Sunday, June 29, 2008


(Original copies of Sinister Wisdom; Issue # 16 is first in fourth row)

In the fall of 1980, I wrote "Trapeze", the short story below. I sent it to Sinister Wisdom, then the most prominent lesbian journal in the country, and it was accepted for publication in Issue #16, Summer 1981.

Right after I got my complimentary copy, I received a phone call from a pair of Dallas dykes who were on the road, heading for San Francisco and hoping I could provide them with a place to stay. This happened often in those days; lesbians put one another up in spare rooms, and there was (still is) an organized network for this as Contact Dykes in the publication Lesbian Connection. I never advertised to be a Contact Dyke because my name was already handed around lesbian circles in Texas and Colorado as a good bet for a spare bed. My roommates, too, frequently had visitors from other parts of the country. One of my roomies worked at the Women's Building, a few blocks away, and if a woman from another country showed up there looking for a safe place to crash, she was usually brought to our flat. We had one summer where a string of German dykes kept our spare mattress occupied for three solid months.

So, when I got the call, I said "Sure" and gave them directions. I had met one of the women only briefly, Siri Lini, a punk musician. She was friends with my ex in Dallas, the woman I had written "Trapeze" about, in fact. Siri and most of the women in Texas knew me as Meg Barnett then. With her was her new girlfriend, Linda Finnell, whom I did not know but would eventually consider a friend. Linda is now dead from ovarian cancer. I still have some of her handmade journals from her box-making and bookbinding business Two Women Boxing.

When Siri and Linda arrived, I gave them the house rules, a map of San Fran and recommendations about what to do and see -- in those days, the women's community was thriving. As I was about to leave them to unpacking their luggage in our living room, I saw Linda pull out the copy of Sinister Wisdom I'd just received. I said "You must subscribe, too."

She said "I got it right before we hit the road, and as we crossed the desert, I read the most incredible story I've ever seen out loud to Siri." Siri jumped in with, "Yeah, it rocked our world, you've GOT to check it out." Barely breathing, I asked which one it was, and of course they said "Trapeze."

When I stammered that I had written it, they were bowled over. I saw Siri's face register her beginning to make the connection -- it was about her friend, my ex, yikes. But Linda's expression was just raw amazement. Our friendship began in that instant.


We are snowed into the Wimmin's House. Even with the chains on we cannot move from the driveway. We wait all morning for the snow plow. I am so bored that I go into a frenzy of cleaning house. The others are glad and make sly suggestions as to what I might do next. I sing the same song endlessly, an old song with new words, whilst visions of Amazons sore in my head:

O once I was happy but now I'm forlorn
Like an old coat that is tattered and torn
Left in this cruel world to fret and to mourn
Betrayed by a girl in her teens
Now this girl that I loved, she was handsome
And I tried all I knew, her to please
But I never could please her one quarter as well
As the dyke on the flying trapeze, oh, ooooh
She flies through the air with the greatest of ease
The daring young dyke on the flying trapeze
Her movements are graceful, and how she does please
But my love she has stolen away

The plow does not come by three o'clock. At four o'clock, dark is nearly upon us, the snow is falling harder, and our electricity goes out. No heat, no water. The phone is not working. We are a little worried. I must go to work the next morning; I know my boss will not accept my excuse. Jobs are hard to find. I volunteer to walk to the nearest house, our neighbors' who are a half mile away and that much closer to a real road; they have a vehicle that can manage in the snow.

I bundle up, stuff chocolate and a flashlight in my pocket, and leave with my dog. She is so small that she keeps getting trapped in the drifts, and I pull her out impatiently. All the way I sing and think of how much you like the snow. I think grimly, I bet you wouldn't like all this. But as I think it, I am not sure. I remember that when we were falling in love, you would rather kiss me in icy fields than by a warm fire.

The neighbors are not at home, looks like they haven't been here for a couple of days. In desperation, I dig a path to the door and try the knob. It is open, and feeling like a burglar, I enter. I leave the dog outside and she howls a protest. I find the phone and, blessedly, it works. I call for help and am reassured. I call my boss and he says he will come pick me up. I thank him sourly. Then I trudge home.

