At the pinnacle of this demanding sport, artistry and balance is found in two moving as one. Yet the world’s best pair of acrobats dare not reveal that their athletic brilliance has come at the price of their very identities.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
15.1 Competitors perform 3 types of exercises: Balance, Dynamic and Combined, each with their own characteristics.
15.4 The structure of an exercise is part of its artistry.
Acrobatic Gymnastics Code of Points, Federation Internationale de Gymnastique.
18.1 The characteristic of Balance Exercises is that the partners remain in contact at all times during the performance of pair/group elements.
We are one, and we are not one.
The music crescendos as we lower into a half-needle stance, on two hands and one foot. The base’s right leg is extended in a vertical split, and the top mounts it, gripping the perspiration-slick pointed foot with chalked-up hands, and casting up into a handstand.
For three seconds we are a single still line, foot to leg to toe to hands to arms to body to legs. Then the base’s body straightens, rising slowly to a full needle, vertical split against the base’s back. The top curves into a Mexican handstand, bending almost double, backs of knees over head. Carefully, carefully maintaining balance, our bodies staying still around that crucial single centre point.
By the edge of the sprung floor, Coach Salter waits, as taut as us even though he stands on two feet with arms crossed, for his most special pair to finish the first routine of qualifying for the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships women’s pair final.
Our tendons shudder, but we remain still for the required three seconds, until the top bends her legs and stands both feet on the base’s one foot, in a ring. Then rises up out of it, balancing on two feet on top of one foot. Just standing, as if on the floor; it seems the simplest, but a foot stand is the hardest move in Balance routines, much harder than handstands. An additional five points for difficulty, because no one else does it, not even at the World Championships, not for the three seconds.
The top dismounts in a somersault. Double front salto, instead of back. Incredibly hard for almost everyone, as one cannot see where one’s feet will land. But we are not one.
The music ends as we both raise our arms to salute the judges. As usual, the women’s pairs alternate with another competition, the mixed pairs, and we let our countrymen Chris and Eva step on the floor as we wait on the couches in the kiss-and-cry.
The scores come up, setting us at runaway first in the women’s pair qualification standings after the Balance routine, even before Chris and Eva have finished performing. We do the obligatory hug for the TV cameras, and sit back and watch Chris and Eva’s routine on closed-circuit, Eva finishing with a one-armed handstand on Chris’s uplifted hand, his eyes up and meeting hers. Their routine is world-class, but dares try no footstands, and no front saltos.
They are two separate people. No one may know that we are not.
The world knew us, in the convention of listing the top first, as Kim Tang and Alana Watson. We remember ourself as Jennifer Smith. I was Jennifer, who started out in artistic gymnastics but switched to acrobatics after my growth spurt meant I wasn’t as good a senior as I was a junior. I knew my bars and beam would never get me to senior elite level, not with memories of a terrifying crash off beam at an invitational meet. Balancing on your partner’s one extended foot in half-needle is easier than balancing on five meters of solid beam. Humans cooperate, and yield in the fall; a beam is hard, and unforgiving.
Then at the age of twenty-one, Jennifer Smith was heading to the airport—to vacation, even, not to a meet—and that was the last we remember as I.
The next we know, we wake up in our apartment, and know we have intensive practice this morning and we know how to get to Coach Salter’s gym, and little else.
Who was Kim Tang? Who was Alana Watson? We know our official birthdays on our FIG registrations: Kim a month older than Jennifer, Alana three weeks younger. We know our bodies can stretch to splits and needles and fold nearly in half in Mexican handstands and rings. But we know nothing of who these bodies loved and were loved by, what visions had delighted them, whether the top’s—Kim’s—background was Chinese or Vietnamese or Korean, even what caused the little white scar on the side of the base’s—Alana’s—wrist.
Common-named pair, switching gyms and skyrocketing to the top ranks. Not telling anyone what advantage we have. The extra difficulty points of our blind front salto are undeserved, since the base can see where the top’s feet are going. We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time. Cooperating is as easy as being one with ourself.
If Coach Salter knew, beyond calling us ‘Kimalana,’ he wasn’t telling, or telling who did this to us. Who had the gall to copy a mind, twice, or what happened to Jennifer Smith.
But do we have time to ask questions, with exhausting training sessions for hours every day, with assistant coaching the rest of the time to afford rent beyond meagre athletic stipends, with the potential to be the very best in the world hanging in the balance? Just wait to win the World title. Then ask.
Our Balance routine was to the Adagio in G minor, the piece that Remo Giazotto passed off as Albinoni’s from three hundred years before, but had written himself.
We too were famous and beautiful and appreciated for pretending to be something other than what we were.
