The Great Escape
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Jul 2009)

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            After a particularly rigorous karate class followed by an impromptu one-on-one tutorial with the instructor, I was the last student to leave the dojo floor. That junior-level instructor – let us call him Ned – was responsible for closing up, so he asked me to wait up front until he returned from locking the back door. I occupied myself by taking notes on what I’d learned that night. Fifteen minutes and a page and a half of notes later, no Ned. I called his name outside and in, downstairs and up. No answer. Now worried, I decided to retrace his steps and look for him. I stepped through the rear door and was glad that it locked behind me; Ned had gotten at least that far. As my eyes adjusted to the dark and I scanned the ground for evidence of a struggle, I tiptoed down the steps and turned to the street. 

            Before me stood a chain-linked fence, roughly six feet high, with thick wires forming peaks past the top crossbar. Its swinging double doors were decorated with a lovely padlock and chain.

            And I knew that the door behind me was locked.

            And it was raining.

            I was locked out of the dojo, but locked in to the driveway. This gate was kept wide open during daylight hours, rendering it invisible both times I had ever used that exit. I experimented with total denial, but I could not fight the chest-tightening realization that my only option was to scale the fence. For context, picture a young Black woman in a winter coat climbing over a fence in the dark with two bags over her shoulder. See you at the police station.

            I sighed, swung my bags over the fence, put on my gloves, and hoisted myself up by stepping onto the horizontal metal bar running across the gate about halfway up. From there it was tricky because A) it was cold and rainy, making the fence slick, B) the other side of the fence had no such bar to step on, and C) although there was no barbed wire, the wire points along the top were not at all pleasant to look at, let alone consider sitting upon, so I now had to D) get my hands and fingers in between and around the metal spikes, E) suspend myself over the spikes with my arms while lifting my right leg up and over, F) hold that position with my left toes on the crossbar while trying to catch my right toes in one of the holes on the other side of the slick, metal fence, necessitating G) an inward twist of the foot that nature simply did not intend.

            Unsurprisingly, my foot would not catch despite what felt like an eternity of attempts. The angle was inhuman. The fence was slippery. The holes were small. My sneakers were not. It was at this point, suspended over the fence in the cold, that I began to ponder the uniqueness of my situation. I was grateful for my karate training, without which I would not have had the upper body strength to sustain this position. Yet, were it not for karate, I would not have been in this position at all, literally or figuratively. Hmm. What does it all mean?

            A few minutes earlier I had prayed that I would land on the other side without breaking an ankle or getting arrested. This time I made the shorter-term, request, "Lord, just let my foot catch in one of these holes." One thing at a time. Finally it caught. Amen. I still had to support myself exclusively with my arms; I could not put any real weight on my foot, which could slip at any moment, but I could use it for balance and leverage as I finally, slowly, brought over the other leg. Now all I had to do was stick the landing. Can she do it, ladies and gentlemen?

            Though both feet were at last on the same side of the fence, I had to untangle my hands from the wires before I could let go. The gloves were scarred by the experience, but the rest of me landed unscathed on the sidewalk, directly in the path of a man passing by. “Heh-heh. Got locked in,” I managed, thumb pointing at the fence behind me. “Heh… heh. Heh.” He walked on. I grabbed my bags and got moving, thankful that he was not dialing 911 when he glanced back at me before turning the corner.

            I found the front of the dojo still unlocked, and no sign of Ned. After waiting and leaving messages for friends who might have his phone number, I knew that no one wanted me there alone in the dark. I accepted that I had done what I could and called it a night.

            The next evening at the dojo, Ned – alive and well – apologized profusely through a thick curtain of guilt. When I detailed my rain-slicked climbing adventure, he hung his head and explained how preoccupied he’d been with a personal matter when he locked the back door (and gate) and drove home in a daze, only to spring awake the next morning to his own voice shouting, “Oh, [expletive]!” He rushed out an hour before his usual commute but found the dojo secure; another instructor had driven out to lock up after someone passed on one of my messages.

            After class at a noisy restaurant with the group, Ned, still stricken, shook his head. “I have trouble even looking you in the eye right now because I feel like [crap],” he said. “Don’t worry about it,” I replied. I was neither on crutches nor in jail, so I had no reason to make him feel worse, right? Later, awaiting the check, a restless Ned tried to convince another instructor to go back with him and spar. I smiled. "Go ahead,” I shouted. “The dojo is probably open."

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