HELEN CHAU BRADLEY
Turns out the Top Gun soundtrack had peaked a decade prior—gymnastics often favoured the cheesy over the hip. Regardless, my palms sweat every time it came on, and that was often, because Larisa was the coaches’ favourite, a showstopper who got more floor exercise time than anyone else. I knew the song was called “Top Gun” because we had all handed in our floor routine music on labelled cassette tapes, which the coaches stacked in a crate by the boombox in order of first name. I was H and she was L so we were nearly touching in the crate, which I took to be a Good Omen, while resenting the three Jennifers in the program for coming between us.
I was new to Level 3, eager to ditch the nerdy reputation I had back in Level 2, where I felt bumbling and uninformed, tripped up by the pop references that everyone else was trading as easily as friendship necklaces. I affected disdain, as if my encyclopedic knowledge of Greek mythology and Baroque-era hits made me cultivated and interesting, but I knew I was kidding myself. At 10, I was now one of the youngest at practice, and I dreamed of becoming the program’s prodigy, winning everyone over. But of course, I was more intimidated than ever; practicing with the Level 3s and 4s meant entering a whole new world of older girls who shared cigarettes instead of friendship necklaces and acted like I didn’t exist.
The spring session was a flurry of preparation for fall competition season. Outside, the world was thawing, but in the gym, everyone was stressed. “Present, don’t flap!” yelled the coaches. “Elongate, point your toes, chin up, tighten your core, don’t land out of bounds!” I was overwhelmed immediately. The front handspring walk-outs, split leaps, and round-off dismounts that had earned me praise before were now entirely unremarkable. My dream of being a prodigy evaporated like the sweat on the crash mat.
I idolized Larisa and her crew, Level 4s whose landings were as unruffled as their bangs. As they swaggered long-limbed between apparatuses, decked in tensor bandages, I whispered their names like an incantation, Tiffany Alexis Danielle Larisa, like I could magic myself into their midst. Larisa matched the skills and confidence of the other three, but her presence had a different texture to it, a fluidity—her gymnastics was like nothing I’d ever seen. Even the coaches seemed to realize they were out of their league with her. She had trained in Romania, before immigrating to Canada with her family. Rumour had it that she was also a competitive rhythmic gymnast, which was why her artistic elements were so seamless, why she was so flexible. She was the only one who could do a perfect illusion turn. She was the only one who could do an aerial on the beam. When she tumbled, she barely touched the ground. Even her warm-up stretches looked like art.
I, on the other hand, seemed to have lost any grace I’d ever possessed. My glasses never stayed on and my underwear was always bunched up in my leotard. I was a tragic tumbler because I was too afraid of the moment when my entire body was in the air. I would freak out mid-way through a back handspring, forget my arms, and land on my head. My advancement had clearly been a fluke. I was barely holding onto the ledge of Level 3, and couldn’t imagine making it further. I longed to be in Level 4 with Larisa, practicing in the same rotations, standing on podiums together, sharing technical tips. As it was, we rarely crossed paths. Since I had no friends, I spent all my downtime squinting at her across the gym, memorizing her every flip and turn.
One Saturday afternoon, the unimaginable happened. In a break between rotations, I was sitting on top of the vault—my chosen lookout spot. All of a sudden, I sensed the air change around me. It was Larisa, pouncing up like a Lycra-clad cat to crouch at my side. Panic bubbled in my gut. Why had she come to sit with me? Did she even know who I was? We had never been so close to each other before.
“Hi,” she said near my ear. “You’re so weird, always sitting up here alone.” I couldn’t tell if this teasing was good or bad. As usual, she was stretching as she crouched, limbs tangling together, somehow keeping her balance on our shared perch.
Her hair smelled tangy and warm. She settled even closer to me. A shiver ran along my calves, as if her leg hairs were touching my leg hairs. I was too afraid to look, so I focused on the sensation loosely, the way I would when my sister and I played Ghost Arm, which was when one person closed their eyes while the other person slowly ran their fingers up the first person’s forearm, towards the soft crook of the elbow—the person with the closed eyes had to guess when the fingers had reached their destination, that little pit of feeling. The fun of the game was that we always guessed wrong, called out too early, due to the confusion of slow anticipation. Ghost arm gave me a feeling part-way between relaxed and electrified, the same feeling I got from dancing to classical music in my room, or watching Larisa perform.