In a blessedly empty section of the dressing room, we lie spooned, soaking in the delicious ache of bodies at last allowed slack against the yoga mats. Long solid-muscled base, flaxen-haired Nordic Valkyrie. Small slender top just tall enough to reach above the hollow of the base’s throat as per regulations, with barely any breasts or curves to speak of; you have to look for the muscle, but it’s there; raven glossy hair in a bun, deep-set narrow eyes in heart-shaped face, epicanthic folds and uncreased eyelids.
We roll the top over and look at ourself, not self-conscious about nudity at all, blue eyes against dark-brown, searching for what should look right, for when we were I.
When we were I . . . I did not have very much of a visual memory at all. We do not remember my hair colour, my eyes, what I looked like; we are now lost in bodies that were not mine.
We caress ourself, base’s long-fingered hands against our top’s flat breast, top sliding a hand between the base’s powerful thighs.
It is indistinguishable from masturbation.
We did search for Jennifer Smith—me—on the Internet, many times. It is an extremely common name, but we did find my high school; my early gymnastics record from long-archived meets confirming that yes, I remembered rightly about a string of sixteenth places on floor and twenty-ninth places on beam; my acro meets record and a steady climb up, first as a top, then as a base, with even a commentator saying I had Worlds potential in a few years, with my levels of difficulty, given a good choreographer. Not high enough, though, to be televised, for us to find any video record of what I had looked like.
And then nothing. The Internet forgot about me, its last record being when I was seventeen, now online-schooled as an elite athlete. The Internet forgets about many people.
And there were too many Kim Tangs and Alana Watsons to look for, to guess where among them were our families and those who loved us. And perhaps missed us. We were adults; sometimes, adults do set out alone from shattered homes, and rebuild their souls in an elite sports career.
Until they find themselves at the World Championships, and runaway favourites to win it. And secretly cheating.
23.2 The characteristic of dynamic elements is that flight is involved and contact between the partners is brief and assists or interrupts flight.
Lunch lines at the official cafeterias of the World Championships venue: no taste to brag about, but nutritious meals full of protein and carbohydrates for the bodies of the best athletes on the planet. Acrobats in competition form cannot afford to be gourmets—even an extra kilogram or two, and the balance point will shift, and the carefully synchronized tumbling will fall out of sync in muscle memory.
Chris of the mixed pair stands in line for the chicken just ahead of our top. Eva of the mixed pair is with the base halfway across the cafeteria getting salads.
We say hello to Chris and Eva, separately, but our greetings echoing each other. We exchange a few pleasantries about the food, and our routines, and getting ready for dynamic and combined qualifications this afternoon and the final tomorrow.
By the salads, Eva confesses to the base, “Chris and I are hoping for a top five finish. But you two—oh my god. I have no idea how you even do that footstand, how you even learned.”
The base says, modest as is conventional, “It’s in the Code; someone must have done it before.”
“But no one does it except you.”
“Thanks. It took six months before Salter got us to it.”
By the chicken, Chris says. “Kim? Um . . .” His face matches the red of his curls, in intensity at least if not shade. “I was wondering if . . . you’d like to have coffee with me, um, sometime? If you and Alana are not, are you, um . . . ?”
Like a badly landed dismount, he bounces to a stuttering stop. “Um, that didn’t really come out the way I intended.”
Only then do we realize that although the entire global acro gossip network (elite acrobatics is a small, small world) knows us as roommates, there must be heated debates as to whether we are lesbians as well.
We want to laugh; it’s so much more complicated than that! “We are not lesbian lovers, if that is what you’re asking,” comes out smooth and even as skidding on polished, unforeseen ice.
He turns possibly redder than his hair now. “So . . . Kim, will you have coffee with me?” he says in a machine-gun rattle. “If Alana doesn’t actually mind . . . ”
We can’t keep in our laughter now. We turn to what’s likely a triviality, to hide it. “Wouldn’t Eva object?” Then we realize that we were committing the exact same age-old error he had been: assuming that athletic partners must be romantic ones as well.
Some are; like figure skaters, most of the ones who had started training together as children aren’t. “Why would she care?” is the response, as we expected. “She’s dating one of the girls in the women’s group.”
“Sure, then,” the top says. “We—I will. After quals? Due to that security thing, it seems all we have is the coffee shop in the food court, but we can do it there.”
That ambiguous we.
We dance through our qualifications dynamic routine, the top leaping onto the base’s shoulders and twisting and somersaulting off, then the two of us tumbling along the diagonal and flying up, spinning in complete synchronization.
We think of Chris. Both of us. Of the way he smiles. Of his chest muscles under his leotard. Of how damn long it has been since we—I—Jennifer had last gotten laid.
