The trapeze has its own kind of hubris. Similar to the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the likelihood that you will both fall and allow yourself to be caught is what makes the art so exhilarating. From a seat in the audience, trapeze artists are otherworldly. Their bodies almost cease being human as women are tossed intro triple flips and gracefully grasp hold of a partner’s arms. Static trapeze, where balance is used to hang off the bar with only the arch of one foot, makes the performer seem little more than a series of shapes suspended in midair.

In person, watching middle-aged parents and their children leaping off platforms gives new meaning to audience discomfort. The sense of awe that exists watching a real performance with lighting and leotards is replaced by a gut-dropping feeling each time someone takes off from the platform. These are not people who have been training since birth. They could be your little brother, your grandmother. They could be you.

If you’ve ever taken a summer drive along Manhattan’s West Side Highway and not been paying close attention to the road, a strange sight may have caught your eye. On top of the Chelsea Piers are the outlines of ropes and wires. Unless you are lucky enough to pass by in time to see people propelling themselves into thin air, it would seem like a school playground. The New York Trapeze School, with both outdoor and year-round indoor locations, is the main place for Manhattanites who want to learn how to fly.

For sixty dollars, aspiring trapeze artists can learn the basics starting with the first swing off a twenty-three foot high platform. Though you are roped into a harness until more advanced levels, the ladder to get up there is precarious. It’s not much more than the flimsy aluminum you would use to paint a house. And there are two of them, held together with something that looks like a metal clip. Once you have reached the platform, it is time to fasten the harness into the ropes used for actual trapeze. In the beginner classes, someone is stationed at the platform to help you with adjusting your harness before taking off into the air.

This is the point where you will have your first experience holding the bar in two hands. Though they’re wider, there doesn’t seem to be much distinguishing the trapeze bars from the monkey bars most children use at the playground. As long as you forget that, unlike a play-set, this one is not built on a base of wood that has been solidly staked into the woodchips beneath you. And, unlike climbing sets, you will be required to lean the upper half of your body far over the edge of the platform before moving forward. The second reason the spotter is there on the platform with you is to hold the back of your harness in place until it’s time for you to sail out into the air. Once you’ve assumed this leaning position, there is no turning back. Your body is stretched so precariously that the simple opening of a hand will send you soaring.

Fifteen minutes of the class has probably elapsed at this point. There is only an hour and forty-five minutes left.

Next is the most basic trapeze trick—the knee hang. It’s more or less self-explanatory. You curl your knees into your chest in order to get them over the bar. Then you hang upside down by your legs and undo the process. Beginners tend to miss the gravitational cues that announce when to move to the next step. Flying trapeze relies entirely on your ability to use balance to your advantage. You become that pendulum from physics class, moving from one end of a trajectory to another. Only, in this case, you have the ability to increase your momentum by releasing your arms at one end of the knee hang and curling back into yourself at the other.

There is only one part left before the end of your basic training is over. There are thirty minutes left in the session.

For the last step of your foray into circus arts you will be asked to trust a stranger beyond the limits of most romantic relationships. On the ground, an instructor readies you. “It takes twelve seconds from the time you take off. Being off by one second ruins everything.” You will be hanging upside down from the bar. Swinging back and forth, the stranger will yell that he is ready. This is when you are supposed to reach backward to grasp the forearms of a strapping young man. He is also on the trapeze, pulling you off of your perch. You will hang in the faith of your increasingly firm hold on his skin.

From the audience this is a heart-racing moment. Though the net below and the harness rid the act of fatal danger, there is something both raw and brave in watching someone rely on another so fully. In the motion of straightening legs, normal people gain a grace that can rarely be found on the ground. For only a second, the two on the trapeze are suspended in the air. It takes watching a number of people take their first turns to figure out why: the person being caught always waits to lock arms before allowing their legs to let go of the bar. There is trust here but it isn’t perfect.
Some members of the class will never get the catch quite right. One woman has trouble with finding the rhythm of steps. By the time she swings to be caught, the other person has pulled too far away from her. Her husband can do it. So can her children and all of her friends. She is jealous. Discouraged. Before the last round of flights, she takes her harness off and gets ready to go.