When I sing my song again, moving my arms in the appropriate motions at the appropriate times, someone in the kitchen snickers. Ah, the supportiveness of collective life.

That night I dream I am a youngster, being taken up on the ropes for the first time. I stand on the small, slightly swaying platform; twenty feet below the net has been jerried; beside me is my mother, lean and firm and silent. We are both wearing old brown leotards. I am only ten.

I have been doing exercises for six months, to develop the muscles I will need. But today, after all, I do not use them.

My father and my older cousin stand on either side of the net; their faces are turned up to me, unsmiling. My mother is urgently repeating the instructions: control your fall, fall flat on your back, relax but keep your body parallel, let yourself bounce to a halt, only then try to move from the net. I am only half-listening. I do not sweat yet, but under my arms is unpleasant heat.

I am looking down, wondering how I can jump off into that emptiness. My mother lets me look; knowing always what is below is part of what I must learn in the act. Then she hugs me, says "Once you fly, you will never want to stop", and I almost smile. She says, "Now!" and raises her hand to signal the catchers. I do not go for a second, but before she can speak again, I crouch, spring, and am falling, twisting. I want to scream in terror, but there is no time before I hit the net sideways.

Great squares of hemp jerk at my body, my muscles down my spine are jangled and burn, I am airborne again for too little time to count, then I am shuttling back and forth from flight to net, a ball between two paddles, until finally the motion has subsided and I am cradled in the net. I am ready to cry.

I feel my father's hands, suddenly; he is reaching up through the net, he is telling me to move, his voice is tight with fear.

I say that I am all right. I sit up and bob in the net some more from the motion. I begin crawling to the side. When my arms or legs miss the rope and plunge helplessly through the holes in the net, my father eases me back through. He follows me to the edge. My cousin is there, trying to steady the net. I slide off into their arms and stand. I am bruised and giddy, but I have done it. Suddenly I grin and shout. I wave to my mother, who waves back joyously. I am standing on the earth but I am no longer her slave. I am ready to climb back up and jump again.

My father runs his hands over me, checking for breaks. He pulls my arms and legs, feeling the tendons, asking me if I hurt. I shake my head impatiently and pull away, swarming back up the rope ladder. At the top my mother holds me soundlessly, gripping me close for a minute. I welcome her embrace; I feel older. Her eyes are glistening as I face the edge again.

It is still not easy, to drive off into space. But as the day goes on, I become smooth and eager, able to move in the air, once crying "wheee!" all the way down. When at last we stop, hours later, I hear my mother tell my father, "I see why they are taught while they are still young; she will do fine." I am laughing as I wake.

I am startled at the vividness of my dream. That day I receive a letter from you, the first in months. It is written on the back of a flyer for a rally, a march followed by speakers. Your name leaps out at me: you are making a speech on "Classism in the Wimmin's Movement". I try to imagine you making a speech. I recall your resistance when I first explained classism to you. I turn over the flyer and read the three paragraphs.

You tell me about the rally, about your excitement, how it went well and you received thunderous applause. You say "Thank you for believing in me for so long, and helping me to learn to believe in myself." I feel a surge of pride; I am glad that you have written. Yet, as I reread over and over the paper you have sent, the pride gives way to an uneasy feeling. I am bitter that you grew only after I left, only after one too many fights over the gap between us. The bitterness turns into anger.

I rip up the letter. Jude sees me from the hall; she stops and quietly asks me what is wrong. I reply hotly "She says thanks for getting out of her life so she can live it for herself." Jude raises an eyebrow and leaves. I think about what I have just said. The ache returns. I decide to wait to write you until I am sure I will not fill the letter with passion and recrimination. I do not write for two months.

I dream again. I am chalking my hands and wrists. Again, my mother is beside me, the rest are below. But today, I will take the bar from its hook and swing out on it, hopefully to return. I listen intently to my mother: if you feel yourself slipping, she says, jerk yourself upward, pop your wrist, and get another grip. She hands me the bar, shows me where to hold. I take a breath, then pull myself up and point my legs as I start the swing.

