You will know me, p.27
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       You Will Know Me, p.27

           Megan Abbott
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  The second thing she’d never tell her mother was what happened after, when she saw Ryan on Ash Road that night.

  Driving, hardly breathing at all but almost flying, she thought: My life is ending, my life is over.

  Once Ryan had asked her if she ever thought about him when she was on the floor, the beam. Of course she never did, and never would. It was a place she would never let him in. (Single-mindedness, Coach T. always told her, is the greatest of your great gifts.) But that was when she’d known she’d never feel for him what he felt for her.

  There was not enough space in her heart.

  Her heart was different.

  She was different.

  This is what she knew: you win or lose everything with a flick of the wrist, a turn of the ankle, not enough lift, a slipped hand on the beam.

  And everything changes, everything goes dark, and is gone.

  What if we just tell everyone, won’t it be wonderful, he’d said, even as he knew she was pulling away. Because he knew she was pulling away.

  She’d turned on the high beams.

  All the dust and sand and road salt glittering up into the air.

  The hot yellow of the center line, like an arrow straight to him.

  Headlight-struck, face like blasted marble and eyes filled with love.

  He was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

  Her hands on the wheel, for a second she thought, Forget what Dad said, what Mrs. Weaver said, what anyone thinks. He was so beautiful. What did anything else matter?

  Strange that it was in that moment that she did it.

  The moment she made the turn and saw him waiting for her, waving to her, seeing him so rapturously handsome, lit by her headlights, that great golden flame of a face.

  Standing at the fog line, his feet planted on the shoulder.

  Waving to her, slowly waving, his arm swaying.

  That that was the moment she—

  You must be in control of your landing, that’s what Coach always said.

  Bounding down the vault runway, feet hit springboard, hands hit table, the push—

  —flying through the air, soaring, a spinning weightlessness, arrowing down, the surge of feet to ground, body electric.

  Thump, thwack, smack, and she felt it, down there:

  The ancient throb in her foot, that foot, blood surging, pressing down on the gas.

  There’s a hundred ways sex can ruin you. The words came to her in that moment, a thunderclap in her head.

  Her mouth made a funny noise, and she felt a twinge over her heart. But not enough to stop her. At least not in time.

  Her arms jerked, the wheel seized, he was there in front of her, waving and smiling.

  For a second, the white tail of his shirt, like a bird flying, and she shut her eyes.

  Her right foot throbbing, she plunged it downward onto the pedal.

  He was there, and then he was gone.

  Then there was the third thing she’d never tell.

  Which is how it really began, with Ryan. What had started it, for her.

  It was back in January, the night after regionals, a big booster party. Tiki torches. Some of the girls sneaking sips of coconut rum from white bottles smooth as milk.

  Her head doing starbursts when she closed her eyes.

  Air, air, air, she thought.

  I am, I am, I am. Which is what she always said when she was on the vault runway. It cleared her.

  The flowers tickled her neck and smelled like the inside of Mrs. Weaver’s car.

  The all-around gold medal beneath it, cold against her hot chest, her hand pressed there.

  You made us so proud, her dad told her. But you always do, kissing the top of her head.

  And a song came on through the popping speakers, something about a girl with a blister on her hand, that felt like it was just for her.

  It will be like this forever, she was saying in her head, I will feel this way forever.

  That’s when she saw it. The dance floor crushed and impossible and in a far corner, by the swinging doors to the kitchen, a ponytailed woman with her hand on a man’s hip.

  She blinked once, then twice, because it had to be the coconut rum swirling. Except it wasn’t, because the woman with the ponytail was Mom and the man was Ryan Beck, Hailey’s boyfriend.

  Ryan, the one all the girls always talked about. And she’d never really looked at him. Even the time he found her retainer, held it right in his hand. She’d never looked because it felt like she shouldn’t, like staring into the sun.

  Her mom did, sometimes. At the booster events, at Weaver’s Wagon, where he worked. The night they’d all stayed at the Ramada, the way she’d watched him down at the pool.

