Creative NonFiction Issue 27

The Magnificent Seven

by Vanessa Remmers

Certificate (Hands-Off Approach) by K. Johnson Bowles
Certificate (Hands-Off Approach) by K. Johnson Bowles

Afterward, they ate gummy bears. They grabbed them from the bag, and pinched the spongy bodies. They did not eat them whole. Remember how we would not eat them whole? one says to another, twenty years later, over filet mignon at the Petroleum Club reunion dinner. Remember? How they ate them little by little. An arm one day, the body the next.

When I showed you the folder with the seven of them standing on the podium, you smiled. It was your duty, remember, Dad, to take us three girls school shopping at Staples. Later, I carried them in my bookbag, stuffed them beneath my white, puffy blankies, the ones you told me I could not carry in my bookbag. When I pulled the folder out, it was crushed, the white creases making wrinkles on their foreheads, their arms wiggly, making old women of them. I smoothed them out at my desk, smoothed them back, their bodies, their youth, their medals.

I traced Dominique Dawes’ muscles with my fingers. I traced all of her with my finger. Her thighs, her biceps, her thick shoulders and raised chin. I traced the cheeks, the eyes, the bangs, not many years older than mine. I traced the quadriceps again, the muscles you said looked most powerful.

Young girls. Girls. Children. Teens. Daughters. Females. Specimen.

Choose, we tell each other. Most had readied their choices in the car rides to practice. Choose quickly, we say. We clap clouds of chalk between our hands, pick the straps of our leotards, waiting. Miller. Moceanu. Strug. They are always chosen first. The one who is Strug must hop on one foot for as long as possible. That is the rule. Choose, they tell me. Dawes, I say. I do not want to hop on one foot, though I do. But I also want her, all that unbreakable boulder of her.

Gymnast. Olympian. Athlete. Champion. Stars.

I traced their medals.

I am turning five, and all motion around the kitchen. I swat a balloon out of the air, I lean over the counter to talk to my mother peeling potatoes. On the counters and tables sits another me, framed, crawling, bald. After the cake, candles, and new boombox speakers, I will carry this younger me up to my bedroom and place her on my nightstand, my desk, my dresser drawer. She will be next to me as I sleep through the first night of this rounded new age that feels like a new frontier, like a bald sunrise. Five, the curve of a chest puffed out, not like the crouching digits I was before. When I wake, I will stare at the photos, look for the rosebud mouth, the one my mother tells me I still have now. I will look closer at the baby’s mouth for the small black freckle on the bottom of my lower lip. Some say a birthmark is where you were wounded in a past life. My mother told me the freckle on my lip meant I was kissed by an angel. A kiss that turned my red lip black. A kiss that became a wound. I search the photo for my wound, or the kiss of an angel, or both. A vanity, maybe. Or an investigation. Or a mother’s evidence.

My sisters and I watch Jumanji, the movie about the game that comes to life and traps a young man who wishes to escape his family into its deadly world. To lure people to roll the first die, the game beats beneath floorboards, beneath sand, like a close heartbeat. When I hear the sound of the game’s heartbeat dense against my ears, it beats to the words orphan, fugitive, abandoned.

You came from me, she says. Still, I ask her to tell me the story of my birth, again, again. She does. I tell her, No, that’s not the time you said before. No, the nurse said something different about my mouth, remember? No, you weren’t alone until later.

I was willing to accept the price of a new story. I knew some things were buried for a reason. They aren’t put in the ground clean. They don’t come up that way either. If I wanted a new story, there would be darkness with it. Affairs? I asked. Orphaned? Other marriages? Instead, my mother gave me my baby photos. She told me birth stories.

You never gave me photos, or a dark truth. But you did show me a way to a new body. You read us The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The indent of the book on my diapered flesh. The caterpillar, eating and eating, growing large on all the wrong food, growing larger once it found its correct food. The new creature emerging from its flesh. You patted our bulging bellies after we had gorged. With each pat, you’d say, One. Hungry. Caterpillar. You put us in gymnastics to slim us down. I was the only daughter who didn’t quit. What did I emerge as? What did I hope to emerge as?

I am turning thirteen, and I’ve made a body I’m no longer sure is mine. I’m no longer sure it ever was.

