“You are not going to sit beside that damn computer all day, all summer,” Mom said coming into the room. She had that look. You know the one. The look that says she’s not going to take any crap, that she means business. The look you really don’t want to see from Dad because it scares you shitless. I was doomed, backed into a corner, and now I had to make a decision.
“But, Mom!” I heard myself say, mouth on automatic. One of these days I’m gonna have to remind myself to fix that reflex.
“No buts, Robby. You are not going to waste away indoors and turn into some kind of internet freak. You are going to actually go outside,” I cringed as she began the diatribe. I’d heard this pattern before and could almost recite it by rote myself. “You are going to get some fresh air,” Mom continued, “make some friends and above all, have some fun.” I know I was rolling my eyes at this point. She also knew that I wasn’t about to just roll over and take it, either. There was one thing about our family that you could always count on: not a one of us can back down, be it from a straight up fight or a civilized argument.
And dealing with Mom was no different. Just took more tact than normal.
“But I burn easily. And I’m allergic to half of nature, you know that!”
“Robby, you’re just gonna have to toughen up. You aren’t a little kid anymore, you’re thirteen years old.”
I love how parents love repeating your age to you when they want you to do something. As if you might have forgotten how old you are. Then they go right ahead and tell you how young you are when you want something they don’t want you to have, like when a really tuff movie comes out and it just happens to be rated R. I tell you, it’s not even fair.
“I’m tired of you being in this room all the time. You need to get out and live a little, my darlin’ son,” she said, softening. This was another one of her more battle tested tactics in arguing. She would give over the soft eyes and an emotional reason for what she wants, hoping to convince you to see her side. Usually she got her way.
But I had just gotten the most amazing computer for my birthday and was in no mood to not check out everything it was capable of. It’d be like giving a kid candy on Halloween and then telling him he can’t eat any. Just not fair.
“Uh uh! No buts, no excuses. You are going to have an activity this summer if I have to pick it out for you myself.” Okay, she was playing dirty pool now. Her taste in activities would doom me to something sissy like flower arranging, or ceramics class or (yeck!) ballroom dancing. No WAY! It wasn’t looking good for me and my new machine. “Now go hop in the shower and get some clean things on. We’re going to the Y to see what they have to offer.”
Oh great, I thought. The fuckin’ Y! Life was about to become one long, sweaty hell, all summer long.
I showered quickly and passed a comb through my hair, moving a hand across the mirror to clear away the steam. I looked long and hard at myself. Still kinda skinny, light brown hair and blue eyes. Kinda plain. Kinda shrimpy. I can still see some of my ribs, but I don’t have any muscle to speak of. Even my arms are scrawny. How I was gonna survive any kind of events at the Y I don’t know. I was about to go into the last place I’d ever want to go on purpose.
My father was watching the Red Sox game on Channel 25. He wasn’t going to be any help, so I discounted even trying to enlist his aid in getting me out of this. Mom and Dad might argue like everyone else in the clan, but when they made a decision about me, they usually locked steps and formed ranks. There was no help for it. I was doomed.
The YMCA in town was pretty much the Mecca of local sports. All by itself, it represented every form of adrenaline junky activity for non-high school kids in town. The only thing it didn’t have under its roof was bowling, and even then they sponsored a league for that.
Mom was going to drag me right into the middle of the biggest concentration of bullies, jocks, and mental defects in the city, and I had no choice in the matter, except which method of torture to subject myself to. You know, I had been perfectly happy being a geek. Now, I was about to be thrust into a world of jockstraps, towel snapping and brutal initiation rituals.
I just knew I was as good as dead.
The ride wasn’t long. We live in a fairly small city, mostly a place where a river valley was carved out by passing glaciers back in a time when I knew the names of every dinosaur by heart. Yeah, I know, even thinking I mix metaphors. My English teachers fairly hate me for it.
Anyways, I watched as the dreaded building came into view, a large red brick structure that held much of the administrative functions of the Y as well as the weight room, the game center, the locker area and the general storage. Behind was a more modern building, steel faced with aluminum siding, concrete pillars and all the air conditioning that money could rent. I just knew that some Hun-like barbarian coach and a flock of eager beaver muscle heads was just waiting to make me target el numero uno. Eyes downcast, I prepared myself for the inevitable pummelings that were going to, as Mom so quaintly put it, “toughen me up.”
The Y was a busy place. I guess there weren’t a lot of computer geeks like me left in the world. The internet had become a kind of galactic melting pot, and those of us who were purists (oh I put myself in high company, don’t I) were few and farther between than ever before. Kids of different ages were all herded together and moved about towards one activity or another. A younger group was being arranged into busses for a trip to the day camp. They were the lucky ones, I guess. They were too young to hassle each other over little social things like being totally uncoordinated on a soccer pitch, or being totally unable to smack a curve ball past first base.
The registration process took less time than I could care to remember. Somehow, I’d expected it to be a lengthy process of paperwork and Mom writing a check. But NOOO! All computerized and she paid for it with her bank card. Ain’t that a bitch, now even the computers were ganging up against me. Oh, I was so screwed.
“Which activity would you like, son. There are only a few spots left open on the teams.” I’m sure that the hag behind the computer wanted to sound friendly and reassuring, but to me it was like the inscription over the entrance to hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
“Look over the list, Robby,” Mom said, shoving a piece of colored card stock under my nose. I examined it briefly, kinda angry that it was mocking my by simply being printed on my favorite color, blue. Yep, I was surely set up, knocked down and dragged out.
