Sophie has gymnastics training three days a week at the college gym. Most of the people she sees are stone-faced sports scholarship kids, intent on their own discipline. Nobody looks at her funny for having sweat stains down to her waist, for being a wheatstalk of bone and sinew wrapped in a leotard, each rib visible under her teenie titties like the bars of a xylophone. Which is cool.
But one day she notices a flyer for Salsa dancing classes on a Thursday night. The idea of it – of music, of the beat, of herself, fierce with flashing eyes – carries her all the way back to the door that evening.
Inside, it’s just the gym as usual, with its cold fluorescent lights, and the sound echoing through the depths of the space. A bunch of douchebags in street clothes are standing around looking awkward as fuck.
Which is okay, she supposes. She bets she is not going to be as awkward as them.
It turns out Salsa is just hold, right foot back, rock, then return, hold, left foot back, rock, then return. How fucking crappy can these normals be – it’s easy. And okay, maybe she should have worn something else here tonight – something that is not jeans and a hoodie. Some little skirt thing that would flip up when she twirled around. Not that she even owns anything like that.
But god, she is really making the douchebag frat boy she’s dancing with uncomfortable, and she’s kind of enjoying it, even though it’s annoying because he’s supposed to be leading and she can’t even dance properly because he’s so freaking crappy.
She can hear the murmurs as people watch her fly by. For a minute she is loving it. Joy and meanness swell up in her and she can’t tell which is which. Everyone wishes they were her and nobody is ever going to be, because she is absolutely special and irremediably better than other people. She is glowing with power. She could light shit on fire with her eyes.
Then the teacher – he has high-waisted pants and greased-back hair; how much of a freaking cliché can you even be? – pulls her out of the line and dances with her, to show them all how good she is. “See?” he says to them, “see? Bellísima!”
He starts to lead her around the floor. He’s pulling fancy moves now, that she doesn’t know, but she just makes it up as he calls encouragement.
It goes on too long. Abruptly, he has lost the sympathy of the class. The spell of his authority breaks, and they all stop dancing along. The girls are glaring at Sophie, arms folded. The guys are bored, derisive, rolling their eyes to the rafters. As if it’s her fault.
Every single thing about this is just like fucking Cy and the gym at home. This guy is so greasy, so fucking ingratiating – does he think he can fuck her? And what the fuck is wrong with these girls? It’s not her fault she’s better than them. She’s not doing it deliberately.
“I gotta go,” she says, and tries to pull away. But she catches the teacher off guard, and for a minute he doesn’t understand, doesn’t let go of her like she wants – so it’s like they’re kind of fighting. Just for a second.
She hears it, then – that sudden, familiar, indrawn breath of every female person the room. Those girls all gasping in bitchy satisfaction, to see her make a dick of herself. She wants to hurl.
She settles for running for it. A patter of giggles follows her out of the door.
For the rest of her college career, she never goes back to that corner of campus at night.
Her roommates are fat schlubs who sit around eating chips and laughing at stupid TV, and she pretty much doesn’t interact with them at all except by slamming the door really loud as she goes in and out. On the night she runs away from the Salsa class, she can’t face the idea of dealing with them.
It’s dark as hell outside the gym: a moonless night, with tall redwoods blotting out of the stars. In one direction, there are the twinkling lights of a coffee shop open late. In the other, there’s a place near the edge of the athletics track where the grass ends at a metal railing, and there’s a sheer drop down to a highway underpass.
She wants to run to the railing above the underpass, but she just has an uneasy feeling in the back of her mind, like she’s talking to Paul. This still happens to her, every so often. Sometimes she is about to do something, and she just gets the feeling that if she does, Paul is going to ask her so many annoying questions, it’s not even worth it.
So she goes to the coffee shop. She is upset, and she buys one of those ridiculous bucket-sized coffees with seven kinds of syrup and whipped cream. She drinks like a whole inch of it before she calms down enough to stop herself.
She feels sick.
It’s only an inch of stupid syrup-coffee. It’s not like she’s going to blow her weigh-in or anything. She could probably drink the whole thing and be fine.
She doesn’t drink any more, but she sits there holding the cup, like she is going to. She lifts it to her mouth a couple of times, pretending to drink. It smells sickly sweet to her now – revolting. She thinks she is doing what normal people do at a coffee shop, but after a while, she starts to think that people are looking at her, and maybe laughing quietly amongst themselves. She can’t look directly back at them to check – if somebody is giggling behind your back, looking at them just lets them know they’ve won. But she’s pretty sure.