Front handspring—his tongue in our mouth—aerial cartwheel—his hands on our breasts—double pike somersault—his thighs on our hips—mine, mine, not our, he wants the top, not the base, he wants Kim, not Alana, he didn’t ask for a threes—
We land wrong. The base collapses, the top rolls, sprawling, a broken puppet. A hundred times we’ve hit that routine, in practice and in competition, and had never had so much as a form break, much less fallen.
And in the stands, our competition, our competition’s coaches, everyone who is anyone and could make it there, let out a collective gasp, and then a susurration of hope. Tang and Watson fell. Tang and Watson, Kimalana, the name that has been synonymous with crushing all competition for the past year, fell down! We can already mentally hear the bookies whip out their cell phones, changing bets on the women’s pair event.
We get up and resume the routine, smooth if abashed, then end up in the kiss-and-cry with Coach Salter.
“Kimalana!” Salter thunders. “What’s wrong with you?” And only after a moment, “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” The top’s thigh is stinging, hard. We know from long experience that by nightfall, a purple bruise will bloom there.
Chris may see it. In our leotards, stupid lust-addled brain—brains, in our leotards!
He is a gymnast like us. He knows pain from pushing a human body far beyond ordinary design specs. He won’t mind.
“Coach Salter,” our top whispers, “who are we?”
He blushes and stammers instead of answering. He knows. Gymnastics coaches are not good at keeping secrets: either you can do a routine, or you can’t, so there is no point in concealing it.
“Why can’t we know?” our base says. “Just tell us!”
“I’m . . . not allowed. Trust me. Just do your job.”
Our dynamic scores are much, much worse than we are used to, with the penalty for the fall, but still, with our difficulty being so insanely high and with the excellent Balance score, we end up in the final—in sixth place, of the six pairs to advance.
Coach Salter is biting his lip and is looking somewhere else and we follow his gaze. Up in the stands is a man in a brown suit. With the security situation, he must be a verified ticket purchaser. He is just watching.
Our meets have hundreds of people in the audience, their faces drowned in the lights anyway when we come out on the floor. Yet we have a sense we’ve seen this man before.
The barista eyes Chris and our top, trying to get us to go away, as she wants to close up. Our coffee cups have dark brown rings around the inside bottom. Chris and we have been chatting mostly about him; he has two sisters and a brother, artistic gymnasts, and, like most acrobats, he’d started there too but pommel horse proved his nemesis. He calls his family nearly every day, and speaks to his miniature schnauzer too. He is a major Star Trek geek.
We do not pay as much attention as we should, mostly aware that this is perhaps the longest we have been apart, top from base; that this is our first real date as us; that, we admit to ourselves, we are tired and rattled and scared; that some stupid TV show is playing back in our suite and we can’t possibly tell what it’s about because we, our base eyes, are just staring at a point in space that happens to have a TV screen behind it.
“You want . . . me . . . to come over tonight?” we say.
His face runs several expressions over it. His real smile is actually very different from his performance smile everyone has seen. “You sure?”
“Then—yes, Kim, yes.”
He doesn’t have a suite mate, the men’s group and men’s pair rooming together, Eva with the third girl of the women’s group, him the odd one out. Privacy. The door lock clicks.
We—the top of us—leap upon him.
He’s worked with Eva for several years, but he’d had other tops since he was a novice. He steps to hold us in handstand on his arms, laughing with joy.
We cast to handstand.
But it’s us who don’t know how to respond, how to align our centres over each other, and the sensation is the most profoundly weird one imaginable, in that uncanny valley of full-body perceptions being off. His body is separate. Surprise paints both our top face and Chris’s as we topple to the bed. He just can’t believe that Kim Tang, top of the best women’s pair in the world, couldn’t hold a handstand, when she could do it easily on the lifeless artificial practice blocks at the gym, when she could do it effortlessly on her partner on the world stage.
But a cooperative human and a set of hard blocks are very different things, and different yet from the human body that is part of you.
“You fell today. Now this. What’s wrong, Kim? Seriously, are you okay for the final tomorrow?”
We put our mouth over his to shut him up, get him to undress us, to caress our new bruise. “We’ll be fine. We were distracted. We just need,” kiss, come back up for air, “a good traditional fuck before finals.”
We’d forgotten to say ‘I.’ He doesn’t notice, willingly obliging: considerate, experienced, sensitive to a partner’s every response horizontally as he is in vertical poses. But he does expect reciprocity.
And we are divided, both parts of us. Half-mad with desire, yet aware that literally he is only getting part of us and he knows that something very subtle is amiss, even as we go through all the proper motions, clothes, condoms, all. Aware that back in the suite, our other half is alone yet feeling every sensation in the wrong body, aroused, still glowing with lust, but not quite . . . right. As if we fall just a little short of finding the true balance point that we crave; as if, even as we—all of us—somersault into orgasm, something was left only half done.
