“Listen up,” I say. “Here are the rules.”
I’m standing in front of the gym door, with my hands hovering above my hips, my legs spread wide in an authoritative straddle position. I know it’s authoritative, because I’ve practiced the best way to stand to make people listen many times. It’s harder than it looks. Stand with your feet too close together and your centre of gravity is all off. You might as well be a wacky inflatable tube man flipping horrifically in the wind at a used-car lot, and no one respects a person made of vinyl, full of air—certainly not preschool-aged children and their parents. And especially not teens. Stand with your legs too far apart when you’re as flexible as I am and you’re liable to slip and fall into a middle split, which, while impressive, is awkward to get out of gracefully and similarly diminishes your respect factor. Not that I’m dealing with kids or their parents right now. But the principles still apply, so I’m standing like this.
“The rules of the gym are: One person at a time on the trampoline, no flips, no fighting, and don’t jump on each other in the foam pit,” I say as I furtively unlock the door and wave my friends into the building.
I add an unusual caveat to my standard spiel: “And, I swear to God, if anyone spills whisky or pees on anything, I will kill you. Like, I will actually murder you.”
Sean raises his eyebrows and smiles at me crookedly. Sean is so handsome that I often find myself fantasizing about sprinkling salt on him to see if he’ll shrivel a bit, like a slug. Not to hurt him. Just to bring him down to an attainable level. People shouldn’t be allowed to be so attractive. So symmetrical. So powerfully handsome. Luckily for my libido, Sean lifts his hand in what I think is supposed to be a jaunty salute but, in his boozy state, comes out more as an effeminate, slapdash heil. It’s literally the most unattractive thing he’s ever done, but I immediately forgive him.
“Yes, teacher!” Greg slurs, loudly. He exhales a disgustingly aromatic cocktail of Budweiser vapours and flecks of teriyaki chicken wings into my face as he grins widely. He tilts his freakishly tall frame to paw at my skirt, jokingly. I slap him away, jokingly.
“I’ll try,” Claudia deadpans, shrugging, following the boys.
I hadn’t really wanted to sneak into the gym after the bar, but I hadn’t wanted to go home either. The four of us in the biology study group—which we’d affectionately though unoriginally nicknamed the Sit-By-the-Door Buddies when we assembled by proximity at the beginning of the year—had spent the evening responsibly commemorating writing the final exams of our undergrad careers with three-dollar double highballs. Nothing says academia like discount highballs.
Normally, and in job interviews, I characterize myself as quite responsible. Wholesome, even. But with the façade of studying together fast evaporating, this was the night I could really feel my time with Sean slipping away. Would we still meet up when we didn’t need each other for flash-card purposes? The realness of the situation got realer with each vodka water lime that sloshed past my lips, splattering my carefully selected flattering-but-not-trying-too-hard crop top.
Here’s how it happened:
“It’s almost last call! What now?” Greg said. His booming voice, usually obnoxiously loud, was perfectly attuned to the climate of the loud club.
“Go . . . home?” Claudia said, scrolling through her phone.
“Boo!” Greg said.
“We could go to my place and chill,” I said.
“Don’t you live with your parents?” Sean asked.
“We could be quiet?” I said. “Or go to your place?”
“Naw. My parents live at my place,” Sean said.
“Fuck, my parents live at my place too!” Greg said.
“Why don’t we . . . go to . . . that gym you work at?” Claudia said.
“Yeah! Jules, you’re, like, constantly talking about your gymnastics! Show us!” Greg said.
“I don’t know. It’s sort of risky. We couldn’t turn on the lights or anything,” I said. “I’m worried about getting caught.”
“Then . . . why do you always talk about how you have the keys?” Sean said. He was right, as always. I had been bragging all year about how I’d been given keys to the gym.
In my defence though, I like to bring up the fact that I’m a gymnast and gym coach as often as possible. Especially around guys. Especially around guys I like, which means especially around Sean. Part of it is that I’m genuinely proud of what I do—I grew up idolizing my coaches, so being one of them now was an accomplishment. But I also just think that it makes me more interesting. And by interesting, I mean sexy.
“I could get in trouble,” I said.
“But, Jules,” Greg said, “don’t you want to show us some of your tricks?”
“Yeah, show us your gym-nas-tics,” Sean said.
He lifted his pony-like lashes and looked into my eyes. I was convinced.
We clambered into a cab. It was exhilarating to be headed to a second location with Sean. I feigned rifling through my purse so I’d have an excuse to be the last one in, so I could crush my body in beside him. I rolled the window down and left my seatbelt unbuckled as we sped over the bridge. I felt a familiar lurch in my belly—the same nervy rumble I feel when I’m swinging toward a dismount.
“Woo,” Sean yells, running into the darkness of the empty gym.
“Woo!” Greg echoes, though a little louder, his towering, lumbering frame surprisingly keeping pace with Sean’s lanky, lean one.
It’s a bit disturbing how most men never seem to outgrow that little-boy instinct to blindly plunge their bodies into the air—Greg and Sean were both old enough to rent a car or be tried as adults, but present them with open space, and they might as well join my kinder-kids class.
