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Since I will be in Mexico on February 14th, my boyfriend and I and decided to take flying trapeze lessons this past weekend as a pre-Valentine’s Day date.
But the day before our lesson, Paul sprained his wrist rock climbing. The trapeze school website claimed you had to give at least seventy-two hours notice to cancel or reschedule.
“Let’s just go down there,” Paul said.
“Yeah. We’ll make them feel bad for us,” I agreed. “I’m sure they’ll let us reschedule.”
And they did let Paul reschedule. But they wouldn’t let me, even though I tried to explain that this lesson was supposed to be our romantic Valentine’s Day date.
“It’s okay,” Paul assured me. “I’ll watch you and take videos. It’ll be fun.”
“Yeah. But it would be more fun if we could do it together,” I said.
As it turned out, it wasn’t much fun at all, but not because Paul was on the sidelines.
* * *
The first time I did trapeze lessons was two and a half years ago. I was both incredibly nervous and incredibly excited. Everyone in my class was a beginner, and at the start of class the coaches introduced themselves and explained everything we would do in detail. All the students giggled nervously, and we cheered each other on as one-by-one we climbed to the platform, grabbed the bar, and jumped.
The coaches were encouraging and supportive and wonderful. When it was my turn, I climbed up the wobbling ladder and stood on the platform, my toes over the edge, trying to breathe normally and keep my legs from shaking.
“You’re awesome, Eva,” the coach told me. “Just remember to keep your butt tucked in and listen for the calls, OK? You’re gonna be great.”
And I was great. I hung upside down from the bar by my knees, I did a flip dismount, and when one of the coaches started swinging on the opposite trapeze, I reached out my arms and he caught me easily. I was so proud and excited I could hardly contain myself. At the end of class, one of the coaches told me I was natural and hoped I would be back soon. Maybe they said that to everyone, but I took it to heart. I was a girl of the flying trapeze!
After that first lesson, I was less nervous, but the tricks got harder. On my third time I learned the set straddle. I swung in the air upside down while one of the coaches screamed at me, “lift your butt higher! Butt up! UP!”
I didn’t learn set straddle well enough to try getting it caught that day. “Just do a knee hang,” the coach told me when it was time for catching. I felt bad. Knee hang was for babies. So that feeling of failure, coupled with the fact that trapeze is ridiculously expensive, was the reason why I didn’t sign up for more lessons until several years later, when Paul decided flying trapeze would be the perfect first date.
And so, on my fourth lesson, I worked on set straddle again, and this time I got it caught. And although I was proud and excited, there was also a feeling of relief – thank god I had gotten it caught. I could go back to feeling like a carefree girl of the flying trapeze.
And now it was my fifth lesson. Everything was so different from my fist lesson. For one thing, no one in my class was a beginner. The coaches didn’t say hello to us or give us a pep talk at the start of class – people just started swinging. And when they weren’t on the trapeze, the other students were doing ab exercises or looking at their smart phones. I longed for the encouraging group dynamics of my first lesson, but then again, I wasn’t exactly a beginner anymore, even though I still felt like it.
I approached one of the coaches – a tall, skinny boy of about nineteen. “Um… Hi. I’m not sure what I’m going to be learning today,” I said.
“What’d you do last time?” he asked.
“Start with that, then.” He started to walk away.
“Wait!” I called. “It’s been a few months. Will you remind me how to do it?”
“Yeah.” He glanced up at the platform. One of the students was swinging back and forth, pumping her legs vigorously. Her rainbow-striped kneesocks flashed. She’d been taking lessons for three years and didn’t even need safety lines.
The boy looked back at me. “You just put your feet on the bar and do froggie legs,” he said. “Remember?”
“And keep my butt up?” I asked, but he had already climbed the ladder to the platform.
* * *
When it was my turn, I climbed the ladder, figuring it would all come back to me when I was in the air. The young boy-coach was on the platform now, pulling off his t-shirt and letting it flutter to the ground. He clipped me into my safety lines and handed me the bar.
“Hands together,” he admonished. “Your feet have to go on the outside.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I forgot.”
“Set straddle,” he shouted down to the girl-coach on the ground. She would be giving me my calls. I didn’t know her name either.
I jumped from the platform and flew through the air.
I put my feet on the bar and did froggie legs.
My brain squealed to a halt. Second position? What was second position? The boy had told me about froggie legs, but now what?
The ground coach was yelling something at me, but I couldn’t quite hear her.
“What?” I shouted.
“Straighten your legs!” she yelled. “Your legs! Straighten!”
I straightened my legs into a straddle-split, but my timing was messed up now, and I was wobbling on the bar. My butt was sagging, and
I couldn’t get my legs against the insides of my arms.
“Hep!” the girl-coach yelled.
I fell awkwardly into the net, feeling embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I totally forgot what I was doing,” I said. “Should I do that one again?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said.
“I’ll get it perfect next time. I promise,” I said. I smiled and tried to stay cheerful, but I was beginning to feel worried. I knew they wouldn’t let me learn a new trick unless I could prove proficient on the old one.
And so when it was my turn again, I climbed the ladder, trying to swallow down my anxiety. I wasn’t nervous about heights anymore – I was nervous about not doing a good job.
I swung into the air. This time I followed all the calls and straightened my legs against my arms just like I was supposed to. When the coach called “hep” a second time, I let go of the bar and reached my arms out, smiling. I landed hard in the net, my teeth crashing into my bottom lip. I tasted blood, but I didn’t care. I’d done the trick correctly.
“You need to flatten out more on hep,” the coach told me as I jumped from the net onto the mat below.
“Oh, OK,” I told her. “Can I still learn a new trick?”
