“Did your mom fuck a tiger!?!” some kid screams looking at my cheetah suit. I dyed my hair blonde over the weekend, part of my becoming.
“Who let you out?” snickers someone to a pile of her friends. They tuck their arms under their pits to make themselves look like apes. A boy braises the elbow of a bigger boy and gets smashed into a locker. I grip my backpack straps tight, squish the flat foam into a tube shape. I focus on the squeezing.
This girl, Rose, steps in front of me. She’s too close for me to swing around and I have to stop so fast we almost both go down. “Michelle,” she says, “why a cat?” I show her my sharp canine teeth in an exaggerated smile. Then I weave past her. Rose is nice. Nice to me. She really probably is just interested, but it’s nobody’s business what I’m up to.
A hand on my shoulder. Air. Movement. I lift my arms before impact. I crash against the lockers. “Nice outfit.” I look up knowing it’s him without looking: Glenn Turn. He’s waiting for me to rise. I lock eyes with him. I lick my arm and purr while his face turns red.
“Turn,” shouts Mr. Redding from down the hall. “Right this way.” I leap up and brush the dust off my shoulder. We’re doing ropes course in gym. I love ropes course in gym, and I’m almost late, so I pick up the pace.
“Why don’t you use your tail?” asks Wally, this letterman jacket kid.
“Cat’s don’t swing from their tails, you DOOF!” Rose says, pushing one of his cinder block shoulders. “Even if you’re trying to make him feel bad, you’re totally smacking blowing it!” She sits down next to me to stretch. She reaches for her toes with her right arm and leans her head against it, looking at me. “We can be partners, Michelle. I’ll spot you.”
I don’t need a spotter. Rose knows as much. But I nod to her anyway. Rose, bites her lip. “I like the hair. I think yellow eyes are cool.”
“It’s not a joke.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The coach yells my name and I hop up. The coach looks at his clipboard when I near passing him. He averts his eyes, shakes his head. I anticipate his smirk, so I pick up speed to clear my head. Just when I’m supposed to jump and immerse myself in the ropes I hook left and pick up more speed. Now I feel his eyes on me. I am the fastest boy in school. Probably the fastest boy he’s ever seen. He is starting to raise his hand to applaud. I jump over the cones in front of me. Then the ground is out from under me.
I come to and a lot of faces are looking at me. “Give him space,” says the coach, shooing people away, resting his clipboard against his knee. “The floor Michelle. We just finished this morning, use your head man. You okay? Your head okay? Can you stand up?” He extends his hand, lifts me up.
“I’m okay.” The class is looking at me. They’re all fit to burst, their grins wide and stupid. Look at the cheetah boy. I walk through them, they tumble and trip out of my way. I hear the coach yell my name, I trace the lines of the ropes like they are glowing. I chart my path through them. The ropes course is flanked on one side by rings and on the other by the uneven bars, where I will start.
I free straddle the low to high bar, my hands lock on. I kip cast to a handstand, my legs pointed towards the ceiling. I can feel all the eyes on me. I let my legs drop and come back up into a backwards giant. I drop shoulder backward to another handstand, then I stoop vault with a half turn over the high bar and release into the ropes.
When I’m in the ropes I keep my motion fluid, swinging my body anywhere I can to not get caught. The bridge in the center of the course is a ten foot long, 6 inch wide plank suspended in air, when I reach it I go into a somersault roll. Where it ends, when I’m in my second spin, my ass will be at the edge - this is the exit to the swinging vines. I can feel every eye on me. I am fluid and spritely. My butt bumps the edge of the board, I have just enough momentum to reach the first vine. I waist no time and jump to the next, where I almost slip my grip.
I let the vine swing back once, tilt my weight backwards with it to rock further forward. I release, make an aggressive path forward, swing from each of the last four vines in a row until I can see the end of the course. The rings aren’t part of the course, but they’re how I’m going to end it. I reach the last vine and kick my legs forward before I release. I tuck my head backwards into a backflip, feel my legs pull over my body, my stomach turns in the upside down, I close my eyes and reach out until I feel the ring in my hand.
I had no plan past reaching the ring, I realize. I just hang on to it and let my body hang straight as a pin while I dangle in a circular motion. I keep my eyes closed until the ring is hanging straight and I’ve stopped swaying. I release, let my legs bend beneath me a little, open my eyes. There is no applause, most of the class is gone. The coach approaches me, Rose close behind me.
“Class ended a minute ago,” the coach says. “You must have missed the bell.” I catch my breath, but I don’t respond. “You did well on the bars, Miche. But I don’t get it, Cheetahs aren’t climbers, they’re runners.” I can see Rose’s face turn, like she’s chewing over Coach’s words, preparing to regurgitate her retort.
“I don’t really care what I’m supposed to do, coach,” I say, “I just want to know how it looks. How did it look?” The coach taps his clipboard once against his khakis.
“It looked cool, Michelle. I could picture a rainforest up there. It was cool.” I almost tell him cheetahs don’t live in rainforests, but I can see he already knows.