Mike holds me in a position called “hands,” which means he’s tossed me up by the waist and is holding my feet in his hands at shoulder level. “Press up,” he says, shifting from foot to foot to get a better grip, “in one, two—” and he dips his knees and extends his arms all the way up. I pull my feet together tight as he transfers my weight to just his right hand. Pull in from my core, lift up with my shoulders. The balance is the easy part; when there’s only one person underneath you, there’s no choice but to work in tandem: If I lean an inch to the left, Mike takes three steps over to adjust.
“Kick up,” he says, his voice becoming strained under my weight. Most of the guys around the gym have no problem tossing girls around in the air, but Mike is in his thirties—rather than a brawny adolescent, he is a coach sporting a beer belly. I shift my weight to my right foot and kick my left leg up, catching my heel in my hand to pull my leg in close to my cheek.
“Good,” he calls up. “Center your weight again, you’re toe-ing.”
I ease off my toe, and this next part is what we’ve been working up to over the past hour. “You’ve got to know how to do this yourself,” Mike had said. “You can’t count on your base to catch all of your weight, you have to pull your own. Use your arms. Hold yourself up; don’t let yourself rely on the other person.” I’m in the sixth grade, and this is only my second lesson with Mike, but I’ve caught on quickly to the coed flying that this private gym requires; I’m pretty confident that I can do it. In any case, I’m not scared—not of getting hurt, anyway. I’m more scared of messing up than getting hurt because by this point I’ve realized that the consequences of making a mistake are almost always worse.
“Ready?” Mike calls up.
“Yep.” I don’t nod my head or move my eyes from the point in front of me, where they’re trained on a first-place banner from a competition in 2004. I hold my position as he counts, five, six, seven, eight, then on one and two he bends his knees before popping me into the air. I ride up, still holding my foot, and when I feel that I’ve hit the top I pull myself into a clean twist, just one, before I prepare to come down. I trust that Mike’s stepped to the left, just as he’s supposed to, and I don’t need to look to know when I’m close to his body. I reach around his shoulders and catch my weight, with my legs out straight like I’m a bride being carried off by her groom. It’s a good thing I got it right, because I realize that although Mike’s arms were out to catch me just in case, he hasn’t actually absorbed any of my weight.
“Nice,” Mike says as he pops me out, sweat soaking through his t-shirt into mine. He grins at me as I shake out my limbs, waiting for his verdict. “You just learned how to catch yourself.”
Today, at age twenty, I can’t run well, at least not for prolonged periods of time. After the first few steps, my weight always shifts onto my right ankle the wrong way, a tweak of pain shooting up my leg, and eventually I’m just left limping along.
This is the result of a broken ankle that was never properly fixed—a stunt gone wrong, ending with a hard land on my feet, and my right ankle giving out to the side. Mike carried me off the mat and made me lie with it propped up on a chair, but he was also the one to tell me later that night that I was not to go to the doctor, there was no one available to replace me for the competition this weekend. I would just have to fly on it. I bought an aircast at Rite Aid and a pair of size seven Nfinity shoes—a size up from my usual, so the cast could squeeze into my shoe—and I flew that weekend. I don’t remember if we won, but I do remember that Mike praised me, said I’d done what I’d needed to do, and that he wished he had more girls as dedicated as me.
Things like that weren’t a big deal, though. It was strange for a girl on the team not to have a messed-up ankle or a wrapped wrist or taped fingers. I can’t even count the number of concussions I’ve had—each time the doctor saying, mouth in a severe line, “One more can put you in a coma,” and I would nod, eyes wide, before returning to practice later that night.
It was the bigger injuries that got people excited. In seventh grade when Morgan got in the way of a flying foot that tore all the lashes from her eye, we were bubbling with hysteria for the rest of practice. Our coaches couldn’t get us to shut up until her mother brought her back the next day, false eyelashes glued along her lids. On the first day of choreography camp in ninth grade, Sam caught my elbow with her face. Her eyebrow burst open and covered both of us in blood. Later that night we crowded around her bunk bed, counting her stitches and admiring the purple-red shine of her eye.
At age twelve, I take private tumbling lessons with a coach named Alan. He’s an Asian man in his thirties, and I like him because he’s funny and can do cool things like catch flies in his hand and run up the wall to flip backwards. Sometimes, though, he’ll do or say things that make me feel uncomfortable—like I’m missing the punch line of the joke. “You little bastard,” he says to me once, laughing at something snarky I’d said. I laugh along, not quite knowing what the word means, but feeling like if he assumes that I do, then I shouldn’t embarrass myself by asking.
