Spring 2014

I see them as I saw myself at work
Laughing faces smiling, cheerful voice
We smile like Dickens’ wretched clerks,
And wonder if we ever had a choice

Submerged in work-time till we drown,
When everything within us has been drained,
Who can count how many lives go down,
Clinging to what fragments still remained

Do we make ourselves or were we made,
Potter or the pot in daily life
Logic breaks entangled when displayed,
Echoed in the working hours strife.

So are we us or someone else’s you?
No matter in the face of getting through. 

Alan Blaustein

frozen gray
& brown rivers

of plastic & metal,
in which course

the elixirs & ethers
of our days:

the price of lives
lost in boxes.

J.M. Hall 

by Edward Hamlin

From her workbench in the impeccable shop she could hear everything.  The banter at the front desk, the boisterous chaffing between fencers, the snap and clang of foils, the buzz of scoring machines alongside the ten pistes at the heart of the cavernous club, all this found its way easily into the small, orderly armory.  As she patiently rewired sabres, swapped blades on epées, cleaned the loaner masks and jackets, the sounds of the place rushed over her like whitewater over an immovable stone. 

There had been a time when Gabi was at the center of the action in a different way.  It was generally agreed that she was the best foilist the Stuyvesant Fencing Club had ever produced.  She’d started at the age of nine, soon after the family moved from São Paulo to New York, and by the time she began high school at Beckley she’d collected wins in tournaments from Miami to Portland.  At sixteen she broke out stunningly by taking the bronze at the Pan American Games, a silver in Florence, and then an especially sweet gold in the city of her birth.  A contingent of cousins drove down from Rio de Janeiro in a rented bus; a wealthy uncle flew his jet up from Porto Alegre.  The pressure was enormous, but she moved through the semifinals with aplomb, dispatching the reckless Mexican Ortensia Reyes on an eight-point spread.  In the finals she outmaneuvered her friend Lili Tarkov in a bout of startling brevity.  Her Brazilian kin knew nothing about fencing, but this did not stop them from loudly disputing the referee’s call when Lili scored her sole touch.  They raised the roof when Gabi shook Lili’s hand to seal her victory.

It was a huge win in every sense, and she returned to New York on a wave of newfound confidence.  I remember her victorious arrival at the club: her casual laughter, the generosity of her smile, a certain relaxed lilt in her long legs.  She and I slipped out after the obligatory party and flew down 73rd Street holding hands, I as thrilled by her success as she was.  She’d been transformed, freed in some way that I wished I understood.  I went to sleep that night wondering about the calm in her grey eyes.

There was only a year to go before the Olympic qualifiers.  Our head coach, the Hungarian Laszlo Nagy, notched Gabi’s training into high gear the instant she returned from Brazil, taking control not only of her foil training but also of her diet, her sleep schedule, even her studies at Beckley—really driving her, but also punishing her with an alternating current of silence and unpredictable rage if he suspected that she’d defied him in some small way.  He was a tall, hawklike man with impatient eyes and a black bolt of hair that looked as if it had been hewn from volcanic rock; when he lost his temper he could be terrifying.  And Nagy was fearless.  As Gabi lunged to deliver a touch he would sometimes intercept the tip of her foil in his glove, redirecting it like a superhero snatching a bullet from the air.  If you scored a touch against him, you knew it was only because he’d permitted it. 

Laszlo Nagy demanded total fealty from his students.  One terrible Friday afternoon—we were fourteen—Gabi let it slip that she had a date with one of the other fencers, a shy kid named Ethan.  Nagy did not react at first; but later, as he and Gabi were bouting, he suddenly reversed his foil and brought the heavy steel pommel down on her mask, delivering a blow that left her ears ringing.   The whole club heard him shout a Hungarian word whose meaning seemed clear enough.  Gabi bolted from the building with her mask still on, perhaps to hide tears, perhaps only because she was so desperate to escape him.  It was a year of miseries that Coach Nagy somehow convinced her were ennobling, even as he kept her in a state of corrosive anxiety. 

