No one had ever had a birthday party like mine. I was allowed to invite ten girls from my fifth-grade class to an overnight party at Cats Gymnastics. The girls would arrive in the early evening and we’d do as many activities as we could until dinnertime. Then, under the supervision of Ms. Patty, the gym’s head coach, we’d have pizza and cake and set up our sleeping bags on the gym floor. Everyone would be picked up in the morning.
I wondered if we would sleep at all in that giant gym, all that equipment surrounding us—the balance beams and the high bar, the triangular mats that looked like blocks of cheese, the wooden rings dangling above the black abyss of the trampoline. I wondered if girls would copy me, if they would all want parties at their local gymnastics studios instead of Color Me Mine or Boomers or another dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, if they’d be so jealous I had the idea first before anybody else. I sort of hoped they would.
I started at Cats in fourth grade. My family moved to Florida and my mom scoured the newspapers for gyms. The gyms all gave tours, had trial sessions, teams, merchandise. I remember wanting so badly to attend a gym called Twisters because when my mom and I drove to visit, the girls all wore matching uniforms of blue and white and silver. They also had a huge Tumbl Trak, a long trampoline elevated above the floor. It seemed like miles and miles of space to run back handsprings and aerials, but the classes were too expensive. Cats was closer to our house in Boca anyway, and my best friend and I carpooled to class together once a week.
The day of the party, I pick out my current favorite shirt to wear, the black short-sleeve tee with the Superman emblem that I got from Wet Seal, the yellow shining beneath the “S” a glittery gold. I pair it with bright red Soffee shorts that I fold over twice. I’m still underweight, small for eleven, smaller than most of the girls in my grade, and the edges of the shorts flare out around my backside. I slick my hair back in a tight ponytail with a black velvet scrunchie and wear sneakers that I will take off once it’s time to cross the threshold onto the gym floor.
My best friend wears another version of this outfit. Her T-shirt is baby blue and has Foxy scrawled in white bubble letters across the chest. I’d wanted that shirt, badly, but my mom wouldn’t let me get something “sexual.” The coveted shirt is paired with dark blue Soffee shorts and her hair is in what she calls a cowbell. Her blonde hair is almost white and she loops it gently to create a bulbous shape in the back of her hair that does in fact resemble a cowbell. She’s the type of girl who does things in her own way. She invents things other girls want to copy. She’s a natural like that, and sometimes I think my biggest mistake was bringing her to Cats. Once she joined my class, everything came easy to her. She got her standing back handspring before me, her back walkover too. She’s already working on her back tuck. Ms. Patty says it’s because she doesn’t have any fear and that’s why she gets the tricks so quickly. “If you’re scared, you’ll chicken out, fall, hurt yourself,” she always tells our group. But I don’t know how to make my mind blank and free of thoughts, how to bend over backwards and not worry about where my hands will land, if they will land at all.
I had participated in various forms of dance all my life—tap, jazz, ballet—but until I stepped foot on a gymnastics floor mat, I hadn’t found the place I wanted to be. In dance, I fumbled and struggled to learn the motions. I was never placed in the front row, never in the center. I couldn’t memorize the different numbers and I hated recitals. I felt awkward in my body, always too short, too slow, too small. But in gymnastics, you’re supposed to be small. And when I practiced and practiced, I started to get things right.
There were rumors that gymnastics stunted your growth, that training too hard could keep puberty from coming, that all the intensity could damage your growth plates. But walking onto the floor felt like a perpetual playground, and when you’re so young and love something so much, you don’t care that you might suffer for it later.
Ms. Patty doesn’t make us stretch and she lets everyone choose whatever they want to do, as long as we promise not to do anything stupid. She supervises the trampoline, a fan favorite and the most dangerous apparatus in the gym, as one by one my partygoers get strapped into the bungee harness. She hoists them up in the air so they can do flips without concern for landing on their heads. One girl, Amanda, complains that the harness hurts her crotch.
“It can’t be as bad as using a tampon,” my best friend shouts back from the edge of the foam pit, waiting her turn to jump.
“How would you know?” Amanda taunts. “You ever shoved one up your cooter?”
None of us have our periods, but we imagine the insertion of a tampon will be painful. Periods are still mythic to us, just rumors and stories from older sisters: using a tampon is technically losing your virginity; guys will know if you used one instead of sticking to pads; period cramps feel like getting punched in the stomach over and over again; the amount of blood you lose in seven days equals something like two or three tablespoons total. We know nothing, really, of what’s to come.
“Don’t be gross!” Ms. Patty yells.
“But, don’t they hurt?” Amanda asks as she floats in the air, her legs hanging and making her look like a baby in a jolly jumper.