When her whole back has prickled up into goose-pimples of misery, she’s had enough. She picks up the coffee, trying to hold it lightly as though it’s not almost full, dumps it in the bin, and leaves.
The thing is that she’s not going to make the Olympics now, not at her age. Pretty much any girl in college gymnastics has got to know that. Sometimes she’s not sure if the other girls on her squad do get it. Then she feels sort of mean and triumphant – and then like an asshole.
She feels like she’s waiting for someone to ask her if she gets it. Does she get she’s never going to the Olympics, and is she upset about it? Ever since she didn’t go to the tryouts after the training camp in Denver, she’s been waiting for someone to ask. She has her answer all prepared: it is a total smug asshole answer, full of phrases like the joy of the sport. But no-one ever asks. Half the time she feels like if someone would just ask, she could finally relax and get on with her life.
The other half of the time she feels like it would be the apocalypse. Everyone would realise she is a fraud – she would get kicked off the squad, kicked out of college.
So she pretty much thinks the whole college gymnastics thing is a fraud, and her with it. But hell, she does actually like it, again, now – actually likes doing gymnastics. When she was with Cy, it got all turned around into being about him. Now she has kind of a fresh start: it’s just her, the beam, the stretch and pull of her body, the rush of the air.
And it’s not like having your tuition paid isn’t cool, too. She knows she’s going somewhere way better than she could have gone on the basis of her academics, and she hardly has to take money off her pain-in-the-ass parents for anything. It’s nice to feel like she’s earning this with her feet on the beam.
The coach here is a woman, older than Sophie’s mom, plain-faced, serious, with salt-and-pepper hair. Some sort of jock-lady from the dawn of time when everyone wore sweatbands and white canvas shoes. Sophie kind of likes her, not least because Coach doesn’t want to be liked. Really doesn’t give a fuck about anything but the gymnastics. She doesn’t play favourites, play politics, turn the whole place into a nest of catty girl-vipers – like Cy did.
If Coach wants to correct Sophie’s foot, she corrects her foot. Then she just moves on to the next girl. She doesn’t, like, pull Sophie aside, put her arm around her, stare in her eyes, and try and talk to her all intensely about where her head is at.
Sophie thinks now that Cy was trying to fuck her all along. Some freaky, old, balding guy trying to get little girls to worship him because his wife doesn’t think he’s all that shit-hot anymore.
Still, with Coach here at college: if nobody is being intense about where her head is at, it’s like, why does her head even need to be here? She feels like she could just set up some sort of dummy up on the beam for Coach to correct, and then go do something else with her afternoon.What does she even need to be here for? What does anyone care?
It’s stupid, freaking out about not being special. Stupid, stupid.
Before she came to college, she had an idea of herself at college – of what she was going to be like. How much older, smarter, and more awesomely dressed she would be.
Yeah. That didn’t happen.
If only she could remember what her fantasy college self was supposed to actually, specifically wear. She has such a strong feeling about what she should be wearing – about the feeling it should be giving her when she is wearing it – but no actual clothes ever deliver, even if they seem like they might on the rack. It seems like there are only two kinds of girls here: Barbies and fat schlubs, and she is not either one, and accordingly everything she tries to wear is wrong. She is constantly running somewhere after training, her hair a mess, her face pink and shiny. It’s no different to how pink, shiny and messy she has been for years, but now she is not so absorbed in gymnastics, she is starting to pay attention to things more. She is noticing the girls in little stretch dresses, shiny hair, and arms like they couldn’t even climb out a window to save themselves, and how everybody sort of inhales and makes way for them when they come in the room.
She, on the other hand, is like a crumpled leaf that blew in from the window – nobody pays it any mind unless it lands right on them.
Her mom did all that shit with the dresses and the hair and the lipstick, and Sophie’s dad still fucked around on her. When Sophie sees girls like that, she wants to scream at them that they’re idiots.
Sometimes she sees a girl trying to get the teacher’s attention, and it is just like with Cy, and she wants to scream at that girl too. Where do you think this is leading? Do you really want to get fucked by this asshole?
God, normal people are so gross, though. When she’s not paying attention in class, she just looks at them: their flab where muscle should be, the slatternly way they slouch and stoop. The indiscipline of it, the thoughtlessness of the way they inhabit their bodies. They might as well be different animals to her – lower forms of life. She isn’t really flesh; more a system of rubber bands stretched on an erect cage of bones.
Cultural Studies is some fucked-up shit. She gets her first paper back, and as much as she can decipher of the scrawled comments says: Kierkegaard actually said [illegible]! Check source. Chaotic referencing not at college standard.
