I have bad memories of ballet class, and isn’t yoga like dancing in a way, teaching the muscles how to lengthen, how to lean, how to turn elastic as rubber bands? All my springs are coiled tight for bouncing. My love even calls me Tigger sometimes. I watch her step out of the studio from my warm perch in the coffee shop across the street. Steam rises from her body. Steam rises from all the yogis’ bodies in unison, in pseudo-cirrus reverie. They are shrouded. They are turning to clouds. They wrap scarves around their long, exposed necks, all of them, thin and elegant. They tuck their bony feet deep inside fleece-lined boots. I only have eyes for one of them, but I am watching all of them. Icicles dangle from the eaves, pointing down like arrows as if to say, See here: these bodies have melted into their most fluid selves.
I am solid. I hold a latte in my hand, which I have just ordered so it will be hot for her when she steps inside. The little bell above the door tinkles softly. Her cheeks are still burning from the heated room and the fire that yogis are taught to stoke inside them. I want to kiss her right here, right now, always, but she is not like that—not one for spectacle or display. She is always water flowing away from a scene. I am still land, of course, still solid, but I follow her everywhere with my eyes and with the secret compass lodged inside my throat.
Eventually, I follow her to yoga class. She doesn’t have to ask. People have crossed oceans for love, scaled mountains for love. Why is a mat my mountain? I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I hollow out my back in Cow and raise my chin, my clavicles still sink into my skin. No sharp crescent-moon rises out of the flesh. I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I lift myself into Wheel, there is nothing of the full circle about me. I only creak and cringe.
But there she is on her mat, doing beautiful things with her body. In a small way, we have scaled this mountain together. I feel so grateful and so vulnerable at once. What to do now? My sternum is full of suggestions, that hard ridge above my soft heart. Stop anticipating. Stop analyzing. Just breathe. She touches my hand in Savasana—only a light brush of her fingers, but it is enough. I lie supine and gaze at the stars.
* * *
I have bad memories of singing. Not the earliest, not the baby song or the toddler song—nonsense burbling as echo from the womb. Nor even the kindergarten song—sitting crisscross applesauce on the worn carpet, pudgy hands clapping a beat, the wheels on the bus going round and round. But shortly after. When the world began to scowl. Hands clamped to ears. Sidelong smirk. So I shut up after that. Whispered and lip synced whenever singing was required.
But here I am, somehow, in a roomful of women, on a summer Tuesday evening, making strange noises with my breath. We’ve trilled Yoo Hoo! to each other in British accents, and held our hands to our soft bellies while murmuring yum… None of it feels like singing, so we’re able to let go and laugh—yet all of it is singing. It turns out singing begins in the body, becoming aware of the body as an instrument of sound.
And since the body is the instrument, we grow powerful and vulnerable at the same time. When your body is the instrument, any wrong note, any discord, feels as though you, yourself, are wrong. Singing is all about tuning your body, attuning to the slightest shift of posture: the lift of the ribs, the well of the pelvis, the slight rise of an eyebrow. You need to become liquid with song—not the ordinary solid cage of muscle and bone.
We’re in a room with a piano, a small stage, and rickety chairs. It’s the Bellingham Academy of Arts for Youth, and any minute now, children are going to stream in to rehearse The Music Man. I remember watching that movie with my parents and bouncing in my seat, leaning forward and aching to sing: Till there was you… vowels warbling up into the stratosphere.
I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands.
In a few months’ time, I’ll be performing with some of those children in a recital. The youngest will go first, singing the Tigger song, and then the 8-year-olds, and then me: so nervous in my cowboy boots and twirly skirt. But there will be no stopping it: I’ll stand up to the microphone, and my teacher will sit at the piano, smiling her encouraging smile. I’ll launch into it, diving, as my teacher says, into the song that already exists in the air.
Oh, give me a home… And then the lesser known verse: Oh give me a land, with its white diamond sand, and the light from the glittering stream/ where glideth along, the snowy white swan, like a maid in her heavenly dream… And though I know my pitch is in flux, every round “o” floats from me like a bubble (so many songs, it turns out, rely on that long “o” sound, a vowel that opens the back of the throat so music can rush in). Then the audience will join me on the chorus, raucous and alive: and never is heard, a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day…
But for now I’m just humming, deep in my belly, feeling the way the core muscles support every sound. I’m holding my hands at the side of my ribs to feel the way they can expand, and stay expanded, on their own. I feel the stickiness of my lungs as they adhere to the ribs in order to hold more breath. I’m standing on one foot—wobbly, unbalanced, laughing—to ignite the muscles of song.
