i. pommel horse
The squad sauntered into the gym and stopped short when they saw that the entire space had been stolen from them. Mats and equipment were spread out everywhere. A girl was working on the pommel horse, spinning in endless, perfect rhythm, supporting herself only by her well-muscled arms. Torrance's jaw dropped, and she stared in disbelief for a second before yelling. "Hey!"
The girl glanced up, and dropped lightly to the mats. "What?"
"This is our gym!"
"I booked it."
"I don't think you understand. We're the Rancho Carne Toros," Torrance said.
"The five-time National Champion Rancho Carne Toros," Torrance explained. "The cheerleading squad." The girl didn't react. Torrance rolled her eyes and tried not to shriek. "Get out!"
Pushing dark braids back from her face, the girl nodded, but she didn't leave. "You can cheer for me, then, 'cause I've just stared the Rancho Carne gymnastics team."
Whitney and Courtney flanked Torrance, one on either side, and leaned in close. "No true captain would have scheduled tryouts at the same time as the Dykeadelic Olympics," Whitney muttered. She shared a smirk with Courtney. "But then, no true captain would have crippled someone on the first day."
"Yeah," snorted Courtney. "And besides, who'd rather do gymnastics than cheer?"
"Maybe someone who has two brain cells left to rub together," the girl said. "Cheerleaders are like dancers who have gone retarded."
Torrance felt like she was going to explode. "I can't believe they let you steal our gym time!"
"Right." The girl nodded slowly as if she was talking to a crazy person. "Because cheerleaders have influence." She picked up a clipboard and handed it to Torrance. "There's my name, there's the schedule, and from what I heard, it was first come, first served."
Torrance stared at the chart, totally unable to read the words at first. But there it was, in black and white. Missy Pantone, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, three-thirty until six, for the entire semester.
Big Red hadn't said anything about booking the gym. But then, why would she? No one used the gym! Everyone knew it was Toros territory! The whole school was run by a cheerocracy! This wasn't fair!
"Missy, is it?" Darcy asked, glancing over Torrance's shoulder and making an insult of the name. "You really believe this is going to stick? After all, we're the ones who win trophies. And what do you do?"
"Oh, um, gee," Missy said, thoughtfully scratching her head with her middle finger. "Let me think. All-American gymnastics team seven years running. More trophies than would fit into your little pride case in the hallway. And, of course, twenty thousand dollars a year in sponsorship money for my training facility." She tilted her head and gave them a sugar-sweet smile that showed dimples. "Better luck next time."
Torrance compressed her lips and glared at Missy. She wanted to rant that this was not going to last, that the Toros would get their gym back, but she knew better. Twenty thousand dollars a year bought a lot of respect, even in a rich-kid school like Rancho Carne. "Come on, guys," she said. "We'll have tryouts outside."
Missy raised an eyebrow at her. She looked like she'd expected screaming, or a cat fight, or tears. But she folded her arms and sneered at them until Jan snorted and walked out of the gym, throwing up his hands. Les shrugged at Torrance, then followed him. Torrance stared until Whitney and Courtney started for the doors. By the time the squad had left, Missy was back on the pommel horse, swinging in perfect rhythm.
Everyone at tryouts sucked, and Torrance thought about Missy the whole time.
The whole squad was a mess and it was all Missy Pantone's fault. They were running around in circles and Torrance knew they weren't getting anywhere. If anything, they were getting worse. They couldn't practice in the gym three days out of five, and when they practiced outside the football team laughed at them until Jan was red-faced and lunging at his tormentors and Les had to hold him back. No one was able to fill the empty spot on the roster. Torrance finally gritted her teeth and settled on Whitney's sister Jamie, because otherwise Whitney and Courtney would have staged a cheer d'etat and taken over. Jamie whined when Torrance gave orders, and slacked off when no one was glaring at her, and deliberately rolled the spirit stick in the grass in front of everybody, and it was all Missy's fault.
