The Gymnast

        Her eyes are glass. The muscles around them are red and raw, and there are no eyelashes.

She is a lithe gymnast, bent in two as though made of silly putty, her skinless frame as seemingly malleable as a cloth doll’s. She is a glass-eyed gymnast in perpetual backbend on a beam that has never been in a gymnasium. The red sheathes of muscle are pulled away from her shoulders, revealing the thoracic cavity and brightly-painted vital organs. The lipstick red heart, the lungs like two slabs of gray slate, the dark mass of the liver, and below these coils of intestines, small and large, like a bag of sausages.

         People stare at her and walk on. A glance at the liver and the coils of intestines. A quick look at the glass eyes and the exposed frontal lobe. Then on to the skeletal flying trapeze artist or the capillary man conducting an imaginary orchestra. She is just one exhibit among many.

         She does a backbend on a beam and flashes her tibia bone. The bones of her foot arch perfectly. She has perfect form, and the lean red thighs give the appearance of inhuman flexibility. The ligaments of her hand cling to the beam. Her white plasticized breasts defy gravity.

         When he first sees the gymnast, he sits on the observation bench in the middle of the room and stares. His hand is over his chin, and he sits there, staring. He can’t take his eyes off of her. He can’t stop staring at that carnation red heart, the way the muscles of her shoulders are peeled back like onion skins. He sits and can’t stop thinking. Families are passing in large noisy groups, and children are pointing and whispering. A girl in a bright pink sweatshirt comes over to the bench and puts her hands behind her head and twists over and shouts at her mother to look at her.

         He wonders if her back was broken to get it into that position. Her spine is so smooth and long. He sits for another hour. The museum smells of dust and cologne and around 4pm the crowds become sparse and the security guards finger their walky-talkies and send inconspicuous glances across the room. He leaves around 4:30 and sees over and over again that extended white tibia, flashing in his mind like a still in an old movie.

         She could never do a perfect backbend. Cathy, her legs too long and lanky to make it all the way over, flailed with her feet in the air. He stood near her as she kicked into his face, brown converse sneakers with fresh grass stains grazing his nose. Seven years of ballet, two of them modern, all the weekend African dance workshops in the months after they were married and she looked like a ten-year old learning how to cartwheel. “Spot me,” she said over and over, “Spot me,” but before her hands touched the ground he had her in his arms, slung over his shoulder, relishing in his strength as she fought him, twisting her thin fingers around his wrists. He wrestled in high school, and even though he pinned Brett Hamden in fewer than thirty seconds and won a silver metal at regionals when he was a junior, he still struggled when he wrestled her. She fought tough. Legs kicking like a deer. She writhed out of his arms grinning, her reddish hair like a mane around her face. “You can’t even let me practice for a minute,” she said taking his hands and pressing them against her ribs. “You can’t take your hands away, can you? Isn’t that right? Can’t take your hands off me?” He caressed her stomach, her abdomen, the sharp bones of her hips, his hand furtively drifting downward until it squeezed between her thighs. He shook his head.

         He sometimes strolls through the other rooms of the museum. The organ cases—showing the difference between a smoker’s lung and a non-smoker’s—had been the impetus he needed to give up smoking for good. In the same corner, the hearts behind the display case are painted all kinds of colors, showcasing the right and left ventricle, the aorta bright blue and chopped off abruptly. But he much prefers the gymnast’s room, which contains the skeletal flying trapeze artist, his bones delicately attached with the newest technology. He sometimes wonders what would happen if someone chopped the wires suspending him in mid flight, if he would clatter and smash into the floor or swing gracefully. But the gymnast has the brightest organs, the reddest and leanest thighs, the most perfect balance. The red sheathes of muscle are pulled away from her shoulders, revealing the thoracic cavity and brightly-painted vital organs. She is a glass-eyed gymnast in perpetual backbend. He sometimes wishes he could reach into the glass display case and run his fingers over the heart, caress her liver, feel the tiny bumps along her small intestine.

         Their house was on Sycamore Street. Cathy had wanted to live there because of all the ginkgo trees, the whole world turning gold in the autumn, the large yard in the front where she would lie on an old army sleeping bag, bottles of orange Gatorade in her backpack nearby, reading Bugakov. She’d sometimes dance. Bend over backwards and flail her legs over. Sometimes he’d lie there with her, listening to her read, her attempts at a Russian accent, the way she pronounced the difficult names of places in a slow rolling of “R’s” and slurring of consonants. He’d sometimes watch her from the bedroom window, typing notes and lesson plans, responding to urgent emails from his office administrators. He wouldn’t take his eyes off her; she was always in the periphery. He’d check to make sure she was really there, alone, reading, practicing her tumbling, no random boys creeping into her sleeping bag to run fingers surreptitiously over her perfect collar bone, to kiss the smooth curve of her jaw the way he did.

