Morven stared at the television, not really watching. The images swirled in front of her eyes and she sighed. Was this really what her life had come to?
Not long ago she'd been on top of the world. Morven Dutch, Team USA Women's Gymnastics Gold Medalist. She'd taken silver in the women's all-around. Her routines had been nearly flawless, her life had been on high speed.
She'd returned to the U.S. with the intention of competing in the next Olympics. She'd moved away, lived with a boyfriend, trained hard every day of her life, even Sundays.
Morven blanched when she thought of what happened next. The pain was still fresh, and she could feel her ankle throb, even a year later.
She had been practicing a mount onto the balance beam. It was routine– as routine as it got for Morven, at the least. She'd just had to complete a simple handspring, make sure her shoulders were squared. Her feet had to be exact.
Somewhere, she'd messed up. She had tried to fix her footing, but she fell. Her ankle was bent ninety degrees the wrong way.
Morven shuddered. She had been convinced her career was over. A year after the Olympics, and she'd hit rock bottom. At seventeen years old, her dreams were crushed.
Morven jumped at a clap of thunder. It was hot and humid in Texas, but there was no better place to train. She'd been avoiding it. She never felt the need to mention that the doctor told her she could train weeks ago. Of course, her coaches and trainers had already been informed by the medic himself, and her teammates had somehow gotten wind of it. Her coaches didn't put much value in athlete-instructor confidentiality.
When they'd asked (and, oh, they asked, every day, once or twice an hour, whether by text, phone call, email, or random stops to the apartment), Morven told them she just wasn't comfortable. It was her ankle. She would know when she was ready to train.
No one believed her.
Morven felt a lump in her throat and tried to swallow it. It was useless to cry. She'd cried for a year and now she was done.
"Want some breakfast?"
Morven jumped at Joel's voice. She hadn't realized he'd entered the room. "Yeah," she replied, not trusting herself to give more. He would be able to tell something was wrong.
He hadn't pressed the issue. Morven had told him she could train (even if it was a few days after she was told) but had also said she didn't want to talk about it. Her ankle still hurt, she said. She needed more time to rehab. It wasn't sitting the same.
Joel promised not to bring it up, and true to his word, he stayed quiet. Morven could feel the times he was tempted, but at the last minute, he would just sigh.
There had been a lot of sighing in recent days.
Many had come from Morven's mother on the phone, not excited to hear about her daughter's injury, her darling's progress, her baby's live-in relationship. Some were from her coach, who'd encouraged her to come back to the gym every conversation they had. There were even sighs from Morven herself.
Sighs of anger, sighs of despair, sighs of pleasure.
"Eggs and toast," Joel announced, dropping onto the couch and handing Morven her plate. She mumbled a thank you and dug in.
Their meal was quiet, Morven pretending to focus on her show and Joel's eyes floating around the room. His eyes stopped in the directions of the trophies and medals quite a few times.
Morven understood how he felt, looking at the glory days. There were pictures of the two of them, on top of the world. Pictures of Morven in the middle of tumbling passes, a picture of her completing her beam dismount. She'd stuck that landing perfectly, had a flawless performance. There were videos of it on youtube with bedazzled comments.
She had checked.
There were pictures of Joel, ready to dive in, a picture of him underwater, and, Morven's favorite, a profile view of him, eyes closed, iPod in ears, completely focused. Morven loved that look. He could take down the world with that look. He'd melted her heart with it.
She looked back at the medals hanging in a case, protected, guarded. So many of them gold. Joel's glory days weren't over. He was headed to another Olympics. He practically lived in the water.
Her heart broke to think of the gym. She hadn't had chalk on her hands in months, but she could swear it was ingrained in the littlest cracks. She'd caked it on from seven years old. She could feel the mats under her feet when she walked and in her dreams, she flew through the air.
Morven averted her gaze back to the show. It wouldn't due to dwell on those days. They were over.
"So what are you doing today?" Joel asked, setting his plate on the coffee table and turning to her. Morven's heart filled as she looked at him. He did anything and everything to treat every day as normal. He never acknowledged the change in Morven's behavior, never questioned her decision to continue to rehab rather than revisit training.
