On Guard

by Nam Hoang Tran

With my social life dwindling during senior year, my mother enrolled me in a fencing class hoping it would offer a break from academia. Unlike football or basketball, fencing was something I always regarded as more of a hobby than an actual sport. Here were individuals who dressed like off-brand Mortal Kombat characters and spent their days jabbing one another with sabers resembling giant barbecue skewers. Call me naive, but an activity in which “poking” your opponent constituted winning was one I couldn’t take too seriously.

“You gotta look beyond that,” my mother said. “Just imagine what good it’ll do in terms of mental health!”

For the price of two Subway foot longs, students had a place to release pent-up frustration. A sanctuary where lunging at strangers with pointy objects was not only condoned, but encouraged. And this, my mother insisted, was exactly why I needed to go. We agreed there were better ways to de-stress than leaving knuckle-shaped divots in the drywall. More than anything, mingling with others was a step towards overcoming the anxiety which consumed me for the better part of four years.

On the morning of our first meeting, weathermen forecasted torrential downpour with a fifty percent chance of hail. When others do good, they are rewarded with cookies and praise. Me? The price of bettering myself was being pelted by clementine sized spheres of ice falling at upwards of twenty miles per hour. I would have hydroplaned my Prius multiple times had I not implemented driving tactics acquired from Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Despite such adversities, I arrived with nothing more than a dented vehicle and slight spike in blood pressure.

The introductory PowerPoint was led by a man named Mathéo who looked like Ronald McDonald without the makeup and tacky outfit. Mathéo claimed many hours went into the presentation, pointing towards a slide titled “Fencing 101.” His efforts backfired considering he used what appeared to be size nine font. Throw single spacing into the mix and centuries of rich history became a massive black square rendered incomprehensible to even those with the keenest of eyesight. As my classmates deciphered the block of jargon, I was busy being distracted by a fly slamming itself against the window. Moved by its determination, I placed a hand atop my heart in prayer.

“Don’t lose hope,” I whispered. “One day we shall both be free.”

Between the humidity and twitch of the dying fluorescents above, it was all becoming too much. To make sense of current circumstances, I began toying with a chaos theory known as the butterfly effect, which stated that a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. In short, a butterfly’s wing flap in Omaha possessed enough potential energy to materialize a tornado thousands of miles away in Bowlegs, Oklahoma. I ultimately failed to pinpoint the mishap made years ago which led to this very moment. Don’t get me wrong, while I’ve been in questionable situations, learning to sword fight from a man synonymous with the McDouble was definitely pushing it.

Beginner lessons were guided by Jethro, a portly man who felt the need to remind us every so often that his name meant “excellence” in Hebrew. He paired me with Frederick, a redhead who, like me, only went to appease his mother. First order of business was familiarizing ourselves with en garde, a default stance resembling squatting thwarted by crippling arthritis. While Frederick and I had respective backstories, all awkwardness dissipated the moment game faces were on. Shrouded by the anonymity of our costumes, it was then I realized we weren’t much different from one another. For once in what felt like ages, I was no longer an observer, but an active participant, within a collective of folks all striving towards something much greater than ourselves.

First day of class ended with a Q&A session accompanied by chips and a fruit platter. Mathéo and Jethro enjoyed papaya on elevated cushions like shamans while the rest of us gathered around with Doritos stained lips. We were encouraged to voice any questions/concerns so long as they were remotely related to the art of fencing. Because this segment operated on a volunteer basis, I sat back while my peers did the heavy lifting. Mathéo pointed at me once the commotion subsided as though he expected my contribution. It was both strange and comforting to suddenly become the center of attention. A position which would have otherwise turned my stomach had my voice lacked a genuine listener. 

“Any questions?” Mathéo asked. “I’m sure your input would be of great benefit to us.”

I nodded, wiping leftover chip residue from my mouth.

“Go on.”

“I was wondering whether people recognized you on the street, that’s all.”

Not long after the inquiry leave my lips did a cheeky smile overcome Mathéo’s face. He set his papaya down and winked at Jethro, who furrowed his eyebrows as though he’d just seen a tap dancing seal. After returning to a forward facing position, Mathéo inflated his chest and spoke in a serious, almost interrogative voice.

“Of course. Isn’t that expected when you run a prestigious fencing sch—?

I raised my hand to shoulder level and the entire class fell silent at my audacity to interrupt our master.

“No, no. Recognition because you looked like this guy,” I said, lifting a Google image of Ronald McDonald into the air as everyone marveled at Mathéo’s long lost twin. 

Jethro was the first to fold, nearly blinding poor Frederick with a chunk of papaya which launched from his mouth. The entire class followed suit and within minutes everyone was spitting out scraps of Doritos while I reclined with my own cheeky smile. So what if fencing wasn’t my forte? I managed to garner the sweet laughter of half a dozen folks who were total strangers just moments before. And that alone would sustain me till I advanced high enough to free myself from the walls of this god forsaken place.

                                                     *   *   *

 Nam Hoang Tran is a writer living in Orlando, FL. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Daily Drunk, Star 82 Review, Bending Genres, (mac)ro(mic), Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.namhtran.com. 

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