Immediately, pain sears into my shoulders and arms. I hold on for a couple of feet, then let go, feeling the agony subside as I do so, relaxing into the familiarity of the fall. When I leave the net, I am embarrassed, but no one else appears to be. My father tells me something about centrifugal force. I listen politely and ascend again. My mother rubs my shoulders; they are already sore.

I take the bar and swing again; again, I must let go. No one laughs; no one criticizes. My mother says only "It is hard to learn." I am encouraged. As I take the bar, I think about the unbearable pull when my feet leave their support and my arms stretch out. I think about where it hurts, and try to flex those muscles. I can feel them; I realize the months of exercises have given me control where I need it. The third time, I think to myself.

I push out. Instead of abandoning my body to dangle from the bar, I keep the muscles in my shoulders just a little tight. I am holding myself up, not hanging. It hurts, but it can be borne. I am carried along to the end of the swing, like a clock's pendulum. Momentarily, I am motionless; then the return trip begins. It is too abrupt; I do not know how to make the change. I slip and fall.

No one speaks of the fall. They are glowing, praising me for being able to hold on at only the third try. Adrenaline flows through me. My mother whispers "This time," and I feel she is right.

As I fly out again, I am aware of the air brushing into the scoop of my body. In the split second at the end of my flight, I relax my legs and let my body go convex, readjusting the muscles. It is enough. I am returning, blindly, my back to the platform. I want to see the look on my mother's face, but before I can twist my head to the side, her arm is coming around me strong and sure, and I am pulled onto the stand, tumbling into my mother's arms. I tremble, with happiness, I think. Amid the cries from below, I hear my mother murmur "Fledgling rides the wind, hmm?" and I think of how much I love her. She takes a turn on the ropes, swift, fluid, and rippling, laughing as she lands back beside me. Again, I wake to my own laughter.

You write to me, asking if you may come for a visit at Thanksgiving. I call to tell you yes. I explain that we in the House will go to a cabin up by Lemon Lake on Thanksgiving Day, a crowd of dykes having a vegetarian feast. I mention that we all plan to fast the day afterward. You find this amusing. You will spend The Day with your current lover, our daughter with your parents, and you will fly up that night. I arrange to pick you up at the airport.

When you arrive, a snowstorm is blanketing the night. The effort of driving through it plus the prospect of the fast the next day has left me ravenous. When we get back to the House, I set out all the leftovers on the breakfast bar. You and the rest sit around on stools or on the floor, and we talk of the holiday while I nibble at this and that.

When we go to bed, I am exhausted. I cuddle into you and drop off. The next morning is delicious. We touch and giggle and are very cozy, until we wake fully. Then we slip back into our roles, self-consciously; you even go into the bathroom to dress. I grin at that.

I am ravenous again. I take my vitamins and watch you enviously as you make pancakes and scrambled eggs. I suggest that we spend the day up in Kenebec Pass, by Maiden Falls and the old ghost-towns. You agree and pack an enormous lunch, even after I remind you that I will not be eating. I fill a canteen and dress in several layers.

The day is still and clear, and much colder than during the snowstorm the night before. The snow is cleared away down in the valley, but as we drive higher, into the mountains, it is a thick cover everywhere. By the time we get to Kenebec, the chains are barely pulling the car along. Maiden Falls is half-frozen, with an edge of ice like new lace. An occasional sheet of ice is frozen into the swirl and tangle of the rapids, while the water can be heard rushing on underneath.

Even with all I have on, I am still cold. You look blue and enchanted; you have not seen a winter like this since you were a child. You sit on a large flat rock, gingerly, and watch the waterfall. I am hesitant to sit next to you. Because I am not watching the waterfall as intently as you, I catch a movement in the sky above us. I look, and see an eagle making passes in the windy reach over our heads. You follow my gaze; later you tell me that you have never seen an eagle before. You lie back on the rock, eyes to the sky, and stretch out an arm for me. I curl beside you, and we are an audience for the eagle.

When she leaves, a wall that was between us has fallen. We kiss shyly and then storm the mountain, following the falls ever upward but going slowly enough that we may talk. We talk of everything, open, intimate. It is scary, but you are reassuring and blunt. We talk of our other lovers; we talk of how we can raise our daughter away from each other; we talk of our parents, their progress in understanding our lives; we talk of our past, with a growing gratitude that the memories can be as good as they are, that we remember the same things; and we share what glimpses we have of our days that will rise ahead of us.