In time her studies began to suffer; her easy Brazilian warmth cooled; she was constantly tired.  Gabi no longer joined us after practice for our falafel runs.  On the contrary, I overheard her vomiting in the locker room stalls more than once.  When we showered I could see that her body was changing, losing its youthful proportion.  Before Brazil, her hips were compact and solid, her long legs smoothly muscled, her breasts high and full; now her pelvic bones pushed out against her sallow skin, her thighs were overdeveloped and mannish, her breasts deflated.  Nagy was sculpting her into a fencing machine.  Sometimes I thought of a boy undressing my friend and wondered what he would think as her dangerous contours were revealed.  I worried for her.

Gabi folded in upon herself as her fencing got better and better.  We all saw what was going on, the price she was paying for being Laszlo Nagy’s protégée, but we were too young to sort discipline from cruelty.  None of us sounded an alarm as our friend soldiered on.  We sat on the bench between bouts and watched Nagy drive her through drill after drill, spending hours on footwork until Gabi’s powerful legs were quivering.  After two hours of relentless work you could almost smell her frustration, her need to stop drilling and just bout, but Nagy would refuse her that release.  Eventually he might fence five diffident points with her, barely bothering to take a proper en garde stance and letting her beat him easily, as if she wasn’t worth the trouble; then he would cock his mask up on his head and send her off to bout with one of us, seeming to forget her the instant she was out of his sight. 

Eventually I decided I knew what Nagy was up to.   At the end of those long evenings, when she was finally released to us, Gabi’s fencing took on a brilliant ferocity that I could feel through my sword arm.  She was frighteningly good.  So it is possible that Nagy knew exactly what he was doing.    But what I’m certain of is that he took exquisite pleasure in his total domination of Gabi Cohen. 

***

The hallway leading to the practice floor is lined with photos of fencing heroes living and dead.  There’s a yellowed portrait of the Italian master Nadi, lean and elegant in his whites during his visit to the club in the 1930s; a dramatic action shot of another old maestro, mantis-like, scoring an over-the-shoulder touch; and a black-draped photo of the doomed fencer Smirnov relaxing between practice bouts, faulty mask tucked casually under his arm the very day before he was fatally impaled through the eye.  Behind this pantheon comes the parade of coaches, each surrounded by his or her top students.  It is here that one finds Gabriela Cohen’s portrait, elevated above the other students by several inches so that it nearly touches the iconic photo of the gangly Olympian, Laszlo Nagy, soaring arrow-like toward his Japanese opponent. 

The photo says everything there is to be said about Nagy.  While the other coaches appear in staid head shots—society gentlemen at the turn of the century, a crewcut Marine during the Cold War, a Ukrainian defector in the sixties, the first woman in 1975, the brothers Pecorelli through the eighties—Nagy insisted that his photo enshrine his moment of Olympic glory.  It isn’t a portrait; it is a valedictory.  The easygoing smile of his successor, Don Cutler, can’t hold a candle to it.  Glancing from Nagy’s photo to Cutler’s one has the impression that a sudden, dangerous rebellion has been put down, and not a moment too soon.

While Nagy had aged since his Olympic days, his powerful, athletic body was intact, and a visitor would have little trouble recognizing the coach as the fencer in the photo.  The same could not be said for Gabi Cohen.  After the disaster at the national championships Gabi would disappear into Brazil for five years, returning sixty pounds heavier and with a heavy shamble to her gait.  The star athlete on the wall of fame bore no relation to the heavyset, moon-faced woman who came not to fence but to watch others from the benches.  By then most of our teammates had moved on and Nagy was long gone, but those of us who remembered her as she was at sixteen, at the peak of her brilliance, were thrown into a state of shock. 

My own reunion with Gabi was awkward.  She shook my left hand as gloved competitors do after a bout, her sleeve drenched with rain.  Even the Brazilian kiss on the cheek was denied me.  I didn’t take it personally—the dark aura Gabi gave off told me that no one in her life was treated with affection now—but it hurt me deeply.  She was so clearly in pain, and I, perhaps, was the only one who knew enough to understand why.  Laszlo Nagy and I, to be more accurate—but by then Nagy had long since disappeared into Hungary, or so we assumed.

