The Routine by Lucy Sweeney Byrne
Lucy is in her early thirties. She has jet black hair and brown eyes and lips that still make young men blush, and inspect their feet, when she catches them imagining. She is small and slim. At a glance, she could still be mistaken for a girl. It’s the skin around her eyes and laced across the back of her hands that gives her away. Each knuckle along her spine is easily discernible under taut skin, and the rungs of her upper-ribcage show across her décolletage, when she wears deep-necked dresses under exposed, low-watt bulbs, in the evenings.
Lucy was in the “A” strand of various teams in school (basketball, swimming, tennis, hockey, squash). But her greatest achievement was winning a silver medal in the regional under-sixteens floor gymnastics competition. It was only the slight slip on the final pivot that kept her from the gold. Her hurt ankle—nothing to be done. She’d landed, and her weak foot had slid forward, just an inch or so, under the pressure, forcing the very tip of her toe over the edge of the mat.
One of the judges, a middle-aged woman with spiked blonde hair and thick thighs under her tracksuit, placed the medal around Lucy’s neck before raising her hand high for people to applaud, as she stood, shivering with adrenaline, on the small wooden podium at the end of the gymnasium. Lucy’s photo was in the local paper, and she still has the clipping filed away. A skinny, wide-eyed girl, in shimmering blue leotard, raven-hair slicked back in a tight bun, with her hand held aloft, just left of the center. She looks, in the blurred picture, as though she is smiling, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Behind her stand her trainer, Mr. Vinchensé, and her family. She thinks they look happy. The judge told her, leaning in under the inverted V of their arms, hand gripped tight, not to worry; to keep it up, she was a natural. She remembers the soft, almost sweet smell of her own cooled sweat, combined with the warmth of the woman’s musty coffee breath in her ear, slipping softly inside the pink, curved round of its narrowing funnel. Lucy was only fourteen.
Lucy works as a receptionist in a cosmetic surgeon’s office three miles outside the city limits. The surgeon is of Greek extraction, or so he says, and specializes in rhinoplasty and chin implants. He says that Greek women are the most beautiful in the world, Goddesses, too magnificent to touch. He says that Lucy looks a little Greek, but isn’t, which is why he was able to fuck her. He chose her to entice customers. To remind them why they came. It was supposed to be a stop-gap, to make money on the side as she pursued her career in gymnastics. Lucy has been working there for just over fifteen years now.
Lucy lives in an abandoned hotel two miles outside the opposite end of the city. She must travel on two underground trains to get home, changing over in the very center, Kardia Place. It takes her eight minutes to swap from the yellow to the blue in the morning, and twelve minutes to swap back from the blue to the yellow in the evening. This is due to the volume of passengers at each time, and the one-way walking systems in place, forcing Lucy along circuitous routes to find her way home. The station is lit by fluorescent light and lined in thousands upon thousands of small, baby-blue tiles, torn advertisement posters, graffiti and security cameras. Still, from each corner wafts the fleshy, acrid smell of ripe piss. In this station there are always cataracts of bodies flowing up and down and along the corridors, in perfect formation. Only society’s outcasts pause, or speak aloud, or engage with others here. Drunks and junkies and the homeless and the terminally lonely. Lucy has managed not to speak to anyone yet.
The hotel is cold and large and decrepit, with damp patches of black and green unfurling out like dark cityscapes from ceiling corners, flaccid, mock-crystal chandeliers caked in dust, peeling sheaths of wallpaper and, in the basement, presses filled to bursting with pillows and duvets doused in the heady stench of damp mildew. Lucy has been given the apartment virtually rent-free, in exchange for guarding the property, whatever that might mean. Something to do with insurance. She has been there since she arrived in the city, and has not spoken to the owner, an enormous Scotsman, since he handed her the key. He told her that before her there had been another woman, a painter, but she had unfortunately died. He told her how it happened, but Lucy could not understand his thick accent, and felt it would be undignified to ask him to repeat. She simply avoids walking under the chandeliers, and has never taken the old, creaking elevator, even though her apartment is at the very top.
At night she can hear the pipes in the walls rattling and coughing phlegm, and scratching under the floorboards, and there are often mice droppings in the kitchen’s corners and beneath the claw-footed bath in the mornings. When she returns from work, or from the bars, there is often a sense of someone having just left in a hurry before her arrival. Of rooms recently breathed in, moved in, and air unsettled. But mostly it is quiet and spacious and private, and, most importantly, Lucy has use of the hotel’s old meeting-cum-dancehall, to practice her gymnastics routine. In this respect, it is ideal.
