by Aleyna Rentz
We are going to get better. Our yoga mats and workbooks and whispered mantras are going to fit like plaster into our broken places. There are nine of us, all girls, all survivors of our own secret traumas, sitting in a semicircle at the front of the university chapel, a long room outfitted with pews and a nondescript altar capable of being repurposed for any god. Jesus, Yahweh, whoever. I think the point is we’re supposed to be goddesses, that we’re supposed to cultivate faith in ourselves, establish a sacred connection with the part of us we lost. Some kind of hokey shit like that. I don’t know. Dr. Ling is going around the circle, asking for introductions: names, majors, something about ourselves that we love.
“I’m Taylor, a freshman biology major, and I love, um—” Taylor looks down at her mat, blushing—“that I’m a good student.”
I study her from across the circle. Frizzy topknot, high school Beta Club T-shirt. She’s still got braces, pink and purple Xs dotting her teeth like a tic-tac-toe board. I look at her and wonder why she’s here. Illicit affair with her AP chemistry teacher, probably. One look at her baking soda volcano and he was done for. I don’t know. Maybe her dad’s dead, maybe her brother. She looks like the kind of girl who brought all her favorite childhood stuffed animals to college.
Most of the girls here are pretty, and I assume the worst. Frat parties with spiked punch. Boyfriends with tempers. Lecherous uncles who just couldn’t help themselves. This is the wrong impulse, I know, but I’m cynical. I know how bad men operate, what they look for. Getting dressed this morning, I put on an oversized T-shirt, didn’t bother with makeup. I don’t want anyone here assuming anything about me.
In spite of everything, the girls love themselves. Grace loves her bubbly personality. Katya loves her ability to empathize. Maria loves her smile. Izzie loves her legs. She says it with such conviction and earnestness that I am certain she still feels ownership over her body, that no man has taken that away from her. Someone in her family must have just died.
Dr. Ling’s expectant gaze falls on me. Her hair’s pulled back in a sleek, black ponytail that accentuates her angular features, her square jawline and tiny nose. She is beautiful, and her beauty strikes me like a fun house mirror, a surface in which I see myself distorted and disfigured.
“Hi,” I say, snapping the hair elastic on my wrist. “I’m Christine, a freshman who’s undeclared, and, uh, well…hmm.”
In this body, I don’t feel at home. I’m a motel guest tossing and turning on a cardboard mattress. Sometimes, I get stuck in front of reflective surfaces. Darkened storefronts, bus windows. I stare and stare, wondering if the figure in the glass truly belongs to me. Who is the landlord, I sometimes wonder? Who is the manager? Get me another room, I want to shout. This is the kind of woman I want to be: someone unafraid to make demands.
“I don’t know,” I say finally. “I can’t think of anything.”
I expect Dr. Ling to move on to the next girl, but she’s looking at me, determined. “Yes, you can. I believe in you.”
She believes in me. As if I’m a god. What I feel like is a reluctant martyr, someone being burned at the stake. I look at the stained glass windows and the pretty, violated girls around me and wonder why I agreed to this, why I told my therapist, sure, whatever, I guess I’ll give yoga for trauma survivors a chance. I wonder what they’ve assumed about my past, what my reticence has led them to believe.
“Just one thing. It can be anything,” Dr. Ling says. There’s not one flyaway hair on her head.
“Yes, you can.”
“You can do it!” Taylor cheers, and I shoot her a murderous look.
“I’m going to need another yoga for trauma survivors just to cope with attending this one,” I say with a pointed laugh, but nobody else joins in. “Look, I can’t think of anything.”
Dr. Ling, polished as silver, gives me a sad smile, and there I am, warped and tarnished. “How about we come back to you?” she asks. “At the end of class, at the end of the semester. Whenever you’re ready. Give it as much time as you need, but know that I’ll be checking in from time to time, all right?”
“All right,” I say.
But the weeks pass, and she doesn’t ask. I fold myself like origami while soft acoustic music plays and Dr. Ling firmly insists that we are enough. She teaches us to become cats, cows, dogs, frogs, pigeons. We are supple as paper, calm as corpses. Instead of warriors and eagles, I mold myself into the class clown, a role with which I am familiar.
In tree pose, I wobble and collapse. “Tally ho!” I cry, a line that gets a giggle or two out of the traumatized girls. Dr. Ling only smirks, then opens her mouth. Here comes the question—what do I love about myself? Why not my wit, my ability to entertain?
“Let’s try to be a little more serious,” she says instead.
