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Muscle Memory: A Case History

Illustration by Cat Finnie

Mariam I. Williams | Longreads | July 2018 |5794 words (28 minutes)

Age 35

Juan, my physical therapist, is teaching me how to feel.

I have a back injury. The disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae, the lowest vertebra in the lumbar spine and the top vertebra in the sacral region, herniated when I slid down a metal pole and landed on my butt during my second — and probably last — pole dancing fitness class. I was 32 at the time. Despite six months of physical therapy, the pain returns, always near the time of year of the original injury. I overestimate myself, leap too high, tread the elliptical too long, turn too quickly, twerk, and the muscles in my back spasm until I can do little more than lie on the floor, stomach down, and cry. The doctors say the spasms are my body’s way of protecting itself, immobilizing me to prevent further injury.

I’ve been in Juan’s care for the past few months. He’s my third PT in three years, and from day one, he’s been certain I can return to doing the activities I most enjoy without reinjuring myself. I just have to retrain the muscles.

“I had some trouble the past couple weeks,” I tell him on my first visit to his office in almost a month. We’ve decreased the frequency of my sessions because my healing has progressed. “And since you trained me to stop engaging my abs all the time, people ask me if I’m pregnant.”

Juan laughs at me openly. Then, as I describe the sensations I’ve experienced since our last meeting — dull aches around the spine, sharp pangs in the oblique muscles as I twist my torso, shakiness in the shoulders from muscle fatigue, stiffness when I fold forward — I notice Juan close his eyes, just as he does when he presses his fingertips to my abs, back, or glutes to test that the correct muscles contract as they should when I perform an exercise he has assigned. Juan has stationed me in front of a mirror only once. He wants me to be attuned to my body, to know what is right and wrong for it and for me through the way my body feels.

“The body must relearn that the necessary muscles will turn on and off when needed. You’ll get there,” Juan encourages.

I know Juan is right, that with every exercise he has me perform for four sets of 20 repetitions, my brain is memorizing my body’s movements, recording mechanics of motions that will teach me to move in ways that keep me injury-free, to feel when I have shifted my toes even one degree out of proper alignment. Yet it is difficult for me to believe my arrival is possible. I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

Age 28

I stopped trusting my heart four years before the back injury, when I was 28 years old, convinced God wanted me to marry Brian, in love with Nathan, and terrified of being wrong either way. When I was convinced but not sure, when I was not feeling the peace that other Christians had told me comes from absolute certainty. After I had already dumped Nathan twice in 18 months. Before I knew Brian and I were in year four of what would turn out to be a five-year on-again, off-again relationship, and he had spent the past two months trying to coax me back “on.”

On the night I chose between Brian and Nathan, I heard Jeremiah 17:9 — The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it? — in my head. I replayed it as I had heard it in several sermons spread out across preachers, churches, and years: with musical crescendos, rhetorical phrases, and questions a congregation answers in classic Black Church call-and-response style:

Preacher: You think it’s love at first sight. You “felt” something.

[Congregation responds with laughter — some sardonic, some nervous.]

Preacher: And you go after them because, “I just know God put me at the mall right then as they walked by!” But all God did was give you eyesight, and all that man or that woman was,was fine.

[Congregation lets out extended falsetto, “Wooh!” or firm, full “Teach!”]

Preacher: Some of y’all married right now to somebody you can’t stand and God didn’t design for you, and it’s somebody you never would’ve been with if you had just asked God in the first place before going after that man [Congregation: Well…], going after that woman [Congregation: Say that!], trusting your feelings, following your heart. Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

I asked myself these same questions as I considered the superficial — how even my mother, with her high standards of appearance, said Brian and I looked good together as a couple. Our fashionable lens frames complemented each other’s, his dark skin and insistence on neckties balanced my light complexion, blond Beyoncé weave, and penchant for cowrie-shell jewelry. I considered the serious — how the previous year we had each written separate and almost identical descriptions of our expectations of marriage. I thought about the challenges of our long-distance relationship, of seeing each other only twice within the past three years, of the nights I spent alone and crying because, for whatever reason — work emergency, a car accident, him declaring I didn’t make him feel loved enough — Brian missed another planned rendezvous. I considered Brian’s past two months of calls and poems, his high-pitched voice mournful. Then his tears and reminders — So Nathan talks to you all day, just like I do? Real love is hard to find. Nothing worth having is easy. You said you wanted us to be “a spiritual power couple,” remember? And finally, his ultimatum: Email Nathan by midnight tonight saying it’s over, and copy me, or we are done — for good.

Jeremiah 17:9 would override both the advice a therapist gave me in college to actively listen to my gut and every book and article I had read since then about how to make better decisions.

According to the therapist and the books, you can discern your heart, hear your gut, decipher a Morse-coded right way by applying a test: Lie on the floor. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax your body completely. Place one hand on your stomach, the other over your heart. Alternatively, hold two fingers to the neck, over the carotid artery. With hands in their proper positions, let your lips utter your options in a simplified form — one sentence or less. Do not recite the pros and cons of each. Do not envision your life unfolding with one choice or the other. Just speak it.

Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

On the floor of my apartment, I spoke a name into the ether. “Brian.” My pulse was too hard to feel beneath the muscles that had tightened. My stomach felt as though I were starving on that August night, only an hour after dinner.

“Nathan.” Facial muscles were not supposed to be involved, but the ones around my mouth curled up. My stomach fluttered, pulse strengthened, yet my body felt the same way it had one year before, on a park bench in Lexington, Kentucky, when I rested my head on Nathan’s chest, listened to his heart beat, felt happiness I was afraid to name.

Lying on the floor, I heard the preachers.

You love him. You love her. So you convince yourself sleeping together okay, even though you’re not married. You forgot, the heart is deceitful above all things. What you’re feeling for that person is probably in your body and you can’t let carnality lead you — ’cause the body will change, and your feelings will change. But the Word of God doesn’t.

The preachers’ voices planted what-ifs. What if Nathan weren’t a 6-foot-1, bald, muscular martial artist? What if he weren’t the finest man ever to show me attention, if I didn’t check out his ass as he walked away the same way he peeped mine? So what if his baritone makes me shiver? What if I had just followed the rules and never had sex with Nathan or Brian? Brian was my first lover and wanted to be my last and only. He understood the guilt of desire and held my hand through it. He’d been in my life for so long; so what if Nathan is only an hour away and everything is easy with him? But Nathan is distant this time, cautious. You’ve returned to Brian twice; Nathan told you he won’t let you hurt him again. But what if Nathan keeps coming back just because it’s physical?

“Call Nathan and tell him it’s not working out this time,” I said out loud. “This third chance he’s given you. Don’t offer an explanation — or do. Tell him God said — shhh. Too much thinking will mess up the test.” I felt the fight-or-flight response engaging.

You know the Word: Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then —

“Trust Brian is the man God wants for you.” My facial muscles collapsed. The pain that comes from emptiness moistened my eyes, loosened mucus. I sat up to spit it out of my throat.

— you see, something else happens first; you can’t trust feelings, and magazines, and Oprah, and TV, and what everybody else is doing, you have to renew your mind — then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is. His good. Pleasing. And perfect. Will.

The heart is deceitful. Feelings change. And I was seeking perfection.

Age 11

I first learned my body was wrong in a doctor’s office.

“I’m concerned about her weight. You see how she has that pregnant look?” I heard the doctor say this to my mom as I sat on the exam-room table, hoping I would be finished soon with the physical my middle school required before I could try out for the dance team.

I stared at and squeezed what my family always called everybody’s “meat-meat” and tuned out the rest of their conversation. Just before school started, my aunt — my only skinny aunt — had taken me shopping and said, “Don’t tell me we have to move you up another size,” when she saw my stomach pushing out against the zipper on a denim skirt I thought I could still fit. Despite my aunt’s bluntness, the doctor’s words shocked me. I hadn’t known it was that bad, even though I was aware I didn’t look like other girls my age. All I had cared about with regard to my body up until that point was that the clothing covering it looked stylish and that my body could move as well as any other girl’s, or better. I felt good about both aspects. My grandparents bought me almost anything I wanted from Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs, dance teachers had placed me in the front row for routines since I was 3, and I won dance contests at Girl Scout camp. Suddenly, at 11 years old, a doctor alerted me that I was so big, I looked like I had another person growing inside me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change. I had gone to the dance team’s summer clinic — sort of a pre-tryouts audition/reality check — before the physical. I wasn’t the biggest girl at dance team clinic, but out of more than 200 girls, only a few were larger than I was. Ashley Stevens, a white girl I had gone to school with until she moved away in third grade, wasn’t one of them. She had been thin back then, but now she was precise; she came back bragging about having a 17-inch waist. To me, she looked fragile. Nicole Kurtz, also entering the sixth grade with me, looked normal, I thought — flat chest, thighs that didn’t meet when she walked, slight swoop for soon-to-be hips; not so small she might break, not anywhere near so big she looked pregnant — and she moved in ways I wanted to move. Nicole took lessons at a professional ballet school and had danced in The Nutcracker with the local ballet company since she was 7. Her fouetté turns were fast, sharp, and perfect, her grand jetés like splits in the air, but she could also body-roll and butterfly with so much funk the black girls — including me and the coach, who carried about 80 percent of her body weight in her thighs and behind — were stunned. After the clinic and the physical, I wondered if losing weight would help me get my splits off the ground and make my body-roll look the way it was supposed to.

Between the physical and the first day of school, I came across a diet called the Alaskan Special. I don’t know how the diet ended up in my hands, printed out on plain white paper with purple-tinted ink, but it promised weight loss fast, so I was determined to do it. My mother, probably thinking I would grow bored with the plan, neither encouraged nor rejected it, so the diet commenced. Day one: Eat only fruit. Day two: Eat only vegetables. Day three: Eat both fruits and vegetables. Day four: Eat “the cleansing soup.” I followed without straying the first three days, but day four was broth with too many vegetables I hadn’t heard of. I lived in Kentucky and didn’t know then that I shouldn’t have expected to find these ingredients in any grocery store in the land of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s colonel, so by the time my mother and I made it from the store to her car without celery root, I was crying.

My mother asked me what was wrong.