"I'm not sure yet," Morven shrugged, looking in his general direction. She couldn't meet his eyes, not when her day consisted of watching a movie, eating a snack, rehabbing her ankle, back to a movie, check some email, make some dinner for Joel.
Her days used to involve hours at the gym and full meals and laughs. She used to love the feel of sweat pouring down her face, relished in the cool water wetting her throat.
Now she preferred to sit in front of air condition with some lemonade.
She wasn't the same person anymore.
"What are you doing?" Morven asked him, eager to move the spotlight.
"Practice at the pool," Joel said, pulling Morven close to him, running his fingers through her hair. "That's this morning. Then I've got a few errands to run, probably stop back at the pool, then I'll be home."
Silence overtook them and Morven couldn't determine whether it was comfortable. They used to sit well in silence, but it hadn't occurred often. Now they seemed to run out of things to say.
At times, Morven wondered if they were too different. In the past year, she'd changed more than she could have imagined. Fourteen months ago, she would have described herself as an Olympian, past, present, and future. She would have described herself as a girlfriend, a best friend, a daughter.
Now she was lost.
On the nights Morven couldn't sleep, she would slip into Joel's room and watch him. He was perfect, she'd reflect. They had fought for their relationship and they had won. She had stuck with him through his injury and he had reciprocated.
Sometimes Morven wondered if he resented her for it. It was an outrageous thought, Morven knew. He loved her. He wanted to help her through injury. Yet she managed to feel like a burden each and every day. It was worse when she had a cast.
Morven wondered if she had burdened him to the point of wanting to leave. Joel had never given signs he was through with her; if anything, he'd shown her more love every day. But Morven just couldn't silence that nagging thought that they were different now, too different to survive together.
"How's your ankle?"
He asked it lightly, as if it were everyday conversation. Which, Morven thought, it was. She had an injury. It was only normal for an athlete to ask about another athlete's injury.
"Shaky," she said. "Sore."
Joel nodded and stayed quiet. He wouldn't force information out of her.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She stared at the TV, not looking away, even as the commercials played. One month, one week, two days. The thought made Joel sigh. Morven had been able to train for one month, one week, and two whole days. She had numerous opportunities to return to her gym, to see her coaches, to visit her team. To become herself.
Instead, after her announcement, she'd fallen further into herself. She barely spoke anymore, ate little. She stayed home and watched movies. Morven thought Joel didn't know.
He knew more than she thought.
Joel's eyes moved toward the trophy case. The pictures, the medals, they never changed. The people in them did.
The girl, smile on her face, pony tail flying, doing a split in midair, was not the girl who sat beside him. The girl in the picture loved gymnastics. The girl in the picture was a gymnast.
The girl beside him didn't care for life.
It worried him. He couldn't push her. He couldn't encourage her. He could barely speak with her. She was too sensitive about it all, afraid to face any reality. He was afraid to broach the topic. He sat beside her a while longer, relishing these moments they had together.
There were times when they sat beside each other on the couch, or moaned together in bed, or threw french fries at each other at McDonald's that Joel could see her again, his Morven. The old Morven.
Joel had learned to appreciate those moments.
Unable to afford anymore time, he kissed her cheek. "I've got to get to the pool."
Morven nodded, focused on the television. She didn't dare glance at him as he got up from the couch.
"Morv, look at me," Joel said after a pause.
Slowly, Morven turned her head, reluctantly staring into Joel's eyes. He sighed and looked weary, Morven noted. She wondered when he became so exhausted. He was only twenty-one, for Christ's sake.
"Before I go, I want to tell you this, but I don't want you to be upset." He paused and Morven wondered if he was looking for encouragement.
She threw him a bone. "Okay," she said. "I'll try not to."
Joel nodded and sighed yet again. "I don't understand why you aren't going to the gym."
Morven shut her eyes.
"I'm rehabbing," she said. She avoided Joel's gaze as she said the words, but she could feel his gaze.
"You know you can train again." Joel continued after a pause. "It's been over a year, Morv."
