My stomach empties itself out into the still, clear water. The stall echoes like a shell. I cough. Acrid bile into the water.
My god you
I spit again to clear my mouth, stand up from where I’d curled next to the toilet. I examine myself in the mirror. If you don’t look too closely at the mouth, I even look fine. I could go back to practice. Go back there on the mat and try to practice the double pike jump for the floor routine. Thinking about my head whipping back around, body rigid in the air like a preemptive rigor mortis. God. No pike. I could go back out there and try just a back handspring. Just like I’ve been doing since I was six and Ludmilla led the whole pre-team in our first attempts, first on the yellow sponge-like mats at the end of the tumbling trampoline, then on a few lighter mats laid out on the floor, then, finally, unsupported. I could do it so easily. I’ve done it for years.
When I was younger I was fearless. I was one of the first on the pre-team to get it right and Ludmilla looked proud; she knelt down to my level, close enough that I could smell her powdered flower hairspray, and smiled. Her face is well suited to stoicism; hollowed cheeks, dark hair tied back in a severe part, a voice dropped several graceful octaves lower. She was a Russian Olympian. All over the gym are pictures from her meets, grainy images of her contorted body. Her smile is a whole rare experience, wonderful and crooked. So many times I wished I could get her to re-create that look again, to consider me with pride.
I breathe and stare at my face in the bathroom mirror. Thick lips dark hair square jaw. You can tell I’ve been crying. Idiot. The bathroom smells of chalk. Everywhere in the gym smells like chalk, there’s residue chalk on the sink handles and I grip them like I’m trying to hoist myself into a press handstand. I’m blotchy as hell and I wonder if I’m going to pass out; is this what it feels like when you’re going to pass out? Lake Michigan Gymnastics Academy is pretty small as far as gyms go. The longer I’m in the bathroom, the more likely it would be that someone would come looking for me.
There are only 40 or so gymnasts on the LMGA team, all 10 levels before Elite. About 40 kids who spend most of their time training in the gym, practicing and stretching as the sun sets through the lofted space. We often practice from early afternoon until late at night; the huge lights slowly flicker on like the streetlamps of the city outside. It’s better than the actual sunrise; out the windows, the gym looks out into a concrete-mixing plant. The only space in Chicago large enough to host a gym is on the back roads of the River North neighborhood, industrial and filled with the shells of repurposed factories.
When I can convince my mom to let me take the subway to the gym, I go as early as I can. My favorite time to practice is in the early mornings, before the sun is up and before Ludmilla has arrived to change into her tracksuit, to turn the gym lights on. I flick the lights on myself, and stretch out my shoulders on the wall rack as the lamps dial up around me.
Some pre-team kids bang on the bathroom door where I’ve barricaded myself; they have to change into their leotards before practice. There’s no clock in the bathroom but it must be after 4 pm. Lazy. One sec, I answer back.. Someone’s in here.
I pull out my phone and dial before I can think. Hey mom, I say quietly. I need to go home can you take me home.
Did something happen again? she asks. She sounds concerned and I don’t want to make her concerned. Also I really don’t know how to answer her question.
No no no no I’m fine, just not feeling well please take me home.
It’s happened like this before but I thought it wouldn’t happen again.
Has it always been this bad? My mother asks me as we pull away from the gym parking area.
Vaulting means running blindly at a stationary object. The uneven bars hold exactly the space of a body turned upside down and dropped onto its head. Severed spine, atrophy. Wheelchairs, etc.
No, I tell my mother. She raises an eyebrow from the driver’s seat; I burrow deeper into my coat in the seat next to her, like a petulant child. Most of the time I’ve spent with my mother I can remember being inside the car on the way to and from practice, but it’s usually spent in a comfortable silence. I like watching the car move through the ramps of the backroads and the river bridges. I am aware of how I seem to her now. I am lazy, scared. I couldn’t handle it so I had to make my mother take me home. Idiot.
It’s only 4:40; team practice only started at 3:25 which means my teammates are probably wondering where I am, if I’ve been shirking out on practice. Would they tell Ludmilla I wasn’t feeling well? Or would they tell her I called my mom and went home, leaving the rest of them to have to relay without me, pick up the dead weight slack on the team. Ludmilla would be disappointed. I couldn’t handle it, I balked. I’d get shit for it from Crystal. Laura would probably ask me where I was, say something like ‘oh I haven’t seen you in forever’ in a fake way that meant she was jealous I got to go home early. I didn’t want to have to it. I sink down in my seat just in case someone was looking
Was it something that happened to you?
I didn’t know how to tell her it isn’t real fear.
If one has these thoughts in the gym they keep them to themselves, I say. No one talks about fear, it’s just not a thing. If you’re good you’re good, if you’re bad you can be upset but then enough people tell you that you should quit and you think about it.
That’s not healthy, Erin, you know that.
You don’t know anything about this, I tell her. She gasps quietly. I didn’t mean to hurt her but I know I have. I furrow my arms deeper into my side.
I’ve been good, though. I’m good. I don’t tell her this. I’ve trained with Ludmilla for ten years now, Yevgheni originally taught the pre-team I was on and then when he switched to the boy’s team I’ve had her ever since. Ludmilla doesn’t like everyone; she’s partial towards the Russian-speakers,, the students with naturally flexible shoulders who progress through the levels with ease, left-handed people, for some reason. It was never as easy for me but I always worked hard and smart about it. I’d never been injured.
Did you fall? Did someone get hurt?
No, I tell her.
