'Megan Abbott is an extraordinary writer' Nick Hornby, The Believer
“Something happened, Addy. I think you better come.”
The air is heavy, misted, ﬁne. It’s coming on two a.m. and I’m high up on the ridge, thumb jammed against the silver button: #27-G.
The intercom zzzzzz-s and the door thunks, and I’m inside. As I walk through the lobby, it’s still buzzing, the glass walls vibrating. Like the tornado drill in elementary school, Beth and me wedged tight, jeaned legs pressed against each other. The sounds of our own breathing. Before we all stopped believing a tornado, or anything, could touch us, ever.
“I can’t look. When you get here, please don’t make me look.”
In the elevator, all the way up, my legs swaying beneath me, 1-2-3-4, the numbers glow, incandescent.
The apartment is dark, one ﬂoor lamp coning halogen up in the far corner.
“Take off your shoes,” she says, her voice small, her wishbone arms swinging side to side. We’re standing in the vestibule, which seeps into a dining area, its lacquer table like a puddle of ink. Just past it, I see the living room, braced by a leather sectional, its black clamps tightening, as if across my chest. Her hair damp, her face white. Her head seems to go this way and that way, looking away from me, not wanting to give me her eyes. I don’t think I want her eyes.
“Something happened, Addy. It’s a bad thing.”
“What’s over there?” I ﬁnally ask, gaze ﬁxed on the sofa, the sense that it’s living, its black leather lifting like a beetle’s sheath. “What is it?” I say, my voice lifting. “Is there something behind there?” She won’t look, which is how I know.
First, my eyes falling to the ﬂoor, I see a glint of hair twining in the weave of the rug. Then, stepping forward, I see more. “Addy,” she whispers. “Addy . . . is it like I thought?”
Four Months Ago
After a game, it takes a half-hour under the shower head to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair. Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales. You’re really just trying to get your heart to slow down. You think, This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, ﬂip, ﬂy. After, you stand in front of the steaming mirror, the fuchsia streaks gone, the lashes unsparkled. And it’s just you there, and you look like no one you’ve ever seen before. You don’t look like anybody at all.
At ﬁrst, cheer was something to ﬁll my days, all our days. Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin. “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet. But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.
All those misty images of girls frolicking in locker rooms, pom-poms sprawling over bare bud breasts. All those endless fantasies and dirty boy-dreams, they’re all true, in a way. Mostly, it’s hard, it’s sweaty, it’s the roughness of bruised and dented girl bodies, feet sore from ﬂoor pounding, elbows skinned red. But it is also a beautiful, beautiful thing, all of us in that close, wet space, safer than in all the world. The more I did it—the more it owned me. It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high. It was something. Don’t say it wasn’t. And Coach gave it all to us. We never had it before her. So can you blame me for wanting to keep it? To ﬁght for it, to the end? She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen ﬂickering from the corner of my eye. Did I ever feel anything at all until she showed me what feeling meant? Pushing at the corners of her cramped world with curled ﬁsts, she showed me what it meant to live.
There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym ﬂoor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync. Look at how my eyes shutter open and close, like everything is just too much to take in. I was never one of those mask-faced teenagers, gum lodged in mouth corner, eyes rolling and long sighs. I was never that girl at all. But I knew those girls. And, when she came, I watched all their masks peel away. We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions on our hearts. So look at me here, in the locker room before the game. I’m brushing the corner dust, the carpet ﬂuff from my blister-white tennis shoes. Home-bleached with rubber gloves, pinched nose, smelling dizzyingly of Clorox, and I love them. They make me feel powerful. They were the shoes I bought the day I made squad.