How It Tastes
by Star Su
BWR 48.2 Fiction Contest Runner-Up
All my life Mama wanted to make me brave. As a baby, I would cry murder if she dipped my toes in water or left me naked longer than a second. She didn’t bathe me for the first two months of my life—probably the only time she feared me more than I did her—and at my first checkup, I weighed the same as when I was born. “Babies don’t grow if you don’t drown ‘em a little,” the nurse said, before she plunged me under the faucet, baptizing me with a string of prayers for my mother.
The only evidence of my late baptism was my toes (I enjoyed baths now, except when our water turned to ice cubes at the end of the month). While Mama was still allowed to dress me, she never took off my socks, not even during the scorching Michigan summers, where there was real danger of becoming 人肉干 if you went outside barefoot. Our neighbor, Vicky Ayi, told me baby carrots aren’t born like normal ones. They’re grown in clusters, like toes bound in socks. Toes do not go unnoticed, especially in a sport like mine. Ever since Becs nicknamed me Carrots, all the girls at the Academy—even the coaches—call me Carrots. It sucks I blush through my toes too, though Vicky Ayi says I should be grateful my name isn’t Spam. Nobody remembers her son’s real name.
Mama never forgot the nurse’s words and worried I was cursed to have thin skin or never grow gills. While I was content to play solitaire and march Crayolas through puzzle workbooks, the other kids in the neighborhood clotted Vet’s pool or beached themselves on the sidewalk with chalk sunflowers and half-deflated basketballs. By the time I was five, we had tried soccer, tennis, swimming (I sank right to the bottom), badminton, volleyball, dodgeball, tennis (again), and running laps around the neighborhood (cheapest sport ever).
So when Mama drove me to that first gymnastics camp, wedged between Dunkin’ Donuts and Costco, a door we had walked past a million times but never opened, neither of us bothered to make bets on how long I would last.
To tell you the truth, I do not remember the Costco-gym, or the gym after Costco-gym went bankrupt. Every New Years, Mama invited Vicky Ayi and Spam over to split a fish and sacks of frozen pork and cabbage dumplings. After a few bowls of millet wine, she liked to tell the story of how she made me brave. She omitted the balls I dodged, the pool water I choked on, the nurse who drowned me, and began with the Academy. In a way, Mama told the truth because I have no recollection of a time before the Academy.
Well, that’s not quite true: The one memory I have is a story neither of us tell. That day, Mama asked to see a handstand against the refrigerator. It was early enough “handstand” meant one thing to me; I had not yet learned the variations: cast, stag split, capoeira
There were no mats to cushion my mistakes. “Your skin is so thin,” she said when I hesitated. “You are still so scaredy-scaredy. No tail or spine.” She went on to list the tails that would be acceptable for me to grow. Tiger, leopard, 恐龙, mountain lion (not regular lions—according to National Geographic, they were lazier than my father), monkey, ox, or horse (they possessed the decency to run away in style).
“What kind do I have now?”
“兔子,” she said and I had to agree. My butt was steamed white yam, good for sleeping on the slats of the futon and sprints to the ice cream truck. For running away in fear, though I wouldn’t admit it then. She opened the fridge, puncturing a Yakult with her index finger.
“Go on. I’ll catch you if you fall,” she said. I remembered believing her.
The first handstand didn’t hold, my hands were sweating like iced water bottles. The second, I chickened out. On the third try, my legs fanned against the cold steel of the fridge. I pointed my toes and tried to breathe through my stomach. Breathing with your chest ruined your balance; it was the first thing any decent gym taught you. Mama perched on top a vegetable basin and began to count. As I struggled to hold still, magnets on the fridge began to rain around me. Swiss horses, painted daisy-yellow and cough syrup purple. Grand Canyon rats, where Mama and Aba spent their honeymoon. Wafer houses and lollipop sunsets. The last one my father sent—sixth birthday, no note, a crumpled twenty stuffed inside a red envelope—was a flimsy magnet of spaghetti, the meatballs smudged en route. Sometimes, I believed he sent it: licked the stamp and kissed it with his fingerprints. Sometimes, I believed Mama loved me, was willing enough, to set in motion these artifacts of affection.