On my school folder, Dawes, Moceanu, Strug, they looked like boys to me. I had seen the boys. I had seen them the day of the PE test, when I beat them in arm wrestling, in pull-ups. They looked like girls too. I had seen the girls. I saw them the day of the scoliosis test, from the middle of the line in the auxiliary gym, saw them take off their shirts, their skinny pink and blue lacy straps, their tiny cups. They were smaller than Mom’s bras, the ones where her breasts disappeared under their large, white hills when she adjusted the straps with her elbows stuck out at broken angles. In the gym, the nurse led me to a wall where I could bend my exposed back but cover my pink dots with my hands. I stared at the painted illustration of our school mascot, a grinning pirate, as she said to me: I get it, hun, my bra is the first thing that comes off of me when I get home. In the locker room, the girls’ shaven legs gleamed like fish slipping out of their gym shorts. Rachel with the blue Tampax box in her locker, the giant swoosh passing across its cardboard body. The girls, not yet bleeding, but readying, tucking Tampax sticks in the pencil holders of their bookbags discreetly, slowly, looking around as they did it, as if they were tending to a sacred secret.

We felt apart, stronger, chosen. My girls, their muscles, their sweat, their scabs, their hair, all that hair, the pubic hairs sticking out of our leotards, the thick hairs of their calves, the softest ones on the inside of their thighs. Moles on our wrists and arms and thighs, sprouting black hairs from their center. The brown and blonde hairs in their scrunchies, in their glitter clips, strung between my fingers for a braiding train on sleepovers. Their hairs, on my thighs, on my shoulder, on my cheek, our bodies clicking together like puzzle pieces in the bed.

When they arrived at the Olympic games, they lived in a fraternity house at Emory University with their own chef and newly installed televisions. They did not say where the fraternity brothers were told to live, only that they were told to move out, to make room. From the living room where the fraternity brothers once threw parties, they watched the opening ceremony together. When the national anthem played, they placed their hands over their hearts.

I beat you and your fading football body. The day on the beach when I did ninety eight pull-ups and you only did ninety five. Afterward, I put my arms in the ocean to quiet the burn in them. What did I ask the ocean to take that day? If I could not carry your name, could I carry your legacy?

Who did my sisters trace with their fingers? Who was on their school folders? What did they do when I went to practice for all those hours, all those days?

Beneath my mother’s microscope, the muscle fibers looked like thick pink and purple rope against a serrated red sky. The cells of the muscle are the largest cells in the body, one of few cells in mammals to accommodate more than one nuclei. When a muscle is stressed to the point of hypertrophy, muscle stem cells multiply and connect with existing fibers rather than create new fiber. Hypertrophy, from the mid 19th century hyper—beyond, exceeding—and the Greek—trophia, or nourishment. I nourished beyond what was needed, and the muscle grew, the nuclei multiplying, fibers wrapping and thickening. They were thickest in my thighs, my thighs, my thighs, remember my thighs, how much they could bear, the rub against each other thighs, the falling thighs, the do it again or you’ll be afraid forever thighs, the blooming bruise thighs, the squatting thighs, the trembling thighs, push apart to stretch the tendons thighs, the sprinting down the track to the metal vault thighs, remember, my thighs. It is said that those born beneath my birth stars are ruled by the thighs. What I know is that they are where my roots run thickest. They are where I looked. They are where I looked.

Two sets of fifteen pushups, two sets of fifteen pull-ups, two rope climbs, two sets of thirty crunches, sixty squats, thirty calf raises left foot, then right. Splits, flexibility exercises. Vault, beam, floor, bars. Two sets of fifteen pushups, two sets of fifteen pull-ups, two rope climbs, two sets of thirty crunches, sixty squats, thirty calf raises left foot, then right. Splits, flexibility exercises. Vault, beam, floor, bars. Two sets of fifteen pushups, two sets of fifteen pull-ups, two rope climbs, two sets of thirty crunches, sixty squats, thirty calf raises left foot, then right. Splits, flexibility exercises. Vault, beam, floor, bars. Four hours a day, four then six days a week.

What happens when a body is nothing but the memory of muscles?

Because I thought I could forget. What I mean to say is I thought forgetting and erasing were the same thing. Skin cells live only a few weeks, red blood cells about one hundred and twenty days, and a type of white blood cell, two days. If my body could forget, so could I. Weeks without practice, and a gap formed in between my thighs, the skin around my triceps puttied, my cheeks grew round. I kept going. There were the years when I emptied myself out, days eating just the nutri-bar in the morning, three hundred calories for eight hours, fasting until dinner. Feeling my sister outside the bathroom door, listening. My whole body became a mouth, the skin over hip, the soft hedge of knee, the bone of knuckle, asking things in, asking for things to fill them. The way the boys came. Their hands up my shirt, their fingers flicking the button of my jeans, their high-fives on the way out of the room.

