A few nights later, when I return for my first official lesson, Salle Trois Armes is once again alive with the sound of clanking metal and the onion-y scent of perspiration. “Fencing works every muscle in the body,” Beach says. I’m skeptical, since much of his teaching revolves around relaxation. But after working on first position (the starting point of any match, it vaguely resembles the “I’m a Little Teapot” dance), executing a few parrying steps and lunges, and swinging a five-pound sword in the air, my butt, thighs, and deltoids are revved to a burn.
Most pupils don’t see combat until around their 10th lesson, but Beach makes an exception and suits me up. After I’ve donned a heavy unitard that looks a bit like a straitjacket and a helmet that’s as heavy as a pumpkin, Beach hands me a saber. I notice a series of scars running up his forearm. “Not from fencing,” he says, trying to reassure me. “I worked in a factory where we used a lot of different saws.”
“Besides,” he adds, “to my knowledge, nobody has died from fencing in the last hundred years.” With that he flips the mask over his face: “En garde!”
I’m told to hold the sword like a car key, with the tips of my forefinger and thumb stuck up next to the hilt and the rest of the handle tucked against my palm. Beach walks me through a variety of defensive positions that often entail using my opponent’s force and inertia against him. From there we jump to theatrical moves, the kind of running-in-a-circle-and-trading-blows choreography found in films like The Princess Bride or Star Wars. “You see movies with blind samurais doing these amazing sword moves,” Beach says. “We actually do that—I’ve had blind students who could kick your butt.”
That wouldn’t be hard. The foundation of fencing is built upon good footwork. Balance. Grace from the waist down. I have none of these. Instead I feel like a bear trying to dance on top of a ball.
But thanks to Beach’s Job-like patience, I begin to pick up on the rhythm of fencing: the clang of the foils, the squeak of tennis shoes. It’s hypnotizing—until, taking the training wheels off, Beach lunges toward me.
Instinctively my right arm crosses my torso, blocking his saber as it slashes to my left side. Our swords clash loudly and momentarily lock into place. Just like Beach taught me, I quickly flick the digits holding my sword back toward him with a subtle snapping motion. My weapon, which was protecting my rib cage, is now driving into Beach’s chest. Upon contact the blade bows dramatically from the pressure of what most certainly would have been a fatal blow. If not for the sword’s plastic tip, Beach would be a human kebab.
He let me win, of course. Through his mask I can see his mustache curling up at the edges; he’s pleased about the mock-impalement. Still, I’m tingling with excitement. A knot of what can be described only as pure primal bloodlust coils in the small of my back. I hold back a barbarian’s yell. Conan would be proud.