“I’m stuck.” My fingers hurt the most with nothing but the uneven linoleum to grip. Because of the humid summers, the floors metastasized buttocks and anthills, a landscape that made us perpetually clumsy in our own home.
“It won’t hurt if you fall. Nothing can make you bleed here.”
“Fine then, stay.” The vegetable basin skittered as she stood. The freezer exhaled as she took out fishcakes and vegetable medley we froze and defrosted and froze again because our fridge haunted the leftovers, soured them overnight unless they were sour to begin with, like ranch dressing or the tomatoes Vicky Ayi brought us, their vines a feathered green boa. America was the land of frozen food, not plentiful as advertised.
I came down from the handstand. Hard. One foot in the vegetable basin.
“You see? No blood and no need to save you.” Mama unhooked the vegetable basin and rubbed my toes. “Carrots for dinner?” My toes planted into her stomach, ground the soft tofu of her flesh until we were both laughing and the rice was smoking.
After dinner, she unenrolled me from the gym I was attending. “You think gymnastics is a game?” she said on the phone. “They play 老鹰抓母鸡 and cartwheel races, games for children,” her slight body pinballing around the living room, “No, no, you listen to me. In China, kids start this early—how do I know this? Because I was almost recruited and sent to training camps when I was five.”
When she hung up, I thought I was done with gymnastics forever. It wasn’t disorienting then to consider quitting. I thought of my puzzle books and solitaire, another round of tennis, Little League summer camp, gulping gravel and the once-in-a-million thwock. I know now—all these years later—this could have been the moment I stumbled away. Showed Mama my rainbow of bruises, from ankle to elbow to chin.
Mama stared at me. “Bring my purse from the car.” In the dark cove of the garage, I stole a few yogurt caramels, stuffing the candy under my tongue, the tang a private ecstasy of perfectly engineered food (On the weekends, we drove forty minutes to a Korean candy store. American candy made us ill: superglue caramel and brittle rainbowed coating; no wonder the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory received the fates they ate). Stuck in traffic that morning, she had seen a billboard of a girl parting the sky like 女娲, legs as pink and sturdy as lotus roots. The phone number seemed auspicious, and she copied it onto the back of a receipt. Several eights and sixes, no fours or zeroes.
She dialed the Academy.
When the instructor at the Academy tryouts asked to see my handstand, I was ready. This may not seem like a rigorous test to you, but gymnasts must do handstands on every piece of equipment: floor, bars, vault, beam. Mama made sure none of this would faze me. I could do handstands on the futon, in the bathtub, hopscotch up and down the driveway. I could pick up a spoon with my toes and handstand-walk to the kitchen and feed the aunties gossiping at the counter.
Of the six girls at tryouts, I was the only one to hold my handstand for the length of three Black Eyed Pea songs. The speakers tugged the air and I barely heard the instructor say, That’s enough. Next they pointed to the beam and drew circles with their hands.
“You speak English?”
“Kai doesn’t have much training,” Mama said, stepping onto the mats. Her British accent was more pronounced when she was angry. You’re so fluent! the cashiers, moms at school, my teachers, exclaimed, like she was a pet who outperformed its circuit. Mama told me her grandfather would only speak to her in English and she had to pay him for each word spoken in dialect. Now it was the other way around: I memorized one line from《红楼梦》for each “Yeah!” and “So what?” uttered.
The instructor frowned. Her ponytail was so tight her eyebrows could not be zipped together. “Most girls can do front and back tucks by six. By seven, on the beam.”
“She turned six only a few days ago.” Mama owed me peach gummies for this. Everytime we lied, we coughed up change to sweeten the other’s teeth.
“We’ll put her on a trial period. There are a few meets before States and you can treat them as practice. Then we can decide if she will move up to the elite track.”
“Thank you.” Mama draped her nylon jacket around my shoulders, pulled out the socks from my shoes. The instructor walked towards a row of beams, where girls stood in pairs. One half stood still while the other half pulled their legs, as if adjusting hands on a watch. Nine o’clock, twelve, three. Some began to cry when twelve struck again.
“Tomorrow,” the instructor said without turning. Her hands cranked two clocks, greased sockets into splits. “We will see her tomorrow. States in three months.”
