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True Stories: Shazam!

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Maybe it’s the bourbon, but lately, we’ve been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? “Shazam!” originally ran in 2009.

I am on my couch with a book when I notice something in the window across the street: a woman, clad in a pink ’80s tin-foil wig and a zebra-print leotard. She’s jumping up and down. I stare for a while; she notices me and does a shimmy in my direction. I look away.

I’ve come to expect this kind of thing of the building across the street. Another woman in the same building is in the habit of having sex, backlit, in her loft bed in a bay window. (Admit it. You’d look too.) After the tin-foil-wig incident, I discuss these goings-on over IM with my downstairs neighbor. He tells me a girl from his old high school lives there. “Does she look like a superhero?” I ask. From his description, his former schoolmate sounds like the short-haired, curvy, muscular girl who’s begun to appear around our neighborhood, dressed in combat fatigues, a red beret, a leather vest and heavy boots. I suspect she is also pink-wig-and-zebra-print woman. “You know, she has a website,” he offers, helpfully sending me the URL.

Her website confirms that superhero woman and zebra-print woman are one and the same. The site turns out to be a vehicle for her “out-and-about action-hero persona,” Zelda Blaise. I learn that she is involved in fetish and lives the “action-hero lifestyle.” There are pictures of her in various action-hero situations — dressed in ninja gear scaling the wall of our local Verizon colossus, or in a red beret, with a fake gun and a cartridge belt on an empty Brooklyn lot. You can buy these photos online, it seems. She also does fetish wrestling and something called “grappling.”

I’m extremely tempted to find out more — in the name of nosiness and journalism.

She notices me and does a shimmy in my direction.

Being that I first got wind of her through a combination of website- and window-watching, I feel vaguely stalkerish contacting her for an article. But spurred on by boredom, ego, greed and desire to find a good story, I send her an email.

I’ve just begun a time-consuming graduate program, and my relationship with my girlfriend of the past few years has pretty much disintegrated. I’m feeling trapped, more staid than I wanted to be; in need of sniffing around more dramatic lives to shake me out of my own inertia.

Zelda Blaise gets back to me fairly quickly, sounding enthusiastic about being the subject of an article. She explains she’s the leader of a group of female wrestlers who call themselves the Furies. Each Fury has a nom de guerre and a persona detailed on the website, complete with vital stats and wrestling capacities. She proposes I meet her and the other Furies at their practice space, Fight House, a large martial-arts studio in Chelsea. A few days later, I am on my way.

At Fight House, tot karate is going on alongside a capoeira circle and serious Muay Thai. Zelda Blaise, dressed in a Body Armor t-shirt and hot pants, rolls around on a padded mat with a tall gangly guy with a long grey mullet. I recognize him from around the neighborhood and from the website: Captain Karm.

I stand around for a while, feeling sheepish, square and very conspicuous. No one seems to notice me. Thankfully Lele Kent, a slender woman with a ’80s femme brush cut comes to my rescue. She cheerily explains what’s going on. Meanwhile, Zelda and Karm keep at it for a good fifteen minutes. At one point, Zelda throws Karm onto the mat, then puts him in a leg-vice until his face turns a scary shade of purple. “It’s a bit hard to get her to disengage,” Lele Kent says. But after a while, Zelda Blaise abruptly stops wrestling and somersaults up from the floor to pump my hand vigorously.

She explains that I’m seeing the serious side of the Furies. They are practicing for legitimate submission-grappling competitions. They also do performances at fetish clubs and events, as well as private fetish-wrestling sessions with clients.

More people drop in to practice. Besides Lele, Zelda and Karm, I meet Lord Puny, a skinny-fat guy in his mid-twenties, and Chas, a jovial and trim man in his fifties with the accent of a well-educated Londoner and an undying enthusiasm for all things martial-arts-related.

They all take turns wrestling each other. Chas keeps encouraging me to get on the mat. Given that I’m wearing tight black jeans and it’s eighty degrees out, I don’t feel so tempted. That and the fetish factor. Watching them, I’m a little unsettled by the realization that with my feminine tomboy appearance, hourglass figure and R. Crumb legs, I fit the profile of a Fury pretty well. Like me, most of the girls seem to be somewhere in the middle of the gay-straight Kinsey scale, not to say that there isn’t considerable variation between the individual Furies.

Zelda tells me that she’s always practiced martial arts in some form. She used to go at it with the boys on her high-school wrestling team. “I’m naturally inclined to do violent things. I would go to fetish clubs and there would be absolutely nothing going on, so I’d wrestle Karm. People just went wild for it. They weren’t used to seeing violence that wasn’t stylized.”

The positive response to their impromptu wrestling performances led her to set up a website showcasing her skills. “I got all these emails — people who said, ‘Wow, you’re amazing, you are all strong women.'”

I’m unsettled by the realization that with my tomboy appearance, hourglass figure and R. Crumb legs, I fit the profile pretty well.

Zelda tells me she is unusual in a fetish-wrestler context. “I’m not in heels and a corset, I get down and dirty. It’s hands on. I’m strong,” says Zelda. I sense I’d be a fool not to take her word for it.

After practice, I sit down and talk to Karm. Apart from being into grappling and fetish, he is seriously knowledgeable when it comes to Marvel Comics. When he’s not here, he works for the New York Comic Convention. He mentions that he had a part in creating the Zelda Blaise persona, then says wistfully, “She wore a Mary Marvel costume when her hair was long. Now she looks like Bill Batson, if you know who I’m talking about.”

