Bela Karolyi

by Anne Rasmussen

It was, we told ourselves, a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Nadia hadn’t even noticed the man watching through the schoolyard fence as she turned cartwheels with her kindergarten pals. She hadn’t known he would go from class to class afterward looking for her, take her away to train with him, to change her life forever. We knew it was only a matter of time before one of us would be discovered by someone in the know. Bela Karolyi lived in America now, which seemed auspicious. Readiness was all.

We knew all about stranger danger, of course—creeps and weird guys who offered candy, coaxed children into cars or knocked on doors posing as salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Men like Bela Karolyi took little girls and made them stars; other men made them disappear like volunteers in a half-finished magic trick. At the supermarket, under the harsh fluorescence of the dairy aisle, rows upon rows of missing children peered at us from the sides of milk cartons. At the breakfast table those milk carton kids provided a doleful, grainy counterpoint to Mary Lou Retton’s triumphant, hi-res, Wheaties-box grin. We knew there were certain risks involved in seeking glory. You couldn’t flinch. You had to be able to hurtle your body through space and nail the dismount. You had to know which magician to trust so you didn’t end up sawn in half. We were pretty sure we’d be able to tell the difference. The real challenge was getting noticed.

The 1984 Olympics had woken us up from the strange, dull dream we’d been having all summer. The days had stretched on, taunting us to fill them, and for the first time we’d found ourselves at a loss. We had one more year to prepare ourselves for the torments of middle school. We had no interest in boys, no training bras to snap or put in the freezer at slumber parties. We knew we were supposed to be too old to keep playing pretend games like Circus Orphans or Anne Frank or Island of the Blue Dolphins. We spun the wheel on The Game of Life more for the whizzing sound it made than from any desire to move our little plastic cars forward, choose between an imaginary college and an imaginary job, buy imaginary fire insurance. Still we plugged pink and blue pegs into the cars as we married, had children (twins!), counted out bills and hopped along, square by square, to that joyless final reckoning: Millionaire Acres or the Poor Farm. Growing up, whatever that meant, seemed as bleak and unimaginable to us as being dead.

Then in July Bela’s girls tumbled and vaulted across our television screens: they could bring a whole arena to its feet with the flip of a ponytail. Mary Lou, with “the strength of ten horses,” Julianne “like a rare hothouse flower,” Ecaterina: “the next Nadia.” And Nadia, we learned, had started it all. They showed clip after black and white clip of little ponytailed Nadia flying between parallel bars, jackknifing and twisting through the air, driving those old-time audiences wild. And Bela had been the one to notice that specialness, pluck her from that Romanian playground like a shiny green apple. What had we even been doing in kindergarten? We needed to make up for lost time.

We practiced at Melanie’s. She had the biggest front lawn and her parents were never around to tell us to stop doing that, climb down from there, put some clothes on. Melanie’s dad worked late and her mom was always on the phone, barely acknowledging our arrival with a tight smile before turning back to her conversation. Melanie lived on a busy street, which gave us the advantage of being seen. Every blue car was driven by a talent scout, we decided. We practiced headstands, knife-straight, until the blood pounded in our skulls. Every blue car or every fifth car, whichever came first. We willed them to slow down, to take in all our potential.

Last year we’d longed to be orphans because they seemed to have all the luck: Orphan Annie, The Little Princess, Mary from The Secret Garden. Losing your parents seemed to be a prerequisite for adventure. We left our bedroom curtains open at night in spite of our mothers’ repeated admonition that people outside could see in. That was the idea, we thought as we flitted past our windows for the benefit of that kindly stranger in the dark who just might take an evening stroll around our cul de sac.

Last year we’d imagined our beautiful fourth grade teacher, Miss Jacobson, gazing up at us through our windows as we lip-synched to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” framed in golden squares of light. We pictured her phoning our parents, asking their permission to adopt us. “I realize it’s an unusual request,” she’d say, “but I’d like to nurture her exceptional talent…” Our parents would agree, of course—what parent wouldn’t be flattered by such a proposition?