Before we left through the Academy’s rotating doors, a receptionist slid a purple leotard in a plastic sheath across the counter. “Your swimsuit is see through,” she whispered. “Wear a real leo next time.” Mama smiled and put the leo in her purse. That night, I tried it on, turning round and round in the mirror, the cubic zirconia casting millions of rainbows across the futon, the dust-furred blinds. The leo felt like a new skin. Sometimes, I wondered if I stayed because of the outfit, glitter spackled across my chest, skin melded into satin.
“And sweetie,” the receptionist had said. “Don’t eat before you come.”
Every day before afternoon recess, Mama came to pick me up in the fried-chicken Honda. The car possessed zero air conditioning and the seats were perpetually greasy from the previous owner’s occupation of ferrying Popeye’s to the suburbs. My first-grade teacher never asked where I went. Later, I realized she was just glad one of my parents came to get me.
Since attending the Academy, I ate every meal in the car. Snack on the way to Bloomfield, dinner on the way back from practice. Sometimes I had to make a decision between eating or napping. Mama always wanted me to eat.
“Don’t unravel the orange.” She insisted I swallow the bitter strands. “You think your bones will stay this way? Eating white foods make your bones strong as trees.” I don’t listen until it’s too late, one day rolling my ankle while tumbling, and my left foot swells into purple putty. It’s healed now, but I hated landing on that foot, how a hair tie never feels the same after you lend it.
“Calcium makes bones Mama. It’s science.”
“Not everyone else has a Mama who cares.” From her own lunch bag, she pulled out a corn and mayo bun.
“Dessert,” she said. “You deserve it. Heard you nailed a double back handspring on the beam yesterday?
“Salty dessert? Really? David called you?”
“It’s sour sweet,” she said. “Best things in life are two flavors at once. Cherry coke. The popcorn you like, the one with cheese—”
“But we’ve never even tried it.”
“Why do you beg me to buy them? Must be good if you want it so much.”
I licked my fingers clean of the orange and tore open the bakery bun’s plastic seal with my teeth.
“You’re right Mama. This is superior.”
Mama used to work in Garden City, sweet-souring ribs and stapling takeout bags shut. When she found out the restaurant recycled half-eaten bowls of rice to make fried rice, she quit. As we walked from strip mall to half-abandoned strip mall, pocketing phone numbers, she made me repeat after her. Greed is a debt your body carries. It makes you ugly, makes you kneel until everything you swallowed comes back out. I didn’t understand the word for greed yet, only knew how to wrap my tongue around its harsh syllables: 贪心。
Down the road from the Academy, sandwiched between TJ Maxx and abandoned Walmart, Mama found a job at a Japanese bakery. Like its neighbors, it was one of many in a chain, except it was owned by sisters.
The storefront was a theater of salt: Hot dog buns with squiggles of ketchup, bread filled with corn and mayonnaise that wobbled when you shook it, and spinning rows of croquettes, lit up like ballerina dancers, under the heat lamp’s embrace. On the weekends, Mama came home with her skin battered and deep-fried, just like the curry buns they made for the sports bar next door. The buns were delicious eaten with sore arms, and our arms were always sore in those days.
Once, driving to a meet, we found another one of the sisters, tucked under a highway. Doraemon buns with chocolate whiskers, craquelin turtles plump with red bean paste, and—the owner’s free souvenir—a coiled snake doughnut, slick with butter and plum-jam scales. Whenever we pulled into a new strip mall, Mama and I always inhaled, searching for the perfume of the sweet sister, freshly baked shortcake and the shell of a newly minted creature.
We never found the other sisters. After everything that’s happened, I believe it’s no mistake. It was better to save our sore arms and quarters found between the crusted seats of fried-chicken Honda; to hoard the occasional sweetness and not look too desperate for another taste.
There was a rumor the Academy didn’t install air conditioning on purpose to help us sweat, lose weight at a standstill. In the winter, we stuffed jackets and snow pants in a locked closet, fearing the doors would spill open and roast like marshmallows on the space heaters.
On one wall: banners of girls encased in college leos, rhinestone wolverines and purple tiger stripes, their smiles dusty depending on the year. On the neighboring wall: white canvas stitched with a rainbow crown of Olympic rings, and printed in movie poster font underneath, the girls who had made it to the Olympic Trials. Though it had been years since a name was added, the poster was always clean, snapped against the walls like a white cape.
