By Cord Brooks Featured image from PEAK Pilates
August 17, 2020: Sherman Oaks, California
TODAY, I HAVE A quarantine first: getting catcalled while crossing the street with my mask on. Do the men who whistle at me out their truck window imagine what my nose looks like? Do they try to make out the outline of my chin? The contours of my jaw? Do they even bother to look at my (half) face as their vehicle whooshes past, or are they only interested in the contours of my ass at the point at which it meets my thighs? (We Pilates professionals affectionately refer to this area as the “thuttocks,” “thass,” or “underbutt.”) Part of me thinks: I’ve still got it, but part of me feels even more objectified, knowing that half of my face goes unseen.
In middle school, I heard the label butherface used to describe a girl with a good body but bad face: Everything but-her-face was fuckable. Thoughtless boys joked, “Put a bag on her head!” That’s how I feel today — like a girl with a bag over half her face and only the fuckable parts featured. Of course, I put the bag on myself, willingly. The short-shorts too. (The San Fernando Valley in mid-August is no joke, and I don’t have central air in my building.) As far as these truckers are concerned, I put myself on display.
Is it shame then that I feel, hot against my cheeks, or just the 102-degree sun? The idea of being a body without a face — a floating form, all limbs and perky bits, leaves me feeling cold, despite the record heat. I understand, in this moment, that violation is a form of violence. I’ve never noticed how similar the two words are. They come from the same Latin root.
The root of violence.
Vio, meaning road or path.
Like the one I’m walking on when the men whistle.
The imagination is capable of so much, but do they use theirs to fill in the missing parts of me, or do they imagine their parts in me, instead?
Every year on the High Holy Days, we Jews recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, a religious poem about the power of repentance, prayer, and charity in tempering God’s severe decree:
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not …
Who by earthquake and who by plague …
These words ring truer than ever before; these questions, with no clear answers, echo in my ears; this coronavirus, like the Northridge earthquake that precedes it by two-and-a-half decades: the great mystery of my life.
1994: Sherman Oaks, California
Before I go to sleep on Sunday night, January 16, 1994, I brush my teeth, wash my face, secure my headgear into place in my overcrowded mouth, and scream and fight with my mother; it’s a typical night. I even lock my door, for emphasis. It is my way of saying, “Fuck you,” to her without getting grounded. But just as I’m climbing into my pink house-bed (my custom-made bed with a house-shaped frame), I have a bad thought: What if some sort of natural or unnatural disaster should happen in the night? Is locking the door a mistake?
I know that the night my mom went to bed with her door locked as a child, she awoke to find her own mother lifeless on the garage floor. To be fair, her dad was the one who found the body, but the point still stands. A locked door is an omen. But, what do I care? I’m an angry preteen, and I’m not going to take back the figurative “fuck you.”
The feuding leaves me exhausted, and I fall asleep almost immediately. The next thing I know, my bed is swaying, but I think nothing of it. I’m happily dreaming, deep in R.E.M. sleep, or at least in a state of half-consciousness. (My future yoga nidra meditation teacher will call this the “in between space.”) In my drifty thoughts, I’m out at sea, enjoying the motion of the water and the beating sun as I lie on deck, bronzing my ivory skin. But, as it turns out, I’m not on a Carnival Cruise deck, en route to the Bahamas (and, as I’ll learn post-COVID: Who’d want to be on one of those anyway?). Instead, I’m being jolted — up, down, and sideways — in my house-bed, and the movement I feel is not the tide. It’s strong and fierce, and it’s coming from the earth, which suddenly feels alive.
It’s a holiday weekend — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — so, why is my mother banging on my door when I can sleep as late as I want? I don’t know it yet, but bang-bang-bangs will reverberate through my life, and I don’t even mean that indecently, although the connection could be drawn there, too. At present though, I have no time to let my mind wander. I have pressing problems on my hands like a dead clock radio and a mother on a mission.