Then at the end of the school year she’d gone and gotten married to a balding man with thin lips and wet patches under his arms. What had she been thinking? When she invited him to come talk to our class about marine mammals (his specialty), we were embarrassed by his high, reedy voice, how the air whistled through one nostril when he exhaled, how she looked at him with the same admiring gaze we thought she’d reserved for us: for our prowess at the flexed-arm hang, our realistic drawings of horses, and our very creative stories. Hadn’t we been enough for her? There was no way to square him with our plans for adoption. No wonder we’d felt adrift that summer.

We chose Bela Karolyi for his smile and his bushy mustache, his blue and red polo shirts, how he swept Mary Lou up in a bear hug after her winning vault, even before the judges had tallied the score, shouting “That’s a ten! That’s a ten!” He was an exotic Daddy Warbucks come to life. Our fathers shouted, but rarely with joy. They shouted at Ronald Reagan and his smug expressions, they shouted at the A’s for blowing the playoffs, they shouted at our mothers for trying to have the last word, they shouted at us to chew with your mouth closed, goddammit.

Bela’s girls enjoyed special status on the U.S. team. The cameras lingered on them as he knelt to offer advice: slim, blonde Julianne with her eyeliner and pert ponytail, dynamo Mary Lou with her compact body and quick, square grin. They went last in every rotation and scored the highest, the announcers fawning over every salto and stuck landing, gasping along with us when Julianne lost her footing on the balance beam, praising her toughness when she hopped back up to finish the routine. The parents were there too, cheering from the stands and waving signs like Julianne Truly Can! They’d trusted his vision enough to relinquish their girls to his loving care. Bela was their true father now: anyone could see it.

It was clear from the first day of fifth grade that Mrs. Dunthorpe would inspire no adoption fantasies with her grim forced smiles and lumbering gait, her breasts like sandbags failing to shore up an avalanche of chins, a gelatinous red mole on her left cheek with two wiry hairs poking out like antennae. The boys called her “Thundercow” behind her back. They only needed to hum the first few notes of the Thundercats theme song under their breath to paralyze the class with laughter. We were older and wiser, we didn’t need her approval. School was just a routine to bear until our parents let us move to Houston to train for the Olympics.

The first thing Bela Karolyi had noticed about Nadia was her fearlessness, so we demonstrated our bravery after school to every passing stranger. Then Amber gashed her forehead open on a sprinkler head at the end of a tumbling run. She didn’t cry or flinch when the doctor sewed her up, though her dad turned grayfaced and had to lie on a cot in the ER. We envied her bright, bleeding forehead; the neat line of stitches above her left eyebrow that gave her a skeptical, jaunty expression afterward. It set her apart, conferred an air of resilience. Though it was an accident, we all wished we’d thought of it first.

We lobbied our parents to let us move to Houston, to train at Bela’s gym. We needed regulation equipment, we reasoned. The curb was a poor substitute for the balance beam; there was no way we could perfect our uneven parallel bars routine on the chin-up bar. Our safety was a concern, of course—without proper mats, weren’t we likely to keep cutting ourselves open on sprinkler heads? Wouldn’t we probably get tetanus from the rusty, paint-bubbled clothesline pole in Keely’s backyard? We’d be in good hands with Bela, we assured them, the best hands! Unmoved by our appeals, they offered to sign us up for weekly after-school gymnastic lessons at the local Y.

The Y was a terrible letdown: we stood head and shoulders above the next-oldest kids in the beginners (!) class. The gym, which smelled like chlorine from the pool next door, was crammed with bendy little five through seven-year-olds somersaulting at timed intervals across the blue mats to the far wall and back. The grace and confidence of our summer routines drained away under the hot lights of the gym; we faltered at handstands, failed to do the splits. Except for double-jointed Keely, we could only touch our foreheads to the floor mats when Kazu, the grim-faced Japanese instructor sat on our backs, folding us over with his body weight until the pain in our groins made us gasp. When he moved on down the row we felt blind with relief. Anything that hurt so much had to count for something, though we weren’t sure what. Across the room, tiny, pliable six-year-olds did back walkovers, slid into perfect splits, tapped their toes to their foreheads like it was nothing. We watched them and mourned our squandered youth.

