She didn’t see the beam…


this is a character background i wrote about Minna…  as usual, no clue whether this will show up anywhere.

She didn’t see the beam, exactly, not the plain piece of wood. She saw the actions possible using the beam, the series of steps, leaps, flips, backwards up and around and SMACK down on the mat. It was always like that — that delicious moment when adrenaline, intention, oxygen, long hours of practice, and all the possibilities sparking off each potential action… everything settled into a calm clarity and she just lifted into the movement. If she did it right, the landing became the logical conclusion, the only possibility. If she didn’t do it right… but no. Believing that she had complete control of her body and all the forces surrounding it, of the beam, the humidity, the volume of the music, the wind — this was sheer narcissism. She had long decided that she didn’t deserve every failure, but to accept that she had to give up some of her pride in success. She did her best, that was all, at any given moment. Sometimes her best was good enough to achieve the result she intended, sometimes it wasn’t. That was all.

She walked back to the (mount — ramp— jump? name?) and chalked her hands. This was the last go, she could feel it in her left knee, the one that had finally ended her gymnastics career at 19. She lasted a lot longer than most of the girls she had trained with, but she couldn’t call it luck. , much older than most of the girls she had trained with. At 10, 12, all the girls were about the same: skinny little jumping beans, impervious to the laws of physics. but then the hormones hit, and sometimes they hit hard. A lot of girls stopped training when they filled out, mostly because they couldn’t deal with the trainers screaming about their weight. The ones who stuck it out lived ascetic lives of training, salad, and lights out. Minna felt for them, because without gymnastics, they could have had normal lives: ice cream, sleepovers, boyfriends. But they denied themselves those things, and they trained, and dieted their breasts and little round bellies into oblivion. But their skeletons… you can’t fool bones. When you’re twelve and you stick a landing, the impact runs straight up from your feet to your knees to your hips. When the hormones widen your pelvis, that impact still runs straight up, but your knees aren’t in the same place, and eventually you end up in surgery. (I have this better elsewhere).

minna never had hose problems. She didn’t have to deny herself a boyfriend because she never would have had one. She never turned down a sleepover because she was never invited to one. She never dieted because she never had enough in the first place. And she didn’t have to worry about her knees shifting because her skeleton, even now at 40, was the same size and shape it had been at 12… minus some wear and tear at the seams, and one completely destroyed knee.

She hopped one step and UP onto the bar, balancing on one foot before bowing her head to the beam and pointing her other foot at the ropes and celing beams. As she pushed over into an extended handstand, she remembered learning this pose, the endless repetitions in the gym, the even more relentless training at home. It had taken her a long time to get this one right; this one had kept her hungry. The night she finally held the pose for one full minute before her arms collapsed and she fell, smacking her shoulder against the beam, tucking at the very last minute to avoid a neck injury, rolling up and crying on the mat… that might have been the happiest moment of her young life. She had practically crawled to the kitchen for her prize: a can of chunk light tuna. It was the first solid food she’d been given in three days.

Minna Paget was tiny. People, mostly women, framed it as a compliment: “Ooh, you’re so TI-nee!” But Minna knew it wasn’t a compliment. She knew that people said it because they had to explain away their startled reaction to her appearance. Minna topped out at 4′ 8″, and by that time her chance for any further growth was gone. When she was in her 20s, even her 30s, she still looked like that 12 yr old girl — and people found it creepy. Certainly men had found it creepy — and she was sort of creeped out by the ones who didn’t. Now, at 42, she found people less put off by that second glance when they realized that no, this was not a child — maybe because now they could make the shift from sexually-ineligible child to sexually-ineligible adult without having to go through the sexual potential of a young woman who should have been at least interested (if not interesting.)

The truth was, for most of her life, she had been neither. The necessary and unnecessary privations of her life had delayed puberty so long that by the time she realized it might have happened it was already gone. The physical changes were so minor that only she herself saw them, and the emotional changes were certainly played close to the vest: she had learned long ago that there would be no possibility of exploring them, and that she would only upset people if she tried.

And that was her life: training, eating what she was given, sleeping when she wasn’t watching over her sisters. Schoolwork was given negligible attention, and only hr native intelligence left her with uninspired but not disastrous grades, good enough to be accepted at the state university… in another state. The day the acceptance letter came, her parents stood staring at her until she went to her own closet and shut the door behind her. there was no need for them to lock any of the doors by then: all four girls were perfect models of restraint, discipline, and obedience, sly little creatures so sensitive to the tiniest quivers of the emotional landscape that they rarely required actual beating. But this was disobedience on a grand and strategic scale. Somehow, one of their resources had navigated the entire process of SATs, applications, and essays, all without them knowing a thing about it. Minna lay curled on the floor when the door opened. “You had help.” her mother stated. “Yes.” Minna said. Her mother set a bottle of water on the floor of the closet and shut the door again. Minna could not hear her sisters, could not hear the conversation she knew was going on downstairs. She knew she would hear soon enough.

Some years ago, the girls had discovered that the walls were their friends. Isolated from each other only a little less than from the outside world, they realized that Minna and Thea could hear each other from inside their (how do the do this, the next one if the closets are together, the last one can hear downstairs.) She knew that before long, the conversation would be funneled up to her… “They’re talking about the guidance counsellor” she heard Thea whisper. “About getting her fired.” Oh, crap, thought Minna… but she was also a bit thrilled.  She and Celeste had talked about this many times, and Celeste had promised that she would stand up with Minna even if it meant losing her job. In the end it didn’t, but only because the Pagets had not wanted the publicity of a lawsuit, which is what Celeste promised if they stood in the way of Minna’s education.

Minna couldn’t give a rats ass about her education — she wanted to be able to save her sisters. And she did — two of them. Thea was always strong, and Clara was just flat out mad: anger can be a powerful survival tool. But the youngest, Leeta, so tender and loving, so incapable of grace under pressure, Leeta had always had the worst of it, and in the end she could not wait. One night when her parents came to release her from her closet, they found Leeta hanging from an electrical wire she’d yanked down through a hole she’d scratched in the ceiling. She was fourteen years old. She’d never made a sound.

Thea got word to Minna through a classmate’s older sister who was attending the university and pressed a note into her hand as they passed each other on a walkway. “I’m so sorry.” the girl had said: Minna knew the girl had been crying. While Minna was tearing the note into tiny pieces and letting them drift into the river, she decided that enough was enough. She found the girl who had given her the note and asked her to send a message back. The note had no names, just the brief message “That is too too too sad. Will the service be on Thursday?”

On Thursday, Minna drove the seven hours back to the gym, pulled around to the back of the building, and honked the horn twice… then twice… then twice again. Thea cracked the service entrance door open and looked all around; Minna nodded to her, reached back, and pushed the passenger door open. Thea and Clara, in leotards and chalky bare feet, ran to the car, folded themselves into the (foot space — does that have a name?) Minna slammed the door shut and they drove quietly away. The girls had only what they were wearing. None of them ever looked back.

The younger girls lived a fugitive life with different college friends, in motels, wherever they could find safe harbor. Minna went back to her life, as if nothing had changed. Her parents, the police, even the private detective her parents hired — none of them ever got anything out of her. Thea turned eighteen the next year and applied to the University; Clara a year and a half later. She got a job as a waitress, and the girls struggled on together utterly shutting out their parents, who had no legal rights over them and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. They knew, looking in the girls’ eyes now, that they had lost; they knew that the girls would raise holy hell given the least provocation and that they’d win any legal proceedings with the only evidence they needed: their own bodies.


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