To become a true trapeze artist you have to feed off the exhilaration of height. You need flexibility, strength, and above all else, a sense of yourself as a gravitational object. Trapeze is a sport like anything else. It builds strength and requires discipline but it also metaphorically—and literally—reaches something higher. The bar centers you in a unique way. Either you will find balance or you will fall. Short of trying something a little closer to the offering of your high school gym class, those are the only two options. People at the trapeze school come to the sport for many different reasons. Some have been gymnasts or dancers. Some came to accompany a friend and couldn’t stop doing it. One woman quit her job as a lawyer specializing in international law to travel for a year. When she gets back she is hoping to teach trapeze to others. People at this school—at least those in the upper levels—are not sure what they would do without it flying their lives. One woman says she has worried about the possibility of moving to a place without access to trapeze. This is a lifestyle and an addiction rolled into one.

It’s why true trapeze artists—those ones you’ve paid to see illuminated by stage lights—can make a possible activity seem wholly unattainable. As moving forms, their bodies are not what you are made of. This is not a matter of endurance or muscle tone. The need to be in the air is apparent from the first few swings. After dismounting from the bars, the more advanced students turn to their instructors in order to perfect their tricks. Few of them have real smiles but the thrill is clear on their faces. To trust the bar is to fly and to fall like Icarus. You know you have the ability to catch yourself on the way down. For the next swing, you will only push yourself higher.

NYS Route 212

By Tove Danovich


Traveling in a car is like moving through two worlds at the same time. Inside you are mostly still while flashing past houses, people, and trees at almost unthinkable speeds. Entire towns and lakes vanish within minutes. Right now, we’re going sixty on a road made for half of that. The driver and the road controls our movement—the pull of our bodies away from and toward the window each time we run past a curve, the hum of vibrations that goes up through the seat. When I relax my mouth—which isn’t often because the conversation is funny—my teeth chatter against each other with an involuntary click.

We’re driving through upstate New York, trying to find our way to Woodstock. Matt and I have never been and even though Paul tells us that it’s full of hippies and gift shops it’s a good excuse for a drive. “It really shows you what would have happened if the sixties never died.” Paul bought his first and only pair of Birkenstocks there a few years ago but hasn’t been back since.

With Paul behind the wheel of his car, we get lost on the way and end up doing a big loop away from the town and then back toward it again. A five-minute drive becomes an hour long after taking the wrong road at the turnpike. “You need to get a map,” I tell Paul, and he glowers in response.

But getting a little disoriented transforms into a beautiful detour. We drive beside a lake that reminds me of Tahoe; the water is pure crystal with an island of trees in the center. According to a fire station’s sign, we’re in the town of Lake Hill, a place where the GPS on our phones won’t work. None of us can even tell how lost we are.

It’s seventy-five degrees outside. We roll the windows down and it doesn’t take long for my hair to get tangled from the wind in my face. It rolls over each curl, twisting it around until the hairs rub together and felt themselves into knots. With the windows down I can actually feel the speed. To be fair, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between sixty miles an hour and thirty from the wind alone. Colors blur together outside; individual plants and trees turn into streaks of green and brown and yellow. As we speed up, that swaying back and forth in my seat grows more rhythmical. Inside the car it’s still all hum and sleepiness and vibration. It reminds me of being in the rocking chair at home or out on a boat where the waves slap against the wood with a dull splash. Driving gets into your bones that way.

I can finally look down and see the pavement flashing beneath us, turning into one smooth panel instead of the gravelly asphalt that’s actually there. Water’s running right along the road now and I’m glad to have my seatbelt on. Paul’s road crazy again. His usual gruffness vanishes the longer he’s behind the wheel until he actually seems happy, enthusiastic even. It’s as though the road transforms into a racetrack in front of him—the Cliffside highways of Monte Carlo or the sharp angles of Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps track. Only once or twice have I ever told him to slow down. That doesn’t mean I don’t grip the door when he takes an especially sharp turn. It’s a little too easy to imagine this car crashing, tumbling in sideways somersaults down to the water and against all those sharp rocks.

The water rushes over the stones and natural dams of twigs and branches, turning white as it hits them and then flows back the way we came. It’s only a narrow river but the water’s energy gets more concentrated as the sides close in.

A while later in the drive, we pass through the Catskills. I can hear the waterfalls. It’s the first real melt of the season and all that runoff races from the top of the mountains and turns into a dull roar and spray. I love how the sound of water can tell you what type it is. Ocean waves crash against the rocks in a musical way; there’s a rhythm to the bursts of silence between them. Waterfalls stay at a consistent level of sound, static that gets into your ears whenever you stand too close to them.

All that water must be working its magic because suddenly the boys both have to pee. They get out of the car and walk into the woods. I trail after them and almost catch up with Paul whose back is towards me. Somewhere in between this sight and the fact that he’s yelling at me not to come any closer, I remember why we stopped the car in the first place. I’m left looking very intently at the scenery, pretending I’d meant to find my way to this spot all along.

