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She stands in the darkened hall with her eyes closed, waiting for the music to begin. The audience is hushed, expectant. The first few moments before the spotlight turns on is what her life is about. Unlike the others, she does not dread these moments – when every breath is held in suspended animation, and every next step is filled with endless possibility. This feeling is not new to her, but tonight is a debut in many ways. Finally her chance in the big league. Her leotard glitters. From somewhere far far away she can imagine Coach (she has had other coaches since then, but he would always be ‘Coach’) holding up his good luck sign for her – the right thumb and forefinger raised in a letter L, the hand raised straight above his head.

Floor gymnastics had always fascinated her. It was not usually the first choice for aspiring elite gymnasts, whose dream was to one day win an Olympic gold. Of the four events in the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics category at the Olympics – Vault, Parallel Bars, Floor and Beam – floor ‘exercise’ was considered somewhat of a country cousin. It did not have the raw power display of the Vault or Bars, or the spectacular demonstration of balance which the Beam afforded. But the grace and acrobatics of Floors enthralled her – no other form allowed her to bring her personality to light the way the precise movements in tandem with the music did. She thought of it as her ‘specialization’.

Not that they were allowed to have favorites. Their actions, preferences, waking and sleeping hours were all dictated by the Schedule. And the Schedule was charted out by Coach. Every minute of their restless young lives was accounted for and recorded, every whim synchronized with the ‘larger picture’. Restrained with monk-like self-control. Except maybe all their thoughts. Especially the ones which were pushed right back into the forbidden corner of the mind. Bunched and balled up, stuffed into a cramped recess of sub-consciousness, from where they occasionally spilled out. And had consequences – the kind that changed you forever.

She knew there was noone else to blame. It was she who had finally stopped outside his door, after turning away from the corridor for months. Her parent’s fraying relationship had morphed into her tool of justification for taking the final step of that first knock. She knew, though, it was only she who was to blame. Tired of controlling her mind, like he had taught them to do, she had yielded. And him? He had been displeased – but not enough. He had shaken her in anger – but not for long. In the end, he had been human. Perversely, she had hated him for capitulating. She had been 17, he 36. Without a doubt, she knew, the fault was hers. By day he had pushed her harder at practice, singled her out for ridicule at the slightest slip. She had alternated between resenting his unfairness and feeling a masochistic pride at being the ‘star pupil’. She knew in a few hours the power balance would be reversed. And she would take revenge for the torment.

The fine balance of concentration had broken. The floodgates which had been tightly shut, allowing her to perform in a protected vacuum, had been blown open. The air was a mass of choking black particles, clogging every tumble she took on the mat. On the day it had mattered, she had been mediocre. The carefully chosen music for her routine had sounded flat in her ears. Her leaps had lacked lustre, her flips had been uninspired. Her crowning move, the Back-in, Full-out, had sent her crashing down into a dark abyss.

She had spent years trying to claw her way out. There had been recovery, but little healing. Success stories were built on hardships, and she knew hers did not compare. She had failed simply because she had not been good enough. It was a hard truth to accept. But she had been given a second chance, and this time she was determined. She was also older, poorer, and desperate. It was no longer a matter of glory, but one of survival. Thankfully, the years of training had served her well. At 23, her body was almost as flexible as it had been earlier. With some practice, some of her old moves had come back to her, and she had learnt some new skills. All of which were going to be poured into today’s performance.

She stands in the darkened hall with her eyes closed, waiting for the music to begin. This is a very different audience, she does not know yet if she is prepared for them. She blocks out the image of the hand holding up the letter L. As the music starts she glides in, lightly turning cartwheels until she reaches the pole which is illuminated at centrestage. Her costume glitters, flashing lightning as the lights strobe across. The proprietor watches, satisfied, as she winds herself around the pole, ascending like a cat. A cheer ripples through the hall, in darkness, except for the spotlight on her. In the audience, a nameless man with a pensive face wonders what her story is. Perfect faces with perfect figures, carrying colourful cocktails, emerge from the shadows. The select “Gentleman’s” Club in the swankiest address of the cosmopolitan city, opens for another day of business.

*a double salto (flip or somersault) with a full twist