Chapter 1 • CHAPTER 1 •
The flight attendant thrusts a box of snacks under my nose without hesitation. I dab at the half-dried tears on my cheeks with the crumpled-up tissue I’ve been clutching ever since we left Los Angeles an hour ago and peer at the options.
“Popchips, Sun Chips, Doritos, pretzels, or trail mix,” she recites, snapping her gum.
Everything is processed and full of salt, sugar, or both. “Thanks, but I’m all set,” I say.
“The beverage cart will be coming next,” she says, ignoring my sleeping neighbor and swiveling to the passenger on the other side of the aisle.
The thirty-something woman next to me, whose iPhone lock screen is a selfie of her in Minnie Mouse ears kissing a man wearing Mickey ones at Disneyland, took an Ambien the moment she sat down. I’m grateful, because I’m not up for a conversation right now. It’s been two days since Tyler broke up with me, and I don’t want to talk to anyone, much less a stranger.
There was no question that I’d leave the apartment we shared. The lease was in Tyler’s name, and even though I had always promised that I’d be able to pay half the rent someday, I’d never been able to afford my share of the luxury high-rise condo. I didn’t have any friends I felt comfortable crashing with while I waited out my two weeks’ notice at work, which they didn’t really need anyway. I coached a preteen girls’ recreational gymnastics team only a few afternoons a week, mostly to have something to do while waiting for Tyler to return from football practice and games.
Packing was simple because Tyler owned almost everything: the gleaming set of pots and pans in the kitchen, the oversized flat-screen TV he liked to watch SportsCenter on, the sprawling sectional he’d bought under the guidance of the decorator he hired the first time he cashed an obscenely fat check and thought he had an image to uphold. I threw the remnants of my old life—clubbing dresses and stilettos collecting dust in the closet—into the trash, then stuffed the remaining T-shirts, leggings, and sneakers into two suitcases. I left pieces of me behind: my favorite dog-eared cookbook, the heating pad I used when my back pain flared up, a pair of silver earrings he had given me. Anything else I needed would be waiting for me at home in Greenwood, Massachusetts.
I don’t know if “sad” is the right word to describe how I feel. Maybe more “dazed.” Or “lost.” Or What the fuck do I do now? I’m not devastated or even angry. I love Tyler—or loved him, I guess. At first, I loved learning his quirks: the way he’d look over his shoulder after running onto the field, searching for my face in the crowd; the goofy way he grinned after his third beer; the polite, Midwestern way he always called my parents Mr. and Mrs. Abrams instead of Bill and Michelle. I admired his ease and modesty in the spotlight, traits that came naturally to him but never felt within reach for me. But I don’t know if I necessarily love him. Not anymore.
To say that I didn’t see the breakup coming both is and isn’t a lie. I guess I didn’t want to look hard enough at what our relationship had become, not until he forced the issue and announced we were done. Because that would have required examining all of it—everything that’d happened since that day in San Jose, California, when I was nineteen—and admit that Tyler has a life to move on toward, and I don’t.
After what happened at the Olympic Trials seven years ago, it was too late for me to apply to any colleges for that fall. I spent a miserable “gap year” slumped on the couch in my parents’ basement, “exploring” and “studying” the way the TV could slide from morning talk shows to daytime soaps to the six o’clock news to prime-time sitcoms to the worst dregs of late-night movies.
I worried that twenty was too old to start college, but I had been recruited to one of the country’s top gymnastics programs at Los Angeles State University, and it seemed a waste not to go. I had assumed that my reputation would precede me, that I’d be the star of the team. But I had been out of practice for more than a year by that point, recovering from my injury. I was flabby and weak, soft both physically and mentally. The other girls kept their distance; at first, I think they were intimidated to talk to me, but by the time they realized I was no queen bee anymore, they had already formed their own cliques. Practice was lonely and humiliating as I struggled to whip myself back into shape without my coach, Dimitri’s, help. His methods had been extreme—punishing exercises, a cold shoulder if you didn’t perform your best, rage if you failed—but I found myself missing them. My new coach asked us to call her Miss Marge. She began each workout with a mandatory dance party to get our hearts racing, and ripped open bags of Twizzlers as parting gifts at the end of every practice. The other girls loved her. But none of them had what it took to be truly great. Without training under the intensity of a legendary coach, how were any of us supposed to become champions?