In those first weeks Gabi came to the club almost every afternoon and sat quietly on the benches, watching the action through smudgy glasses and taking in the scent of sweat like an old woman taking the seaside air.  The atmosphere of the place seemed to nourish her, whatever demons it harbored.  Now and then I’d take a break from teaching the kids—Don Cutler had recently made me his assistant—and just sit quietly with her, not sure how to start a real conversation.  Sometimes we’d talk about fencing and fencers, but those conversations ran aground when I realized that she no longer followed the big competitions; it was like talking baseball standings with an American who’d lived abroad for years.  She didn’t keep up and didn’t care. 

There was something deeply unmoored about my friend.  In those first tentative weeks she didn’t ask me a single question—so unlike the inquisitive Gabi I’d known.  I thought of asking her to bout, but the idea felt off limits.  Looking at her body, it seemed unlikely that she’d fenced at all since fleeing New York.

I assumed that Don Cutler, the low-key Harvard fencing coach they’d recruited when Nagy was drummed out, knew everything there was to know about Gabi’s aborted fencing career.  But if he knew what had derailed it, he was too much of a gentleman to say.  Whatever the case, it was his idea to appoint an official armorer for the club and to tap its most famous alumna to fill the post.  At first Gabi said no, but after a week’s rumination she came back to Coach and accepted.  Together they turned the narrow equipment closet into a shop, installing a workbench, pegboards for tools, a jeweler’s magnifying lamp, a lock on the Dutch door.  Gabi set to work overhauling the club’s battered foils, testing blades against the cinderblock wall, gluing in new wires, replacing blades and guards. 

I’d watch Gabi perched there on her swivel stool and in time I imagined that I saw a kind of contentment stealing over her.  Her competitive career was over, but as armorer she could stay connected to the sport, and gradually I noticed her beginning to chat with the club members as she tuned up their weapons.  It couldn’t hurt that she was treated with deference, once word got around that the new armorer was the woman in the portrait on the wall, the infamous Laszlo Nagy’s top student.

It made my heart leap when Gabi asked me to dinner one evening, and as we sat in the falafel shop we swapped stories about teammates past, our years at Beckley, tournaments we’d competed in together.  Of course there were topics we skirted, but the evening was a celebration.  When we parted she began to give me a hug, then broke away and hugged me from the left side instead, holding me for a long while.  “I wanted to give you a better hug,” she said, her eyes searching mine.  “A heart hug."  With this she covered her heart, then mine.  And with a glancing kiss to my cheek she was gone.

***

It was three days into the new year when Laszlo Nagy reappeared. 

"Nagy,” he announced at the front desk, as if there could be only one.

I hadn’t heard that cocksure rasp in five years, since the terrible week after nationals.  I watched furtively from the office, my stomach clenching at the sight of him.

The spike-haired teenager manning the desk jumped to his feet and thrust out a hand.  “Awesome!” he said.  “Stoked to meet you."  But Nagy’s hooded gaze had already moved toward the practice floor.  "I watch,” he declared, crossing the hall and stepping into the controlled chaos of clashing weapons, panting fencers and squeaking rubber soles.  Laszlo Nagy stalked his old territory like a canny predator, not in coach’s garb now but in pressed jeans and a black overcoat that swept his knees as he made his way past our two best sabre fencers, dismissing them at a glance. 

I followed at a safe distance and studied him.  The vulpine stride was still there, the prowling walk, the arrow-straight torso.  His hair had gone white but this did nothing to diminish his menace.  In fact, there was something even more dangerous about him now, a profounder arrogance, perhaps—though it is hard to understand how a man who’d been run out of town could now return like a conquering hero.

***

Nagy didn’t know it, but he was making his way steadily toward the new armory, where Gabi, I knew, was busy replacing the blade on Coach Cutler’s personal foil.  Before the visitor reached the open Dutch door, though, Coach overtook him.  “Laszlo Nagy?” he said.

Nagy pivoted on his boot heel and threw his head back to peer down at Don.

Don held out his gloved sword hand, then shook his head as if to mock his own absentmindedness.  Stripping the glove off, he offered his hand again.  Nagy clasped it unsmilingly. 

“Don Cutler,” said Coach.

Nagy looked past him, scanning the pistes.  Every strip was taken; there were ten bouts underway.  The club was flourishing under Don and fencers had to wait their turn for a spot on the floor.  “Too many fencers,” said Nagy with a dismissive wave.  “In Budapest only the best survive.”

