I was standing 23 feet off the ground on a rickety platform overlooking Manhattan’s East River, a sea of people below watching, waiting for me to jump. Every muscle in my body was trembling. I reviewed my options.
When I told M* on our first date that I’d always secretly dreamed of being in the circus, I didn’t think he’d take me seriously. When he booked trapeze lessons for us, my normal, second date anxiety was replaced with a more palpable terror.
I’ve suffered all my life from a condition called benign paroxysmal vertigo. Starting at age three, I began having mysterious dizzy spells. Out of nowhere, with no warning, everything in my vision would split into a million pieces and start spinning and swirling around me in every direction. This would continue for about 10 terrifying minutes, or until I blacked out. The specialists at Columbia Medical Center assured my parents that I’d outgrow it.
By the time I was six, I did outgrow the dizzy spells, but not the vertigo symptoms, which I still experience. It’s not unusual for me to feel a sidewalk rippling under my feet, as if I’m walking on water. Sometimes, if I look up at a skyscraper, it appears to be swaying. Occasionally, a horizon line tilts ever so slightly, as if it’s a seesaw. I generally try to avoid situations which trigger my vertigo. Heights, merry-go-rounds, those godforsaken amusement park rides that spin, carnival rides which go upside down, anything where there is no defined focal point, or any situation where I’m gravity free. While I’ve learned to cope with my vertigo by taking deep breaths and finding a steady focal point, it still induces panic in me. A Radiolab episode called “Gravitational Anarchy” does a great job of describing the condition if you’re interested.
I’d neglected to share any of this with M, of course. It’s not exactly first date conversation.
On the afternoon of our trapeze date, M and I met in front of a giant, exposed human heart sculpture, which is part of the “Bodies” exhibit at South Street Seaport. I laughed at the irony. Everything about me was a big, bloody, exposed heart. I was one giant, raw nerve.
“My hands have been shaking since noon,” I admitted, practically launching myself into his arms as we hugged hello.
After giving a few basic instructions, our college-aged instructor very casually informed us that it was “time to fly.” My knees went liquid. A bead of sweat dripped down my face. I hoped M didn’t notice.
“Soooo … who wants to go first?” the instructor asked.
“I’ll go first,” M and I said in unison.
I just wanted to get it over with, and he just wanted to help me out. I let him.
I watched from below as M clipped on his harness with two flimsy carabiners and ascended up the unsteady, 23-foot ladder. It’s not that he didn’t look scared. He did, but he had a quiet confidence. It gave me an extra ounce. But just an ounce.
The moments between M’s first “fly” and my own were a blur. I must have hooked my harness. I must have climbed the ladder. I must have chalked my hands up. I must have listened as the instructor told me to put my toes over the edge and lean my hips forward. I must have grabbed the bar, first with my right arm and then my left. I snapped back to consciousness when my knees were bent and the whole world, it seemed, was waiting for me to fly. I looked down and realized that the only thing separating me from being a splat on the ground was net.
“I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared.” I whimpered to the instructor.
“It’s OK to be scared,” the instructor said simply. He probably dealt with my kind a lot.
I looked down and M gave me a thumbs up. I looked above me and saw a patch of azure blue sky peeking thought the clouds. I looked forward and saw the river. Behind me, the giant, exposed human heart. Everything was steady. I wasn’t dizzy, as I feared I would be. But I was more terrified to jump than I imagined. I was frozen in the ready position.
I could have unhooked myself, climbed back down the ladder and put the kibosh on the whole operation. But running away would have required so much effort. I had the vague realization, albeit forced upon me by the flying trapeze, that the easiest thing to do was the scariest thing.
So I jumped.
“Flying through the air with the greatest of ease” is not a phrase I would have used to describe myself. I screamed bloody murder all the way. Every muscle of my body gripped and clung to my bones. When the instructor yelled for me to hang upside down, I screamed, “I don’t want to.”
I flopped and bounced into the net. Adrenaline surged through my body when I touched down. It was as if I had just survived a potentially fatal car crash.
I found myself progressively braver on each of my next flies. I even had a little bit of fun. See above for a picture of me in mid-flight. On my second turn, I hung upside down with no hands. On my fourth, I mastered a back flip. I was killing it. On my fifth, I was cocky enough to attempt the “flip catch” with my instructor. In the middle of my fly a fog horn blew, and I couldn’t hear the instructor’s calls, which were crucial. I didn’t finish the sequence. My body bounced down into the net. Still, I felt satisfied with that I had fulfilled my dream of being a circus performer, at least for a day. Also, the adrenaline was wearing off and every muscle was starting to throb.
“I need a nap,” I said to M when I hit solid ground.
I took his hand as we limped away from trapeze school, with bruises and welts on our hands, backs of our knees and shins. I could feel a dull ache in my ribs from the harness. I knew it was going to hurt to breathe the next day. It would be a good pain though, reminding me that I’m still the kind of person willing to do things that scare the crap out of me.