Audrey Olivero | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,621 words)
The magic of a knife-throwing range is that it looks as if the prop attic of a theater department vomited onto an abandoned hunters’ lodge. Bright green fake grass shoots up from carpeted ground. Deer hang around the corners, pock-marked with arrow wounds, their plasticky stares watching me fail day after day. It is nothing like the dark stages where I’ve seen knife-throwing performed, spot-lit in anticipation, glittering with the stardust of sequins lost in the name of spectacle. The stakes don’t feel quite so high in this space. Here, my heart doesn’t race the way it does at the clack of a magician’s assistant’s shiny red heels, the spin of a wooden board, the familiar plunge of heart to gut at the sound of the near-fatal miss transformed into success by applause. That is, until a blade careens into a wooden target, tilts upward, and falls with the grace of a pigeon that’s just flown into a window. This is what happens when a knife doesn’t stick.
Today, none of my knives are sticking.
The mystery here, as I pick up my losses like lead dandelions off the range floor, isn’t how this is happening. It’s how I’m still at this.
Shawn Hunter, my instructor, slides his hand through his hair in a way that started off as a sign of his amusement, but has lately developed a tug of frustration close to the scalp. He’s got a James Dean thing going on: boots and leather jacket in all weather, an inability to stand still without intensely looking off into middle distance, and because a James Dean thing became vintage chic by the time ՚90s sitcoms rolled around, he also has a misunderstood troubled best friend thing going on. I worry about the future of his hairline. So much of his look depends on it. He looks from me to the target with an expression normally reserved for calculating math, a look that bores a hole through my skull as I mentally catalog how much hair the male cast of Boy Meets World have now (Ben Savage: a fair amount. Rider Strong: a lot) and how many different ways I might have moved my arms wrong, released the blade too slow or too high (infinite). I have learned not to flinch under this scrutiny.
Today, none of my knives are sticking. The mystery here, as I pick up my losses like lead dandelions off the range floor, isn’t how this is happening. It’s how I’m still at this.
“Hey, do me a favor,” he says, finally. “Can you just — not think? Just stop thinking.”
“I can’t,” I say.
The words fall from my mouth heavier with honesty than I intend. I can’t stop thinking, the noise in my head my own worst coach. He’s been so patient, is the thing, and his kindness is making me feel worse. It’s around now in the learning process, when I can’t shrug off the fear of failure through humor, that I usually quit.
“I know,” he replies.
He hands me a knife and I face the board again.
The first vivid memory I have of my childhood is stealing my mom’s favorite scarf and fashioning a bindle from it. The steps were simple. They key ingredients are: one (1) infinity scarf, one (1) stick that opens and closes window blinds, several (3-4) Rold Gold Tiny Twists™ mini bags, and one (1) sheet of tin foil, as square as you can get it. Tuck the snacks inside the tin foil, tie up your scarf around the stick, and voila: the perfect bindle for running away from home and riding the rails, a plan most children either cook up through osmosis or Stand By Me references. I had a personal theory that if I joined the circus like Robin did, then Batman would have no choice but to take me too. And I’d be an acrobat. And I’d get to pet lions, who would be my best friends. And I’d be free.
At 6 years old, this didn’t seem like a bad life plan.
The second vivid memory I have of my childhood is my dad hitting me with stick from the window blinds, a move that’s resourceful, even for him. This is mostly for taking my mother’s scarf, but partly for making it three blocks outside the apartment without getting caught. My grand escape lasts a total of about 40 minutes. I don’t even make it out of the Bronx.
Batman does not take notice of my spunk and save me, but I think of him and the circus often. I read comics religiously. I watch hours and hours of David Copperfield. Penn & Teller. David Blaine. I think of magic a lot, both card trick and fairy tale. And, because I cannot stop thinking, and because I love them the most, I become a catalog of daring escapes and disappearing acts.
When my dad does not stop using his fists to punctuate his sentences, I think about knives too.