Before yoga, we sit on our mats and talk. Group therapy. The girls’ stories are operatic and Oscar-worthy, building in intensity and detail each week like a prestige miniseries. Izzie’s parents used to lock her out of the house at night whenever she made them angry. She slept in the grass, woke up with ant bites. Katya’s ex-boyfriend had flown all the way from Ukraine to knock on her window at two in the morning, insisting she drop out of grad school or he’d kill himself. Grace, lecherous uncle. Maria, spiked punch. Taylor keeps her mouth shut, and I entertain the idea that I’ve maybe scared her into silence.
But I don’t divulge much, either, choosing instead to deal in maudlin abstractions.
“I feel like a renter,” I say, “like my body doesn’t belong to me.”
Everyone nods in agreement, praises my profoundness. Dr. Ling is beaming, thrilled with this observation. She has the look of a woman in love. “Do you want to elaborate on that?” she asks, skipping the obvious question.
“Let me take a rain check,” I say.
If we’re tired or just aren’t feeling the flow, we’re allowed to dip into child’s pose and stay there as long as we want. In child’s pose, you look like a doomed subject bowing to her king. It’s a form of surrender to that which we can’t control, Dr. Ling tells us. The implications of the move—that subservience brings peace, that we should prostrate ourselves before some higher power—annoy me, and one evening, I decide to say so.
Nondescript guitar music plays. The lights are dimmed. Dr. Ling asks us to lower ourselves into child’s pose, and from the floor I say, “They should rename this one something else. ‘Guilty Catholic Pose.’ ‘Marie Antoinette Awaits the Guillotine.’ You know?”
After yoga is over and the girls have left, Dr. Ling pulls me aside. From the uncomfortable look on her face, I can tell she’s not going to ask me if I love my boldness, my willingness to speak my mind. She is kind but firm in her admonitions: Yes, sometimes yoga may seem silly, but I should keep my thoughts to myself or present them during group therapy in a constructive way.
“If you don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of these sessions, you don’t have to come,” she says after a moment of hesitation.
I don’t get anything out of these sessions, but I keep coming back because I don’t have an HBO subscription. The drama sustains me, gives me something to look forward to each week, a reason to leave my dorm. I need to find out what happened to Katya’s maniac boyfriend, what Izzie is going to do after her dad called last week and asked to meet for lunch, if Taylor will ever fess up.
“I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat,” Izzie tells us. “And he made fun of me for it. He noticed I was picking at my food and said maybe that was a good thing, since I’d gained some weight since he saw me last.”
I lean in closer, ready for the next delicious development. I want her to turn the table over, throw water in his face. No, hot coffee. Melt his skin, pluck out his eyes. The drama I’m looking for has classical dimensions, a triumphant plot that sees the villain vanquished and the heroine redeemed.
Izzie closes her eyes, allows a tear to escape. “He said he was sorry for the way he treated me as a kid, but that I had to understand I forced him to do it, because I was so bad.” She’s holding herself rigid, trying to be strong. “I just don’t understand what I did wrong.”
A disappointing turn. Izzie lets go of herself, lets the sobs ebb and flow.
These girls are milquetoast, flimsy and sodden. Katya says she’s considering visiting her ex-boyfriend when she’s back in Ukraine for the summer. Grace says she’s angry with her uncle, but understands that he grew up in an abusive household and couldn’t break the cycle. Maria says at least she was drugged and can’t remember anything. Taylor says she prays for each of us before bed. This is not the content I signed up for.
The semester crawls by. Taylor gets pink and red braces for Valentine’s Day, green and white for St. Patrick’s. In a rare burst of extroversion, she asks what colors she should get for Easter.
“Yellow and blue? Blue and purple?”
“Red and brown. For the blood of Jesus Christ.”
I say that. This is the first thing I’ve said in two weeks. If I am a motel dweller, then let me act the part: crazed and obscene, someone who pushes their belongings in a grocery cart and shouts obscenities at passersby. Over the last three months, I’ve cultivated an air of mystery. Nobody knows why I’m here or what I love about myself. In a room where I can cycle from cat to cow to cat again, I use my silent meditation time to invent stories more compelling than my own. Maybe I’m the child of doomsday cultists, or someone who escaped from some billionaire’s covert but widespread sex trafficking ring. In this room, you get to choose what you believe in. If Dr. Ling asks, I’ll tell her I love my peeling wallpaper and faded curtains, the dead roach in the corner.
As finals week draws near, I realize my first year of college is almost over. Year nineteen is coming up, one last round of the teenage blues. My parents call sometimes, asking if I’ve made friends, if I’ve decided what I want to study, if I’m happy here. They don’t know about the yoga or the reason I’m doing it. They tell me they love me, but they don’t give specifics.
Taylor arrives at our penultimate session with braces the colors of Easter chicks and Peeps marshmallows.
“Jesus would not be pleased,” I say. She answers with an awkward giggle, a kind of desperate squawk. I’m secretly proud that, after all these weeks, I still intimidate her.