Other times, his hands linger. He tickles my bare armpits sometimes when my arms are up straight and I’m supposed to be demonstrating a position. I’m not ticklish, but I pull my arms down quickly anyway. When he spots me, he holds onto my waist for too long after I land a trick, his fingers firm. His hands get twisted up in my shirt while I’m flipping upside down, and I blush as I try to untangle us after I land.
Alan leaves the gym a year or two after I start lessons with him. He moves to Texas to be closer to his wife, who is in the military or something like that. I didn’t know he had a wife. I don’t think of him again until years later, when my boyfriend goes to tickle my armpits, trying to cheer me up. I go along with it, but something about it still feels odd.
I’ve busted my nose twice. The first time was too long ago for me to remember clearly, but the second time I remember perfectly. I’d been in middle school, working on a stunt in which I fold my body down to hug my legs, falling forward to be caught by three other girls. We’re on the middle floor of the gym, which is just a mat on the concrete, no springs beneath it like the other floors. I do my job, ride up, fold in half and fall forward, but no one catches, and I meet the floor with nothing to break the fall but my face. My arms remain tight around the backs of my knees as I land.
When my vision clears, there are already hands all over me, different people trying to tell me what to do, but I’d heard the pop, which is always worse than feeling it, and I know what’s happening. I lift my head and the blood is already everywhere. I giggle and it bubbles out of my mouth; I try to staunch it with my hands but my hands are soaked and so is the floor around me, not to mention my clothes.
“Paper towels,” I manage to say, trying to express through those words that it’s okay, I’m fine, and I’m not mad, and it’s not a big deal. My stunt group is crying around me anyway, gripped with guilt and horror, and Mike is whipping off his shirt to shove it under my nose. He rushes me out of the gym, through the hallways past gaping parents and wide-eyed kids, and into the bathroom.
“That was perfect form,” he says, hand on my back. I hang over the sink, staining the porcelain a thick ruby red. “You held position beautifully.” He repeats the compliment later in front of the team, encouraging the other flyers to perform the stunt like I had. It ignites a flame of pride in my stomach, and I try to smile when some of the girls glance in my direction admiringly, but it’s hard with a wad of paper towels mashed against my face.
The doctor says I can’t compete, but that isn’t an option. For the next week, I show off the mottled, purple bruises under my eyes at school and practice, but when the competition rolls around, a stray arm whacks me in the face during warm-ups and my nose starts flowing blood again. Our assistant coach kneels next to me as everyone else finishes the warm-up, handing me more paper towels while I desperately try to stop the bleeding.
“Alyssa,” she says softly, “maybe it’s best if you don’t compete.” I’m desperate to convince her that I’m okay, but when my nose keeps bleeding, I become teary-eyed, telling her, No, no, I have to, Mike needs me, the team needs me, there’s no one who can fill in, I have to. I have to.
She relents when I start crying. “Okay, okay,” she says. “Now don’t smear your make-up, the judges can see from their table.”
I compete with a tampon shoved up each nostril. My nose throbs for weeks afterwards, and I am satisfied. I consider it worth the bump on the ridge of my nose that was never so prominent before.
Our uniforms are tiny and glittery and itchy. They showcase my middle-school body: a six-pack and knobby knees poking out from muscled legs. Our hair gets pulled back into a ponytail high on top of our heads, all stray hairs slicked back. Depending on the event, we either flat-iron our hair pin- straight, or roll it up in curlers, sleeping on a hard sphere of pins and hairspray for Shirley Temple curls that will hold all throughout the next day. The makeup consists of eyeliner cat-eyes, shimmery purple and gold eye shadow, blush until our cheeks are unnaturally pink, and red lips with a layer of glitter over them that won’t come off for days.
All dolled up, I stand outside of Wegmans with another one of my teammates, Marlena. Our mothers lounge in lawn chairs a few feet behind us, chatting quietly. Marlena and I hold out decorated soup cans with coin slots cut through the lids, pestering everyone who enters and leaves the store.
“Hi, would you like to make a donation to Evolution All-Stars?”
This is called tagging, and our gym requires each of its members to gather a certain amount of donations every month. I despise it. It’s embarrassing, having to stand out in front of Kings or Stop & Shop or whatever grocery store, decked out in glitter and spandex for the full effect. I’m terrified at the possibility of being seen by someone I know—I love it when my friends watch me perform at competitions, but not so much when they run into me essentially begging for money on the street. And this isn’t exactly along the same line as asking for money for something like the Red Cross or Make-A-Wish. Even at age twelve, I recognize this, and I don’t like having to explain to people that, No, you’re not saving a starving puppy, the money goes towards helping me pay an expensive fee to learn to do fancy tricks.
