Clown School by Rachel Swearingen

Fiction | Berlin Writing Prize Winner 2022

The first time he touched me, I thought it was an accident. I was on the L, on my way to a final session of clown school, sitting on one of the few single seats near the back of the car. The train was crowded, the mid-August air stagnant and heady, the view of the city so familiar I didn’t see it anymore. In my bag was my clown gear: two red noses, grease paint, a curly rainbow wig, a pair of size 16 wingtips, gloves and a horn. That morning, my daughter had convinced me to squeeze into her lucky red jumpsuit. Clown school had been her idea. I’d been forcing myself to attend for eight long, humiliating weeks. Rooftops whirred past, and I had to go to the bathroom and worried about wriggling out of the jumpsuit in the tiny restroom at school. It was tight around my middle after too much eating to quiet the ache of my recent divorce. When the hand reached into the gap between my seat and the wall, I inched away, thinking the person behind me had stretched and inadvertently grazed me.

But it must have been the red that lured him like a flame. When he reached a second time, his hand slithering along my hip and under my ass, I jolted and turned. In the seat behind me, a man cradled his backpack in his lap. He wore sunglasses, had to be at least a decade younger, and otherwise unremarkable in his blue button-down. He was so expressionless, I turned back around, the blood rushing to my face so that even the tips of my ears burned. I considered moving to another part of the train, but was immobilized. A few minutes later, his long bony hand reappeared. This time I shot up and whipped around as the train lurched to a stop. The man glanced up and then away as if I were one of those unstable passengers it was best to ignore. Around us, others looked up too and then away.

It had been years since I’d been harassed, let alone groped, but memories of all the times I’d been accosted flashed before me. The first when I was eight and walking home from the park at dusk. A teenager pushed me onto a lawn. “You know what I want,” he growled, the crickets chirping, the lit houses impermeable. “I’ll scream bloody murder,” I said, and he said, “Go right ahead. No one will hear.” When I did, my shriek was so ear-piercing, the boy took off.

But on the train that evening, as I said, it had been a long time since anything like that had happened. In that moment I lost the invisibility older women warned me about, and with that loss came a fracturing, an interruption in the force field, a splintering of time. The man hadn’t hurt me, merely copped a feel as we used to say, but my daughter would have shouted if it had happened to her. She would have alerted the conductor or incited the other passengers to throw him off the train. She would have been incredulous if I told her I had done nothing at all.

The car was less crowded now. I stood in the aisle, holding onto the edge of my seat as a smirk rose to the man’s lips. At Armitage, he pushed past me to get off the train. I blamed my ex-husband for what I did next. When we divorced, he confessed he’d been wanting to leave for years, that a future with me felt like oncoming death. The only person who had touched me that year was my doctor, who had found a lump in my right breast. I followed the man as he hurried down the stairs and through the turnstile. Under the tracks and down the sidewalk, past shops and into a neighborhood of tightly spaced two- and three-flats, I clipped after him, and he picked up his pace. How casual he tried to appear, his backpack slung over one shoulder. He glanced back once, quickly, and clutched his keys in a lowered hand—a trick I knew well. I could sense him checking peripherally for others who might come to his aid. He was frightened. Of me.

I would miss my performance, a final exam that, if passed, led to the next course in the program, Embracing Your Inner Loser, and maybe that was the reason I was following this man, to give myself an out. I thought clown school would be easy because we wouldn’t have to speak, but it was terrifying, the instructor encouraging one moment, mimicking and provoking the next. We were to let our bodies communicate our most authentic, vulnerable selves, whatever that meant. At the end of the second class, the teacher had leaned into my belly and shouted, “Hey, Nice Lady. Get the hell out of town!” And in every class thereafter, he zeroed in on me, jeering, barking, making me do bizarre movements that filled with me with dread.

The groper rushed toward a two-flat behind a wrought-iron fence decked out with pink balloons. He fumbled with his keys, trying to unlock the gate.

“What do you want?” he said as I approached. “Get away from me.”

“You grabbed me,” I said, and my voice shook.

“You’re crazy.” He tried another key, and the lock finally released. “See ya,” he said as he slipped inside.

Then two little girls in party dresses and a boy in a Spiderman costume came running through the gangway, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!”

I pushed through the gate before he could relock it.

“Nice to see you again,” he said to me in an exaggerated, cheerful way as he blocked my path. “You need anything else, you let me know.”

“Is she coming to my party?” the older girl said.

“Are you inviting me?” I asked.

She nodded. “Everybody can come.”