* * *
“No environment could be better for young women who have feared it all their lives,” Sister Ann Cornelia says as she writes Failure with a flourish on the board. Here I am, somehow, in a roomful of others like me: all of us soon-to-be freshmen, soon-to-be fourteen, future Valedictorians and National Merit Scholars. Or so we’ve been told. All of us promised since infancy that we were fit to be Ivy League.
“Most of you have never been pushed to your fullest potential.” She faces us now, chalky hands pressed against her middle button firmly. She is small and round and sure of herself. Her clothes are dark with white smudges like a winter sky. “But the day will come when your best won’t be good enough. You will fail at something here, for once—I promise you that—and you will be better for it, forever.”
Not me, though. I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands. At Holy Names Academy, my first year, there are only flowers, and I keep collecting them, the way I have learned to do—not stopping to smell them anymore, only bending to pluck, then tuck them in my temperate bouquet: A after A after A. But the next year, there is chemistry. The next year there are numbers doing things I don’t quite understand. There is also Bridget who shares the lab desk with me: Bridget who writes poems on graph paper, Bridget who braids her own hair, Bridget who wants to go to alternative school in British Columbia.
I have chemistry with Bridget. Any way you say it, the statement is true. We start tie-dyeing shirts together. We start writing and casting a play. Soon, I am borrowing hats with crush velvet flowers that flop carelessly over my eyes. I forget I am a Virgo and pledge my devotion to a less exacting sign.
When it arrives, the F appears almost neutral, like a fingerprint that hasn’t been scanned yet—just a lone blue letter centered at the top of a page. It is both unexpected and entirely deserved. I cannot argue with it, this F I have earned through relentless non-attention, and yet I have to lean against the wall to keep from tipping over. My legs are wobbly now, my joints unhinged.
“So what?” Bridget says. “It’s just a letter. Let’s tear up our tests and make streamers!” But alas, I am not the kind of girl who can part ways so quickly and completely with convention.
My lungs are sticky as I try to steady my breath, as I lean over and somberly whisper: “I don’t think we should see so much of each other anymore.”
* * *
It’s ridiculous, really: A PhD. A “Doctor of Philosophy.” In my family, doctors (real doctors) are revered; we submit to their authority and do anything they say. And of course, the unspoken Jewish expectation: you’ll meet a nice boy, a doctor maybe, why not? It’s expected of young girls, young women. Sure, you can go to college, but don’t make a habit of it.
I’ve met nice boys, but they’re not doctors or lawyers or shrewd businessmen. They are novelists, poets, teachers, carpenters. None of them are Jewish. Their beliefs fluctuate from day to day. We drink lots of coffee and take long walks. We hold hands. We walk along rivers and mountains and lakes. We walk to funky cinemas with disco balls rotating in the ceiling, making everything sparkle.
Philosophy, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” So I suppose I’m about to become a “doctor of wisdom,” or a “doctor of love.” But I’m neither of these things. I’ve stumbled into graduate school in complete ignorance, as if I’ve been sleepwalking, inching slowly backward down a dark alley. It’s only now, minutes before my oral exams, that I’ve begun to wake up, take my bearings, turn on the lights. How did I get here? Where am I?
I’m sitting in a windowless classroom, waiting for my professors. I’ve brought a bouquet of irises and tulips; I’ve brought pastries from the groovy shop downtown. Are these bribes? Perhaps. I’ve dressed like an adult, in a nice skirt and shoes with a heel. I’ve even put on lipstick. But my fingernails are bitten down, and there’s a big pimple on my chin. The seams in me always show.
I’ve been studying, spending long hours in the library with Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb. I know Didion and E.B White as if they’re old friends. I’ve made flash cards. I’ve memorized quotes. I’ve constructed arguments about representations of the self on the page. But success seems unfathomable, unthinkable, for a girl who’s never had any idea where she’s going. At this moment I feel blank as a new notebook. Nothing has been inscribed.
* * *
I had dressed like an adult since I was a child, a miniature version of my mother. At eleven, she gave me a tube of lipstick just her shade, rouge, mascara, and powder. She said people might mistake us for sisters and smiled at the thought. By the time I was twenty-one, I was weary from a decade of make-up and polish—the way my mother insisted we must make up for something, the fact we were not “natural beauties.”
No more high heels, I vowed. For another decade at least, not even a dress, not once. I cut up my stockings. I kept my hair short and my face bare. Perhaps others assumed I was marking myself and my love affair with a woman. Perhaps they even inferred that I was “the man” in our relationship. Evidence: hadn’t I also purchased a Pierre Cardin tie, a blush-worthy impulse buy? But I think it was adolescent rebellion at last, years overdue—this stalwart refusal to gussy.