I perused the list, noting the expected sports were exactly as I knew they would be. The baseball teams, the indoor soccer teams (since it is simply too hot in summer to play outside on the grass, don’tcha know), roller hockey, the wall climbing club, the bowling leagues, indoor basketball in the upstairs gym, tumbling, weight training (thank god I had to be at least 15 to get into that one, a sure bet to get pounded on, that), swimming, boating and…..
And there was this curious one at the bottom. I had to read it twice through before I even realized what it was. It had to be either a joke or a misprint or just some trick of the mind. The joke about that last phrase will stand out in a minute, once I explain what it is.
“What’s this last one about?” I asked the registration hag. I might dislike her for her job, and for bringing my beloved computers to bear against me, but at least she could give me the information I needed to make an informed decision about my own death.
“Oh, the Jedi group. Oh very popular with kids your age, Robert. It’s a fencing class, with a twist.”
“It’s a gate?”
I sighed. Some people were as slow on the uptake as a snail climbing Mt. Washington. “A fence with a twist would be a gate, right?” I said, making it plainly obvious that I was mocking her, her level of education, her lack of a sense of humor and any sort of wit at all. I even put my hands up in pantomime of a swinging gate on a fence line. The hag simply looked perplexed. Old People!
Mom caught it, though and promptly smacked the side of my shoulder. That was the warning not to be a smart ass.
“Oh, not that kind of fence, young man. Sword fighting, you know, only instead of using swords they use these lightsaber thingies. Wooden dowels, don’tchu know. No sharp ends. It’s great fun. I watch the kids on my smoke break. They seem to love it.” Oh swell, I thought. Here we are in the Church of the Smelly Sock and Brawny Arm and they let the gate keeper smoke while watching gangs of kids try to cram a meter of steel into each other.
And I’m the one that needs to get out more!
Then it dawned on me. Jedi. Lightsabers. They were gonna teach us how to beat people up with sticks painted glow in the dark colors. Chances were, the entire group was made up of freaks and geeks like myself who had no business in a Y as anything other than spectators. I could stand a chance in a group like that.
“Mom, I want the Jedi thing,” I said, almost before I had made up my mind myself.
“Oh good choice,” the hag said. “There’s only the one spot left. If that’s what you want?” she left the question hanging, looking to my mother for confirmation.
Mom had on the other look I hate to see from her. It’s the “I know there’s an angle here that I’m not seeing yet, buster,” look, which is usually followed by the “don’t think you can pull one over on me, I might have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night,” look. As you can guess, my Mom has a lot of practice with different looks. She’s practically Jim Carey like that. It used to unnerve me that she could scare the bejeezus out of me, make me back down or just plain bring me to tears with one of those looks. Then again, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a model kid.
“C’mon, Mom,” I pleaded. “You said anything I wanted to do. I want to do this.”
“Sign him up,” Mom said, keeping her gaze on me. “You aren’t weaseling out of this either, Robert,” she told me, using my proper name. That pretty much put the capper on it. I had dug this grave, now I had to stay in it, no matter if it didn’t fit or not.
“The next session is today, in about twenty minutes. If you like you can wait in the lower gym, by the boys changing room.” The hag completed the registration and handed my mother a receipt. Then she handed me a key and a small ID badge on a lanyard, the YMCA logo pretty much emblazoned on every available surface that didn’t need other writing.
“Okay, I’m gonna go do some shopping, you have a good class,” Mom said, practically pushing me towards the lower gym. “I’ll be back in four hours to pick you up. Have fun,” she said in that sing song voice. Oh yeah, I thought. I’m about to have lots of fun. I’m gonna be the slacker king of the class.
The lower gym was where they normally held the hockey and ice skating events. But at the moment, the ice surface was gone, replaced by the standard concrete poured floor and several hundred thin gym mats, spread out so that they were supposed to be interlocked at the Velcro seems. It wasn’t exactly set up, but if someone were to fall, it would save a nasty sprain or bruise…..probably. On the farther wall was an artificial rock surface, set up with pulleys and ropes hanging down from the rafters overhead. Clearly, the rock climbing club met here too.
I sat down on the boys’ locker room side, just staring glumly about. My summer was going to be hell, so I might as well get used to the hellish surroundings. I noticed that some of the mats had been marked with bright orange tape, designating a long slender rectangular area. That’s where the bloodshed goes, I thought, remembering some of the brief images of fencing I remembered from channel surfing during the Olympics. I gotta admit, the idea of seriously maiming someone with a meter long razorblade appealed to me, as long as I was the only one with said razor in hand. Facing someone equally armed over a length of steel didn’t exactly thrill me to the pores.
Also by the mats, kind of set to one side, was a series of long slender wooden dowels, brightly painted, and several “lightsaber” handles, neatly arranged on a folding table. I was immediately drawn to a bluish-white dowel that almost matched the color of my eyes. The handles appeared to be made all the same. A simple piece of plumbing nipple pipe with some kind of ribbed black tube through the main length and odd looking, different pieces of plumbing parts at both ends, making it look sort of lightsaber-ish. Clearly, one end was meant to receive the dowels, since it looked like a guard. The other end was capped in copper. No sharp edges on any of them.
Now, while my family is known for never backing down from anything, they also are curious about everything. Like cats curious, and we all know the rhyme about cats, curiosity and, well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, that’s a problem I share as well. So, during the interminable wait for the class to begin, I kind of wandered over to the table, and, well, uh, let my hands linger on the dowels and handles.
Okay, so I touched them before knowing what was going on. Big deal. I’d paid to be here (or rather Mom had) so I felt it was my right to handle some of the, er, handles. I selected one that wasn’t too heavy and seemed to fit nicely in my hand, picked up the blue dowel that had caught my eye (oh look, another reference to the dowel and my eye. How ironic is that?), and sort of fit them together. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out. The unpainted end went into the hole in the guard end of the handle.