She thought she hated Barbies the worst, but now it turns out she most hates smug fat girls who have read Kierkegaard’s collected works in the original Latin or whatever, and can breathlessly reveal Kierkegaard’s thoughts on pretty much any subject that comes up, so that everyone looks at them really intently and nods in gratitude, as if they were just thinking that themselves.
The teacher has been going about male gaze for ages, and Sophie has pretty much just written it off as fat girls whining, when suddenly she relates it to gymnastics and it starts to make sense. She speaks up in the seminar for the first time in weeks: “It’s like with the ribbon dancing. Like it’s only for girls.” She realises she is getting excited.
A Barbie says, “What? Is that, like, folk dancing?”
The room guffaws.
She always thought the saying you can do anything you put your mind to was stunningly overused because let’s face it, most people are morons, but that it definitely applied to her. It is becoming clear she was very, very wrong.
She decides she should maybe try to meet a different kind of jock. So she goes to the varsity women’s basketball.
It’s pretty awesome, actually. These girls are like twice the size of her, and built like trees, and sprinting up and down and fucking slamming into each other.
Afterwards, she hangs around to see what’s up. There’s a handful of girls hanging out on the courtside seats, waiting for something. So Sophie comes down the stand and sits a couple of rows behind them, just to see.
She thinks a couple of the girls are looking at her funny, but she figures she’s not doing anything wrong.
After a while, one of the really big players, who has dreadlocks, comes back out and heads towards the group of girls. One of the girls sits up straight, and the player grins, and vaults over the rows of seats between them.
Oh, holy shit. Okay. They are kissing hello on the mouth, with tongue.
Two of the other girls move to sit next to each other, and start having an intense conference, intermittently staring at Sophie.
A group of players has come out now, and is standing around talking to each other. Sophie thinks she sees a couple of them look at her. All the other girls have sat up expectantly.
Suddenly Sophie twigs.
It’s all she can do to keep her face straight and get out of there at a walking pace. Outside, she’s breathless with suppressed laughter. She needs to tell this to someone. She is rehearsing in her mind how she is going to tell the story – how she will withhold the punchline till the last possible minute.
As she calms down, she asks herself who she is actually going to tell. If she like, rang her mom, her mom would probably try and lecture her about how lesbians aren’t funny, and Sophie would have to laboriously explain how no, lesbians aren’t funny by themselves, but everybody in a room spontaneously deciding you’re a lesbian groupie, while you yourself have no idea, clearly is funny. But by the time you had to explain that while your mom was tutting in the background, it wouldn’t be that funny anymore. So, no Mom. Then who?
There is no one else. For a minute, it was so funny, she forgot she has no friends.
She starts going jogging at the track, mornings when the athletics squad isn’t out. She goes in sweatpants and a hoodie at first, but the fabric flapping around annoys her.
After a few times, she gets brave enough to jog in her half-leotard and lycra shorts.
She looks okay, she thinks. Skinny, but strong. It’s obvious she’s a serious athlete. Serious athletes don’t look like Barbies. She thinks that’s okay.
She sees a group of track guys in running shorts, all muscled and tanned, by the stands. She’ll pass them on her circuit in a minute.
She keeps her form long and smooth. She knows it’s good form. From the corner of her eye, she can see they’re looking at her, talking about her. She keeps her eyes straight ahead, suppresses a smile.
They’re laughing as they pass out of her line of sight. She thinks nothing of it.
Then the yell comes, loud and clear. “Holy shit, it’s a boy with a ponytail!”
She just has to keep running. When she passes into the shade of the redwoods on the far side of the track, she’ll be out of earshot, and practically out of view. She just has to keep it long and smooth.
She’s there, in the deep shade. Her breath gives one traitorous sob, before she controls it.
Long and smooth. Long and smooth.
At the end of this straight of the track is that railing at the edge of the sheer drop and the underpass. She is not following the track around and back to the stands. She is leaving the track and heading to the railing. Paul is warning her in her mind, but she doesn’t care. She is not going back around and passing those guys again.
She leans over the railing. There is a fuckload of traffic moving fast through the underpass. Has there just been something on in the stadium?
It’d be too limp-wristed to just climb over the railing and step off. You’d want to take a run-up, and dive, magnificent, straight over the top, head-first through the air. Like a competition springboard diver: double-twist and pike. Ten point Oh from the judges!
She always thought she could be good at that – diving – if she got around to trying. But she was always too busy to fit it in.
