The voice comes from across the green cloth-draped folding table where I am seated at the Twenty-Third Annual Freehand Circle Drawing World Championship with my head down and my shoulders hunched forward in a pointed I'm-very-busy posture.
I wince. Now is not the time. I need to practice, get my head in the right space, concentrate on the task at hand. This is something I've been working towards. It matters.
Even without this latest distraction, conditions are sub-optimal. It’s too cold in the room. The AC chortles and hums and pours chilled air unceasingly through the overhead vents. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, despite it being late-July in Las Vegas and one-hundred-three degrees outside. Through the window, the surface of the oceanic parking lot surrounding the off-Strip Holiday Inn Resort and Casino shimmers with the waves of heat emanating from the tarmac and the idling engines of tour buses.
Through flimsy drywall partitions come the unmistakable dings and catchy jingles in the key of C from the rows upon rows of slot machines, each with its own retiree sitting before it, pumping one quarter after another into the slot, hoping for a big payout. I hear a muffled woohoo of one of those retirees hitting probably a ten-dollar prize of two cherries and a bunch of bananas.
And now someone wants to chat.
“If you do, you’ll miss it. The end. Or the start. They're pretty much the same thing, though, aren’t they?" The speaker guffaws, clearly pleased by the insight. "And then the circle won't connect." The voice is distinctly female. "It’s the cardinal sin,” she says, “hesitating.”
Her shadow is cast inconveniently across the regulation-sized sheet of blank paper on the table in front of me. I reluctantly put down my pencil and exhale loudly.
“Thanks for the advice," I say in a calm but firm tone.
Of course, every novice knows that hesitating is the biggest mistake there is. Drawing a perfect circle requires complete commitment, a buddha-like Zen. The drawer must have total follow through, one smooth motion, the shoulder and elbow and wrist and various muscles – biceps and triceps and forceps, and whatnot – moving in highly practiced coordination. He must never look to the beginning point. Doing so will invariably throw off the movement and distort the shape of the curve. The trick is to connect the circle instinctually, unthinkingly, stopping precisely, never over- or undershooting.
“Happy to help!” says the speaker again, clearly failing to pick up on the gist of my not very subtle exhalation. I push away from the table and slump in my molded plastic chair, making a show of it.
Finally, I lift my eyes. She is holding her hand forward in greeting, thumb to the ceiling, and smiling broadly.
“I’m Louisa,” she says. She raises her eyebrows in a way that is completely genuine, like she really does want to meet me.
Upon first glance, it is obvious that Louisa is beautiful. Her attire is refreshingly unselfconscious – a blue sweatshirt with an image of a labradoodle or some similar breed in mid-jump and jeans with sequins around the waistband and the outside leg seams. Her hair is in a ponytail and she has thick-framed black glasses with smudged lenses and braces, which she doesn’t try to hide as she smiles. She is like the nerdy female character in a high school romance movie who in the last scene shakes her hair loose and takes off her glasses and it’s supposed to be this big reveal where the audience and the male lead finally realize that she is actually a gorgeous movie star but really anyone with a pair of halfway working eyes is like, “duh, that was totally obvious from the beginning.”
Louisa and I shake. My hand, I’m suddenly hyperaware, is weirdly clammy.
One of the many sheets of my practice circles falls from the table and settles by my feet.
"Sorry. Did I interrupt?"
"Not at all." And then, for emphasis, I add, "don't be silly."
She does this thing where she pretends to wipe sweat from her forehead and puffs out her cheeks theatrically to show just how relieved she is.
“I just can’t believe this is real!” Louisa exclaims. She looks wide-eyed around the room in a slow turning motion, finally coming all the way back to where I sit, still leaning back in my molded plastic chair but trying now to look less annoyed and more casual cool. “I mean, come on!"
“And yet, here we are,” I say, hoping to achieve the right mix of confidence and self-deprecation. It doesn't quite land. There's too much snark. I'll need to recover. “When are you up?” I ask, nodding towards the glowing red diode clock hanging on the far wall. It is counting down the sixty seconds allotted to each competitor. I hold up my registration form for Louisa to see, the large number thirty-seven indicating my assigned slot.
“Cool!” She holds up her own form, which reads thirty-five. “You know,” she says after a slight pause, “you didn’t tell me your name. When we shook hands just now. You just kind of stared at me. That was a little bit-"
“Josh,” I stammer out. “My name, that is. I'm Josh.”
