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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…

‘The Underland Is a Deeply Human Realm’: Getting Down with Robert Macfarlane

Cave of the Hands, Santa Cruz Province, Patagonia, Argentina. (Getty/Buenaventuramariano)

Tobias Carroll   | Longreads | June 2019 | 9 minutes (2,254 words)

Robert Macfarlane’s writings exist in a liminal, twilit place where language and landscape dissolve into one another. He writes vividly about outdoor spaces, borders, and the way in which one type of territory transforms subtly into another. And, as befits a writer who’s conscious of how the act of writing influences the spaces he’s writing about, he’s made language itself central to much of his work. His 2015 book Landmarks, for example, meanders through the long-lost definitions of a massive array of terms that were once used to describe very specific parts of the landscape; their loss is to some extent due to humanity having become increasingly urban, but also speaks to larger questions about our alienation from the world around us.

Macfarlane’s work is often focused on very particular places, while the greater issues he raises are universal. His new book, Underland, descends into a quite literally overlooked landscape: the one beneath our feet. He chronicles journeys to isolated caves, the man-made caverns below cities, and scientific research facilities whose underground isolation is essential to their mission. Underland reflects Macfarlane’s continued interest in language, but the nature of time is also a running theme within the book. What does it mean to enter a subterranean space that hasn’t been viewed by human eyes in thousands of years? What does it mean to create a space that may exist long after today’s civilizations have vanished? Throughout this book, Macfarlane wrestles with grand questions about humanity and its effects on the natural world. Even as he proceeds into hidden and obscured spaces, his concerns are deeply human. Read more…

Bearing the Weight of My Grandfathers’ Old Clothes

Illustration by Homestead

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,320 words)

The first time I was mistaken for my father on the phone, I feigned annoyance. It was around 2004, I was 14 or 15 years old, and my family’s main form of communication was still the cordless phone mounted to the wall at the threshold of the kitchen, important numbers listed in thick pencil on a faded pad of yellow paper taped to the inside of the neighboring cabinet door. My mother and father also had cell phones, single-function dull silver models with green calculator screens and pixelated numbers, but these devices were strictly for work or emergencies. I was too young for my own phone, which was still an uncommon luxury among my friends, especially those still without a driver’s license. At home, the majority of calls we received were from telemarketers, and by my adolescence my parents had trained me to decline the onslaught of polite, prodding inquiries from unknown numbers, so that once or twice a day I hung up on an unfamiliar voice the moment they butchered our last name.

This time, though, it was a number I recognized, from a family member, someone who knew both my dad and me well enough to identify the distinct tones and cadences of our voices. She confused us anyway. I remember the static over the line, my momentary pause as I tried to make sense of this error. How could I be mistaken for my father? How could there be any confusion given the unsure wavering in my adolescent voice? Even as a teenager, I understood one distant moment of misidentification was neither some portentous sign of manhood nor a hint that I had matured in a more physical sense of the word. At least, I didn’t see it that way. Today, the feeling of being lost in adulthood is as constant as ever, like I am still an anachronistic version of my younger self, winging it day to day, uncertain of who I am and what the hell I’m doing. This mood was intensely magnified in my adolescence. My conceptions of masculinity and adulthood were out of whack with my perception of myself. It wasn’t simply that I wasn’t a man yet, but a larger question of how could I ever be half the man my father is, at all?
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We Could Have Had Electric Cars from the Very Beginning

An advertisement depicts a Baker Electric automobile, the Baker Queen Victoria, driven by a young woman, 1909. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Dan Albert | An excerpt adapted from Are We There Yet? : The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless | W. W. Norton & Co. | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,750 words)

Most people reasonably expect the story of the evolution of the automobile to begin with the invention of the automobile itself. I’ve disappointed enough people in my life already, so I give you the Jesuit Rat Car of 1672. In that year, missionary Ferdinand Verbiest created a steam wagon to bring the Emperor of China to Jesus, but the car was only big enough to carry a rat.