She remembers the routine perfectly, and, lying in bed with men, after – wards, steers the conversation so that they inevitably ask her to perform it for them. She puts up the required amount of resistance. She says, laughing dismissively, as they grope her beneath the sheets, enjoying the outlines of her bones, her concave stomach, trying to coax her open again, that it will be no good, that she has practically forgotten it. She waits until the men are obliged to insist. Then she wriggles out from their arms, sits on the edge of the soiled mattress, and stretches on her bra, hooking it expertly at her spine, elbows crooked. She threads varnished toenails through damp lace knickers, ignoring the chill of the room, the goosebumps rising across her bare thighs, and strides out. No need to illuminate the chandeliers if there’s still light, or new light milking through the high, six-paned windows. Lucy must use the old bulbs sparingly; she will be lost the day the last one wears out.
She takes up the starting position. She winks at the drowsy, tousled men, smiling as though to say God, I can’t believe you’re really making me do this! Then she is serious. Her eyes seem to lose focus. She takes each elbow in the opposite hand, one by one, and pulls across her chest, twisting at the waist, so that her hip bones jut forth in turn. She touches her toes, keeping her knees unbent. She is still remarkably supple, for her age. She grabs each foot up behind and pulls back, leaning torso forward, like a ballerina. She is cold in her underwear, with nipples hard like two underripe purple grapes, startled awake under flimsy colors and silk. But she doesn’t notice this.
She has not lost her figure, although without a bra her small breasts do droop a little. The surface of her ass, too, is beginning to mottle, and to flatten. But only a little. It is still an enviable body. When she changes in the communal changing rooms at the local pool, other women stare at her tiny, svelte waist—women with large breasts and wide hips and husbands and children and fulfilling lives—and they feel envy. But it didn’t just happen like that. It is hard to retain one’s early figure. Lucy takes care of herself. She buffs her thighs with scrubs until her skin is red raw, in the flaking, discolored shower unit. Lucy takes freezing cold showers because she cannot get hot water in the hotel anymore. But Lucy doesn’t mind—it is good for tightening her pores, and for self-discipline. She wears constricting clothes in bed and avoids starchy carbohydrates. Some evenings, she runs around the old, overgrown park four streets from the hotel. It is populated exclusively by packs of men, dotted along the darkest corners of her route. They stand around rotting benches, playing bass-heavy music, smoking, jostling and selling wares from the shadows. They encourage Lucy to run faster. She also plays tennis with her younger sister on the weekends when she goes back home to visit. Her sister is quite good, in spite of the limp. Or Lucy did, until the last time she saw her, when her sister told her that she couldn’t play anymore. It wouldn’t be safe, for the baby.
Her sister is two years her junior and is married, and works as a geography teacher in the same school she and Lucy attended in their home town, an hour and a half south of the city. She even works alongside some of the same teachers they had. Mr. Vinchensé is long gone, of course, but old Mrs. Hurley the history mistress, and creepy-crawly Mr. Lowther, who taught Lucy biology, are still there. Yes, Lucy’s sister finds it strange being one of them now, but mostly funny. She says they’re harmless, when seen from the other side. She was born with one leg longer than the other, and so has never been able to pursue sports in the same way Lucy did. She certainly could never have done gymnastics, which their mother always said was a real shame, because she had the looks for it. Mr. Vinchensé (who lived only two streets away, and knew Lucy’s father even before she started real training, from the Irish bar on North Avenue), agreed. He said it was “a true shame,” and always gave Lucy’s sister a wink and a hair tousle when he saw her, at Lucy’s competitions.
Lucy’s sister looks nothing like Lucy. She is fair with light brown hair that turns blonde in summer, and has smiling blue eyes. But then, she is slightly deformed. When Lucy outgrew various sparkling gymnastics leotards over the years—the pink, the yellow, even the silver medal–winning blue (discarded when she developed budding breasts, and replaced by a more grown up-seeming black, with a silver diamanté pattern across the left thigh and chest; her final one)—she passed them down to her sister, who used them for dressing up, dancing around the living room to pop music with her friends at the weekends, while Lucy was out at practice.
Lucy has not managed to get home to see the baby since it arrived, although her sister has sent her photographs, and letters. She means to, but her sister does not seem to realize just how time-consuming it is to become a world-class gymnast. To maintain one’s physique. From the photos, Lucy gathers the baby looks nothing like her sister’s husband. There is something distinctly European about its brow.