We find the remains of Parett City. I take a picture of you leaning out the three-cornered window of a crumbled gambling hall. We are friends again. That night I cannot help shaking when I slip into bed with you. You hold me, trying to soothe the tremors; then you make love to me. I am delighted to find that your body is not at all familiar, I can learn you once again, and you cry when you come, go to sleep with tears still drying on my arm. As our chests rise and fall together, I sleep, and dream.

I stand in the ring below the trapeze. All of us stand there together, my family and I. We will not chalk until we reach the top, because tonight we are performing. People must not understand how we do what we do; they want to be dazzled, mystified.

My mother goes up the rope first. For performance nights, we use a rope instead of a ladder. There is more drama in slithering up a thick, curling rope, hand over hand, without a pause. I follow her. My father holds the rope for me; my cousin is climbing the rope at the other end, to the catcher's bar. My cousin is catcher because he is the most powerfully built and least excitable.

When my father joins us, there is room only for our feet on the small platform. We lean our bodies out, hanging on the guys, trying to hide our nervousness with carefully rehearsed grace.

My cousin has begun swinging on his bar. He is sitting on the bar, his back to us. At a certain point, when the swing is going straight enough, he flips over backward. His knees catch on the bar, his legs wind round the ropes. Now he faces us, upside down.

He has practiced for hours at a time to keep the muscles in his legs from cramping, to keep from being dizzy as the blood flows to his head and stays there. If either of these happen, it could be fatal, though tonight we are using a net. We use a net because I am only twelve. In another year, we will again perform without a net.

I am not afraid of this coming, being without a net. I have learned how little a net really means: the fall is to be avoided always, whether the net is there or not. After the lessons are learned, there is no excuse for a fall. And the net is not so big. If one falls while in motion, one can twist, but not move bodily through the air to one side or the other. It is easy to miss the net altogether. Or break a bone in the net. Or slip at the platform. A catcher below is more effective than a net. But we are a small family. All of us are on the ropes.

Someday, my younger siblings will join us; then my father and my cousin will go below. They will be older, too slow to do their tricks well any more, but still strong enough and fast enough to break our fall with their bodies. Only someone in your family will volunteer to be a catcher below, because it usually means death to stop an object of a hundred or more pounds from a thirty-foot fall. Until we are more, we hope for no accidents.

I realize all this review and speculation has passed through my head in the less than a minute we have stood on the platform. With this realization, like the breaking of a spell, I awaken. The dream does not feel finished. Perhaps it is a result of the ongoing upheaval in my life.

I come to visit you, our daughter in the spring, to explain that I am moving to San Francisco, that the mountains have given me back my sense of self and now I must "do things". You are upset with my decision. You say I am always moving away from you. You are right. Still, we manage to spend time with each other that is not crowded with walls and judgement.

The night before I take my leave, crossing the continent to the land of dykes and honey, we spend hours saying goodbye after our daughter has gone to sleep. We sit in your yard, underneath a gentle crescent. It is warm enough to enjoy sitting out and damp enough to enjoy sitting close together. I keep saying "Well, it's really late and I must make an early start tomorrow", and we smile and touch hands, and then suddenly we are off again talking feverishly without realizing how it has happened. Finally I stand, looking resolute, and you hold me tightly, then you say "Wait" and run into the house.

When you return, you have a big Texas orange in your hands. You place it in my two hands, and I look at you with a wondering grin. "A present" you laugh, "to remind you of home when you miss it the most." I cannot help but cry; you cannot help but kiss my tears into your wet and wetter lips; we cannot help but kiss passionately, until I break away and jump into my car and run from your waves and cries of "Be careful!"

