She decides, while watching the 1984 Summer Olympics one lazy day, a magically cool glass of lemonade on the table beside her as she lounges back into their comfiest armchair, to master gymnastics. The decision is made more or less on a whim; this is how Julia decides how to spend a great deal of her infinite life minutes, truthfully. She’s organized and meticulous once she knows her goal, but when it comes to finding said goal, it’s all about what strikes her fancy.
Lately, for Penny-Adiyodi-is-dead reasons, nothing much has been striking her fancy. But she can’t sit around moping, she can’t fret over Kady, she can’t walk on tip-toe every time she talks to Q on the phone, wondering if a visit is going to set El off or if he’ll be happy to see them. It’s all too much, and it’s been a decade.
Life’s too short. Or, as the case may be, too long.
So Julia goes to the library and comes back with a comically oversized stack of books, which is how she starts all her research, and she reads up on the topic for a week or two before she attempts a single stretch on her own. Next, she makes Margo convert the second bedroom in their current apartment into a gym suited to her particular goals, complete with mirrors along one wall, a balance beam, a vault, and various other pieces of equipment that Julia has read about and is excited to use. They’re on the top floor, but they’ve got magic protecting the downstairs neighbors from the sound of Julia prancing around on the newly installed floor mats.
(“You’re fucking lucky I love you,” Margo says on Julia’s first day of practice on the balance beam, leaning against the door jamb and smacking a piece of gum between her lips as she surveys the new room in its final form.
“For so many reasons, dearest,” Julia replies.)
She quickly learns, renting old videos of past Olympic games and finding more and more research to imbibe, that there are all sorts of different forms of the sport, and she’s briefly overwhelmed by the desire to master every different aspect as quickly as she can. But as is the case whenever she starts to learn a new skill, she quickly settles into a groove, and finds the thing about it she actually likes.
It’s not even gymnastics, really. Or not all gymnastics. It’s the defying of gravity, the contortion, the slow twisting and graceful movements that look almost like swimming, or dancing, through the air. A lot of gymnastics isn’t really about that. It’s quick and sharp and impressive, and Julia wants to know this too, but after her first couple of months of daily practice, she decides that gymnast isn’t precisely her target identity any longer.
When she tells Margo this, her eyes roll back into her head and she sighs at the ceiling as if imploring a higher power for patience. “I installed mirrors on the wall and we’ve barely used it to watch ourselves have sex, Julie. And now you’re saying—”
“I want to be an acrobat,” she interrupts, choosing to ignore the fact that they’d had quite a satisfying interlude in front of said mirrors only that morning. When Margo’s bored, she always thinks they’re not having enough sex.
“Like in the circus?” Margo says. And then, even though she already knows the answer, she asks: “why? You could just magic yourself into whatever sort of contortionist flips your heart desires. Ask El to float you up in the air and you can twirl around on your way back down. Hell, I could probably manage lifting you up to the ceiling, if it came to that.”
“I want to know how it works,” Julia says. “I want my body to know how it works.”
Julia does master quite a few basic skills, but a couple years into this fixation, she knows it’s not something she’ll ever take all the way to the top. Like how she’d mastered the piano back in the ‘30s and ‘40s (nineteenth century), but had given up on her opera singing after a couple of months. Or how she’d settled for conversational in Vietnamese, but still keeps up on her flawless, fluent Tamil. She can’t know everything, and most of the time the thought doesn’t even rankle.
But pushing her body to new limits, learning new ways to test her balance and her core strength and her fortitude... it did what it was supposed to do. It made her feel like she had a future to plan for again. A different future, grimmer and darker and less ideally what she wanted it to be, without Penny there, but… a future.
She doesn’t join a circus or decide to go for a professional career as a gymnast. She finds flipping through the air to be overall a quite disorienting prospect, and it takes her months to stop catching herself on the tumbles using magic, to trust her instincts and let totally organic processes cushion her fall.
(She lets Margo kiss the places on her body where bruises might have formed, were she the kind of person who got bruises, and even when her interest wanes away from daily practice, they keep the mirrors up in the spare room.)
Eventually, some of it even comes in handy. When they start taking jobs again, Julia finds herself getting hurt less often, falling more gracefully, quicker to recover after getting hit. It makes her a newly lethal asset on the battlefield, matched perhaps only by Q in terms of sheer fluid, dynamic precision. She’d have to do a study, compare notes, but she thinks perhaps their overall efficiency in battle has improved as a consequence of her new skill, and she even cons some of the others into practicing on a balance beam with her, every once in a while.
It’s hard, sometimes, not to think about Penny, about grieving Penny, when she brushes off her back-handspring skills. The period of her life when she learned how to move her body in exactly this way, is also the period of her life when she was so sad, so terribly, impossibly sad, all the time, every single day, that she felt like someone had tied a weight to her ankle, slowing her down, tying her to the ground with oppressive, insistent agony.
But when they get Penny back, it means she gets to bully him into handstand practice during their workouts together, and the new memories help to contextualize the old. Not to erase them, but to blend them together, create a new truth wherein Julia mourned for the brother-in-arms she had lost, and then got to experience the miracle of his return.
And, anyway. It’s not like she learned how to be an acrobat because Penny died. She probably would have gotten around to it eventually, in any case.
Learning this skill, for Julia, wasn’t about getting better at fighting or becoming a more physically fit person. The thing that gripped her about it most of all was the way it forced her to know her body, to hone her skill with it, to trust in instincts over intellect. She’s never relied much on her body, has always trusted her mind to get her where she needed to go. But Julia has never liked having weaknesses. She’ll have to make Q teach her Judo, next.