  “Oh my God,” her mom was saying now, her eyes wide, her hand jumping to her mouth, “I thought you were my husband.”

  Ryan Beck’s smile, easy and loose, and open.

  “I bet that’s what they all say to you,” her mom said, and then both of them were laughing and it didn’t seem like her mom at all, one strap on her dress slipping down her shoulder, golden under the grease-slicked light fixture, a glass bowl glowing over their heads.

  Her mom looked so young, which was strange, because she wasn’t.

  Something—and not just the mai tais because she’d seen her mom like that before—was making her cheeks look brighter, making her body move differently, fluidly, fleshily. Everything different from the ordered, slunk-shouldered, hank-haired mother she was. That something was in her mom.

  Was it the thing she saw in the girls at school? The ones who showed off mesh bras and metallic thongs, whispering to one another of feelings and mysteries, belt buckles under blankets and the tastes of things and that look on their faces, and when they saw the boy from the night before, or the one who just might be that night.

  It felt like a secret kept from her her whole life. Like: You’re adopted. You have a brother you’ve never met. Your father isn’t dead, he’s in prison.

  How come no one told me?

  Your mom, secretly, at night, turns into this. And so do other women, other girls. Just not you. All of them except you.

  How come everyone hid it from me? How come Mom did?

  She watched them.

  Their faces pressed close because of the swinging door behind them or because of this thing, this conspicuous energy, practically glowing, and she could have sworn that, when her mother was laughing and leaning close, her mouth pushed against Ryan Beck’s cheek, even his tanned neck, and the kitchen door swinging and pressing them close.

  And then her mom asking for a cigarette, but she never smoked, not ever, and as he went to light it for her, her hand leaped out, grabbing for something, the paperback with the red cover shoved in his back pocket.

  Ryan’s eyes went wide with surprise. A grin there.

  Devon couldn’t believe she’d seen it. Her mom’s hand in his pocket!

  And both of them laughing and the song ending and then she saw her mom leap back, as if touching a flame.

  Oh! Covering her mouth again. Repeating, with a wink this time, I thought you were my husband.

  In the ladies’ room, Dominique Plonski heaved coconut pudding, slippery tongues of guava, spattering Devon’s brand-new metallic open-toe pumps for which her dad had paid forty dollars.

  I don’t know what happened, Dominique kept saying, her little body shaking from it.

  You can’t eat food like that, Devon said, looking down at her silver shoes, ruined. Your body doesn’t know how.

  After, leaning against the dumpster behind the restaurant, a wet paper towel in hand, she took off her shoes, her lei.

  It was then she saw Ryan, ducked behind the dumpster, smiling at her and smoking a cigarette.

  She decided she would talk to him, which she never had.

  I didn’t know you smoked, she said, her voice embarrassingly high.

  I gave it up a hundred years ago, he said, but we all have our secrets.

p; But what should she say next?

  Don’t hide it, he said, catching her hiding her foot behind her other foot.

  Her right foot, its lumpen side, the soft pad, its split thickness. (Her Frankenfoot, that’s what her mom used to call it until her dad made her stop. Thank God, he made her stop. But her dad, sometimes it felt like he never stopped looking at it. Her foot, that foot, it was more theirs than hers.)

  It’s ugly, she said. I hate it.

  I doubt that. He smiled.

  You shouldn’t smoke, she said. Then blurted: And you should stay away from the moms.

  And he laughed, a loud bark, and nodded his head yes.

  Okay, he said, and he looked down at her foot again, and it was like he could see it pulsing, like a second heart.

  She knew he could. And he was right. It was beautiful.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Elite Qualifiers

  One Month Later

  The four of them walked into the conference center, the Qualifiers Day 1 of 2—Ballroom B sign rippling above them over the bank of doors.

  The four of them—Eric’s hand squeezing Devon’s shoulder, Drew wheeling the mini-cooler, Katie hauling Devon’s gym bag—walked inside, and they were ready.

  And Katie looked at her daughter, her hard, small little body, her muscled neck. The blankness in her eyes. Shades drawn. No one could peek through. No one.