“I need the …” I managed to eke out through gasps and dripping snot.

My mom had had enough. “Stop it! We don’t know where to find this stuff, and we can’t afford it anyway. There will be no more Alaskan Special!”

So I went back to eating bacon and eggs for breakfast; grilled cheese or hot bologna sandwiches for lunch; sloppy joes, beef stroganoff, or chicken à la King cooked in butter for dinner — except on Sundays, when we ate my grandmother’s fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans cooked in ham, broccoli casserole with lots of cheese, Rice-A-Roni, and tea my mom slow brewed and always put the right amount of sugar in, without measuring. And I got my daily treat of frozen cookie dough.

I didn’t make the team, not that year or seventh grade or eighth grade. A part of me blamed my body. Some of the girls were shapely, looking closer to full-grown women than 11-to-14-year-old girls. Some had body parts that jiggled uncontrollably under their purple spandex uniforms. But none were fat or overweight or big-boned or heavyset or thick or seemed to have “meat meat” on their stomachs. Even if I could have danced like Nicole — and very few girls could, even the ones who made the team — I knew I wouldn’t have looked right in that uniform.

Age 21

“What God gave you isn’t pretty,” Dr. Paul said, peering at my teeth. He was the bluntest dentist I’d ever been to. Though he crossed the boundary between hard-to-hear professional opinion and rudeness, I didn’t feel the sting I had felt in the pediatrician’s office when I was 11. This time, I knew. The dentist I had seen throughout childhood made an annual appeal from when I was 9 until I left for college: “You really should think about braces before you get any older.” The orthodontist he had referred me to took a deep breath and asked permission to be frank before saying, “Basically the rest of your teeth have grown in so close together that they’ve pushed the front teeth out to make room for themselves. I recommend extracting four of your molars, wiring your mouth shut, then wearing braces for four years.”

Nearly every kindergartner I tutored twice a week for my work-study job at a literacy center had asked me, “Why are your teeth crooked?”

Dr. Paul said I had “a beautiful bridge” on the bottom row, but the top, where my two front teeth slightly folded in toward each other like a book attempting to close, “is ugly.” Like the breasts that ceased to grow past my fourteenth birthday, the stomach and hips covered with marks that prove they stretched themselves far past their intended stopping points, and the ass that denied its blackness (“You got a white girl booty,” a black female classmate told me in high school), my teeth had betrayed me. My top teeth grew in crooked, but an accident when I was 8 years old — my face colliding with another kid’s cheek during a game of blind tag — exacerbated God’s meanness. Unlike the fad diets I began at 11 to alter my body-shape heredity, however, Dr. Paul could fix cosmic cruelty. And unlike previous years, my mother finally had enough cash for the remedy. I would give Dr. Paul the money, and he would saw off my tooth enamel and replace it with several layers of hard resin.

I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

When I returned to the office one week after the consultation and sat in Dr. Paul’s chair, my entire body recoiled, cringed, and jerked away from drills, needles, gauze, even his rubber-gloved hands.

“We don’t have to do this today,” he said. He set down his tools, removed his mask, and waited.

God, what do I do? I heard nothing.

My body told me to run.

But I didn’t ask my body what to do.

What if running is the wrong choice? What if my mother never has the money for this again? What if my graduation photos are ugly? Money for cosmetic surgery is a blessing. God, what. Do. I. Do?

My body told me to run.

I heard nothing.

The next month, my graduation photos were beautiful. The little chip on the right front tooth where dental floss broke the inferior resin wasn’t noticeable to anyone but me.

Dr. Paul fixed it at no charge, but I would forever question my decision to stay in his chair. Was that God speaking through my body? Did I remain in God’s perfect will? Does God always tell people to stay when they know they should leave?

Age 31

The  man I woke up with was singing, “Jesus is on the main line, tell him what you want. Call him up and tell him what you want,” as I lied on his couch, read the verse of the day from my Droid’s Bible app, and thought to myself, “Jesus, I want Nathan.” Nathan was not the man singing. Nathan, I could then say with certainty, was the man I would have followed, had I followed my heart when I was 28.

With the song still in my head three days later as I drove to my gynecologist’s office, I told Jesus, “I want Nathan, still. I want my gynecologist to say there’s nothing wrong. I want to believe your answers to my prayers. I want to stop ruining what you promised me. I want to learn my lessons faster. I want to stop feeling like this is punishment.”

You prayed about this, I reminded myself. It was in passing that I prayed — perhaps while changing clothes or on the treadmill — but in earnest. “OK, God. I’m almost thirty-two. Nathan is engaged now. Brian’s not the one, either. So please, tell me if I have a husband and family in my future. If the answer is no, that’s cool, but you gotta let me have casual sex.” I meant sex that was different from what I’d had with Brian or with Nathan. Sex that wasn’t confusing or naïve, that didn’t result in, or from, feeling.

The first night at the apartment of Not Nathan, a man I’d met six months prior but spent all of two dates with, I couldn’t do it. Not Nathan kissed my neck, lifted my shirt and bra to kiss my stomach and breasts. He unzipped my shorts, removed them and my panties in one swoop. He shifted my legs to spread them on the love seat we shared, knelt down, and slid his head between my knees.

