This is not the first time Pauline’s tried to escape. At seventeen, she ran from her father, taking only what fit in the beat-up Dodge she’d paid for with her own cash. Her clothes were still wearing their hangers as she laid them to rest on the backseat. The final load was in her arms when she heard muffled crying from deep within the lonely house. Several feet from the closed kitchen door, she stopped and backed away. She never said goodbye to her mother.
Now, as she shuts the bedroom door in the home she made for herself, Pauline’s hips find swagger and her chin points straight ahead. Her overstuffed suitcase thumps over the oak stairs on her way down. “What’s that racket?” asks Oliver, a chartered accountant and her husband of thirty-five years.
The man has done his best. Whenever she asks his opinion on the changes her body’s been making, he’ll say without fail, “You look the same to me.”
Theirs was a peaceful union, or had been until she went batshit crazy, as he would likely say. From the vantage point of a loving husband who never did anything wrong, his wife has been driven mad by plummeting estrogen levels. She has other theories.
Rewind to a month earlier and you’ll see Pauline taking on a thirty-day yoga challenge. A friend suggested that it could be the solution to her body’s suffering. First lesson: Standing Forward Bend.
As she watches the instructor smooth her mat and step onto the center, Pauline doubts stretching will help. Her body is wired extra tight, every moving part snapped into place.
“Be intense, powerful, and deliberate,” says Yu Yan. The woman’s got a silky head of perfect hair dyed maroon. She stands with her hands on her hips, summoning power into her dainty frame. “Start to exhale. Good. Now bend forward at the hips, lengthening your torso.”
Pauline does as she’s told, and her spine creaks open. She tips a little, her weight shifting onto the wobbly ends of her toes, and for a few unhappy seconds, she worries she’ll land on her face.
“Take your time. Remember, this is a stretch for the entire body.”
As she feels her muscles unglue, Pauline convinces herself she’s found the pose. Her ever-tight hips twang, her generous buttocks round down, and her hamstrings tug.
“Bring your weight onto the balls of your feet. Keep those hips aligned over your ankles.”
Coming once again onto the front of her feet, staying back from her toes, Pauline’s body lengthens a little more. She’s feeling good about her decision now, thinking how supple she’ll be by the end of thirty days, if her body can do all this on day one. She glances at her instructor, hoping for approval, but Yu Yan’s head is at her knees. How could anyone be that flexible? At her deepest fold, Pauline gains only a fresh perspective on her crotch.
“Feels good, huh?” says Yu Yan, letting go a long throaty sigh, almost orgasmic. “Ahhhh. Celebrate little moments of joy.”
The vagina is a woman’s ultimate hiding place, wet and dark and full of secrets. Once regular to the hour, Pauline now gushes and cramps and empties randomly. She never knows when she might drop pools of clotty, sticky blood. It’s like all her innards are getting sucked out. All her secrets want out.
By the time she takes on yoga as a possible solution, she’s been in a state of liquidation for quite some time. She goes to the bathroom every hour, uses super-plus absorbency tampons and maternity feminine napkins. They do not hold. Her reproductive system in breakdown, she has no other choice: a woman with a still-functioning bladder, barely fifty-five, in diapers.
Her only child left home a year earlier to complete her undergrad at a university in Vancouver. The psychology program is better there, so Oliver says, and Emma agrees. She agrees with most things her dad says. They have that kind of relationship.
Oliver is aware something is wrong with his wife. During their standard Friday night supper of homemade Greek pizza and hardy red wine, he asks, “What’s going on, dear?” Poor man with his earnest eyes and still mouth, leaning toward his wife. He’s unprepared for the answer he gets.
“Ah, let’s see. Wicked cramps, rash on my bottom, and no sign of stopping any time soon. I’ve been having my period for three weeks now.”
He rises from the table, positions himself behind her and starts giving her shoulders a rub. Always the devoted husband, he thinks she didn’t notice how his proper nose wrinkled at the mention of her symptoms.
“Have you thought of seeing a doctor?” he says.
Doctor Mary perches on her little stool next to a computer, listening and typing and reading. She gets straight to the point. Pauline is anemic. It’s something that can happen to menopausal women, as the doctor knows from firsthand experience. After a blood test to confirm, the doctor gives Pauline a shot of iron in the bum, but her body continues to leak and the iron does little to restore her strength.
