We have two gym routines, one for when we are together, and one for when we go in shifts. I was alone tonight, while Sean stayed home with the girls. I followed my solo routine: dropping my sweatshirt and pants off in a coat room near the workout area, going to the bathroom and then filling my water bottle. In the bathroom there was, as always, a gaggle of little girls taking a break from gymnastics. They fascinate me. I struggle not to gawk.
There is a kind of electricity they give off, fluttering in circles to chatter almost without pause. Their ponytails bright and silky, some with flushed pink faces, others pale and freckled. Their black leotards create a sameness, despite a rainbow of heights and builds. I tower over them and find myself grinning as they exclaim over this and that. These nights when Sean isn’t with me I linger, away from my girls I imagine the day when I’ll have my own swarm of girls jabbering and giggling. In my mind I’ll still be cool, still be in their circle of wonder. The girls begin to notice me, sometimes they smile, other times it’s as if they send a silent alert:
Mom. Mom. We have a mom in the room, act accordingly.
The air crackles and then it’s over, a spell is broken, a reverie stalled. I smile and go as swiftly as I can, the door whooshing to a gentle stop close behind me. I pause outside, my hands hovering just above the smooth surface of the bright blue door, and listen as the sounds coming from beneath the thick door bubble up in a frothy mixture of rose colored laughter and play.
I walk to the workout area to make the most of my time. I’ll need to get back to Sean before long, back to the girls. I take my spot at a treadmill and start the belt. 3.5 miles an hour. Step, step, step. 4 degree incline. I carry an iPod and listen to music as I watch the news. A troupe of girls pass in front of me, three tye died shirts, three ponytails, three bright faces with wispy bangs fluttering on dark eyelashes. Their legs are long, at once graceful and awkward. I watch their eyes, watch them watching each other. They are a blend of confidence and insecurity, engrossed in conversation yet keenly aware of everything happening around them. As boys run by they preen and titter, like flowers twisting and reaching for the sun. I smile and remember 16.
6 miles an hour. 3 degree incline. The news comes on and I read the subtitles. Tornado. 16 year old dead after trying to save others. 15 year old teaches 5 and 2 year old to smoke pot. Story after story meant, presumably, to report the news seems focused on squashing hope, shining a glaring light on death and despair. I fight a lump and the hot burning tears nipping at my eyes. 7 miles an hour and 1.5 degree incline. I run. Stride after stride I push to escape the news. I pump my arms and chase a better place, I am in pursuit of a place that doesn’t allow kids to die too soon or have their childhoods stolen. I look to the monitor and wonder if there is something more I am meant to do. A blur of pink, lime and purple breaks the tractor beam of misery.
7 miles an hour. 1.5 degree incline. No more. Just run. I dig into the belt beneath my feet until I can feel a rhythm. As my feet hit I breathe, my chin is set and I will not look to the screen, I will not do anything but run. My lungs burn, the tears still threatening. I treat each thump of my feet as extra time with the girls. I am filling up the account for later, earning more time. I’ll be there for them. A new song begins to play in my ears. It makes me smile. I raise my head and see a set of eyes watching me. They are 16 and they are not afraid. She is looking at me as before I looked at her. She says nothing and it is only for a moment, but in that moment she imagined being me. She was old, but she was still hanging. She looked ok (for an old person).
Begin cool down.
I gratefully ease back. I am soaked. I finish the cool down and clean the machine. As is my Seanless routine I head to the bathroom for my mom of two requisite pee. I cross the workout area and emerge into an area just outside the gymnastics room. There must be a competition as the windows are covered by heavy drapery. I make my way back to the bright blue door. The hall is quiet and the sight of the door stops me in my tracks. There, at just above knee level is a band of white. It is actually a line of chalky hand prints. I step closer and see the different hands. It was not one child who made this pattern. Long fingers, chubby fingers. Sleek fingers and crooked fingers cuddle and bend in an impish wave along the smooth expanse of blue. Erratic chalky dots of palm print punctuate the blue landscape.
Standing there I am moved by the impact of these marks on the door. Throughout the facility there are people in red shirts charged with keeping things clean. Spray down the machines, wipe off the weights, sweep the mats. The mirrors sparkle, the lockers are pristine, even the parking lot is well groomed. But this door, this tall blue rectangle is marked. These smudges shout:
Ok. Done. There. Let’s go. Let’s do the next thing. C’mon!
These ethereal claps are an irrefutable symbol of good, of childhood. I imagine the energetic charge for the door, the slap of bare feet on tile, swinging pony tails and escalating peals of delight. These prints reach inside me and pat my soul, they tell that there are girls being girls, that there is still good, still fun to be had. I smile as I think of the hands in my own house. The streaks of pink and green on the table lingering from a coloring session, a desk’s edge crusted white, artful streaks of hardened cream cheese. Each mess really a mark, a symbol of the very spirit of my girls. Of youth and of light.
I move forward and press my right hand against the upper portion of the door to open it. I let my left hand move lower, my fingers touch just above the prints, careful not to smudge them. I want to preserve these traces for a bit longer. I ache to touch them, to entwine my fingers in those of their authors, but I know I must not. For now I am just glad that they are.
Those smudges, my proof.