But just having that thing assembled and in my hands gave me a unique thrill. It was long, almost a full meter past the hand guard, and had a weight to it, but was fairly easily balanced just a finger width past the guard. I swung the lightsaber about for a second and was rewarded by the evil hiss of air as it cut cleanly through my practice stroke. I felt emboldened and began waving it about, making whooshing noises. Yeah, I know, sounds like I was being a little kid again, but hell, I loved it. I spun, whirled and thrust the blade about, chopping and hacking at things that weren’t there, feeling like I was Anakin or Obi-Wan and that I suddenly had skills beyond those of mortal men.
And then I heard a single clapping sound. I whirled from my imaginary opponent and saw a tall man in white jogging pants and a puffy t-shirt bearing the YMCA logo at his left chest step forward from the side of the mats, clapping his hands. He was tall (didn’t I already say that) and built like a linebacker. Shoulders big enough to stack lumber on. His hair and van dyke beard were a dark black, and his brown eyes shown with a humor that I didn’t expect from a guy so big. I thought for certain that he was a hockey player. He just had that indestructible look about him.
“Nice form. Although I think you lean in too far when you lunge.” He stopped about three inches beyond my blade’s reach and held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Mitch Tannagord, the fencing teacher and Jedi Master,” he said, his eyes smiling as much as his mouth as he said it. On anyone else, it would probably have been corny. For some reason, it sounded right coming from him.
“Uh, hiya. Robby French. I’m ah, I guess the first student.”
“Actually the second,” came a voice from behind Mitch. As I shook the instructor’s hand a carbon copy of him came from behind, although, well, oh, this is coming out wrong. Let me try this introduction again.
The voice, I found, had a body to go with it, and a face. At first glance I thought that this was, had to be, Mitch’s son. He had the same dark hair, the same easy smile and the face was very much the same, despite the lack of beard. But the eyes were a totally different event altogether. Gray they were. Flecked with blue and gold, but primarily gray, like the color of polished metal. Translucent. With a depth that at once drew me in and made me scared of heights. He smiled as he came forwards, also offering his hand. It took me a second to realize that he wasn’t the mythic figure his father was, but was about my age, height, build, weight and hairstyle.
Of course that comparison to my strength quickly ended when I grabbed his hand for a shake. His fingers were like drop forged steel given a supple outer coating of flesh and equipped with the most sensitive control mechanism available. He sensed my lack of any wrist power as we shook hands and eased off his grip. I almost had to force my jaw back up.
“Hi, I’m Kenny,” he said. It took me a minute to figure out exactly what those words meant and I shook my head to reboot.
“Uh, Robby,” I replied, releasing his hand.
“Kenny, why don’t you take our new padawan into the dressing room and see about getting him set up. I’ll have the others warming up as they arrive.”
“Okay, Dad,” Kenny replied, and looked at my blade. “Good choice. I like that color too. Let’s leave the blade out here though. You can reclaim it when we come out.” With a nod and a smile, he started walking towards the locker room. I kinda followed on auto pilot. I mean, literally, I had no choice but to be here for the next several hours. But there was something going on inside me that I couldn’t figure out. And whatever it was, it felt immensely better when Kenny was around.
Yeah, see, that’s my self-centered brain working in reverse. Here I have met Kenny all of thirty seconds and already he’s good for me, personally. Before you read anymore, you should know something up front. I’m kinda a jerk. No, really. I’m usually not good company for anyone. I tend to be selfish and irreverent (even in church) and well, I think I’m too smart for everyone around me. I often claim to be always right. It’s all an act, though. My defense mechanism against a world that I don’t really belong to, totally. You’ll see.
Now by “set up,” what Master Mitch meant, in no uncertain terms, was armor. Not the clunky knight on a horse stuff, but not quite football pads either. It was a combination of five basic pieces. First was a helmet. It was a lightweight deal that looked to me like lacrosse helmet, complete with face grill mask. I kinda liked the look of it. The front brim kinda runs forward like a baseball cap, which I wear practically everywhere anyhow. The next bit was a thin roll of padding that could easily fit under my t-shirt. It basically gave my shoulders some padding and protected my chest down to my waist in the front. The sides and back were open, though.
The next bit was totally embarrassing. I’m a guy. Guys the planet over have one glaring weakness, and girls and dirty fighters the world over know exactly what that is. You guessed it, the old dingly danglies. And for once, I saw the logic in strapping a chunk of plastic in front of my nuts. I didn’t want anyone to swing a sword up and smack me across my nads. Hell, even a graze there is pain incarnate. I had no intention of going into any kind of activity where I might get that hurt without protecting my best friend. How would I sleep at night without at least stroking it…..uh ahem, I mean, that is…..
Well you get the idea.
So I had to drop trou and hook up with a jock strap. A word of advice to all you fellow nerds out there who’ve never had one on before; don’t let the cup pinch anything down there against anything else down there. Keep everything inside. The pain of that part of your body going through pins and needles wake up when the blood rushes back in is indescribably and may cause vomiting. Friends don’t let friends, okay?
The last two bits of the setting up were a set of hockey grieves to cover my shins and a pair of gloves that were thickly padded on the outside, yet thin on the inside. I would come to appreciate that last bit of gear the most, since my hands seemed to be everyone’s most likely target at first.