Pauline’s body holds memory in a mixture of bloody tissue and creamy mucus she’s been accumulating since she was nine. Her father smelled like an angry dog, rotting meat and saliva, fur soaked in semen, things a girl should not know. In high school, they made fun of her, especially the better-looking boys. They were certain something was wrong with her because why else would she be so uninterested.
She met Oliver at an engagement party for a friend. When she avoided his gaze from across the room, he gradually moved closer until they were sitting next to each other. He drew her out with gentle questions. “Where do you live?” “Are you a friend of the bride or the groom?” They were the only two not dancing in sync with the three-steps-clap hustle, the only two not drinking screwdrivers and tequila sunrises. It didn’t matter. She knew she’d found her someone.
In all the months they’d dated, Oliver never pushed her onto the backseat of his car or onto his unmade bed in the worn-out house he shared with four guys. Before proposing, he drove her to see the house they would buy. He presented her with a large diamond and roughed out the milestones of their life: one child, mortgage paid within ten years and a comfortable retirement.
They had sex for the first time on their wedding night. He made his way into her, and her mind left the scene entirely. Only her body knows what happened for sure. Oliver took care of what needed to be done and gently kissed her forehead before rolling onto his back and falling asleep, a look of peace on his cleanly shaven face. A sweet, comfortable numbness washed over Pauline’s skin. She called it love.
Although Oliver never said much about his childhood, Pauline knew it’d been unstable. His mother was more devoted to vodka martinis than the four children she’d dumped from her womb.
Pauline was the real mother. When she swelled with what would become their only child, Oliver became the protector of her body. He held open car doors and placed himself between her and any sharp-edged corner that came into her path. At night, he propped her in place with pillows.
He wanted to do more than his father. The guy ran away soon after Oliver was born. So, Oliver held Pauline’s hand throughout the labor, never leaving to go to the bathroom or take a rest. Such devotion, yet when their daughter entered the world, he refused to look below. The nurse asked if he’d like to see, and he rattled his head and patted Pauline’s hand. He was happy enough to leave female body parts to medical experts.
Decades later, when he wakes in the middle of the night in a puddle of his wife’s sweat, he says, “Did that doctor do anything to help?” His words are quietly desperate.
They’ve replaced the sheets, she’s changed her pajamas, and they’re hoping to get more sleep. “She gave me a shot of iron in the bum. Can’t say whether it did any good.”
He grabs his freshened pillow and shuffles out of their bedroom in his green plaid pajamas. She spits venom at his backside. May he never cool the sheets of her bed again, she thinks. She could swallow him whole.
Yoga classes are in a dance studio with mirrors along the walls. Every now and then, Pauline catches herself in the darkened glass and sees herself changing. Although they’ve done Sun Salutations every day, they are halfway through the challenge before she feels the Cobra rise.
“Lie prone on the floor. Stretch your legs back. Press the tops of your feet into the mat.” Yu Yan melts into a smooth layer of flesh. Her bottom creates only a slight swell. Her feet bend backward.
Pauline’s hips uncoil, giving her a new stretch at her groin.
“Palms down. Elbows bent close to your sides. Good.” The power rises in Yu Yan’s spine, one vertebra at a time. “Use your back muscles to lift your chest.”
Energy rises in Pauline, too, her head high and brave. A hiss comes from her open lips. Her body lifts and arches, ready to strike. But then she bends her lower back too much, causing herself pain, shrinking back in fear, losing the pose.
Pauline works at the student resource center at a local college. At staff meetings, when it’s her turn to give a status update on trends in student inquiries, her chest turns prickly and sweat drips from her forehead. How can anyone trust a person sweating in an air-conditioned room, she wonders.
The severe blushing takes over her skin at unscheduled moments. She’s helpless as a baby, her hands fisted, her mouth a red hole peeled back and glistening. The mess on her bottom, the rash on her skin, the rages that do not yet have language, none of it can be ignored any longer. Her body will not be pacified.
Oliver gets home from work to find his wife shirtless at the stove, stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce, her white bra glowing, her chest shining with a fresh coating of sweat. When she offers her cheek for a welcome home kiss, he leans forward and pecks her quickly, afraid to get too close, it seems.
