Lisa DeNauro’s compact, muscular body whipped feet-over-head—a blur of red leotard, freckled skin, and blonde hair. Her palms sprung off the vaulting horse, flinging her into a perfect round off. She nailed the landing and tossed her hands toward the New Smyrna Beach High School gym lights in an Olympic pose.
Sure, I could do that vault—but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Sometime since I turned five and flopped handsprings in a Miami gym, rubber-banded around the uneven bars, and arced walkovers on the balance beam, I’d lost my 6X little girl body and my courage. But I could still do splits.
My last three vaults had been straddles and boredom was about to mother invention. Too chicken to attempt Lisa’s vault, I mulled through my short list of right-side-up vaults. What about a split with right leg leading and left trailing? Brilliant. Why had no one invented this vault?
I took a deep breath of air-conditioned air laced with sweat and gymnast chalk. Rolling up on my toes, I took off, full-tilt, for the horse.
This would be epic.
My feet hit the springboard and my right leg cleared the horse as my hands glanced off leather, shoving my torso up and over. My right leg sailed ahead of me and all my weight came down on the left.
My foot buckled.
I landed in a lump on the mat, staring at last summer’s finger-long scar on my inert ankle. The memory caterwauled through my mind—me careening from a cantering horse, smacking against rock-hard Carolina clay. Bad things had followed in threes—broken bones, days in a hospital bed after surgery, and months crutching around in a cast.
Girls huddled around the mat.
“Are you okay?”
“I heard a crack.”
Their faces creased in concern.
Mrs. Penn jogged over and asked if I could wiggle my toes—yes—my foot—no. She sent one girl for ice, and another to ask the office to call Mom.
It didn’t hurt. Not yet.
Joanne Adams and Becky Blackwell helped me hop to the bleachers.
Worry wrinkled Becky’s forehead. “I hope you don’t have to miss the party after school.”
Pain punched through the numbness in my ankle. I gritted my teeth. “I’ll be there.”
Mrs. Reader was throwing an end-of-the-year pool party for our creative writing class, something I’d been looking forward to for weeks.
I willed my foot not to puff up and purple. Not to be broken.
An hour later, parked on Dr. Tessler’s exam table, I chewed on my lip. My ankle stretched out on the paper sheet—plump, puce, and pulsing pain.
Dr. Tessler squinted at the ex-ray film he held up to the florescent light. “Broken.”
Disappointment sighed through me.
He shook his head with a wry smile. “Stay away from horses of all kinds. Doctor’s orders.”
“Surgery,” Dr. Tesser said.
My eyes flew to Mom’s, telegraphing her to pull the nurse card and argue him out of it.
The doctor continued, “Not now, but once the bones fuse. We’re going to have to get that pin out of there. I think it might have weakened the ankle.” He grinned up at me. “I can take care of those bunions while I’m at it.”
I shivered, imagining him hack-sawing the knobs off my feet. So. Not. Happening.
I squinted at Mom’s watch across the room, hoping there was still time to make the party. Mom, an intensive care nurse at Fish Memorial, wouldn’t sequester me over a measly broken ankle.
Dr. Tessler splinted and ace-bandaged my leg, slunk his sadist sense of humor out of the room with the promise of a cast in a few days.
“Mom, you’ve got to drive me to Port Orange. I’m already late for the party!”
Twenty-five minutes later, Tylenol 3 dissolving in my digestive track, I hobbled out of Mom’s Duster on my old crutches.
Becky and Mrs. Reader rushed over to hear my tale. James Knox and Kyle Avery took a break from their breath-holding contest in the pool to listen. John Scrivano looked up from his conversation with Linda’s husband, Larry, beside the grill.
While I basked in sympathy, Elton John’s Island Girl spun on the record player. Nearby a conversation buzzed about whether you could get pregnant from swimming in a pool. A few kids kicked their feet back and forth in the water on the edge of the pool. Someone changed the record and Rod Stewart crooned Maggie May.
I’d overheard one of the boys call Mrs. Reader his dream Maggie May last week. He could hardly wait for the party to see her in a bikini. A snicker slipped out. I glanced at twenty-something Linda Reader—who wore stylish, but modest, shorts and a blouse—and laughed louder.
“What’s so funny?” Wendy Phillips wanted to know. I told her and she burst out with a guffaw. “Eat your hearts out, boys.”
I smeared mayonnaise on my hamburger, added tomato and four potato chips.
John Scrivano set a grilled cheese sandwich in front of Janie Payne.
Her eyes widened.
John shrugged uncomfortably. “You’re a vegetarian…” Before he could slip into the pool and drown his embarrassment, Mrs. Reader told him how thoughtful he was and gave him a hug. If a guy with olive complexion can blush, he did.
Laughter and droplets of water flung skyward from the boys in the pool. Diamonds of late afternoon sun danced on the water. Chlorine and grilled hot dogs scented the air. I shifted in my seat. Sharp arrows shot up my leg, reminding me that the party was nearly over.
In my last town at Martin County High School I’d felt a little lost and trampled in the halls. The masterpiece, Fabliau of a Silent Man, I’d written for sophomore English had been scythed with a blood-red C. I was sliced down to a nub, a number, a nobody.
In New Smyrna Beach I’d spent fifty minutes a day for a year with Linda Reader and eleven kids who loved the lure of language like I did. We’d penned writing prompts, lyrics, poems, and stories.
Gratitude, like the sweetness of the Chips Ahoy cookie lingering on my tongue, made me forget the ache waking in my leg. I scanned my peers. The kids were deep as the waterways wending through town, wise, wielders of wit and words. They mirrored who I was. Who I wanted to become.
I’d scribbled in notebooks all the way back to junior high. But I doubt I would have majored in journalism and creative writing in college, stacked four decades of journals in my garage, written six books and counting—if I hadn’t been plunked into this pocket of possibility with people like me at the not-so-bitter end of childhood in New Smyrna Beach.