In my memory we were in a bubble in the daytime with that yellowish light that coagulates on top of the stale air like milk, going. We were by the river but could not see it, because there were no windows. It was a very tall bubble with a rope ladder of spindles that bridged the distance between the ground and the great height. The end of the ladder lay on the ground, rungs crumpled together. Someone had to hold it as you climbed.
We waited on misshapen chairs made of plastic. In my memory they are red. It was a loud, echoing kind of room, where the sounds distorted as they amplified, bumping into the pliable bubble walls that, though stretched to rigidity, were predisposed to yield strange reverberations. They lent a certain distance to voices so that the air was full of sound that seemed far away, that lingered and confounded itself. In my memory we sat in our stretchy tank tops and leggings and some of us put sweatshirts on over adolescent bellies that protruded, gently, taut and innocent, through the polyester.
We lined up below the ladder and they told us all to take two steps back. The first had to pull on harnesses like those for rock wall or ropes course at camp. She started to climb, and the attendant held the bottom of the ladder down using his weight. Soon she pulled herself up onto the platform. The platform was out of focus because it was far away and because of the net that stretched across the bubble below it to catch someone if they fell.
Soon it was my turn, so I took my sweatshirt off and slipped on a harness. Hands pulled the straps tight above my hips and at my thighs, and for the first time in that strange, stale air, I felt delimited. At the top of the platform, I turned left. The flat surface of the hemispheric bubble sprawled below. In my memory the red chairs looked like rock candy. There was a second platform across that bizarre, manufactured void. It was empty. A man on my platform was pulling the trapeze towards us with a rope that he coiled at his feet. When it was in position, he attached the rope from my harness to the one at his waist.
“Reach!” He took my shoulders and nudged me towards the edge. The bar was impossibly far away.
“Go right up to the edge. You can reach it.”
My toes at the edge of the platform, I put one hand out. “Two hands.” I stuck both on front of me.
“Lean!” I looked around at him. He grabbed my shoulders from behind. I leaned forward supported by his weight. Then it was in my hands and I felt him grab his end of the rope and I heard him tell me to jump. Which I did.
One must use the momentum from the first swing forward to bring one’s legs up to the trapeze bar, then hook them all the way around as one swings backward, and then, on the next forward swing, stretch one’s arms out in the circus-storied flying posture. It was a long trapeze and so the swings were lazy back-and-forths. I swung there until I hovered near the lowest point. Then I uncurled my legs and dropped into the net.
After we had all taken our turns, they read out the names of the best, that first swing having been a trial we hadn’t known about at the time. This was for a new trick: from that other platform, a second person would swing simultaneously. The child would meet her in the middle and grab her forearms and the child would let go of her own trapeze and be held up, swinging back and forth, by the other’s arms alone. My name was not called and every part of me felt that this was wrong, that my first swing had been fluid and elegant. I had learned the word “lithe” and had felt that I must have looked it. I went to the man calling the names and said to him, “I would like to go in this round.”
“Was your name called?”
“Well, then, are you sure? It’s for your own safety.”
“I promise I can do it.”
So I stood on line again, and took off my sweatshirt and put on another harness and climbed up the rope ladder and stood on the platform above the faraway noise. I could see the person on the platform across, preparing herself to jump, as well. I reached for the trapeze as it came towards the platform and could not get it myself. He grabbed my shoulders from behind. I reached for it again, balanced by his weight, and then jumped at his cue, and swung again. Legs up forward, hooked on the swing back, and on the forward swing, arms reaching for the person who was flying at me. I met her in the middle of the air. Our arms locked at each other’s elbows and for a moment we were still, horizontal in the middle of this room. Then she was shouting at me.
I could feel my knees jerk, and it hurt my skin and the joints there, somehow, as well. My legs were locked in place and I did not unbend them.
“Let go!” I did. I unbent my legs and swung with her, the skin I had pulled at stinging even in the air, even with the adrenalin. Someone filmed it on my flip phone, so what was left over was a kind of mesmerizing, stamp-sized screen background in which I watched myself fall in grainy jitters over and over, and, of course, the pink skin behind my knees that was raw for a week and then went away.