“Can I show you around?” Don asked, steering Nagy away from the armory. 

“I built this club with bare hands,” said the visitor loudly, holding up a spade-shaped hand in illustration.  How typically vain: Stuyvesant had been around for a century before he arrived.  Nagy started walking the lanes that led between the fencing strips, scrutinizing each fencer as he passed.  Don fell in behind him and I flanked them at a safe distance. 

Soon I caught Don’s eye and led it toward Gabi, who sat in the open window of the armory staring at Nagy’s long back as it moved away.  The three of us exchanged a sort of round-robin glance, Gabi’s eyes frantic and hot.  She was thinking fast, calculating an angle of attack or perhaps a route of escape.  I wondered what she would do.  But Don spared her the dilemma.  Catching up to Nagy, he asked:

“What would you say to a quick bout, Laszlo?  It would be an honor.”

Nagy turned and gave a false smile.  “I didn’t bring my whites,” he said coolly.

“We can find you whites.  And a mask and foil and all the rest.”

Nagy stared openly at his mild-mannered successor, this American whose mastery was suspect merely by dint of nationality.  Gesturing toward the busy pistes, he said, “There is no space for another bout.  The house is full.”

“I’ll bet I can find us a spot.”

Nagy cocked his head.  There was a shout from the floor and I couldn’t make out his reply, but I heard Don say: “Great.  Tell you what—I’ll grab your gear and bring it to you.  What’s your shoe size?"  With this he steered Nagy away. 

One of the teenagers burst from the locker room as they approached, skin flushed from the showers and a small wound oozing blood at his collarbone.  It’s the nature of the sport that minor punctures happen, especially with hotshots who can’t be bothered to zip their padded jackets all the way up; Don is strict about such behavior.  But Nagy smiled and nodded approvingly as the kid passed.  

Once the visitor had been safely dispatched to the lockers, Coach and I converged at the armory window.

"How dare he show up here!” said Gabi hotly.  “Who does he think he is?”

“He knows exactly who he is,” I replied.  “But he doesn’t belong to this club anymore.”

“Coach, get him out of here.  I’m asking you.  I don’t know how much you know, but—”

It was painful to watch Gabi plead.  Don didn’t make her finish the thought. 

“If I understand this guy, the way to get rid of him, for good, is to beat him on the strip.”

“Dead right,” I said.   

But Gabi looked skeptical.  “No offense, but you might not beat him.”

Don nodded.  “I know, of course.  But even a few embarrassing touches will do.  That much I can get for you.  Now, pull his gear, give me back my foil, and let’s get to it.”

Gabi’s expression went flat.  For a long moment she stared past us at the practice floor, the sound of clashing foils, squeaking shoes and buzzers filling the breach.  But then she slid off her stool and rounded up the necessary gear and passed it through the Dutch door.  “Give me a few more minutes on this,” she said, nodding at Don’s foil.  “Still wrapping the grip."  Coach hurried off to meet Nagy in the locker room. 

"You okay?” I asked Gabi, reaching across to cover her hand.  “You don’t have to stick around for this, you know."  But she wouldn’t meet my eyes.  "Sorry,” she said, screwing the pommel back onto Don’s foil, “but I’ve got to finish this up."  I took the hint and left her to her work, going off to free up a strip for the bout.

***

By the time Laszlo Nagy strutted from the locker room the practice floor had been transformed into a theater in the round.  Two dozen fencers stood around the center fencing strip, weapons at rest, masks at their hips.  As Nagy strode across the room it was quiet enough to hear the floorboards creak under him.  He walked slowly, relishing the moment: he’d lived in obscurity for five years, presumably in Budapest, and now he was back in his element.  We were just the Stuyvesant Fencing Club, not a stadium studded with Olympians and aristocrats, but every fencer in the room wanted to see what he could do, and Maestro Nagy was anxious to show us.  Cutler, ever the gentleman and surely no fool, let Nagy take center stage. 

The men met on the piste and Don introduced his guest to the room.  "Please join me in welcoming Laszlo Nagy, who really needs no introduction." 

Well played, I thought.  Best omit the details. 

