The ropes, wide as a beaver’s tail, hung from the gymnasium’s ceiling. The room even smelled different, which I realized was because the bleachers had been shelved to accommodate the day’s activity, taking with them their usual frank odor of feet. Instead, we faced the new smells of the ropes themselves: hay, sweat.
Other kids seemed curious, but I was no fan of bemusing new smells and sights in gym class. I struggled enough with the gym class status quo. Elementary school P.E. had been humiliation after humiliation. Despite my father’s increasingly strained assurances that someday I’d find an exercise that I liked, I’d abandoned softball, swimming, and running, always with absolute relief. But that was all elective exercise; the tyranny of gym class still stood strong. Every year, the Presidential Fitness Test was the emblematic nightmare of my life, a misery of Torquemadic proportions for which I spent days anxiety-puking and no-sleeping until the damn thing was finally over.
In middle school, a secondary problem arose: I was gay-gay-gay, and suddenly locker room etiquette, which had always been as natural and elemental as the sun, became its own terror. But honestly, that terror was secondary, an excuse. In gym class, my body was the problem. My face was a magnet for basketballs. My torso sank in water. I couldn’t imagine that a mass of unknown ropes dangling from the ceiling augured anything good, either.
Our gym teacher Mr. Parrish stood at the front of the room, his arms crossed. He always looked at us as if we were a band of criminals. “We’re climbing today,” he barked. “Make it to the beams and you get a prize.”
I scouted the room for faces whose disbelief mirrored my own. The beams? The ones in the fucking ceiling? Why weren’t we rioting in the street?
Impossibly, the challenge progressed. I watched other kids’ faces melting into those comfortable, engaged expressions that they adopted during exercise. Their little brows may have been furrowed, their teeth clenched in concentration, but they were winning. The beams next to the ropes had been outfitted with bells. Every time a climber tolled their bell, I winced.
My turn came, despite my fervent prayer for a flood to drown us all. Mr. Parrish pursed his lips at me. We did this dance often, he and I: me hiding, him demanding that I just goddamn cooperate. In the six months that I’d been in his class, I’d shredded his good will towards me. When he spoke to me now, it was as if he anticipated my asking him for money, or a vital organ: whatever I did, he knew he wouldn’t like it.
“Go,” he said.
I grabbed the rope at the highest point that I could reach. Snickers circulated around the room. I hadn’t even fucked up yet, but my record spoke for itself.
“Now, up,” he said.
“I’m working on it,” I said.
I mean, really, what did I want with the ceiling anyway? To ring a bell? Had we learned nothing from the tower of Babel?
“Up,” he said, checking his watch. “It’s almost lunch.”
Able to delay no longer, I hauled myself up only to realize, predictably enough, that the climb was impossible. Whatever muscles it required, I didn’t have. So I hung there, swinging a modest Tarzan’s swing until the rope settled, and then I hung still. The snickers escalated.
Mr. Parrish nodded the slow, even nod that he reserved for our terse gym encounters. “All right, enough.”
I hopped down from the rope and watched the bell-ringers collect their prizes, pleased to note that they were hardly prizes at all, but rather just the same candy that was available year-round in the guidance counselor’s office. Mr. Parrish lavished his favors on his war heroes regardless.
That was my last encounter with Mr. Parrish. That afternoon, my mother took me to a doctor’s appointment to investigate a wheeze which turned out to be mild asthma. I was savvy enough to parlay it into a standing order to free me from gym class. From then on, I enjoyed an hour of “independent study” while the others struggled. Watching them sweat from my spa on the sidelines, misting myself now and then from a water bottle fan, I’d thank my body. On the one hand, so humiliating; on the other, its own defense mechanism against the wretchedness of exercise.
In college, friends nagged me to join intramural soccer, women’s tennis, dance class. “Come on,” they said. “It’s fun. None of us really know what we’re doing.”
I’d heard that one before. In high school, none of us had really known how to play Ultimate Frisbee, and yet only I left everybody sucking their teeth every time I fumbled the disc. None of us had really known how to play tetherball, and yet only I bloodied my nose when a Tetherball whacked me in the face. Any time none of us knew how to play a sport, I was the none-est of all.
It was almost a relief when I exhibited early symptoms. The symptoms were no fun: excruciating joint pain that left me hobbled and exhausted, acute gastrointestinal stress that struck a dozen times a day. I believed they’d go away eventually, though, and in the meantime I had something to blame. A polite demurral left room for debate, but nobody wanted to argue with “I have this thing where I might shit my pants.”
But the symptoms didn’t go away. In fact, they multiplied. Joint pain became full-body pain. Diarrhea became bloody diarrhea became unpredictable vomit. My teeth yellowed and thinned. My mouth bloomed all over with raw, weeping sores. Soon enough, it wasn’t only sports that I was sidelined from. My gastrointestinal tract — the miles of railroad track that chauffeured food from my mouth out to the other side — was in full rebellion.