“Careful!” I yell, a deep-rooted thread of the safety-conscious coach in me sneaking past my desire to appear cool and nonchalant.
The gym is in a huge cement-floored warehouse, and my voice bellows, reverberating my distinctly uncool concern.
Claudia and I hang back by the gym’s entrance, taking a moment to let our eyes adjust to the hazy, dim blue light that streams in through the skylights. Particles of the soft white chalk the kids clap on their hands during the day has been coaxed from the floor by the boys’ blitz and hang in the moonlit air like tiny, dusty snowflakes. I drunkenly trace a speck of chalk with my eyes as it floats up in the air, disturbed by our presence, then dances away. I feel calmer and a bit more powerful in my natural habitat.
“So . . . ,” Claudia drawls, twirling at a strand of her long, lavender hair, pausing to take a thirsty gulp from a glittery flask. “You . . . work . . .”
“Here. Yes, I work here,” I say, curtly.
Conversations with Claudia are never the right pace for me. I always feel compelled to help her along, jumping in with words to coach her to the end of her sentences.
“You come in . . .”
“Weeknights and weekend afternoons. I’ve been coaching since I was sixteen. It’s great. It pays great, and I love the kids,” I rush to say.
Claudia nods, thrusting her flask toward me. I take a delicate swig, making a point not to spill a drop, and pass it back. Claudia stuffs the flask into the right cup of her lacy black bra, which she treats like a cleavage-enhancing chest purse. I can see the outlines of her phone, lip gloss, and keys bulging out from the foam-filled cups. Claudia is a lot like her bra: mostly empty but with enough handy filler to keep people interested. I will not miss Claudia when we inevitably drift from text-every-day friends to like-major-life-events-on-Facebook acquaintances, but I’m still grateful to have her around now. Another girl to round out our little foursome. Someone to distract Greg tonight so I can have Sean to myself. Maybe I’ll even tell him how I feel.
“So . . . ,” Claudia says, thrusting out a toned arm and pointing at Sean’s shadowy figure, currently wrestling with Greg on the sprung floor. “You, like . . . like/em> like . . . Sean?”
Horrified, I snatch her hand and pull it back.
“Shut up!” I hiss, blushing rose in the darkness.
I don’t want Sean to find out about our true love because of some drunk girl’s ramblings.
“So, you’re not . . . you know . . . into him?” she asks.
“No! Shhh!” I rasp. “Can we just not right now? Come on. I’ll push you on the rope swing.”
I grab Claudia’s hand like I would one of my students and lead her into the abyss.
“O.K., Julie, can you tell me, in detail please, about the stages of cellular respiration?” Sean asked me one afternoon in the late fall, as we trudged around the snow-dusted quad before our class.
“Erm, no. But I can do the splits,” I said sweetly. “Both sides,” I said, kicking my leg high, suggestively. “Does that count for anything?”
“It counts for plenty, but it won’t help you with this quiz. And it won’t help me, either. I was hoping you actually could tell me.”
Giggling and gazing sideways at Sean, I took a step and felt my heel glide out from under me on the icy cement. As I tumbled toward the ground, I did the automatic thing I always did—the absolute worst thing you can do—when I knew I wasn’t going to stick a landing. I closed my eyes and prepared for the worst.
“Whoa, watch out.”
I felt a hand grab my wrist and pull me up. When I opened my eyes, Sean was smiling down at me.
“For someone who talks a lot about balance, that was pretty close,” he laughed.
“I balance on beams. There’s no ice in gymnastics,” I said, gruffly.
Gymnastics is a very solitary sport—no one had ever caught me before falling.
Sean laughed and smiled, turning his attention back to studying.
I fell in love with him.
“Now what tomfoolery do we have we here?” Greg’s molasses-thick voice calls out. I’m half-heartedly pushing Claudia around on a wobble board, trying to catch Sean’s eye, to impress him with my display of brute strength. You know: girlfriend-material stuff.
I squint across the floor at Greg, who’s hovering near the mirrored wall the kids use to watch their form while they practice their floor routines. A sudden roaring blast of familiar notes answers my question: He’s found Svetlana’s cassette deck.
The gym’s elderly, absurdly strict Russian (and total Luddite) head coach had brought the mammoth double- deck cassette player boombox with her when she came to Canada in the nineties, and she insists on using it as the only audio device in the gym.
Honestly, I’m surprised Greg knows how to use it. If our study group is any indication of intelligence, Greg isn’t always the sharpest.
Ba, da, do, dum.
The last tape in the deck that day must have been one of my students’ routines, because the music that blares loudly from the speakers is a familiar thumping tango.
daaaaa, ba, do, dum.
“Turn it down! Someone will hear us!” I hiss, jogging over to Greg, careful to avoid the random weights and ropes that transform the floor into an ankle- spraining obstacle course in the darkness.
“Please! We’re in an industrial park, and it’s, like, 3 a.m. On a Saturday! You already refuse to turn on the lights, which is kind of crazy—”
“Someone could drive by and see us!” I say, shriller than I want to be.
“Julie! Just chill,” Greg says, smiling lazily, turning up the volume.
Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Do, do, do.