  “We’ll take her from here,” the blond official with the lanyard said, clasping Devon by the shoulders.

  There was no grandstand, no booming sound system, no grease-lined concessions or foil balloon banks or sponsor banners. No bleachers, even, just a set of risers clotted with parents, fists knotted with nerves.

  It was just another convention center: dropped ceiling, thirty thousand feet of industrial floor divided into quadrants, long tables and metal folding chairs in the middle, between the beams and bars, judges seated there, Styrofoam coffee cups in hand, watching.

  A few officials were milling around, and coaches walking their girls, hands to shoulders, patting their hard little backs, the shells of baby turtles. A tracksuited volunteer dragged a springboard across the floor as a girl hinged into a handstand, turning hypnotically on the beam, releasing a smattering of claps from the risers. In one corner, a purple-leotarded sylph slashed her legs through a floor routine as a boom box echoed wanly. On a tumbling strip, another rubbed her hands frantically, counting in her head.

  The smack-smack-smack of the vault.

  Farther down on the risers, an unshaven father, arms across his chest, looked like he might be praying.

  The night before, all the booster parents had assembled at Gwen’s house, their faces gray and hoary from four weeks of punishing driving schedules, the pit-foamed air of the gym, the precompetition hysteria of “gymjuries”—overworked girls jamming fingers, rolling ankles, popping knees. Molly Chu, twelve pounds thinner from nerves, her cheeks hollow, kept sliding antacids under her tongue. Becca Plonski’s hands cradled her jaw, which ached from gum chewing, teeth grinding.

  But there was something else on all their faces too: that feeling of being on the cusp, like generals on the brink of battle, bunkered deep in the Pentagon war room.

  It was probably superstition, then, that no one wanted to talk about anything related to qualifiers, about their daughters least of all, their daughters who were all at home, bodies Gordian-knotted, hunchbacked over gym videos, soaking in blood-blooming bathtubs, their feet and hands shredded.

  Instead, the parents gathered in one corner of Gwen’s palatial living room, their minds fired and their bodies responding with beer-pounding, overeating, and listening to a long, dirty story from Jim Chu about the time his roommate supposedly slept with Mary Lou Retton.

  It was Kirsten Siefert who brought out the joint, swiped from her son’s backpack, and they shared it, even Molly, who said, red-faced, that pot made her “erotic.”

  Eyes twitching and nostrils flared, Gwen tried to talk shop, but no one would join her. (Katie herself had not said one word to her since their conversation at Weaver’s Wagon. They glided past each other with the hooded eyes of those who’d shared a mortifying one-night stand.)

  Finally, Gwen surrendered to the group, the gym-parent equivalent of a key party, returning from her kitchen brandishing a bottle of tequila in the shape of a skull, looking like she wanted to throw back the bottle and swallow the worm whole.

  Who’s feeling dangerous? she asked, in her tall boots, the kind you might ride in. Where’s the crop? Jim Chu had laughed, and kept laughing even as his smile fell, Gwen’s gaze on him.

  The boots were magnificent, and worn, and when she walked in them, she looked taller, stronger, younger. Prettier.

  A picture came into Katie’s head, Gwen at fifteen or sixteen, smart cap and flowing hair, arms latched onto a sleek mare, hands following the bit. Body radiating. Cheeks flushed. Her face the face of someone lost in a dream. Daddy, watch me. Watch me win.

  “Eric,” Kirsten shouted, waving across the room, “the tequila yearns for you.”

  The only remaining outlier, Eric had yet to join the revels, sitting in the far corner nursing a beer, rubbing his face, eyes bloodshot, brow graven.

  (Katie, he’d said to her just three weeks ago when she’d first let him back into the house, though not into her bed, if Devon gets this… But he never could finish the thought. One of a thousand half conversations, neither of them able to finish one.)

  “Eric, it’s your turn,” Becca Plonski demanded, lifting the shot glass, wiggling in her seat.