Without the rush from being inside a car, the wind is calm in comparison. To look at the plants, I would think the wind was coming from all directions at once. Each tree or shrub moves in a different way. One little plant with seedpods on it splits stalks into two groups as if breaking to let the wind pass through. The largest tree branches groan a few seconds after the breeze is gone. Maybe if I hung colored strings in the air I could actually see the currents and tides of the wind.

Break over, we return to the car. We’d rolled up the dark-tinted windows before parking and now it’s like looking out of cheap sunglasses. On a warm spring day like this one, that invisible wind is the only link between what’s outside the car and in it. Without the air around me, it’s like I’m watching a poor-quality video of the Great Outdoors instead of being here, passing through.

The three of us are all a little off today. I’m hungry although it’s too early for dinner. Where’s a mom who packed sandwiches in the cooler? We’re winding down the mountain now, back the way we came. We pass through towns that are still covered in a foot of snow. The steep roofs of the houses make upside-down V’s; there are so many of them that it begins to look like a row of jagged teeth along the road. In an empty field, I see two dogs playing, kicking up white snow like water rapids. Through the dark glass, the colors are muted and the sky almost looks gray. It’s a little colder outside but I roll down my window one last time and see the colors open up into pale yellows streaks through a sharp blue. The car turns and I start rocking back and forth again in my seat.

Everyone was talking on their cell phones while walking around Oslo, taking photos of the shattered glass panes outside shoe and clothing stores downtown. Though the explosion had taken place only forty minutes earlier, the only signs that something was wrong were the long lines of police tape around the parliament building and the sound of sirens and burglar alarms. Everyone was strangely calm just after the accident. No one knew enough to be worried. At four in the afternoon, news online was hard to come by. The official report was that some kind of explosion, maybe a bomb though maybe not, had gone off downtown.

Like everywhere else, Oslo has had movie posters up for weeks announcing “Alt Ender” for Harry Potter. One of the strangest things about traveling as an American citizen is that—as far as billboards and media are concerned—you could be in some strange town a few miles down the road rather than a strange country. As it got closer to the release date, the signs multiplied (almost magically one might say).

Sometimes I leaned over the dash to rest my head on Paul’s shoulder. Pennsylvania was as flat and rocky as I remembered and we had to roll down the car’s tinted windows to see the sunset. I’d be falling asleep to the lull of music and conversation when suddenly he’d turn the stereo off and make everything go quiet. He’d hush me and slow down until the sound of the road, the hum of the heater, the clicking of CDs in the door became audible—each was part of the noise of travel. I never thought I’d be with a man like this—one who could flip his car almost sideways on a turn and name each fast car that passed by.

It was a nine-hour drive. When we stopped at a little BBQ joint where he liked to eat and refuel, he told me how a friend of his had made this drive with him before. She kept trying to get into the wrong car. In the end, all white cars were like every other white car to most of us. So she rapped on some guy’s window until he opened the door and let her in. Paul watched her from the window of the restaurant and laughed.

What he didn’t know was that for months I had lagged behind him as we headed back to his white Subaru; I was afraid he’d see me waiting at the wrong door for him to unlock it. Once he’d tried to teach me how to drive his car. I was an excellent driver if the vehicle was an automatic and hopeless otherwise. I once broke the transmission on my stepfather’s vintage Datsun roadster when he tried to teach me; that was the first and last time anyone tried until now. My feet felt unnatural as though I was trying to run on top of ice. This time, at least, nothing was broken. I pretended that I got the idea of driving enough that he’d stop trying to teach me. Or maybe to keep from seeing his disappointment when I couldn’t learn.

To Paul, a car wasn’t just a way to keep warm. It wasn’t just a way to get from one place to another. He heard noises—whirs and whispers—that I had to take on faith. It was like a sixth sense for the road. Whenever we got lost, I pulled out my phone to check our route with Google Maps and GPS. I could feel him cringing on my left; he never let me finish loading the map.

Faith was the word that I’d never associated with cars. Never trusted that when someone took the car at 100 mph through Michigan farmland that I might survive. I felt the rush of adrenaline and kept silent. I let him drive. I let the car keep humming even when I didn’t know why it did the things it did.

Liza, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, said that Mama’s Kitchen served the most authentic Southern food in New York. To me that meant things would be fried, greased, and doused in gravy but a whole new type of eating awaited me inside the red screen door of Mama’s.