There were many people I wanted to be other than myself the summer I turned fourteen and went to gymnastics camp. A girl with a manageable ponytail threw a flawless series on the balance beam. A former Olympic coach asked where she was from. “Raleigh,” she said in the sweetest Southern accent, a moon-shaped scar curved beside her lip. I practiced in the cabin shower, shutting my eyes as I scrubbed, changing my Long Island “Shoor” to a cowgirl’s “Shur!” When I emerged the tiny bathroom was puddled, and I used a pool towel to sop it up.
In my bunk there was Evelyn, a low-level gymnast but pure and golden haired like a fairytale character, quiet and humble and encouraged by our counselor, Patty, to join in when she grew shy. Nobody needed to encourage me. I had an alarm clock which, when I pushed in the top, would announce to the cabin in a computerized voice, “It is 10:51 p.m.” I tapped it constantly to draw out laughter. “And all is well!” Patty crowed.
Evelyn had come to camp with a couple teammates. They were from backwoods Pennsylvania, and their form was atrocious. One of them said when we saw turkeys cross the road that her family hunted pheasant. The three of them huddled on Evelyn’s low bunk when she grew homesick, comforting her the way you’d expect of rural people, without saying much, their heads bowed close. I drifted near with my toothbrush in my mouth to try to make out if they were praying.
The thing I envied most about Evelyn was that she could never finish her food in the cafeteria and yet refused to waste a morsel. She’d wrap a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich in a paper napkin, tucking it into a Caboodle beneath her bed. The cabins weren’t rustic but vinyl-sided and fitted with window A/C units. Neither bug nor rodent went after Evelyn’s crumbs.
The national team trained here on retreat, the ’92 Olympians in photos nailed to our walls. In the moonlight I gazed at Kim Zmeskal’s vacant face before nodding off.
I myself couldn’t get enough food after a day of practice. I’d sneak back to the buffet for a sandwich following the main course, double up on plastic cups of fruit punch, peering around the room to make sure the instructors weren’t watching me. The older coaches, men with Russian accents and comb-over hair, had their eyes only on the little ones, girls they could toss in the air like silver coins. The rest of the staff were college gymnasts who wore Osh Kosh and Temple sweatshirts, rowdy in their release from the elite gymnastics scene. They partied at night in the counselors’ lounge and cut lessons short to play pranks on each other. Mustached guys from Ohio State chucked shrieking SEC girls into the foam pit. They referred to Ramona, my beam and tumbling coach, as Tomato. Feeding off their wildness, I finished my pass, took Ramona’s corrections, then said, “Got it, Tomato.”
“Hey!” she shouted over the din: the squeal of the bars, the smack of the springboard, the thud of people landing on mats. “You don’t get to call me that.” She pushed up her Georgia sweatshirt sleeves, tugging down the hem to hide a flabby midsection. “That name isn’t for you.”
After practice I curled up in bed, watching Evelyn nibble her leftovers.
Each morning we rose in cutting cold, the Berkshire pines casting shadows across the path to the gym. We wore USA Gymnastics sweatshirts purchased by catalog, hotdogger warmup suits, slouchy socks. Silver clips along our scalps like probes. One morning the trapeze people passed, carrying thermoses and spotting belts and coils of rope. All three of them – two men and a woman – wore woven Mexican ponchos. She smiled at us and murmured to one of the guys. A curl of steam swirled through the air.
I hadn’t been trapezing – their hideaway in the woods had somehow been maligned, only junior campers spent the free period there. All summer I’d gone with my bunkmates to the pool, where our counselor Patty served as the lifeguard and we awkwardly flirted with our cohort from boys’ camp, none of us with any experience. “Breath-holding contest?” a broad-shouldered boy offered in an effeminate pitch. All of us dunked – the extent of our interaction.
The afternoon I wandered out to the trapeze was the afternoon I had my period. I couldn’t swim. Nobody had taught me to insert a tampon. My bunkmates and teammates from home didn’t speak of the thing. I hid it in the gym by snipping pads into smaller squares with construction paper scissors, situating them in my leotard and disguising the situation with bike shorts. When a tiny bunkmate with translucent, veiny skin asked to borrow scissors for her gimp, she cried, “Ew. There’s something gunky on here.” She picked at the pad’s adhesive, stuck to the blade, and I concurred that whatever it was, was disgusting indeed, my ruddy face hot.
