by Jennifer Anthony
Saturday morning in the Haight. I sit just outside San Francisco’s Circus Center , soaking up the warm February sun. As a steady stream of people parade by me, I am tempted to hum Sesame Street’s, “One of these kids doesn’t belong here, one of these kids isn’t the same…”
The regulars are wearing sweats, leggings, and leotards, and they look calm and lithe enough to star in herbal tea commercials. In my jeans and nondescript tee shirt, I am jittery from three cups of coffee and my forehead is Sharpei-wrinkled with worry.
My friend has somehow talked me into taking a trapeze lesson.
When the subject was first broached, my friend sternly rebuffed my fears and objections, noting how I had gone skydiving and zip lining. He had a point—if I could handle those death-defying activities, I couldn’t very well decline this offer. I had certainly mustered up the nerve to do other sports, and I’d swung from a monkey bar or two in my day.
As two weeks passed, however, doubts crept in on little simian feet. I had never been a master of the monkey bar and it had been years—and several campuses without playgrounds—since I had so much as touched one. Mind over matter, I convinced myself.
My friends jaunt over to meet me, all smiles and giggles. I think I might be the only one who is slightly terrified until I lay eyes on my brother, whose laughter is sieved through slightly clenched teeth. Ah, genetics. I know I have an ally in fear.
The trembling intensifies when we stride past an alarmingly unflattering funhouse mirror and into the gymnasium, the former property of a high school before the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (SFSCA) moved in, in 1993.
The gym sprawls before us. The wall before us hosts long windows through which sunshine pours in and over a flurry of activity. In one corner, a woman snakes and curves through a hanging hoop, à la Cirque du Soleil. In another corner, women slither up and slide down ropes suspended from the ceiling.
Across the room, a woman bounces atop a trampoline. Behind us, a man lies on his back, lifting and balancing another man with his two bare hands. The immense room is divided in two by a long net, hanging under the trapeze area.
We take off our shoes and jewelry and stuff them into the cubbies along with the regulars. Our instructors pull our attention away from the rest of the room to begin the lesson. One by one, they invite us onto the mat below a practice bar. Strong, muscular instructor at our side, we hop up to the bar, swing for a moment, then bring our legs up and over our heads so that we are dangling from our knees. At this point, we release our hands from the bar so that we are hanging upside down, back arched, arms reaching behind us. I am nervous, but with an instructor to spot and encourage me, I pull it off. Trembling but proud, I hop off the mat.
After all of us have had a turn practicing, the instructors fit us with harnesses that seem to cinch out our last breath. When one student kvetches, a female instructor remonstrates, “If you can talk, you can breathe.” Another instructor points to a Jack and the Beanstalk ladder that seems to lead up into the sky. A third man stands on the small platform atop it, seemingly miles away.
And there, up there, so very-very high, we are supposed to repeat what we have done on the safety of the ground and before the reassuring hands of the instructors.
The first person in our group is summoned up. Giggling nervously, I ask if we can just try swinging once we are up there. A few people chortle. But the instructor isn’t laughing. His voice warm, he tells me just to keep an open mind.
I am the fifth person in line and watch the students before me with burgeoning apprehension. Two of my predecessors manage to lift their legs and swing from their knees. I wobble up the ladder, clutch the pole so hard my knuckles turn white, and await my turn.
The instructor attaches me to the cables as I stare out at the safety net below. He pulls the bar toward us with a long pole. I reach for the bar with my right hand, then wait for him to grasp my harness. I arch my back, lift my head, and extend my left hand out to grip the bar with both hands.
My toes are dangling over the edge of the platform and my entire torso is suspended over the net like a ship’s masthead.
The instructor tells me to bend my knees. This is Jennifer, he announces. And then he says, HEP!, my cue to change position and hop off the platform.
I hop and fly over the net, swinging above everyone, utterly baffled. This is no grade school monkey bar. I do not have to lift my knees to avoid grazing that blasted, splintery tanbark. I am far above everyone, realizing my recurrent dream of flying.
The instructor on the ground begins to shout instructions: Knees up! I try to obey this second set of commands. I really do.
But the flying is incredible, and I am proud that I have managed to face my fears and jump. I swing three times, back and forth, waiting for the second HEP! which is the cue to drop, in a seated position, onto the mattress on the net.
My dismount is rather graceful, and I’m impressed with myself. But when it is time to detach myself from the cables, my lack of mechanical prowess reveals its ugly self. For the life of me, I cannot undo the cables and I have to request some assistance.
It is embarrassing and yet I manage to laugh at my own ridiculousness. Unlike the brawny and brainy instructors (one has a genetics degree from U.C. Berkeley; another has a Master’s degree in sociology), joining the circus was never in the cards for me.
Each student has three goes at the trapeze. Those students who are able to get their legs up and swing from their knees are invited to attempt the third and final stage, which is to be caught by one of the instructors, who hangs nonchalantly and cable-free from a second trapeze. Three of the women in our group pull it off with ease and grace, and the rest of us gasp and clap in awe.
No sooner is the class over than my friend says, “Next week?”
I’m not so sure about that. Unlike him, I’ve found that the trapeze is not my forte. But even still, I am pleased with myself. It has been twenty-six years or more since I have been on a monkey bar.
And this monkey did just fine.
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