Some people just smile, drop in their spare change, and are on their way, but others stop. Usually the women. They’ll eye us suspiciously, unlike the men, who tend to think we’re just cute and don’t question our motives. The women will say something like, “Is it a nonprofit?” The astounding part is what happens after we explain. Some people shake their heads in disgust and walk away, but most of them, most of the time, take out their wallet and hand us some bills anyway.
In seventh grade outside of a ShopRite, a skinny, balding man offers to show me his van. “I have a daughter who’s a cheerleader,” he says, grinning widely. “There are pictures of her inside my van—see, that one, right over there—come on, let me show you.” I continue to smile politely, and turn around to call my mother over. She’s already right behind me, hand tight around my wrist.
“Sorry,” she says, “she has to stay here until her shift is done.”
His smile falters a bit, but he persists. “Come on, it’s just right over there. She cheers for her high school. Why don’t you both come?”
As my mother argues back, his smile morphs into something ugly, something frightening. “Fine,” he spits, “fuck you, anyway. Fucking money for cheerleading, are you kidding me?” He stalks off to his car, muttering all the way, and my mom pulls me further back onto the sidewalk as he drives away. We’re quiet after that, neither of us knowing what to say, both of us too caught off guard to think to write down his license plate.
“Well,” I say eventually, wanting my words to wipe the lines from my mother’s forehead. “You have to admit, it’s kind of a dumb thing to ask for money for.”
She coughs out a surprised laugh, eyes still uncertain, and runs a hand over my ponytail. “You know to be safe when I’m not around, right?”
I do, and I tell her that. I don’t tell her how I go home and look at myself in the mirror after that. How I watch every man who watches me from then on, because I know what my uniform puts on display for them. I don’t think it’s their fault, though. It was my choice to wear it in the first place.
When I’m fourteen years old, I see a man smash another man’s head into the pavement in a street fight in New Orleans.
I’m in Louisiana for the weekend with my team—some of us as young as twelve, the oldest of us seventeen—for a competition. On this particular night, we’re hyper and happy and the only reason we’re out so late is because we aren’t competing the next morning. Our parents have organized for us a Vampire Tour they booked online, thinking it’ll be some sort of Haunted House type of deal. It isn’t; it turns out to be one shaggy-looking guy in his twenties who leads us around the city in the dark, pointing out historical places where vampire attacks have supposedly taken place. We end the tour at the Lalaurie Mansion, where two reporters were found decapitated with 80 percent of their blood gone, a scientific impossibility. I’m high off of the excitement, bursting with the desire to soak up as much of this strange, beautiful city as I can.
The fight happens after, around midnight, while we’re waiting for a bus to come take us back to our hotel. There are two drunk men yelling and stumbling around the sidewalk across the street from us, and out of nowhere, one of them lashes out and attacks the other. From where we’re standing, the crack of his skull against the concrete is audible.
We’re whisked out of there right away and forbidden from watching the news for the rest of the weekend. “Stay focused on why we came here,” Mike warns us at practice the next morning. But someone overhears her mother talking to someone else’s mother, and we’d all been there to see the way he lay limp afterwards, anyway—there was no way he would’ve lived.
I think about that man often. If he hadn’t died, I wonder what he’d be able to remember from that night. If he’d recall the sensation of the man’s fist on his face, or of the sidewalk meeting his skull. The pressure of a boot against the back of his head for a split second, and then the crack of his jaw splitting apart.
Since he is dead, he can remember none of these things. His last moments are mine to hold onto instead.
They’re called Indian Runs, and I don’t know why, or who coined the term, but every time Mike calls it out, we collectively groan and a feeling of dread settles on everyone’s nerves. A Pavlovian response.
It’s about 8:40, and we’re all watching the minute hand inch towards 9 p.m., when practice usually ends, but now that Mike’s announced our exercise, we know that we won’t be going home until we get this next bit perfect.
All five stunt groups line up across the mat and wait for the counts to begin. The goal is for everyone to complete the stunt with no mistakes, all of us synchronized, again and again, until Mike stops counting—at least five times in a row. If a stunt fails or someone doesn’t hit a motion on time, everyone stops and starts over. On a good day, it’s a rush of adrenaline and pride when you get it right each time, but at the end of a particularly rough five-hour practice, it all happens in a blur of counts and sweat and often tears, and it’s the worst punishment Mike can come up with.
