins. When he finished the few circled around him clapped and he nodded at them. As they drifted away I lingered, watching his long, bony fingers shuffling through the deck, flipping cards this way and that in order to align their orientation. At last, he fingered the bill from the coins and pocketed it, then made his way across the station to an idling bus. I stopped him, hand firm on his arm.
“I have a proposition,” I said. He abandoned the bus. I’m still not sure where he was headed that night, only that he never made it. Was someone waiting for him, somewhere, in bed with a light left on? A local suburb, a city halfway across the country, or farther, right up to the edge of the East Coast? I used to imagine it, sometimes, but better not to know too many particulars of his life. Caring too much for someone made it difficult to perform the act; I learned that with the old man, in the end. Now it’s been so long it feels like we’ve always been halves of each other, belonging to no one and nowhere else.
He learned quickly, a fact that pleased me less for its efficacy and more for what it proved about my instincts. We’re a good match; I handle the business end of things, booking the gigs, sweet talking our way into regular jobs, following up on invoices and making sure we’re fairly compensated for our work. He designs and sews the catsuits and selects the music for our act. There isn’t much choreography to it, but what little there is, he takes care of.
Mostly we open for bigger acts, acrobats and contortionists. Ours alone isn’t enough to carry a full show, but we work regularly at the casinos too small to afford billboards along the Beltway, making enough to get by. It helps that at every casino on and off the Strip we drink and eat for free. Everybody knows everybody, if you work here long enough. We all owe each other something.
A Friday night, 10 pm show. We were opening for a comedian, not our usual fare, but when I’d met him several weeks prior, I suspected he might go for something like us. He had a crush on my partner. We’d opened for him a few times and it seemed to work, our strange performance a perfect precursor to his oddball, off-color comedy. Not my taste, but someone’s, it seemed. Some nights we drank with him after, though he tired me and it wasn’t my nature to dole out pity laughs. I stayed for my partner, who wasn’t interested in the comedian but didn’t want to jeopardize the gig. We agreed on a two-drink maximum, hard out, after which we made excuses and left the bar together, parting outside the front door to return to our separate apartments. In all our time together, we’d never eaten dinner at one another’s home, or met each other’s friends, family, lovers. Sometimes I thought about breaking our forced distance—how was your weekend, what bus are you catching, do you like Thai, would you like to grab a late dinner after our show?—but even these innocuous questions felt dangerous. Any relationship starts so simply. It can only become more complicated from there.
It’s odd, I suppose, to trust someone who remains such a stranger, but maybe strangers are the only people we can trust that deeply. Not true strangers, not the ones we pass on the street and never speak to or otherwise encounter, but the living ghosts we collect, those who witness our every day and never know our names. The mailman, the 7-11 night-shift cashier, the one dry cleaner capable of steaming a rhinestone catsuit. The Deuce route weekday bus driver, the three-doors-down neighbor who smiles when you pass each other in the hall. The nail technician, the mother-aged woman who waxes every inch of your body, the chiropractor you see every other week to realign your back. The pharmacist who knows what pills you take and how often, the people you sleep with then forget, the doctor who delivered your baby, the adoption agent who sealed shut your case, the faceless family who took your child and made him their own.
10:13 pm, our act over, the comedian’s braying laugh at his own jokes background noise as I changed out of my catsuit. The door whined open and I turned, expecting my partner.
I don’t remember my son’s infant face but I recognized him the moment he appeared in the doorway of my dressing room. Floppy blond hair, square black-rimmed glasses, socks sagging down his scrawny legs. His high tops were coming untied and his shirt and shorts hung off his body. Thirteen years old. Of course he was my son. My body contracted at the sight of him.
“I snuck in through the back entrance,” he said. “No one really seemed to notice a kid on the casino floor.” Though in my street clothes, I still wore my mask, the last article I removed at the end of the night. I began untying it then stopped. I hadn’t prepared for this moment; I couldn’t think how to arrange my face. There was the gulf between the emotion I wished to convey and what I was actually feeling in the moment, but I couldn’t articulate it in the moment over my pulse thudding in my ears. He wasn’t nervous, though, never explaining how he’d found me or how he’d arrived. No need for introductions to the person once a part of you.
“Can you teach me?” he finally asked.