We speculated why the last name on the poster was watermarked. The rumor, circulated over paper cups of iced tea on the viewing balcony, was it was David’s daughter. She refused a spotter at the Trial (lost grip on a straddle Jaeger, experimental surgery in Korea, divorce). That’s why David always spots us on bars, even in warmups, even when he doesn’t have to, his arms hammocked under our flying legs.
It’s hard to believe David with another life when he makes us run three miles, then three more for asking why three. Every week when women shaped like pencils with soft pink faces came for TOPS testing, they teased him: “The devil works fast, but David works faster.” They tallied our pull-ups, press handstands, clocked the speed with which we flew up and down a four-story rope. I began to fear David more than Mama, more than a bruise that never healed.
The rope climb was an event that could make you queen. From afar, we always worked to make it look easy, but pulling yourself up to the rafters could take a while, especially if you became stuck. Being too high up made it difficult to let go, to trust the foam pit would cushion your limbs. Giving up in the middle meant you would be pushed last in line forever. It happened, even to the most seasoned girls. Some of the seniors refused to do the rope climb, would rather endure David’s sets of burpees and sit-ups designed to make you vomit. I learned everyone’s names during the rope climb. It was the only time David turned off the speakers and let our voices hit the tin roof.
“BECS BECS BECS, GO BECS,” two girls beside me screamed. Above us, she ascended, her legs pointed in mid-air, untethered, as if on an elevator, floating through space and time called upon by 老天爷, dust filtering through the waning sunlight. When Becs reached the rafters, climbing faster than when she started, she gave the steel beams a high five, and we all screamed as a pigeon’s old nest rained down. Nobody called her a showoff and I knew then who held the record in this event.
David clapped a hand to my shoulder. “Next week, your turn kiddo.” I kicked an orphaned foam block into the pit. No one ever chose to fall this way, so they remained blue and pristine, like uncolored Crayolas.
David called the whole gym to watch me, something he has only done when Jules stuck the landing on a double layout and Becs tried the Yurchenko, a good attempt even if she did roll her ankle.
“Come here Carrots, triple series time.” David patted the beam. I swung my legs over in a new mount I had been practicing for weeks. I stole it from Becs but she had stolen the ending sequence on my floor routine (which Mama choreographed—still, I would go any length to possess something she didn’t have).
“Back handspring, layout, layout. I want everyone to see this,” David said. Last week when I fell and my legs hooked onto the beam, he told me to get back on right away. When I hesitated, he slapped the beam so hard a cloud of dust departed. The beam can sense your fear like wolves, like lions, you understand? For days, I was only allowed off the beam for peeing and sprinting to the water fountain.
“Let’s do this Carrots,” David said. “Don’t got all day.” The gym was never this quiet. Becs sprayed her grips with water, pretending not to watch. I tried to give off the vibe that said, My intestines are not weak and my knees are not braised radishes, wobbling in a broth of hot and cold sweat. I raised my arms over my head, fingers pressed like I was eating an air sandwich, a trick to fit your hands neatly around the beam in mid-air. What I really wanted was to fix my wedgie (in real life, judges take off points for touching your body during a routine, while David would probably strap ankle weights on me, and ask someone for their favorite number, 100-500, double it, then yell, push-ups or sit ups your choice, Carrots).
Before wallowing in more hypothetical punishment, I plunged backwards into the air. Back handspring, layout, layout. The back handspring was easy. The layouts were harder from a standstill. I landed with my heels at the end of the beam, felt the leather curl upwards like a dog ear. One more centimeter and I would have murdered the mosquitoes roving near the mats. Fingers still holding the air sandwich, I turned to salute David. I didn’t dare get off the beam.
“Not bad Carrots, not bad. You forgot to point your carrots so three more for the day, kapeesh?” The air bloomed with chalk as some of the girls clapped. My eyes met Becs, who clapped with her elbows, couldn’t be bothered to waste the chalk on her hands. I gave her a smile with all my teeth.
Becs was the best before I came to the academy. Of course there were older girls who were better than both of us, but they trained alone and didn’t need the coaches, not like we did. You had to choose a fight with someone your age. Coach’s words, not mine.
