The Second Wednesday
“Don’t think she’s ready.” Forearms resting on top of the brightly-colored counter at the entrance to Riverside Gymnastics, Gandy twitched her head towards her right, in the direction of the door leading to the gym floor. “You can go in, so long as your boots are dry.”
“I’ll take them off anyway,” Rune walking over to the row of chairs beyond the gym entrance. He sat, pulled off his right boot – “Are we the only ones here?”
Gandy nodded. “Olivers picked up Lisa about fifteen minutes ago, she’s usually the last one, I let her play in my office, you know they both have to work. Evening class doesn’t start for another hour. No, Annie’ll often have the place all to herself for about an hour, she’s here every weekday afternoon, except Tuesday.”
Rune pulled off his left boot. “That’s when we have fencing practice.”
Gandy laughed, and stepped out from behind the counter painted brightly in yellow and red. Over a green blouse she wore a faded cardigan sweater that hung down over her brown slacks. Rune could smell the hairspray that kept her corona of light brown hair in place. “Every day is fencing practice for her.” The fifty-two-year-old business owner then walked past Rune, disappearing into her office.
Rune felt a cool draft of December air on his stocking feet as he walked into the gym. “Hey” he heard Annie’s voice calling off to his right. Turning in the direction of her voice, he caught a glimpse of himself in a row of tall mirrors, saw that a clump of his hair was standing upright, static electricity and the shape of his wool hat combining to shape the top of his head into an image that reminded Rune of a horror movie satire, hair standing on edge in exaggerated fright.
Rune stopped, looked around him and upon confirming his actions would be unseen, stared into the mirror and patted his hair down, licking his fingers after the first unsuccessful wipe to provide the necessary moisture.
Rune turned from the mirrors, in the direction of Annie’s voice. His feet bounced lightly on the floor, covered wall to wall with thick exercise mats laid over two layers of heavy-duty carpet padding, Gandy’s gym being renowned throughout the region for the safety and comfort it provided her students. The floor was strewn with all manner of athletic equipment – portable mats, hoops, balls, batons, weights, vaulting boards, pommel horses – which Rune found difficult at times to navigate in the dim light (a glance at the ceiling confirming that most of the lights had been turned off between classes).
A moment later he saw a figure standing in profile to him on a high balance beam, the pert pony-tail behind the head instantly identifying Annie. The balance beam was located in front of a large wall of glass, divided into twelve even rectangular panes, three across and four high. The glass was more opaque than translucent, intended more to protect privacy than to let in light, and in the late afternoon sun formed a dim gray background to Annie’s black silhouette.
Rune saw her profile standing high on the balance beam, her right arm extended away from her body, the dim outline of a foil visible in her hand. She held her left arm back, forearm pointed up at the ceiling, hand curled in line with the back of her head, fingers hanging loose. She stood effortlessly on the narrow beam, showing no sign of the effort required to maintain her balance, her right leg leading in the direction of her foil and resting softly in front of her, left leg planted firmly in line with her body and pointed out towards Rune.
Annie stepped forward once, twice, front foot picking up first and coming forward to land softly on the beam, left leg picking up and coming forward. She advanced a third time, still without visible sign of effort, seeming to move as comfortably as she would on the wide cushioned floor from which Rune watched her.
“About time you made it” – her voice from the darkness surprised him. Rune walked towards her – “Ow!” his right foot tripping over a balance beam positioned low on the floor, nearly impossible to see in the dim light.
“Careful.” Annie began to step backwards on the beam, back leg lifting and landing then pulling her front leg forward, both feet landing with a barely audible sound. One step, two step – Annie suddenly extended her arm fully, lifted her front leg and pushed from her back, her front foot landing on the beam with an authoritative stomp.
She held the pose for an unwavering moment. Rune examined her with open awe, tracing with his eyes a line that extended up and away from her back foot, through the powerful muscles in her back leg, through her trim and balanced torso, through the might and grace that glowed from her shoulders, up through her biceps, triceps, wrist, the energy generated from her body collecting like a battery in her hand, transferring that energy into her weapon, held now at the apex of her lunge, the blade angled slightly down, the tip positioned in the exact location of her invisible opponent’s chest.
Feeling compelled to speak but unable to articulate what he thought as he admired Annie, Rune uttered a simple “Wow.”