At sixteen, I’m one of the oldest girls on the team and also one of the best. Because of this, I am expected to hold it together at all times, as Mike is always reminding me. He usually uses my stunt group as the example, gathering everyone around as we demonstrate, watching with wide eyes as Mike narrates: “Now, look how Alyssa holds her own weight when she comes down.” I was determined to end this practice on a good note, but it hasn’t been an easy one to start with. One of my bases is sitting out because I knocked her on the side of the head with my elbow and she’s still feeling dizzy. I’m exhausted and frustrated with the stand-in base who’s been assigned to our group. I load into the stunt as we all start counting, my nerves already fluttering. We make it through the first round, but on the second go my foot slips out of a base’s sweaty hand, and I crash to the ground. Mike calls out, “Reset,” his voice loud and tense.
The next time isn’t any better. I’m supposed to spin in a complete rotation before coming to a stop at the top of the stunt, but I’m pulling too hard and the stunt breaks and comes down again. All the while, Mike is walking the line, calling out things like, “Butts in! Lock your knee! Lift! No, no, no, no!” and smacking the papers in his hand against his leg for emphasis. Mike’s been targeting me in particular today, and maybe that’s why I’m so tense and frustrated, trying and failing each time. It wasn’t so bad earlier, when I wasn’t tired and thirsty and hot, but now, I’m all of those things, and his yelling is starting to get to me. I know he’s mad at other girls, too, about other things; I know he knows that I can take the criticism better than some other people and that’s why he takes it out on me, but right now, it’s not helping and all I want is for him to shut up.
He’s come to stand in front of our group by now, face red as he yells up at me, but I fall again, angry tears filling my eyes. I stomp a foot when I come down, pissed at Mike and my group and, more than anyone, myself.
“Alyssa!” Mike hollers, throwing his papers down. “Stop! Get over here!” Everyone stops and the stunts come down. I walk forward to meet him, breathing heavily. I meet his eyes as he hollers in my face, and I glare, because I know he knows I’m not the only one at fault here. After a minute he tells me to get back in there, threatens to kick me off his team if this next one doesn’t hit. I don’t know if I’d rather roll my eyes or spit in his face.
Everyone on the floor is deathly quiet as I load into the stunt, and we get it up smoothly, but the same base’s hand slips again and my foot falls through. This time, I miss my footing and fall right to my butt, Mike’s roar of “Catch yourself!” drowned out by the blood rushing in my ears.
Before I’m up on my feet, Mike has his shoe off; I duck automatically as he throws it. He misses me on purpose, but comes close enough for his point to be made. “Get out of my gym,” he tells me, and I do, leaving my water bottle where it’s lying in front of the mat.
I cool down in the waiting room, not allowing myself to kick the radiator because there are a few moms sitting around the tables, but by the time everyone files out a few minutes later, I still don’t feel much better. My teammate Lauren hands me my water bottle and gathers me into a hug, burying her face in my hair. “You should’ve seen him after you left,” she chuckles, “he threw a chair.” I snort.
I pass Mike at the front desk on my way out to the parking lot. I keep my chin up and don’t plan on looking at him, but he calls out, “Moore,” so I have no choice. He points a finger at me. “Get your shit together for this weekend,” he says. “We need our best flyer on her game.” I accept his apology with a tight nod and leave, shoulders sore with pain and heavy with pressure.
Outside, I sit in my car, hands on the steering wheel and engine off. It’s about 9:40, and I don’t want to be at the fucking gym anymore—not at all—but driving the thirty minutes home seems like too much of an ordeal.
I let go of the wheel to press the heels of my palms to my eyes. Everything goes dark. It seems like every injury I’ve ever gotten from cheerleading is accumulating into a single, overwhelming moment; I am peaking. All the damage that’s already been done, I know, is permanent. My ridged nose. My tweaked ankle. My bad knees, my sprained wrists, every pulled knuckle and broken toe. All the sweat and blood and tears. The way Alan looked at me when I was twelve and didn’t realize it was happening, the way a man looks when he is too drunk to know he’s about to die, the way I looked at myself after I realized just how much skin my uniform showed, the way Mike still looks at me like I have more to give than I do.
I hear a scrape of gravel outside, and I jerk my hands away from my face. Victoria, the baby of the team at only twelve, is walking by my car to get to where her mother is waiting to pick her up. I jam the keys into the ignition as if I were just getting ready to leave, hoping I don’t look as weary as I feel. If I do, I pray she doesn’t notice. I’m supposed to be what the younger girls aspire to.