Becs was someone whose self-worth depended on elbowing her way first in line. She had to be first when we ran laps, first in handstand races, first in things it was impossible to be first in: pressing the elevator button, a drink at the water fountain, etc. Several times a day, I was slapped by her ponytail, a color between skim and lunchroom chocolate milk. Being second behind Becs was as undesirable as settling for last, but I was new to the gym. I didn’t know how to bully anyone, not yet.
“Hurry up, Carrots,” Becs said. We were warming up with tumbling passes. Two lines, one on each diagonal of the blue felt floor. The line opposite Becs had thinned to just Lany and Jules, so I walked over to join them. In those days, I often confused pissing Becs off with winning.
I took off down the carpeted floor, lint curling between my toes, prepared to show off my new one and a half twist. I was so focused on the landing that I tripped going into the round off. A few days ago, I had laughed when Jules made the same mistake, teasing her with the other girls for her crazy ostrich run. Now, I felt the rug burn coloring my knees, sour apple and ring pop ruby.
From the other side of the gym, David yelled, “Don’t stand out for putting in the least effort.” He tugged on the harness, suspending a girl over the bars, as he swatted his free hand at us. “Move it, move it. This is a warmup, not the fucking spa girls.”
Before he finished, Becs began to run and I rolled out of the way, but not before her foot cleaved my ribs, a bruise that would ferment for days. I finished the rest of the way with the twist I intended, without a running start. The other girls moved to let me be second again. We turned to Becs—our breath escaping like a separate starved animal, one we didn’t have time to feed—cracked our wrists and rolled our ankles as we waited to bend our bodies into the shape she made.
“You can just borrow mine,” Becs said when I told her I didn’t bring a swimsuit. She took off her white lace coverup to reveal a swimsuit I had seen at the mall. Against the limelight of Becs, who looked like she stepped out from an Abercrombie ad, dream-blonde hair and elfin limbs, I saw my swimsuit from Target, the juicy strawberry straps faded into papaya husks. In my mind, Target was the land of white cheddar Cheez-its and jet-puffed marshmallows and mountain dew. There was, really, no void it could not fill. (Except this.)
“I’m good. Where’s everyone else?”
“Everyone else is coming. I think they’re at Chuck E Cheese. Laney’s birthday was last week, so it’s not even real.”
“Laser tag,” I said. “I thought it was laser tag.”
On the car ride here, I still hadn’t decided whose birthday party to go to. Mama pulled over outside the gate of Becs’ neighborhood. You can fight back, she said. You have claws Kai-ling, somewhere under that soft belly. She tickled me out of the car.
Becs pulled down her sunglasses, but the motion was off. Lip gloss dripped from her chin. The skin under her halter strap was rubbed blister-red. I imagined her tying the strap before fastening the ribbon around her neck, turning round and round in the mirror, since there was no one else in her house to help her tie it. I realized then—if I wanted to right now—I could make Becs cry.
“Last one to the end is a banana split.” I cannon-balled into the pool. Becs ran down the length of the pool as I kicked up a milkshake froth. I resisted the urge to call her a cheater.
By the time the pizza came, our limbs were taffied, stomachs ballooned with laughter. Becs pushed the box towards me. “You can’t have cheese right? This is just tomato and basil.” She picked at the crust and then added, “It’s my mom’s favorite.” I never met Becs’ mom in all the time I knew her, but she would dole out these facts, as careful as opening a fruit jelly cup. It made it easier to imagine we were friends.
The rope scorched in my hands, before I even climbed it.
“Whenever you’re ready,” said the TOPS testing lady. Today I beat Becs on the handstand contest. She outdid my pull ups, 64-61. We were almost even in strength and number of reps for the first time since I joined.
“Whenever you’re ready,” David echoed. He stood on the opposite side of the foam pit. Becs sat on the edge, kicking blocks like she was at the pool.
I was not ready. Against the frayed rope, the calluses on my palms threatened to open, fragile as bubble wrap. Before Becs kicked one more block, I gripped the rope and began to climb. Just like the monkey bars, the longer you held on in one place, the more slippery it grew. I could feel the rope undulating below me as I ascended, a serpent’s tail. Snakes are ground dragons, Mama told me whenever I complained about my zodiac. Their bellies were cursed to be taped to the ground—probably why I dreaded bars the most.