I could feel Larisa staring at me. She was asking me something about my round-off back handspring, like why was it that I kept letting my wrists buckle the second I wasn’t being spotted, why was it that I didn’t trust myself, why was it that I was such a wuss? “You could be much better,” her voice was a soaring guitar in my ear. “You should be less afraid! What’s there to be afraid of? Attention? Actually winning something? No one will ever notice you if you fall over before you even begin.”
Was she really saying these things to me while we sat up there on the vault? Were these words really emerging from the face I’d stared at so many times, with those perfectly crooked canine teeth that flashed when she grinned, that halo of frizzy hair filtering the gymnasium lights? Why was I staring like a dummy across to the trampoline where Tiffany-Alexis-Danielle were turning back layouts, their scrunchied ponytails whipping the fluorescent air? There was such a rushing in my ears from being near Larisa that I couldn’t tell whether she was speaking to me at all. I wanted to turn to her, but I remembered Orpheus from the myths I’d been reading, and worried that if I faced her she would disappear. Even though unlike in the myth, I wasn’t saving her—maybe she was trying to save me? My neck was locked in place. Stupid, stupid, stupid, you have to look at her, what’s wrong with you, just look, use your eyes, people use their eyes to look at other people, I yelled at myself silently. My voice came pushing out of me, a syllable, Ha! or La!, but it was too late—Allison, the Level 4 coach, was shouting Larisa’s name, calling her to the mats, and she was already leaping off the vault and across the gym into the beginning pose of her floor routine, her back arched impossibly, one leg pointing straight upward, unwavering. “Top Gun” swelled out of the boombox, and I watched, riveted, as she began.
Summer arrived, which meant that school ended but gymnastics continued. At home, I practiced my centre splits while drilling math under the watchful presence of my mother. The Olympics had just begun in Atlanta, and I was allowed to watch the Women’s Gymnastics if I finished my Kumon, my piano practice, plus my extra homework that my mother invented for me in the summers because she didn’t trust the Toronto Public School Board with my education. “Lazy teachers,” she would say disapprovingly. “Teaching you things a baby could learn! Better to know it all first, before they try to tell you what’s what.”
My mother had taken no interest in the Olympic “goings on,” as she called them, until that night when, peering over my shoulder, she noticed Amy Chow. Amy was a reckoning force on vault and uneven bars, but among Team USA’s Magnificent Seven, she wasn’t the brightest star—I noticed that the announcers paid her less attention than Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug, the two blondes.
“Chow!” my mother exclaimed. “Same family name as ours, see? Probably from Hong Kong too.”
When the announcer mentioned that Amy had won awards for piano, and was doing a biology degree at Stanford, my mother beamed in a way that made me embarrassed but jealous—she never smiled like that at me.
“It’s not the same as our name,” I argued. “We’re C-h-a-u, she’s C-h-o-w. It’s different names.”
“No no no,” she said. “Same name. Different spelling, but same character. It’s the same.”
I glowered for a moment, wanting to be right, but also confused by what she had just said. I decided “same character” meant that Amy Chow and I had the same personality, and thus, possibly the same fate. She was 18, eight whole years older than me. It seemed like a very long time, eight years, in which untold things could happen. Eight was my lucky number, I had decided some time ago. This was a Good Omen. Maybe I could excel at gymnastics, after all, or at least make it to Level 4 by then.
For those Olympic weeks, my mother, in a rare permissive mood, let me do my drills in front of our ancient television, watching the Women’s gymnastics obsessively: Team, All-Around, Individuals. There was no Canadian team, but luckily CBC, the only channel we had, covered the US team extensively. Next to Amy, I liked Dominique Moceanu, the youngest and tiniest member of the team, whose parents were Romanian. Her charisma was undeniable and oft-commented on, especially when she did her floor routine to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The way the American fans screamed for Dominique in the stands made our TV protest with shrill static. Amy, on the other hand, didn’t participate in the All-Around competition, because she hadn’t qualified with a floor routine. The announcer said, “Chow’s stoicism and introspection have kept her from excelling in the floor exercise.” I tried to puzzle out what this meant. I knew “introspection” had something to do with thinking inwardly, and I could relate to this, a need to be inside yourself and not talk all the time, like some people wanted you to. Why this would make Amy less able to do an Olympic floor routine, I couldn’t quite make out, but I felt defensive of her, even though I liked Dominique too.