         He first comes into the museum to escape the cold. Well, if not the cold, something. He is walking along South Street, along the pier, the Hudson River smells like salt and fish and he wants to get away from it. The museum is right there, and there are large posters of bodies and exposed muscles and skeletons displayed in new ways. Maybe he needs a new experience. He walks in and waits in line behind a Chinese family with a wailing toddler. The toddler keeps looking at him and crying and then his mother gives him a stuffed green bear with only one eye and the toddler puts the bear’s foot in his mouth and stops crying.

         He pays nineteen dollars and walks into the lobby which is huge with a vaulted ceiling and more posters of bodies—muscles, circulatory system, tibia bones. He feels like he’s wandered into hell; it feels like death everywhere, seeing all these resurrected corpses. He wanders down a hall filled with different activities for children, into a room with different animal skeletons, and then there she is. In a display case in the corner of the room. She is a lithe gymnast. She is a lithe gymnast bent in two as though made of silly putty, her skinless frame as seemingly malleable as a cloth doll’s. She is a glass-eyed gymnast in perpetual backbend on a beam that has never been in a gymnasium. The way her hands grip the beam, her body seems weightless. He stares for so long his eyes feel dry. He becomes fascinated with the intricate fibers in her wrists, the way they intertwine and wrap around each other like blue and red snakes.

         He remembered her wearing her white dress at the party, the party after Dans Poetic—her first major performance. The party where he met Dale. The too-much-booze-and- passing-out-on-his-bed, party. The one where she left him in the morning, after they had drunkenly talked it all out, after she had told him everything, her too-honest-still-tipsy approach wounding him more in the morning than it had in the moment. At that party, he stuck to the wall, feigning interest in his champagne, smiling ambiguously out into the crowd. Fuck all this ostentation, he thought. Fuck the pretense of it all. Why is art so pretentious, why are artists such hypocrites. She was wearing the white dress. The dress he loved on her, the way it hugged her waist, the faint suggestion of sequins, the tight satin clinging around her hips, and the low loose boat neck accented by a delicate pearl necklace. She’s on fire, he thought over and over. She’s hot and she’s on fire and there’re all those damn fuckers circling around her. Flies and road-kill, that’s what came to mind. Her perfect neckline with those perfect pearls and that bastard Dale laughing and nearly touching her arm with his champagne glass.

         He likes studying her from different angles. When he stands at the front of the glass case, he can see down along her spine, through her neck, in between the razor-sharp curves of her jaw. If he had been an artist, he would have stood in that position and drawn her, arched neck, trachea splintered open, red slab of tongue. He imagines she can talk. Imagines she’s opening her mouth and whispering lines from Bulgakov through the glass. Pretends she’s smiling, her eyes lighting up. She is a glass-eyed gymnast in perpetual backbend. The red sheathes of muscle are pulled back like onion skins. The immutable state of her body makes him feel his own aching joints and ageing limbs, and he leaves feeling old in ways he has never experienced.

         In the later weeks, after the diagnosis, she was dizzy in the mornings and kept complaining that her throat was rotten. “It’s rotting out of me,” she said. “It’s collapsing.” He silently guided her around the apartment, stuck in his own confusion about what was happening to her. “My mouth is all dried up,” she said. “It’s like someone zapped me with a laser. And my insides feel all squishy, like they’ve been overcooked.” He wanted to quit this job. Quit the job of witness as she unraveled, watching her fade into skin and bone, the chemo treatments that left her withered and pale, hair thinning, the gaunt hungry look in her eyes, the redness around the rims. He was fascinated by her changes. The premature ageing, atrophy creeping into her limbs. She didn’t dance. She lay on the foldout couch in the living room, reading People and Vanity Fair, complaining about her knees. “I can feel the joints eroding,” she said. “It hurts to bend them.”

         “Don’t get up,” he said. Then moments later, “Why the hell did you come back?”

         “It’s metastasized,” she said. “It started in my lungs, and now has spread to my liver and colon. It’s going to get into my brain eventually.”

         He stared at her, her sagging breasts, bra-less, concave chest and jutting clavicle.

         “I came back because I had no where else to go. It’s inoperable. I just have to wait. Thought of all people you’d want to wait with me.”

         “Hell,” he said. “You’re afraid to be alone.”

         “I was in the hospital for a week before I came here,” she said. “They were running a bunch of tests. My lungs look like a Pollock painting; nothing’s red anymore, it’s all gray and spotty. They tried to scrape something out, but it didn’t work.”