When I reached the top, I made the mistake of looking down. The 糯米糍 and sachima I ate in the car before practice precipitated in my mouth, a glutinous ball studded with bitter walnuts and dates. I never forgot the expression on David and Becs’ face as I vomited, the acid rain setting a new record for the time it took to descend the rope.
The foam blocks were never the same color, Crayola blue smeared into puce. David banned snacks inside the gym. We learned to eat in the bathroom, snacks that kept our teeth clean, and left no crumbs on the ceramic tiles.
If David knew we were at McDonald’s before States, he would not let us compete. It was my secret to medaling on meet days when he made the rest of the girls starve. Water was rationed: if you scored higher than 9.3, you were allowed a sip of Gatorade. Of course, you could run to the water fountain and drink as much as you wanted, but we were all superstitious. No one ever said it aloud, but we all believed the Gatorade was a magic potion. Same reason why I needed an Egg McMuffin, two hashbrowns, and hotcakes slathered in Smuckers strawberry jam and syrup. Oh, and a small orange juice.
Mama watched me eat as Becs wandered near the condiments. “You sure she doesn’t want to eat anything?” I shook my head. Becs pocketed fistfuls of ketchup and mustard packets. “Never seen her eat,” I whispered back. Mama rubbed my back as I swallowed, the food fisting my throat like another heart, pulsing with ketchup blood and bright lines of sugar.
Mama dropped us off at the hotel, where the rest of the girls were getting ready. She promised she would come if she could, but it was the weekend, and the bakery purposefully understaffed so lines would wrap around the block. I turned to follow the crowd of moms chain-linked to their daughters.
“Your hair is a goddamn fish,” Laney said as she tried to snare it in the hair net. Jules did the best she could with my eyes. “At least they’re not slits,” she said. “But eyeliner still be a struggle.” She licked a finger and smudged my eyelids until it was somewhere between a blackeye and Meeko, the raccoon from Pocahontas. On top of the normal black crayon, Jules painted a liquid silver eyeliner. I opened my eyes before they dried, which made Jules curse but she said, “Kai your eyes are so pretty.” They reminded me of fish scales in the sink, tinged pink where they were pulled from the carp.
I was the last one to be ready. All the other girls were kissed with peach-scented hairspray by their mothers, baby hairs licked back with a wet fingertip. We kneeled on our leg wraps, linked our arms, bandaged to hide the bruises, to form a line for pictures, ones Mama lamented she could never find later on.
“Ready to fly Carrots?” David grunted as he picked me up by the waist so I could reach the high bars. From there, I kipped into a handstand. The bars squeaked like a thousand-rat chorus each time I moved. Bars, vault, floor, beam. The order of events today was from my worst to best. Better to climb up to the podium than to fall from it.
“Carrots,” David said and I pointed my toes. He clapped his hands, not to cheer me on, but to say, hurry up, the others need to warm up too. I cast into one last handstand, gaining momentum, then let go at the highest point into a double tuck dismount.
I fell on my butt. Jules and Laney crowded me, but I wasn’t worried. My warmups were always bad. Sometimes I wondered if I did it on purpose.
Then, the anthem tinkled over the speakers. It was time to compete.
Bars went better than practice—I wobbled on the landing but hit the handstands well enough to make up for it. Floor and vault were over before I realized I was saluting the judges at the end of my routine. Total score: two sips of Cool Blue Gatorade. David clapped my back, hard enough for me to taste a little hashbrown, so I must have done well. I possessed no memory of the actual event and relied on the reactions of others. That is what I believed how muscle memory worked: your memories displaced by your body, the imprint of what it was made to do.
After Becs dismounted on beam, it was my turn. During warmup, I missed a split jump and slipped, landing on my back. The ceiling fractured into a million Dixie cups, colliding with the copper taste of blood. I had bitten my tongue. David kept asking, What hurts? What hurts? but I could not pinpoint the pain, so I said nothing. The glitter eyeliner itched like red ants and I looked into the bleachers.