Sparing applause rippled through the spectators.  As the men shook hands and proceeded to their separate ends of the strip, clipping on the electronic scoring cables, I moved to the center line and took up my post; as assistant coach, I’d been asked to referee the match.  Nagy and Cutler raised their foils in the traditional salute and donned their masks.  Nagy gave no sign of recognizing me although I’d studied under him for four years.  Formalities concluded, he shook out his arms briskly, flexed the tip of his foil, and danced his feet to limber up, all of it a show for the crowd.

In the moment before I called en garde I glanced toward the armory and saw that Gabi had shuttered it for the evening.  She herself was nowhere to be seen.  But then in the hush of the cavernous room I heard the front door slam.  It had to have been her, because no other fencer in the building would have missed that match.  I imagined her hurrying down the sidewalk and then breaking into a heavy run, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the man who’d ended her career.

En garde, I called out, raising my hands.  Prêt…allez!

***

From the first moments of the bout I saw that Nagy was up to something.  I knew his style intimately, but as I watched his opening moves I thought I was watching another fencer entirely. 

Nagy almost never came out with an immediate attack.  For him, the early stages of a bout were for gathering intelligence, not scoring touches.  He’d hang back and draw his opponent in, lowering his foil to invite an approach, tossing off occasional feints to probe his opponent’s defenses.  When he faced off against Koboyashi in the Olympic semifinals, Nagy famously allowed his opponent two touches before making a single lunge.  Of course the system worked less well in the final against Dietering, but by then it was Laszlo Nagy’s calling card. 

Yet here was Nagy dropping into an immediate lunge with his sword arm extended like a threatful tusk.  If I’d started a bout like this when he was my coach he’d have snatched my point from the air and stopped me cold.  Don parried but was too startled to mount a decent riposte.  I knew he’d be calculating now, thinking fast.  Nagy retreated and the men paced back and forth in tandem, gauging one another.  Don twirled his point in irregular arcs, biding his time; Nagy straightened his sword arm threateningly and then pulled back.  An uneasy standoff took hold.

But then Nagy made another strange move.  Launching suddenly toward Don he unleashed a running attack, taking two long steps and thrusting his point toward Coach’s chest as he swept by in a white whirlwind. 

Coach parried deftly and in an unbroken motion curled his foil over his shoulder to catch Nagy as he raced away.  The touch was clear and masterful.  I clicked the remote control to award the point to Coach and the spectators thrummed.  When an over-the-shoulder riposte finds its mark it’s always a thrill.  As Nagy stalked back to his position he grasped the tip of his foil and flexed it angrily as if the fault lay in his hardware. 

When the action resumed I sensed a change in Don.  The running attack is a risky move, usually held in reserve; that Nagy deployed it right out of the gate said something about his state of mind.  Don read this and came on strong now, throwing two sly feints and then lunging for a perfect inside touch.  I clicked the remote and sent another point his way. 

Nagy hit back hard, giving Don’s foil a mean spank and launching a frontal attack.  The parry crashed through the room like a brick through a window and I knew from the sound of it that the Hungarian was trying to overpower his opponent by sheer force.  When Nagy got brutal like this you could see that his roots were in sabre—a weapon that traces its own roots, as it happens, to Hussar swords honed for decapitation.

Soon the fighting went to close quarters.  Don fell back into a crouch and parried at lightning speed as Nagy unleashed a fusillade of thrusts.  I raced down the strip to follow the action.  As I came to a stop Don made a solid parry and finally managed to get off a counterattack.  His foil found its mark just below Nagy’s collarbone. 

It was a good hit, but both men’s scoring buzzers went off, indicating that Nagy had hit too.  I saw clearly what had happened: at the very instant that Don’s point had hit home, Nagy’s deflected foil flicked across his attacker’s chest, impelled by the force of Don’s parry.  The touch was incidental, not a valid attack by any reckoning.  But this did not prevent the Hungarian from strutting away in triumph, hammering his fist in the air in a victory that I judged not to be his.

The rules of foil are clear in this situation.  Don’s attack trumped Nagy’s accidental flick, and I awarded the point to him.  I didn’t doubt my call then and I don’t doubt it now.  But when Nagy saw the score he flew into a rage.  Off came the mask and suddenly he was charging toward me in a fury.  My point by remise! he shouted, storming to a halt before me with his foil pointed at my feet.