It felt weird walking around in all that gear. And for some reason, being in that cup made me hard. Not screaming for a wack-off hard, but kinda semi hard. Like Ball Park franks, I guess, I was plumped. I made my way out and saw that the other four guys in the class had already gotten their gear and were warming up. Now, I was certain that this was going to be a nerd group, all Star Wars fans like myself.
Jessy Franklin, the son of a two time all state high school hockey champion and a huge kid in his own right was here. As was Juan Castillo, one of the star strikers on the local travel team for the Y youth soccer program, come the autumn. Rounding out the group was a pair I’d never expect in a class like this. The Berube twins, Becca and Bart. They were your typical all American over achievers. Straight A students since they were in pre-school, four sport athletes, beautiful and graceful. They’d both run the Boston Marathon six times and they were only 14. If anything, I’d just dropped into the class with the best and brightest and roughest, toughest, fastest people of my age group in the city.
And as the loner and outcast that I was, that made me the designated target.
They all had their sabers selected and were going through some stretching exercises and simple wrist loosening sweeps with their blades. I thought back to the evil hiss my sword had cut through the air when I first picked it up and was sadly cowed by the awesome wind rushes these kids blades were ringing from still air.
“Hey, you okay in there?” Kenny asked, leaning against a section of padded wall and stretching out his calf muscles. I was amazed at the sight. He seemed totally relaxed, easy. The way his clothes hung on him, despite the armor, had me thinking that he was born to this kind of thing. Then again, looking at his father, of course he was. If family genetics held true for his family as it did for mine, Kenny must have a huge package.
I stopped and stared dumbly down at the ground at that thought. Here I was, first day in class, and I had just checked out not only one of the other student’s, but the teacher as well. What’s happening here? I thought, examining my shoe laces. Take a breath, I told myself. Just think about something else. Oh Christ, does having a hard-on in a cup hurt! Fortunately no one had a chance to notice my discomfort or my embarrassment, as Master Mitch called us over.
“Students, please take a place on the line. Lay your blades out in front of you and take a seat on the mats. Very good.” I ended up sitting between Kenny and Juan, with Jessy on the other side of Juan and Becca and Bart on his opposite side, respectively. We all took off our head gear and sat on the mats, facing the long, narrow section of mat that had been taped off. I told you about that earlier, right?
“Class, I want to introduce our newest member. This is Robby French, and he’s going to be joining us from now on. Robby, you’ll get the chance to meet everyone later. Now I know he’s a week behind the rest of you, but I expect he will do well and catch up quickly. Let’s go over our stretching exercises and I’ll assign pair offs for practice.”
The stretching wasn’t what I thought it was. I had in mind that we’d do football style stretching, where you work out all the large muscle groups, generally strain yourself into a condition where you won’t hurt anything more than the stretching’s already done. Nope. All based on the hand and wrist and shoulder.
It was weird, listening to the other kids breathe and sigh as the stretching went on. I noticed that Kenny’s breathing didn’t seem to change much. Calm, that one, I thought. Of course, with eyes like that, I could be calm too, and scare everyone into loving me.
Again I startled myself in thinking things about a boy in a way that had me terrified and excited all at once. Already this class was affecting me. What have I gotten myself into? I thought, wryly.
The pairings went as follows. Bart and Juan, Becca and Jessy, leaving me against Kenny. Fate was playing cruel games with my heart. I stood up against him and got lots of coaching from him on stance, how to hold the blade, positioning and even balance. I mean, it all should have been simple, right. Stand, swing, smash the other guy a few times then put your point on his chest and tap. Game, set and match, right?
WRONG! The first few passes, Kenny let me come at him and he easily blocked everything I had. I mean for two blocks, all he did was drop his wrist a little and shift feet! I was getting angry at myself. I had thought this would be a bird course. An easy way to appease my parents and prevent myself from becoming a walking all over bruise.
Kenny stepped things up and as I came in he started taking shots at me as well. In fifteen passes, he tagged me fifteen times. I was now well on the way to pissed off. All the time he did it, he still smiled at me, telling me how good I was, how things were getting better. The whole time, I was smoldering with hate. How dare he be so good, have those awesome eyes and reflexes and then stand there and tell me I’m doing good.
Remember all that talk about armor above? Every piece of it got a thorough testing in those early passes. Mostly, though, Kenny kept tagging the back of my hands and my wrists. I eventually got it into my head to keep my elbows in so that my wrists didn’t stand out as likely targets. He even showed me how to do a move he called both a whip over and a flick, although at first I couldn’t get the hang of it. But having him come over and place his hands on my arms and shoulders, changing my position to show me how to defend myself better was slowly beginning to turn me on.
Oh, and my fencing got better, too!
We set up again after a short break, same partners. I needed to hit the bathroom and take some water. I was actually sweating from fencing. Anyways, when I got back to the mats, I was determined to make Kenny pay. My anger had focused through me, through my family determination to never give up, and I pounced.
I moved in and launched a barrage of rapid strikes. Remember, now, I still had very little idea of what I was doing. But Kenny managed to block every single hit, even going into some strange twisting motions to bring his blade into a position to deflect mine. He was poetry and I was a bull in a china closet. I swung in and tried to catch his legs, but he hopped over the blade and brought his around from behind mine to catch and block a nasty (well I thought it would have been nasty) return stroke. I pressed in and he took a step in as well, meeting my blade and deflecting it out of line.
I backed up, but I still took a pot shot at his head. And then he did the most amazing thing I’ve seen (well at least until this point of the story). He actually brought his blade up over his head, behind his back and parried my swing. Then he brought my blade up and around to his front with a kind of duck and backwards hop move, pulling his arms around to his front, spun on his front foot and brought his blade down horizontally from my right shoulder.