“Only if you’re doing it wrong, I guess,” Ms. Patty answers and all heads turn to her.
Ms. Patty’s age is elusive to us. We presume she must be in her late 30s, early 40s. She’s definitely older than the other coaches who are all college students that go to local community schools or even high school students on teams who volunteer to teach the little kids how to do somersaults and splits. Ms. Patty has a fuller figure, too, not the slender yet taut body of a gymnast. She has dull brown hair that poofs down to her shoulders but when she gets on the floor to train her classes, she always puts it up messily in a banana clip.
It’s not until tonight that I realize she smokes cigarettes, that every so often she excuses herself and disappears, comes back smelling like bright floral perfume with undertones of the smoke she’s hiding. Her teeth are yellowed and she doesn’t smile often. I wish that Stacey or Dana could have hosted the party, one of the college girls who come to class with braided hair and wearing makeup, sometimes telling the group about dates they’ve been on, boys they’ve kissed. But Ms. Patty is the only one who does the parties. She was the only option.
“Birthday girl, it’s your turn,” Ms. Patty says as she lowers Amanda back down. I take her place and step into the harness, grip the supporting cords tightly, and Ms. Patty brings me up and up and up and doesn’t stop. The other girls giggle and gasp and I’m almost at the ceiling. I can see the whole gym, every colorful mat and the entirety of the foam pit. The foam blocks are cobalt blue. When we use the pit as a landing place for backflips during class, I imagine the foam as a giant ocean I can dive into. Even though the blocks are soft, I still brace for the impact. When my body submerges into the foam pit waters, everything quiets, the sounds of the gym muffled like I really am underwater.
From up high, I almost have to squint to see every girl at the party staring back up at me, Ms. Patty holding her end of the rope steady.
“Make a wish,” she calls, and I close my eyes. I’m not sure what to wish for. I thought that wishing would come later when I blew out the candles on my cake. I guess I wish I were better at gymnastics than my best friend. I guess I wish a boy at school would like me back for once, or that maybe my boobs would grow or I’d get my period before anyone else and be the first to know all of womanhood’s secrets. Maybe I just want to have a good twelfth year on this planet, to stay healthy and happy and loved.
I feel Ms. Patty lowering me down and when I open my eyes I’m halfway between the ceiling and the trampoline.
“Everyone sing!” Ms. Patty shouts and she starts pulling the rope so that I swing back and forth like a pendulum. The girls all sing Happy Birthday and I reach my hands in front of me like Superman flying through the sky. I accidentally do a flip, then another, and then all the girls are cheering, shouting, asking if they can go next.
“Only for the birthday girl,” Ms. Patty tells them.
I fly through the air, the only one who will get a chance to soar.
After pizza and cake, Ms. Patty sets up the portable VHS player. She rolls it out on a cart and we all sit in a semicircle around the TV, on mats meant for floor exercises. The screen is small and blurry, but she puts in a copy of Bring it On. We love this movie. We know it by heart. We all saw it ten times in theaters and want to be cheerleaders when we get to high school because of it.
We ooh and ahh throughout the movie, laughing at the funny parts, fawning over Jesse Bradford as Cliff. The scene where they brush their teeth together at the sink makes our hearts drop—the tension! Ms. Patty sits in a metal folding chair behind us and eats a room temperature slice of cheese pizza.
The team’s new choreographer, Sparky Polastri, tells the squad they need to start dieting. He tells one cheerleader to stop eating entirely. We laugh at this, our bellies filled with pizza and Carvel ice cream cake, some of us sucking on Blow-Pops or eating Tootsie Rolls from the gym’s secret stash.
We listen curiously as the cheerleaders talk about their sexuality.
“What is your sexuality?” Missy asks Les, one of the male cheerleaders.
“Well, Jan’s straight, while I’m…controversial.”
“Are you trying to tell me you speak fag?”
Ms. Patty pauses the tape.
“Is this even age appropriate?” she asks us girls.
“We’re basically teenagers,” my best friend groans.
“Whatever,” Ms. Patty says. “But if you all need therapy, don’t blame me.”
When the movie is over, some girls are passed out and Ms. Patty wakes them up. They begrudgingly retrieve their toothbrushes from their duffle bags and get ready for bed. We all follow suit and set up our sleeping bags on the gym floor. Ms. Patty says goodnight and kills the lights and I wonder where she will go, if she’ll sleep in the office or just stay up all night and make sure none of us die. Some of the girls talk in whispers that eventually fade into silence. I can hear cars driving on the nearby highway. I can see my best friend’s eyes glowing white in the dark.
“Let’s go sneak around,” she whispers, and we carefully exit our sleeping bags. We hush each other over the sound of zippers zipping and nylon rustling and tiptoe back to the lobby.