I thought about how good a man’s tongue had felt there every other time. And it wasn’t for lack of skill on his part, but that God-yes rush of pleasure didn’t happen. Smelling my own scent on his face didn’t make it happen. Seeing a man close to my type — dark skin, bald, taller than me, fit enough — naked, fully viewing what I literally had dreamt about a few nights before didn’t make it happen. Telling myself, You’re a grown woman. Make it happen, didn’t make it happen. I had bargained with God, and I thought my prayer was answered. I simply couldn’t have casual sex. That meant what I wanted was still waiting for me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change.

But a week later, there was enough desire, enough will, enough wetness, to act. I ignored what I had thought was God’s\answer of “Yes, you will marry and have children,” and followed my body. And three days after Not Nathan and I had sex, I was in my doctor’s office. Nothing hurt; there was just bleeding. Not like menstrual blood a woman can feel her body expelling. “It doesn’t even show up on a panty liner, but it’s there,” I told my doctor,  “on the toilet tissue,” mysterious and bright scarlet.

I had never bled from sex with Brian or Nathan.

“You used a condom?” The doctor asked, scribbling on her chart.

“Yes.”

“Then I highly doubt it’s an STD or STI. Was he a particularly large man, or had it been a while since you’d had sex?”

“Yes and yes. Three and a half years.” I didn’t tell her the merging of our bodies felt as technical as a biology book’s description of sex.

“That probably explains it, but I’ll look anyway if you’re still concerned.”

I lay on the table and placed my bare feet in the stirrups. My doctor spotted a tiny abrasion on the vaginal wall. She told me it would heal on its own.

“In the meantime, no tampons, no intercourse. But there are other ways.”

“Got it.”

“And when you do return to vaginal intercourse, continue using condoms, especially since it’s a new relationship.”

 If only it were that, I wanted to say.

Three weeks after leaving the doctor’s office, it’s midnight, and I’m driving Not Nathan’s car to pick him up from an airport two hours away. When I leave his apartment in the morning, I’m wearing the tiniest pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. They are my benchmark, my proof: I can weigh below 130 pounds. Not Nathan’s hands slide up my waist and back as he kisses me goodbye once, twice.

“I have to go. Gotta hit the gym today.” I poke my stomach to the left of my exposed navel.

He raises one eyebrow, takes in my body, then looks me in the eye. “Girl, ain’t nothing wrong with your body.”

On my way home, I relish the lust that produced his compliment, hunger to hear it again. It is the highest praise.

Age 32

Church isn’t the place most people take an HIV test, but it was World AIDS Day, and the pastor decided to show solidarity with the cause by inviting a nurse from the Department of Health to provide free HIV testing for every member interested. He said he and his wife got tested that morning, “and all is good — praise God.”

The last time I’d had an HIV test, I was 22 and applying for the Peace Corps. I had never had sex of any kind then. I had never even kissed anyone. The nurse sped through the risk assessment questionnaire — it was quick, since all my answers were no — then asked, “So why are you getting tested?”

“Peace Corps application.”

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes and told me to roll up my sleeves.

Results took several weeks then. I waited without waiting. I returned to the clinic to pick up my test results. As I was leaving, a jolly woman at the front desk gestured to a basket on the counter and offered, “Baby, you want to take some condoms with you?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.” I smiled and skipped out of the office.

There is something freeing about certainty. To make a declaration in your mind, even without uttering it out loud or letting it take deep root in your heart, is to walk through life holding a magic lamp that clears dense fog along your personal path for miles ahead. Through nods of agreement with promises my college friends made, through joining in on their amens after the Bible’s purity verses, through guilt, through the convenience of not dating anyway, I silently said, I will wait until marriage to have sex. And at 22, I skipped out of that health clinic.

At 32, I waited about five minutes for the results of an oral swab test. It still didn’t feel like waiting. I took the test to be an obedient congregant. The nurse and I talked about the weather, how much she enjoyed the 8:00 service at my church that morning, the room we were in and how beautiful its décor of poinsettias and garlands was. “The fireside room, it’s called,” I told her. “Usually guest preachers wait here until they come into the service.” Most of my answers to the “Have you evers” were still “no.” Most of them.

I didn’t know Brian’s status. I had asked and believed his answer. He was the only man I had ever trusted in that way.

Brian and I never used condoms — never. Not even after I was with Nathan during an “off” time, and a woman Brian was seeing at the time sent me an email telling me she was sure he was gay because he couldn’t get excited about her. I, on the other hand, had rarely seen him flaccid, so I figured he just didn’t want her, and I was safe.

Brian was safe. And familiar. He was never my fantasy, never the man I wanted, never my heart’s choice. But he blew out my first magic lamp at a time that I needed it darkened, when I needed to discover and experiment with sex and touch without feeling lost. And he replaced it with another light — one just as bright but more colorful, more encompassing. Brian showed me that I could have sex, and God wouldn’t punish me but would still love me.

But what would God let me get away with if love, commitment, or monogamy were absent from the relationship? If I only wanted pleasure, what would God think?

Age 33

I’ve been seeing my physical therapist for about eight months, and I’ve figured out her goal is to make my muscles so fatigued that by the end of our session I cry.

