In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson created the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, a test designed to prioritize exercise in elementary schools. Studies had shown that America’s children were getting flabby and complacent, and so the test included sit-ups, pull-ups, a softball throw, a broad jump, a 50-yard dash, and a mile run. If you scored in the 85th percentile in all categories, you received a badge your mother might sew onto your jacket.
I was eight years old in 1966, a child who really wasn’t even aware she had a body. I read a lot of books, slumped in poor posture on my bed, on the floor, in a kitchen chair, in the back seat of the car. I watched television—Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, Get Smart—lying on my stomach on the carpet, legs scissoring the air behind me. I ate lots of rye toast with peanut butter. I tap danced for a year, my legs clumsy in the heavy shoes. On the playground, I stuck to the perimeter, doing my best not to be seen, avoiding eye contact with the dodgeball, the handball, any kind of ball whatsoever.
I suppose we heard of the test and perhaps even trained for it, but I have no memory of any kind of preparation. I remember only terror: the shriek of whistles, students lined up, all of us shifting in our white tennis shoes to peer over each other’s shoulders. We strained to hear the teacher, who held a large clipboard and issued complicated instructions. We—children keenly aware of pecking orders, of the thin line between inclusion and banishment—were suddenly being asked to perform feats of endurance in full view of our peers.
This body: it hardly knew what to do with itself. My arms heeded no direction from my brain. My legs snaked out long and crooked in the harsh light of the sun. My skirt grew frantic with static electricity and clung to my thighs. My knee socks gave up the ghost. My ankles turned inward as if feigning sleep.
The broad jump: alone on the runway, sprinting knock-kneed and then pushing off hard at the line, only to tumble in the sand a foot or so from launch. The pull-up: straining at the bar, every muscle fiber threatening to break, and making not even one. Sit-ups: your partner humming with boredom while watching you contort, your face red and covered in sweat.
The body’s failure: it won’t be the last time your body is tested and found wanting.
It was the instrument you didn’t have to bring yourself—not like the flute in its slender black suitcase or the guitar with its over-the-shoulder encumbrance. “Many grand places have grand pianos,” my mother liked to say. Perhaps there would be one in the parlor of a fancy restaurant or the lobby of a nice hotel. When we browsed the Nordstrom’s downtown, she would follow the sound of “Moon River” or “Send in the Clowns,” the melody rising like elegant steam through every level of the open floor plan.
At home, I practiced my scales, chords, and arpeggios on a crotchety upright with a wan splash of light above my head. The piano was tucked away in a corner of the basement, where I ventured alone only reluctantly and with a tuba-sized terror in my heart.
“Picture the pianist in the department store,” my mother urged. Sometimes this meant a man in a black cutaway jacket with neck tie and tails. He perched on the flat, shiny stool, his eyes closed, his posture impeccable. Sometimes this meant a woman in a long black dress with a scoop neck and a single strand of pearls. One foot pressed down on the damper pedal, and the other kept time with a soft-heeled click. “Don’t you want to bring music into people’s lives?”
It’s not that I was terrible at piano. I practiced my exercises for half an hour each day, then stowed my music inside the bench with the splintery lid. I hid a notebook there, too, so I could work on my stories in between songs. It took several minutes of silence before my mother began to stomp on the kitchen floor. When she did, I’d tuck my pencil behind my ear and resume that dutiful ivory-tickling that meant so much to her.
One year, Mr. Van Lierop made arrangements for his students to play at Rainier Square. It was Christmastime: an Evergreen flocked and flashing white lights in the foyer, gold banisters decked with red and green bows. Both my parents stood in their trench coats and scarves like bodyguards someone else had hired. The lid arched high, like an elephant’s ear, and the sound traveled admirably through the marbled interiors. I memorized all the notes and played them without error, yet—what would you call it? Something ineffable was missing. I heard the hollowness coming from my own hands.
“There was no drama,” my mother mourned. “No verve, no urgency, no pizzazz.” The ineffable, it seemed, had many names after all.
Later, Mr. Van Lierop, kind intercessor that he was, suggested, “Julie beats to her own drum… And perhaps her drum is not a piano.”
I tapped my pencil on my notebook and looked away.
The words are so close, too close—just a slip of the vowel. They do have related etymologies if you’re looking for it, that “ex” meaning to drive off or put into motion. And if you’re a person battling demons of whatever sort, exorcism is what it feels like when you set your heart rate soaring.
On the treadmill, Bruce Springsteen crooning in my ear, Baby you were born to run… Setting the speed to 4.5 miles per hour, the incline to 9, walking fast with my arms ratcheting at my sides, breath rasping, knees twinging. Striding toward it, faster and faster, not sure if you’ll make it this time—that moment when it all falls away. When you hit the zone. When you feel like you could keep moving forever, though you’re going nowhere—the body and mind finally in sync.