During the October assembly at school the visiting police officers taught us the special way to yell if we were grabbed by an abductor: a strange ugly lowing sound, like a cow in distress, that was supposed to carry farther than a high-pitched scream. Maryann mastered it the best and got a Tootsie Pop even though she was allergic to candy, even though it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to grab her with her headgear and her orthopedic shoe. The policemen cautioned us not to make the sound if we weren’t in danger but at recess the next week we took turns grabbing each other and mooing in Maryann’s direction until she cried.

In December, Melanie’s parents divorced and her dad moved to Texas. We were alarmed by this sudden development. Wasn’t divorce something that happened to poor people? We studied our families for signs of rupture, counted the place settings each night at dinner. When our dads stormed out to mow the lawn or take a walk after an argument, could they be planning a more permanent exit? The Game of Life had no square for divorce—you weren’t supposed to remove those pink or blue pegs from the car and anyway, where would you even put them?

Will you get to meet Bela Karolyi when you visit? We asked, but Melanie said she didn’t want to visit and besides, her dad was in Dallas. Her mom was the one who seemed to be gone, even though she was still there. Her mouth still smiled at us but her eyes were locked on something we couldn’t see, she wrapped the phone cord around her fingers until they turned red and puffy. Where were the milk cartons for missing adults?

When Melanie had to quit her lessons at the Y we quit in solidarity. We were glad to get away from those smug babies in leotards, so oblivious to the privileges of youth. Instead we watched and re-watched the videotapes of the Olympics that Melanie’s dad had recorded that summer. Had he known then that he was leaving? He hadn’t taken the VCR or the tapes with him, so we crowded onto the pilly orange couch in Melanie’s family room to relive those glorious routines: those triumphant teenage bodies twisting through space, sticking the landing, taking a victory lap around the gym, singing the national anthem with hands over hearts as Bela looked on with approval.

We noticed new things each time we watched the tapes. Why was Mary Lou the favorite, we wondered, when Julianne was so much prettier? The announcers kept talking about Nadia, Nadia, Nadia, “the girl behind the fairy tale,” how she’d started it all, how Bela had made her a star. Nadia was the first gymnast to score a perfect ten, they said, she was the reason everyone loved gymnastics now. They showed that black and white footage of little Nadia flying through her parallel bars routine, waving to the crowd with that funny crooked smile.

But then she got older and gained weight and wasn’t so good, they said. More footage, this time in color: older Nadia wobbled on the beam, she almost lost her footing, arms flailing. They showed her announcing her retirement the previous May, to make way for a new generation of Nadias. “We will never forget the woman Nadia,” intoned the announcer, “but we’ll always love Nadia the girl.” Then the cameras sought out grown-up Nadia in the stands, her face perfectly expressionless, dead-eyed like Melanie’s mom, as she watched the gymnasts perform.

She was sitting right there with the Romanian team and we never saw Bela look at her once! Wouldn’t he want to say hi? Had she done something to make him mad? She looked so plain, so grim and unexceptional on the sidelines, her signature pigtails and leotard replaced with a Princess-Di-looking haircut, a boxy high-necked, long-sleeved blouse with a priggish little red bow at the collar. How did she feel, sitting there while Bela jumped and roared like a proud papa bear, hugging his girls on the other side of the arena without so much as a glance in her direction?

In March the school nurse took the all the fifth grade girls to the cafetorium and showed us a movie about puberty, Dear Diary. Our bodies would be changing soon, we learned. It was perfectly natural to start developing breasts, to notice hair growing in unexpected places, to feel emotions we hadn’t felt before. Soon we would get periods and wear pads in our underpants to catch all the blood. Sometimes periods gave you cramps. You might get to skip PE. (Maryann nodded. She had older sisters and knew all about these things, she said, like someone had asked her to talk.)

In one scene a gray haired saleslady barged into a changing room after the girl and her friend whispered to each other about lopsided breasts. Did somebody say “BRRRRREASTS”? she shrieked, rolling her RRRRRs, shoving the curtain aside to stare, through wire-rimmed spectacles, at the mortified girls cringing in the corner, before launching into a friendly tutorial on breast size (it was normal for one to be larger than the other). We laughed like we knew we were supposed to, but the prospect of anyone staring at our bare chests was as awful as the thought of our having nothing there to see.