Today she’s gentle. She massages my back and glute muscles with her hands this time, instead of kneading out the spasmed tightness with her elbows. I’m her last patient of the day and the only patient in the room. We’re going over the activities I’ve tried this week and any pain I felt while doing them. I got through 30 minutes of Zumba. Lost a lot of flexibility in yoga. I’m up to 15-second planks on the TRX.

“I tried something else recently that I don’t usually do,” I add.

“What?” she asks.

“Sex.” I cringe as I say it. This conversation is confidential, and my PT is a professional, but she is also a Catholic. Not a lapsed Catholic, she speaks highly of her parish. The radio station in the office is normally set on either a Top 40 station so clean I nicknamed it “Radio Disney” or on the Christian rock station. My intake forms show that I’m single. I don’t want to hear the silence Christians give other Christians when they disapprove of their behavior but are in a setting that demands politeness or professionalism.

Do I really need a PT’s approval for sex? Will she be more understanding if I explain that it started with burgers?

The scene: Me and my friend DJ — 35, medium brown, attractive, male, an Army vet who, save for his close-shaven fade, looks too easygoing to ever have been in uniform — waiting for a table at a restaurant serving burgers whose calories he suggested I burn off with sex.

“That’s not just me trying to be inappropriate,” he said. “I’ve heard it can help with back problems, you know, because of the release.”

I had heard in DJ’s suggestion a chance at redemption. It gave me hope I could be the woman he had seen when he met meat a professional networking event about two months before my injury. DJ told me he had watched me for almost half an hour that night, waiting for a moment to talk to me.

We tried dating then. I told myself my allure for him was sexual, but I felt girlish and awkward the first night we had sex. The dress I had chosen for the evening — a floor-length pink halter sundress that accented my shoulders and made my A cups look purposeful — couldn’t outwit my afro puffs and the permission I had secured from my mom to leave the house at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Me: “Hey, I’m going out. Can you move your car? You’re parked behind me.” Her: “Going out where?” Nearly a year later, I still wanted to live up to the potential of the woman DJ first saw. A grown woman could enjoy just a release.

I say none of this to my PT. I cringe and wait.

“Oh, yeah, that’s okay.” My PT’s massage shifts to a rub. “Just keep the positions pretty standard. On top or on your side will probably be most comfortable for you. But yeah, of course, sex is fine. The release can even be good for you.”

 Of course sex is fine. In the four years since I broke up with Brian, no one has said this to me. In that moment, it feels like sex may always be fine, that years of awkwardness, of hating my body, of hearing that on my wedding night desire will return untamed after years of resisting it are gone. That the sacroiliac joint is functional, the pubic muscles will relax every time I open my legs. That the heart has forgotten its muscle memory.

Age 35

I’ve just told my doctor that the pain in my back resurfaces at about the same time every year, near the date I slid down a stripper fitness pole and ruptured a disc. The doctor, a resident at the teaching hospital Juan recommended for muscle manipulation therapy, let out an involuntary squeal and told the med school student interning with her that what I’ve described fits Dr. Robert Fulford’s theory about the body having memory.

In his book Touch of Life, Fulford writes, “An anniversary of an illness can make you recall the past memory of your pain and the details of your life since then, the bad as well as the good. Something about this process is weakening. … No one has a clue why this happens, but it’s my guess that traumas get imprinted either in the nervous system or in the muscles.”

Or, as my doctor summarized for her student, “Body remembers trauma. Pain comes back around the anniversary of the trauma.” Then she turned back to me, sitting in the examination chair. “Now I’m going to ask you something that will sound a little strange. Sometimes pain shows up again on an injury’s anniversary because the body wants to remind us not to return to whatever we did to cause the injury in the first place. I want you to think about that as I ask you, do you need this pain?”

I think about my life before the injury, before I knew the location of my L5 and S1 vertebrae, before the Notes app became my pain journal.

Before, to be exact, six days before capping off years of two to three hours in the gym, six days a week, with a spinal injury — I had sex with DJ for the first time, even though I’d had a feeling it was a bad idea. Even though I had felt juvenile. Even though I had felt, at 32, I was never going to be grown enough at what I was trying to do.

Dr. Fulford believed “the mind creates reality. Any discord or disharmony that is permitted to exist in the mind is likely to produce an unfortunate effect in the physical body.”

This pain is a reminder, an imprinted memory: the fear of happiness in a heartbeat, the freedom of certainty, the imprisonment of seeking perfection — all are there, dwelling in the muscles and the nervous system, from heart to perineum, from brain to spine.

This pain is a reminder: I overestimate myself. I stretch too far. Enjoying noncommittal sex, maybe enjoying all sex, without guilt, is unrealistic. Whenever I’ve come close to letting go, the pain is there, reminding me to dismiss desirability, dismiss the body’s wisdom, that the heart is deceitful. Do you need this pain?

 “No. I don’t need it.”

On the table, the doctor folds and twists my body into pretzels. I hear cracks and pops. Feel them, too.

The healing is not immediate. The pain is a reminder, and forgetting it will require another year of visits, a lifetime of care and awareness of my body. But at that moment, I know: I do not need godly love to be this way. I trust my body’s wisdom. My heart is certain.

