“You really want to do this?” Shay asks me for the tenth time. He plops roughly on the edge of my bed, wearing red, athletic Ohio State shorts and nothing more. Beside him, trade paperbacks thud onto the hardwood. My paranormal romances are so tattered and ragged, the ground won’t hurt them.
I pluck more leotards off hangers in my dorm closet and chuck them into my rolling suitcase. Shay said he’d help me pack, but I rephrased that to: watching me pack. He’s not the kind of friend that will neatly organize my toiletries into a shower caddy. I mean, when he saw a box of tampons on my dresser, he steered five-feet clear of it.
But he’s not here for moral support either. “If I don’t at least try, I’ll regret it forever,” I tell him.
“That’s what you said the first time you had sex, Thora. And once you tried it, you actually regretted it.”
I spin to him, and he raises his brows at me like I’m right. You know I’m right.
Okay. He may be right about that incident. My first time was in a hurry. At eighteen, I thought it was “time” and had a one-night stand with a guy from a no-themed dorm party. Cheap vodka may have been an advocate for the deflowering. It was sloppy and unmemorable. It also hurt, even with the boozy cocktail.
My second time was no better. Led to believe it wouldn’t hurt as much, I slept with one of Shay’s friends on our fourth date. It ended with a dissatisfied customer—me. It hurt again. A third time is probably needed. I won’t judge sex yet. But so far, it’s not that epic. Let’s just say, I’m not eighteen, chasing after it anymore.
I’m twenty-one and chasing after things with higher payouts of happiness.
“I tried it the wrong way,” I tell him, a white leotard heavy in my hands.
“Twice,” he says, raising his fingers to demonstrate the exact number of regrets. I try not to dwell on them for long. There’s no use.
“This isn’t going to be like that,” I say.
He’s quiet for a moment. Shay does that a lot. It’s not as though he’s waiting for me to interject. It’s like he’s pooling all of his thoughts and emotions together. Ready to let me hear them in one fatal blow.
I prepare with a deep breath.
And he says, “You mean I’m not going to have to fly out to Vegas and pick up a sullen Thora James when all her hopes and dreams are crushed?”
I’m not angry at his proclamation; I just take it all in for what it is. But when I catch my expression in my floor-length mirror, a dark scowl tightens my facial muscles. It’s my normal look, unfortunately. I have RBF (resting bitch face). It’s one-hundred percent real.
When I first met Shay—thirteen, at a Cincinnati gymnastics gym—he pointed out my contorted, angered features. I was walking the balance beam with as much concentration as I could muster. Not annoyed. Just focused. And he sauntered over, resting his forearms at the end.
“Are you about to have a fight with the beam?” He smiled. “I bet I know who’s going to win.”
That day, Shay startled me so much that I slipped and fell on the mat. If I was fighting with the beam at all, I lost that battle right then. And I had no good retort back. I simply stood up, climbed on, and tried to walk it again.
In my dorm room, I open and close my jaw to relax my muscles. I look silly, but “content” isn’t in my catalog of expressions. Unfortunate, again.
When I’ve successfully hidden RBF, I tell him, “I’ve wanted to be an aerialist since I was fourteen. This shouldn’t be surprising, Shay.”
He gestures to me, his six-pack and sculpted torso flexing. “I always thought you were joking around. Everyone says they want to do things that they never end up doing: acting, singing—wait.” Shay pauses. Not one of those long ones. It’s shorter. “Can you even dance, Thora?” His brown brows pinch like I’m insane for trying to join the circus.
It’s not the traveling circus with fortunetellers and elephants. I’m not running off to escape something. Many gymnasts and other athletes, like Olympic divers, have joined Aerial Ethereal, in hopes of being an artist. A performer. An acrobat. Something more spectacular and extraordinary.
“I took three rhythmic gymnastic classes, remember?” I say, folding the white leotard while I watch his features.
His face scrunches in confusion and then he groans. “Thora, you were fifteen.”
“And I was a fucking great fifteen-year-old rhythmic dancer.” I really wasn’t. I remember staying after to learn the choreography, determined to nail it. I never did. Not as well as the other girls. But I tried. I really tried.
After setting the leotard in my suitcase, I near him and gather the paperbacks on the floor. I plan to add them to my overflowing suitcase. I’ve never been much of a partier. I’ll attend two a semester, my quota.
“Let me get this straight,” Shay says, watching me collect my books. “There’s one opening in a circus show—”
“Amour,” I say, piling six books in my arms.
“Whatever,” he continues, refusing to even acknowledge the name of my dream. “It’s in Vegas, and you were called back because of a video that you sent in doing…what?”
“A double layout.” Plus some contortionist tricks. I didn’t have a partner, so I used the balance beam to do a handstand. Then I curved my legs over my shoulders, my toes meeting my fingers.
Shay gives me a look like I’ve officially lost my mind. “I can do a double layout in my sleep. That doesn’t mean I’m qualified to join the circus.”
Shay started gymnastics at five. I started late, at thirteen. Suffice it to say, his double layouts are more beautiful than mine. Like a fine wine to a Two Buck Chuck.
He’s not the Clyde to my Bonnie or the Damon to my Elena. Shay is and will always be the Lucas to my Haley. A great, protective friend. Like that of One Tree Hill. Who will point out the storm ahead for me while I choose to relish in the sunshine.
“It’s not just about technique,” I explain. “I mean, that matters, but I’ve read on forum boards that they’ve turned down Olympic gymnasts for someone that looks the part. It’s about luck too.”
He skims my body in a slow wave: my dirty-blonde hair, my short five-foot-two frame, my wide hips, an hour-glass shape with muscular arms and shoulders. Add in longer legs and a shorter torso—I become a balancing hazard at first sight.
But I can balance fine. After years of practice, I’m much better than I used to be. But this dedication didn’t stop my ass or boobs from growing. Both of which are larger than they probably should be for my sport.
I’m built like a normal girl, who picked up gymnastics later in life.
I’m average. And the longer Shay stares at me, I feel it. And I want to be more than that. Doesn’t everyone?
“And what are they looking for exactly?” His eyes land on my C-cups. “Is there partial nudity or something?”
“Uh…no.” I wish I had a better comeback.
“It’s called Amour,” he says, worry flashing in his light blue eyes. “Did you even think of that, Thora? What if they ask you to strip on stage?”
“It’s not that kind of show.” I turn my back on him, packing my books on top of my leotards.
“How do you know? It’s one of the newer shows in Vegas,” he retorts, shooting to his feet. “There aren’t any videos online for it; I’ve looked.”