“How was your day? Okay, I hope.” Asked and answered, a safer approach, he no longer wants to know. The sauce sputters on the stove. “Have you seen yourself? You’re covered in sweat.” He opens the window over the sink. Cautiously, with arms over his middle, he offers a further solution. “Would you like me to watch the stove while you change?”
All the years they’ve been naked together, she doubts he’s ever seen her. They’ve always made love under the covers in the dark, quickly with eyes closed.
“I’m fine where I am.” She stirs the sauce. “Thank you.” Who is he to critique a thing he’s never really looked at? “Go read the paper or something. I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
Over the years of family life, they’ve calmed themselves with well-worn routines. Arriving home and sharing a meal, all of that was better when their daughter was still at home. The three of them filled the house with laughter and stories. Now, discomfort shadows the table. Dinner is no longer a thing they do together. Both of them hurry to finish.
Thirty-five years of sex, and Pauline has never once initiated. Imagine his horror when she lays a towel on the bed and tells him to flatten down. She pins him between her legs and sets her own pace and intentions. He squirms and grimaces and wiggles himself free. “I can’t do this,” he says. “Let’s wait until you’re clean.”
The lights are dimmed, and the waterfall music is on when Pauline lays down her purple mat and gathers herself inward.
“Come onto the floor on your hands and knees.”
This is not a comfortable pose for Pauline, being reduced to her animal self, sniffing the ground.
Yu Yan positions herself sideways to display the geometric goal of muscle and bone and sinew. Maroon hair curtains her face. Her mustard-colored tunic billows on her underside. “Spread your fingers.”
Always sweaty, Pauline’s hands feel slippery. She does not know if she should trust them, but she pushes onto the cushy surface of her mat. She’s in the final week of the challenge and knows the strain her wrists will feel if the load isn’t properly shared.
“Tuck your toes. Good. Now, lift your knees and lengthen your spine. Raise your hips to the sky.”
With her ass in the air and her face down, Pauline gets tingly lipped and breathless. She’s never cared for the disappearance of herself, the roundness of her butt, the loneliness of looking down.
“Stretch your heels to the floor. Melt your heart into your thighs.”
She’s not a full believer in yoga-speak. The instructions are obviously symbolic. Yet, maybe because of the power of suggestion, she sends energy from her emboldened heart to her trembling thighs. A ball of warmth forms at her middle. Some heat comes from her thighs, which she never expected. The work is not all for her heart.
When she shut the front door of her childhood home for the last time, Pauline told herself she’d never have to think of anything that happened there again. She certainly never talked to her husband about feeling herself bent against her will. It had happened in the study, the sanctum of their house. She’d hated the smells, the old paper and the ink pads, the lemon furniture polish and the fear, the coffee and cigarettes on his breath, his sweat.
She might’ve tried dropping the burden at seventeen, but she isn’t freed until she’s fifty-five. In the last days of her yoga challenge, she stops menstruating forever. Although the doctor needs more time to confirm her status, Pauline does not. All the sticky secrets have been flushed from her womb. She tells Dr. Mary with a sigh of relief during her next check-up. The endless period has ended.
For all the times it did not go well in bed, she now sees that Oliver played a part. He didn’t let her warm-up, wasn’t attentive, took care only of himself. When lies are gone, truth is plain.
“It hurts,” she tells the doctor, “especially when we have sex.”
Pauline feels she’d have done better talking to herself. The woman with a stethoscope around her neck is not trying to understand. Specialized gels soften only the edges, delaying the pain, making it worse because it comes after a fleeting moment of hope her privates will not be torn. Her face leaks silence, a would-be power gone, leaving only wet cheeks, a runny nose and trembling lips.
Passing her a box of tissues, Dr. Mary pats her shoulder and prescribes anti-depressants.
Later, at home, a pure hot rage flares in her flushed-out womb. The secrets are gone, but she is not empty. Pauline carries her former self in every version, the lovely adolescent skin marked red, the stinging between her legs. Let’s wait until you’re clean. Her cheek against cold wood in the dimly lit study, the swirly grain of the mahogany desk like crushed fur, his fat fingers tangled in her hair. I think what you need is anti-depressants. There isn’t any shame in it. How her tender shoulders clenched, how her back felt like breaking. The next recommendation was sure to be hormones, to reverse the symptoms of menopause.