“Melody! Melody, can you hear me?” my mother bellows, followed by more of her now-infamous banging. I want to tune her out, roll over, and go back to bed. What time is it anyway? Even the moon seems to be sleeping. In its waxing crescent state, it looks like it’s pulled up cozily under the covers of the black night sky. Still, I force myself to take in the scene. From the sound of it, our house is about to fall down the hill, so I’ll have to wake the fuck up, even at this most inconvenient of hours.
I fumble, in the dark and in my half-asleep state, out of bed. I guess, by the lack of outside light coming through my window, that it’s roughly four o’clock in the morning. (It’s actually 4:30:55 a.m.) But, I can’t make my way to the door on account of my toppled-over dressers and bookshelves. What’s more, Mom can’t let herself in to help me because my door is still locked from our big fight. In hindsight, last night’s seemingly clever and harmless “Fuck you” has turned into a not-so-smart and harmful “Fuck me.”
“Melody! Melody! You have to make your way to the door! We have to get out of the house!” Mom shouts. But it’s no use. There’s no light for me to see with; no hand to guide me; no way to know just how much clutter is obstructing my path.
The aftershocks are intense and scary. They’ll continue for weeks, but just after the earthquake, they are the strongest. Every time I attempt to find the door, I’m sent to the ground, reeling. I’m trampling over Highlights magazines, American Girl books, knick-knacks, stuffed animals, and toys, not to mention my own guilt. I know that all of this could have been prevented had I not locked my door the night before — in essence locking help out.
As I struggle to make my way out of my room, I wonder about my younger brother. Is he safe? As I will later discover, his fear of heights, which always led him to opt for the bottom bunk bed, put him at a distinct disadvantage. When the earth shook, so did the bed above him. In fact, it shook so vigorously that it came loose from the bed frame and hinges that supported it and fell directly onto his frail, seven-year-old body. With freakish, Superman-like strength that can only be explained by fear-induced adrenaline, he somehow managed to hoist the fallen bed off of him with his puny, little-boy arms. Now, unbeknownst to me, he’s standing beside my mother virtually unscathed, aside from severe bruising and a newfound fear of earthquakes, but I’m still trapped.
My mother keeps rattling my door handle in hopes that I’ll be able to hear my way there since I can’t see in the dark. But, no matter how loudly she rattles, I still can’t find the damn thing. I’m starting to panic. I want to give up, or at least wait for someone to kick down my door, like police always do on television. Clearly though, there’s no time for lavish, TV gestures. This is real life — not Law & Order.
Like my brother (and his Superman moment I don’t yet know about), I will myself to do the impossible, to navigate my way through the debris — including cracked stucco, broken plaster, and fallen furniture — and to safety. Then the three of us — my mom, my brother, and I — run down the stairs and out of our precariously perched house on a hill, each of us clad in mismatched shoes. I, for one, am sporting two left feet from different slippers — a monkey and a lion one.
By the time we get outside, our nextdoor neighbors, the Monteleones, are already huddled in blankets on the street. We join them. Fifteen minutes later, a familiar, five-year-old Mercedes pulls up. It’s my dad, wearing his own mismatched shoes: sandal on one foot, sneaker on the other. He’s come from his demolished Oakwood Apartments complex down the street (a building that four years and $25 million dollars later will reopen as “The Premiere”).
We all wrap the Monteleones’ blankets tightly around ourselves, shivering from the cold, but mostly from the shock — shock at having survived something so massive (a 6.7 magnitude, blind thrust earthquake), so much bigger than ourselves. For me, the strangest part is not the actual earthquake but watching my nearly divorced parents, who scream and fight at unprecedented levels — much worse than Mom and I fought yesterday evening — come together in the middle of this natural disaster and take comfort in one another. It’s almost eerie to see them there, kind and clinging to each other.
The sight of them huddled together under the same blanket is at complete odds with recent history. Just a few weeks ago, my dad made one of his regular midnight appearances and, in a particularly escalated moment, threw a water bottle at Mom’s head. The fact that it was an empty bottle made little difference to my mother because she ran upstairs to drag us, first, out of bed and, then, out of the house. We left the danger zone to find relative safety in her blue, 10-year-old Chrysler minivan. It was, I realize, a scene not too dissimilar from this one: scared pajama-clad children awoken from slumber and brought to the outdoors in the middle of the night. Only then, my mother was running from my father, in fear, and, now, she is clinging to him the way a little kid would cradle her “lovey.”