“Well, thank you,” I said. “I’d love to meet your mother.”

Mom!” she shouted.

“Go. Now,” the man said under his breath. How anxious he looked as I followed his kids around the side of the building into a back yard, its fence strung with streamers and more balloons, a unicorn pinata hanging from a tree.

His wife emanated friendliness as she approached from the deck. She wore a bright sundress, her dark hair in a messy bun on top of her head. “Well, hello,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Stephanie, Kevin’s wife.”

I hesitated too long, and the man I now knew as Kevin said, “She’s still a little shook up. Some asshole grabbed her on the train. I told her to walk out with me.”

I blinked, stunned, but also a little impressed.

“Oh, you poor dear,” his wife said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “I’m so glad Kevin was there for you. Do you need a drink? I’ve got wine, margaritas. I make a mean virgin too.”

“She has to get back,” Kevin said too quickly. I could see he wanted to yank me out of the yard and through the gate.

“Actually, I’d love a margarita,” I said, regaining my composure. “It was really awful. The man must do it all the time. Probably low self-esteem and tiny…” Their youngest daughter clung to her mother’s leg, listening. “…doo-dad syndrome.

Stephanie’s horsey laughter made me almost regret coming. She had no idea who her husband was. Why ruin her happiness, even if it was false? Wouldn’t I have given anything in that moment to return to the ignorance of my former life?

“What did the man do?” the little girl asked.

“Go play,” Kevin said. He opened his backpack and handed Stephanie some napkins and plastic cups.

“Did you remember the ice cream?” she asked.

“I knew I forgot something,” he said.

“I wrote it all down for you,” she said with a flicker of annoyance.

He glanced at me, then said, “I’m not going back.”

“Just run up to the corner store. Get a couple pints of vanilla.”

He didn’t want to leave me alone with her. “We’ve got cake,” he said. “The kids are going to be up all night as it is.”

“It’s just not a birthday without cake and ice cream, is it?” I said to Stephanie.

“Exactly. Thank you,” she said. “Kevin, please.”

“Why don’t you go?” he said, and she stared at him until he said, “OK. OK.”

To me, he said, “Come on. I’ll walk you out.”

I still had to go to the bathroom, but first I needed to tell Stephanie about Kevin. Like a three-year-old, I squeezed my legs together and held my ground.

“Kevin. No, I’m getting her a drink.” Stephanie patted my arm. “Stay, please. We’ve got plenty of food. And you’ll love the neighbors.”

Kevin and I watched her walk back to the deck where several other adults sat around a long umbrella table. “They’ll never believe you,” Kevin said. “You better be gone by the time I get back.” 

I watched him cut through the gangway and hurry to the store. Just an average, regular guy. When had it started, the grabbing and groping? Or was I the first? Stephanie crossed the yard, armed with two drinks. She handed me a margarita, saying, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you. Some old guy has been exposing himself to girls in the neighborhood all summer. They finally caught him, but he’s probably out already.”

“Probably,” I said. “So how did you two meet?”

“Kevin and me?” She was distracted by the children at the back of the yard slapping the pinata back and forth.

“Leave it alone!” she said. “Stop touching it. I told you, after the cake.”

More guests had arrived. Several young women circled together laughing, trading stories. My stomach swelled against the tight fabric of my jumpsuit. Any minute, Kevin would return with the ice cream. I needed to tell Stephanie now, but my bladder was ready to burst.

“Would you mind if I used your bathroom?” I asked.

“Of course not. There’s one down the hall from the kitchen as you go inside.”

I hurried up the porch and through the sliding glass doors into the kitchen, where an older woman busied herself putting food onto trays. She looked a little like Stephanie. She smiled at me, one harmless middle-aged mother to another, and I made my way past her to the bathroom, where I double-checked the lock and fought to wrestle myself from my romper. My right arm was now pinned to my side as I squirmed and yanked, and finally ripped free. How pathetic I felt, sitting naked on the toilet, in the bathroom of the man who had just groped me, my clothes around my ankles. I stood and pulled up the jumpsuit, sucked in my gut and tried to zip it closed, but the zipper had ripped, so I would have to keep my arm pinned to my side to hide the exposed skin. Before the sink, I washed my hands. I took a sip of the margarita. It was perfect and tart, and flecked with lime zest. I opened my bag and put on some lipstick. What was I doing here? I’d never go out and tell Stephanie and all those people. Kevin was probably right, they’d never believe me. For all I knew he was already back. I had the lipstick in my hand. I could write it on the mirror and then leave through the front of the house, leave my message to fate. Then I had a better idea.