There was a small rehearsal room backstage that no one really used. I fetched pretzel rods from the closest bartender on the floor and caught my partner as he prepared to leave. A favor, was all I told him. Just a few minutes. I didn’t tell my partner who the boy really was, but if he thought the boy’s sudden presence was odd, he didn’t show it. It was easier to teach him with another person there to demonstrate.
He learned quickly, faster than my partner, even. He had on his side the fearlessness of children that age, the macabre fascination with anything that even whispers of danger. He came backstage every night for weeks, where we took advantage of empty dressing rooms to practice, and though I wondered, I never asked if his parents knew where he was, who he was meeting, what he was up to. He wasn’t my child, not really, not anymore; let his real mother worry.
Though I didn’t tell my partner the truth, I decided to be honest when faced with my son’s questions. It felt important to let him decide when he was ready to know more, some leftover maternal instinct, maybe. But the questions never came. Watching him practice with us, I wondered if I was wrong, if he wasn’t my son, if it was all just a strange coincidence. I wondered if my chilliness was genetic, ingrained deeply enough that his real parents’ love couldn’t undo my DNA.
He stopped coming one night, then another, then the next. There’d been no promise but still, it felt like betrayal. One I deserved, most likely, having left him first. Good acts require balance; for every risk a triumph, a resistance to certainty but also scaffolding to lead the audience to delight. My son evened our score. I should have felt satisfied.
I saw my son next on TV, the same floppy hair and glasses, but in a tiny satin blue suit. He’d have done better to copy our catsuits as well. His partner was a girl who looked about his age, in a matching crinoline-puffed dress. Watching their act was like watching a homemade movie of myself, slow blinking into focus at the beginning, hazy in the way home videos imitate memory. Their music was big and bossy, too dramatic, though it wasn’t clear if they’d chosen it or the program had doctored it in for viewers’ enhanced enjoyment. There were four judges on panel and each gasped in turn when it became clear what this young duo meant to do.
The act itself was flawless. I wondered, then, about the girl; she played the part of my partner, while my son acted as me, sending the dart shooting across the stage to be caught between the girl’s teeth. Did they know each other from school, or their neighborhood? Did they love each other? Had my son noted not only the act’s techniques but my aloofness? When she caught the dart, her smile revealed shining rows of braces, sparkling like rhinestones. When the camera zoomed in on the dart clutched between her teeth, I could see her lips were chapped.
They were unanimously voted through to the next round, taking them from LA to, ironically, Vegas. I thought then about showing up, though whether the show would be live or had been pre-taped and long-ago decided, I didn’t know. When I saw my partner the next night, he was furious. “He’s only thirteen,” I said, as a defense, but remembered my partner didn’t know this was my son. “What an asshole,” I said.
My son’s birth was so sudden, so urgent, that there’d been no time for drugs. The anesthesiologist pushed morphine into my veins but warned me I wouldn’t feel its full effects until after the birth. I felt everything as my son was cut from me, though now I remember nothing, save for the strange sensation of a nurse roughly shaving me with a cheap plastic razor. As promised, the morphine kicked in as they sewed me up, my son already whisked off to be placed in his other mother’s arms in another room in the hospital. This is important, I remember thinking then, there’s something happening here, but that was all I was capable of reaching before the numbness overtook my body and I could only sit outside myself and watch as they taped gauze over my incision and wheeled me out of the OR and down the hall to a room at the end of the maternity ward, where I couldn’t hear the newborn babies crying, only the underwater sounds of sonograms being performed on expectant mothers in nearby rooms. I knew there was a nursery somewhere on the floor but I couldn’t get my legs to work. At night the nurse went to close the blinds, but I asked her to leave them open, the glittering lights of the Strip a barely visible line above my view of the parking garage, like a necklace laid flat inside a velvet box. Even now, thirteen years later, I feel the rough callus on the nurse’s palm, the way it rasped against my hand, and I hear her gentle shushing, white noise like a lapping shoreline or a steady tapping rain, as she sat with me. I didn’t want to think about my son being held by someone else in another part of the hospital, so instead I thought of all the things that might happen in ten minutes: a blood orange sunset, a mile run around the high school track, a quick trembling earthquake, a whale surfacing for breath, the live concert version of a favorite song. So much of life took place in such small increments. I recited the list to myself, a kind of counting sheep, but still, I could not sleep.