I wound up randomly assigned to live with a scarily peppy girl named Krista. She was an LA native who claimed to be “ob-sessed” with everything, including my near brush with fame as an almost Olympic gymnast. She begged me to join her at the campus gym, where she clutched three-pound dumbbells while strolling on the treadmill, and stocked our room regularly with boxes of Franzia Sunset Blush she bought with her fake ID. Krista walked in on me in the shower one day by accident; she’s the first person who brought it to my attention that normal girls shaved their legs with their foot propped up on the ledge of the tub, not at eye level, pressed against the shower wall.
I floundered through Psych 101, Intro to Mass Communications, and Human Physiology before my GPA dipped low enough for me to get kicked off the team. I watched myself fail with a perverse sense of curiosity: I had pushed myself to superhuman lengths for years; I had never seen myself falter before. Letting go was easy when you didn’t care.
With Krista by my side, I fell into the world of dorm parties, then house parties, then bacchanalian nights at clubs. I learned the hierarchy of low-cal cocktails (vodka-soda, then vodka-tonic, then sugary vodka-cran as a last resort), the way to convince a club promoter to let you past the red velvet ropes for free, and the art of determining which men were game to flirt and which only wanted to grind their sweaty bodies against yours on the dance floor. I had finally unlocked the way regular girls got to feel powerful, beautiful, and magnetic: buzzed, carefree, gussied up in black Lycra dresses with men’s hungry eyes locked with yours, moving to the beat of a soaring pop remix. Here, in the normal world, I didn’t need to stick the landing. I could stumble—out of a club, into a cab, under the covers.
When I failed out of school midway through sophomore year, I barely registered it, other than to note that I could finally stop showing up hungover to my 12 p.m. lectures. I had some savings—bat mitzvah money and birthday money I had been given over the years and had never had time to spend—and so I rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment in Westwood. I lined up a series of odd jobs (dog-walking, babysitting) that supported my habit of ordering flimsy minidresses from NastyGal.com, and kept faithfully showing up at 1OAK, Argyle, Supperclub, or wherever my best club promoter, Angelo, would have me.
That’s how I met Tyler. The way ESPN later described it, our encounter sounded like an athlete’s happily-ever-after: a former elite gymnast just so happened to meet a rising football star one twinkling night in Los Angeles. That’s the romantic spin. Tyler and his friends bought a table at 1OAK and Angelo brought me and two other club rats over to sit with the guys. Tyler offered to pour me a drink from the glass pitchers of vodka, cranberry juice, and orange juice. Back then, Tyler was just a rookie—the backup quarterback for the LA Rams; the life-changing season that catapulted him to real, mainstream fame as a quarterback was still a year ahead of him—but he probably expected me to be impressed. Instead, I volleyed that I had been a top athlete, too, a few years back. We talked and danced and made out in the club for hours. When it was closing down for the night, he shyly invited me back to his place. On any other night, I would’ve said yes. But something came over me; maybe I recognized a kindred spirit, someone I could find common ground and an equal playing field with. Instead, I gave him my number and told him to text me if he wanted to go out sometime. Sure enough, he texted the next morning and invited me out for dinner.
That was four years ago. Dinner turned into a string of dates, which soon led to a bona fide relationship. We fell for each other fast—it was giddy and disorienting in the best way possible. He liked that I understood and supported his strict training regimen, unlike other girls he had dated in the past. And with his encouragement, the messy pieces of my life took shape. The more time we spent together, the more my diet shifted from fruit-flavored vodka to real fruits and vegetables. I started working out again. Tyler was the one who suggested that I seek out a part-time coaching job. By our third month of dating, I was smitten. By our fourth, I was confident enough to say “I love you” out loud for the first time. He said it back.
Moving into his apartment was a no-brainer. We spent almost all of our free time together anyway. Growing up, I had never allowed myself to really dream past the podium stand; when you believe you’re on the edge of Olympic history, fantasies about boyfriends seem frivolous. But there I was, twenty-three years old, playing house with a hunky football player, lingering just a little too long over a bridal magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store. I had found myself living a dream I’d never known I wanted.
The next season, he threw the winning pass in the Super Bowl, and he became a household name. But the cozy closeness of our relationship thinned. We saw each other less, and when we did, it was often squeezing a date night into a football banquet dinner or charity event. I saw for the first time up close what it meant to be a champion, and I hated having my nose pressed up against the glass like a dirty onlooker; I still wanted that glory for myself. I couldn’t admit that to Tyler; that meant giving him unfettered access to the haunted way my brain still taunted me with the word “failure.”