No matter what Torrance told herself, about tolerance and good-spiritedness, she couldn't avoid Missy forever. They had to talk about this, before Darcy's multisyllabic complaints and Kasey's sulks drove Torrance completely insane, and she shot out the school from the top of a badly-balanced pyramid.
Torrance marched into the gym at quarter to six on a Wednesday night. She knew Missy would still be there--she was always there. She was dedicated, and apparently talented, because gymnastics trophies had been quietly appearing in the display case among the cheerleading honours. Damn her, anyway.
Torrance took five stamping steps into the gym and froze. Missy was on the rings, holding her body in a perfect iron cross--arms straight out, slender body straight and tense, her muscles quivering as she forced herself to keep the position. She was panting, but in controlled bursts. Her eyes were closed. Torrance watched, her mouth hanging open. She couldn't imagine what kind of strength Missy had, to steady herself like that for who knows how long. It must take enormous energy, and concentration, and Missy looked absolutely beautiful...
Torrance blinked, and before she could analyze that thought, Missy had dropped to the mats.
"You needed something?"
"Um..." Torrance forced her brain back to the real topic. "Yeah. I want to share the gym."
Missy picked up a water bottle and squirted it into her mouth. Torrance watched her swallow, seeing again how toned Missy was, how her work-out clothes were wet and clung to her until Torrance could see pretty much every detail. A drop of water made a wet line from the corner of her mouth down the long line of her neck, disappearing under...
Torrance's gaze snapped to Missy's face. "What?"
"I said okay. I'm only one person. I have focused workouts. I don't need the whole space." Missy tossed the water bottle into a sports bag. "If you think your cheer buddies can lay off the insults, then I think I can suffer through your little routines."
"Our routines are not little..." Torrance started, then realized she'd won, so there was no reason to keep talking. She blew a strand of hair out of her face. "Thank you."
Missy looked surprised. "No problem."
"You looked incredible up there," Torrance said before she knew she was saying it, and closed her eyes at how dorky it sounded.
Missy turned and looked at the rings as if seeing them for the first time. "Yeah. Well, I've been doing it since I was five."
"Me too. I mean, cheering." Again, Torrance's mouth ran away with her. Why was she still here, and still talking to Missy? She'd won! Get away, ignore Missy, laugh at Whitney's and Courtney's dyke jokes, and pretend she'd had to fight to get the gym back.
"Missy! You ready yet?"
They both turned at the sound of a guy's voice. Torrance blushed, as if they'd been caught doing something. The guy at the door was Cliff from homeroom. He saw Torrance and his eyebrows lifted in pleased surprise. "You," he said.
"You," Torrance answered, vaguely annoyed with him for no reason she could figure out.
Missy grabbed her bag and headed for the gym doors, ignoring Torrance. "You're the one whose car is in the shop, Mr. Fix-it. Learn a little patience."
"Two and a half hours, Miss! Get a life!"
"Right, I should get a life. And how many people have you met since we moved here?"
"Well," Cliff said, grinning at Torrance. "One at least."
Torrance gave him a pained smile. "I have to go. We'll be here on Friday?" It was supposed to be a statement, but it came out like she was asking Missy's permission. Again. Damn it.
"Whatever," Missy muttered. "Come on, Cliff, let's go."
Cliff let Missy drag him out of the gym by the front of his t-shirt, walking blindly and grinning over his shoulder at Torrance. She rolled her eyes. She had a boyfriend. Sort of.
But it wasn't Aaron she was thinking about as she drove home.
iii. uneven parallel bars
The squad trooped into the gym on Friday, sullen and rebellious. Torrance had told them it was face Missy or let the football team use them as "accidental" tackling dummies again. They knew she was right, but they resented the hell out of Missy anyway. Torrance had heard rumours that Missy was an L.A. druglord, a prostitute, a professional dominatrix, and that she'd been cut from the American Gladiators for being too butch--and, of course, the ever-increasing belief around school that she was a total raging lesbo. Torrance took a moment to feel sorry for Missy, who probably didn't have a real friend in the whole county, and then she focused on ordering the squad around.
