“Breathe In, Breathe Out” by Natalie Latta
I arrived in this place fresh out of college, not quite knowing what it was and definitely not knowing what I was. When my boss asked me to join the teachers at aerobics I only said yes to seem eager to integrate, my willingness to socialize outside of class a symbol of my openness to her culture. I was ready to be be shaped by this place, to twist and tone into something, into anything.
Being better than old ladies at aerobics has quickly become my newest hobby. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I fold up a brown wiry blanket and tuck it under my arm for the evening gathering of teachers at school. Though my school has a rather large gymnasium, we ladies don’t bother ourselves with that. We prefer the auditorium, which is sorely lacking a stage, else we would exalt ourselves by leading workout shows for the security guards whose peeping eyes don’t go unnoticed. Instead, the auditorium holds only sixty people and is comfortable with its size. There is a wall of mirrors. The color is most closely described as mint chocolate chip, complete with black, white, and brown spatters. It is so mint chocolate chipy that all I think about when I’m not mouthing the words to ABBA or Nelly songs is how much I want some ice cream. It’s the only part of myself I retain while exercise is happening to me.
I don black leggings (as pants!), a T-shirt, a high sporty ponytail and a thin workout headband I snap on for extra convincing. The other five or so women usually wear the same thing or less. My boss, Helen, has these toxic green running shoes she wears – she has the best shoes because she is the class leader. She is very sporty, which I wouldn’t have guessed judging by her Queen Mother presence. I picture a commanding golden crown atop her head more easily than a striped sweatband. I suppose it’s just something at which she can be better than everyone else and everyone else is glad for it.
Our formation is staggered and I am Helen’s right hand goose. I have a straight shot to the mirror. My friend Ludmyila nestles herself comfortably in the back of the group, most hidden from the mirror and from Helen’s urges for higher steps and constant motion. My gay boyfriend has always said I run like a Velociraptor and I wonder if Helen thinks the same thing. We begin our evenings with upbeat, multilingual songs streaming from Helen’s phone through her crackling, persistent speakers. Our bodies are still young for the first few songs, pumping and kicking and jumping together with the vigor and commitment we wish we exhibited in other areas of our lives. My knees kick up to my shoulders instead of my waist and my hip bumps could knock over a succession of all the other women in a row. Though Helen leads us in Russian, I never miss a count or confuse a direction.
The last half of class takes place on the floor on top of blankets that are too harsh or small to ever have done any warming. Here is where we begin our sexercising. If I were amidst a crowd of younger English-speakers I would send them crass jokes with each hip circle or pelvic thrust. The jokes I instead make are merely naming each exercise after an animal whose name I happen to know in Russian. We do the Giraffe, the Wasp, the Mother Bird, and the Frankenstein. In between these poses I feel like a crumpled baby bat. I don’t belong here.
In the middle of an exercise that demands more sweat and breath than others, Helen urges us to keep going with encouragement like, “And tomorrow we will all have husbands,” or “Men like a small waist, you know.” And I know that none of the women in the room have husbands. I know that most of them never will, and I know that they hear Helen say this and laugh because they don’t care about getting married again. All of them are divorced and that is enough to ward off the rumors of homosexuality in a country where rumors about lesbianism are worse than the reality of loneliness. They are there because they have nothing else to do. Because they have been told all their married lives that exercise is good for their figures, which is true. But I bet they were told other things – that men don’t clean the house, that they weren’t allowed to spend too much on themselves, that it’s not rape if you’re married – and they keep believing them, too.
I think what I find so addicting is the sheer ridiculousness of my body willingly physically exerting itself , but also my place in a sisterhood where I don’t fit in. I am not Ukrainian, nor am I over forty and divorced, nor have I completely given up on men. Yet my rug sits closest to the mirror. The ladies ask which parts of me are sore the day after. And in that auditorium wearing that headband, I am not me and I am not them. I twist my body every night into some shape it has never been before.