Apr/May 2004  •   Fiction


by Diane Zinna

Art by Janet L. Snell

Art by Janet L. Snell

Nowadays I study the other teachers' faces. I look for telling spots of blue in places like the chin—spots that are light, like glass. When I shake hands with parents, I feel for calluses where the tape chafes. Even the children. I look at how they play it on the playground. Do they shuffle their little feet to soften their steps? I saw this one child remove his shoes in the sand before beginning his search, and for the others' safety, I called out his name and ruined the game for all of them.

And how are they when they're not "it?" That's even more critical. Do they hide in a cramped place, or do they stand flat against a building? When I see anyone with their palms pressed into a wall and their face turned against the brick, thinking they are invisible because they are parallel to something, I hate them.

It started with the Weight Watchers "at work" program. We were weighing in every week, some of us losing, most not. We decided to start exercising together, all the second grade teachers. We went to a yoga class after school, but it was too crowded. They said we could hire someone to come to the school and teach us privately, and we thought that was great.

But the guy who came was a militant Brazilian, not the svelte mommy long legs we met at the yoga studio. He said his name was Evaristo, and he made us unload dumbbells from his truck. In the school gym he made us take off our shoes and try cartwheels on the bare floor. We were very competitive with each other at first. Some of us could do the cartwheels, and some couldn't. We were all fat and totally out of shape. I was the only one who could do a backbend. Evaristo told me to hold the bridge position as long as I could. Blood rushed to my head, and then I couldn't close my eyes. He put on a record sounding like tap dancing. Tears ran down my face, and, because of the position I was in, down my neck and my arms. Was it tap dancing or gunshots, all in succession? My arms buckled, and I thought I heard car doors slamming. I became convinced the sounds on the record, this music, these beats, were my bones breaking one at a time, though I felt no pain. The record stopped, and when I collapsed, I could see Evaristo smoking near the open door.

"They have all left. You are the only one who wants to lose weight."

I was in a puddle on the floor.

Later he showed me how to wrap my hands with tape. He made me wear a hood with only a narrow slit for my eyes. His studio was above the yoga studio. Through the narrow slit of my hood, I could view the room. The same black tape I used to bind my hands covered all the electrical sockets. There was an open furnace with red coals. I sweated in the getup.

Evaristo had one other student at his studio. She was morbidly obese. Her name was Helen. She dressed in the black jumpsuit he'd issued us, the hood. She was a round, black ball. "He's making us into ninjas," she whimpered. When he heard her weakness, he sent her away.

My nighttime workouts bled into my school days. I guess the addiction was similar to runner's high, but I wasn't running, ever. I was cartwheeling, monkeybarring, somersaulting, doing pull ups. All of my movements were to be very controlled and painfully slow.

We were doing an art project, the children and I. I chose red for fingerpainting, and I left the paint so thick on the canvas it looked like meat.

There is a popular craft project, an exploding volcano. You mound up papier mache and paint it to look like a mountain. Then you put baking soda and vinegar inside, and the chemical reaction causes it to froth over like lava. In front of the children, when my example volcano erupted, I started screaming at it. Then I went out into the hall and ran up the side of the wall, doing a perfect back flip and landing silently—and at peace—on flat feet. The children didn't see me. No one saw me. Ninjas don't exist.

I have no assignment, no need for the skills I've honed. I'm a second grade teacher. I am only in the best physical shape of my life. I don't get yeast infections anymore. I've learned to hold a razor between my toes and the flat part of my foot. I can do many things while holding it there, and I never cut myself. But there's no one to prove it to. I want to call the news and report myself, this miracle I am.

I live alone. My apartment is very girlie, what they call shabby chic. I go to the flea market, stealth out a side table with a rose appliqué, and when I hand the man my money, I feel the strength of his grip, of the muscles in his arm, and I evaluate the best way to break it. And then he smiles, and I say thank you, try out the drawer to make sure it slides easy. When he turns around, I'm gone, and he wonders where I went to. Stealth. But I still pay for things. I have to. I need to feel I'm still part of a society.

I'm collecting weaponry, even though I don't need it. I know how to use my hand like a knife, my leg like an awl down the trunk of a man's body. I've come to notice how people hold themselves. Confident. Bashful. Like they're bored. Like they could kill you. I know of other ninjas in the community. The mailwoman is a ninja. I never see her. The mail is not there. Then the mail is there.

My cat is like a ninja.

I watched a nature program about cheetahs today. When old cheetahs are defeated by the youthful cheetahs, and power in the pack is transferred to a young, strong cheetah, the older ones will walk away slowly, slowly, their bodies low to the ground, their steps long and controlled. That's how I walk in private. The narrator of the program said they know they've been defeated, and it's a walk of slow honor. The young cheetah watches until they are nowhere to be seen, the whole time with eyes wide as plates, afraid the old ones will come back and fight again. Because whereas a young cheetah has strength, the old cheetah likes to prove he can still do things. All the things he's learned.

In my collection I have two knives with carved handles, one samurai sword I bought online, and a mace on a long chain. If I ever hang myself, it will be with the mace's long chain. The children in my class make paper chains of colored construction paper. I imagine shredding them with razors tucked between my toes. I am so good at that. I wish someone could see. Evaristo doesn't teach me anymore. He said I've gotten too violent and lost sight of the weight loss goals I set at New Year's.

Tonight I go to the top of my apartment building to practice with the mace. I swing it out in front of me, and the spiked ball flies into the air, the chain snaking in the sky, buckling and flashing in the pink light of evening. Down below, teens play basketball on a concrete court. I lose my focus for a second, and the mace drops all the way to the ground, sailing five floors and breaking the concrete at center court. The kids stop their game. No one's been hurt. The mace has broken the sidewalk and is half subsumed by the ground, like a sparkling galactic cabbage. The kids look up to see where it came from. But they don't see me. Let them wonder. They need to know that, sometimes, wondrous things happen, and no one gets hurt.