Taylor smiles broadly to show her teeth to the room, but she does it quickly, careful not to expose too much of herself. Tonight’s therapy is focused on boundaries. We’re going to learn the power of the word “no.” Dr. Ling says it’s the most powerful word in our arsenal.
“What are our experiences with setting boundaries? Are we good at it? Is it something we need to work on?”
“I’m an expert,” I say, miming being trapped behind a wall. “Nobody’s getting past this thing.”
There’s scattered laughter. Dr. Ling looks ready to lecture me, but Taylor, of all people, raises her hand. Sheepishly, the elbow bent. First the braces, now this. We look at her in amazement.
In a small voice, she says, “But what if you say no, and they don’t listen?”
Dr. Ling nods. “That’s an extremely valid question, and a tough one to answer. Who do you want to set boundaries with, Taylor?”
My ears perk up. Finally, a twist in the plot. I crane my neck to get a better look. “I’m a pushover, and I know it’s all because of James and Caleb. My neighbors as a kid,” she clarifies, taking a deep breath.
“It’s okay, Taylor, take your time,” Dr. Ling says.
“At first ‘no’ was enough, but then they started saying they’d cut my hair if I didn’t do what they asked, or push me off the trampoline, or tell my mom I was the one making them do—”
She puts a hand over her mouth. She has said too much. Dr. Ling reaches across the circle to hand her a box of tissues, but Taylor refuses them.
Grace scoots close to her, rubs circles on her back. “It’s okay, sweetie.”
Taylor pushes her away. “I’m going to go,” she blubbers, and she puts on her shoes. They’re some kind of off-brand Converse. Bubblegum pink. She doesn’t even tie them, and on her way out, she nearly trips over the laces.
I snort. It just comes out, discreet and unwelcome, like a mouse darting across a kitchen, or a man’s unexpected hand. Behind me, I hear the heavy oak door bang shut.
Dr. Ling asks the girls to excuse us, and she beckons me to follow her to the back of the sanctuary. I watch her perky ponytail bounce, wonder what kind of conditioner she uses. When she turns to face me, I expect her impeccably waxed eyebrows to be furrowed in anger, but she only looks disappointed.
In a pained voice, she lectures me about the sanctity of this group and the trust I’ve violated. “You can’t do that,” she says, cupping her face in her hands. Her nails are manicured. French tips. “You just can’t do that. Do you understand me?”
Not the question I was hoping for, but I nod anyway.
And just like that, Taylor’s gone. No goodbyes, no resolution, a television show cancelled in its prime. When she doesn’t show up to our next yoga class, Dr. Ling asks if anyone knows where Taylor is. We shake our heads. Of course nobody has heard from her. We signed a contract at the beginning of the semester agreeing we wouldn’t contact each other outside of class until it ended. We’re a clique-free zone here in the university chapel. The only parts of each other we’ve seen are the bruises. When I first heard about the class, I didn’t know I’d have to sign a no-friend clause. The dim hope that I might make a friend or two was what initially spurred my interest. I thought a few of us would gather for dinner afterward, that we’d bond over rape and incest and the vicissitudes of girlhood. Everyone else on this campus is so unblemished, unmolested and whole. How do you talk to people like that?
Our last yoga class, Dr. Ling brings cupcakes and sparkling apple cider and tells us how proud she is of our growth. She dabs her perfect eyes with a tissue. Her mascara must be waterproof. I fidget through her speech, snapping the hair tie on my wrist until my skin is pink. Ask me, Dr. Ling, what’s to love about this dirty motel room. The soiled sheets, the moldy shower. Ask me why this place fell into such squalor.
But she doesn’t. “Namaste,” she says one last time, even though we haven’t done any yoga tonight. We echo her before rolling up our mats. The girls leave in a huddle, freed from the no-friend contract at last, and I walk a few steps behind them.
It’s a little after seven, purple sky, people going places. It’s getting warmer out, and girls are pulling sundresses from their closets, wearing them on first dates. Couples walk by. It’s still cool enough out to hold hands without them getting sweaty. I had a boyfriend, once. Summer after senior year of high school. A community college student, a cool older boy with a beard and a beat-up Firebird. He was my first yoga instructor, the person who taught me how to lie still and empty my mind, to become something else entirely. Sometimes, he was sweet. Gentle, the big teddy bear type. In his car late at night, parked in my parents’ quiet driveway, he’d hold my suppliant body against his shoulder and whisper his mantra: I love you I love you I love you.
Aleyna Rentz is a writer and photographer from rural Southwest Georgia, where she grew up with her six brothers and sisters. She now lives in Baltimore, where she finished her MFA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including the Iowa Review, Cincinnati Review, Glimmer Train, Monkeybicycle, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She serves as senior fiction reader for Salamander.