Because ghost-white stretch marks branched around my hips, down the side of my thighs. The final ones came around the sides of my breasts. I lotioned them, worked the muscle around them, willing them to disappear. They stayed. Would these be my birthmarks in my next life, the thing my next body stares at in the mirror, asking the wound what it knows? Maybe these were my kintsugi, that powdered gold mixed with lacquer that the Japanese apply to the broken parts of ceramic vessels, to accept and showcase the broken parts, a practice Rebecca Solnit describes as magical scars. These branches tracing the outlines of my blooming female, what were they tracing, the broken cracks of the old or the new body?

When muscles atrophy, researchers have seen muscle cells lose nuclei through a self-destruction process called apoptosis. They had thought this applied to all the nuclei within a muscle, but imaging on mice confirmed otherwise. The nuclei of some connective tissue may disappear, but the muscular nuclei do not. They are what remain even after the disappearing. In my new, empty body, they did not self-destruct, but crouched, living in the muscle and helping to rebuild them again, faster than otherwise, should the body once again ask for them. Yes, I think. They always seem eager to come to the surface, ready, when I venture to the gym for a couple days or weeks. I bloom my old thighs, my old biceps, beneath skin that is beginning to crease a little. I can look into the mirror, at the biceps, the top cresting with new stone, the bottom sagging a little like the soft underbelly of a boat. I think of it—a body turned inside out like a fleshy crab carrying its shell on the inside. The micronuclei sitting inside this softer body I have now, this softer body carrying my older body that was both female and male, or neither female nor male, my older body that was so young, that is always ready, waiting, eager. What are they so eager for me to know? What are they asking me to remember?

Choose, we tell each other. I played the video of her vault. I played it over and over again. In the moments before the speed down the blue track, I watch her face, the set of her jaw, the steel in her eyes. I sped through the footage of her running down the blue track, the round-off onto the springboard, the backhand spring on to the vault, and the 2.5 twisting back-flip. Just before her feet landed again, I slowed it, and watched as she managed a final salute to the judges on one foot, the moments after the salute when she had turned away from the judges, dropped to her fists, and crawled away from the mat. I’d watch how they picked up her body, and swept her off the track in their arms like a princess. The hands of the doctor reaching for her body limping down the stairs. The rush to get her to a medic. The announcer: Kerri Strug is hurt. She is hurt badly. Probably the last thing she should have done was vault again, but she did.

Some wept.

Other possible endings: fingerprints on the underside of a trunk, an alley, a barrel at the bottom of the sea, a basement, a shed.

In the end, none of it was necessary. The 9.162 score from her first vault that tore two of her ligaments and sprained her ankle was enough to secure the gold medal. The USA had triumphed over the Russians and Romanians, making, as they say, history. I watch her look to the side, the trench where her teammates and coaches stood. I watch her tell Bela Karoyli her foot hurts. She heard something snap on the first vault, and now it has gone numb. She asks him, Do we need this? Yes, we need this. You can do it, he says. You can do it. You better do it. He pumps his fist. Strug was known to buckle under pressure, performances she aced just before the competition going to pieces beneath the weight of expectation. He had coached her through all of it, the years of the up and down career, the slow assemblage of reputation building around her. They will write later about whether he miscalculated, or simply didn’t realize, or couldn’t yet know, not at least until one final Russian completed her floor routine, whether Strug’s first score was enough. It had been enough. She turns to face the vault again. Her ankle is numb, but by the time the vault is over, she will suffer a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage. After the vault, she falls to the ground. The injury will cause her to forgo competing in the individual competition, though she qualified for it. She will win the team medals, but none of her own. Hypertrophy, the place beyond what is necessary, that stresses the muscle to the point where it must increase its volume. That builds an athlete. That makes a legend. That tears an ankle for a gold medal that was already hers.

First, I lost my female. The muscle fibers thickened as the rest of me left: the breasts, the hips, the belly. Did I think of muscle as stone over a beating organ wetted with blood? First, there was the night after practice I raced to the running shower, and Mother, seeing me from the hallway, said, She looks like Michelangelo’s David. From her side, you nodded. In the shower, I turned the dial to its farthest end, let the beads of water turn my stone red.