Now, ordinarily, I’d be the last one to tell you that I was expecting this, or that I was just good enough to parry that lethal strike. Nope, not this time. How the hell I did it I still don’t know, but the fact is that as he came in on that diagonal slash, somehow I managed to block it with my blade.
We were corps a corps, which I later learned meant body to body (or boy to boy, which is how it was and how I prefer to think of it now). I jumped back suddenly and brought my blade up into the en gardeposition. He immediately beat my blade to the side, bashed into it again, putting it point down on the mat and spun inwards at me, his blade whipping around for a go at my head.
Okay, at this point, I’m supposed to be dead already, in my opinion. I mean, he’s an awesome sword fighter. I’m a computer geek who should be like that deer caught in the headlights. Something was different about all this, though, and I kept finding ways to block him.
As he came in for my head, I felt my arms actually change grip on the handle, changing right on top for left, and swung the blade up at an angle I’d never have thought possible. I intercepted his blade and found myself in motion. I spun and twisted and ran past him, pushing his blade away. The whole move altered our positions on the mat and I had to spin fully about to face him again. He also had to turn and was ready before I was, although the distance in between us was such that neither of us had a decent strike.
Now, it’s at weird times like this that you notice things in strangely sharpened detail. For example, I noticed that all the other practice matches around us had ceased entirely and that the others were watching us duel. I noticed that Kenny’s breathing was coming in shallow fits and gasps, like someone who suffered from allergies often does. Hey, I have allergies, I know these things. I also noticed that while we were separated from that last exchange, he took the time to re-adjust his cup. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with tight crotch guard syndrome.
But that wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention in that brief moment. He was smiling. Not the “I’m the predator playing with the cat food,” smile, or the “I just like fencing and I’m prolonging this because it’s fun,” smile. No, he had on that look that said he was a full on competitor. That he was actually enjoying a legitimate challenge. That he was giving his best and still was having trouble getting to me.
Naw! I thought. I gotta be reading this wrong. He’s gonna cream me in a minute.
That’s when he moved in, and to this day I’ve never figured out how or why I knew what to do, I just did. I just went with it.
He came in straight, trying to get a spearing touch in a move I was later to learn is called a flechè. I parried with my point down and spun rapidly on my back foot, trying to keep distance. Somehow I had managed to block a tricky swipe at my back, my blade just suddenly there to intercept his strike. I reposted almost as soon as I was facing him again, swinging a feint (like I knew what that was at the time, either, huh?) and reversing direction on him suddenly. He caught my blade, batted it up and to the left side. This crossed my wrists, which as any fencer worth two shits will tell you is a big no-no. I didn’t know it yet. As he moved in again, I took a step back, crossing my feet, as it were, and tried to bury my point into his gut.
Again, I don’t know where the idea to hit there came from, but I was going with it. And just as I tagged his padding, right about where the rib cage rolls away from the tummy, his blade came up under mine and ripped it up, around and against my crossed wrists. My saber went sailing out of my hand and thudded against the rock climbing wall, some eight meters away (sue me, I use metric instead of English measurement systems. I’m a geek after all). A perfect prise de fer.
The sound of unabated applause reached both of us as we took off our helmets, both breathing heavy. I was surprised. A crowd of people from other sections of the gym had also come over to watch the battle. Seems we had been going at it for nearly six minutes. Funny, didn’t seem that long. Even the description of the fight from above didn’t take that long…..to write! Someone from the rock climbing club brought over my blade. Kenny and I saluted each other and then bowed to the applause.
Master Mitch was ecstatic. He began asking me how long I’d been fencing. He was totally shocked to learn that today was my first time. He rubbed at his moustache and asked Kenny a question I’ll never forget, because it sent my mind off on a few less than public tangents.
“How was he?” Mitch asked. Almost at once my face turned the color of a fire truck after a good wash down.
“He’s good, Dad. A natural. I had a hard time keeping up with him.”
I barely heard all this, mind you. In my head, I was imagining Kenny kneeling before me, both of us wearing only our armor and at that moment my groin armor was somewhat, er, shall we say, off to one side. I shook my head to clear that image and looked down at my shirt. Soaked through with sweat on the sides and my belly felt sticky against the chest protector.
“Okay, class,” Mitch called out. “Lunch break. Be back in thirty minutes.”
“Wanna get a slice?” Kenny asked as we changed into fresh shirts in the locker room. The grieves came off easily enough and the chest protector seemed to roll off my skin like Velcro. Helmet and gloves were also easily dealt with, but I decided to just leave the cup in place for now. I was actually getting used to it.
“Yeah,” I replied. There was an awesome pizza place across the street from the Y and most of us kids went there for a quick bite. Mom had slipped me some pocket change before abandoning me to the tender mercies of the Jedi class. So we walked over, ordered a slice of PMS each and grabbed a couple of waters from the side fridge. Oh, Pepperoni, Mushroom & Sausage, for those of you who are pizza impaired. And mostly we selected the same type because it was ready, hot and we didn’t want to wait for something else to come out of the oven.
“You were awesome in that last match. You sure you never fenced before, Robby?” he asked, his gray eyes twinkling.
“Uh, well, you know, back yard stuff with broom handles when I was a kid,” I admitted. “Nothing serious.”
“Right!” he said, his tone and attitude clearly not believing me. “I bet you’re one of those kids that plays out sword fight scenes from movies with pencils at school.” Well, I couldn’t deny it. I did do that. A lot, come to think of it. But I wasn’t about to admit it either. I might like this boy, but we were still fairly new to each other.
