Let It Burn | Noelle Nori
I cross one leg over the other, my right foot twitching like the broken minute hand of a clock. The pain will last until Wednesday, I remind myself. And that’s okay. It will burn, but let it burn. I should be taking off my coat, stretching, acclimating my muscles. Instead I huddle further into my big blue parka, keep shaking my foot to an inaudible beat.
I glance up. A perky looking twenty-something in a high ponytail is hanging up her coat, pulling one leg up behind her to stretch out a lean quad.
“No,” I say.
Ponytail raises her eyebrows, looks at my dancing foot.
“First time in a long time,” I amend. She nods like she understands. But she doesn’t.
I heave myself off the chair and lean against the doorframe of the waiting area as a trickle of sweaty women emerge from Studio C. There is a line of students in the hallway waiting to get in, and I take a spot behind Ponytail. Inside the studio I shed my coat, fold it into a puffy pile on the bench at the front of the room. I take off my shoes and socks and place them under the bench. The cool-down music is still humming out of the speakers, Jason Mraz telling us to “Love Someone.”
The other women and I gather our torture devices: squishy ball, Pilates ring, handled band, Versa Loop. I select two-pound weights (I’d been up to three pounds before I stopped coming) and pull a mat off the back barre. Ponytail is in my spot: middle row, right side of the room. For a minute, I consider asking if she would mind moving. But she looks all settled in, sitting with her legs outstretched, folding her torso over them. I glance around the room and head for the back left corner.
“Good to see you, Liz,” Marla says.
Marla is the instructor and owner of Artists in Motion, and I’m surprised she remembers me. It’s been nearly a year. I smile at her as she walks to the sound system to change the music, relieved she hasn’t stopped to make small talk. I hadn’t thought to prepare for what’s new, how have you been, what kept you away? If I’d thought about the possibility of having to answer friendly questions, I might not have come. Marla cranks the volume, and Jason Mraz’s croon is replaced by Jessie J thumping out instructions to “Do It like a Dude.”
Warm up begins. It’s always the same, and my body remembers what to do. Legs zip up, feet turn out. We snap them in. Out, then in. Just warming up the feet. Next, big wide second position. Push off with the working leg. Eight on each side. We’ve barely started, and I can already feel the heat spreading across my chest, already see my winter-white skin turning pink in the mirror.
Plank work is next. I get down on the mat and push myself up on my hands. We’re supposed to keep our eyes on the floor, but I tuck in my chin, look under me where the skin around my middle sags, my Lycra-woven top no match for gravity. My stomach that still looks pregnant, at least to me. Greg swears he cannot see it, as if this will make me feel better. As if anything could make me feel better.
“Breathe, ladies. In through the nose, out through the mouth.”
I puff out short breaths. My back and stomach are on fire, and I have to let my knees drop to the mat. It should be easy, just holding a position. A lot of things should be easy but aren’t. I hoist myself back up on my hands as Marla counts down: five, four, three, two, one. Sighs all around as we sink into child’s pose.
Why it’s called “child’s pose” is beyond me. I’ve never seen a child make this pose, at least not naturally, not without inducement from a yoga instructor, like that time I accidentally walked into the wrong class at Yoga For All. Maybe because it’s supposed to be easy, as in “so easy a child can do it.” Maybe I should be posing like this all the time, summoning the childbearing gods. Maybe that’s what they did in the pregnancy yoga class I suddenly got an email for after I hadn’t taken a class there in years. Scary stuff, how companies know everything. No privacy anymore. Who wants to raise a child in this, I think as I exhale, my breath syncopating with the breath of the other women around me.
Shoulders are next. I follow Marla’s movements in the mirror, nice and long. “Soft,” she likes to remind us. “Soft.” Soft as…as a baby’s bottom. Such a funny expression. This is soft like…like a lullaby. Gentle. Be gentle with yourself, Liz.
“Almost there, 16 pulses. This is where it counts.”
