(a story of a girl)
Matty is better on beam than I am, but I don’t think I should have been put in level four. I can land my cartwheels perfectly and I’m better on the jumps than she is. The beam is in the barn, at the top of the hill, where it’s cool. We get to wear our leotards all day and when its time to swim, we jump right in Lake Champlain.
Tonight after dinner Matty and I were invited to play cards with some older girls in their cabin. Celeste invited us, she does work duty with me in the dining room. I clean the tables and she just collects the condiments but I like the challenge of getting all the tables cleaned in half an hour plus getting the chairs up on them so they can wash the floor. Rich helps us with the chairs because even though we’re fast its impossible to do it all before the bell rings.
Beam is not my favorite event, I like bars better, but it’s my second favorite. Keep it tight, Rachel says to me. She stands back from the beam and sticks her hand out to catch you if you fall but she doesn’t come close and put her hands on either side of you the way Kim does. “Its an adjustment,” is what Kim said to Matty on the phone. Kim is Matty’s mother and our school gymnastics coach. When Kim spots you you feel safe like you won’t fall.
Matty is in the lower field with level five. The beam down there is set higher than mine in the barn. Matty says not to worry about what level they put us in but she’s in all the higher levels. I don’t know if it’s because I missed some classes this winter when I was sick or if it’s because she has Kim at home. In practice Matty takes more breaks than I do, I practice all the time.
“Keep it tight,” Rachel says. She has her arm in front of me and I’m going to walk over it with my head first and then my hands. “Look at the beam,” Rachel says. If she would move closer I could throw myself down hard enough to get momentum. But I’m afraid I’m going to land wrong. “Okay,” Rachel says, to make me hurry up. So I go, and I know it’s going to go wrong.
At dessert Celeste comes by our table and reminds us that we’re playing cards after dinner. “Should we meet you there?” Matty says. “Yes,” Celeste says. So after we clean our trays we run upstairs to fix our ponytails. It’s kind of a habit here because at gymnastics meets you get points off for a single hair in your face.
The cabin is small, and only has four bunks. Celeste and her roommates have a trunk in the middle of the room with a tablecloth over it and we all kneel around it and one of the girls, who’s Canadian and has a French accent, shuffles the cards. “So where are you girls from?” she says. Matty says we’re from Vermont. And the girls say, “really?” And I say, “yes.” And one of them pops a bubble with her gum.
I have never played gin rummy but I’m a fast learner and I’m doing okay when the girl Amy, who is the tallest, says, “let’s play truth or dare.” Matty looks at me and I don’t say anything. Matty and I sleep in a big room that’s over the camp dining room and there are seven of us in there and we are the youngest group. One of the girls went home already because she couldn’t sleep at night. But I brought my bears and I whisper into their necks and I’m so tired I fall asleep.
We pick straws about who goes first and Celeste picks and calls truth and says that she went to second base with a boy in her basement one time when her parents were gone. She says she didn’t really like him but wanted to know what it was like. She says it was kind of yucky and afterwards he brought her a raspberry tootsie pop to school.
When it was my turn I said truth because I didn’t have that much to hide not having gone to second base with anyone and because I didn’t know what kind of dare they might give me. Amy is the one who asks me the question and she says, have you ever met a dyke. What’s a dyke, I say, even though I know. A lesbian, she says. “Two women who,” and she rolls her shoulders around. I get a bad feeling. No, I say. I say it before I’ve thought, it just comes out. I figure that my moms don’t count, and the only other lesbians I know are friends of my moms from Boston but we almost never see them. They are grown ups. I don’t know any dykes our age.
“Are you sure?” Celeste says. She says it like you’d say to a little kid.
I can feel Matty looking at me and I feel like a liar. “None of my friends have mentioned it,” I say. “And Matty’s not.” I look at Matty and try to laugh. Matty says, “yeah, I’m not.
And Cleo isn’t.”
“Then why do you have two moms?” Amy says. “We know you do.” She looks at me with her lips pointed out.
I look right at her. “I just do,” I say.
“Well what’s it like,” Celeste says. “Is it different?”
I want to leave. But Matty is there and I’m afraid she won’t come with me if I walk out. And I don’t know if they are trying to be mean or not.
“They’re just normal,” Matty says. “I go to her house all the time. It’s just like anybody’s house. Our parents are friends,” she says.
