WHEN TRAPEZE DAY arrives, I am tempted to skip out on my flying lesson. But spurred on by the contract for this article and my need for the money it will bring, I head toward school. Usually, trapeze students learn alfresco when the weather cooperates, but I am happy to see that the school's tent is up when I arrive. I've made a fool of myself in lots of different ways and always shirked it off with an attitude of, "Well, I won't see most of those people ever again." But I quickly realize that if I fly under the clouds instead of under the tent, I'll be on display for thousands of gawkers in their cars, along with walkers, joggers, cyclists, and, since it's New York, probably a unicyclist or two and maybe even a guy with a parrot on his shoulder or a woman with a boa constrictor wrapped around her waist. And, honestly, I really don't want a boa watching me on the trapeze.
Two women step through the tent door just ahead of me. My classmates. I cross my fingers that they are also first-time flyers. They are. Hey, things are looking up.
After making sure we've signed the requisite death-and-dismemberment waivers we were all given, school founder Jonathon Conant gives us a rundown of the rules and then walks us over to the low bar. That's where thoughts of Mr. Malcolm's fourth-grade gym class rush in. While the flying trapeze is mostly a momentum thing rather than a muscle thing, the low bar looks a bit too much like the pull-up bar that brought on so many tears when I was a kid. Within seconds, I convince myself that I can't do it, that I won't be able to get myself up to the bar, let alone hang upside down from it. Naturally, my classmates end up hanging by their knees in true trapeze style - the knee hang is the basis for the 150 or so trapeze tricks. As for me, I knuckle my way through a few seconds of hanging straight down.
And then it's time for the climb.
Rung by rung I go, 23 feet into the air. After reaching the trapeze platform and stepping over the top rung, I hold on tightly to a metal bracket, dipping one hand at a time into the bucket of chalk that I hope will dry up the worry that is beading on my palms. The instructor unclips the two safety lines from my belt that would have kept me from falling to the ground if the ladder climb hadn't gone well and clips on the lines that an instructor down below will pull to help me through my flight.
What happens next goes against anything the brain should allow the body to do.
With the instructor tugging on my belt from behind, I grasp a pole on my left side, step forward until my toes are hanging off the platform, lean my hips forward into space, and grab for the bar hanging out in front of me. I have to believe that the grab is a bit easier for people taller than my whopping five-foot-three self. And then, with a person I have just met still holding on to my belt, I let my left hand go and grab the bar.
"One. Two. Hep!" Conant yells from below.