The beauty of knife-throwing is that it’s a simple sport to get good at — and look good at. Like a magic trick, knife-throwing has a did-you-see-that element to it, with or without an assistant to throw knives at. It’s the did-you-see-that element that intrigues certain people, and reels them in to the game: actors, dancers, musicians — people with time-consuming careers pursuing a bonus talent that could be a career on its own — plus hunters. The hunters scare me the most. They’re the least likely to admit to liking the glitzy aspect of knife-throwing — the impractical, undeadly deadliness of striking without intent to wound or kill that warrants a bow and applause — but even they will indulge in a trick shot or two — backward, eyes closed, strutting — if they notice an audience.
Here’s a condensed lesson in knife-throwing: Stand at your preferred distance. Peel your knife back and hold accordingly (by its point for half rotation, by the handle for full rotation) Aim with your eyes, pull back, release — don’t punch, don’t flick your wrists, don’t toss. That’s it. You could learn it in 20 minutes and look like a professional.
I still haven’t gotten it, and I’ve been renting a lane at a range for four months.
Shawn adjusts my line 20 times in-between handling the intro classes, nudging my foot forward or back on the fake grass rug meant to give the place an outdoorsy feel and keep it from sounding like an overly-aggressive Iron Chef marathon at all times — a choice that keeps the archers across the wall from murdering us. I have a soft spot for the rug because it reminds me of the shredded plastic grass in Easter baskets.
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If the knife lands facing upward, I’ve over-rotated. Downward and I’ve under-rotated. The difference is centimeters, so our movements are like a shuffly little crab dance. I’m only 5 feet tall, so it can be hard to tell where my throwing distance should be, and I’m weak, so it’s possible the knives are just too heavy for the duration of hours I’m throwing them, but we both know that what is fucking this up the most is my brain.
So Shawn does the only thing that makes sense, the only thing that will help me override my brain: he hands me a knife.
I like to pretend I came to knife-throwing because I was bored on the internet. Because I’d turned to Google late at night, and Google had given me the gift of a corny magician with a terrible name and a talent for throwing sharp objects. Because the magician led me to a site and I’d thought, “Fuck it, it’s not even exercise. Why not?” But I loved it. I loved how it looked — graceful and surprising and sharp. I loved that it conjured images of stages and theater, places I’d missed so much, excitement I’d missed deep in my veins. I loved that the aim of the game was to wield a deadly power and hurt no one.
At the time the only physical activity I engaged in with the same regularity was barre, and barre wasn’t so much a hobby as a body maintenance strategy. Like a blanket protects a child from a monster under the bed, barre staved off an unreasonable fear of fat lurking around every corner. Or the feeling of fat. It kept the pounds from magically, whether overnight or by trick of the mirror, piling back onto my frame — something I was often convinced was happening despite my pants size being the same. Despite everything being the same except my brain.
I have a condition. Five years weight-restored from an eating disorder, I was looking for anything to focus on that didn’t pull me back to the fun house mirrors of body dysmorphia. I had tried the band-aids of make-up, clothes, exercise, and mostly? Mostly I just lost a ton of money and felt the same. I don’t know how to contour my cheekbones but I do own three Too Faced chocolate eyeshadow palettes. They smell amazing. Six years ago I could just sit in my room with a tall glass of water, sniff one of them for an hour, and call it a meal. Now, I tell that story as a half-joke to test how truthful I can be about myself, and it sinks like a lead balloon. Of all the awful things you can do to yourself and live long enough to joke about, messed up eating apparently isn’t one of them. You are always protecting an invisible, young, impressionable girl — and an entire diet industry — with your silence.
Since I couldn’t laugh about the botched disappearing act of my body, might never embrace that body as loved, I tried to see it as useful. I tried martial arts, and because the most valuable thing you can learn in martial arts is throwing someone off balance, and to throw someone off balance you need to get close — crotch close — I called it quits. I wasn’t ready to grapple with a man, however well-intentioned. But then there was ballet, and barre — all the exercise and practice it takes to become a ballerina with none of the dancing. On days I’m too scared and rigid to take on the choreography of beginner ballet, or feel too intensely the pressure of being the only Puerto Rican girl on a line of willowy white women who dipped in and out of ballet since childhood, I go to barre alone. Even without the movement across the floor, it is an endless, beautiful grapple with yourself — a fucker you may already conveniently have beef with. To take barre is to ask your muscles to become a carefully timed explosion. It is following commands with the punctuation of a ruler smacking a desk. It is insurance and reassurance. How can you be fat? You are long, long, long, and you will make yourself longer, or God help us both.