This is where it burns. I should have gone for the one-pounders, the “baby weights.” God, does everything have to be about babies? I can’t escape it, even in here, and I set my jaw. So much for soft and gentle. My arms quiver. Does that count as a pulse? That’s what my doctor said that day. “I’m sorry Liz, there’s no pulse.” She’d meant to say “heartbeat,” of course, but she’d said pulse.
We drop the weights and stretch. When I first started coming to class, the goal was to get those wedding arms that every Pinterest board seems obsessed with, to look good in my bikini on our honeymoon. While I like sports, I’m no natural athlete. I know all about the dangers of the modern sedentary lifestyle, but the truth is, I hate the gym. I hate the way the whole place smells like rubber: rubberized floor, rubber on the treadmills, rubber ends on the weights. I hate the sight of the bulky guys in the mirror, the ones who – it is so obvious – do not get that large without chemical assistance, muscles piled on top of muscles and neck veins bulging. And I hate the sounds. The clanging and clattering of machines, the grunting. One September night five years ago, I found a Groupon for a three-class pass for this studio. Nine months later, I’d reshaped my body. Butt stood up perky like it was saying hello, even after I crushed it all day sitting at work. My posture improved. I could carry six grocery bags from my car into my apartment building and up six floors without wanting to kill myself. All this from one class a week. Slow and steady. Consistent. I hadn’t even changed my eating habits. I tried to sprinkle in other workouts when I could – Zumba, an occasional extra evening class – but these were sporadic. No, Saturday mornings at 9:30 I could commit to, and I told myself that if I did only that, it was enough. The rest would take care of itself. And it did.
We cycle through the rest of our arm routine (biceps and triceps with the handled band) and then move to the barre. We always begin with pliés. Marla walks around the room, checking form. When she gets to me, she kicks a foot underneath my heel to take it a notch higher. “You should be shaking right now,” she says as we move into our third set, and I am. Sweat is pouring off me, pooling in places that make it look like I am peeing myself. We pulse it out, burn it out. Just when I think my legs might buckle beneath me, we’re done.
People who’ve never taken barre are surprised at just how intense it is. After all, no one is running around the room or throwing down twenty pound weights. I once dragged my friend Dee with me. Dee regularly runs marathons. Halfway through class, I saw her brunette head duck out the door, and when class let out, I had a text from her saying she was “alternately sitting in a bathtub of ice and lying down with the heating pad.” I remember being surprised, not because I didn’t think the class was hard, but because Dee had always been in better shape than I was. Plus, she was tough in a way I couldn’t compete with. 26.2 miles requires a mental fortitude I can’t even imagine. Later, she told me that she hurt for a week in places she didn’t know existed. But now I know a week is nothing. Try six months.
We are standing on our left legs now, right legs extended out behind us, arms resting lightly on the barre, unless you are like me and leaning a quarter of your body weight against it. I’ve never liked this exercise. I have a hard time keeping my hips square. I try to focus on the muscle just under my right butt cheek as I slowly raise and lower my right leg to the ground, but I’m already burning. My pelvis twists, and Marla comes over and adjusts me so that my right hip faces the floor once again. I try to take my mind off how much it hurts. I picture what the bone must look like, a round knob, and mentally draw a smiley face on it. Say hi to the floor, Mr. Knob. We start the second set, and I pretend they are two lovers in love, Mr. Knob who cannot take his eyes off Mr. Floor. Through my labored breathing, I chuckle. This is a recently acquired habit, this naming of inanimate objects, and I’m not very creative with it. They are always mister whatever-they-are. It started out of sheer terror, looking at the needle full of egg-churning hormones Greg held in his hand. Hello, Mr. Needle, I’d said, not knowing what to say, and Greg and I had laughed.
“Sixteen pulses, and you’re done!”
Marla says this to encourage us, to make us keep going, but I know what is coming. I bring my right leg down for a few beats, gearing up for a little thing she calls “bonus Saturday.” I am not wrong. I take a breath and start again. That’s all Greg and I seem to do lately, start again. I thought it would have worked by now. And I guess, technically it did work, this last time. I got pregnant. But getting pregnant doesn’t count as success. I mean, it’s better than not getting pregnant, but it’s like getting possession in a football game. You still have to go all the way downfield.
