This story won First Prize in the Humor category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition as well as Third Prize in the Nonfiction category of the 2022 Seven Hills Literary Contest. It was first published in the Seven Hills Review by the Tallahassee Writers Association in March of 2023.
You Must Let Go of the Trapeze
People get old because they want to get old. I recited this mantra to myself as I walked my sons into Trampoline World. I had been desperately searching for a safe, fun place to take two 10-year-old boys on the Autism spectrum. I needed somewhere small enough for me to watch both of them at the same time, but also with enough activities to keep them from destroying property and stimulating themselves. I also wanted a place where I could engage in a physical activity with them, as this was one of the few ways we could truly connect. Trampoline World was perfect: a warehouse with wall-to-wall trampolines and several diving pits full of one-foot-square colorful foam blocks. This is it – the kind of place that, if it existed in the 80’s, would have been my church. I took a beat to watch a child jump high in the air, do a flip, bounce on his back, and land gently on his feet. It reminded me of how elastic and rubber I used to be. At that young age, every child is an olympic gymnast.
As I walked my sons towards the front desk, I noticed a group of parents sitting on couches, staring at their phones. While the kids were spinning aerial corkscrews and generally defying gravity, the parents–most of them younger than me–were totally checked out, and their ambivalence irritated me. How could they sit sedentary in a wonderland of sensory indulgence just checking their email? I shook my head. People get old because they want to get old.
“Just the two boys?” Behind the counter stood the girl who ran the place–an acne covered youth within spitting distance of puberty.
“How much for me to jump too?” I asked.
Aidan and I pulled on the required grip socks (mine were a little tight) and I put Noah’s on for him. Aidan looked at me “Do you want to bounce high?”
I smiled. “Yes I do!” We ran to the trampolines and started jumping. For a while, the three of us bounced together, laughing, and I realized my extra weight and reasonably strong legs afforded me some major air. Rad. This was a huge rush. A head rush. I nearly blacked out. My body just wasn’t used to this type of up and down motion anymore. That’s ok. As soon as the blood leaves my skull my body will assimilate. I’ll be fine. I also noticed the intense pressure on my spine, which sustained minor compression every time I landed. Probably another temporary discomfort.
The centerpiece of the warehouse was a field of fifty giant trampolines with a few additional trampolines set at a 45 degree angle. I noticed how the kids loved traipsing across the distance at full speed, jumping with one leg and then the other until they reached a three-foot-high padded platform, which they leaped onto with general ease. That looks like fun. My dizziness subsided, and I sprinted across the field, but the longer stride of my adult legs screwed up my sense of spacing and I ended up clipping my heel and toes on the padded dividers. Plus my added weight thrust my body forward with exponential force on every jump, making it even harder to estimate my landing. By the time I made it to the raised platform, I had totally lost control. I leapt up and, instead of landing gracefully on the platform, banged my kneecaps on the ledge. For a horrible fraction of a second, I watched the platform race towards my eyes. My face smashed onto the pads and bounced back up (like one of those toy birds that looks like it’s drinking water) before I collapsed in a heap.
“Are you ok?” a little five-year-old stood over me.
“Fine,” I croaked, realizing I also had the wind knocked out of me. “How are you?”
“Fine.” He kept looking at me with concern. In an effort to appear unscathed I leapt up onto my feet, but my knees buckled and I fell back down. A mother noticed this and smiled to herself as she returned her attention to her phone. I suddenly felt exposed.
Over the next hour, I became proficient in running and jumping. Sure my legs were throbbing and my spine had lost approximately two-and-a-half inches of length, but I was starting to feel like my old self again. I bounced and floated uninhibited, like I had when I was young. It was still possible to feel that joy. I am not old!