The day before our wedding, also years overdue, my beloved suggests we get a manicure. Our best friend is with us. She knows a place. “It might be fun,” she laughs, “to do something girly together for once.”
Now the most important women in my life are sitting side by side, having their nails done, chatting softly and choosing a color. They are lesbians. They are feminists. They are not worried about the implications of a little gloss and tint on their hands. So why am I? “This your first time in nail salon?” the man at the counter asks. I nod, sheepishly, but still I linger near the door, resisting the chairs and magazines. The seams in me always show.
“Your turn, Miss,” a young woman beckons. Her face is an open door. This is my chance to be normal, to be one of the girls, to participate in the rituals of femininity that have so long eluded me. This time, I can even do so on my own terms.
I place my hands in hers, gingerly, the way I will place my hands in my beloved’s tomorrow, when we stand before the small crowd to exchange our vows. “Your nails are very short,” she observes, a diplomatic alternative to ragged or gnawed. “I will soak your hands first, then push down your cuticles so we can see the moons. Yes?”
All at once, years of longing and fear and other feelings I don’t quite recognize are streaming from my eyes. I blot them quickly before we begin. “You are all right, Miss?” I want to say how my mother isn’t coming to my wedding, how my mother doesn’t believe in my love. And I want to say how sad I am to be so relieved that she won’t have a chance to ruin everything. But instead, I nod my head, less sheepish this time: “Yes, please, I want to see the moons.”
* * *
I lean my head into her hands and instinctively nuzzle them, like a cat. My eyes close and I hum quietly—a resonant yum—while she massages my scalp with lavender oil. These days, I get touched like this only by professionals: my hairdresser, my massage therapist, my chiropractor. My skin tingles at their touch. I feel a quick flush of shame at my pleasure.
She lifts one lock of hair, then another. I feel the gentle tug on my scalp, but even when I open my eyes, I can’t see what she’s doing; without my glasses I’m a blur in the mirror, a faint outline of head and shoulders draped with a black cloth. I know she’s pondering what to do with me today. My hair is at the in-between stage where nothing seems quite right.
How about highlights? she muses, almost to herself. Highlights? My hair has always been what I call “chestnut”: brown but with an undertone of red. At certain angles, it’s had a sheen to it, though my bangs get frizzy or oily, depending on the day. Most often they hang in one lanky bunch above my eyebrows. I’ve managed to arrive into my fifties without dyeing my hair, the gray strands barely noticeable until they spring up like coarse wire. I’ve never wanted to get caught in the hair-dyeing cycle, roots showing like flags of age that must be quickly hidden.
But lately, the gray hairs have been accumulating—quietly, like radicals gathering for subversion—and so I now suddenly see wide swathes of them when I brush my hair or push my bangs back with a headband. I see them, but I don’t see them, averting my eyes. It’s not a stylish wing of gray, like Susan Sontag, or a silver sheen like Helen Mirren. My gray is unruly, dowdy, stripping my hair of whatever vital spark it once possessed.
We’ll do it subtly, very natural, she says, gazing at me in the mirror. I can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her hands cup my shoulders, firm but gentle, as if she’s about to steer me the right direction on a trail. Yes?
How can I resist her, this woman who has examined every inch of my head? This woman who washes my hair and smoothes it against my scalp, who is always happy to see me, who wants only to make me lovely? We’ve talked about everything and nothing. But if I say yes—if I agree to be highlighted—will I still be myself? Will the highlights announce themselves, tell the world I no longer trust my own body to act in its best interests?
She’s waiting for my answer. The phone rings, and I hear the snip of other scissors, the roar of the blow dryer. The sound system is playing Hallelujah, a song I’ve been hearing lately everywhere: …love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah… This song always makes me both sad and happy at the same time; it’s a prayer of longing and not-quite-forgiveness. It’s a voice that wants to shout in jubilation to the heavens—you can it hear it straining to find its pitch—but finds itself hobbled by the failings of an earth-bound body.
It’s a song I’ve been singing my whole life.
Without speaking, I say yes. I nod, and she claps her hands, hurries off to get the foils and dyes. My blurred self and I wait quietly for her return. I know she’ll gently lift each hank of hair, carefully paint each strand until it shines.
* * *
Follow your heart! the poets exhort. I shrug my shoulders: What else would I follow? These are the lyrics I’ve been singing my whole life: songs of love and longing, passion and devotion. If I am anything, I am loyal. My eyes never wander. My feet are invariably warm.
