I wake in the night to the sound of my son crying. Big, heavy sobs. Moments later, I hear his footsteps and his head appears by the bed. I hold out my arms. He climbs up and curls himself against me. I lie there, awake now, watch the blades of the ceiling fan spin. He is restless. He rolls over on to his back. With his eyes still closed, he lifts his arm, waves it around, conducting an imaginary orchestra in his dreams.
It’s a gray day - one of irritating, unexpected things. The plumber comes for a clogged sink. A flat tire in the afternoon in the rain. But later, we drive out to the home of a friend and watch the sailboats bob gently on the water. After, we stop for dinner and the evening stretches out into the dark hours of the night. We tell each other stories we have not told before. Words come out in a tumble and rush; we are giddy with the sudden luxury of time.
After so many indulgences, we stumble home late. The cool dark night has offered up its pleasures and we have taken our fill.
At the urging of my trainer, I have traded in my morning walk around the track for time at the gym. “Cardio,” he intones as he makes notes in the spiral-bound book that bears my name on its cover. Where he records my progress toward my non-existent goals. “What do you want to be able to do?” he had asked. I try to explain that this was one area in my life where I don’t have goals. Don’t want to have anything to move toward. A place where I can let that go. As I speak, he is counting. He writes something down. “Well you have to have goals,” he says as if I have not spoken. He closes the book, lays the pen on top of it. He says, “Cardio.”
We belong to the neighborhood YMCA and so I go in the early morning and wander through the long, painted cinder block corridors, each one resembling the last. There are signs with arrows pointing in all directions. There are staircases and closed doors. Exit B. Stair D. Youth Fitness Center. Pool. Each morning, I find my way by a different circuitous route. I am surprised each time I arrive in the right place.
The delicious, poetic irony of the machines there: How fast I will go, with what great efforts and speed. The numbers glow on the screens, the miles, the revolutions per minute. And yet I end exactly where I began.
The people there at this early hour are serious but friendly. We nod at each other. A few, it seems, know each other well and they cluster at one end and talk while they run the treadmills.
I am not looking for conversation. I am not looking for companionship. I smile in greeting, then put my head down, stare intently at the patterns on the screen. I turn the volume on my headphones loud enough so that people walking past can hear.
This is how I met my best friend in high school: It was early in the year, the first year. We were told we should dress in a way that we thought represented some aspect of ourselves. One of those awful exercises that someone dreams up to activate the most self-conscious, vulnerable parts of the teenage self. I operated then under the happy delusion that I was a dancer. Ten years of ballet instruction and blistered, bruised feet. I slept with phone books resting on my hips to improve my turnout. I showed up at school in pink tights and a ballet skirt and leotard only to find that no one else had taken the task quite as seriously as I had.
(“I wore this sweater because I like the color green.” “This was the shirt I wore to my sister’s graduation.” “My uncle brought this scarf for me back from Thailand.”)
But my friend. As we gathered in the gymnasium in the morning, she saw me standing a bit apart from the little groups that were forming. She came over, held out a white cardigan. “You look cold,” she said. “Would you like a sweater?”
The sweater did not do much to hide the rest of my costume, but at least, it tempered the overall look of it. She smiled at me as I slipped it on and then held out her hand. We shook hands, said our names. She had long curly hair and braces. We became inseparable from that moment on and remained largely that way through the four years.
Back at the gym, I watch a compact woman with short gray hair move through her circuit, her body all muscle and sinew. Her movements are rhythmic. She is mesmerizing. I try not to stare.
We attend an event at which we hear about the threats to women’s bodies. We are given the data points, the numbers and percentages. We shake our heads. We are asked to write our checks and so we do.
I am trying to say something about my body. About the irony of a girlhood spent ashamed of its imperfections. The decades obsessed with its size and shape when what one wanted only was to be desired for it. Feeling as though its inadequacies rendered me invisible.
And now that the shame has fallen away, it is age that begins to render me invisible.
“There is another way to think of it,” M. says. We are walking to the restaurant.
“When you were young, your body was this battleground.” He is talking about possession. About where it was I belonged. “Think of all that you have overcome,” he says. “Think of how you have come through it all.”
I nod and say yes, but I am thinking about my hip bones and my shoulder blades and about the high school boys who looked past me, through me as if I was not standing there in front of them. As if hot blood was not pulsing through my veins.
I return home from the gym and the sun is out. Yesterday’s gray and cold rain a distant memory. The air is clean and crisp.
We will spend the day outdoors. We will watch our son and his friend run in the grass, the light in their hair and on their faces. We will eat and laugh and tell each other stories.
After, as the light fades, we will return to our tasks. We will enumerate the things we have yet to do. We will ready ourselves for the week ahead.
And later, in the dark quiet night, we will give our bodies rest.