I’m ready, I told the judges and their pencils nodded. Throughout the routine, I heard none of the cheers Jules and Laney screamed. I kept imagining Mama coaxing the fried-chicken Honda down graveled back roads. She would make stop signs quiver and part traffic as easily as tearing into a piece of dried squid. I imagined her watching this triple series, the last skill before my dismount. I tucked my fingers around an air sandwich, ringed my shoulder blades like a dishcloth. Back handspring, layout, layout. And on the last leap—I knew before my toes grazed the beam, heels taking flight—nothing would go wrong.
After the fistbumps and the congratulations, some wrestled out of a few girls’ mouths, I felt nauseous. Bathroom, I said before anyone could ask what hurt. I sprinted out of the gymnasium, popcorn kernels and limp straws suctioned to my sweating feet. Inside the bathroom, the tiles were like cool ice and worn bubblegum.
The vomit precipitated in the back of my throat, refused to be released like the English for 秋葵 or 韭菜 or 冬瓜, all the names of the vegetables flowering in Vicky Ayi’s garden; the nicknames I revenge-invented for the other girls; the name of my father, which I never learned save for the surname I inherited. Mama said I was never good at throwing up because I couldn’t remember what I had to give up.
Suddenly, the door flip-flopped open.
“Who won the all-around?”
“Yeah, the fat one.” The sink gurgled a laugh with the girls.
I carved violet crescents into my thighs with my nails, tried not to think about the sour fruit in my stomach, its pulp fisting my ribs, begging to be let out.
“Did you see her on beam? She’s fat, but not Jell-o. Back handspring, layout, layout, and she’s what—seven?”
Toilets flushed. Water flicked and hand-dryers slapped until they coughed. Cherry lip gloss uncorked and hit the back of my throat like medicine. I watched the girls walk out of the bathroom, sparkly blue toenails cushioned in Adidas slides, until all that was left was the sink, the steady drip of something they couldn’t bother to close all the way. If they had looked down, they could have seen my face, the hot pink heat of it, like spam clarified in the frying pan.
“Kai?” The bathroom stall folded open and I realized the whole time, I never locked the door. It was Becs, her cheeks gilded fluorescent blue from the bathroom lights, her feet swaddled in bow-tied Uggs, ones I thought belonged to the flock of other girls.
“I’ll go get David. Or Emily. You need water? Tums?”
“I’m fine,” I said, laying my head on the rail. The eyeliner felt like a loose fish scale, and I tucked my feet under my thighs, the naked soles punctured with what people swallowed and spit out. I need a tongue, not a tail, I thought. A tongue to ask Becs, Where is your spine?
“Is your mom here? Where is she sitting in the bleachers?”
“I said I’m fine.” I wiped my mouth and Gatorade-blue saliva cuffed my wrists.
“You need help,” Becs said, fiddling with the lock.
“You need help.”
“Kai,” she said. “You won States.” Her arms were crossed above her stomach and I could tell she was sucking in from her shallow breaths. “I’m going to go get David.” But she didn’t move. From the front pocket of her makeup bag, she took out something and placed it on my jacket splayed on the floor. “You’ll get an Elite badge soon.” She traced the spot on the blue satin where hers was stitched with copper thread.
In the pool of blue silk, she had emptied on my jacket a bevy of ketchup and mustard packets. Before she spoke, I knew what they were for. Why she never wolfed snacks down in the bathroom.
“You don’t have to throw up. There are other ways.” Her voice was hoarse, as if she was the one who was about to vomit. “These give you so much energy. No calories.”
I wasn’t listening anymore. My stomach carved the pit clean from its sour flesh, and my throat unspooled a ribbon of vomit, shreds of hash brown embalmed with egg yolk and sausage casing. The air smelled like the lunchroom at school, which I had not been to since the extra practices for States, sloppy joe and fruit-by-the-foot, sweet and sour.
Becs kneeled behind me and gathered my hair at the nape, tying it with a scrunchie around her wrist, the motion of it familiar the first time as it was later on, when we repeated this configuration like prayer. I closed my fist around the packets of ketchup and mustard she tucked into my pockets. I decided I would forgive her, because she was spineless in the same ways I was. Later, when we saluted the judges at the Olympic Trials and the announcers dubbed us a part of the next Fab Five, I would believe this was the only way to taste gold. To swallow something briefly, if only for the fleeting sweetness.
Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and is a recent graduate of Brown University. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Offing, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, & elsewhere. They read flash for Split Lip Magazine. Find them on Twitter: @stars_su.