Photo by Elena Eisenstadt
This piece was originally written as a personal essay for a Junior English class assignment.
I fell off of a balance beam once. I was at my friend’s birthday party at a gymnastics gym. The whole 40-minute drive there, my mother was complaining about how far away it was and about the apparent lack of a real friendship with the birthday girl and that she would have to sit with all of these suburban moms while I swung about on poles (apparently, I would not be very good at this) and how this girl was definitely not even very good at gymnastics, but her awful mother would probably not shut up about the fact that she was competing in States next weekend (even though, in our age group, all you had to be able to do to qualify for States was a somersault) and that now, we would have to invite this girl to my birthday party and she would have to deal with the horrible mother again.
The name of this horrible mother spoke volumes about her Kansas City, Kansas, upbringing: Sherri. She had side-swept bangs and a badly-bleached, feathery ’80s cut, though it wasn’t as unbelievably unattractive as her friend Shawn’s. That woman had the sex appeal of a plastic water bottle with the label peeled off. Sherri drove the same Honda Odyssey as each of her friends. She wasn’t an East Coast suburban mom; she didn’t wear designer clothes or drunkenly sob about her failing marriage every night. Oh no, Midwest suburban moms are a different breed. She wore Ross Dress for Less jeans and loved Kohl’s. These stores my mother could tolerate (she loved a good Marshall’s run), but as soon as one of the moms mentioned the dreadful, nauseating cesspool that is Walmart, my mother halted any communication and lost any semblance or trace of respect she might have had for the poor Walmart shopper who just wanted a good deal on her new linens.
Sherri was overweight, not enough for it to be out of the ordinary but enough for my mother to comment on it. She always had eyeliner on and you could always tell. Her watery blue eyes and thin lips asserted sheer dominance and maternal power that made you feel like she was about to invite your kid over for a playdate.
My mother hated that look.
That bragging tone they had about their children irked her, as did the way they smothered their daughters with cheap makeup and false narratives of inspiration, the encouragement of their daughters to eat less, and the batting down of any hint of intellectual curiosity. My mother was younger than them, more interesting, and better-looking—the trifecta of mom jealousy. She pitied the fact that these women’s lives revolved around their children. And the fact that these moms seemed to love that. My mother, with four kids, didn’t have the time to watch every single soccer game or go to every single school talent show. They saw that as a sign of parental failure. My mother saw it as having a life of her own: pieces of her identity that didn’t depend on her kids.
Sometimes I searched for my parents in the audiences of my violin recitals or school holiday assemblies. I don’t know why I did that. I would start from the first row, carefully scanning each face. Then the second, then the third, and so on. The further back my eyes roamed, the more they strained. The light was dimmer at the back of the auditorium and my glasses were consistently an old prescription. I usually found them in the farthest back corner closest to the door or sometimes not at all. My dad was usually traveling for work and, well, I wasn’t the only kid at home. I understood.
As Sherri, Shawn, my mother, Lori, Terri, Pam, and Lynn sat in the bleachers, they watched their kids roll around on the mats below, jump into the pit of foam cubes, attempt somersaults in the air on the trampolines, and teeter slowly along the length of the balance beam. My mother, sitting quietly at the edge of the bench, observed with bored, tired eyes. The moms were discussing which of the little boys in the class their daughters might marry. They laughed and giggled as they compared the swoop of the hair on one boy to the potential build of another (“Have you seen his father?”). They cooed and awed at the thought of babies from one combination or the other.
My mother despised them, but she didn’t show it. She balanced hating the moms with not letting them know how she felt, like she was walking on the balance beam, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. As much as she hated that I was at this birthday party (clearly exhibited in the car ride there), she also didn’t want me to not be invited to birthday parties. She didn’t want to be made fun of by these moms, and she didn’t want her opinions of these women to affect my potential friendships with their daughters.
Still, I knew she was waiting with resigned contempt for the end of the godforsaken party, the chance to finally leave. But first, we would have to eat cupcakes, sing Happy Birthday, and open presents (Sherri insisted that everyone watch the birthday girl carefully rip the wrapping paper off of each present). At my birthday party that year my mother didn’t even let me receive any presents.
Back on the gym floor, I could feel the eyes of the moms, of my mother, and of the one dad that sat in the corner. I was holding up the line for the balance beam. I’d been doing somersaults across the mats for the past 10 minutes and my neck hurt. I couldn’t do anything on the bar, and the last time I attempted to climb up the blocks to jump into the foam pit, I slipped and got a rug burn on my stomach, so my only option was the balance beam. The only problem was that I had absolutely no sense of balance and a small fear of heights. So it was taking me a minute to work up the courage to climb up onto the beam.
Two girls were waiting behind me, staring as I struggled to bring my leg up and maintain the footing. I had forgotten that I didn’t actually like any of the girls here. Thinking about my mother was not helping. The smells of sweat, rubber, and chalk mingled with the distant aroma of overly oily pizza. My feet kept slipping on the cheap leather, leaving tracks not dissimilar to that of snail mucus. It stood out to me like an elephant in a cowfield. With the toes of one foot wrapped around the edge of the beam and my feeble arms pulling me up, I dragged my other leg onto the beam and I was finally on it. Now to stand up. This I did with less difficulty than the mount, but it lacked grace. I began the quivering, devastatingly slow death march to the other end of the beam. It seemed to stretch out longer with each step I took. There was no space between the heel of one foot and the toe of the other. My arms wobbled back and forth. My eyes never strayed from the beam. Just a few more steps. It was getting easier!
Then, as I moved my left leg from behind my right, I remembered my mother. No amount of arm-wobbling could have saved me. I fell flat on my back. I heard the girls who had been waiting gasp. I got up. No need to make a scene. I glanced up at the bleachers where the parents sat. Nobody had seen it. I walked over toward the bathroom, avoiding all eye contact. I wondered if they would say anything. The more I thought about it, the hotter and redder my face became and the closer hot tears came to spilling out. Once in the small, poorly-cleaned bathroom (it smelled like Glade Hawaiian Breeze®️ air freshener), I drew deep, shuddering breaths. Looking in the mirror, I pressed cold fingers to my swollen eyes, wiped my snotty nose on the borrowed leotard, and smeared the excess snot on a paper towel hanging from the dispenser. I left the paper towel there.
I went back into the gym and wandered around, somersaulting and cartwheeling whenever I felt someone’s glare land on me. Then it was time for pizza. I sat next to my friend, the birthday girl, the only kid in the room I even sort of liked. I watched her open every present with diligent care, oohing and ahhing at the E-Z Bake Oven, the Rainbow Loom, the Littlest PetShop sticker book. We ate cupcakes, and then it was time to leave. My mother had already grabbed my shoes and coat from the cubby; she was itching to get out of there. We were the first out of the building.
I had been allowed to sit in the front seat for this trip, a momentous occasion in my mind, and as I strapped myself in and held the seat belt down so that it didn’t cut into my neck, I felt very Grown Up and Important. My mother started the car and pulled out of the spot. “I saw you fall off the balance beam,” she said softly. My feeling of Grown Upness disintegrated and the hot blush returned to my face.
“I’m proud of you for trying to get on it and not giving up.”