I leave the orange on the dash of my car. All across Texas and New Mexico I look at it, wondering if now is the time, is this when the pain is the worst, how can I tell when the bleeding will shortly begin to flow less and the wound commence healing over? The orange bothers me until Albuquerque, when I make up my mind how I will use it: When I go through the enchanted mesas and buttes just heading into Arizona, a place that had been ours once and that I had not reclaimed for my own. There, in the Painted Desert, we had gone through a sunset, and were so moved that we couldn't even talk. We only listened to the ghosts and ancient chants which came to us on the wind. One of our best times, and I had not yet come back to let the regret wash through me until I was clean and could make memories in my own name once again. When I came to that place, I would open the orange and eat it slowly, letting the smell and the acidity of the juice seep into my own flesh like salt, cauterizing swiftly, so that I might continue on without leaving a piece of me behind.

I stopped for the night, glad at least that I would not see the region at sunset again, but by the calmer light of morning, the unseen light of morning.

The next day, before I reach the place where I meant to eat the orange, I approach the inspection point that prevents citrus fruits from entering Arizona and California. I throw the orange under my seat in a panic and try to drain guilt from my eyes. Silly, to feel so paranoid over such a little crime, I've done things a thousand times worse. When I am asked, I deny that I am carrying any fruit. My voice sounds funny to me, but I guess not to them. I am waved on.

Without the orange visible, I forget about it. I reach Kingman before I remember it. Somehow I have driven through the place where I was going to eat it without noticing where I was. At this realization I am both agonized and exhilirating. I pull out the orange and eat it with relish. The trip begins to take on new symbolism for me. Not only am I cutting ties, I am filling up the spaces with new visions.

I try to remember what I had been thinking of that distracted me so when I drove through the familiar mesas. I cannot recall, but it stops mattering immediately. As I drive into California, I have a momentary sensation that I am flying. I throw the orange peels into the Mojave, hoping they will provide nourishment for the delicate life there.

That night, journey over, the dream returns, picking itself up where it had left off. I am standing in the charged silence of a people-packed tent, reaching for the bar so I may begin the show. I begin, not because I am youngest and least experienced; it is because I am the lightest, and better on my cousin to ease him into the tremendous impact of a moving body suddenly hanging onto the ends of his arms.

I do a simple move: Out to my cousin, my feet to his hands, one swing upside down, my face sweeping the crowds but I see nothing, back to the bar, then up to home. Now, in the act, there are no words of praise, no time for reassurance, only a glance that is, really, enough. My mother launches herself as soon as I hand her the bar. She catches hand-to-hand with my cousin, flips to return, and is not even sweating yet when lands. My father does a half-twist to my cousin, meaning he is caught by the backs of his hands. He does a full twist to return. My mother's hand is tensely resting on my neck. The first is over for each of us. From here, it is easier.

We build gradually until the climax of the show. I do a somersault to my cousin, still feeling a small kernel of panic rise in my throat as I hurtle end over end, trying not to flatten out in my forward flight. The panic is swallowed each time I am abruptly halted by callused flesh seizing my wrists. Then I return to the hands of my father, who has swung out on the bar just in time to catch me.

He returns me, then keeps swinging, reversing himself, as my cousin leave the catcher's bar and sends it out alone, timing its sweep to the finest fraction of a second. Now that the pressure is off me, I practice by watching my father. My mother has taught me that in order to do a series of moves as complicated as those in a single trick, practice is not enough. I must know every part of every move, like the building blocks that they are. Then I must put them together in order, imagining every detail, while an internal clock measures off the seconds. I must imagine this sequence so often that it is thoroughly familiar to me before I ever try it. But what I appreciate most about it is that it has transformed the air for me. In the beginning, the vast amount of air around the platform was just a space that thousands of my space body could fit into; I was never sure my body would do what I wanted it to in so much open space. But when I had learned a sequence in my mind, it became a track in the air, from bar to bar, a tunnel that just fit my body and seemed to hold me up. Now I stood and watched my father, remembering what he would do next, envisioning his track before he is on it. It is very comforting.

My father does a double somersault to the second bar that my cousin has sent to him, completes the swing, then returns with a one-and-a-half twist. I am impressed with the mechanical perfection of my father's actions, and I am tracking him, but I am not out there with him. I dimly hear the roar of the watchers. Already I am losing concentration, now that my role is almost over. My father and I bow.