When this happened for the first time my mother was prepared. She is a PR consultant and knows what to do in difficult situations. She picked me up from the gym and took me shopping, bought me meditation books and pulled me from practice for a week. To help jolt me into a better mindspace, she filled my room with scented candles, incense. I protested that my muscles would atrophy, that I’d need to go to the gym early for a month afterwards. The break from the gym was good
After a few days, I realized I was antsy. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. It was the first time I had a whole week off in at least ten years. I missed the gym. I told my mother that I was trying the meditation books but instead I’d run through practice in my head, seeing how far I could go visualizing my flips until they faltered into inevitable falls.
My mother stopped the car. We aren’t going home until you tell me what’s wrong, she says.
It was a Monday. And we were all goofing around by the balance beams, rolling out our legs with stretcher sticks and stuff. Crystal had started dating Ryan on the Level 10 boys team a few days ago, I think. She was showing off on the balance beam and trying to get his attention, so we were making fun of her. Laura and Natalia and I were taking turns practicing walkovers and suddenly I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t see and I was midair, and I was plummeting towards the ground and my neck snapped and what if my neck snapped and I couldn’t, I tried to say, I couldn’t figure out how to make myself go backwards when I knew what might happen if I did. Crystal and Natalia and Laura hadn’t noticed anything. I hadn’t even fallen from my handstand, I said.
Then this started happening all the time. Ludmilla had to spot me on my backflips because she was afraid I’d balk midair. That’s how injuries happen, she said. Don’t balk.
She looked scared. I think I was scared too. I was taken off the balance beam, only practiced along the taped edge of the floor mat for weeks.
I was put on a temporary probation from the team. I hadn’t told my mother; Ludmilla said that it could be lifted if I could get through a single floor routine, my competition routine from last year. I went to practice every day but I couldn’t, I couldn’t do any flips without panicking and no one knew what to do with me. I begged Ludmilla to let me stay for practice, but it was weird to see my teammates progress without me. No one really talked to me anymore; it feels like they were worried my fear was catching, so they stayed away. Crystal came up to me at the end of practice one day and gave me one of her favorite books. The book was full of stories about famous gymnasts, but all I could focus on was the stories of the freak accidents. Elena Moukina who broke her back on a vaulting pass; Julissa Gomez who died after messing up the same one.
I could see the way my ribs then hips then neck would spasm all because of one wrong midair rotation, how the chalk would rise up around the carpeted track, how my fall would mess up the tape marks on the ground.
So this wasn’t triggered by anything, my mother asks. We are pulled over next to a Greyhound station. People keep leaving and entering and I try to watch them and keep my facial expressions quiet. My mother looks straight ahead. Do you know what a trigger is? She asks.
Sure, I say.
So there was nothing that made you afraid, you just, became afraid?
I’m getting annoyed. She looks at me for an answer.
Doubt is natural, she says finally. But gymnastics is also naturally scary. I don’t like my daughter doing something she’s scared of. There’s no physical therapy for fear. I can’t tell you the sport isn’t dangerous, she says, because it is.
Then what can I do? I asked.
Lose the fear, she says. We drive home.
After another week of no practice, we schedule a meeting with Ludmilla to formally quit the team. She is confused. I don’t know what happened, she says, smoothing down hair in the bun until it lays flat. Why this happened. She is good. She is a good learner, and she will be a fine college gymnast. She has had some panic but it’s nothing she can’t get over. She addresses my mother and not me as if I am infirm.
There’s never been a problem before, my mother says. She turns to me. Are you listening?
I don’t answer right away. I am focusing all of my energy on not crying in her office, not breaking down and sobbing like a child, a scared child, but I am scared — I’m scared of what I’ve lost and how easy it was to lose this, bravery, ability, stoicism; I’m scared of losing something that I’ve spent my whole life doing but can’t do without panicking or vomiting and I’ve already lost her respect, Ludmilla’s respect, so I’m staring at a fixed point on her desk. There’s a bouquet of cloth flowers perched on the sill, a dollar store mix of lilies and cloth orchids. Gianna Olson brought her them when she quit the team in December. She quit because of a stress fracture she’d exacerbated for months. It wouldn’t get dramatically better before she left for college, and she didn’t think it was worth it to compete. She also wasn’t very good, and I think she knew she would be bringing the team down.
Well it is this, Ludmilla says, looking straight at me. If you want to keep doing this gymnastics, you are needing to get thicker skin. When Yevgheni sees someone with a rip on their hand, she says, he rip it off straight then. She holds my gaze hard. He does not wait for them to heal around the deadened skin, she says. It heal faster when it is ripped off.
I want to rip it off, I tell her. My voice is soft, strained. I’m not used to speaking with her; for all the years I’ve known her, this is the most we’ve actually said to each other.
I really want to rip it off, I say again. I just — don’t know why I can’t.
Well then, she says.
Ludmilla, I say. Can you help me? I stand up from the chair.
Sit down please, she says.
Can you get rid of this? I ask her. I am pleading and I hate it but I can’t stop. Ludmilla, I say, I really can’t do it if I keep feeling like this, can you please get this fear out of my head?
She is silent. My mother pulls me down. I am thankful for it in that moment, my face is already flushing hot with shame. We don’t speak for a few minutes.
I just don’t think it’s that easy, my mother says. Can you be more considerate, please, she seems like she’s under a lot of pressure.
Mom, I say.
I don’t see why it should not be easy, Ludmilla sighs. She is either afraid or she is not afraid.
I let my mother take me in the car, silent, let her fit my arms into my coat. My head hangs heavy on my shoulders as if it is filled with too much weight. Maybe it is. She adjusts me into the seatbelt.
Well we tried, she says, once we pull out of the lot.
I asked her what she means by that. My mother pretends not to hear me.
We take the long way home. I am not sure if she wants to make me feel bad for taking up years of her time driving me back and forth to practice, or if she is giving me one last chance to snap out of it. I can’t. I say. She doesn’t respond. I can’t.
It’s winter in Chicago and the trees are stark and cold against the sky.