My insurance hemmed and hawed for years about paying for the colonoscopy that would have diagnosed the problem. In the meantime, my doctors phoned it in, enfeebled by my poverty. “Eat less cholesterol” was repeated often, as was “spend some time outside.” But no advice enraged me as much as “get some exercise.” I had a dead bird, and my doctors kept suggesting bird medicine and bird surgery. No, I’m digging a grave for this thing; either grab a shovel or shut up.
“I don’t understand,” I told my then-girlfriend one night. “How can I exercise when I can barely walk? Which is the gym where they don’t mind if you have anal leakage on the elliptical?”
My insurance finally authorized an endoscopy/colonoscopy, which revealed that I have Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract which can also cause arthritis and other extraintestinal pain in some patients. The illness can attack any GI tract anywhere, but it clobbered mine with special dedication. Pointing to the snapshots of angry ulcers in my esophagus, the swelling and scarring throughout my colon, my doctor grinned.
“You hit the jackpot!” he said.
“Yay,” I said.
Crohn’s disease is incurable, but medication shepherds it into cycles of flare-ups and remission. My doctor prescribed medicine to achieve remission and offered one piece of advice.
“Once you enter remission, your joint pain should clear up,” he said. “When that happens, you’re gonna want to get regular exercise.”
I was the little girl clinging to the rope again, a foot off the ground, surrounded by laughter. “Cool,” I said. “Got it.”
“…and down! Up! Down an inch! Up an inch! Absolutely gorgeous, ladies!”
I duly sink and lift my ass, at the pace dictated by my barre instructor’s war march voice. I try to stay serene about the sweat dribbling off my brow ledge, allowing it to inch down my face while I down-up-down, but I have to lick it up to keep it from tickling.
This exercise is always a bother. It necessitates our hanging off the barre with straight arms, and my palm sweat loosens my grip. We’re meant to hang like this for the entire exercise, to maintain constant pressure on our thigh muscles (or, in the lingua franca of barre, to “keep them warm”). As the pressure mounts, our thighs quiver helplessly, a sure sign of the muscle fatigue which we’re told is a predictor of toning. But I can’t stay in that pressure zone when I keep abandoning the posture to wipe my palms on my yoga pants.
My instructor graciously pretends she can’t see me doing this. At this studio, barre is free from the “Get some! Chase your burn! Pain is weakness leaving the body!” zealotry that characterizes so many fitness fads. This studio is a place of warmth and love. My instructor corrects my form often, but with gentle hands, and always off the hands-free microphone. She corrects me now: my back is inadequately straight as I sink and lift my ass.
“Like this?” I say, making a token adjustment. In the mirrored wall, my back is now a sixteenth of an inch closer to parallel with the straighter backs in my row.
“Wonderful. Absolutely gorgeous,” she whispers, and tilts the microphone back down to her mouth. “Best and final ten, ladies! One! Two!”
Barre promises that, if you correctly apply its tiny, focused movements, your limbs will lengthen and slenderize like a dancer’s. Supposedly, the minuteness of the movements targets each muscle. Thus targeted, the muscles become, I guess, toned. I don’t know. I believe this and I’d equally believe its opposite, so uneducated am I on the occult sorcery that is muscle training. What barre should promise is that, if you’ve never exercised willingly in your life, you can still stumble through its choreographies. Unhappily, sure; with incorrect form, beyond a doubt. But at the end of the class, you’re unlikely to puke or collapse to the ground or require an ambulance. You will be you, on the other end of a workout. The same but not.
After six months of regular barre classes, I am me on the other end of a workout. I am the same but not. The same, because I still curse every muscle during every lift-and-lower. I still stand up for every warm-up with a bellyful of dread. I battle the urge to cancel every class, every morning, sometimes unsuccessfully.
But not. After three months of barre, the phantom pain disappeared, a pain that had plagued my knees even after I entered remission. Five years of pain, gone! Poof! And more miraculous still: I could eat. Crohn’s disease is havoc on a healthy appetite — during a flare-up, every bite of food leads to fire down below. Even a stubborn appetite learns to suppress itself in service to the greater organism. I’d been in remission for ages, but never lost the illogical fear that the wrong food would open the gates to hell. But barre forced my hand: I couldn’t exercise without fuel in my tank, could I?
So I attend. I bathe in the healing water of my Lourdes. I stink there in my yoga pants and I down-an-inch-up-an-inch and pretend to ignore the other women in my classes, with their full faces of make-up and their sweatless cheeks that flush charmingly after every workout. I lurch out the door on spaghettied legs and accept a sample of collagen water from one of the chipper promo models whose booth is in my studio. What the hell is collagen water? A faithless question for an apostate: I swallow my meds with it. One pill reduces the swelling. One lassos my erratic immune system into order. The collagen water claims to be flavored with cherries and rosehips, but floods my mouth with the unmistakable taste of bile.
A promo girl titters at my expression. “I know,” she says, her tone conspiratorial. “It’s not the tastiest thing.”
I savor the feel of the pills nudging each other down my throat. “It’s good,” I say. “It’s really good.”