The gym helped. The squad knew their places, and the acoustics kept the beat from draining away like it did outside. Whitney and Courtney stood off to one side whenever they weren't needed, arms folded, heads together, whispering viciously, and glaring at the gymnastics equipment as if they could melt it with the power of their brains.
Torrance found herself thinking they couldn't light a lightbulb with the power of their brains, and yelled at them to get back to work.
"Where's your friend Missy?" Whitney asked. "I thought you said she'd be hogging half the gym. If she's not here, then why don't we spread out a little and really have a workout?"
"She's not my friend," Torrance snapped.
Courtney snickered. Les made a disappointed face. Jan winced and jerked his head toward the back of the gym.
Torrance whirled around on time to see Missy walk straight back into the change rooms.
Just great. Now what? If she ran after Missy, everyone would think...whatever they would think. If she didn't, Missy would be hurt... Well, but so what? Missy wasn't her friend. Why should she care? Torrance glanced at Les, who was shaking his head sadly. Oh, fine. Guilt.
"She was nice enough to let us share," she said, to shut Courtney up, and followed Missy to the change rooms.
Missy was throwing stuff into her gym bag. Torrance didn't know what to say, so she settled on, "Missy?"
"I'll be out in a minute," Missy said roughly. "I don't need to hear it."
"I'm sorry," Torrance said. "Courtney and Whitney..."
"They're trying to steal your homecoming tiara?" Missy laughed in disgust. "Sorry if I don't sympathize. Excuse me."
"Look, I'm trying to apologise..."
"And I'm trying to work out. I guess now we know why I'm winning trophies and you guys are still tumbling around on the football sidelines, flashing your spandex-covered asses at the crowd."
Torrance's anger flared up. "You still think we're nothing but football groupies!"
Missy arched an eyebrow. "Like you aren't?"
"No!" Torrance stepped closer to poke Missy in the collarbone. "We work hard, and we win championships! Like, on ESPN! We're the best. If you watched us, you might know that!"
Missy glanced at the finger prodding her chest and burst out laughing. "All right. Fine. I'll watch. Convince me."
Torrance struggled to find words, but couldn't, and realized it was because she'd stopped breathing. She'd never seen Missy smile for real before, and it was stunning how much she changed when she did. "Good. Yeah. All right then!" she stuttered.
"But I'm still doing my own thing. And if you're going to get your jollies laughing at me--"
"Right, I can see how much control you have over them."
Torrance narrowed her eyes. "I'm the captain. They'll listen."
And they did. Torrance might be falling behind in chemistry, and apparently Aaron had moved to a phone-free zone, but if she knew one thing, it was how to cheerlead. Big Red hadn't handed over the leadership lightly. Torrance whipped them into the best practice they'd had yet all year.
And she felt Missy watching her the whole time. Even while Missy was making leaps from one bar to the next, Torrance knew she was paying attention to the squad. They shared the gym, didn't speak, and Torrance convinced the Toros that separate-but-equal was the best way to go.
At the end of practice, Missy leapt off the uneven bars and walked over to Torrance.
"Like what you see?" Torrance challenged.
Missy grinned and did the damn eyebrow trick again. Torrance realized was she'd said, and blushed bright red. "Not bad," Missy said, her eyes travelling over Torrance's uniform. "My brother's dragging me to the game tonight. I think he likes the short skirts."
Torrance bit her tongue to stop from asking if Missy like them too. Everyone said...
Courtney and Whitney rolled their eyes at her on their way to the change rooms, and suddenly Torrance found she didn't care what everyone said.
"Want to meet me after?" she asked. "We could get coffee."
Missy smiled--the real smile. "You're on," she said.