* * *

Mariam I.Williams is a Kentuckian now living in Philadelphia where she creates narratives affirming black womanhood. Her work has been published in Salon, The Common, Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance & Love, and other outlets.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Smell, Memory

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard. Read more…

How Mary Karr Teaches Her Students About Memory: A Short Excerpt from ‘The Art of Memoir’

Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point. Read more…

Fruitland

Photo by David Black, via Light in the Attic Records

Steven KurutzTrue Story | December 2016 | 51 minutes (10,117 words)

 

Some years back, an unusual and astonishing album began circulating among record collectors and fans of lo-fi music. Will Louviere was one of the first to hear it. A Bay Area vinyl dealer, Louviere is an authority on private-press LPs from the 1960s and 1970s—records that were self-produced and released by amateur musicians and destined, in most cases, for the bins of thrift stores and flea markets. In a year, Louviere and his fellow collectors across the country might buy one thousand of these obscure albums between them. Of those, maybe ten would be artistically interesting. Maybe one would astonish.

This record had been sent to Louviere by a collector, but still, his expectations weren’t high. The group was a duo, Donnie and Joe Emerson. The cover featured a studio portrait of them: teenagers with feathered brown hair, faces dappled with acne, sincere eyes meeting the camera. They were posed against the swirly blue backdrop you’d see in a school photo, with the album’s title—Dreamin’ Wild—written above them in red bubble script. Both boys were dressed flamboyantly in matching spread-collared white jumpsuits, like the outfit Evel Knievel wore vaulting over Snake River Canyon, though the jumpsuits had name patches on the chest, like a mechanic’s work shirt, an odd counter to the attempt at showbiz slickness. Donnie, posed in the front, held a Les Paul and looked a little stoned.

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The Haväng Dolmen

,Jose More/VWPics via AP Images

Chris Power | A story from the collection Mothers | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | January 2019 | 25 minutes (5,051 words)

 

Several months ago, while travelling in Sweden, I experienced something I have given up trying to explain. In fact, since it happened I have tried to push it as far from my mind as possible. But yesterday afternoon, searching for an errant set of keys, I found, nestled deep in a coat pocket, an acorn that I plucked from its cap in the forest beneath the fortress of Stenshuvud. Then it was smooth and green, but now it is tawny, and ribbed like a little barrel. You wouldn’t know it was the same acorn I picked on a whim, but holding it I felt again the compulsion that propelled me, at the end of that strange day, into the burial chamber at Haväng.

It was the end of September. I was attending a three-day conference in Lund. It finished early on a Friday afternoon, and with the weekend ahead of me, and nothing to hurry back to London for, I elected to stay. My colleagues recommended some sites – Iron and Stone Age, neither era of particular interest to  me, but I thought why not. The only one I had heard of was Ale’s Stones, Sweden’s Stonehenge, built on a clifftop above the Baltic in the shape of a great ship.

I had presented a paper at the conference, ‘Digging Deeper: On the Aetiology of Archaeological Belief.’ It was good work, and I was excited about the presentation, but the few people who turned up lacked the ability to grasp even the simplest of the points I was making. It was a blessing when it was all over and I could leave Lund. I needed some time away from people.

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In My Own Voice, Redefining Success and Failure

Alamy / Collage by Katie Kosma

Lauren DePino | Longreads | January 2019 | 21 minutes (5,245 words)

Upon eighth-grade graduation from my small elementary school in suburban Pennsylvania, each of my classmates and I walked away with a personalized memory book, hand-bound and laminated by some of our mothers. The theme, Planet Hollywood, in bubbly red type, sweeps across the cover like a comet, over the image of a metallic blue earth. Out of the iridescent globe jets a star-shaped photo of the respective member of the class of 1996.

To imagine that the best parts of our lives were yet to come felt like waiting for immortality to begin. There was an actualized version of us out there somewhere, living the life we hoped for. We just had to find the threshold. Our moment was there, laid out for us in plain sight — like a new outfit, just waiting, waiting for us to wake up and put it on.

My defining moment, your defining moment, it could be anything. It could be meeting a partner, becoming a mother, becoming a writer. You choose your blanks and you fill yourself in. You choose your questions and your answers. You pick your image.

In my eighth-grade photo, I’m encapsulated by a cerulean star. My smile is tentative behind braces and my chin protrudes ungracefully. I had blown out my bangs that morning, but by the time the photo was taken, they had given in to their natural curl. I was hesitant but hopeful.

The inside pages of our memory books display answers to questionnaires we’d filled out about what we wished to remember and who we wanted to become. On page 12, a thought bubble reads: “In the year 2006, I will be…”

When it came to envisioning the future, nothing felt out of reach. I now realize possessing this kind of incipient possibility is characteristic of privilege — of growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb where our biggest worry was not whether we could land a happy future, but which of many futures we would choose. It was also the height of the self-esteem movement, whereby parents and teachers told children that if they worked hard enough, they could be anything they wanted.

In my class, there were future everythings.