It would be easy, I think now, as the airplane cuts through a gloriously white cloud and descends into a fog, to leave the breakup at that. I’m flying to the other side of the country, where Tyler knows no one. I could pretend we broke up because he got caught up in his own fame, and I didn’t want that kind of life. Nobody would know the difference. Nobody but me.
There was an afternoon a few months back when Tyler came home unexpectedly early; he wasn’t feeling well. It was around 3 p.m. on a Thursday, one of my days off from the gym, and I was sitting on the kitchen floor with my legs splayed out in a lazy straddle, organizing the new spice rack I had ordered online. Around me, there was a mess of little plastic bottles: saffron, nutmeg, coriander, star anise, red pepper flakes. I had accumulated so many, splurging on whatever I needed to make a recipe sing. I’d discovered, once I moved in with Tyler, that I liked to cook; the process kept my hands and mind busy. And after an adolescence of grilled chicken and microwaved Lean Cuisines, the rich flavors I created felt like a gift. So I alphabetized the spices, sipping a generous pour of sauvignon blanc.
“Oh, you’re… still home?” Tyler had said, a note of surprise in his voice, taking in my ragged pajama pants and the afternoon glass of wine. He looked past my shoulder, toward the living room I had vacuumed, dusted, and straightened up earlier that day.
“Hi! I didn’t know you’d be home so early,” I chirped. I tilted my chin up so he could give me a kiss, but he didn’t. “Do you want something to eat? I can whip something up really quickly if you’re hungry.”
Tyler shook his head and turned on SportsCenter. The open-floor-plan layout of the apartment meant I could stay in that same spot on the floor and see him on the couch in the living room. But a few seconds later, he turned off the TV.
“You don’t want to, I don’t know… do something?” he asked, voice dripping with disgust.
“I’m doing this,” I said, gesturing to the spice rack.
“You’re practically a housewife,” he said. “Minus the husband and kids.”
I gave him a sour look. We’d talked about marriage as a possibility someday, because it seemed impossible to be living together in a years-long relationship in your midtwenties and not talk about it.
“I work,” I said evenly.
“Part-time,” he clarified.
“You’re the one who suggested it,” I reminded him.
“I didn’t think you’d be happy with that little to-do forever,” he countered.
“So, what? What do you want me to do?” I asked, slumping against the refrigerator and resisting the urge to grab my wineglass, lest it make me look even more like some awful cliché.
He sighed. “I don’t know, have a… passion? Have some kind of ambition?”
“You know I do. You know I did,” I said defensively, thinking furiously: How dare he.
“It’s been a long time, Avery.” His words drip out carefully, like he’s been churning over the best way to say this for a while.
I was tempted to rattle off all the things I do all day that I genuinely enjoy: cooking, coaching, trying new workouts with my ClassPass. But that wasn’t what he meant.
“Is this about money?” I demanded. “Do you want me to pay more in rent? Because I can make it work if you want me to.”
“It’s not about the money.” He sighed. “It’s just…”
He trailed off and looked critically at my bedhead, my shrunken sleep shirt printed with the name of a gymnastics meet I competed in more than a decade ago, and the overhead kitchen cabinets I’d flung open without bothering to close.
“It’s just I expected a different kind of life with you, that’s all,” he said quietly.
And then he turned the TV back on.
There were more fights like that in the months that followed. Sometimes, I’d be honest enough to admit that long ago, ambition was all I’d had. And when the one thing I had built my world around collapsed, I didn’t know where else to turn—I didn’t know how to turn. Maybe I never fully recovered from the depression that hit like a truck seven years ago. I never found a reason to.
The plane enters a rough patch of air and gives a sickening jolt. As the turbulence jostles us, a clear ding rings out through the cabin, and the pilot makes an announcement over the PA system. “At this time, we ask that you return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. Thank you.” The neon seat belt sign flashes on; there’s an uneasy groan from some of the passengers. While my neighbor continues to doze, the man across the aisle from me crosses himself and downs the remainder of the Johnnie Walker he’s been nursing. In front of him, an infant starts to wail in her mother’s lap.
The turbulence up here doesn’t bother me much. I’m more afraid of whatever lies ahead, once the flight lands back at home.