“Did you catch that one last time?” Her voice made it clear that she doubted I had.
“Yeah,” I told her.
“You did? OK, then. You can learn something new.”
The boy-coach came over to tell me about my new trick: set-split.
“I’m really stupid,” I told him. “I need you to explain it to me really well. Like, over-explain it to me.” I didn’t want to find myself again hanging in the air, unsure of what to do next.
“I will,” he snapped.
He grabbed the static trapeze, which hung at eye-level. “First you bring your foot on the bar, and your other leg goes like this.” He demonstrated. “Then you straighten your leg and arch your back. You got it?” He let go of the bar.
“I guess.” I frowned a little bit. “Can I try it on the bar?”
“No,” he said. “I can’t let you do that for safety reasons.”
“OK, so which foot do I use then?” I wasn’t sure I quite understood the mechanics of it all and wished that I could watch someone do the trick in the air first before I tried it.
“It doesn’t matter,” the boy-coach said. “Just don’t think too hard about it.” He turned and climbed the ladder.
* * *
My first attempt was a disaster, with me swinging about crazily, confused about where to put my legs. But my time after that was better. And the time after that a little better. I was learning it. But I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was anxious. Not because of normal trapeze fears like height or speed or injury. I was anxious about failing. I was worried I wouldn’t do the trick well enough and the coaches wouldn’t let me catch it and I would disappoint Paul, who was watching me, and my family, who would be anxious to see the videos, and – of course – I would disappoint myself.
I knew it was silly for me to feel so anxious. I kept trying to smile and chat with people. I kept trying to lighten my mood. This was supposed to be fun, after all!
When it was time for catching, though, I was a bundle of nerves. I knew that I would only get two chances to get caught. And when it comes to catches on the trapeze, perfection is everything. If I made even the tiniest mistake in timing or position, I would fall.
The boy coach climbed onto the opposite trapeze and started swinging. When it was my turn, I stood on the platform, trying to relax, but all I could think was: do it perfect, Eva.
I jumped. I got into first position. Then second position. I arched my back and saw the boy flying towards me on the other bar. “Hep!” he yelled.
I let go and reached out towards him, but somehow our arms swooped passed each other, and I fell to the net.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked the girl-coach when I was back on the ground.
“Reach out for him quicker and keep your arms still,” she said.
“OK,” I said. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it perfectly.” I tried to sound confident, but I was beginning to doubt that I was going to get caught. And yet, I knew I had to. This was my last chance, and if I didn’t get caught, I would feel terribly disappointed.
I climbed up to the platform again, running through my mind everything I had to remember. First position: Lift my legs at the same time. Second position: Straighten my legs and arch my back. Push my hips forward. Look at him. Wait for his hep. Reach out fast and steady.
I jumped. Everything was going perfectly, but as I arched my back and looked towards him, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t going to catch me.
“Hep!” he said. I shot my arms straight forward, but they just went right through his outstretched arms. I fell to the net. I had failed.
“I’m so sad,” I said, slinking over to Paul, who had been taking videos of me the whole time on his phone. There was a burning feeling in the back of my throat, and my heart felt heavy as lead. “I’m so sad,” I said again, pouting. Paul laughed, as if I was kidding, but I wasn’t. I felt terrible.
On the drive to go get lunch, I tried to sound cheerful, but the only thing that came out of my mouth was bitter complaints about the boy-coach. “He just didn’t seem like he wanted to be there,” I said. “He didn’t explain the trick to me well enough…. I told him I liked his socks, but he just ignored me.”
We parked, and I went to the machine to pay for parking, but the machine wouldn’t accept my credit card. I kicked the machine, and suddenly I was crying.
“Eva, what’s wrong?” Paul asked, coming up beside me.
I knew it was silly to cry about trapeze lessons. I didn’t make my catch. The nineteen-year-old coach was a jerk. These were not things to get upset about. And yet the more I tried to stop crying, the harder I cried.
“I just felt so anxious the whole time,” I told Paul. “Because I wanted to get the trick right, and I wanted to get caught, and I knew I only had two chances. And I told myself to just have fun, but I couldn’t stop feeling anxious.”
“Oh, Eva,” Paul said, wrapping his arms around me.
“There’s the expectation to get caught – that’s what the whole class is leading up towards – and if you don’t get caught… I don’t know. I wanted to enjoy myself, but I couldn’t stop worrying about messing up.”
By this point I was crying really hard, and my mascara was running down my face. Now I was comparing trapeze to writing. In both cases I’m no longer a beginner. In both cases I’ve put expectations on myself — I’m expecting certain outcomes and I’m afraid of not achieving them. “I think I’m crying about more than just the trapeze,” I said after a moment.
I was feeling overwhelmed by a fear of failure. I’m trying to enjoy writing, but the enjoyment is often marred by my fear that I’m letting go of the bar of stability, reaching out for a career in writing, and finding nothing to hold onto.
And the more I cried, the more I realized that life in general is like my trapeze lesson. We all want to enjoy it, but we’re constantly worried about messing up, about falling and failing. We’re constantly judging ourselves for not doing things perfectly.
“I don’t think I should do trapeze anymore,” I told Paul. “Or if I do, I need to find some way to not judge myself and not feel so anxious about whether or not I’m being perfect or whether or not I make the catch.”
And I thought, the same is true for writing. I have to find a way to not worry about whether or not I get caught by an agent or publisher. I should remember that not everyone even has the courage to climb up to that platform in the sky and jump off the edge. I should feel proud no matter what sort of trick I accomplish – even if it’s just a simple knee hang. It’s exciting that I’m in the air, and I want to enjoy flying.