Once, I met a kind spirit who came to ballet for the first time as an adult but carried himself as though he’d been doing it his whole life. He said “I just feel so free out there. You know? Beautiful. Like I can be that music for a little while.” He closed his eyes, smiling. I could hear the swell of a violin.
Three hours later, I stretched my leg over the banister of an empty stairwell at work until it hurt — or as they say in the studio, I felt sensation. I was feeling heavy, uncomfortable with the way three pieces of sweet and sour chicken sat in my stomach. I let them sit there anyway — a small victory — but tried to disappear them another way: running up and down two floors.
It is beautiful, to make yourself move this way. But I knew then ballet could never be freedom for me. Just a rosary bead around my neck. A worry stone.
On the site, little gifs of thrown knives glinted in winks of pixelated light. So needlessly stupid. So fun.
The fourth time Topanga, the newest regular at the knife range, rents the lane next to me, I lob a knife into my target backwards, the handle jammed into the wood, blade tilted upward as if surprised by its own predicament.
“How?” Shawn Hunter says, and all I can manage is a shrug. He takes my last knife from me and twists it over and over again in a pantomimed arc, walking closer to the target board, trying to piece together what the hell I’ve done. After a moment, he leaves to fetch some measuring tape and puts it up against where my knife landed in the target, pulling out the length until he’s where I started. He doesn’t see Eric taking pictures of my damage to post on Instagram, or Corey posing in front of it despite their “no cellphones on the range” policy.
Topanga doubles over with laughter. We are friends, somehow, bound by the magic of doing something extremely loud in close proximity. I can’t get over how happy she is to be here. How easily she makes a little home in other people. How her knives arc in ways that scare the men in the intro classes. It surprises me how much I want the same — how easy it is, actually, to see someone so easily carry what you want without envy.
Five years weight-restored from an eating disorder, I was looking for anything to focus on that didn’t pull me back to the fun house mirrors of body dysmorphia.
“Okay, well. Not like that.” Shawn says, handing me his calculation knife and the knife he pulled ass-last from the target, and it feels like we’re both laughing for the first time in a long time.
I can get five out of ten knives to stick into the targets now, a fact that gets me a thumbs up from Corey and Eric, and a goading from Topanga, whose theory on getting good at this is just doing more of everything. Knife-throwing never looks like performance with her. It’s a giddy unloading of knives, like a kid with a bag of Halloween candy and a limitless dental plan. She is joyous and deadly.
For two hours a week the rush of noise in my head is just a distant wave, harmless water so long as I don’t dive in. My body is a tool, and I am almost proud of it. I don’t need to stretch beyond my limit. I just need to be here, and it is hard, being here, for a person who is used to erasing herself. But to not be here is to miss out on a performance — whether mine, or someone else’s — so I try. Every day I meet someone new, and I don’t need to care about who I am when I am with them, because they’ll leave. And I don’t yet know who this is, the me in this body who is staying, but she can throw a knife. She can tell a joke. She can make the dangerous thing feel safe.
Shawn weaves in and out of the knife lane, most days. We are quiet about how I’ve gotten better, but he sees, and it matters, despite how gross needing that feedback makes me feel.
I still take barre every week, and slip into the back of a beginner ballet class every few months. I still need the reassurance those rituals bring to keep me from rushing into those dark waters. But I am no longer constantly bobbing in its surface, and that’s something big I don’t want to name yet. I don’t have the words to explain what it means to me, to be close to people who could teach without hurting, who could work with a body they didn’t intend to harm. To see a terrified girl, and hand her a knife.
* * *
Audrey Olivero is a writer and editor from the South Bronx. She has named every single pigeon she’s ever met. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Editor: Sari Botton