“It’s great practice.” Annie pulled up from her lunge until she returned to en garde position. “Especially when you throw in a gymnastics move” – she suddenly jumped up, right leg coming forward and left going back to form a mid-air split, both feet landing hard on the balance beam. Annie leaned to her right, only regaining her balance after an awkward circling of her arms, her foil nearly hitting the beam, an embarrassed “dammit” escaping her lips.
Rune wiped his wavy hair from his brow. “Don’t recommend doing that during a bout.”
“It’s about body control.” Annie continued with slow deliberate advances along the narrow beam. “Like I keep telling you in practice, the weapon arm’s the least important part of a fencer’s body. You need balance, you need footwork, you need” – she stood upright quickly, legs coming together, right arm holding her foil high, left arm held across her stomach, and quickly turned in the opposite direction, brought her right foot forward quickly, extended her right arm with its foil into attack position, the motion as fluid as it was swift – “control.”
Annie stood, pulling her feet together on the balance beam, turned to Rune. “You weren’t at practice yesterday.”
Rune nodded; in the gray winter dimness, the motion of his head looked like a red and white fishing buoy bobbing on dark waves.
“I’m not letting you quit the fencing team.”
Her sudden suggestion snapped Rune to attention. “Who said I was quitting?”
Annie jumped down from the balance beam, her feet landing with practiced elegance on the matted floor. She placed her foil next to a long, narrow canvas bag, Rune noticing it for the first time – “You finally bought your own equipment?”
“Yes.” She showed no interest in discussing his observation further. “We need you at practice on Tuesdays.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just – “
“I miss you.”
Rune stared at her, too surprised by her last statement to respond. He examined her face in the dusky light, saw that her gray face was not pleading with him, was not in any way begging him to return to practice. She was looking at him with an emotionless expression, the face of an attorney during cross-examination, a look that demanded a response and would patiently until it was provided.
All Rune could think of doing was to reply honestly. “I don’t understand.”
“I need everyone on the team.” She dropped the bag on the floor. “Rex and Juan inspire me, Double-J and OK kick me in the ass, teaching The Bird and Butch keeps me focused. You – you probably do the most important thing.”
Seeing Rune was at a loss for words, Annie continued. “You make me smile.” (Rune noticed she said this without smiling). “No matter what happens, you always say something that lightens the mood at practice. I’m not the only one you affect – Butch would probably have quit the team by now if you weren’t there, The Bird maybe as well. Rex was asking about you, Coach Dan too, not as a coach or teacher, more like an older brother.”
Rune cleared his throat. “Well, good to know I provide such an important role on the team. But like I was trying to say, Tuesday was my mother’s birthday, and my father and I took her out to dinner, so that’s why I wasn’t at practice.”
Annie blinked. “You didn’t say anything to Coach the week before.”
“Um.” Rune looked down. “It was – a surprise. My father didn’t tell me – ”
“If your father told you in the morning, you could have said something to Coach Dan, or me, during the day. If he told you in the evening, you’d have no reason to skip practice.”
Annie paused, waited for Rune’s reply. He smiled, waved his hands above his head. “OK, OK. I’ve been having a hard time lately, I needed a break.”
“But – “
Rune held up a hand. “I’ll be at practice next week. Promise.”
Annie sighed in the awkward air. Rune broke eye contact with Annie, began looking around the room. He pointed to an area to his right, just off the end of the balance beam on which Annie had just been practicing – “What’s that?”
The area was clearly a large rectangular hole in the floor, exercise mats aligned at all edges. Three sides of the rectangular opened into the gym, the fourth running along the edge of an exterior wall facing the street. The hole was filled with blocks of padding, of irregular shape and color, small yellow squares mixed with long white rectangles, the occasional cylindrical shape, some of the pads clearly torn from larger pieces, some discolored, others pristine in condition and appearance.
Rune lowered his arm. “It looks like a bomb went off in a pillow factory.”
“This building used to be a garage.” Annie pointed to the wall at the far end of the rectangle, and Rune recognized the shape of a large pull-up door. She pointed down at the hole – “This was their oil change pit. Gandy went all around the city before this place opened, collected every bit of foam she could gather, threw it in here. We use it as a landing pit – the kids love jumping into it.”
“Sometimes I dismount off the beam into there. Let me show you.” Before Rune could object, Annie had stooped down, retrieved her foil from the fencing bag, began rushing over to the balance beam, pony-tail prancing behind her. She grabbed the end of the beam furthest from the pit with her left hand and pulled herself up, legs spidering onto the beam, Rune’s eyes following her every movement as her slim and powerful frame now stood confidently on the narrow beam, arms extended to her sides, foil in her right hand.