Lucy closes her eyes, focuses her mind, and conjures up the song for her routine, until she can almost hear it echoing around the gymnasium. She counts herself in—four, three, two . . .—and breathes deep, hissing up through flared nostrils. Then, as the men light a cigarette, or check their phone, or try to call out a joke about not tripping, or shiver, annoyed at being forced to leave the bed (and especially at being ignored), she begins.
The run-in from the corner across the blue mat, light-toed steps, knees bent, folding straight into a double cartwheel, up, turn back, then down into a front flip, on into a tumble, up to a pivot around again, toes pointed out, arms graceful out to her sides. The floor in the meeting-cum-dancehall is parquet, and slippery, and she must be careful not to fall, or to slide into the stacks of met – al-legged, soft-backed grey chairs, stood along the walls. This, she has learned, would upset into the still air exploding mushroom clouds of mustard-colored dust. And so she must be a little cautious. But she has done this many times. The performance lasts exactly ninety seconds; maybe ninety-seven seconds, if it has been a few weeks. For that time, there is only the sound of her lungs grasp – ing air, rhythmic, hoarse, her thudding hand and footsteps, the squeak of skin twisting against floor, escaping muffled groans of compressed exertion. She is sweating and out of breath by the end, and exhilarated. Her eyes gleam and her teeth are bared, and she is more alive. Little vibrations ring out in waves from the back of her neck through all her white bones, flicking out the ends of her fingers like shooting spells. She lifts her arm high afterwards, and makes sure to smile well. Her ankle rarely lets her down now. The injury is long-healed—an accident, nobody to blame—although she has never completely regained the grace she once possessed on that foot. There is always a slight clunkiness—a just visible fearfulness, not trusting herself entirely—on the final pivot.
The men clap, or whistle, or say great, that was great, or wow, you looked so sexy doing that. Maybe they look up from their phone, and give a tight half-smile. Sometimes they are handsome, in an older, distinguished way, but mostly they are a little overweight at the belly, or balding on the crown or at the temples; or they wear that defeated, ravenous expression during sex that Lucy can’t get out of her mind afterwards. But she understands, and she forgives them.
Mostly they hurry over to her, shuffling across the gaping room in their boxers and T-shirts or dressing gowns, desperate to reassert possession. They take hold of her shoulders, or put their cold hands around her tiny, warmed-up waist, or push the lump of their groin against her ass, and say, so now can we go back to bed? Or maybe they say that was great, amazing, but they really have to get going. Maybe they have work, or their wives are expecting them, or maybe they just want to be free of her now. But it’s not important what the men do.
What is important, Lucy knows, is to keep within the boundaries of the mat at all times. If she goes too far, if a toe slips over the edge, out of the designated performance area, points are deducted. This is what Mr. Vinchensé told her, repeatedly, in the frosty, white-tiled changing rooms behind the school’s theater-cum-sports hall, while she got ready, or packed up to go home. Mr. Vinchensé came from Eastern Europe somewhere, and his voice had a deep, undulating quality that Lucy can still hear trickling into her ear as she performs; telling her to point her toe there, open her hip out wide for that, bend the knees, prepare to jump. He took gymnastics seriously, and helped Lucy to mould her body into shapes and movements that seemed to defy gravity, to challenge physics. He used to say, in his warped, foreign phrasing, that she was destined for big things.
Lucy remembers, a few weeks after the regional under-sixteens, in a heated moment—both of them growing frustrated one evening, working late again— while angrily gathering up the tape recorder, towels, water bottle, Mr. Vinchensé said that he should never have allowed her to compete; not until the ankle was fully healed. He said they’d ruined everything, that they’d been greedy, greedy, and now they had lost their chance. They had lost it all.
Later, in the changing rooms, as she tried to hide her tear-stained face in the depths of her locker, he took it back. He relented. He told her, his deep voice rippling up and down across to her, his w’s sounding like v’s, that he was wrong, he was just tired; she would be fine; it would heal perfectly. Yes, she would still be a champion one day. She just had to remember to stay within the limits of the mat, no matter what. If she let herself slip outside the boundary—even just a toe!—he said, frowning down into her from under his dark caterpillar eye – brows, it would let the judges know that she was out of control. It would show that she was not the absolute master over her own body. And that was, after all, he said—his features softening, reaching out towards her—the whole point, the beauty, of the gymnastics routine. If she stayed vigilant, never again lost control over her body, he promised, Lucy could still one day achieve perfection.