I used to work out with my boyfriend, and depending on the day, we’d do cardio or weights. I did the weights just to please him, to show that I could be strong when the situation demanded it. We left the washed clear light of a Montana afternoon to enter the dim basement of the university gym. Always, there’d be the smell of sweat and cracked rubber, the sharp clang of machines, or the grunts of someone executing free weights on the mat. No one made eye contact except with themselves, focusing on their own bodies in the long mirrors as they did squats or an overhead press.
We would spot each other. There was something vaguely sexual about it: my head facing up to his groin as I did a chest press on the bench, with just a 5-lb. weight on either side of the bar. He kept his fingers curled under the center and urged me to do more reps than I thought possible, barking commands: you’ve got it, one more, one more! I grunted and pushed up the bar one more time while he grabbed it and placed it back on the brackets. My pecs would burn, and later I’d barely be able to lift my arms to wash my hair in the shower.
When it was his turn, I straddled his head while he lifted, watched his face as it lost all guardedness. I’m sure he smelled me—sweat that gathered in the crease of my upper thigh—and that smell urged him forward. He often made lascivious comments under his breath, talked dirty to me in public, and always I blushed and asked him to stop. He’d grow angry then, and silent. At the gym, he lifted just beyond his limit, and his gaze focused all inward to feel the edge of what was possible. His face contorted the way it did during sex, and just like during sex, I looked away. I couldn’t bear such vulnerability.
Once, a professor we knew came over to us as we took turns with the lat machine. I loved this particular round because it involved pulling down, rather than struggling up, and I knew I already had well-defined shoulder blades that jutted out on each rep. My arms made a natural wide V, and my back rippled with muscle. The professor watched for a while, and then murmured, she better be careful, if she exercises too much her tits will get even smaller! My boyfriend, usually so game for sexual banter, was stunned into silence.
When we broke up, I’d drive to the gym, see his car, and drive away. I imagined him down in that basement alone, grunting and sweating, his body doing so well without me. Instead, I drove to the bottom of the trail that led up to the big white “M” on the hillside. I got out and started moving, sluggish at first, my legs heavy, my stomach in a knot. I’d keep going, walking faster, pushing myself up toward the summit. My heart pounded until I thought it would break. I kept my gaze on the path. I’d have a woman crooning in my ear—Bonnie Raitt or Linda Ronstadt or the Indigo Girls—assuring me I could make it, promising: The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.
Pre-dawn mornings outside my college dorm, I’d hear them: the students on scholarship, training for future military life. I woke early, slipped out of bed and laced up my shoes, lured by the prospect of silence, a quiet place beyond my blaring mind. But soon I had to rise earlier and earlier if I wanted to avoid the rows of serious boys—their crew cuts and steely eyes, their clenched fists and calf muscles bulging as though they would split—while they circled my building, heavy-footed, chanting something about unity and pride.
To my surprise, there were even a few female recruits in our school’s ROTC program. I watched them straggling behind, their limbs flimsy by comparison, their feet kicking out to the side. A man at the front barked his commands, and the boys complied as if they were one body. The girls—how they tried—but they couldn’t keep up. I blushed at these discrepancies. I felt inadequate on their behalf. Soon, I ducked down a side path and went my separate way.
One afternoon, leaving the dining hall, I saw a boy from psychology class. He waved me over to his table, saying “I know you, don’t I?” Did he? Did anyone? I only shrugged and smiled. “But I’ve seen you running,” he said. “Why don’t you sign up for ROTC?”
“I’m not a joiner,” I told him. His eyebrows were trim and arched like a girl’s, which I noticed as he lifted them.
“What does that even mean?”
“I like to exercise by myself,” I said, more firmly this time. “I don’t need any more noise in my head.”
“Even for tuition remission?” And just like that, a pamphlet dangled from his hand.
They were running in formation around the chapel in the quad. They were doing jumping jacks and push-ups with their legs spread, then with one hand tucked behind their backs. Some of the strongest boys could even clap between each lift and lower, their bodies transformed into boards. The girls were there, too, shivering against the pavement, still wet with last night’s rain, pressing down on each other’s feet as they crunched and twisted and scissored their obliques.
And all the while, everyone was shouting, the chill air rising out of their mouths. One harsh syllable marched in line behind another. Then, the boy I recognized: breaking formation, meeting my eyes. I blushed in that moment for all the longing I was missing. I felt inadequate for reasons my own legs could not outrun. Before he could raise his pretty, girlish eyebrows or his callused, boyish hand, I ducked down a side path, went my separate way.
Like an apple’s. A hard interior that crevices the seed. You gnaw away the juicy flesh, teeth scraping, until all that’s left is the core. You throw this misshapen thing into the underbrush.
You do crunches, your partner holding your feet and counting. You do the twisting lateral machine at the gym, you do knee raises, and you try to feel a glimmer of it: the core muscles firing. Muscles that normally get too shy away, let the other, more obvious muscles, do the work.
In Kundalini yoga, the core muscles are coaxed out of hiding, then flogged. You do the bicycle a hundred times. You sit in an upward V until your entire body shakes and begs to be released. You do the breath of fire, stomach pumping, until all the bad air has been expelled. Afterward, your belly hurts so much you can barely reach for a glass without wincing. It turns out the core muscles connect to everything.