“You don’t have to do this,” the tone of Rune’s voice indicating he would most certainly like to ee her do this.
“I’ve done this hundreds of times.” She extended her right leg pointedly forward across the beam, then raised her arms up from her sides, the backs of her hands nearly touching above her head, a smile on her face for invisible judges. Bringing her arms down and her legs together, she looked down at the beam in front of her, the smile giving way to a look of focused determination. She sprinted forward across the beam one step, two, three, then as she neared the beam’s end she raised her arms again and twisted her torso left, arms torqueing her body up and forward, her feet pushing off from the beam, arms pulling into her body as it spun over the pit, the flumpf of her landing nearly obscured by the melodious ring of Annie’s giggle.
Annie sat up awkwardly in the foam pit, arms extended wide, the foil in her right hand then tossed in the direction of the beam. Her weight shifting quickly in the uneven surface, she called to Rune – “Jump in.”
Rune walked over to the side of the pit, a wry grin on his face – then ducked from the flight of the foam block thrown by Annie. “Hey!” – his objecting cry cut off by a second foam brick, this one striking his face.
“Whoa!” Losing her balance in the foam pit, Anne looked up at Rune, saw he was frozen in concentration, a look she had seen before, earlier that fall, when Coach Dan had asked him whether he wanted to try epee. She remembered Rune eventually saying something like “I do and I don’t.”
She threw another foam ball, this one the size of her fist – “You’re cute when you’re indecisive.”
Rune raised his arms quickly, snatched the ball, tossed it back at Annie, and with a hyperbolic Tarzan yell AWWW-AW-AW leapt into the foam pit at Annie, who shrieked in mock alarm.
Rune fell into the pit next to Annie, quickly raised his head in time to see her scurry away, hiding in the foam blocks.
“WOMAN NO ESCAPE!” His knees knuckled him forward across the uneven surface as he cast foam blocks aside. His senses now alert, he noticed the torn and jagged edges of the blocks, colors faded from years of sunlight and impact, and also caught an uncomfortable miasma of odors, dust mingling with musty dried sweat, the lingering memory of oil changes, and the acrid stench of urine.
Rune kneed into a pocket of loose foam that instantly collapsed, sending him face-forward into the pit. Hearing Annie’s laughter, he attempted to sit upright, lurched sideways into the pit – “Dammit!” – finally regained his balance and looked around. He did not see Annie anywhere, detected no movement in the pit either.
He heard Annie giggle behind him, followed by a flumpf of foam, Rune turning toward the sounds just in time for a cube of foam to hit him square in the face.
She was close enough to him for Rune to catch up with her before she could dive down into the foam blocks. She laughed a scream as he caught her around the waist – “WOMAN!” – pulled her towards him while rotating her body upwards.
They both laughed as they looked at each other, Rune suddenly thrusting his body on top of hers. He beat his chest with both hands, gave another loud Tarzan yell, and noticed that Annie had stopped laughing. She was smiling, looking up at him expectantly. Rune stopped laughing. Her smile became gentler, her gaze more focused, inviting.
“Yeah, I’m ready.” Rune pulled the fencing mask down over his head, his face now hidden from Annie’s view behind the gray steel mesh. He crouched down into en garde position across from her in the dining room, the illumination brilliant both from the lights above and the reflection of those lights against the polished marble floor.
Coach Dan motioned for Annie and Rune to begin fencing. Annie stepped forward aggressively, as was her custom; Rune stepped forward as well, lunging suddenly, the blade of his foil arching towards Annie – and missed, the tip flying past Annie’s left shoulder, as if he were aiming for someone who was approaching her from behind.
Annie turned her hand over, the radius rotating over the ulna, her blade clinking lightly against Rune’s, pushing it even further away from her. Radius then rolling back over the ulna, her weapon now in line with Rune’s body, she extended her arm, the point of her foil landing in the middle of Rune’s chest.
Rune swore, then his body jerked as if awakened. He turned to Carl Hutchinson, established what eye contact he could muster behind his mask, and apologized.
“No worries.” Carl Hutchinson shook his head of silvery hair. “It shows you’re passionate for success, an admirable quality.”