There was a major-league baseball player, a lawyer, a NASA scientist. A geneticist, a famous actress, a teacher. There was an obstetrician, a lottery winner, at least four mothers — but no dads, not yet. Someone foresaw “living at home and driving my parents nuts.” Another waxed: “I don’t think about the future, I just let it arrive.” There were a couple of question marks.

There was a paleontologist, an entrepreneur, an eye doctor. A big-time fashion designer. I wonder how many of us became who we said we would. I wonder how many of us still covet the adult life we had imagined for ourselves at 13 years old. I wonder how many of us can peacefully reconcile who we thought we’d be with who we are.

Mine was this:

Hopefully,
I will be a singer.

It looked just like that: a pyramid of letters, whose hope literally rested on the statement below it. It struck me that the mothers who edited the book chose to have “hopefully” hold its own line. Surrounded by gaping space, the word looked lonely and expectant. Hope is not certain. It engenders hesitation. It suggests anticipation without outcome. Why did I need to choose that word? When my middle sister Shayna saw it, she told me I jinxed my future. I don’t believe she’s right. But then again, all of my future hasn’t happened.
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Duet for a Small Porpoise’s Extinction

Wikimedia Commons / Collage by Katie Kosma

Kimi Eisele | Longreads | December 2018 | 22 minutes (5,477 words)

Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing / compassion would break the most orthodox heart.

— Claudia Rankine

One December afternoon two years ago, I came upon an iceberg in the Place du Pantheón in Paris. Twelve of them actually, each the size of a small car, arranged in a circle, clock-like. I observed them for a while, and then I did what I sometimes do in nature: I started dancing with the ice.

There was another dancer there, too, moving fluidly around one of the pieces. When I saw him I thought, kin, which is also what I came to feel for the ice itself.

I approached the other dancer and asked to join him. At first he said no. A cameraman was filming him, and I understood this to mean his dance was important and would be preserved. He mentioned an injury. Maybe he was afraid I would touch him or lean on him, which is a fear I myself have, given my own fragile lower back. Or maybe he thought I wanted to partner dance — waltz or jitterbug, say — and I understood that refusal as well, because that is not the kind of dancing the icebergs seemed to summon. I clarified, “Not together, just alongside. We each can do our own thing.” So he nodded and I joined him and we danced that way, improvising, alone and together, with the ice.

The ice was from Greenland. It had already broken off from the ice sheet and was melting into the sea when the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Elliason and his geologist collaborator Minik Rosing scooped it from the ocean and transported it in refrigerated shipping containers to Paris for the occasion of the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21.

While world leaders listened to scientists and economists and debated the future of the planet, people came to the Place du Pantheón to be with the 12 chunks of ice. Children, grandmothers, musicians, dancers, sanitation workers. Dogs came too. It was not unlike a petting zoo, but instead of goats and ponies, they petted ice.

Photo by Shannon Cain

I returned to the icebergs nearly every day. One night after a rain, the pavement glimmering under city lights, I made another dance, just me and the ice, dueting.

A friend filmed this dance and some weeks later, he sent me the video. He’d added music: Antonio Sanchez’s “Pathways of the Mind,” from Meridian Suite — a perfect pairing, by sheer chance. I’ll always have it now, to remember.

Technically, the word “iceberg” signifies a chunk of ice more than five meters wide that’s fallen from a glacier or ice sheet. Smaller ice chunks are called “growlers” or “bergy bits.” The Greenland growlers in the Place du Pantheón remained there for a few weeks. And then they disappeared.
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The House on Mayo Road

Dougal Waters / Getty Images / Collage by Katie Kosma

Dur e Aziz Amna | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,986 words)

The spring I turned 12, I moved to an all-girls school, and my family moved from a tiny two-bedroom in the outskirts of Pindi to a huge house in the heart of the city, 30 minutes from Pakistan’s capital. I remember walking into the vast emptiness of the new house, my shoes leaving imprints on the dusty floor. It was a January afternoon in 2004, and the sun came in through windows we would later find to be full of cracks. The garden sprouted weeds. My two brothers and I ran upstairs, knowing our parents would take the downstairs bedroom by the front door. There were two rooms on the second floor, both with their own bathroom. I told my mother, “Ammi, I’m the eldest, I want the bigger one.” She glared at me and said, “We’ll see.”

As we moved in over the next few months, I understood why Ammi had been in a foul mood. For me and my brothers, the house meant lots of space. It sat a stone’s throw away from GT Road, the historic highway that once ran from Kabul to Chittagong. It had a garden in the front and a yard in the back, large enough for us to set up a badminton net. For Ammi, the move brought months of scrubbing, washing, organizing. “Don’t think they ever cleaned this place, the old bastards,” she said under her breath as she threw a pail of water onto the grimy marble floor, the air alive with the smell of wet dust.

Built in the 1960s and given to senior employees in Pakistan’s civil service, the house was meant for officers who would hire an entourage of help to sweep the cavernous rooms, take cobwebs off the high ceilings, clean the furry grit that collected on the fans, and water the wild jasmine that bloomed every March, turning the living room fragrant. The lady of the house, the begum, often stayed at home to supervise and entertain. My mother had gotten her first teaching job months after I was born, charming the nearby school principal by telling him that Anna Karenina was her favorite book. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she told me years later. “I never finished the book, but that was its first line.” I turned the sentence over in my head, a bit miffed by Tolstoy. I felt like we were happy in our own way.

