The gymnasium lights shut off with a descending hum, plunging the empty space into shadow. I heaved the mats I was carrying off my shoulder and into their neat spot in the rec center closet before turning back to the almost-empty gymnasium. Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody echoed off the bare-steel rafters from the tinny radio plugged into one of the outlets that still worked, even after the timer clicked off. It was well past time to go home, and I'd almost finished the last of the clean-up.
The only piece of equipment left to put away was the tumble track. But Harrow was still using that.
She hadn’t reacted at all when the lights went out-- she never did. All the terrifying intensity she focused on us while she was teaching turned inward and coiled into a dizzying series of leaps, flips and turns. Her tightly-wound energy spun out from the center of her body, and the effect was absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to watch her forever. She was completely, totally, one hundred percent forbidden to me.
We were supposed to clear away the gymnastics equipment an hour after classes, and on Saturday afternoons we did so religiously, because the basketball league that met in the evening needed the space. But on Tuesday nights, when the adult gymnastics class wrapped up at ten o’clock, we stayed and shut down the gymnasium together.
Together was maybe a misnomer. She stayed late to practice, and I lingered to watch the way she moved. The first time I stayed, I told myself it was just because her technical skill fascinated me. By the fourth late Tuesday, I’d stopped lying to myself.
Honestly, I needed to get my act together. My obsession with her was unhealthy, unreasonable, and unrequited.
It had all started after I'd gotten back to work after that last concussion. I was tucked into the back room, doing inventory because the lights in the main gym still hurt my eyes but I couldn't afford to miss another shift.
My on-again off-again co-worker, Camilla Hect, had found me there in between the spin classes she taught. Her knife-cut fringe was glued to her forehead with perspiration. A droplet of sweat slid down her collarbone and disappeared into her cleavage beneath the neckline of her moisture-wicking top. "Slacking, Nav?"
I thought about how her sweat might taste if I licked it off her, but we had a strictly-friends on-again off-again thing in our personal life, too, and that was currently off. She’d gotten into this semi-serious thing with a married couple, and there was no way I could judge her for it, especially not after I'd gotten a load of the six-foot-two blonde with the fantastic rack and the tiny-but-ferocious woman with the precise box braids who'd picked Cam up from work last week. But it meant I was off the menu. "Got concussed last Friday." I told her. "Give me a little credit." My head hurt and I was feeling sorry for myself.
Her dark eyes narrowed. "Then you shouldn't be at work at all."
"Tell that to capitalism." I made a squiggle on the tablet, and it spat a warning back at me. "Sometimes I think I need to find a new sport."
"Come to gymnastics with me," Cam said, except it sounded more like a threat. She'd asked me to join her Saturday class before, and I'd turned her down every time.
"There's no way you're getting me into a leotard," I reminded her. Even if I had the teensiest bit of a crush on her, I still had some standards.
"If you go back to muay thai, you're going to end up with permanent brain damage."
I leaned my aching forehead against the cold metal rack that held the medicine balls, trying to get some relief and hating that she was right. "Tell you what," I said. "I'll go to gymnastics with you if you agree to try something else with me if I don't like it."
"No beer leagues." Cam had gotten banned from the rec kickball team we'd joined one summer for being so aggressively competitive she'd injured one of the other players. It hadn't been Cam's fault-- Marta had been blocking home base with her arm-- but she hadn't been prepared for Cam to slide right through her. Cam had only wrenched her shoulder, and Marta had needed sixteen stitches.
"No beer leagues.” Which meant I'd have to do some research. Maybe I could find a competitive softball league. Those were probably full of lesbians. If I got lucky, maybe I could meet a girl.
Cam made me wait two Saturdays, until every lingering concussion symptom was gone, before she gave me the address of the rec center where she took adult gymnastics.
"This is going to be such a disaster," I told Cam when I finally met her in the lobby. Five minutes early, so that she wouldn't give me grief about how I was always late. Around us, a gaggle of prepubescent girls in sequined tops filtered out the front door. I watched them disperse into a line of waiting minivans through a big glass window covered in handprint turkeys. The building also hosted a preschool.
Cam elbow-jabbed me in the ribs. "Picked out what we're trying next?"
"I've been busy." By which I meant that I’d finally beaten the boss I’d been stuck on for days, achieved Dish Zero and maintained it by dint of takeout, and done at least one load of the overdue laundry that had piled up while I was concussed.