One day you go to your voice lesson, and there’s a large inflated medicine ball in the center of your teacher’s parlor. You must sit on this ball for the duration of the lesson—45 minutes—your body shifting to find its balance. You do the vocal exercises this way—ya ya ya ya ya!—your jaw flapping, tongue settling in its shell. You sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, focusing on the core, the way you have to imagine a crochet hook angling up just below your ribs to get your voice to vault over that arch. So many little muscles or tendons move this way and that; you can hardly keep track of them, while your voice billows out of you. The next day, you’ll tell people, I’m so sore from my voice lesson!, clutching your belly, and they’ll look at you strangely, not sure how the voice can be a muscle that is worked.
You bounce a little on the ball, feel the way the thighs support your core, which in turn supports your shoulders and keeps the chest open. And with the chest open, the throat relaxes, and the then the jaw is free, and then your voice has spiraled up to the top of your head, opening up the fontanel that closed shortly after your birth.
And perhaps it’s a kind of re-birth, a coming home, when you locate your core when you feel it glowing like an incandescent rod. The core, after all, is the deepest part of you—beyond muscle, beyond bone. The core harbors the seed. The core lies in the center of it all, waiting for everything else to be chipped away.
At the end of season four of the sitcom Ellen, the quirky, affable heroine Ellen Morgan comes out. You are a senior in high school at the time, not permitted to watch programs your parents deemed “questionable.” You saw the cover of Time in the checkout line with real-life heroine Ellen DeGeneres pronouncing, as if with a wink and a shrug, “Yup, I’m gay.” You touched the red border of the magazine, then drew back your hand as if from the burner of a hot stove.
Years later, ensconced in your own lesbian life, you watched the Ellen series on Netflix. Your partner laughed as she wandered into the room, saying “I can’t believe you’ve never seen any of this.” Season five begins with Ellen on a spin bike, dripping sweat and slipping over the handlebars, gaga for the instructor, who is friendly and fit and praises Ellen for her hard work and enthusiasm. In your head then—a little gong, a sweet ringing song of sudden insight. How had you arrived in your middle twenties without realizing that gay had never meant happy to you? The few lesbians you had seen depicted in television or film were either suicidal or homicidal, consumed by crippling grief or rage. And the few lesbians you had known in real life were solemn or secretive. They seemed always to be teaching someone a lesson about equal rights or looking back over worried shoulders, fearful of being exposed.
“I think I’d like to try spinning,” you said out loud, or maybe you made the resolution in silence. Somehow this activity, paired with Ellen’s goofy grin, promised a conduit to a new kind of self-expression. You were cheerful, and you were gay, just like Ellen Morgan! You too craved affirmation from those who saw your zeal as valuable, not disingenuous or misguided. Perhaps there was a place for you in Lesbian Land after all.
Now at the Hollywood YMCA, you’ve gained a reputation as a “hard-core” spinner. You take four to five classes a week and always come early to set up your bike, making sure the seat is raised to just the right height, the handlebars set far enough away from your chest so you can flatten your back completely when you climb. The class rides to Lady Gaga and Jimmy Buffet, Pharrell Williams and Tina Turner, classic songs and one-hit wonders alike. In real life, you never feel so “part of the pack,” such an integral member of the human peloton. It doesn’t matter that you’re gay here, not in the neon-flashing dark where the sweat of twenty mostly-strangers commingles on the rubber-flex floors. For one hour at a time, you get to forget you’re different from most of the people you meet, that a moment will always come when, just by naming your life or the woman you love, you step out into a fragile spotlight, stand there trembling, waiting to be judged.
The spin teacher greets your smile with his own. He approves your zeal, shares your enthusiasm for the endurance this kind of work requires. He is gay, too, and in his presence, you relax a little, loosen your grip, the coils always so tight in your abdomen, and begin to pedal toward something—a field of wildflowers, say, or a clear mountain lake—instead of always away. “Get on her wheel!” Jack grins, pointing to you, letting you set the up-tempo pace.
You’ve learned how to harness your breath, how to soften your shoulders and deepen your stretch, how to use your hamstrings and your glutes so as to execute each pedal stroke with your whole musculature. But it is joy after all that propels you to the summit.
In our collaborations, we choose a topic and explore the nuances, manifestations, and experiences this topic contains. We often volley back and forth, each of us responding (directly or indirectly) to the section that came before. The collaborative energy builds momentum and a sense of discovery, each of us writing work that could be spurred in no other way. Images echo, and meaning accumulates organically. Since the sections are unlabeled as to the speaker, the essay strives to speak in a “third voice” that belongs to neither of us. In the case of “Exercise,” Brenda came up with the subject while taking a vigorous walk on San Juan Island. Since the word connotes so much more than mere physical activity, she thought it would be a good brainstormer for collaboration. And indeed it was!
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of eight collections of poetry and prose, including the recently released Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.
Their collaborative work has previously appeared in Rappahannock Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, and Kenyon Review.