But in college, when I begin to listen to radical folk singers like Ani DiFranco, I’m surprised, then riveted by lines like these: We’re in a room without a door, and I am sure without a doubt, they’re gonna wanna know how we got in here, and they’re gonna wanna know how we plan to get out. The song is called “Shameless,” and I play it hour after hour, the repeat button set on my small dorm stereo.
What I can’t get over is how candid the speaker is about covet[ing] another man’s wife. This is the first time I have ever heard a woman express such unabashed desire for another. I flush every time DiFranco’s voice dips low, slices through study time with a guttural moan: Then I get to see how close I can get to it without giving in; then I get to rub up against it until I break the skin. If my roommate walks in, I plunge for the pause button. I consider investing in a pair of headphones.
I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm.
Little do I know that in just a few years I will find myself promised to a man. I will say Yes, OK, to marrying him, No, I’d rather not to the suggestion of a ring. He laughs at me. “You’re never about the bling, are you?” But he knows he can trust me, even with my bare left hand. He knows I’m not one for shirking my commitments. I always call, even if I’m only running a few minutes behind.
So I will not be able to name this. I will not be able to explain this. When I finally pick up the phone, days too late, I will wince at his fury, though I will know it is what I deserve. Shameless, he says, a snake in the grass. Later, in a letter: Men don’t choose a woman like you because you’re the hottest. They choose a woman like you because you’re the safest.
Why I didn’t call him first, why I didn’t sever one cord before I tied another—I couldn’t say. I was raised with Captain Von Trapp telling Baronness Shraeder on the Austrian terrace, You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else. This he does before he kisses Fraulein Maria in the gazebo by the water, before they sing together about having done something good.
My heart, strange Geiger counter, is sending signals only my body can read. Perhaps the gazebo is the room without a door. Surely it is the glass house from which I must never throw stones. I am alone with the woman I love by a lake in darkness. It is spring, and our bodies are acting at last in their own best interests. My place. Her place. It hardly matters where we go next. I can’t even slow this down, let alone stop this. The night is a stringed instrument. The future an encore. We cannot top this, even if we tried.
* * *
The root word of fidelity means faith. As in devotion or belief. An infidel is one who has lost her belief. And, as with any faith, doubt comes into play. Doubt, the philosopher Paul Tillich stressed, isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Or, to put it more lyrically, from Sylvia Plath: I talk to God but the sky is empty.
Fidelity also means accuracy, exactitude. As in fidelity to the facts. Or it means the quality of sound: high fidelity, as in a record or a film—each note clear and true. So many meanings for one word that, on the face of it, seems so simple and steadfast.
When I think of fidelity I think of my dog. Though her name is not “Fido” (a name that must, I hope, have the same origin), she keeps me always in her sights. She arranges herself in ways that seem meant to guard me from whatever, or whoever, might take me unaware (at the moment, for example, she has curled up behind my chair, blocking the doorway). She often has her eyes closed, but her ears twitch and she can be on her feet in a flash. She’s a small dog—only twenty pounds, with a foxlike face and a white plume for a tail—but her bark is that of a Great Dane’s.
She will bark at mailmen and anyone who delivers a package to my door. She will bark at the jingle of another dog’s collar in the street. She will bark at things invisible to my eye and ear, anything that might be a threat. She will bark to alert me, too, of friends arriving, wagging her tail so vigorously it’s a blur. Her pant becomes a smile, says: look who’s here!
She’s been my dog for almost ten years now, though I dreamed of her long before plucking her from the listings on Petfinder. She came to me as a puppy—all legs and nose and eyes—and I often felt at a loss, consulting my Puppies for Dummies book constantly, memorizing the steps for potty training, leash training, socialization, hygiene. She poked her head out of the cat carrier I’d used to pick her up, tongue lolling, eyes rolling from side to side. I could hardly speak, sure that anything I did might cause irrevocable harm. I touch her flank while we sleep, feeling her slow steady breath. I kiss her snout when we wake, nuzzle her under the chin. We make a full circle.
I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm. I once thought my home would be filled with voices at all hours, a family working together at the mundane tasks—dishes, homework, puzzles—that make up a life. I believed these were facts, and anything else a poor imitation, inaccurate.
But, as it turns out, it’s just me and my dog. We are faithful to one another, and to this house that does not seem to mind its sparse occupancy. My dog roams the backyard, ears alert for any intruder; she comes inside and watches my every move. I stretch into downward dog, crocodile, cat and cow under her scrutiny. I sing to her the songs I’m learning, and she listens, sighing, stretching to make herself long as pulled taffy. Our sky is not empty, oh no. The night is a duet; it teems with a thousand stars.
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. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018). She is also the co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019). Wade is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University in Miami and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.