Imitating life, art

Rowan doesn’t walk any more. He cycles, or he cartwheels, or he kicks a soccer ball, or he throws himself forward onto his hands and practices standing on them, over and over, for hours, while we watch. And count.

We have to watch. And we have to count. We can’t, say, sit on the couch in the basement and read the Sunday New York Times while he gymnasts away happily to himself. “Are you watching?” he asks after every turn. “Did you see that? Are you counting? Mom, can you please count? Mom, why are you reading?”

And so I remind myself that these moments will not last forever and that there will be a time in his life where the last thing he wants me to do is watch him, intently, and that the newspaper will wait while I count the microseconds — one-two-three-fourfivesixseven… — his legs hover in the air. “How many was that?” he asks, every time. He smiles, shy and pleased, every time we get above ten or so.

He’s improving, too. For a while, his legs hung crookedly akimbo in the air, but now they are straightening out, feet together. He figured out this development all on his own; hasn’t let me or Rachel spot him, doesn’t want any help. And frustrating as it has been to have to watch and not intervene, improve, correct (Just let me…) it’s been worth it to watch him figure it out all on his own, one foot kicking up and then the other and meeting in the space where his head should be instead.

But I watch also because I’m fascinated, and slightly stunned by, the way history repeats itself. I think back to my own childhood, and how Rowan could never have known about my own handstand practices in the front halls of our suburban homes, my father timing each one on the stopwatch function of his VERY EXCITING wristwatch, which also had a tiny calculator on it. “Why are you looking at me funny?” Rowan asked me as I watched him the first time he started upending himself on the much-too-small patch of carpet on the upstairs landing.

“Oh,” I said softly. “Oh, you have no idea.”

Because here is one of the scenes I wrote more than a decade ago for my novel — my novel, which now comprises 265 manuscript pages and counting:

K—  practices handstands in the front hall. Throwing her small body forward and down, she kicks her legs in the air and thinks, up. Stay up. Sometimes her legs don’t rise far enough into the air; sometimes she overestimates the force of her kicks and tumbles over, arcing her back and twisting sideways as she comes down, once landing in a perfect backbend surprising in its grace. But some of the handstands hold long enough for her to feel the shift in gravity from her feet to her hands, the momentary comfort of standing upside down, and when this happens, she begins to count.

One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four-Mississippi, five-Mississippi … and down.

            One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four-Miss— … and down.

            One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four-Mississippi, five-Mississippi, six-Mississippi … and down.

            Over and over, as she imagines herself in the Olympics, handstand champion of the world. Announcers and spotlights pointing her out on the stadium floor, ribbons in her hair, a satin spandex leotard. They compare her to Nadia Comaneci, the first 10, the new standard for perfection, the world’s next, brilliant surprise — the next Nadia, they say. She can stay up forever, she can count to a hundred, she can walk around the world.

And down.

            She throws herself up again. Not hard enough. Up again. Better this time, but she wavers at the sticking point and comes down again, a small grunt of frustration escaping her set mouth. Up again. It takes, and she begins again.

One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi … and in between the numbers, in syncopation with the beats of counting, is another chant. Get to twenty and Mom won’t die. Four-Mississippi. Get to twenty and Mom won’t die. Five-Mississippi.

            She wavers.

            Get to ten and Mom won’t die.

            And down, twisting legs over hips and landing, head pounding. Every chance is the last chance. Every fall, she grants herself one more try. This time, this time, is the one that counts. She wills herself to believe, knows that the miracle is just around the corner. Thinks about gymnastics camp last summer, about a dozen girls each sliding two fingers of each hand underneath the body of a thirteenth girl, lying prone on the floor. About their attempts to focus, focus, to pool their energy and their collective strength in their fingertips and lift her off the ground.

            Up. And down. Up-Mississippi. Down.

            Several of the other girls had giggled, let their fingers relax and their arms go limp. She had glared at them, hissed “Shhhhh!” and tried her best to focus, to feel her four fingers as steel rods underneath the girl’s back, to imagine a girl as weightless, her body a helium balloon, floating up, up, up... with the right amount of focus, she knows it’s possible: mothers have lifted wrecked cars off their babies, haven’t they? She’s read about that, too.

            Up, two, three, four-Mississippi. Down. Over, and over, until her head swims.   She had focused, eyes closed, her intent contagious, and the other girls had quieted in the circle around her. She had squeezed her eyes shut tighter, until rainbow dots skipped in front of them, whispered to the others about the body as a balloon, how they could make it happen on one, two, three...

            Up-Mississippi... four, five, six... she imagines her legs slicing through the air and being caught at the top, her ankles held steady by a thousand tiny fairies, keeping her upright. And down.

            ... and Go! And they had braced, and lifted, and then, for just a moment, something shifted, and...

            Up. And then there comes that moment where gravity and balance meet, where her body shifts into a space of perfect balance, where all she has to do is breathe and try hard not to think. In this space she can stay up forever. One-Mississippi …all the way up to nine-Mississippi, ten-Mississippi, eleven-Mississippi, twelve-Mississippi, thirteen …

... she could’ve sworn there was an instant in which everyone believed, in which the girl’s body was so very nearly unmoored from gravity, where no weight at all rested on her fingers and she was suspended, perfectly, held by twenty-four girlish fingers...

... and mom won’t die...

... and down. She lies on the basement floor, staring at the ceiling, watching the dust motes dance in intricate patterns in the air above her.

There it is, your first sneak peek into this crazy project. I have been — I am — leery of showing the work to anyone. But I read a version of this a different lifetime ago at a bar in Toronto called The Red Spot, part of a monthly queer reading series organized by the lovely and amazing Elizabeth Ruth. So I don't think I'm jinxing myself here. I’m writing like mad, squeezing out so much else of what I should be doing, because all the signs in the universe are telling me to hurry up already and finish this thing.