I jumped, and then it was all upside down mauling — hands squeezing my ribs, gripping my thighs — for a second too long before, somehow, I landed on my feet again.
“You did it! A handspring!”
The coaches were liars. I hadn’t done anything except submit to their maneuvering. I wanted to be able to tumble like the other girls but I couldn’t even stay arched long enough to drop into a simple back bend: the floor rushed toward my head too quickly. I didn’t trust my arms were strong enough. My back stiffened every time.
The balance beam brought out my deepest anxiety. I hated being separated from the ground with nothing supporting me on either side. I never fell off because I clung to the spotter’s hands, my grasp offered the secret plea, “Please keep me safe. Please keep my bones from breaking. Please don’t let go.”
The vault wasn’t quite so bad. I’d run and run — just like the teachers said to — and run — because I was a good girl — and run onto the spring, and hop — only high enough to ram my stomach into that stupid horse. Fuck you, Nadia Comanei, and your uneven parallel bars, too.
Jenny Norris had real horses at her house. I thought they were nice animals, but they petrified me. I was much more interested in looking at pictures of Gene Simmons’ platform boots in Jenny’s older sister’s Kiss albums. There was no one in my life at the time to point out that record producer, shoe designer, and rock photographer are true jobs.
It was 1976: the year of the Olympics. All six-year-old girls aspired to only two professions: gymnast and figure skater.
No matter how much pleasure I took in shaking my sassy Dorothy Hamill hairdo, I knew five laps around the pond wasn’t going to win me any medals. Quitting skating was my first act of pragmatism.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
By nine, I made peace with the fact that I would never climb a rope, would avoid all sports involving balls of any shape, and would just as soon keep my failing grade in math if improving meant I had to be nice to that b-i-t-c-h Mrs. Valintich.
Also eliminated were serious water activities. The previous summer’s fall off the high dive onto concrete had ruined my fondness for jumping. Luckily, my thick skull took the brunt of the impact, and (with a brief detour to the hospital for observation) I walked away from the incident.
Fancy diving had been my last hope for the Olympics.
At eleven, although it was said that I did well with the flute and piano, I could not, would not, get up the nerve to sing any portion of a solo during choir practice. The director pointed at each of us, one by one, going down the row testing parts. When she came to me I just shook my head and kept my mouth closed.
They can’t make you open your mouth. I learned that with the vegetables nearly a decade earlier. Only sadists would make a person open their mouth and, thank god, I didn’t have any of those in my life.
I had the next best thing; I had people who told me (all evidence to the contrary) I could do anything I set my mind to.