“You’ve been doing this a while?” I asked, trying to change the subject. Something in me was burning to know every deep detail of this kid. Later on I’d have to own up to why that was, but at this point, I was just going on instincts. Relying on my guts and intuition. Plus, he did seem genuinely friendly. Mom wanted me to make friends and here I was doing so. Damnit, Mom! Why’d you have to be right about this?
“A couple years now. Dad was on the Olympic team back in college, but he didn’t get to go that year.”
“Ah, Moscow, huh?”
“Yeah, but that was forever ago. He got hurt at work and can’t fence like he used to anymore. So he teaches, four classes here and three at the college. He’s still really good.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, taking huge mouthful of pizza. Did I say it was hot before? Scalding! I quickly opened my jaw and pulled the half bitten slice out. Fanning my tongue didn’t seem to make the singed feeling go away, nor did downing a whole bottle of water. He picked up the small container of coffee creamer on the table and put some on his finger.
“Here,” he said, around laughter. “Hold still and stick out your tongue.” His tone was authoritative enough that I did as he said. He rubbed the end of my tongue with the powdered creamer and the fire died away. “Now take some water.” Again I followed his instructions and the burning sensation evaporated.
“How’d….” I started to ask.
“I know about that?” I nodded. “The pizza’s plenty greasy. The creamer absorbs the grease and gets it off your tongue. Otherwise you just keep burning. It’ll still feel like hell for a while, though.”
“Yeah, I guess. Thanks.”
“Anytime,” he returned with a grin. “You did look kinda silly like that, though. Wouldn’t have expected that kind of reaction from a kid who can fence like you do.”
“Really, I don’t know what I’m doing,” I admitted. The double meaning of it caught me and I must have given over that look my mother says reminds her of a confused dog. I kinda tilt my head and frown from my eyes to my chin.
“Well, that’s good. It means you’re a natural. It also means I can really cut loose practicing with you. Jessy’s too easy to read and Juan thinks he’s Zorro.” We both giggled over that comment.
“What about the Berubes?” I asked, still feeling the giggle-fits.
“Total dead woods,” he replied. “Combined the twins have all the fencing skill of a lame, pregnant donkey!” he hissed. Again we both convulsed with laughter, our food nearly forgotten. I said nearly, damnit. We’re both thirteen after all. Practically eating machines.
We hurried back after wolfing down chow and were nearly ten minutes early. We spent the time well, though, getting back into our gear. I was actually excited about starting up again. It was as though a switch had been flipped in my head. Maybe doing physical stuff wasn’t such a pain in the ass after all.
“You should really get your own pads if you’re gonna keep doing this,” Kenny said, seated on the changing room bench. He was strapping the grieves on over his shins like a gladiator preparing for the arena. I was marveling at how in shape he was, how the ripples of his tight, lean belly would one day make an impressive six pack, how his shoulders weren’t rounded and padded with baby fat, but smooth, shaped and taut. It took me by surprise and I had to alter my facial expression to mimic that I was thinking over the idea of getting my own stuff. Actually though, I was thinking about what his skin must feel like.
“I don’t know the first thing about sports gear,” I answered at length, turning my head down a little. I let my front bangs droop in front of my eyes as I looked back at him. Jeezus, was I flirting? With a boy?! I turned my attention to strapping my own grieves on tighter. They didn’t seem to fit as well as they should.
“I could help you with that. There’s a used gear store just over state line in Plaistow. I get most of my stuff there. And those grieves are the wrong size for you. The helmet’s too big, too. Keeps bringing your head down, doesn’t it?”
I nodded agreement to his assessment of the gear. It was a little difficult to move with the grieves constantly needing to be tightened. “Yeah, but you do real fencing, too, right?”
“Not this lightsaber bullshit. I mean, the real thing, with swords.”
“Sorta,” he admitted. “This is actually a training version of fencing called single stick. Guess why?” he deadpanned, tilting his eyes at me.
“Duh!” I countered.
“Normal fencing gear is designed to stop a point from penetrating, but that’s about it. And it is expensive, especially if you get a set that’s rigged with electronic scoring sensors.”
“So how have we been counting hits?”
“We’re doing what’s called fencing dry or steaming. I don’t get why it’s called that either. Something French, I’m sure,” he giggled. I suddenly liked his offbeat and uncannily accurate sense of humor. He made sense to me where so many others didn’t.
But our time alone couldn’t last. The locker room door opened and in came Jessy, Juan and Bart, all looking like they’d ran across the bridge to the fast food joints across the river. They were sweating more now than they had been in practice earlier.
Now, it would be ridiculously easy to say that they came in with an attitude, or that they were looking to start something, which in my mind was only a heartbeat away anyways. I mean, I’m the nerd here. I’m traditionally the one that’s due to get plastered to the tiles every time the bully kids enter the locker room. It’s clichè, I know, but that’s one of those things about clichès, they are dependable.
But they didn’t start anything. They were mostly chatting to themselves in that pseudo-English that jocks are so fond of and seemed to ignore Kenny and me except to say “hey,” as they got to their gear. I visibly relaxed a bit, but for some reason, I couldn’t let my guard totally down.
“You all set, then?” Kenny asked. I stared at his eyes for a second and picked up my helmet and gloves.
“After you, Sir Kenneth,” I said, affecting a British accent.
“Oh no, Sir Robyn, after you, milord.” I stuck my nose in the air, trying to imitate some old timey movie knight I had seen on some cable channel somewhere and just marched out, slapping my gloves against my helmet as I exited. The whole thing was terribly funny for us both and we nearly fell over laughing as we got onto the mats again. I know, it probably doesn’t seem so funny to most of you, but it was a hoot at the time.
