The truth is, I don’t remember the first time I drove past and saw piles of dirt where my gymnastics academy once stood. It seems like an important thing to miss—that moment of visual confirmation. The solid truth that the place where I grew up was gone. I expected to see the ruins of the training center where I grew up and feel it like a sucker punch to the chest. I expected to cry in a long, single-shot frame. Something Oscar-worthy. Something to replace the flowers I couldn’t lay on a grave. What actually happens when you say goodbye to anything is a slow dying off. It pulls like gravity and leaves a phantom loss.
First, your gymnastics coach mentions his plan to build a bigger gym. You are nine years old and think he should add a loft area to play in. He laughs. You imagine it will be like the Olympic training facility you see on TV. You imagine yourself as a champion.
Then you are 12 and your coach doesn’t want to teach you a difficult skill. You are too tall for him to catch easily. He says you’ll have to wait until summer camp where there is better equipment. You remember the promise of a new gym and feel slightly cheated.
Then you are 15. You are big and strong and gymnastics is your life. You work as a coach for the younger girls, then have your own practice at 9pm. It is a school night. Your coach apologizes, the gym is too full at any other hour. He shows you blueprints. They are coated in plastic and feel alien to your chalky hands.
Then you are 17. The gym has been sold but you will keep it for another year while the new one is under construction. You will be using the brand-spanking-new facility in July. Wait, August. October. January. March. May. The new building isn’t here. But time is up, the old one is coming down. You leave your own high school graduation party to sign the walls and say goodbye.
You think this will be over cleanly. You feel that you deserve for it to be. It is June and the summer tastes like lemonade and car exhaust. It is a thick sort of heat and you are packing for a new school and a new life when your coach calls and asks for help.
The day after your graduation ceremony you drive on autopilot to the place where you grew up. Your cap and gown lie crumpled in the back seat. The gym is moving to two temporary locations. You still work there. You are still a gymnast. And you spend the next four days tearing down your life with your own hands. Load beams and bars into the truck. Rip up the floor. Pry out the boards. Gut the body. Throw out a bucket of sweat-stained grips and wonder which were yours. There is so much dust in the air you can hardly breathe, but for the first time you can clearly see the entire building—stripped bare. It is bigger than you thought. Smaller, too. You thought you’d find more than cement at the bottom of the foam pit.
Smeared with grease and sweat, you stand next to the coaches who raised you, and for a moment you simply stare.
It was a white building, you practice saying. It had red accents and a banner with the silhouette of a gymnast.
The place that looked like a barn? Someone will inevitably ask.
You will laugh a little. It did look like a barn.
I broke my foot in there, you practice saying. There are two handprints in the turf under the trampoline. I wrote my name in the ceiling from the top of the climbing rope. There are grooves in the floor from the beam that squeaked. I dented that wall crashing off the uneven bars. It didn’t hurt, not then.
You are still staring at the building. When you breathe you inhale chalk and dreams. You can almost taste it, but the smell has grown faint. You load up the last truck and drive away.
That summer, you quit going to practices. You are 18 now and the dream is over. You still work as a coach at the temporary gym—a temporary place for a temporary life. You are late the first day because you go to the old building by accident. It still stands but it is hollow. You can see that now.
In July, you start making detours. Someone honks at you for going 30 mph in a 45. There is a bulldozer in the parking lot. You keep driving.
You roll down the window as if it were obstructing your view. There—you can see it now! The building lies in ruins. Tomorrow it will be dirt. Next week they will dig a new basement. Next year you will do a double take.
You are driving faster now. It is a day that ends in Y. It is any day at all.
Jessica Powers currently studies English and Anthropology at Tulane University. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her family and cats. She was a gymnast for 15 years.