Where Everyone is a Star

Ashley Farmer

I'd been hired to guide children's bodies through air—kids shot through my palms mid-vault, my hands glancing torqued torsos, the horizontal fling of flexed ambitions. Above our tumbling routines and trampoline acts, the gym's red-lettered motto: WHERE EVERYONE IS A STAR. Manic kiddie soundtracks looped and shrilled as knots of party balloons burst, rematerialized in corners, manifested deadpan in the bathroom mirror. On breaks I knelt in the closet to pop palmfuls of nondrowsies from a blister pack. I'd return my smile to the mats, make mid-air grasps at those springy, unfinished forms. I was paid to catch girls against breakings.

I held several in my gaze at once, willing my attention to both expand and zero in. It was easy: my insides amphetamine-gleamy, razored out, point-sharpened, a hollowness making space for instinct and reflex, not generalized feelings, not feelings about home, not the elaborate pain shocking my knee as I sprinted the mats. If a child's ankle tucked or if she hadn't chalked her hands enough, rare fractures eventualized: greenstick, buckle, transverse along the bone's long axis. The astonishing cries stiffened us and summoned whorls of red light to the parking lot, but mostly we were safe. I worked hard at that.

For ten hours a day I clowned the toddly crowds. They knew no longing, their soft bellies milk-filled and lyrcra'd in expensive spangled leotards. Mothers flung good money. In the stands behind soundproof panels each woman swelled: Look at the child's burgeoning spatial awareness! The ease with which she forms relationships! Look at the accelerating sense of self! Dreamless nights, I imagined myself on the clearer side of the glass. An expert adult, even-pulsed, all filled up and watching only her own.

Evenings my husband coached the competitive team. He trained girls to overcome the body's natural limits: pain, height, attention span, everything unmanageable, dough-like, clumsy. Toddler moms whispered requests for him to gauge the future talent of their offspring: What chance did they stand? Be honest. He muscled teenage girls past personal bests while they tickled his forearms and flickered quick black eyelashes. Often he went shirtless. Through his own training regime and caloric math he'd cultivated handsome swellings, but still many nights he fretted over his flawless, fatless pecs and abs, at home in flimsy bathroom light. He'd finger back and forth an indentation of his deltoid, memorizing it with his index, saying fuck genetics, vowing to work harder.

I attempted to distract him with my body, found naked, preposterous ways to fail against shower walls, on kitchen linoleum, across the reupholstered hulk of sofa, in the bucket seat of his chipped vintage car. One night I blocked his path to the bathroom, hands pressed against the doorway frame, my body a solid and impassible thing. He knelt before me, brought his breath nearer. His palms made slow appraisal of my hips, startled the backs of my thighs, flushed their way to the front. When his fingers clinched the crease between leg and hip, he paused, counted pulses. Heart rate's elevated enough to cut your BMI, he said. I'll calculate where you might curb your intake.

We splintered. I borrowed a friend's address. My husband parked his car against mine in the gymnasium lot and when my birthday arrived, not yet thirty, he arranged presents on the passenger seat for me to find. Joke gifts, I guess, unless you're six: Easy-Bake Oven, strawberry-scented pencils, a plastic cotton candy machine. Weeks later, the same seat: divorce papers I'd filed. Then he corralled the team away to compete at regionals. I pulled extra hours, practiced the splits. I sucked helium for the kids and powered handstands against blatant yellowy walls until blood thrummed against my eardrums and the flailing arms of the clock unspun. I ran dizzy till I shrank, until my uniform deflated.

A shiny, aweless girl from a competing gym arrived one night to try the place out. She said little, strode across the mats sans asking, back arced in confidence. Her parents adored from the stands; I trailed. Gym emptied of all but us, I steeled myself beneath her while she casted on the bars, my arms out, hopeful, like I waited for someone to arrive. She angled expert, gaining momentum as she executed each giant swing, pirouetted at the top of the bar, twisted into a double front flyaway. I wanted to catch her but she defied catching. She defied mistakes and mistaking. And if she were to fall, I knew I'd fail us both.

The team triumphed home in a van, necks ringed with ribbons. Their parents received them in the lobby with banners and balloons and they put their hands on my husband, laying claim in their congratulations. I couldn't hear them behind the glass, but they knew winning now, all of them, and it was on to state where marble trophies waited, and I wondered about their miniscule hungers, where in the body that appetite swells and how big. My husband and I were that age when we'd met, but we were unaccomplished trivial kids. We attempted and exerted, but not utmost or damnedest, and when our brief moments arrived spotlighted as they would before they wouldn't anymore, we failed to stick our landings—the only moment anyone remembers.

The expert girl's parents witnessed the celebration. They paid the insurance fee and signed a release form. When the families and my almost-over husband floated out into the lot, I chugged cherry codeine and ran the vacuum in the moonlight. I hung from the high bar. Gravity tugged my dense adult weight, and I endeavored to land in the dark.