Rune returned to his starting position, turned to face Annie, already turned in his direction, knees bent and weapon arm extended. Not waiting for Coach Dan, Annie advanced one step, two. Rune retreated, Annie responding by twitching her head inquisitively. She stopped, relaxed her shoulders, stared straight at Rune, standing uncertainly.
Annie stood in place, rocking back between her front and back legs as if her body was energized, like a motorized children’s ride outside a grocery store, humming back and forth, stationary yet active. Opposite her stood Rune, feet planted squarely on the tiled floor.
A long moment passed, until Carl Hutchinson pointed in Rune’s direction. “I think she’s waiting for you to make a move.”
Rune’s hands pressed into the uneven surface of the foam pit, his arms holding his body above Annie’s. And then he lowered his body, aiming his mouth in the direction of Annie’s, which arched up at the last second to meet his, their open lips meeting hungrily, each of their mouths acting with the force of a vacuum to draw the other in.
His kiss was strong, awkward, Rune nearly drawing back as soon as he made impact, like a scared skydiver helplessly flailing to jump back into the plane. Sensing his panic, Annie threw her arms around him, pulled him close, down upon her body.
Her kiss was warm, wet, filled with curiosity and wonder, her lips acting like a probe, examining his reactions, searching for some sign of what he was thinking, what he was feeling, what he was going to do, what he didn’t dare do.
Rune thrust his arms into the foam pit, pushed his body up (right side lifting higher having grasped firmer grounding), pulled his face away from hers, his mouth open and eyes wide, eyes staring down at Annie.
Annie looked up at him, and smiled. She brought her right hand up, Rune backing away, “No – ” she giggled, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him closer, then reaching with her left hand behind her head grabbed the fabric-covered elastic tie that held her pony-tail in place, pulled it loose, held it in front of Rune’s face.
Rune followed the tie with his eyes as she tossed it aside, landing a few feet away in the foam pit, then turned back to stare down at Annie, her dark brown hair cascading down across her shoulders, lying loose in parts across her chest, lying sprawled in other parts across the foam bricks.
“I never realized – ” her voice soft as the snow falling outside – “how strong you are.”
“Coach Taylor always said I was stronger than I looked.”
“Eighth grade. Lasted the year, didn’t continue.”
“Were you good?”
“Didn’t matter. Didn’t like it. Too violent.”
Annie snorted. “And so you took up fencing?”
Rune’s laugh sounded as pleasant as a warm breeze through a thick green forest. “OK, so maybe being covered by some other guy’s sweat was what got to me.”
Annie grabbed Rune’s shoulders – “Hope this doesn’t gross you out – ” then pulled him down on top of her. Closed her eyes, arched her lips up, muffled a startled cry as he descended on her, kissing her firmly.
Annie stiffened suddenly, pushed Rune off her. “Sorry – ” Annie responding to his apology with a swift soft command, shhh. Rune noticed she was looking past his shoulder, in the direction of the door to the office. He heard the sound of a door hinge.
“Annie?” Gandy stepped into the gym, called to her again.
Annie pushed Rune aside, holding a hand up to his lips. She rose awkwardly on the uneven surface of the foam pit, her weight shifting among the discolored blocks, head finally rising above the top of the pit – “Yeah, I’m still here. Just practicing dismounts.”
“That boy with you?”
Annie hesitated a moment. “Think he went outside.”
“He forgot his books.” Gandy sounded annoyed. “You think he went home? When did he leave?”
“I didn’t notice him leaving.”
“Well he’s either here or he’s not,” Gandy’s annoyance now indisputable. “What was his name? Susie’s brother, that Hutchinson boy.”
Rune climbed out of the foam pit, waving in Gandy’s direction. “Here I am, it’s Rune.” He felt Annie’s eyes stabbing at him.
“Oh. There you are.” Gandy sounded only moderately relieved. “What were you doing in the foam pit?”
Rune turned to Annie, shrugged in the dark. “Looking for my books?”
Annie’s swift parry deflected Rune’s foil, her equally swift riposte landing on his chest.
“You’re telegraphing your attacks again,” Coach Dan stepping in Rune’s direction as he and Annie saluted, shook hands. “You come forward, but hesitate before you attack.”
“You’re thinking too much,” Annie taking off her mask. “You need to act instinctively, go with what seems right rather than trying to figure out the best move.” Rune nodded, turning away from both of them, and walked back towards Butch.