Morven didn't answer.
Joel let out a laugh– an astonished one, one that cut deep into Morven's soul. "I don't understand it," he told her. "I don't understand how you could walk away from your sport like that."
Morven kept her eyes closed– tried to close herself out from the world, or at least from Joel's stare– and lowered her head.
"You love gymnastics, Morven. I've seen you. I've seen you compete. I've seen that fire, that drive to win. Where the hell did that go?"
She shook her head.
"So that's how it's going to be. Okay, then. You'll listen." He sat down beside her on the couch, leaned close to her, nearly whispering.
"You're scared. You are scared, Morven. I don't know what you're scared of. Maybe you're scared that you'll shatter your ankle. Maybe you're scared that you'll have to relearn everything you've ever known." He stopped talking, but his mouth fixated at her ear. "Or maybe," he continued, after a measured silence, "you're scared you'll be better than you ever were."
Morven stayed still, trying not to take in his words, but couldn't avoid it. She told herself to keep breathing, told herself to stop the tears, told herself to ignore Joel's presence.
After a minute, he kissed the top of her head and stood up. She heard him grab his bag and leave.
Seconds after she heard the car peel away, Morven released a sob.
It was nine in the evening before Joel returned home. He'd stopped by the apartment at various times throughout the day, in brief intervals. Morven hadn't been there for any of them.
Joel reasoned it out. Freak timing. There had been times that they'd never seen each other throughout the day. Morven could have been anywhere, running errands, at the library, at the rehabilitation clinic.
But Morven had always been a constant for dinner. Even when she was in training, she'd always been home to prepare food. Joel told her repeatedly that she wasn't his wife, that it wasn't her job, but she insisted that she loved cooking, told him it was her stress reliever.
She'd cooked and baked more than ever after her accident.
"Morven?" Joel called. He couldn't smell any food, but that didn't rule out the possibility that she was at the grocery store. She could have been picking up pizza. There were any number of reasons she wasn't at home. Her car was gone, she had a license.
But she hadn't answered his texts. He got her voice mail every time he called her cell phone.
Taking a deep breath, Joel settled himself in front of the television. There was no reason to worry. She would be home.
An hour rolled past, two episodes of Friends over, and Joel was in Morven's room. Everything was neat as ever. Her clothes weren't missing. Her bed was messily made. Her digital camera was still on her dresser and God knew she wouldn't leave without that. Only one duffel bag was missing, and she could have taken that one to her rehab session.
She was still in town.
Joel let out a breath. He hadn't realized how nervous he'd been. Of course she wouldn't skip town. She was still his Morven. She wouldn't go back home to her parents and family without telling him. At least, he thought so. There relationship couldn't have been that changed. They couldn't have been so distanced Morven would want to leave.
That thought held him over for fourteen minutes. When he couldn't take it anymore, he pulled out his cell phone and called all connections he had with Morven.
Thirty minutes passed before she returned.
"No, Sara, I'm sure she's fine. I was just calling to–," Joel cut off, rushing to the doorway, staring in relief at Morven.
"Yeah, I'm here. Yeah, she's here now. Okay. Yeah. I'll tell her. Okay. Bye."
Joel snapped his phone shut. The two stood in silence. Morven's hair was muffed up, frizzy. Her shorts and tank top looked comfortable, familiar. She carried a duffle bag in one hand and a nearly empty water bottle in another.
Just as Joel was about to open his mouth, Morven dropped her items and walked to him, smothering her face in his chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. He hugged her back just as tightly, content to never let her go.
"Where were you?" Joel whispered, nuzzling his face into her hair.
Morven looked up at him, wrapped her arms around his neck. She pushed some hair off his forehead and laid a hand on his cheek.
Morven smiled. "At the gym."
Joel stared at her, hugging her tighter as she began to shake. He felt tears wet his shirt. Joel pulled her closer, nuzzling his face in her hair. He heard Morven muttering over and over, "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you..."
Joel himself felt like sobbing. "I love you, too," he whispered, holding her, content to never let her go. Her. Morven. His Morven. The old Morven.
She was back.