We thought about Kazu leaning on our backs, inching our foreheads to the mat, that awful tearing pain in our groin—was that what a period felt like? We thought about the wiry hairs growing out of Mrs. Dunthorpe’s mole, the wet patches under Miss Jacobson’s husband’s arms. We thought about Melanie’s mother lying down for another nap. We thought about “Nadia the woman” wobbling on the balance beam as Bela turned away in disgust.

After the movie was over we filed back and took our seats quietly as the boys burst in from whatever movie they’d watched in the gym with the kickball coach, slapping hands, shouting and jostling each other. Something felt off, as though someone had turned their volume up and ours down. Mrs. Dunthorpe peered at us knowingly, but we refused to meet her gaze.

At Amber’s slumber party, just before the end of the school year, Keely beckoned us into the bedroom and closed the door. Look, she said, and lifted her Lanz pajama top to reveal the breasts starting to swell on her chest, like two eggs sunny side up. (Did somebody say “BRRRRREASTS”? we thought.) They weren’t really breasts yet, more like breastlets, but they were more than we had. We were caught between fascination and envy, squeamishness and curiosity. Were we supposed to offer congratulations? Condolences? Keely searched our faces for a reaction.

“Check this out,” she said, and began bouncing on the balls of her feet, her top still bunched up under her neck. The breastlets jiggled up and down in tandem, up and down, boing-a, boing-a, BOING-A, BOING-A, as she bounced faster and faster. They looked so ridiculous bobbing around like that, and when she finally raised her eyebrows and grinned at us, we laughed until we almost peed, falling back against Amber’s ruffled comforter, screaming into the pristine plush of her Gund teddy bears, pounding the shag carpet until we gasped for air, until our laughter sounded like sobbing, and maybe it was?

We drifted apart that summer after school was out, in spite of the mathematical promises we’d inscribed in silver outliner pen in the back of our fifth grade yearbooks: 2 Good + 2 Be = 4gotten, 2 Friends + 2gether = 4ever. Amber joined a youth fellowship at church, and Melanie was dispatched to Texas to visit her dad while her mom went to live at some kind of spa, which sounded cool, though Melanie refused to describe it. She sent a few brief letters and came back in the fall wearing eyeshadow and smelling like hairspray.

Keely’s grandmother paid for her to go to some kind of fancy sleepaway theater camp and she came back with a British accent, real boobs, and double-pierced ears. I passed the days hiding in the library, examining myself daily for bodily transformations that did not occur, and dodging Maryann who seemed to turn up everywhere that summer. Time, which had stretched on so interminably the previous year, snapped forward like a released rubber band, propelling us into middle school where we learned that getting noticed was about the worst thing that could happen to someone. We got assigned different lunch periods, which might as well have been different schools. Just when I could have used a posse, I was on my own.

When my English teacher asked us to write about something that had happened during our summer vacation, I drew a blank. The only things that sprang to mind, washing everything else out with shame, were two memories I wanted only to erase.

I couldn’t write about the man who’d approached me in the children’s room of the local library in late June, just before my birthday, as I browsed the Narnia books. I couldn’t write about how he stood there so politely, waiting for me to turn and meet his gaze. He had pale skin and sad, red-rimmed eyes, like a mole, and a pouchy softness around his belly. I couldn’t write about how, when he said he was a doctor I said “nice to meet you,” because what else do you say to a doctor who introduces himself in the middle of the children’s library?

I couldn’t write about how I froze when he asked if he could pick me up to see how much I weighed. Or how he scooped me up anyway, cradling me like a baby, my legs dangling down, how his tweed jacket ground against my cheek and smelled like wet cigarettes and mildew and something cloying and sweet that I wouldn’t be able to identify until years later when I dated my first alcoholic.

I couldn’t write about how the thought of those milk carton kids made me twist away and kick my legs until he put me down but I still didn’t make a sound because we were in the library and I didn’t want anyone to see me in his arms like that. I couldn’t write how I walked out of the children’s room as fast as my wobbly legs would take me, how I rode my bike straight home and didn’t tell anyone. I certainly wasn’t going to tell my English teacher.