So this is what sex will be for us, as a sexual being with two bodies and no name and one world-class lie. And as we lie, in bed in his arms, on the carpet floor alone with the TV show still chattering empty stupidities, we seek to find our centre and we can’t.
We sob, and he asks half of us why, what was wrong, can he make it better, it’s always a little weird the first time with a new partner, it’s okay, he’s sorry, he’d thought we liked it. We tell him the empty stupidity that it’s not you, it’s me, only what we say is “it’s not you, it’s us.”
And this time we know he did notice.
We dress and say goodnight and good luck tomorrow, and go home to find ourself.
26.1 Combined Exercises are composed of elements characteristic of both the Balance and the Dynamic Exercises.
We are the unique person in the world for whom talking to ourself, arguing with ourself, looks the least strange and feels strangest. Having an athletic mind, both our bodies pace, in circles, around our suite in the morning, and then again around the dressing room as we change and apply our competition makeup. The long warm-up and stretch process keeps us from pacing, but as we sink into oversplits, front foot hooked around a chair seat and back thigh lying on the floor, we glare at ourself, trying to understand.
We mutter things like “Andreea Răducan” and “Chinese women’s gymnastics team at the 2000 Olympics”—infamous cases of losing medals after winning them, departing in shame, names erased from gymnastic history no matter the difficulty and beauty of their moves.
Better to bail out before, we tell ourself. Better to bail out before, and quit this sport but win our names back. Find our family. Coach the sport. Join the circus, as many retired acrobatic gymnasts do. Make love, to whomever, with a separate and clear conscience. The World Championships aren’t everything. Winning isn’t everything, not when it comes at the price of our very identities.
But without our identities, our acrobatic skill is all we have to balance on.
Yet the bell rings and we still come out for the Balance exercise, as if nothing has happened.
We move to counts; we cannot hear the music. Everything that we do, we do because of the muscle memory of two bodies, our smiles pasted on. Balance holds, unfathomably difficult balance holds, stretch for three seconds not because we are fighting for every second up, but because we have absent-mindedly forgotten to change them, frozen still as we think of something else.
No falls. No flaws. No soul. We still end up on top of the board. Our difficulty scores are sky-high; our execution scores are clean and solid; but our artistry scores have fallen from what they were in qualifications. The artistry judges look for it, and they notice that something is amiss.
Coach Salter hugs us. “Are you depressed?” he whispers in the top’s ear.
We have never shown any sign of depression in the two years he’d trained us. But now . . .
Chris and Eva are going up. Chris meets the top’s eyes. We smile. He is afraid for us falling in the dynamic exercise again, not understanding what is going on.
Well, we cannot quit at this point. Not now. We still have something to show, something to prove just with that acrobatic skill that we have instead of a name. The world, and television, needs to record our blind forward somersaults.
Here we are, Kimalana, and this is our swan song in the dynamic exercise. And if that is so, we will tumble and leap as we never have before, drinking in the cameras and the floodlights and taunting every judge and secret keeper on the planet that we fly higher than they ever will.
Because we are one.
The audience goes wild, clapping along, rising in ovation for the end of our dynamic exercise, cheering and clapping and demanding our scores even as the officials have to tell them that no, please settle down, the next mixed pair must go on and do their job and they have nothing to do with this.
The video clip of our exercise will go viral within minutes. As it should. We want all cameras on us for the combined.
We walk out into the sprung floor for the last time, the tech waiting for our opening salute to the judges in order to start our music. But instead, we step forward and face the largest camera, the one that does the closeups on its swinging boom arm, that has a microphone transmitting live. Our faces come up on the giant digital screens above the arena.
In unison of pitch and rhythm that no one except a choir can achieve, even as we stumble and stutter over the words but stumble together, we say, “We want to say something.
“We are not Kim Tang and Alana Watson. We are two bodies with one mind, and we remember that two years ago I was the acrobat Jennifer Smith.
“We want to know what happened to us. Who did this to us and erased our past. We did a tremendous amount of work to be the best in the world, but we want to face the world honestly. We want to know what we are.”
Complete silence hangs for three seconds, and then the shouting nearly deafens us, as everyone, from the people in the audience, to our competition and their coaches, to even the security guards, and of course, the press—all start shouting, different things, all blending into one.
Within minutes, people around the world who had never even heard of acrobatic gymnastics know it too. And no one will remember who will actually end up winning the World Championships this year.
“Acrobatic Duality” copyright © 2015 by Tamara Vardomskaya
Art copyright © 2014 by Ashley Mackenzie