  Eric walked over, took a swig from the tequila, grinned boyishly, faking it, faking it, faking it, that sun-burnished face, and how he could make his eyes dance, who could do that, make their eyes dance?

  Eric could.

  A few more swigs, and he began talking freely, buoyantly, about Coach T.’s near laryngitis, about how Bobby V. accidentally ordered the team towels from a massage-parlor supplier, about anything at all. Everything he said made everyone laugh and slap knees. Becca Plonski even reached out to touch his arm, as if to say, Oh, stop, Eric, but don’t ever stop.

  Slipping off into the hallway, Katie spotted Lacey, that sex-doll face of hers, peeking through the rails of the staircase, watching them all, the manic chatter and gamesmanship, the way adults, parents, could talk forever and forever and without ceasing about nothing they cared about just to stop the worries churning in their hot brains.

  (The next day, Lacey would fall during one of her qualifier routines, her heels catching one of the uneven bars and her body folding in upon itself. Everyone would watch her crumpled on the floor, face blue, Coach T. crying out. One fractured vertebra, another dislocated, and this would be the last time she’d ever compete. But none of them knew it now, except maybe Lacey.)

  “Katie!” Molly said, finding her in the hallway, grabbing her by the arm. “I’m so happy for Devon. For what’s going to happen tomorrow. Her life will change forever. All of yours will. I always wanted to do it like you did.”

  Molly was nearly crying, holding Katie’s hands, swinging them.

  “How did I do it?” Katie said. “What did I do?”

  What did I do.

  Around ten, Katie found Eric in the kitchen, talking on the phone, asking Drew about something he was watching on television, a show about a woman who’d died of yellow fever and whose body had turned into soap.

  As he talked (“She was wearing kneesocks? For real, buddy?”), his face relaxed for the first time in months. It reminded her of some things, and erased other things.

  Watching him, she knew she would let him back in their bed later that night. She knew she would press against his back, burying her face in his thick hair, listening to his heart beat.

  What would he be thinking, though, when he slipped under the covers?

  Would he be thinking of what his daughter had done? What he’d done to conceal it?

  Or might he be thinking of how she’d trapped him seventeen yea
rs ago, turned his youthful fling with a concessions girl into marriage, family, mortgage, second mortgage, days sardined with school, practice drop-off, dry cleaner, grocery store, practice pickup, homework, overturned fishbowl, torn cereal boxes oozing flakes and Os on the top of the refrigerator, booster e-mails, dinner, laundry, collapse?

  Maybe he’d be thinking he’d found a way to happiness, even if he hadn’t expected it. The life they’d created, or built—from their wayward romance or from the bloody back lawn where Devon was, in some ways, born—was far greater than the both of them. It was a beautiful, an extraordinary thing.

  But, deep down, Katie knew Eric wouldn’t be thinking any of this.

  Instead, he’d be thinking, Please, for Devon, tomorrow and the next day, let her hit all her spots, let her keep that right leg high, let her stun with her double-twist Yurchenko, let her show them everything that she can do, everything that she is. Let her make it.

  So Katie left the kitchen and took the passed joint and drank long tugs from the beers that became margaritas later, at Casa Pepi’s down the road, a marimba trio playing raucously, a song called “I Already Have a Husband,” and Molly jumping up, starting to dance.

  The musicians applauded, one of them handing her his mallet, and Molly grabbed it.

  Laughing, she started twirling it over her head, just as she had at the tiki party.

  And they could all see it, or Katie could, watching all that joy.

  As everyone cheered, Molly twirled like she’d twirled that silver-sprayed pipe stolen from her father’s tool bench twenty-five years ago or more. It had looked like a pinwheel in the sun.

  Remember that kind of wanting? she’d said that night of the tiki party. That kind that’s just for yourself? And you don’t even have to feel guilty about it? You wouldn’t know to.

  And now it was all happening, up there on the creaking risers at qualifiers.

  Amid the roaming judges, black blazers and appraising eyes, and the metallic leotards, hologram swirls, mesh, spandex foil, the girls like jewel bugs hopping, flipping.

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