The lobby is illuminated by light coming from the office. The door is shut, but the light seeps out underneath and allows our eyes to adjust. It’s not until now that I realize there aren’t any presents lined up on the foldout table. I can’t remember if I saw anyone walk in holding a gift box or even a card. I had been so excited, so busy doing cartwheels and practicing my backbend, that I hadn’t noticed. Is twelve the year you stop getting presents on birthdays?
We hear Ms. Patty’s voice and put our ears to the door.
“I can’t tonight,” she says. “I’m working this birthday party.”
We don’t hear another voice, so we assume she must be on the phone.
“Oh yeah? That’s what you want? You want me to sit on your face?”
My best friend bursts out laughing and I try to shush her but it’s too late. Ms. Patty opens the door and we fall over, caught.
“What are you girls doing?” Ms. Patty whisper-yells.
“We can’t sleep,” I offer.
“Come in here,” Ms. Patty says, and we sit on the floor of the office. Ms. Patty takes a seat back in her chair. The phone rests in its cradle. She must have hung up abruptly.
“That was my husband,” Ms. Patty says. I’d had no idea she was married. She doesn’t wear a ring, or any jewelry for that matter. “So it’s okay for me to say that to him.”
“What does that even mean?” my best friend asks. “To sit on your face?”
“Oh my God,” Ms. Patty shakes her head. “It’s just a joke. Don’t…don’t tell your parents about it though. It’s a joke for adults.”
I don’t know what it means either, but I’d never be bold enough to ask. Why would anyone want to sit on anyone else’s face? How could they breathe? Is that the point? To suffocate the other person?
Ms. Patty sends us back to the gym floor and we can’t stop laughing.
“I can’t believe she’s married,” I say. “Ms. Patty, who sits on us while we straddle so we can get our splits.
“She’s probably covering and it’s just some guy she’s banging.”
“Why would she lie though?”
“Because, like, she wants us to think she’s married, because it’s okay to be slutty as long as it’s with your husband or whatever.”
“It’s still weird she even has a boyfriend. She puts the itch in btich,” I say quoting the movie.
“She puts the whore in horrifying.”
We settle down after a while and lay next to each other on our backs. I think about how different the gym feels at night without all the regular classes going on inside of it, all the chaos and action that happens during the day. It somehow feels wrong to be here, like I’d much rather be in my own bed than a smelly gym floor that we’ve been running around on all night.
But this is what I wanted for my party. I’d asked for it, begged. I wonder if things always feel this way, that once you get what you ask for, the thrill of it disappears, or the reality of it sets in and you can’t see it the way you did before—big and new and exciting. Maybe to the other girls, it still feels that way. Maybe they don’t have fear, either, and they’re able to just enjoy things. This party is what everyone will be talking about come Monday morning back at school. This will probably be the best party of the year.
In the morning, my best friend and I are the last to wake up. Some girls have already been picked up, and shortly after my best friend’s dad comes to get her, my mom appears to give Ms. Patty a check and thank her.
I’m half asleep when I step into the daylight. On the ride home, my mom asks how the rest of the party was and if I had a good time and suddenly, I’m overwhelmed. I start to cry. In the light of day, I want gifts. I want to open piles and piles of presents like I have every year until now. I don’t want to be strong and pretend it’s okay that that part of my life is over.
“Why didn’t anyone get me a present?” I ask, now sobbing.
“What are you talking about? Of course everyone got you a present. I just took them home last night so they weren’t sitting there. You can open them when we get home.”
I should feel relieved, but I feel guilty, guilty for wanting so much.
It feels wrong to want to belong to both worlds, kid and adult, to grow up but stay small. I can’t stay in gymnastics classes forever; I know this. I know there will come a day when I’ll have to join a team or quit, find another hobby and maybe join the school band, maybe try out for theater, maybe find a new passion, a new thing to fall in love with. I hear that things speed up as you get older. But right now, life still feels so wide and open. The gym still feels infinite. It feels like everything.
I look out the window at the January Florida sky. It’s a nice day, sunny, bright. My mom enters the highway and I watch the road below become a blur. Gray and gray and gray, just miles of gray. I don’t technically turn twelve until tomorrow, but everything feels so vast. I feel like I’m on the edge of the foam pit, about to jump in. I still get nervous every time, even though I know the foam blocks are there to catch me, that I won’t fall through them and land on hard concrete. I know I’ll be safe, that it’ll all work out, but there’s still that fear, seeing the worst before it happens.
I feel like I need to hold my breath as my mom drives and so I do. I hold my breath until I can feel my heart beating in my chest, big and pounding, full of life.