In the years to come, Ammi continued teaching English at a school nearby. She would come home later than us most days, then take a nap during which we tiptoed around the house, knowing that even the slightest sound might disturb her. Once, when we went to wake her up, she made us lie down next to her and asked, “Do you wish you had one of those mothers who stayed at home all day and took care of you?” We gave emphatic nos, because we thought Ammi was quite all right.

Soon after we’d moved in, the house splintered into two worlds. There was the world downstairs: that of morning parathas, Quran lessons, and structured TV hours (one hour a day, from 8 to 9 p.m.). Here, we came dressed in our ironed school uniforms: a maroon tunic for me, white shirts and maroon ties for my brothers. Here, we acted like the good kids our parents knew us to be. After guests left from dinner parties, my parents sometimes said, “Did you see their kids? So ill-mannered.” We, on the other hand, sat in a tight three-headed row in the drawing room, speaking when spoken to, taking no more than two kebabs even when offered.

At 9, we were sent to bed, the staircase a portal to the other world. Despite my initial desire to bag rooms, we had all taken to sleeping in the bedroom my brothers shared, its walls a freshly painted blue. My room was sea green, my favorite color, but we were conscientious kids, and my parents said it was wasteful to keep two fans going. For several hours each night, we sprawled around on the bed, sometimes talking but often not. The room always had dozens of library books lying around. In a childhood shaped by discipline, books were one thing we were allowed to be obsessive and unruly about. The librarian at my mother’s school always let us check out 50 books at a time. “Jamila’s kids, such readers,” she’d marvel to her colleagues.
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Father of Disorder

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Jessica Wilbanks | Ruminate Magazine | Summer 2012 | 29 minutes (5,761 words)

 

I

My anger, when it comes, grows from my chest outward. It’s as if my heart turns into a cauldron, simmering my blood until it rages its way through my veins, blushing my neck, quivering my hands, and pulsing itself into my formerly peaceful thoughts.

This used to happen to me quite often when I was cooking dinner for a man I loved. I’d be washing carrots idly, chopping garlic, and then that heat would start pumping. I’d clench my lips closed and concentrate on the chopping, until this man—a very good man whose own blood ran lukewarm—would ask me for a spatula or something, and then all holds were off.

I can still see this man’s face, surprised at first, like a toddler walking blithely through the park, thinking he’s holding his father’s hand before looking up to see a stranger. Of course this man took my anger into himself, thinking maybe his desire for a spatula was wrong, that he was wrong, him instead of me, simply because I was fiercer and more furious. But this man was not a dormouse, so then his own blood finally charged him up with adrenaline and fury, and we would fight over the food we were cooking.

It seemed to me when one prepares a meal in a swirl of rage, some of that rage must disperse into the food, so that when we ate hours later, after our blood was running at a more reasonable temperature, our previous heat dissipated into the meal. This is very likely a misinterpretation of the law of entropy, which states that energy tends to flow from being highly concentrated into places where it has the freedom to move.

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Paks 1918: A Pogrom and a Prelude

Getty Images / Unsplash / Collage by Katie Kosma

Howard Lovy | Longreads | November 2018 | 17 minutes (4,186 words)

 

On the banks of the Danube, there is a place where the great river takes two sharp 45-degree turns, making it difficult for ships to pass unseen. For centuries, this feature made the city, nestled within, a fortification against foreign attack. But from an enemy inside the city’s own boundaries, there was no natural protection. And for a 9-year-old boy, hiding as his neighbors ransacked his grandparents’ home, a wine barrel was the only shelter. There he hid, silent, while around him echoed the muffled, angry, anguished sounds of a pogrom.

The year was 1918 and the place on the Danube was the Hungarian city of Paks, where the local townspeople, having endured defeat in the Great War, were venting their rage on the usual cause of all their woes — their Jewish neighbors. The boy in the barrel was Jóska Lovy. Decades, lifetimes later in America, he will be known as Grandpa Joe and the beloved patriarch of an exponentially expanding family of Lovys — of doctors and engineers, of entrepreneurs and soldiers and writers — scattered across their adopted nation.

But, for now, that future was only as thick as the wood surrounding Jóska and his brother Andor, whose grandparents Jacob and Deborah Grun believed to be safe inside these barrels. They knew the casks would not be destroyed by the mob. The goyim would still need them for the coming grape harvest even if they succeeded in slitting the throat of every Jew in Paks.

Jóska cowered inside the wine barrel, surrounded by near total darkness, yet his senses were assaulted with contradictions. First, was the scent of old oak mixed with the sweet memory of Pesach. The residual smell of wine soaked into the oak barrel in which he hid helped him recall the laughter of family at Passover, the taste of holiday chocolates, the mild intoxication of his grape juice spiked with a touch of the sweet alcohol. Last year was the first seder in which he was allowed to pour a drop of wine into his cup, and he savored the knowledge that, if he drank enough of it, he would grow giddy with drunkenness, the way he heard his adults long after he was supposed to have been asleep.

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