Afterward, the bouquets cover the staircase of the former frat house. Unopened packages litter the porch. Sports Illustrated will write how there was Moceanu in the kitchen, holding brownies in both hands. Have you tried these? she asked no one in particular. Has anyone ever tried these?

Two sets of pullups. Two Nutri-bars, two hundred calories. Calf raises, two sets. Two sets of pushups, two slices of pizza, four hundred calories.

Kerri Strug’s FAQ page: No one made me do the second vault.

She did not stand by herself at the podium because she couldn’t. Bela Karoyli cradled her eighty two pounds, carrying her as if she was weightless. She waved at the crowd from his arms. She waved, but she did not think of the medal, or her ankle, or country, or history. Where are my pants? Where are my pants? Why don’t I have them on? Where did they go?

I want to talk about repair. I want to talk about my scabs and bruises that I will never see again. I want to talk about collagen and binding wounds. I want to talk about how skin cells live only a few weeks, red blood cells about one hundred and twenty days, and a type of white blood cell, a few hours. I want to talk about repair because it is the nicest word for it, how it is possible to break over and over again.

The Sports Illustrated story ran on July 7, 2016 with the headline, “The Magnificent Seven, Where Are They Now?” It ran next to a photo with captions beginning: Kerri Strug, married. Dominique Dawes, married. Amanda Borden, married. Amy Chow, married. Dominique Moceanu, married. Jaycie Phelps, married. Shannon Miller, married.

My breasts, my hips, my cheeks, they returned as the rest of me retreated. My female, I gave it away to anyone who cared to look. If it must be mine, I would give it away as if it weighed nothing.

If you asked me if I said no, I would tell you no. If you asked me if I resisted, I would tell you not really. Not with all my force. Not with all my strength. If you asked me about languages, I would tell you stories, lists of places I’ve been, a list of words I have written, and give you a map of the people I’ve been. I would not tell you about hidden words, forbidden words, words I never learned, I never knew could be mine. I did not know what I did not have. No, I did not say no. No, I did not use all my strength, biceps that could have ripped him off, quadriceps that could have kicked them off, rectus abdominis that could have swept them away. If you asked me about the word daughter, if you asked me about the word Dad, I would ask you if you remember my singing in the shower, how I could sing under the red-hot water, lyrics I didn’t quite know or remember, mouth spilling out water and words, language I never quite learned.

In the photo, the doctor reaching for Kerri Strug as she limps off the Olympic mat is Larry Nassar.

I do not know who my sisters looked to on their school folders. I do not know who they traced with their fingers. I know they brought beloved things to their mouths. There were white patches on the elbows and knees of the stuffed brown bear the older one held at night, in cars, on the couch. She trapped brown bear’s leg in between her back molars for so long that the fibers of his leg loosened, and eventually fell off. The stub of his leg she kept under her pillow. When she carried him, she carried him by one leg, his upturned body hitting her thigh. There were pink and blue balloons on the younger one’s blankies, floating in an immovable white cotton sky. The youngest one kept her tongue resting between her teeth, sucking lightly at the corner of a caught balloon. On the first day of school, at dinner, at church, she kept her tongue there until color from the balloons faded and her language changed, her Rs rounding, warping, collapsing into Ws beneath the shape of a new tongue, a new mouth. I know I did not feed as they fed. But I knew hunger like their hunger. 

If I wrote my way back to you, it would sound like, Hello, Dad. How are you, Dad. It’s been awhile, some years, remember, Dad, the pick me up at 8:15, Dad. The see you then, Dad. The doing my best, Dad. Write Dad. I swish the word around my mouth. Dad, like the small bottles of blue Listerine you kept in the door compartments, in the glove box, in your office, in your bags, in your cupboards. Dad, like check my breath, willya Nessa? Dad, like hurry up, Nessa, in the living room, the game is on. Dad. I think if I repeat the word enough my body will soak it through. Its acid calcified. It jumps on different parts of my tongue, pings tiny fireworks down my throat. Dad, it stings. Dad, I’m not yet clean. Dad, I still smell your breath.

If I wrote my way back to you, there would be the medals you hung in a brown frame outside my bedroom door next to the steps you climbed to go to your office. I listen to you upstairs, the squeak of your swivel chair, the sounds of your television. Some nights, you watch Braveheart, or the nightly news, or your VHSs of orgy porn. Tonight, you are watching Spartacus again, and I am watching the medals glow from my seashell nightlight.