I try to keep my face tight. I keep everything tight.
One of the girls who has hardly said anything and who is small and a really good gymnast says, that’s sick.
My heart is going crazy and I’m afraid I’m going to explode all over the cabin, I can hear it in my ears. I stand up and bump the trunk and Celeste grabs my arm and says “wait.”
Matty stands up and says, “I better stay with Cleo.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Amy says. “We were just curious.”
The cabin door bangs behind me and Matty says, “wait,” but I run. I run down the hill to the water even though we aren’t allowed down there without a buddy and I’m afraid I’m going to fall, because my legs are shaking. Matty yells wait, but I can’t stop, I just keep going down. Rich is at the bottom looking at the water and I don’t want him to see me so I turn around and Matty and I crash into each other. Our heads hit hard and there’s a huge crack. We both stand there with our hands on our heads and we start crying. “I’m sorry,” I say, and my stomach flips and I throw up all over the path, and onto Matty’s feet. Matty stands there looking at me and tears are pouring down her face but she’s not making any noise.
Rich comes to see what’s going on and I can’t hide the throw up. “What happened?” Rich says, looking down at the path and at Matty’s feet.
Matty says, “we ran into each other.”
“Are you alright?” Rich looks at each of us.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Lets get you girls to the office,” Rich says. He puts his hands around us to take us up the path.
My head hurts, and my stomach feels weird. I’m not sure I can walk.
Okay you girls stay right here, Rich says. I’ll go get help.
After a little while they let me call home. I want to tell my mom the whole story but the only phone is in the camp office and there is a counselor in there watching television. “I threw up,” I tell my mom. “And they say I might have a concussion.” My mom asks what happened and says that they can come and bring me home. I want to tell her about the girls in the cabin. So I say, “something happened before that.” I figure that if the counselor hears maybe it’s not a bad thing. So I tell her my mom what happened. When I tell her I start crying. It comes out all big and my chest hurts from holding it down. I’m gulping and my hand is shaking. My mom says oh sweetie and I’m so sorry and those girls did a really horrible thing. I say, “most of them are Canadian and you always said the Canadians are better than the Americans.” And she says, well I guess it depends. And teenagers can be cruel, she says, and stupid. My mom never says the word stupid and it feels good to hear her say it.
When she asks me if I want to come home I say I don’t know. I say why don’t you come up here for awhile, just you, not both of you. She says she’ll leave right away. But its bedtime, I say, and you can’t come at bedtime. She says she should talk to the director. So the director comes in and talks to my mom and then says to me I’m sorry that happened to you and I understand if you want to go home but you should probably stay. I agree with her and she checks my eyes again and she says I don’t think you have a concussion but you and Matty can lay low for a couple of days and do some core strengthening and watch movies just to make sure you’re okay. Matty says she’s fine if I’m fine and that she doesn’t need to watch movies but that she will if I want her to. And I just want to go to bed because I can’t think anymore. But before we go to bed I say to Matty that I’m sorry I threw up on her. We are brushing our teeth in the bathroom when I say it and Matty starts laughing, and points to her feet, where the throw up fell, and we both are laughing. It’s kind of like crying, it hurts to laugh, this big thing moves up and down in my chest. Matty wipes her eyes because laughing makes her cry. She says, taking her toothbrush out of her mouth, can you believe those girls? I say no. And Matty says, they’re so mean. And I say, and my mom said they were stupid. My mom said they just didn’t know, Matty said. She said people can be ignorant.
I say, yeah.
And then we spat out our toothpaste and washed our brushes and went to bed.
Catherine Wright teaches critical and creative writing and gender studies at Middlebury College. She has published a number of short stories in literary magazines, including Negative Capability, Phoebe, Hurricane Alice, and .Children, Churches and Daddies She has also published a range of nonfiction, including essays in Studio Potter and The New Mexican, and co-authored two books: Vermonters At Their Craft (New England Press, 1987) and Social Justice Education: Inviting Faculty to Transform Their Institutions (Stylus Press, 2010). Over the years, she has earned a number of grants and prizes, including the Cowden award for fiction at the University of Michigan where she earned my MFA in creative writing, a Vermont Arts Council grant, and a Mellon-funded grant for a project called Writing Beyond Borders. After teaching as a non-tenure track faculty member for thirty years and raising three children in a nontraditional family, Katherine has recently returned to writing fiction.