I stared at his black eyes and sour mouth and let him boil over.  Then I calmly laid out my reason for the call: Attack, riposte to quarte, no parry

There was nothing Nagy could say.  In the absence of line judges my word was final.  And he knew I was right.  But suddenly he took another step toward me and raised his foil to the level of my knees.  I swayed back and lost my balance and fell hard to the floor.  In the background I heard Coach call out Hey! 

Because of where I’d fallen, the point of Nagy’s foil hovered over my belly.  He glowered over me, seeming a foot taller than he was—and then hauled me roughly to my feet. 

***

Through it all I never took my gaze off his.  That’s how I know that both of us, for that instant, were thrust back into another instant from long ago.  I saw the shadow pass through his eyes, the ugly memory, because without intending it we had just reenacted a moment that forever changed Gabi’s life and his.  Mine too, I suppose.

For Laszlo Nagy had knocked me to the ground once before.  It had happened five years earlier, at a Holiday Inn in Louisville after a long day at the Division I championships, the last qualifying tournament before selection of the Olympic team.  I’d gone to dinner at a Mexican place with friends I knew from the circuit; Gabi and I knew people from all over.  Gabi stayed back at the hotel, saying she was exhausted—not surprising in the least, because she’d fenced hard that day defending her ranking.  And so it came down to six of us, old friends with a lot to catch up on. 

After saying goodnight to everyone I took the elevator back to the room I shared with Gabi.  Sliding my card into the door I tried to be as quiet as possible, guessing she might be asleep, and indeed the room was dark except for the light washing in from the hallway.  But in the murk I saw a sudden movement and heard a deep male voice curse sharply.  Someone sprang from a mattress and there was a commotion of steps on carpeting.  Before I had time to react a tall man erupted from the room and threw himself against me and sent me sprawling on my back.  The next thing I saw was Laszlo Nagy storming toward his room with a towel clutched around his narrow hips.  A door slammed halfway down the hall and he was gone.

I ran to Gabi and found her naked on the bed, curled with a hand between her thighs, sobbing to herself.  Her pajama bottoms were twisted around one ankle.  I lay down next to her and tried to comfort her but she would not be touched.  Nor would she say a word.  I lay next to her in the total darkness wanting only to hold her as she cried herself to sleep.

In the morning we rose and showered and put on our warmups as if it were a regular day, maintaining a careful silence and avoiding each other’s gaze.  Gabi was rummaging in her suitcase when I told her I’d meet her down at breakfast, but she never came.  Nor did she show up at the tournament.  I swallowed my fury and went to Nagy and told him I was worried about her.  He interrupted me to call out to one of the other coaches and then walked away.  I caught a taxi back to the hotel where I found Gabi and all her things gone.  On the dresser was a note saying Sorry. Good luck today

Within a few days she was back home in Brazil, her Olympic hopes swept away.  I wouldn’t see her again until she walked into the club on that rainy afternoon five years later. 

As for Nagy—I can’t guess how he explained the defection of his star fencer to the Stuyvesant board, but in two weeks he was gone too.  The whole incident went underground.  No one spoke of it though everyone wanted to know what had happened to Gabi.  To protect her I began hinting at an immigration issue that had forced her to return home.  I was not above lying to protect my friend’s dignity.  In time the fencers who’d known her moved on to other things, and when I talked to new members about Gabriela Cohen I spoke only of her triumphs.

***

Nagy and Coach were eight points into their match when the accident occurred.  The account that would appear in the Times the next day missed nearly everything important, but it did get the headline right: Freak accident stuns fencing world.  Indeed, the alarm rang out across the country and far beyond.  I have no doubt that fencers in Paris and Tokyo and Budapest were already gossiping about it, wondering how such a thing could have happened.

Nagy’s attacks had grown more punishing as the bout roared on.  With each lost point he hit harder, trading finesse for force.  A thoughtful foilist can outwit raw force every time, and Don was outthinking Nagy easily; but simple physics cannot be evaded.  Don was forced to stiffen his sword arm against each jarring impact, struggling to master his foil’s reaction to Nagy’s every action.