We finish the bonus set, and I cross my right ankle over my left knee to sit back into a figure four stretch. The second leg always hurts worse than the first one, and I don’t know how I will make it through. I need something to focus on – anything, anything other than the pain. I get into position and decide that after class, I am going to go to TJ Maxx and reward myself with a new workout top, one not so Lycra-y, one that doesn’t outline my there-but-no-longer-there bump. Maybe the cool, free-flowing kind like Marla is wearing now where the top is stitched to the bra in only a few places so it’s all wrappy and drapey and pretty like a dancer’s. Marla has had four kids. Nope, that’s the wrong thing to think about. Think about something else, quickly. Think how this pain will be worth it, how your butt will look so good in a couple months. Ahh, yes, that’s it. Pulse it out. Let it burn.
We stretch the left side, and calves are next. For some reason, I am really good at relevés. We start with our feet turned out, calf muscles just kissing each other, and rise up on both legs. I make sure to extend my arches; that’s what gives you such a pretty, curvy silhouette back there, like the kind Betty Grable had in her pin-up photos with the seamed stockings. Maybe I should buy myself a pair of those, too.
When we pulse, the movements are tiny but effective. I lower my heels a quarter inch, then push back up, remembering the last class I took before I stopped coming last year. We’d done a bonus round, and my legs burned until the following Friday, the calf muscles doubling in size as though I were flexing when I was just sitting. They went back down, of course, and the pain went away, but I was putting myself through enough pain with the IVF, and I decided I didn’t need any more, even if it could make you look good in seamed stockings.
We switch to single legs, and I point my right toes behind me, pull the arch in to cut across my left calf. Marla asked me once if I’d been a dancer. No, I’d said. Not unless you counted classes at the Y when I was ten years old. At Marla’s studio, they offer toddler classes. Apparently it is never too early to start.
We move into the last set, feet together, and I think of what the specialist said, that we should have started sooner. Those were the first words out of her mouth when we sat down. Hi. Nice to meet you. You should have started sooner. I grit my teeth and push up, lengthening my arches until flames ripple down the backs of my calves. I had found myself wanting to explain, to apologize: I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t meet Greg until I was thirty-two, sorry we dated for two years and were engaged for one, sorry we had the foolish idea to embrace a “whatever happens, happens” mentality after the wedding, sorry if I ever even once that first year felt the tiniest bit relieved when I saw that monthly red splotch in my underwear, sorry that I went back to not thinking about it the second year, sorry that we wasted another twelve months trying on our own before coming to see you, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. And when Marla yells, “Bonus Saturday!” I’m not annoyed, not at all, I’m raring to go, and Marla must sense this because she comes over and drops a foam block next to me so I hop on, line up my toes, the same movement only now I have greater range of motion, can give my heels farther to go, give my muscles a deeper workout.
By the end of the round I am shaking, quivering, calf muscles spasming. I straighten one leg behind me and lunge as far as I can while keeping my back heel on the ground, then I switch sides. Marla hasn’t called out the next position yet so I stretch both sides again, then reach for my water, trying to regain my breath. When I glance around though, I see that it’s not a respite granted out of the goodness of her heart. A small cluster of women have gathered around Ponytail, who is doubled over near the barre on the other side of the room, her blonde hair nearly brushing the floor.
“I’m okay,” she calls to Marla, who has started to walk over. Then she says, sounding slightly embarrassed, “That time,” and heads nod in sympathy. One woman hobbles to the front of the room, digs in her purse, and brandishes an Advil bottle.
“Has she eaten?” another one asks. “She shouldn’t take it on an empty stomach.” Ponytail’s ponytail bobs in affirmation, sweeping the floor, and Advil hobbles back with her bottle.
“I’m sorry,” Ponytail says as Advil shakes out two tablets into Ponytail’s palm. “It came on all of a sudden.”
“Should you keep going?” Has-She-Eaten asks, and I recognize her as Bonnie, the fit little grandmother who can do crunches for days.
“I’ll be okay. I can push through,” Ponytail says as she retakes her place.