“Jumpers with a blue wristband, you have ten minutes left.” The announcement shook me out of my trance. Has it been an hour already? Where are my kids? I anxiously glanced around the warehouse, pushing the dripping sweaty hair out of my eyes. Aidan had ripped the padding off an angled trampoline and was climbing up the springs like a ladder. Noah was laying face down in the middle of an aborted dodgeball game, masturbating. The stunned players stood around awkwardly. Phew! They’re fine. But time was almost up, and there was still one thing I wanted to do, which I believed would banish any lingering doubts of my sustained youth forever: The trapeze…
I had been eyeing the activity for a while–a raised platform next to a pit of foam blocks with a trapeze dangling over it. The prospective swinger would use a giant foam hook to grab the trapeze and pull it towards them. Then he would grab the bar, swing over the pit, and drop a few feet into the foam. When I first eyed it I immediately dismissed it as impossible. It was designed for children, not adults. But now that my vigor had returned, my confidence was soaring. And since our time was almost up…
I ran to the empty platform and leapt onto it, landing comfortably on both feet. A sign on the other side of the pit announced in big block letters: “ONE SWING ONLY! YOU MUST LET GO OF THE TRAPEZE!” I used the hook to pull the trapeze towards me and, when I got my fingers around the bar, I felt a lurch of excitement–an old feeling I hadn’t felt in decades: thrill. I lifted my feet off the platform and felt my body swing over the pit. Instantly, a thousand memories flooded through my mind.
I was seven and soaring on a swing set so high I could see the top of my father’s head.
I was 9 and speeding down a snow-packed hill as flurries stung my face.
I was 12 and sliding off the end of a clifftop water slide at Action Park, about to plummet into the water below.
I was young. I am free...
This euphoric sensation lasted approximately two seconds. As soon as the swing reached its zenith on the other side of the pit, I realized I was in trouble. I had inadvertently disobeyed the sign and neglected to let go at the appropriate time. Now I was rushing back towards the platform at mach ten. No problem. I had seen the kids who also ignored the sign gracefully land back on the platform and it didn’t look hard. I’ll just do that.
As I reached the platform behind me, I lifted my legs, but not high enough. They were longer than kids’ legs, so the back of my heels smacked into the platform and I went sailing back across the pit. This time instead of soaring majestically, my body flopped back and forth like a wet cardigan swinging on a clothesline. Ignoring the pressure on my joints, I waited until I returned to the ledge and lifted my legs even higher. To my relief, I managed to plant my feet on the platform and sighed audibly. Unfortunately, while my feet remained planted, my upper body lurched forward, pulled by the trapeze that I still gripped for some reason. As my feet dragged across the platform I turned to see that, somehow in a matter of seconds, a crowd had formed to watch my disgrace. Not a big crowd, but about a dozen people. The same size as a jury.
As I neared the edge, suddenly the pit of soft foam blocks a mere two feet below my child-size grip socks looked like a quarry full of jagged rocks about a mile away. I was scared to let go. Keep in mind I had just seen a three-year-old do a backflip into this pit, but at that point I just assumed she was an undiscovered X-Man. I mean what three-year-old can do a backflip? My legs slid off the platform like a pair of drunk pythons and as the weight of my body dropped, I heard two loud pops from my shoulders. And then a scream issued from my own mouth - well not actually a scream…more of a yelp. The kind of sound a puppy makes when he sees another puppy.
You would think my natural reflexes would have forced me to release the trapeze by now, but my body must have been in shock - the signals weren’t reaching my brain. It was only when it occurred to me that I might actually die here at Trampoline World in Lake Worth Florida that I finally let go, anticipating the sweet release of unconsciousness. Being that my forward motion had once again reached its zenith at the other side of the pit, my body fell at an angle nearly horizontal to the planet Earth. The faces of the jury surrounding me rushed by as I dropped. The fall lasted approximately thirty seconds. When I finally landed, one of my arms (which was apparently flailing madly) scooped up a lime green foam block and launched it straight into the air. Stunned and mesmerized, I watched it spin, peak near the ceiling, and hurtle back to earth, not only hitting me square in the face, but actually landing in my slack open mouth.
For a moment I just lay there, spread eagle in the pit with a foam block in my mouth. I glanced at the jury, who just stood there – not laughing, not dispersing – just…staring, concerned. Which was much worse. I spit the block out of my mouth. “I’m fine,” I said, a little annoyed. I looked up and saw the same five-year-old from earlier grabbing the hook to get the trapeze. Realizing I was in the way, I tried to stand up, but the foam blocks didn't give me anything to push off of, so I just flailed my limbs like a beetle on his back. As I struggled, the hook appeared in front of me. The kid had lowered it to help me out. Did I mention he was five? “I said I’m fine!” I smacked the stick away, which did not help me with the jury. Eventually, I clambered out of the pit and lay panting on my stomach as the crowd finally dispersed.
Aidan ran up to me “You want to bounce high?” I slowly rose on my sore knees, cracked my neck back into alignment, and wiped green crumbs off my tongue.
“Sorry buddy,” I said. “but I think it’s time for me to check my email.”