I’ve got to hand it to them — swords do make an impression.
I would guess that most people, having lived long enough and done enough stupid things involving a kitchen knife, typically have an emotional response to bladed weaponry. Sure, it’s often fear, or at least a reasonable level of nervousness. For some others of us, though, finely crafted pieces of steel can elicit a kind of awe. We find them nothing short of beautiful.
For those of you who have been following along, while my grandmother on my father’s side exposed me to a lot of aspects of Japanese culture and history, the wonders and charms of their battle gear were not among her many marvelous lessons. Alas, she was not hiding a secret room with all her ninja supplies that she would someday bequeath to yours truly. On the contrary, my obsession with Japanese swords started the old-fashioned way: it started with a boy.
My earliest memory of swords is seeing them used for comedy, for panache — aka, on stage. My mother acted in a ton of Gilbert and Sullivan productions (as well as many straight plays by various playwrights, but G&S is where the cool stage combat usually happened), and I got sucked into the magic of a well-choreographed fight scene from an early age. She also would often put on the film “The Court Jester” with master performers Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone for our evening family entertainment, which pretty much sealed the deal that swords are uber-cool. (If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing this delightful romp, you haven’t truly lived.) Then came “The Princess Bride”, and my education was complete.
But I wasn’t obsessed. Not yet. Highly entertained? Yes. I must collect as many katana as possible before my dying day? That came later.
That came with Gabe (name changed to protect the innocent).
Gabe, the trenchcoat-wearing, brooding, gorgeous creature who walked into my first fall play rehearsal my junior year at my new all-girls high school, and simultaneously (say it with me) walked into my heart (blech, yarf).
I had just transferred to the school, due to the fact that my previous high school class was a hot mess (story for another day), and was shocked when I was cast as the lead in “Night of January 16th” by Ayn Rand. I wasn’t a big fan of Rand, but I was a huge fan of being the lead. And completely blown away, as high school theatre tends to be rife with politics, and the gossip was that you need to “earn the part” by working your way up the ladder of supporting roles — so I figured, being a transfer student, I’d get a one-line walk-on bit at best (which I was confident I would kill, and be set up for a more substantial experience my senior year). But there my name was, at the top of the posted cast list. Karen Andre, to be played by me.
Yet the rush of getting to play Karen was nothing compared to the rush of realizing that not only did I desperately want to get to know Gabe, but Gabe was just as eager to get to know me. If it weren’t for my already being in a long-term committed relationship with a college guy …
I swallowed my feelings, filing them away as that thing that happens when you do a show together (spoiler: play crushes are a thing, and they really do “expire” after closing night), called him a “good friend”, and set about getting as close to him as I could in every non-romantic way possible. Like you do.
And what was Gabe’s absolute favorite thing in the world? Katana. Lots and lots of katana. And wakizashi, and tanto, and nunchaku, and all the things, but his katana was where he was the most knowledgeable, and obsessive. (He also was advancing in shotokan karate, but that didn’t inspire me nearly as much as his impressive wall-of-weaponry.) Before long, I decided I wanted that, too. Because it was just dangerous enough to be sexy, because it made that striking first impression, and because this was one of many ways to be intimate with Gabe, without being intimate.
I lost touch with Gabe after high school, rather suddenly and completely, the kind of “losing touch” that comes when someone vanishes without a word and nobody knows where to find him. To this day, I still do the cliche Google search to see if I can track him down, every year around the same time in September, the anniversary of when he first walked into my life with that wry grin and John Cusack attire. I never expect to find anything, and I never do. If he’s still on this planet, he’s completely off the grid.
But the heart moves on, and you get a little more secure in yourself, and become a master at filling your life with pieces of what you’ve gained from people like Gabe who have left a mark. I have my own katana collection now — three unsharpened steel, one wooden (all referred to as “practice katana”) — my own array of knowledge about the art of samurai swordsmanship, my own bias of karate over Kung Fu. I even got my own trenchcoat.
I think Gabe would be impressed, wherever he is.