Torrance smiled back, and realized that at some point during practice, she'd found her spirit once more.
iv. balance beam
"I can't believe they just burst into the game like that!" Torrance shouted as she marched to Missy's car.
"You almost got your ass kicked," Missy agreed, chuckling a bit too much to be a really, truly supportive friend.
Torrance spun around and flailed her arms. "And they completely ruined our whole semester. And Courtney and Whitney still don't want to do a new routine! And who wears a sweater that doesn't reach their pants? What's the point?"
"I think I hear the fashion police sirens now," Missy said. She unlocked her car and waved Torrance to the passenger seat.
Torrance swung into the car, still ranting. She knew she was ranting. But there was no one else she could rant to. Aaron hadn't returned her calls since September. Mom and Dad eyed her report cards and ignored any sentence with the word "cheer" in it. And none of the squad, not even Les, wanted to hear more about how stupid they were going to look at regionals when the Clovers showed up. Missy at least listened, and looked interested, even though maybe she wasn't interested, maybe she was bored out of her skull...
Torrance lost track of what she'd been saying and trailed off. "Anyway, we're screwed," she finished.
Missy nodded, handling the small car with negligent ease. "So why don't you hire a choreographer or something? I do, for my balance beam routines, and floor exercises."
Torrance gaped at Missy. "I love you!" she blurted out.
Missy's smile became enormous, and she glanced sideways at Torrance. "Thanks, but I've got a full social schedule."
"No!" Torrance didn't know whether to blush, stutter, or lapse into terminally embarrassed silence, so she did none of those things. "That's a great idea! If we can get Darcy's dad to pay for it..."
Missy grinned again. An amused look crossed her face, like she'd just had a really good, really dirty thought.
"What?" Torrance demanded.
"You've got a whole team of cheerleaders," Missy said. "Really hot cheerleaders. I bet people'd pay money..."
"Hey, I don't know what gymnasts are like, but cheerleaders aren't whores!"
"To look at you. Like, in bikinis. Charge 'em fifteen bucks a head, and then do something stupid for them that involves a really creative lack of clothes. Wash cars or something."
Torrance's mind raced. They could do that. They could dig their way out of this hole. Thanks to Missy. Who didn't mind sharing the gym, no matter what bitches Whitney and Courtney were. Who Torrance had invited out for coffee, and wasn't that some sort of code for making out? No no no...of course not.
Missy pulled up at the local coffee hangout. The whole football team, the entire cheerleading squad, and most of their fans were there, celebrating the fact that the Toros had managed to get a touchdown.
And Torrance was about to walk in there with Missy. After no one had seen her anywhere with anyone since Aaron.
She'd thought she couldn't care less what people thought, but here she was, caring, and they hadn't even done anything wrong. Torrance felt like she was on a huge scale that wouldn't balance, the Toros on one side and Missy on the other.
"You want to go to my place?"
Whose words were those?
"It does look kinda crowded," Missy said.
Oh. Her words. Well, wasn't that just peachy.
Torrance slumped down in her seat. "Yeah."
Missy glanced at her, seemed about to call her on not wanting to be seen anywhere with the school's biggest so-called dyke, then shrugged. "We could go to mine. My parents aren't home."
"Great!" Torrance chirped, slapping a determinedly cheerful look on her face. "I'd love to see your gymnastics routine."
Missy shook her head, smiling. Torrance thought about it, hated her mouth for opening before she thought, but not enough to stop Missy from pulling away from the coffee house and driving home.
Life sucked. In every way, shape, and form, life had clearly taken a look around and decided that sucking was the way to go.
Torrance slouched in Aaron's car, heading home from Regionals. She felt numb. She'd cried, she'd argued, she'd fended off Aaron's smarmy attempts at being charming, and now there was nothing left.
Cheerleading was a bust. Her senior year was supposed to be about going out on top. The Toros had a guaranteed spot at Nationals, but nobody really wanted to go. They were just going to get humiliated again.