Anyhow, we stretched out again, Kenny showing me how to do the complicated wrist and shoulder exercise and then we assumed a ready stance, facing each other.
“No helmets?” he asked, arching one of his gull wing eyebrows in challenge.
“No helmets,” I agreed, my eyes narrowing. Try and call a bluff on me, will you! Besides, that thing was heavy and kept pulling my neck forward. Clearly, I needed to get out more.
We tossed the helmets to the side and assumed ready stances again. We circled at first, trying to find a weakness to exploit. To be honest, I was just trying to keep him from getting any advantage I could. He was wicked fast when he wanted to be and he had the experience. I was just too dumb to back down.
He moved in and our blades came together. Crash, crash, crash, it was like watching two sailors duking it out on the deck of an old sailing ship in a pirate movie. We turned, spun, lashed at each other and parried in turn. He was pulling moves that I could only dream of, actually going to one knee before me as he lunged, pulling back somersaults on the mats and still beating back my attacks. He even jumped high over one of my slashes at his knees and managed to attack while still in the air. I don’t know how long we were at it, ferociously batting away and circling, but we left the mats twice. Once he actually fought backwards and went up into the bleachers. The other time, he rolled backwards onto a table and dared me to hop up and fight him there.
Once again, we had drawn a crowd, but I didn’t care. Something happened in the midst of that fight, and we both suddenly clicked. It was like we had been sword fighting forever, knowing each other’s moves so well that we reacted on instinct and intuition. We fought and turned and paced each other and finally we both landed simultaneous blows. His glittering silver blade rained down and bisected my shoulder right through my trapezius muscle. Mine was a lateral slash that would have opened his belly and gutted him had we actually been using blades.
Almost as if by mutual decision, we both fell over, dead exhausted. Chests heaving, we didn’t hear the loud applause until Master Mitch came over to see if we were okay.
“Are you boys alright?” he asked, checking us both.
“Fine, Dad. Just winded.”
“You ought to be, you were fighting for over twenty minutes,” he smiled. “Very impressive.”
I rolled over on my stomach and looked at the clock, centered on a distant wall. We had been hacking away for nearly half an hour. “Oh,” I groaned, faking it up. “Coach, he’s killed me! Ugh!” I said, slumping, my tongue hanging out in death.
“I’m fading, too,” Kenny called, woefully, repeating my performance. I sneaked one eye open and saw him thrash about and then flop onto his side, his head leaning down to the mat in mock final repose. Giggles and grins spread as the spectators broke up, heading back to their activities.
“Alright you dead Jedi. On your feet. Just because you can go full speed like that doesn’t mean you can’t get pointers on your defense. And keep your helmets on next time. Line up, class,” Master Mitch bellowed and we grudgingly regained our places on the line.
The rest of the class was informative, if nothing else. Kenny got paired with Juan, and I got paired with Becca. She knew a lot more about sword fighting than I did, but for some reason, she couldn’t lay a touch on me. I took her in fifteen straight passes. She was making simple mistakes, like lifting her elbows and exposing her wrists. That lesson about flicks really helped out. I suddenly realized, in that moment, that I really like fencing. Not just because it made my heart thump in my chest, or it was control that mattered here instead of power. No. I think I liked it because part of me was already trying to do it as best as I could.
Was I showing off? Hard to say, since I’d never done anything like this before. Was I good at it? Well, Kenny and his father seemed to think so. The other members of the class were in fear of me. I have to admit, after being the one usually in fear all the time, it felt really good to be the one with all the power for once.
We took a second water break and they were paired up again, although this time I drew Juan. He was wicked fast, and with all his soccer and football skills, he was light on his feet and able to move well with balance. I was working hard just to keep him at bay. He kept coming in thinking he was Antonio Banderas. But I wasn’t having any of it. He quickly was wearing himself out. I lost the first two touches to him clean. He was fast after all, and I hadn’t been challenged by Becca. I lost the next three on purpose, some odd part of my brain telling me to analyze his moves as he struck.
For some odd reason, I listened to that odd part of my brain for once. And I saw a pattern emerge. He always lifted his wrist slightly before making any thrust and he always parried to the same side to create the opening he wanted for the thrust. On our sixth pass, I creamed him, using his own move. The next eight passes I took without him even getting close. I even let him have his desired opening on the last one and he let it slip by. So I slashed his knees and spun to come around in a decapitation move. Mitch shouted “Stop!” as I was about to land the blow and I did. That was one of the rules. If the master called the match off, or for any reason called a stop, you stopped, right then and there.
And, although I kinda knew that Mitch was a kind person with a gentle heart, I didn’t want him mad at me.
Juan, however, was another story. He saw that I had stopped and he used a dirty trick. He lashed out with the pommel end of his lightsaber handle, bashing me square in the nuts. Pain exploded in my eyes and I felt the lights go out.
I came to rather rudely. A coffee cup full of tap water had been tossed on my face, waking me up. I still felt the dull ache of the groin shot, but could breathe normally. Well, about as normally as any kid who’s just had water dumped at his mouth and nose can. Some of it went up my left nostril and I coughed and blew to get it out.
“Are you alright?” Mitch said, leaning over me. Also leaning over me was Kenny, and I felt relieved that he was there. Juan wasn’t anywhere in my sight, but the roofing beams of the lower gym were. Which meant I was flat on my back. Someone had taken the helmet off me, thankfully. It was great protection, to be sure, but it definitely wasn’t a comfy place to have your head when you were lying down.