I barely crossed paths with Larisa during that period. She seemed preoccupied. I often glimpsed her sneaking smokes in the parking lot before practice with her crew. Nothing I did, not even landing my first cartwheel combo on beam, got her attention. A hollowness grew in me, an echoing chamber in my chest. At the same time, a new recklessness surged in, my fear of falling swept aside in the face of this larger void. Within a couple of weeks, I had nailed my round-off back handspring, and was drilling back tucks. My longing for Larisa’s gaze drove me up into the air, tightened my rotations, and plunged my feet into the crash mat.
At the end of one Tuesday-night practice, some of the girls were on mat-rolling duty. Our practice mats were long and narrow: four of them had to be rolled out to make the required competition square. At the end of practice, we rolled them back up into fat cylinders and stowed them in the dusty storage closet. I was on my way to change when a hand grabbed me from the hole in the centre of a newly-forming cylinder. “Get in,” Larisa said to me, her face glowing with a strange energy, and what could I do but catch my breath and wiggle into the panting mat with her, the mat which had been absorbing our sweat and our falls for who knows how long, which was now embracing the two of us, tangled together, and rolling over and over, faster and faster, so that we screamed in fear and exhilaration, our team mates thrusting us forward for what felt like forever but must have only been a few seconds. The momentum stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and Larisa was laughing beside my face, flashing those teeth of hers, I could feel her whole body vibrating, and I wanted to laugh too but I couldn’t.
We were teetering on the edge of something—the words that would bring us to that something were on the tip of my tongue, but refused to sound. The others had moved on to the locker room. Practice was over. “Time to go, lazybones,” Larisa said, and she slithered out of the mat’s tight hold, her leotard making a shiny noise against mine. I caught a flash of her moving away from me, through the circular opening. Panic hit me. I was stuck in the mat, I had expanded the second she had gotten out, I wouldn’t be able to free myself, no one would remember I was there, they would lock the storage closet and then the gym, and I would lie there in the dark, slowly suffocating to death. I began to gasp and sweat.
Coach Allison’s head appeared in the opening. “Hannah! What are you still doing in there, go get changed!” The authority in her voice jolted me back to reality, and I wriggled out into the world. All the other girls were surging out the locker room doors when I got there, Larisa among them, her hair bright amid the wave of bodies. I tried to catch her eye and thought I saw her wink at me. I held that like a talisman while I changed alone in the quiet wake of everyone.
My mother was late to pick me up, so I waited in the parking lot, practicing my illusion turn. The grit made my foot pivot wobbly, and I kept stepping out awkwardly and blushing, imagining Larisa watching me, maybe even spotting me, manipulating my hips in a fluid motion. When my mother finally drove up, her lab coat still on despite the muggy night air, she immediately commented on my red face and disheveled appearance.
“What have you been doing out here,” she said, suspiciously, looking around in that sharp way of hers, as if I were hiding something illicit behind one of parking pylons. I did have a strange feeling that I was hiding something, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Come on, come on, no hanging around,” my mother made her Hurry Up face. I mumbled that she was the one who was late, but when she asked me to “Speak up, what was that you said?” I kept quiet. My insides felt like a trampoline all the way home. I could still feel the vibration inside the mat, lycra against lycra, chest against chest. Things would be different now. Larisa would really see me, and I would look right back at her.
August was half done, and there was a two-week gymnastics break. Coach Allison was going on vacation! I couldn’t imagine her on vacation, anymore than I could imagine anyone in the gymnastics program doing anything that wasn’t gymnastics. My mother was too busy working to think about a holiday. I would have relished having the apartment to myself, but she started bringing her paperwork home, so she could watch me. I was so bored my teeth hurt. Math exercises swarmed my brain like the trains of fat ants that crawled into my bedroom from the back alley. They grossed me out, but sometimes when they climbed on me, they tickled my leg hairs in a way that was sort of pleasant. I envied the ants their ability to march through the walls. My body longed to move, but I wasn’t allowed outside alone. Our apartment was too cramped for me to practice any gymnastics. Some time ago, I had tried a cartwheel in the hallway, and knocked a shelf out of the wall. I was banned from daring such a thing again. “Feet on the ground at all times!” my mother had ordered. I argued that I wouldn’t be able to sleep in my bed if my feet had to be on the floor at all times, but she shushed me with one of her Don’t Try Me glares that sometimes came with a smack.