Her vagina is dry and so she buys moisturizer, not lubricant, but a balm for herself, to be delivered in private with warm hands, soothing. Research on the internet reveals a good choice. They stock it at the local drug store. She doesn’t need a prescription.
As she glides through her days, a gladness wets her moments. In the inner regions of herself, cooling moisture slides through cracks, slowly collecting in a deep, reflective pool. She feels a growing need to laugh, the urge to thumb her nose, to cause an uproar on the examining table, to talk back to her male boss, to disagree with her husband.
She wants to feel herself bubble up with joy, to one time make love without fear, to have what everybody else seems to enjoy. She does for herself what others never have. Under the sheets, her hands invite the dark water trapped inside to the surface. She reaches the shallow pool below the sedimentary layers of pain covered in time, packed down through a repetition of situations that rendered her powerless. From within, the water rises.
It may not look like much, but keeping your body active is hard work. Yu Yan finishes the yoga challenge with a review of foundational poses. Pauline returns to the beginning.
“Stand with your ankles under your inner hip bones. Lift and spread your toes. Balance your weight between the four corners of each foot.”
After doing yoga every day for a month, Pauline’s feet have become more intricate. She roots into the mat with confidence. Each toe is a mechanism she can control, separated from the others, grasping its own spot on the mat.
“Draw your tailbone down. Widen your shoulder blades. No rush. Listen to your body.”
Although Pauline sways, her base stays anchored. Even when she lands on a fixed point, her body is open to adjustment.
“Drop your shoulders down and back. Open your hands. Reach your fingertips to the floor. You are a mountain.”
Now that she’s come of age, cars don’t stop when Pauline crosses the street. Students don’t move out of her way. Young male colleagues talking trash no longer shut their mouths when she enters the room. For reasons she doesn’t yet grasp, Pauline does not need their permission to exist. All she needs to do is straighten herself, turn around and glare. They will be turned to stone.
In the bedroom under bright lights, she speaks openly to Oliver. He blushes at the thought, although he tries. She wants what they’ve never done, for his lips to kiss the freshness of her newly made secrets, his mouth to open and swallow knowledge. But he pulls back and spits before tasting a word.
He is as lost as she’s always been. She knows what she needs to do.
At the bottom of the stairs, Pauline stands next to her suitcase. She looks at her husband in the adjoining living room, leaning back in his leather lazy boy. A conservative blue suit, a loosened tie, a newspaper in hand, he peers over his reading glasses.
Such is the shock of seeing his wife at the door, ready to leave, that his face turns to stone. The newspaper flutters to the floor. “What is this?” he asks.
Her arm strains with the weight of the suitcase. “I have to…,” she sputters, unable to finish what she knows she needs to say. All the swallowed moments. She never told her mother she was going all those decades earlier. Would it have been different if she had?
Oliver takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes and looks again. “Where will you go?”
Inside, her chest flutters and her skin prickles with the unknown, but her spine is awakened now. “We are not in love. You hate the taste of me, and I’m not so fond of the smell of you. Let’s not make this worse.”
His eyes cloud with tears until he sucks them back, and she takes a few steps toward him, drawn as if by instinct to comfort him even now.
She stops. All at once, she is able to see beyond him. She looks at the fresco-style warm amber walls of their living room, remembering the month-long experiments and meticulous effort, how she made paint seem older than it was, more experienced. She does not want to leave the world she made.
She lets go of her suitcase, which falls flat onto the hardwood. Her open palm, which only moments ago she imagined resting on his wrinkled forehead, instead points downward to the earth. Both hands are reaching for ground now. She is a mountain. “Not to be unkind,” she says slowly, “but I think you should be the one to go.”
is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio offered by Simon Frazer University. She recently completed a collection of linked short stories about fifty-something women and their relationships with their bodies. Debbie’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in descant, Euphemism, Qwerty, Shy: An Anthology (University of Alberta Press), and You Look Good for Your Age (University of Alberta Press). She blogs at debbiebateman.ca.
ART: In the Stream by Van Lanigh
VAN LANIGH creates figurative and landscape visual art pieces. Her unique style is a reaction to abstractionism in an attempt to capture surrealistic yet casual reality. This is especially underlined by new forms and materials aimed to achieve the viewer’s resonance between visual effect and message of the painting. One of her experiments is getting Pointillism into 3D space by making a series of human-face sculptures with small colorful handcrafted polymer clay balls.