“No,” I say. I get the femme-butch metamorphosis, but my knowledge on comics is limited pretty much to Clark Kent being Superman’s alter ego.

“Billy Batson is the little boy who says ‘Shazam’ and turns into Captain Marvel,” Karm explains. I ask about their relationship — they once dated and still live together, though Zelda is now with Lele Kent. Karm seems saddened by the topic. I don’t push it.

The next time I see the Furies is at their open fetish-wrestling night, hosted in the basement of a Middle Eastern restaurant behind the Port Authority bus terminal.

The place is dimly lit. Zelda and Lele are on a wrestling mat in the middle of the floor. Their outfits are somewhat showier than those they wore at practice. Lele wears a blue bikini top. This time, Zelda’s just in a sports bra and hot pants.

I walk up to the bar and order a whisky soda. Two guys in dad jeans and brown leather jackets are leaning against the bar, clinging to their beers and once in a while glancing over to the action on the mat. I do my best to seem blasé. I’ve been to more than my fair share of burlesque shows, drag nights and gay bars, but here I feel like a PTA member at a strip club.

A fat man in a red t-shirt sits inches away from the wrestling women, sweat streaming down his face, eyes riveted. On a couch across the room, a man is sucking the feet of a wholesome brunette dressed in Wonder Woman underwear. Without getting up from the couch, she introduces herself as Victoria Power. Making small talk, I find out she is a dominatrix with an interest in women’s studies.

Chas, the chatty Brit, greets me with a smile and explains the particulars of what is going down on the mat. He talks extensively of the serious sportsmanship of submission grappling, and again asks me several times if I want to wrestle. When I decline he squeezes my bicep encouragingly and tells me he thinks I’ll do okay. I feel a little flattered and wonder if I should reconsider.

The place fills up as the night wears on. A gaggle of thirty-something vanilla lesbians in Gap pants and t-shirts end up on a couch in my corner of the room. Then there’s the chubby man in a synthetic brown wig with a very conspicuous erection under his secretarial stretchy-nylon skirt. He looks a bit uncertain of what to do, but happy to be here. Zelda, who is done wrestling for now, walks up to him, introduces herself and chats a little, putting him at ease. There is something sweetly nurturing about the Furies’ approach to their guests.

Anybody is welcome to get on the mat, but Zelda Blaise and Lele Kent wrestle every hour on the hour and theirs is the standout performance. They tumble around on the floor to Arabic pop music, somewhere between dancing and fighting. At one point Zelda pins Lele to the floor and, sitting across her chest, wiggles her butt triumphantly in Lele’s face. The crowd — that would be me and my newfound friends on the corner couch — cheers. A cut and slender Latino guy from the Fight House does an actual wrestling match with Chas, prompting one of the lesbians to wonder out loud about her sexual orientation. At the end of the night Victoria Power and the foot guy bring down the house as they manage to work in an impressive number of foot-in-face moves. Victoria wins and walks all over him as he lies exhausted on the floor. I’m getting over my uptightness a little. This is certainly good entertainment.

After the night at the club, I don’t see the Furies again. (Though I do keep running into Karm at the laundromat.) Despite my emails and voice messages, Zelda is elusive. That, paired with me leaving my girlfriend and being swallowed whole by grad school, means that I am less persistent than I need to be. The story slips away.

Actually, to say that I don’t see Zelda isn’t entirely true. I do see her every once in a while: across the street in the window. This gets more and more awkward (for me at least) as the whole thing now seems a little too involved and intimate. It also serves to feed my guilty conscience over having dropped the ball on the article. There was always an element of voyeurism and exhibitionism in my interactions with them. Now it’s at a new level. Little tableaus unfold in front of my eyes. Zelda and Lele fooling around on their bed, which is pushed up to the window. Karm opening the door, to deliver some message or another.

At this point I’m pretty much a recluse, except for occasional drinking sessions with like-minded friends, where I try to remember what I used to be like as a single person. An uncomfortable feeling hovers in the back of my mind that Zelda’s antics in her window constitute the only action I’m getting. I suddenly feel on display in my own living room. I’ve gone from curious journalist to Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

It seems to be chiefly my fault. I was the one who broke the fourth wall, after all. When I mention my awkwardness to a friend, she laughs and says I should enjoy it. In the end, I cave and begin living with my blinds drawn.

One day I look out the window and discover all the furnishings of Zelda’s room are gone. I had thought I would feel relieved; I do. I also feel a pang of emptiness, the way you do in New York when something you’ve gotten used to and regard as a fixture suddenly disappears.

A year later I send Zelda an email again. I’m out of grad school, have plenty of time on my hands and hope to revive the story. After a few days I get a reply from someone identifying himself as Julian, Lele Kent’s husband. He explains that the Furies are more than happy to talk to me. He adds, “Due to reasons beyond our control, the Zelda Blaise character is no longer available nor a part of this organization.” I respond, my curiosity piqued, but never hear back again.

I poke around the internet to try to find out what Zelda might be doing these days. All tracks seem to disappear in late 2007, around the time I lost touch with her. Eventually I decide I’d rather not find out more. I’d rather just remember Zelda and Lele as they once were: in love and exhibitionistic, wrestling on the floor of a skeezy basement in Hell’s Kitchen. I’m attached to this ending, sad, a bit mysterious, yet tidy. But when I find Julian’s MySpace page a few days later, something in the style seems familiar. I may well be wrong, but part of me suspects that Zelda Blaise isn’t gone; she has only shape-shifted, Billy-Batson-like, into a new persona.

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