I grabbed my drink and my bag, and I slipped through the living room and up the stairs, looking for Kevin and Stephanie’s bedroom. On the hallway walls were family pictures, and in every one Kevin wore the same slicked-on grin. Stenciled above the photos was the phrase, The Best Part of Memories Is Making Them.

Their room was at the end of the hall, and when I opened the door a sour scent hit my nose and took me back to the early parenting days of my own marriage when the bedroom was the most neglected room in the house. They had his and hers dressers, one long one with a large mirror, another taller one off to the side, both covered with toiletries. A TV hung above an exercise bike draped with laundry. On the floor were balled up socks, and I imagined Kevin a year from now, watching TV in bed alone, his wife with someone new. I set my drink down on the long dresser next to their framed wedding picture and pulled my lipstick from my bag. I was going to write “Your Husband is the Groper” on the mirror, but when I leaned in I glimpsed my mother’s weary face transposed over mine, and I could hear her saying, Leave it be. What’s the point?

And then I saw Kevin in the doorway, his mouth agape, his lips twisted with what? Disgust? Astonishment? Shame? He didn’t speak, and it hit me why he had groped me that evening, not once, but three times. He hadn’t chosen me. I was just there, I was just sitting in the right seat. In the mirror my father’s face wavered too, and I remembered him goosing my mother as she bent over to wring out the mop, as she carried a basket of laundry up the stairs. “Gary!” she’d say. “You stop that.” How we chuckled, my siblings and I, how we pinched and goosed each other too. And there was joy in the act, pleasure in the chase. And I remembered that boy again, the one who held me down near the park until I screamed. I understood then why we children reveled in the high-pitched screech—practice for the future leches we would meet.

Maybe it was only later on the train back home that I wondered how many times my mother had been clutched or chased or hounded in her life, but something shook loose in me. I leaned into the mirror with my lipstick and rimmed my lips into a lurid red frown. I dumped out my clown gear and powdered my face white, made my eyebrows thick and black. I attached my plastic nose and my rainbow wig.

Through all of this, Kevin did not speak or move, not even as I sat on their marital bed and put on my gargantuan shoes, the toes stuffed with newspaper. He was lost, floating, a balloon hovering over his life. We had that much in common.

Then Stephanie appeared, her face registering shock and then confusion. “She’s a clown? Why is she in our bedroom?”

Kevin stammered as I stood like a penguin. I reached for my white gloves and slid them on, a reverse strip-tease. I hung my horn around my neck and handed my backup nose to Kevin. “Put it on,” I said.

Though stupefied, he obeyed.

“Oh god,” Stephanie said. “I can’t wait to see this. I’m going down to light the cake.”

She rushed away and I picked up one foot and then the next and Kevin turned and fled down the stairs.

My shoes thumped as I descended after him into the living room, through the kitchen and the patio doors. Outside the guests stopped talking. The children stopped whacking the piñata at the back of the yard. Kevin backed to the edge of the deck in his bulbous red nose.

“Look,” a mother said to the toddler on her lap. “It’s a clown. Two clowns.”

Kevin laughed uncomfortably and reached to pull off his nose.

I shook my head and wagged a gloved finger. No, no, no.

He let the nose snap back and winced, and the guests howled.

What was happening in Kevin, I cannot say, but I was not me, or I was more me than I had ever been before or since. My feet were heavy on the deck as I thumped forward. The breeze entered my torn zipper as I clapped my hands together, as I cocked a hip and batted my eyes.

A child started to cry.

I was hideous, I was beautiful. I inched toward Kevin, and Kevin reached toward his wife, who protected the cake and pushed him away. He stumbled and fell off the deck backwards, righting himself, stumbling again as if choreographed.

Into the yard I vaulted after him. I goosed him and honked my horn as he ran. We are ordinary, Kevin, I telegraphed as I zigzagged, waddled and chased. We will die, I transmitted. Kevin lifted his arms to leap over the unlit fire pit, and I flapped my arms in response and sailed over it too. We were running for our lives, my groper and me. All around us people laughed and shouted. Round and round we went in that fenced yard, the unicorn swinging from the tree, the birthday girl watching with her fist stuffed in her mouth, my horn honking, honking.

Rachel Swearingen is the author of “How to Walk on Water and Other Stories”. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Electric LiteratureThe Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction & elsewhere. Her writing has won the New American Fiction Prize, the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, & the Mississippi Review Prize. She lives in Chicago.