We resume. The incident must have sobered Marla because she takes it easy on us: no more bonus sets. We finish our exercises at the barre, and then it’s time to lie down on our mats. Mr. Right Ankle, meet Mr. Left Kneecap, and with that I push up, pelvis lifting off the ground. Up and down, working that left hamstring gets a little boring after a while, and I need to keep my mind off the ache building in my leg, so I turn my head on the mat and flick my eyes around the room. There is Ponytail huffing away, locks splayed out above her head like bristles of a broom. Every once in a while she stops, hugs her knees to her chest. I try to think back to the moment when my period went from being an inconvenient afterthought like Ponytail’s to that thing we planned our lives around. Marla counts down the final set, tells us to stretch.
I switch legs, begin making introductions to the opposite sides of my anatomy. Two years ago. That was it. Standing in Target a week after our second anniversary, reaching for my usual box of 36-count Tampax and finding myself thinking, Wow, that seems like a lot. And then, with a smile, Maybe I won’t need them soon. Coming home to Greg mowing the lawn, baseball cap turned backwards, sweat glistening off his exposed arms. Deciding in the middle of the front yard that instead of letting whatever happen or not, we were going to make it happen.
We were focused, goal-oriented. Finishing with a kiss and a high-five. Of course we could make it happen. But when a year went by and I was still buying Tampax (although I had downsized to the 16-count), we went to the doctor, who referred us to that specialist. Tests, tests, tests. First him, then me. The good news was, nothing was really wrong, at least outside of our ages. The bad news was, if something were actually wrong, there might have been something we could do about it. Something easier – and maybe less expensive – than what we were doing now. An operation, supplements. Something.
I sigh and stretch out my right hamstring. Inner thighs are next, and I place the Pilates ring between my knees. This is a deceptively hard exercise. It’s easy to just bring your knees together, but the movement needs to come from the muscle. I focus on trying to make the foam handles touch.
Marla takes us up to double-time, and my legs shake as I try to keep up. “Pulse, pulse, pulse, pulse!” she shouts. “16 more, and we’re done!” Then, “I lied, 32 more!”
I groan and let my knees fall apart, resting a minute. When there are eight more left, I pick up again. I can do eight more. I can see the finish line.
We are almost done now. All we have left is core work, then we cool down. Marla calls out a modification “if you’re pregnant or have lower back pain.” I’ve seen women who are pregnant take this class before, but today no one is, at least not that I can tell, and I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting them, even when they aren’t showing per se. Marla must see me struggling because she calls out another modification, “if you have weak abdominals.” Yep, that’s me. I’m not overweight, despite the fact that I haven’t worked out in months, despite the – I can’t rightfully call it baby weight, let’s say hormonal weight – but I have so little ab strength it’s astounding even to me, and after a minute, I decide to just sit this one out. I put one hand on the small curve of my lower stomach and breathe, my lungs hollowing out the way my belly did six months ago. Oh god, don’t think about that; don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry. But one tear escapes, rolls down my cheek to mingle with the beads of sweat, and it’s a strange relief to just lie here and let it. Everyone has their eyes glued up to the ceiling, crunching away.
The music changes, slows, becomes soft and comforting, like the hug we give ourselves as we pull our knees in toward our chests. I could stay in this position forever.
But it’s time to move. We sit up and splay our legs apart. I can’t get mine very far from each other, the tightness like an elastic band pulled back with nowhere to go. We stretch to each side, then bring our legs back together and slowly rise up, clapping for ourselves and each other.
On rubbery legs I make my way over to the bench. There is a line of women in the hallway, waiting for the adult ballet class to begin. I slowly put on socks and shoes, my big blue parka, as Jason Mraz reminds us to “Love Someone.” I’ll be sore until Wednesday, possibly all week. But that’s okay; the burn will pass; it’ll get easier, and when it does, I’ll be glad I pushed through.
I hold the door for Ponytail on my way out.
“See you next week,” I say.
About the Author:
Noelle Nori’s fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine and The Write Launch. She was longlisted for The Masters Review 2021 Novel Excerpt contest and has also received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Press. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.