My First Love Was a Lion Tamer
In my memory, he is smiling. His hair is blond, nearly as white as his teeth, and his skin is the color of peanut butter. His entire body is wrapped in iridescent blue spandex; it shimmers, but not so brightly as the silver rope trim and the rhinestones arranged in swirling galaxies across his broad chest. He is reclining on the ground, legs extended before him, one knee bent jauntily upwards, foot planted on the ground. His arms extend out to either side, loped casually around the necks of two giant white tigers. The three figures are still, caught forever in that pose, pinned like beetles against the gaudy green vine-print of the wallpaper of my bedroom above the little brown bookcase next to where I lay on my old quilt, staring up at him, wondering how any one human being could be so beautiful.
His name was Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was the head animal trainer for Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was highly-regarded in his field and somewhat famous in the world at large. He was 56 years old.
I was six. I pulled the poster from the souvenir program my parents bought me when we went to the circus. The program was big and had a bright red cover embossed with a less-impressive cartoon rendering of my love object. The inside was filled with pages and pages of photos of clowns like the ones we saw from so high up at the arena downtown, their clothes patchworked and gaudy, their faces spackled with paint. They grinned wildly, their eyes wide, as they stumbled out of a tiny car still stuffed with so many other brightly-colored bodies. It had been hard to tell, from our seats, how many people had been in there. It was a lot. I was impressed to see up-close proof. There were profiles of all the clowns but I was not great at reading yet so my mom read them to me, over and over again.
If there was a story about Gunther Gebel-Williams I do not remember reading it or having her read it to me. If there was a specific time that I asked her or my dad to please remove the poster and put it up on the wall next to my bed, I do not remember it either. It was just as if it was always there.
Now, as an adult, many crushes on many less-shiny men and boys later, I am trying to remember what exactly it was I loved about Gunther Gebel-Williams. Was I mesmerized by his bravery? Was it the gentle humanity with which he treated his animals, which he insisted he trained, not tamed? Perhaps it was more that this circus program had been purchased and given to me, and this was the one poster that was in it, and what you did with posters was you put it on the wall, so it was put on my wall and then I fell in love with him over time, like we were two cast-aways in the far corner of my bedroom, adrift in a sea of stuffed animals and picture books on my big-girl bed.
It would be years before any more thin paper rendering of boys would be tacked up on my walls and stared up at longingly from the adolescent fortress of my bed, and even then it was never quite the same as the first time. I never wondered if Gunther Gebel-Williams and I would ever meet and fall in love, or if falling in love would be complicated by the fact that I had a larger-than-life rendering of him on my bedroom wall, or if loving a boy that all the kids at school said looked like a girl made me some kind of lesbian, like I wondered about me and Taylor Hanson. I had no questions for Gunther Gebel-Williams. My love of him and for him was uncomplicated. It was just me and him and his blue jumpsuit and his white tigers and his never-closing smile.
Eventually, the poster came down, unpinned before my mom peeled off the old green wallpaper and repainted my room like a fairy-tale garden?sunflowers in one corner, a rainbow stretching over my desk, pink and purple butterflies soaring across the expanse of wall where he once hung. I thought about him occasionally throughout my childhood but mostly my memory of and my love for him faded away. One summer in high school, my family went on vacation to Sarasota, Fla., where the Ringing Bros. circus was based; we went to the circus museum and someone took a photo of me standing in front of the Gunther Gebel-Williams exhibit. I was grinning a little goofily, a little abashedly, the way you grin when you’re sixteen and you’re posing in front of a gaudy, sun-faded diorama summarizing the professional life of the first man you ever loved.
That was in June. The next month, he died. It wasn’t a fatal mauling or bite taken out of his torso or the wayward foot of a normally-docile elephant that did him in; it was cancer. But I don’t remember hearing about how he died, or even that he died at all. I might have even bet that he was still alive, at least until I looked him up online for the first time ever last week. I did it for the same reason that most people Google their old flames: I saw something that reminded me of him and I got a little nostalgic and I decided to just see what he was up to.
What sent me on the search was an episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon is recounting all the posters her mom ripped out of her childhood bedroom when she was found in a compromising position with another one of Tom Jones. As she recites the names, their photos slide across the screen in a hazy parade of nostalgia: “Grizzly Adams, Larry Wilcox, Han Solo, Tug McGraw, Mike Schmidt, Kermit, Gunther Gebel-Williams.” I was watching the episode online and feverishly paused the video and skipped back to the beginning of the list once, then twice, then three times just to make sure it was real. I’d hardly thought of him in years, and whenever I did it was only to make passing jokes about how weird I was as a kid (“My first love was a lion tamer!” I’d say, even though he didn’t work with lions) but no one ever really got it because no one really ever knew who Gunther Gebel-Williams was.
I was not completely shocked that Liz Lemon would share this obscure childhood memory, because so many people in my life are already convinced we’re essentially the same person, but it opened up the distinct possibility that there might actually be other people?not just Tina Fey characters and their alleged doppelgangers?who shared it, too. At first I felt a flinch of protectiveness about this realization, as if I wasn’t willing to abdicate the specialness that being Alone In This might confer upon me. Then I realized that was really stupid and more like something I would have thought about the situation when I was the age that I was when I had the poster up in the first place. Plus, I figured the promise of meeting anyone who shared this niche crush would at least be a little amusing, if not an opportunity for self-discovery through bonding over mutual proto-sexual touchstones. Also part of me is now concerned that I am being time-machine stalked by 30 Rock writers. I ask around in real life and online, but I come up mostly empty. Kimya Dawson replies to my Twitter query to report that she had one above her bed, one of Gunther Gebel-Williams and his son. I hear back from no one else, and so now I must assume that the writers are stalking Kimya and I both.
In all my Googling of Gunther Gebel-Williams, I learned things about him that I never knew, which I guess is also a risk you run when you look up any old crush. I learned that he was fifty years older than me when I was in love with him. I learned that his favorite leopard was one named Kenny that he used to drape over his shoulders and just let chill out there, like a particularly heavy, breathing, meat-eating mink stole; I learned that after Kenny died, he tried the same thing with a new panther who promptly chomped down on his skull. (He returned the big cat safely to his cage before heading out to the hospital, the story goes.) I learned that the year I saw him when I was six and got the big red program with the poster in it was his farewell tour with Ringling Bros., and that despite this the good-condition copies of the program go for less on eBay than they probably cost in the first place, so I’ll be keeping mine for quite some time.
And I learned, too, that I remembered my old poster all wrong. There was one tiger?not two?and it was regular tawny-orange under its black stripes, not white. Gunther Gebel-Williams isn’t reclining on the ground; he’s kneeling next to the cat, raising one of its huge front paws in the air as if making it wave for the camera, like a shy toddler. The trim on his suit is golden-yellow, not silver. The suit isn’t as tight as I recall, either?it’s a two-piece thing and the shirt, with its pouffy sleeves, doesn’t quite hit his midriff. It’s just the color I remember, though, and his skin and teeth and hair are all the same. And of course, yes, he’s smiling—just as he always was, and always will be.
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