“Suit yourself,” said Cam. “Come on.” She led me into a rec-center gymnasium that reminded me of grade-school phys ed, except we’d never had such a dizzying array of equipment in school. A riot of mats and beams and bars filled the space. Besequined girls older than the crew that had already left twisted, vaulted, and flipped through space. It was intimidating as fuck. I took an involuntary step backwards, toward the door.
Cam grabbed me by the arm and led me over to a woman who had layered a chunky brown cardigan over her athleisure. “Gideon, meet Abigail.”
And, look, I swear I know it’s rude to check out fitness instructors, but Abigail was worth breaching etiquette. Even when she was just standing there holding a clipboard, you could see the definition in her shoulders and the strength in her thighs. It complimented the softness around her hips, and she had the kind of breasts you could write sonnets about. (I didn’t know how to write sonnets. For Abigail Pent’s breasts, I would learn.) She’d gathered her thick brown hair into a sleek bun on top of her head.
“Hi,” I said, inadequately.
Abigail kindly ignored the way I was staring. “Gideon! Cam’s told us so much about you!”
That was news to me. “I’m here for the class.”
“I hope you enjoy it.” She smiled up at me. When she said it like that, with her warm brown eyes twinkling and fixed on mine, so did I.
The warm-up was actually okay. Okay, the stretching got a little dicey, but I’ve been doing bodyweight strength exercises since I was in the first grade, and I killed it at those. And all the jumping was fun, even if I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized I had the grace of a moose who had just gorged itself on half an orchard of fermented apples.
But then the group split off into stations. I trailed behind Camilla, who was heading for the uneven bars. I had vague memories of these from one gym class, maybe, but I had no clue what I was doing, and at least with Cam I had a friend.
She got on the uneven bars and used her momentum to propel her body around the bar, driving herself from the lower bar to the higher. Then she did something fancy to dismount that I frankly did not catch.
It looked easy enough. I could just leave the fancy part off, maybe try it later. Taking a running start, I hit the springboard and I jumped at the bar. Caught it, swung, didn't make it around. But I'd already committed to the second leap. I let go and tried to grab the taller bar. My fingertips smacked against the wood. Not enough grip for me to catch my weight. I fell on my ass and rolled until my knee banged against one of the supports.
“Well, you fall well.”
I looked up toward the speaker, plastering on a fake smile.
It was Abigail, holding her hand out to help me up. My smile got a lot more real.
I could get up on my own, but I didn't want to disappoint her, not when she was looking at me with such kindness. I took her hand and let her lead me to the side of the room, near a geriatric radio that was croaking out "Footloose". Everyone around me was executing flawless feats of dance wizardry. It felt like I’d dropped into a montage in the middle of a flash mob. A scary woman, five feet tall at best, presided, directorial, over the chaos. She had visibly toned muscles, a severe bun shot through with steely gray, and an attitude that radiated beyond her physical form and shot clear to the ceiling. She pointed, and the gymnasts around her leapt to perform.
"Some people think gymnastics isn't a real sport," said Abigail, very quietly. The tone commanded my full attention, and I snapped myself out of my trance to listen. “But it takes real athleticism.”
I rubbed my hip. Bruised, almost certainly. “I got that.”
“Do you have a progression in mind? Something you want to work on?”
“Not really.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth, which was that I was here on a bet.
“Why don’t we start you off on the floor?” She took my hand again and led me gently to an expanse of gym covered in mats, the opposite direction from the uneven bars. In spite of the fact that Abigail had led warm-ups, her palm was cool and dry. Mine was sweaty.
“But--” I cast a look back over my shoulder at Cam, who was upside down with her hands on the bar and her feet pointing straight up at the ceiling.
“Don’t worry,” Abigail said soothingly. “I’ll take care of you.”
"I'm still not wearing a sparkly leotard," I told Cam an hour later, on the way out the door.
"No one ever asked you to."
Cam caught up with me at work on Wednesday. “So what are we trying next?”
“Actually,” I said, and then swallowed. “I thought we could go to gymnastics again?”
She smirked at me.
“Shut up,” I said.
And that’s how I ended up signing up for weekly friend dates with my off-again FWB, featuring kind words from hot-but-married coach Abigail Pent. And if I spent a lot of time on the Saturday evenings after gymnastics on my couch with a magazine, imagining the way Abigail had complimented the height of my jumps on replay? That was no one’s business but my own.