I watched the road, the lines, the median, and the trees. I drove beside a bicyclist, and I could feel the steering wheel wanting to turn toward the bike lane, to experience the terrible colliding crunch of metal, to watch the quick breath-taking image of body flying where body shouldn’t be. I could see it happening in front of me.
I stopped myself, of course, as we all do, and forced myself to imagine him falling in reverse safely back on to his bike, and then chaining his bike up in the bike locker of his apartment building, riding up in the elevator to his apartment on the 12th floor, letting himself into his apartment, leaving his bicycle cleats by the door before going to the kitchen and turning on the sink to fill up the glass he always leaves on the counter, and I drove on.
Tonight, I was headed somewhere where someone was expecting me. Not that anyone would be alarmed if I didn’t get there tonight; it was the first day of class, and they might not yet know to miss me. I knew how it would work. I would walk in, and I would be new, and everyone would be new, and we would all smile at each other and be new together. And they wouldn’t know me yet…who I was and how I have all these urges to crash into bicyclists while I am driving. I would introduce myself, and they would know only what I would tell them. Maybe I’d have to say something about where I was from, or my favorite action movie. I tried to think of one.
On the bridge to the city, I wondered what it would feel like to drive through the concrete barriers, careen off the bridge, right here, and fall into space, into water. I felt the pull of the terrifying arc of the car crashing through the barricade, of no turning back, of the bump of hitting the river, water sloshing up around the window.
But I didn’t, of course, go off the bridge. I stayed in my lane, on my side of the line. It is what you have to do, what the other cars expect from you.
As one may always assume, the short drive to class was uneventful. I drove through the downtown streets, through streets of tall buildings with windows stretching up into the grey sky. On the fringe of the business district, I parked the car on a dusky cobbled side-street behind an old converted warehouse, walked around the corner into the building, and everything was just as I expected it. There were nine of us taking the class, who had, for our own reasons, decided to take an introductory swordsmanship class. There was an older retired gentleman, a gaggle of five young guys with ponytails of various length and heft, a couple of girls, slightly masculine in that theater-girl kind of way, and me.
And we took off our shoes and sat on the wooden floor in the warehouse, between the clean brick walls and under the exposed silver air ducts and copper plumbing. The lights inside reflected against the big windows, obliterating to us the outside and anyone who might pass and look in and decide to sign up for a class in falconry or heraldry.
One by one, the instructor said, we were to introduce ourselves, and tell each other why we decided to learn to fight with swords. I wasn’t prepared for that particular question. Why had I decided to learn to fight with swords?
“Because I was walking by one day in the rain, and I looked in the window, and everything was so clean and bright and shiny. And the swords were on racks against the wall, one on top of the other, all in a row, from biggest to smallest and back again. And the suit of armor shone from the back of the room, like someone waiting there who would lead a quest to rescue me if I called out in distress. And the people inside, having a lesson, were all paired up: each with each. And when I went in to ask about the brochure, the guy who told me about the lessons, this guy, our instructor, was wearing really crazy steel-tipped boots with heels and I didn’t know why. And the swords from the people practicing made that beautiful clanging metal-on-metal noise when they hit together. And I imagined myself going to cocktail parties at fancy houses, where I would take a sword down off the wall and do crazy things that would surprise everyone who thought they knew me better. And, most of all, I wanted to know if someone would hand me a sword. If I could use a sword…”
But I didn’t say that. Instead, I sat quietly while the older gentleman volunteered to introduce himself. He was a professor of Old English, and he was writing a book about the meaning and use of swords in Beowulf. He wanted firsthand experience. The girls and a couple of the guys were theater majors at the community college nearby. They wanted to know how to fight on stage.
As the rest of the people in the class each raised a hand, and told his or her story, one by one, I fought the urge to jump up, walk to the middle of the circle, and scream at the top of my lungs. Or to silently stand up and do a cartwheel across to the other side of the circle and sit down again quickly next to the Beowulf professor like nothing had happened. But, of course, I stayed quiet and still, as did everyone else, and as was expected. And then it was my turn.
“My favorite movie is Kubrick’s Spartacus. I don’t know much about swords, but I always liked looking at the suits of armor best at the Met. And I don’t particularly like action movies. It’s the violence. I can’t watch. I have to close my eyes most of the time.” And then I smiled at everyone, met their eyes.
The introductions continued. A couple of the other guys were weapons fanatics of some sort or another: martial arts, dungeons and dragons, other cult things I should have but hadn’t heard of before.
The instructor continued. “Today, we’ll go very quickly through everything. I know you want to use the swords…” Everyone giggled here, nervously. “And, at the end of class tonight, you each will be able to try a few out.” Someone clapped. “But that will be the last time we use real swords in this introductory class. We’ll be training with safer weapons, we’ll go more slowly, and we’ll learn each step to perfection before we move on to the real thing.”
First we stood in a line, swordless.
We learned steps, how to balance our weight from one foot to another. Then we were given leather gloves in the exact size we requested on the enrollment forms and then pseudo-weapons---thick dowel rods with a Styrofoam ball at the end, all wrapped in miles of duct tape. We learned thrusts, counter-thrusts, attacks, counter-attacks.
We were paired up. One attacked, one counter-attacked. Then we switched. My shoulder will have bruises tomorrow, I thought. I was more careful with my opponents.
We did everything as best as we could. We laughed, self-conscious as we did everything wrong and everything right. Then we stood together again to learn to use the pommel. I did not pair up quickly enough, searching for the person least likely to put more bruises on my arms, and the instructor became my opponent. I counter-attacked his dowel rod with my own, and sent my pommel toward his forehead.
“Perfect” he said to me. “Would you like to try this with one of the real swords?”
The rest of the class stopped and watched while he walked to the wall and selected one of the beautiful steel swords, the blade shining against the dull bricks behind it. I took the sword from his hand, and he showed me how to hold it, all of a sudden different from the light dowel rod and duct tape. Even through my glove, I could tell it was something real that pulled on my muscles in my arm, to my soul, I thought.
The instructor gave me a mask, which squeezed tight under my chin, and I became no one. I couldn’t see well through the mesh screen, I couldn’t hear well through the padding that wrapped past my ears around my head, I couldn’t lower my jaw to speak.
I saw so many things right then, inside the backs of my eyes. I watched the bicyclist careen off the hood, the car falling through sky toward the water, the sword cutting through flesh, the instructor falling to the ground. I felt my whole body craving that inevitable point where things had gone past where I wished I could rewind to make everything normal again, stopping myself again before rushing forward past the tiny waves of the Rubicon.
My sword was heavy, and the tip sunk to the floor, the rest of me following it downward in that bright, clean room where I walked out of the rain so someone would rescue me and, instead, was handed a sword. From that floor, I looked up, past those boots with the metal tips that shone brightly through my mask, past the concerned faces and voices asking if I was all right, if I could talk, if I hurt. Yes. No. Yes, all the time, I thought.
I pictured myself standing up, taking off the mask and hanging it carefully back on the rack in the back of the room, picking up the sword and placing it carefully back against the bricks on the wall, the clean blade shining in the lights overhead, putting my name on a locker in the back to keep my new gloves in until next week, smiling at my classmates, my friends, telling them how much I enjoyed meeting them, thanking the instructor politely, walking--no, bounding, bouncing--around the corner down the cobblestone street and driving so carefully home.