Her friends hated her. Courtney and Whitney because they suspected she was dating Missy; Les and Jan because they suspected she was dating Missy but was too chicken to come out and say so.
And the worst part was, she wasn't dating Missy, and she was beginning to wonder why not.
At first the idea had kind of grossed her out, but after a while she didn't remember why. That first night at Missy's place had been amazing. Well, breaking into the parents' liquor store and eating way too much ice cream might have had something to do with it, or maybe the giggling at Cliff for his obvious (and hopeless) crush on her had tipped the scales.
They'd done a bunch of stuff together, shopping and movies and dinners. To anyone who was keeping track of how much time she spent with Missy, it had to look like there was something there. And there...just wasn't. Torrance wished she knew what was missing. She loved hanging out with Missy, and more and more she was having to stop herself from watching way too closely when Missy bent over to get something, or while they were both working out in the gym. So why hadn't Missy made a move? Could all the rumours possibly be lies, and she wasn't into girls at all? Maybe she thought of Torrance as just a really good friend.
Torrance sighed, and Aaron looked over at her, pouting like he thought it was cute, even though it made him look like a two-year-old. "Buck up, Torr!" he said, in the whining baby-talk voice he'd used at Regionals.
Torrance bristled. "Can you just let me out here?"
"But we're a block from your house!"
"I don't care. I want to walk."
Aaron gave her a puppy-dog face. "Okay, Torr. I know what you're saying." He pulled the car to a stop, leaned over, and kissed her with sloppy wet lips.
Torrance shoved him off. "Hey!"
Aaron shook his head pityingly. "Everything will be better tomorrow, Torr. You'll see!"
Torrance clenched her fists and climbed out of the car. "Goodbye, Aaron," she said, in the most final, never-touch-me-again tone she could manage. She slammed the door in his face and walked the rest of the way home. The lights were out, and she remembered that her parents had taken her brother to his minor hockey tournament this weekend. Good. She didn't want to deal with anyone.
She opened the door and reached for the lights.
Missy was standing in the living room, underneath a banner that said "Congratulations!" She waved a trophy at Torrance. "Where's yours?"
Torrance threw herself into a chair. "You won," she said.
"Yeah! So how'd it go? Regionals in the bag? Nationals, here you come?"
"Horribly, no, and I don't think so," Torrance answered. "Sparky Pulastri was selling that same routine to every squad he could! We looked like idiots out there."
Missy's face fell. "Oh." She looked around, then hid her trophy behind her back. "I guess you don't feel like partying. I can go."
"No!" Torrance sat up. "It's okay. I'm glad you came. It's awesome that you won. What event?"
"Vaults," Missy said, sitting beside her and placing the trophy on the table. "It's not that big a deal."
"Of course it is! You're amazing." Torrance touched the gymnast figurine, stroking its gold-painted hair.
Missy watched her, her eyes dark and worried. "I thought you were guaranteed a spot at Nationals."
"Yeah...but why take it? We can't use the same routine." Torrance turned to face Missy, feeling tears threatening behind her eyes. Missy was so beautiful, and sitting right there, and saying all the right things that Aaron had always gotten wrong, and Torrance wanted to kiss her. Not for the first time. But she'd always pulled back before, even when she thought Missy had been looking at her.
Like the day of the car wash. Missy had showed up and paid her fifteen dollars, even though her car was shining and spotless, and just sort of ducked her head and grinned at her feet, embarrassment bringing out her dimples.
"There's no such thing as too clean?" Torrance asked, teasing, and laughed when Missy agreed too quickly.
But she couldn't kiss Missy in a wet bikini in front of everybody, and she hadn't been able to do it any time after that, either. It was too much of a risk. What if Missy was disgusted? What if they couldn't be friends after that?