Flustered, I’m about to lecture Greg further when I feel hands snatching at my waist from behind. Instinctually, I suck in my stomach and look in the mirror. Even in the low light, Sean’s mega-watt smile beams.
“Let’s dance,” he says, spinning me expertly. “We’ve never danced together, have we?”
He leans me back for a dramatic dip, which I wriggle out of and scramble to my feet.
I’m caught off guard—it’s too much at once. I’m great at memorizing routines, but I’m a terrible impromptu dancer. I like to be prepared for a performance.
Dum dum, do, do, da.
“Come on,” Sean laughs as he tries to twirl me, “loosen up, Julie.”
I bristle and pull away. I can’t stand being told to relax. I’m a gymnast—precision is in my blood.
“Jules,” Sean smiles at me. He reaches out his hand, but I’m too embarrassed to look him in the eye. Involuntary tears of frustration pool in my eyes, threatening to ruin my carefully applied eyeliner and contour.
“I just think it’s too loud,” I say, turning quickly and stomping over to the cassette player. My footsteps thud forcefully against the sprung tumbling floor.
Then everything and everyone is silent.
Isn’t it funny how some things can totally transform in the dark?
Take the gym, for example. In the daytime, it’s a fluorescent-lit cornucopia of primary-coloured safety and low-risk thrills: everything is spring-loaded, padded, surrounded by foam. I’m completely comfortable in the gym when the lights are on. In this darkness though, even the most innocuous things feel menacing. The wooden uneven bars I’ve spent so many hours swinging on pop out unexpectedly, threatening to choke or decapitate me. The glittery hula hoops I use to teach smiling children how to do cartwheels on are now glinting lassos, snaking their sparkling P.V.C. exteriors around my delicate ankles, ready to yank and snap. The giant coiled springs that lay around haphazardly here and there are convenient for when you need to switch up the hardness of a beat board for a vault. In the dark though, the springs turn the floor into a minefield.
After my outburst, I’m embarrassed. I spend a few minutes in the bathroom fixing my makeup, then go out and busy myself with cleaning, briskly tidying hazardous blocks and pieces of equipment. I am a human metal detector on a darkened beach, hunting for things that could trip Sean up.
I find a small, glittery flask near the balance beams. “I told her no whisky,” I think, shaking my head. Then, I find a tube of nude lip gloss on a beat board. Then, an iPhone on a landing mat. Then, them.
Wedged between a triangle block and a mattress- esque crash mat, it’s Sean and Claudia. It’s a particularly dark corner of the gym, but by the flashes of movement and squishy, nauseatingly moist smacking sounds, I know what they’re doing.
Sean, the light of my life, is nothing more than another horny, grasping, desperate man in the dark. There’s no stopping my makeup from melting now.
“Come on, Jules, let’s see what you’ve got!” Greg drunkenly calls for me from the back of the foam pit.
I stumble away from the horror and over to Greg in a daze. He’s sprawled out, dark hair greasy and tussled, gloomily lit under a skylight. He looks relaxed though, as if he’s soaking in a hot tub and not slowly sinking into a crater in the floor filled with disintegrating blocks of questionably yellow foam.
“Not now, Greg,” I pout. The alcohol that had made my heart feel so bubbly and effervescent earlier in the evening now anchored me to the ground, queasy.
“Can’t you do, like, a flip or something?” Greg says.
I sigh. Of course I can do a flip. Claudia may have Sean’s magnificent hand up her skirt, but I can most certainly do a flip. I grab the threadbare hair elastic from my wrist and twist my long hair into a neat topknot. It’s business time.
“Watch this!” I shout, loudly.
I turn and step backward a few paces down the tumble track—a sprung, bouncy strip that leads to the foam pit and Greg.
I take a breath and raise my arms, then I’m off. It’s a few quick steps, then a thrust. Power hurdle. Round off, back handspring, back handspring. My body flies on autopilot and a comforting Zen washes over me.
I raise my knees to flip into the pit, but my heel catches on something. Suddenly, I’m falling. Failing. My crisp precision melts into flailing. I am a wacky inflatable tube man flipping horrifically in the wind.
I land awkwardly in the pit beside Greg, mortified. He claps enthusiastically.
“Holy shit, did you do that on purpose? Amazing!”
I lay frozen, limbs askew, in the pile of foam. I can still hear Sean and Claudia rustling between the mats on the other side of the gym.
“Julie, that was so cool,” Greg whispers, uncharacteristically softly. “You are really good at this stuff.” It’s the first time I’ve ever heard him be so quiet. I look up at his face. I’m not sure if it’s the tequila, the vodka, the whisky, or the fact that my heart has just been broken, but Greg’s features look grotesquely blown out: huge eyes, giant nose, monstrous brows.
He reaches his big, clown-like hand for me and paws at my skirt again. I breathe in the musky scent of the million children’s feet that have walked through this pit. Greg rolls on top of me, his long, heavy frame pushing me further into the pit, so far that blocks of foam fall over my face, blacking out the last specks of light from the ceiling.
“You were right, Jules. Gymnastics is fun,” he whispers.
I close my eyes and prepare.