You learned to point your toes at four. You learned to make a diamond with your knees in a first position plié. Your body learned the reverence, the same every time, at the end of every class, until it was stored in your muscle memory. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
You learned to kip at eight. You taught your body to stretch out and snap back, the inertia sending your hips flying up to the bar. You did it over and over again, until it became a building block of your bar routine. You learned to pirouette on the beam at nine. The deceptively tricky downfall of so many gymnasts, you’d do six of them in a row, until you reached the end of the beam, then you turned around and did it again. Your body learned to present, the same every time, marking the start and end of every routine, until it was stored in your muscle memory. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
You learned to inward dive at eleven. So sure you would split your skull open, you knew that the only way to get your head far enough away from the board was to jump without holding back. Once you’d done it the first time, after that first “chuck,” the fear disappeared, and you remembered to point your toes. You added a full somersault, and then a one-and-a-half. You began to feel excitement, not dread, bobbing lightly out at the end of the board, your damp toes hurting slightly on the rough surface. Those little bounces, stored in your muscle memory. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
You learned to piqué turn at thirteen. Your eyes watered with frustration and embarrassment when your limbs kept tangling underneath you, as everyone else flew past you in diagonal lines across the ballet studio. You taught your body to do it, practiced it in supermarket cold aisles and as you brushed your teeth at night. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
You learned to orgasm at sixteen. Your boyfriend said he couldn’t know what to do for you unless you did. You treated it like homework, and homework was never optional. This was way more fun than regular homework. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
You learned to scratch spin at nineteen. You fell, a lot. Early mornings on the ice, with country music blasting through the speakers, you practiced it to the beat of Tim McGraw, grateful that there was no one around to see you sweat and topple. You taught your body to hang out on one leg, on the outside edge of your right skate, before stepping out onto your left foot, enjoying physics at work as you pulled your arms and free leg in and sped up. The world went blurry, and there’s no spotting allowed in skating. Then you fell out; you never mastered the graceful exit. But for a few seconds, you could spin on that sweet, slippery spot in the middle of the blade. Even now, years later, it’s in you.
For years, your body was your own. You taught it to do things, amazing things, that looked impossible to outsiders but that, eventually, settled in your muscle memory and became easy. Of course I can do the splits, you shrugged. Of course I can swing around the high bar, let go, and land squarely on my feet. Of course I can bourée in pointe shoes. My body does what I tell it to do.
You moved to a big city when you were 21. It taught you to be on alert, always. To avoid drinking too much. To avoid eye contact with men on the street. To double and triple check before you left the house that your top wasn’t too low cut. The stares, the catcalls, the theatrical up-and-down looks.
Slowly, your body became less and less your own. When did that happen? Was it the first time you were groped on the subway? The second? The day when you were catcalled five times in three blocks? When the three French teenagers stood over you as you sat on the Métro and “jokingly” made to grab at your breasts? When the man walking up the stairs behind you at Christopher Street grabbed your ass? You turned around and looked him in the face, sure yet unsure of what had just happened, and he looked you right in the eyes.
Your body does what you want it to, but other people do what they want to your body, too. Now, walking past a cluster of men on the sidewalk, you feel your fists clench, your nails digging into your palms, forming little red semicircles in your flesh. It’s in your muscle memory.
Even now, you know that years later, it will be in you.