If you don’t like the Jesuit Rat Car as an automotive first, you might consider Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s cannon hauler of 1769. A product of the French army’s skunk works, it was canceled in beta testing. In 1790, Nathan Read got the first American patent for a steam-powered wagon, a remarkable feat because the US Patent Office itself had yet to be invented. Perhaps that counts. In London, Richard Trevithick set a Georgian coach body atop a steam boiler and eight-foot wheels, creating the first giraffe-less carriage. In 1805, American Oliver Evans drove his harbor dredge, the Orukter Amphibolos, down the streets of Philadelphia in hopes of enticing investors for a car business. Philadelphia cobblestone street paving gave horses purchase but shook the Orukter so violently that the wheels broke. Let’s call his the first amphibious car. Read more…

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Paul Natkin/WireImage

Casey Rae | William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll | University of Texas Press | June 2019 | 28 minutes (4,637 words)

 

Naked Lunch is inseparable from its author William S. Burroughs, which tends to happen with certain major works. The book may be the only Burroughs title many literature buffs can name. In terms of name recognition, Naked Lunch is a bit like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which also arrived in 1959. Radical for its time, Kind of Blue now sounds quaint, though it is undeniably a masterwork.

Burroughs wrote the bulk of his famous novel Naked Lunch in Tan­gier, Morocco between 1954 and 1957. During those years, Burroughs was strung out and unhappy, living off of his parents’ allowance and getting deeper and deeper into addiction. He had friends but rarely saw them, preferring to spend days at a time staring at his shoes while ensorcelled in a narcotic haze.

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Caught Between Borders

Illustration by Eric Chow

Malia Politzer | Annie Hylton | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,991 words)

 
The first time his father tried to kill him, Ismail* was 15 years old. By the time he turned 19, he had escaped four attempts on his life: Once, he was outside an asylum center in South Africa, where he’d hoped to find safety; other times he was in Somalia, the country from which he fled. His father was intent on killing him to protect the family’s “honor.” No matter where he went, it seemed, his father had enlisted Somali immigrants to mete out his execution. Ismail’s crime? He is gay.

Slender and tall, Ismail dresses sharply, favoring bright colors and tight cuts. He wears a signature mixture of ladies’ perfumes, and carries a silver-chain necklace and anklet in his backpack that he longs to wear but is too afraid to put on. From a young age, Ismail displayed traits that he said were “woman things” — his walk, the way he spoke, how he moved his hands — mannerisms that were not “normal” and provoked his father’s ire. His father forbade him from school and kept him under house arrest.

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The Gymnast’s Position

Illustration by Homestead

Dvora Meyers | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,257 words)

More than two decades ago, a billboard went up in Salt Lake City near the 600 South exit of the I-15. It featured a young woman in repose clad in a sleeveless black leotard, her back to the viewer and her head tilted up. The weight of her upper body rested on her right arm, which was extended behind her; her left arm lay languidly on her bent left knee. Her right leg was extended straight in front of her, its foot arch, creating the appearance of a straight line from hip to toe.

The angle of the woman’s head seemingly bathed her face in light, her long curly blonde hair falling freely down her neck. The pose was reminiscent of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only inverted.

Passersby unable to make out the words printed in small text beneath the image would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly the billboard was advertising. Was it selling a dance performance or was it an ad for workout apparel or a photography exhibit at a local gallery? Visually, there were few clues.
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I’ve Done a Lot of Forgetting

Getty / Illustration by Homestead

Jordan Michael Smith | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,744 words)

If someone spits bigotry at you while you’re a kid, you’re unlikely to forget it. You’ll remember it not because it’s traumatic, though it can be. You’ll remember it not even because it’s degrading and excruciating, though it is certainly those things, too. No, you’ll remember it because it instills in you an understanding that people are capable of motiveless evil. That humans can be moved to hate because they are hateful. You aren’t given a reason for why people hate you, because they don’t need a reason. You’re you, through no fault of your own, even if you want desperately to be anyone else. And that’s enough.

I am a Canadian. I was born in Markham, which is a small city about 30 kilometers northeast of Toronto. That distance meant a great deal. Markham was a large town of middle- and working-class families when my newlywed parents moved there, in the late 1970s, with a population that hovered around 60,000. It was pretty mixed demographically, I recall, though containing a white majority. My older sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school, except for one other family who arrived after we did and seemed not to attract much ire; I imagined it was because they were beautiful and popular (we were neither).

We were one of the minority of Canadian Jewish families living outside Toronto or Montreal. More than 71% of all Canadian Jews reside in these two cities, according to Allan Levine’s serviceable but unexceptional new book on the history of Jewish Canada, Seeking the Fabled City. Levine describes a familiar story of an immigrant group gradually gaining acceptance (and some power) in a once-largely white Christian country. For the first half of the 20th century, Jews in Canada were arguably detested to a greater degree than in America. By the 21st century, Canadian Jews felt as safe as Jews anywhere felt safe. Levine quotes a Toronto rabbi as saying, “Living in Toronto, my children don’t know that Jews are a minority.” Read more…