         The museum is empty on Thursdays, and he notices a thin layer of dust along the white tibia bone. She is a glass-eyed gymnast, flashing her tibia like a Can-Can dancer in a Burlesque show. She is a lithe gymnast in a perpetual backbend on a beam that has never been in a gymnasium, in a glass case that has never witnessed a real audience. Her spine is frozen, the marrow zapped and dried up, giving the illusion of limberness. He leaves after half an hour because he is the only one in the room and the security guards begin watching him intently from the doorways.

         He calls his sister Stella on his way home from the museum and meets her at a coffee shop a block away. When she asks where he’s coming from, he says he’s been at the museum.

         “You were just at the museum last week,” Stella says.

         “There’s a lot to see,” he says.

         “You’re not being one of those creepy old guys who hangs around museums looking for women, are you?” A smiled lingered at the corners of her mouth.

         “I’m thirty five, Stella. You really think I could be one of those creepy guys?”

         “There’s no age limits for that kind of thing,” she says, shrugging.

         “I just like the museum,” he says. “I’m getting into anatomy. I’m studying it now, might think about bringing a sketchpad.” He half expects her to question this new and illogical interest, but she just shakes her head and says, “Whatever floats your boat, Charlie.”

         One night near the end, when they both couldn’t sleep, he lay in bed listening to her move around the dark kitchen, refusing to go sit in that uncomfortable silence with her. The floor creaked under the kitchen stool. She must be boiling tea, because he heard the rush of water in the pipes in the wall and spurt of the faucet. As the high whistling of the teapot rang out, he heard horrible retching sounds. The vomiting continued for a few minutes, followed by what sounded like soft muffled sobs. He shifted to his side so his ear pressed into the pillow, and then the door creaked open and she was standing there, then sitting on the bed near him.

         “I just thought I’d say,” she said. She fingered her thumb around the handle of the mug. “I thought I should say…” He rolled over and stared at her. She had lost weight for sure, and in the pale silk slip, she seemed hardly bigger than a child. Her collar bone jutted out of her chest at sharp angles, and her eyes seem sunken deep in her skull. She coughed and he could hear the sounds of things inside her, the grating of air as it scraped over her trachea. There was too much to say, and they both knew it. He couldn’t let go, couldn’t release her, not the Cathy who had hurt him, left him and returned when she had no one, but the Cathy who danced and cartwheeled, who let him wrestle her with her hair in her face. He wanted to curl his fingers into her spine, latch on to her ribcage and prevent her body from changing. “We should just sleep. My muscles are all achy. I just vomited an entire lung out, it hurt so bad. One can’t just sink easily into anonymity.”

         The museum was closed on Sunday. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and there was only a slight feeling in the air that it might snow. He stood on the steps of the museum and imagined the flakes collecting on the benches, on the window sills and Corinthian columns that held up the Grecian colonnade of the entranceway. He could see his breath in the crisp air and could smell hot-dogs roasting from a roadside stand. On the sidewalk outside of the museum, people were passing hurriedly, each with a separate destination. Mothers chided children; young women chatted on cell phones; old couples walked leisurely noticing the architecture of the museum. Somewhere behind the walls she was waiting in her hermetic capsule, flashing the white tibia bone, waiting for him. Her eyes were still glass, still perfect, still open and staring. She was a lithe gymnast, bent in two, waiting for an audience to wake her.

         The first time he saw Cathy, she was all legs. That’s what came to mind first. Sitting in the third row of the Citizen’s Opera House, his sister whispering in his ear, “Now she’s good but a smile wouldn’t kill her,” and his own thoughts off all the things he’d like to do to her. It was all about the light, the way she moved through space, as though physical limits didn’t exist. The first time he saw her, she was on stage, in her element; she was hot, scintillating. He couldn’t take his eyes off her: her inhuman flexibility, her liquid movements that made the whole room feel fluid, transient, as if the world were passing away around them and he was anchored to that moment, to that seat.

         His wife Sharon calls him at 3:30. He doesn’t expect her to call so early. She works in an office on Fulton Street, a few blocks away from South Street. She calls him and asks him where he is and he says the museum. She was a lithe gymnast, bent in half. She was a glass-eyed dancer, never in need of practice, timelessly twisted in two, only in need of a slight dusting every now and then.

         “Well, I’ll come meet you there,” she says. “Meet me outside in ten minutes?”

         “I’ll be there,” he says. “You want to come in and check out the exhibits?”

         “No,” she says. “It’s all so creepy. I don’t know why you’re so into it.”

         “I’ll see you soon,” he says and hangs up.

         When he walks out, he sometimes blows a kiss to the gymnast, or sometimes he smiles at her, or sometimes, sighing, he simply turns and presses the elevator button to the lobby without a second glance.

Joy Baglio has been an English teacher for two years in a Manhattan high school, and she has recently quit in order to pursue writing full-time. She is currently applying to MFA writing programs, and has completed a fiction workshop at The Unterberg Poetry Center.

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