“Yeah,” I replied to his question.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Two,” I responded. “I got sacked, not knocked cold, Master,” I said, suddenly feeling a little unnerved.
“Next time, we’ll have to make sure you have a bigger cup,” he smiled back. Ooooh, I thought. The coach just basically said I had monster sized balls. Yeah! Take that Juan! “Just to be on the safe side, though, I think you should go see the nurse.”
“The nurse?” A dozen thoughts flew through my head. Seeing the nurse meant that she was gonna check me for injuries. Which in this case meant she was gonna be looking right at my….. “Um, I’m fine, really!” I tried to get up and promptly felt my family jewels cringe. The dull ache became a more throbbing pain. “Okay, maybe I’ll see the nurse,” I said, meekly.
“I’ll help you,” Kenny said, taking my arm. He helped me to my feet. With my arm around his shoulders, Kenny helped me to the nurse’s station on the ground floor. Although I kinda liked the fact that he was helping me and that our sweaty bodies were touching, at that moment I really didn’t need to be excited by his presence. Unfortunately, I was. Which made the ache worse.
The nurse got a good look at my lower anatomy, and recommended I put some ice on it to prevent any swelling. I was so thoroughly embarrassed. And to top it all off, Kenny stayed in the room with me while she examined. I just closed my eyes. I don’t know if he saw anything or what his reaction to it was. I just remember thinking that it was the most humiliating thing I had ever had happen to me in my life. And it hurt, damnit!
When the nurse took the ice pack away (and I now know at least one meaning of blue balls!) I pulled my shorts back up, leaving the YMCA approved jock strap and its size Caucasian cup behind. I sniffled back the tears I had been storing up and letting go while the ice did its work on my naked nuts, and walked out into the nurse’s office.
Kenny was waiting there, a look of subtle pain on his face. He saw me walking out and almost instantly his smile returned. And it lit his eyes up as well. I couldn’t help but smile back, despite the one tear that still waited to slip out.
“The walking wounded, reporting for front line duty, suh!” I said, again dropping into my phony British accent. I to this day have no idea why speaking like that is so funny to me, but it is. I wonder if Brits think that American’s talk funny too. This time, though, the accent was more of a stodgy old time army officer, like the elephant colonel in the Disney version of Jungle Book. I put on my hoarsest, deepest voice into it, and still sounded kinda squeaky.
“Very good, Leftenant,” Kenny said, dropping into character almost with as much ease. “Proceed to the parade ground!”
“Yes suh!” I proudly nearly shouted, giving a stiff salute. I took a few marching steps and exited the nurse’s station with Kenny right behind me. The nurse muttered something under her breath as we walked out. I managed to get about ten steps before the pain again knackered me. I grabbed Mr. Pickle and the Twins and bent over double. The pain was excruciating, and yes, I had to look that word up in the dictionary in order to spell it properly.
Kenny was at my side in an instant. “Hey, you alright?”
“Been better,” I squeaked. “Just hurts to stomp around like that right now. It’ll pass.” God, I hoped it would pass. My nuts were sore. I was certain that by tonight they would be black and blue. When I get the chance again, I’m really gonna have to let Juan have it!
“Hey, listen. No retribution, okay? We don’t do that.” It was like he was reading my mind. Then again, with my total lack of poker face, he was probably just reading my expression.
“Why not?” I asked, angrily. I had the sneaking suspicion that he had just read my intent on my face. I thought I had better control than that. I’ll have to work on it.
“Look, Juan might deserve it, especially after Dad called a stop, but going around looking for trouble like that is only gonna get you into more than you can handle. And it’s not honorable. And, (there was another and?) you can’t carry a saber everywhere you go. Right now, that mere four feet of wood is the only thing that was protecting you, even giving you an advantage over Juan. If it came down to fists, he’d kick your butt.”
“Thanks for building up my confidence,” I snarled back. All of a sudden he wasn’t on my side anymore. I was feeling that I had been right earlier when I said that this summer would be hell. And this was only day one of summer break.
“I’m just being honest. He’s fast and he’s not too bright. Don’t fall into his trap, and don’t play his game. I….I don’t wanna see you get hurt again.”
He’d just said it. I know I’d heard him just say it, yet it was like he was saying it to someone else and now I was hearing it on a recording or something. Nope. He’d said it to me, directly, and from the heart. Hey, you get into enough heated debates as you do in my family, you learn to tell when something is said from a point of view or a true emotion.
Kenny just practically said he cared about me.
Let me back up half a step here. I’d never really had any friends, not for a while anyways. There were people I’d met on the net, of course. And pals from school. And fellow geeks at computer stores and comic book shops. But no one that I’d make time to hang out with, one on one. Being an only child, sometimes alone can feel normal enough that you accept it and almost enjoy it.
Kenny just admitted that he cared for me, and aside from my family, no one had ever dared that before in my life. I sat down on a nearby wooden bench, and Kenny sat beside me, his arm draping over my shoulder protectively. And in that moment, I suddenly knew what it meant to love someone. Not the kind of love you have for Mom and Dad, or even for your grandparents and cousins and aunt & uncles. No, this was genuine affection and concern. And all on the strength of three hours trying to bash each other’s brains in with wooden sticks.
“Thanks, Kenny,” I said, sniffing back tears again. “I’ve been a real shit today, and you’ve been nothing but nice to me.”
“Hey, it’s not like I’m doing anything special. You just needed a friend,” he said, his eyes sparkling a bit as I looked up to him. “And so did I,” he finished. And that was that.
I mean, what else do you need to know about how Kenny became my best friend in the universe. That was it. Now what happened next, ooooh, that is another story, and one that you won’t even believe if I told you.