The Olympics were over, so I was back to no TV, just the Greek gods, who had lost their lustre against the bright lights of Atlanta. I daydreamed about Larisa, her gestures—how she knotted her hair on top of her head, rolled the waist of her track pants below her hips, casually stretched parts of her body into impossible shapes while she was talking to you. Her perpetual motion. I begged my mother to buy me the Top Gun soundtrack, but she only reminded me that pop music was for People Who Were Going Nowhere.
When it finally came time to return to practice, fall was a smoky scent that seemed to be everywhere yet was untraceable. As the day dragged on, minute by minute, with practice dangling at the end like a charm or a curse, I started to worry that something had happened to Larisa. All that whispering and smoking, the fevered way she had pulled me into the mat, the edge of her laughter.
I looked for her in the locker room, and then in the gym. My body throbbed with expectation. She’s just late, I thought. She’s in Grade 7 now, so she’s coming from a different school. She probably has to take a bus. Tiffany-Alexis-Danielle stretched together on the far mat, superior yet incomplete. Coach Allison told us about her vacation, but I couldn’t pay attention because where was she? She had never missed a practice. We ran through floor routines, all of us a little stiff and sloppy—at the end, Larisa’s Top Gun tape was the only one left in crate. At the next practice, I saw that it was gone. I desperately wanted to ask Allison where she was, when she was coming back, what could be so urgent that she couldn’t be here with us, but I could never catch her alone. By the third practice, everyone was talking about Larisa in the locker room. She had an injury! She had gone Club! She had moved back to Romania! Tiffany said something about Problems At Home, but when pressed, she pursed her lips smugly and said she was sworn to secrecy.
“I don’t even believe you know,” I blurted. “I bet you haven’t talked to her either, you’re such a fake.”
“God Anna,” she shot back, getting my name wrong on purpose. “Who cares about you? It’s like you’re in Lesbian Love with her or something. You weren’t even friends.”
I froze while giggling filled the air, and then quickly pulled on my leotard and walked out to the gym, burning.
Larisa never returned to the program. I competed in Level 4 that November, and even medalled on beam and vault at our district meet, though not on floor. I had switched my music to the instrumental version of “Danger Zone,” in hopes of injecting myself with charisma, but without Larisa’s eyes on me, I gave a flat performance. I still qualified for the City-wide winter meet, along with Tiffany, Alexis and Danielle, whom I learned had actual personalities and didn’t even really like each other. Tiffany, a bouncy tumbler, was now coach favourite. She acted like the new Larisa, though I thought she lacked the charm, and while Alexis shadowed her, Danielle and I became friends and spent our time between competition rotations hula-hooping and joking around.
I was more comfortable at practice than ever before, but also more bored. Newer arrivals to Level 3 and 4 started asking me for tips. Coach Allison got me to demonstrate tumbling lines. Months ago, I would have been thrilled, but now I obeyed with ambivalence. Without Larisa there, practice didn’t hold the same dazzle and spark, and I struggled to care enough to compete. I turned 11. I didn’t make it to the podium at Cities—but though I feigned disappointment, I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t even arguing with my mother, to the point that she seemed concerned. She started laying the back of her hand against my forehead, and drawing me baths like I was a little kid again. Don’t make me call your father, she said one evening, but we both knew she wouldn’t, that he was permanently Not to Be Disturbed, just a spirit to be evoked in trying times.
One spring day, a new girl, Jenna or Jamie or Jessie, asked if I could show her how to do an illusion turn. Someone had told her I knew how. She looked hopeful, like her sparkly barrettes. Sadness welled up in me—for her and for me, and for Larisa, for Danielle, Alexis, Tiffany, and Coach Allison; I suddenly felt incredibly old, as if my body were already leaving this earth, as if I were bound for the underworld, to spend my days in the dark chasm below, and I thought about how enormous life was and how enormous also the space between people could be, and as time raced backwards and forwards, and the old pennants that ringed the ceiling rose and fell on a strange wind, something came billowing out of my chest, and I started to laugh, too loud and too long, and through my cackles, I said, “No, I have no idea, I have no idea how to do an illusion.”
And I knew right then that I would quit gymnastics at the end of the session, just as I knew that I would never see Larisa again or get that exact feeling I got from being around her, and also that my mother would tell me I was a sorry excuse for a daughter and that I had no Drive For Success, but that maybe she’d be relieved at not having to pick up me up and drop me off all the time after her long work days, maybe she’d be silently happy to have me helping at home on Saturdays, and what’s more, now there would be more time for me to practice piano, which was much more useful and worthwhile, she often said, than all that flipping around.