Everything about the trapeze turned out to be beautiful – the main instructors, Dale and Deidre, especially. Both had dreadlocks pulled into ponytails and were rippled with muscle, though Deidre had curves, too, breasts that hung freely in an overstretched sports bra beneath a tank top with huge arm holes, and thighs that spread amply when she sat at the edge of the net. Each time she looked at me her eyes were a different color, depending on the slant of the sunlight. They both spoke little, always to cheer us on, rarely to make corrections, and when they did, it was in unbothered California tones. They didn’t eat with us in the cafeteria. On escaping practice one morning to beg them for extra swings, I found them sharing a tub of yogurt, switching off with a single spoon.
As I stood on the high platform gripping the bar in one hand, I imagined Deidre’s face was my face: dark and chiseled so that you could see her jaw working as she explained how to time the swing; slackening as she smiled and said, “You got this, chica.” Gliding out to turn upside down, I adopted her focus, the way she looked on demonstrating a catch, confident as she reached for Dale, none of the doe-eyed fear that our gymnast role models on TV blinked at coaches who barked at them. There weren’t any coaches out here. The two of them were partners, in sync with their calls. “Listo – Hep!” I released the bar thirty feet off the ground because I wasn’t me, I was her, and Dale’s grip around my wrists, when he caught me while hanging from his knees, was firm because they were her wrists, and he loved her. He’d swing with me/her, asking if I was enjoying the ride. I couldn’t even find the words. Smell of pine and damp earth, whir of wind, whistle of warblers had me drunk. He let go and I flopped in the net, squinting up at the sun through the branches.
When the last camper had taken his turn, Dale and Deidre sat above us on the edge of the net, bare feet dangling, leading us through stretches. The third instructor, Mike, who belted us in and managed the pulleys, walked around untying knots.
In the gym we propped an ankle on a mat as we slid into oversplits that could snap a ligament. Here I watched Deidre roll her neck in sensuous circles, mouth opening and shutting like she was ingesting the air. The pond behind us lapped at the shore as they held a Q&A, the young campers asking if they performed in the circus and which animals they’d seen whipped and tamed. I raised my hand, swallowed and asked if they were married.
“No,” Deidre said, letting go lush laughter. “Not to each other.” Dale wiggled his fingers to flash a wedding band.
I had many more questions but their reticence told me to be sated, to let mystery linger. I tried to go vegetarian, grabbing just a couple chicken nuggets as the cafeteria worker began to clear trays. I loosened up as I leapt across the beam, falling more frequently because of my slackness but enjoying Tomato’s exasperated sighs.
In the shower I imagined my hands were Deidre’s, massaging shampoo into my scalp, my eyes her greenest shade. My lips hers, too, sucking the back of my wet hand, which was Dale’s juicy mouth. When finally I emerged, Patty, still in her lifeguard swimsuit and running the tap for Cup O’Noodles, asked if I was okay in there. I looked her in the eye, without wavering focus.
“Yes,” I said, “why wouldn’t I be?”
At the final practice I stood over the chalk bucket watching the girl from Raleigh being molded into something perfect. She was in a handstand on the low bar, and the old man coach, the one who’d asked where she was from, caught hold of her, keeping her upside down and adjusting her form with the tips of his fingers: tapping her upper back so she’d extend through the shoulders; pushing into her belly so she’d hollow out; poking her butt like dough so she’d squeeze it tight. When he was through, he brought her upright, and she smiled as the blood rushed down from her head.
Back in the bunk, trunks were strewn across the floor. “Skipping conditioning?” Patty asked, chewing on the whistle she wore around her neck at the pool. She wanted out of camp so badly by then, she’d spread our empty duffel bags and opened the zippers so that they lay waiting for us, exhaling mustiness. I peeled off my leotard and traded it for a baggy tee, ran out and let the door slam. “When are you going to pack?” she called through the screen.
“When I’m ready!”
“Danya!” Deidre greeted me from the platform. “Get yourself up here for one last swing.”
Dale was perched atop the catch bar eating an apple. When I saw him get ready to toss his leftovers to Mike, I said, “Stay where you are – I don’t want to do catches.”
“You run the show,” he called down, pumping his legs and chomping a giant bite.
I belted in and began the climb, the rope ladder twisting with my weight. Deidre made room and rose on tiptoe, holding me around the waist, feeding the bar to me. The sky had taken on magnificent streaks of purple and gold. The sun had begun setting sooner. The tops of the pines whistled and the lake rippled below. “Ready?” she whispered. I hopped off the platform, failing to notice what she was wearing, or the color of her eyes.
Barbara Strauss has published stories in Rock & Sling (forthcoming spring 2021), The Courtship of Winds (forthcoming summer 2021), biostories, The Mustard Seed Risk, and technicolor. She works in higher education and lives outside Boston.