“Nice to meet you, Josh.” She’s still smiling. “Where you from?”
“Los Angeles,” I say, even though it’s not true, even though I’m actually from Riverside.
“That is so awesome!” she says. She’s doing this face like she’s really impressed, and I’m so used to everyone being ironic all the time that my first thought is that she’s putting me on or something. She’s not, though – putting me on. “I’m from Henderson,” and then, immediately and correctly assessing that I don’t know where Henderson is, she says, “Nevada. It’s just up the road from here.” She rolls her eyes in an exaggerated kind of way. “Come for the legal brothels, stay for the Walmart and the Arby’s.” Then she cocks her elbow and swings it in a sarcastic “yee-haw” motion and laughs and snorts a little bit, which makes us both laugh. She’s not at all embarrassed.
“You’re funny,” I say once we stop and catch our breaths, and she pantomimes “aw shucks” by waving her hand across her face like, “get outta here.”
“So, Josh, how did you get into competitive circle drawing?" Louisa asks.
I shrug. “I'm not sure, really. I guess I finally found something I’m good at,” I say, and then wonder if I'm being too honest.
She considers. “I like that."
"And what about you?"
“Oh, I just think it’s so much fun! Last year, I tried a Pi memorization competition, but there are people who can recite it out to five thousand decimal places. It’s incredible! I had no idea what I was getting myself into!"
The number thirty-four flashes on the red diode display, which, because of the way we are positioned, I can see but she can’t. “You're next," I say, nodding my head again in the direction of the clock.
“Oh, my goodness,” Louisa says. “That would have been really embarrassing. They probably would have called my name over the speaker system or something and I would have been that person."
She removes her glasses to wipe them on her labradoodle sweatshirt and in the same moment a few strands of her hair come loose and fall over one eye and along her cheek.
“There it is,” I say under my breath. She’s exactly as beautiful as I knew she was at the beginning. “The unsurprising reveal.”
“What's that mean?” Louisa asks.
“Nothing. Something stupid. I was just talking to myself."
"That's kind of weird, Josh."
She pushes the loose strands of hair behind her ear and puts her glasses back on. Somehow, they are foggier and more smeared than before.
I can feel myself start to blush.
"I'm totally kidding, Josh. It's not weird at all. I talk to myself constantly. I'm the person on the bus who people try not to make eye contact with because they can't figure out whether I'm talking on some tiny phone or whether I'm just crazy."
Across the room, contestant number thirty-four gets a round of applause. The clock resets and now it's Louisa's turn.
"So are you?" I ask.
"Well, sure! I mean, not crazy crazy, but a little bit. Aren't we all, though? I mean, we're at a circle drawing competition!"
It's a fair point and I nod in acknowledgement.
"Let’s see you do one,” Louisa says, gesturing toward the sheet of paper in front of me.
I pick up the pencil and position it at the bottom of the page. Then I take a deep breath and draw.
“Ooh, that’s a good one," she says.
It's not, though. It’s slightly oblong and the ends don't quite connect. There’s a gap about the width of a dime.
Without asking, Louisa takes the pencil from my hand. Her finger brushes against mine just enough so that I can’t help but wonder whether it was intentional. And then, effortlessly, she draws maybe the most perfect circle I've ever seen.
It occurs to me that I may be in love.
“Yikes,” Louisa exclaims, glancing over her shoulder at the clock. “I’ve really gotta run, or I actually am going to miss my turn.” She pivots and starts to walk away.
“I’m not from Los Angeles,” I blurt out. “I’m from Riverside. I don’t know why I said that.”
She looks back at me and shrugs in a what-are-you-going-to-do sort of way.
“Hey, Josh from Riverside, want to hang out later? Maybe get a coffee or something? Or we could draw some circles together?”
The room is filled with hushed chatter of a hundred contestants still waiting to take their turns and the hum of chilled air rushing through ducts and vents and the ceaseless muffled din of row upon row of pinging and jingling slot machines in the next room over.
Louisa is walking backwards away from me, quickly disappearing into the crowd, being subsumed by the hustle and bustle, the to-and-fro. She cups her hand to her ear to convey that it’s a last-chance, now-or-never kind of offer.
It needs to be instinctual, unthinking, a smooth motion, the arc undistorted, the ends coming together perfectly, neither under- nor overshooting. All I have to say is "yes." One word before she's gone. It should be easy.
But instead I commit the error every novice knows to avoid, the cardinal sin.