Was I trying to make an excuse for my brawny body? To make an athlete, an Olympian? To make a case for my space? Or was I running from it, to make it something else, strong, undefeatable, manly? Was I preparing it for battle? Did I already know I was in it? Did I win?

Quitter. In my mouth, it is the clipping of a fingernail.

I call her from the bathroom. I whisper so you will not hear. I am scared, I say. The new coaches, the new girls, the new blind tumbles and flyaways. You have begun to talk of nationals. The coaches have begun to talk of Olympic trials. You have a guardian angel, she says. She reminds me of the birthmark on my lip. The kiss that became a wound. She tells me as she has told me before: imagine the angel surrounding you with warm light, light that can’t be touched by anyone else. She tells me to imagine my angel standing over me throughout practice. I went as far as my mother’s stories could take me. But all I can imagine is the musk of her Lancome perfume. But the only word my mouth will form is quit. 

Each time I try to write my way back to you, I lose my way.

Let me try again. If I wrote my way back to you, it would sound like your football games. Your oldest daughter still watches your football games. She can tell you the scores, the teams to watch. I know this is what you will ask her about when your name lights up on her cell phone screen. I wonder how the word Dad feels on her tongue. I watch the games with her sometimes. When she clenches her fist, pumps it in the air, there is the flicker of you.

When I watch the football games with her, I imagine who on this field would have been your son. I imagine that any son of yours would not be a gymnast, but a football player, your legacy on the back of a uniform.

But most of all, I look for you. The men under all those lights, beneath all those cheers. Everyone watching you. Everyone rooting for you. You must have felt like you were chosen back then. I hear Grandma still calls you Johnny. Johnny is just a boy from her red lips. Johnny is her only son. Johnny is still a football star, the boy under the lights. The football must have kept you busy, kept you away from a father who could fill the house with rage. The practices, the weight lifting in the basement while Grandma sat next to you, must have made you strong enough to defend against him. It must have given you a new body, one that kept you alive, one that took you away from the house, to the fields, to a team waiting for you, to a college, to distant places.

Under all that stadium light, you look like gods running through a sunken heaven. The stuff of legend. The stuff of religion. Capable of feats that seem to defy physics. But time is the enemy of the immortal. When you injured your knees, and the college offers mostly disappeared, you sunk back into this more mortal life: a student, a salesman, a husband, a father. I have wondered what you would have been like had you been able to stay on the field or if you could at least have had a moment like Strug. If it would have changed anything at all. Are gods just the ones who refuse to surrender to the end of a story?

From your television, they are yelling “I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!” The slave has become a gladiator. And the gladiator has made rulers tremble. The gladiator will become a ruler of his own. In the wall between us, the story’s current runs hot. 

And what of my transformation? What of The Magnificent Seven? Can we lay claim to heavens and mortals? Can we hold up the medals as proof?

A god is no fugitive. Look for me here: In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Philomela turns into a nightingale to escape the wrath of her abuser. Or here: You read us The Very Hungry Caterpillar and at the end, the caterpillar became a butterfly. The baby book told you and Mom that my name means butterfly. Aristotle gave the name Psyche to butterflies, the Greek word for soul. Psyche, the heroine known for taking the hero’s journey, the woman living the story meant for men, going to the depths of the Underworld, completing the impossible tasks for the sake of love, all for the hunger of love.

Dad. In my mouth, it is the clipping of a fingernail. 

From my room, I hug my blankies and my seashell night light blinks its different shades. Blue, green, red, purple. I look out to the hallway, to the medals you hung, ones I have traced with my fingers over and over again, ones that are meant to hold triumphant endings, but only return my finger back to its beginning, back to where I started, the ones that have no beginning, no end. I watch the medals under these lights. My night light blinks its different shades, and the silver medal turns a soft blue, a pale purple, a red. Now comes the gold: gray-gold, a flint of yellow, green, red.

Vanessa Remmers is a former journalist now working on telling her own stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Longridge Review and Unlimited Literature. She was a finalist for The Longridge Review’s Anne C. Barnhill Nonfiction Prize and The New Ohio Review contest. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

K. Johnson Bowles has been featured in over 80 exhibitions and over 60 publications. She is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA, Houston Center for Photography, the Visual Studies Workshop, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She received her MFA from Ohio University and BFA from Boston University.