My mother takes the bar and jumps off; my cousin has caught his bar and times is again. Now I can see the moisture on my mother's face. I hope she chalked herself before she began. We keep the chalk up here; we are supposed to use it every time under the lights, to counteract the sweat that runs down our arms. I feel a thin web of connection to my mother. As I watch her, I am learning, the empathy is so strong. I wish her part were over, yet I also thrill to the confidence and birdness of her.

My mother does not do anything on the first swing, though she could just as easily: She is playing to the crowd, prolonging their suspense. But on the second swing, she goes into a one-and-a-half somersault. The calf and ankle of each foot find the rope and swing; she has caught herself upside down, alone. Before the crowd can end its gasp, she is coming up high above the second bar and falling down to it in a two-and-a-half twist.

I want to hug her madly when she is safely back. Instead, we wave at the crowd. My cousin projects himself out and lets go, a churning spiral to the net below. My mother is next, with a series of convoluted somersaults; then my father; then me with as much as I can manage, a single flip, the colors around me blurring as I move within motion to the resistance of the net.

We flip over the side of the net in turn. I join them, the last, and we lock arms and bow. I am thinking about how much the crowd loves the solo stunts, how deceptive these are. The foot-and-leg catch is easier on the body, especially for my mother with her mighty legs. It is in a way harder to be a catcher, being responsible for those coming toward you, having to gear your timing to someone else's, keeping a sense of balance while always upside down, being jerked repeatedly, all the hard work with none of the glamour. That is why my dull cousin, who can perform over and over without making a mistake or being bored, is our catcher. I am glad to be on the other side. As we scamper out of the ring, I awaken, tired and satisfied.

The next time I see you, it is on your own territory. I come to your city, not mine any more. I drive through the heavy traffic one afternoon and knock at the door of the house you share with your lover. She is in the living room, watching television. I am slightly ill at ease; I do not know what to say to her. She ignores me altogether, her eyes on the screen. I am relieved. I stand there, watching the news with her, as you get ready.

We are going to eat. As you come into the room on our way out, the newscast takes on an urgent tone. Mechanically we watch. The camera is showing Karl Wallenda crossing the air seventy feet above a South American street. He teeters as I hear the words "…fell to his death today…" I want to look away but I do not. The wind catches him; we see him fall, try to hang onto the wire, then fingers give. He plummets to the pavement below. The camera is on him all the way.

I feel sick; I turn and bury my face in your shoulder. You say "Why are they showing that on TV?" Your lover shrugs and says "If they didn't, someone else would." She is angry at us both for embracing in front of her. I pull you out of the door.

I am unable to drive; I am shaking. We skip dinner. I buy a bottle of wine, get drunk gratefully, and we go to a quiet place in a thicketed park to talk. For some reason we are avoiding any mention of Karl Wallenda's fall. You touch me much, but are more silent than I am.

Finally I begin letting my feelings out. In some way the fall is a threat to me. I tell you about my dreams. It rushes out in a jumble and I feel better, but I need a response from you. I wait, oddly alert. You say that you think I am overreacting to the newscast, upsetting as it was.

I do not try to explain any more. I say, "I want our relationship to stay exactly as it is right now." You are very affected; you feel that you have finally pleased me, after all the years of my discontent. But I know that I have insulted you, I have laid a death knell on our association, because of course we will change, we will move from here and now, and I am not ready for this. I withdraw from you before we even say goodbye. You do not notice. You kiss me cheerfully and step away. I do not watch you go.

When I am at last home again, I pick up my dictionary and open it speculatively. I look for the root word of trapeze: trapezium, Latin meaning "a quadrilateral having no parallel sides." In front of me, suddenly, I see the bar, suspended from two ropes which are hooked to supports in the top of the tent. I see the curve of the tent, the widening ropes, the bar: a closed figure. I hear my mother's voice telling me the muscles in my shoulders that make me able to rise my head are called the trapezius. I consider my life, how the boundaries of it no longer confirm to any thing but the impulse that moves me. I think, I move from one part of my life to another, and the distance between the parts is never the same twice.

I put away the dictionary and go to bed. I stretch out in the width of my mattress, enjoying the luxury of so much space for myself. I do not dream, at all.

© Maggie Jochild.
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1 comment:

letsdance said...

Maggie, you have a great gift for writing.