Fifteen-year-old Paula’s perfectionism drives every facet of her life, from her marks in Grade 10 to the pursuit of a “perfect body.” A history project brings her face to face with her grandmother’s early life and, as she delves deeper, she is disturbed to find eerie parallels between her own struggles and what she learns of the past.
As Paula slowly destroys the very body she’s trying to perfect, her spirit is torn between settling for her imperfect life or entering the shadowy mystery of her grandmother’s Armenian past. The shimmering Euphrates River beckons her, but, as she soon discovers, there are many things worse than imperfection.
Thursday, June 24,
“Okay girls, let’s not dawdle.”
Miss Brenman was small and lean and could have been a ballerina. She seemed to take great pleasure in showing off her figure for the benefit of the group of self-conscious girls who made up the bulk of her grade 9 gym class. “Get into your groups,” she called out. “Group A, line up at the balance beam. Janet, you can be the spotter.”
Paula towered over the other four girls in group A. With her black hair hanging in her face, she walked over to the beam and jockeyed for last place in the short line. Janet, who was lithe and supple like Miss Brenman, smirked at the girls. “Let’s start with a simple knee scale.”
Simple? There was nothing simple about any of the movements as far as she was concerned. Her ever-increasing height made her feel so awkward. It was as if as soon as she got used to her new centre of gravity, it moved! She looked around the room at the other groups and watched as one of her classmates somersaulted gracefully over the pommel horse. Paula could have performed that somersault twelve months ago. A group of girls cheered as one of their classmates did cartwheels halfway across the gym floor. It’s so effortless for them! Why did she have to be so big and awkward?
In her own group, Suzie Nguyen was chosen to go first. Paula watched the tiny Vietnamese girl approach the bar with trepidation. Suzy was slim, but she had short legs and no sense of balance. Miraculously, she did her knee scale without falling.
Janet smiled broadly and helped the trembling girl down. “That was just fine, Sooz!”
Suzy smiled weakly at Janet, but Paula noticed that she was fighting back tears.
“Your turn!” The smiling Janet pointed at Paula.
Paula stepped up to the narrow beam of polished wood and gripped it with both hands. Placing her foot onto the block of wood that the girls used as a step, Paula gingerly hoisted herself up until her knees touched the top edge of the cold expanse of wood. She turned so that her body was lined in the same direction as the bar. Her knees were tight together on the bar, but even so, they felt too big for it. She had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach as she wobbled back and forth, hands gripped tightly on the bar and knees feeling like they were about to slip off.
“Hurry up, Paul,” admonished Janet, hands on hips. “We don’t have all day.”
Paula took a deep breath and tried to quell the thumping of her heart. Janet’s words only increased the tension she was feeling. Slowly, slowly, she straightened out one knee and began to draw her long leg out in her best approximation of the “simple” knee scale. Her arms were trembling and her knees ached, but miraculously, she was perfectly balanced! This was the first time she had been able to do a knee scale since her growth spurt. Her heart swelled with pride and, for a nanosecond, she forgot how uncomfortable she was.
“Stretch it out a bit more, Paul, you’re almost there,” said Janet dispassionately.
Almost there?? Paula couldn’t believe it. Didn’t Janet realize how difficult it was for her to be doing this at all? “I can’t stretch it out any more,” said Paula, her brief feeling of pride squelched.
“Sure you can.” Janet walked over to Paula and roughly adjusted Paula’s leg, pulling it into the proper position.
In a flash, Paula crashed to the ground. Knives of pain radiated through the small of her back. The pain she could handle. Far worse was Janet laughing at her.
“Paul, it’s a good thing you’ve got so much padding, otherwise you could’ve hurt yourself!”
Paula curled into a fetal position and hid her face in her knees. All around her, girls tittered nervously. Paula covered her ears with her hands, but she couldn’t block out the sound.