The final moment came when Don parried a direct thrust to his chest.  As his foil raced over Nagy’s blade I saw its blunt tip snap off and shoot into space like a glowing tracer.  This should have halted play, but the momentum of Don’s riposte, powered by Nagy’s forceful parry, was unstoppable.  The jagged foil found the Hungarian’s chest and plunged through his protective clothing and kept going until it found his pounding heart.  

The wounded man fell back, wrenching away from Coach’s blade, and sprawled to the hard floor with a groan that filled the room to bursting.  When I reached him Coach already had the heel of his hand pressed to Nagy’s chest.  I recall being surprised at how little blood there was at first.  The fallen fencer lay stunned, face ashen and eyes dull.  Call an ambulance! I shouted.  At that moment Nagy heaved a little under Don’s hand and closed his eyes.    

By the time the paramedics arrived Nagy’s heart had stopped, and as they labored over him Don sobbed openly, his students gathered round him silent as graveside mourners.  They went through the motions of rushing the victim to the hospital, of course, but it was over: Nagy was gone, leaving a small red slick on the floorboards and a thousand stories in his wake.

***

This much became public record.  But now I must confess something more awkward.

In the chaos of the paramedics’ departure I disappeared into the armory with Don’s broken foil and wiped the blood away and held it under the magnifying lamp.  I saw that the steel had been carefully scored just below the fatal break.  The file mark was unmistakable.  I recalled my friend perched on that very stool, preparing Don’s weapon for battle as Nagy changed into his whites, and wondered if she’d meant to kill Nagy or only scare him with her grim riposte. 

I made an instinctive decision and searched the workshop until I found what I was looking for: an old loaner foil whose blade had snapped harmlessly that morning as one of the teenagers ran through his drills.  Never had I swapped and rewired a blade so fast.  Through the closed door I could hear that people were on the move now, clearing the room, perhaps wondering where I was.  I hid in the armory for more than an hour to be certain that Gabi’s secret was safe.  And that night I pitched the real blade into the East River, feeling like a Venetian assassin drowning his rapier in some dark canal.

***

It was hardly surprising that Gabi vanished after the incident, but a month passed before I understood the real reason why. 

I was cooking dinner when the phone rang.  The caller ID showed a long string of digits, and when I answered I heard the voice of Gabi’s mother, Shoshanna Cohen.  She was calling from São Paulo.  Her voice was guarded. 

"Gabi’s gone,” she said.  “Will you come down for the memorial?”

Those words defeated me.  I slid down the refrigerator and crouched on the tile floor with the phone to my ear.  “Why?” I begged. 

Why—not how.  I knew how she’d died, or enough of it, anyway; I knew without asking that she’d taken her own life, by whatever means.  I don’t recall the rest of our conversation, only that we cried together, Shoshanna and I.  When we hung up I tossed out my dinner and started drinking instead.  In the morning I bought a ticket to Brazil and went to the bank to get my passport.

***

São Paulo was ugly even by first light: as the plane came in low over its filthy flank I thought I’d never seen such a landscape of despair.  The apartment towers sprawled on and on like an endless field of white crosses.  But somewhere in that burying ground there were people who loved Gabi as much as I did, people who were struggling to comprehend her death; people who didn’t know what I knew.  I’d turned it over in my mind a thousand times just as they had, but while they couldn’t find a reason why this gifted, humble young woman would take her own life, I could find all too many.   Best keep what I knew to myself, I decided. 

But that evening, as I sat in the grim banquet room at the Clube Paulistano and stared at the crossed foils hung on the wall above my friend’s photo, Shoshanna Cohen sat down next to me and said quietly, “You can explain to me why she did this, can’t you?"  Her pupils were wide and pleading, but her eyes were perfectly dry. 

Shoshanna was a teller of truths herself.  She deserved to know.

"Nagy,” I said simply.  The name implied a universe of suffering complete unto itself, as if I’d said “the War." 

The details no longer mattered.  I excused myself as gently as I could and walked quickly through the club.  As the doorman swung the ornate door out into the rank clamor of Gabi’s city, I held her weightless spirit in my hand the way a child holds a freshly cut rose. 

Edward Hamlin