The other thing I’d done on my summer vacation was almost drown in Lake Anza, and I wasn’t about to write about that either. It was the last weekend of summer and I drifted on my back watching the patterns of clouds in the sky, feeling wistful about my vanishing childhood. It seems like only yesterday I was in kindergarten, I’d thought. I’d also thought I was floating back toward the shore, not away from it. As I tried to stand up I got a quick snapshot glimpse of the beach, crammed with wailing kids and upturned buckets of sand and mothers waving yellowjackets away from their chicken drumsticks, before I sank.

As my feet touched bottom I scissor-kicked up to the surface where I flailed and gasped, sank, kicked, flailed and gasped, sank, kicked, flailed and gasped. The shore appeared and dissolved, appeared and dissolved, and then my dad was in the frame, running through the water, closer and closer with each gasp, like the pages in a flipbook. I couldn’t write about how he scooped me up in his arms like a baby, my legs dangling down, how the hair on his sunburned chest tickled my cheek, how I didn’t kick my legs at him but I wanted to because what middle-school kid wants their dad carrying them all the way out of the lake with everyone watching? Except no one had been watching. No one had seen me except my dad, and wasn’t that somehow worse? How could I expect Bela Karolyi, or anyone else to notice me when I couldn’t even get a lifeguard to notice me drowning?

I guess I could have made something up—borrowed a story from Keely’s camp or a colorful anecdote from one of Melanie’s rare Texas postcards. Instead I claimed to have forgotten the assignment, and my English teacher, a short, tough, general of a woman who suffered no fools, gave me a detention. This was what growing up was about, I told myself. Sometimes you don’t have any good choices.

None of us became gymnasts, of course, or athletes of any kind. But Bela Karolyi had been our first taste of conditional love; we’d imprinted on him like baby geese, and we waddled off in search of another hit of that feeling—that powerful person who wanted us to be better than we were, who wouldn’t tolerate our inevitable failures.

I didn’t keep up with anyone from our group but I heard rumors over the years, mostly through the parent/neighbor gossip network. They were vague and unsubstantiated, embellished as stories were allowed to be in that pre-Google era: how Keely had dropped out of college, been hospitalized for an eating disorder, how Melanie got a Fulbright scholarship to study physics in Germany. How Amber went to South America on an exchange program and joined a Christian cult, how her parents had flown down there to kidnap her back. My twenties proved neither notable enough for the Christmas letter nor salacious enough for the rumor mill: a string of withholding men, mostly older, but occasionally younger, whose initial attraction to me was always balanced out by their inevitable disappointment.

Perhaps it was nostalgia, during that long strange summer between college and the great unknown void of adulthood, that led me to turn on the 1996 Olympics. I was sleeping with my supervisor at the telephone survey job I’d taken downtown, a job that let me wear torn jeans and modulate my voice to feign a prettiness I never had. I could always get lonely men to answer my surveys—the trick was getting them off the phone. Women were harder to nail down, but if I said it was my first day on the job, my voice cracking with nerves, the kind-hearted ones stayed on the line. The supervisors listened in. I couldn’t count the surveys if anyone hung up in the middle.

Bill was five years older than me and had his own efficiency apartment, which felt extravagantly grown up at the time. At work we had to pretend that nothing was going on, which worked out well for him. Even far from work, he dropped my hand in public whenever a pretty girl approached. I knew I needed to leave town, but I didn’t know where to go. I felt both world-weary and completely unprepared for the world. It would take me another twenty years to realize this feeling would never go away—you didn’t learn how to be an adult, you only learned how to hide your ignorance, the panic you still felt as you faced the simplest tasks.

I watched as Kerri Strug pounded down the runway to her second vault on that sprained ankle, sacrificing herself for the team, sticking the landing, arms thrown back, before hopping off her injured leg and collapsing forward, her face contorted in pain. Bela Karolyi had pushed her to do it, and how could she disappoint him? It was wrong of him, it was perverse for the arena to cheer as she crawled off the mat, her tiny frame shaking with great, gasping sobs. And yet, as Bela swept her into his arms like a baby and carried her to the medal podium I felt a pang of envy I should have outgrown by then. He kissed her cheek and she forced a wan smile and waved, finally, to the thunderous approval of the crowd.