"Of course you should go to Nationals, Torr!" Missy took her hand, almost like she didn't know she was doing it. "You're the best captain those guys have ever had. You can come up with your own routine. I know you can. Hell, I'll help!"
Torrance smiled through her tears. "Even if it means facing Courtney and Whitney?"
"I could eat those two for breakfast!" Missy boasted. "Come on, where's your--I don't know, your--your school spirit?"
Torrance laughed. "Okay. Okay, you've convinced me."
Missy rolled her eyes. "Like you wouldn't have done it anyway. Eventually."
Torrance smiled softly. "Not without you," she said. Missy's eyes were huge and dark, and a half-smile played around her lips, and Torrance knew that if she didn't make this leap, she was going to hate herself tomorrow.
She kissed Missy, and Missy kissed her back, and it turned out life didn't suck after all.
vi. floor exercises
The month before Nationals passed in a blur. Finally, finally, the squad seemed to be getting it together. After Torrance had put down Aaron's attempted mutiny, Whitney and Courtney subsided and got back to the only thing they cared about more than bitching--the cheering.
Missy's season of competitions was mostly over, but she showed up at cheerleading practice anyway. "Moral support," she called it, and Torrance loved every minute of it. Knowing she could glance up at any time and see Missy watching her, or that on the way home, Missy would have something mocking to say about Darcy or Kasey, or that afterwards when the gym was empty, they could steal kisses under the gymnastics equipment and no one was the wiser.
That didn't last, though.
After practice, one day about a week before they were set to go to Nationals, Jan and Les loomed up on either side of Torrance and marched her out into the hall. Jan folded his arms and tapped his foot, while Les just gave her an easy, confident smile that knew too much.
"Well?" Jan said.
"Let her tell us her own way," Les said.
"You still don't know what she's going to tell us," Jan said.
"Riiight," Les answered.
They both turned to Torrance.
"Look, you guys," she started.
"Ah ha!" Les interrupted. "That's her 'I'm about to make a confession' voice."
"I know," Jan said. "But I want to hear it."
"You're taking this way too seriously," Torrance said. "People change. Lives change."
"Aaron is banging college girls," Jan added significantly.
"I don't know if that's a change," Les said.
Torrance glared at them. "And I'm dating Missy."
"We know that part," Jan said.
"When did you first kiss?" Les asked.
Torrance frowned suspiciously. "After Regionals. Why?"
Jan rolled his eyes. "Finally. So that's you and me splitting the pool, right Les?"
"You have a pool?" Torrance yelled. "With who? On what?"
"With the squad. On your first kiss, obviously. Courtney was actually dumb enough to put money on last Tuesday, when she came back to the gym for her spankies..."
"I could have told her that wasn't a first time," Les added. "I mean, there were hands--"
"Hey, my CD was still in the changer," Les defended himself. "But seriously, Torrance, as you may have noticed, no one cares. Not even Courtney and Whitney--"
"In fact, I think they were inspired," Jan said. "Have you noticed how they're always together?"
"Old news," Les said, waving a dismissive hand. "The point is you can stop hiding, or whatever you think your little floor exercises in the gym can be called."
Torrance groped for words, and didn't find them. "This pool better not be taking time away from practice," she said finally.
"Oh, not at all," Les said.
"I know I've been paying better attention." Jan leered.
"She's coming to Nationals with us," Torrance confessed. "Is that weird?"
"No way," Jan said. "She's really good for you, Torr. We all think so."
"Well, gee, thanks, Jan," Missy drawled, pushing through the gym doors. "A girl needs every vote of confidence she can get." She wrapped her arms around Torrance. "I guess this means a few PDAs are okay?"
"No problems here," Les said, with a hearty grin at Missy. "You two lovebirds feel free to get it on."
Jan raised his eyebrows thoughtfully. "Maybe there should be a pool."
Missy grinned at Torrance. "Do we get to play?" she asked.
"I know what date my money's on," Torrance said, smiling back, and led her girlfriend back into the gym.end