She can’t attempt again, or Paul won’t take her back.
That’s a stupid thing to think. Paul and she are over; she can’t go back anyway. She can do anything she wants, now.
She’d have to go almost all the way back to the track to get her run-up. Some other people are jogging around it now, coming up to the start of the redwoods. If she went back for the run-up, they would totally see her and wonder what she was doing.
Back outside the dorm, on the barbeque patio that stands between Sophie and the corridor to her suite, are two guys in Hawaiian shirts, flipping sausages on the grill. One of them spears a sausage on a fork and says, “Hey baby. You need some sausage in you?” He mimes inserting it into his mouth.
It’s just the end. She is not even going to sleep here tonight anymore. She is just going to turn around and go back to campus and sleep in the study lounge at the library. When they kick her out, she’ll find a nice dark spot of lawn.
“What the fuck is your problem?” comes a voice.
It’s Lisa, Sophie’s roommate. She’s like four feet ten, awkwardly big-boobed, frizzy-haired and hawk-nosed, wearing jeans and some black band t-shirt that is way too small in the bust. But there is this voice coming out of her. Everything about her has become monumental – somewhere between Judge Judy and the goddess Juno. She is saying, “So you’re going to stand there, in the fucking patio of the dorm, so no-one can avoid you, and you’re going to be the fucking Sphinx and everybody has to answer your riddle before they can pass. And your riddle is hey baby want a sausage in you? What the fuck is wrong with you? This is a public place. Go be an asshole in your room!”
Sophie realises: Lisa does not give a fuck, and it is awesome.
When Lisa is quite finished, she turns to Sophie and says, quite normally, “We have, like, oven fries for dinner if you want any.”
“Sure,” Sophie says.
Following Lisa back to the room, Sophie knuckles her eyes. She didn’t notice when she started crying, nor when she stopped.
Sophie eats a fry, at dinner. They are talking about asshole guys – she and Lisa and the other roommate, Tricia.
Tricia is talking about some asswipes whose balcony was directly upstairs from her, who would just sit out there and shout shit at any girls who were passing, and how when she went up there to tell them to shut the fuck up, they denied it was them. So she said, “So you don’t care if I turn the hose on whoever it is?” And then she did.
Lisa is talking about a dick in her writing workshop who would get outraged any time a woman said anything. Finally he workshopped his unbelievably pretentious poem, and she tried to be polite and pick out a few lines she thought were good, and he was forced to concede the poem was “intertextual” (Lisa performs the quotes with her fingers) and all those good bits were actually by T. S. Eliot.
Sophie eats another fry, and another.
Finally it seems like it’s Sophie’s turn, so she just goes for it – tells them what happened this afternoon.
“Holy fuck!” Tricia says. “Fuck them!”
And Lisa is like, “Like, as if your whole purpose in life is to be fucking decorative for them!”
“I know!” Sophie says. She is almost crying again, only she’s angry too, and excited, and she likes it. She doesn’t even know how many fries it is now.
It turns out Lisa jogs. “You jog?” Sophie says.
“I jog!” Lisa says, bouncing clownishly in her giving-no-fucks way. She is wearing her usual band t-shirt and some freaky white-trimmed navy jogging shorts that look like they belong on a dude from the 1970s with an epic mustache.
“I gotta see this,” Sophie says. “Gimme a sec.” She ducks into her room and changes into her leotard and shorts.
“You’re Galadriel the fucking elf!” Lisa heckles. “We’re not going to the fucking ballet!”
“I’ll go to the fucking ballet if I want to!” Sophie heckles back.
Sophie is so much faster than Lisa that they start doing a thing when Sophie takes off to a distant landmark, then doubles back to meet up with Lisa again at a closer one. They pretend to do a relay baton pass and make sound effects of the crowd going wild, then Sophie goes again.
When they get out on the athletics track, Sophie sprints crazily around and around Lisa in a circle, mugging, while Lisa laughs and carries on at her normal pace. When she takes off again to see how fast she can lap Lisa, she is running in zig-zags from dizziness.
When she runs past the stands, there is a dude there, but she doesn’t care, because over on the other side of the track, Lisa is doing some sort of Flashdance manoeuvre with her hands as she runs, so Sophie has to do it too.
The dude in the stands calls something out, and Sophie still doesn’t care, because now Lisa is hopping on one foot. So Sophie does Flashdance hands and hopping on one foot, and now she’s going to see if she can still lap Lisa that way. And yeah, she’s gaining on her already. She can.
She totally can.