I know that in the face of catastrophe, I’m witnessing my parents care for one another, but am I also witnessing their reconciliation? Did the earthquake, in damaging our home, also manage to damage their memories? Their divorce papers? Somehow, in the midst of cracking granite countertops, crumbling red rooftops, and sliding San Fernando Valley hillsides, have we become The Greenfields — a cohesive unit — again? If so, we not only have the arduous task of building back our house from the studs, but also of building back some semblance of a “family” from even less.
– The number of pounds I weigh in junior high when other girls are branded butherfaces;
– The number of men that have been inside of me;
– The year of the earthquake — a crisis I keep reliving in present pandemic times.
For someone who is repeatedly told she’s “out of control” and certainly acts the part — first, as a tantruming child behind a doggie gate; then, as a klutzy elementary schooler picked last in PE (picture poor motor skills and flailing limbs); and later, as an oversexualized young adult with a spending habit to boot (hello, $30,000-plus in credit card debt), it’s no wonder I seek to reclaim it. The things I try to control over the years, without much success, range from my weight to my parents to my students to my romantic partners. But then, in my late 20s, I find my calling and future profession in “Contrology,” which you probably know as Pilates — the “complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit,” according to its founder Joseph Pilates. One of the first lessons I learn: don’t bang the carriage when closing the Reformer springs.
At 10 years old (post-earthquake) and continuing well into my middle-school years, I scale my food intake way back. I’m certain that if I keep ingesting the enemy — calories — I’ll turn into the other enemy — my mother, a pear-shaped woman who married a man we both on-and-off-again despise. Restrict, restrict, restrict, my brain tells me, even though my body is changing, and I need nourishment to grow — something I actually stop doing between the fifth and seventh grades. Weight, unlike my surroundings, is something I can control. I take it by the reins as if it’s a horse and show it who’s boss. When I say, “Left,” it turns sharply. When I say, “5’4”, 94 pounds,” it obeys. By the eighth grade, thanks to the power of olive oil (part of the prescribed weight-gaining regimen I am put on by a registered dietician), I grow a couple more inches, maxing out at 5’7”. The doctors tell me I was meant to be several inches taller though.
Sometimes, I sit in a chair and jiggle my leg fat (or rather, skin) for minutes on end, all the while scrunching my face up in disgust. Other times, I pinch my thighs until the flesh gets all bumpy. “Look at all this cellulite,” I moan to my friends, who generally ignore my senseless griping. When I eat too much, or what I perceive to be too much, I do jumping jacks, even at school in front of my bewildered peers. Even before concerned-looking teachers who whisper to one another. Other times, I lunge and squat, finishing with as many sit-ups as I can manage. If I’m home, I do them on The Ab Roller that I ordered off of an infomercial (thank you, babysitting money). Or, I pop in my The FIRM or Strong Legs workout videos (the latter featuring Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal trainer, Kathy Kaehler), followed by planks and arm exercises with free-weights. On a trip to France one summer, I even pack said weights. Mom is not happy — “Packing dumbbells was a dumb idea!” she says.
On some days, I only eat cereal — the texture is consistent and safe, and I like the sound of myself chewing the stuff — half-crispy, half-soggy — all Rice Chex in nonfat milk. On other days, I incorporate more “real food” into my diet early in the day, then skip snacks or entire meals. I see my mom do the same — skip dinner and hit the gym, instead — when she tries to lose weight before my bat mitzvah. Sometimes, I starve myself for so many hours that I come home from school famished and gorge myself on an entire blue boxful of Kraft macaroni and cheese. To undo the damage of so much chemical cheese and so many carbs, I have to work out for hours. By the time I’m done, it’s bedtime, but first, I have to write everything down: what I ate, an estimate of calories burned, and how I can do better tomorrow. In the future, I’ll document sexual partners this same way. In fact, I’ll keep two shoeboxes under my bed to catalog my self-destructive impulses — one with a lengthy list of lovers and another spilling over with yellowing receipts.
If I keep this work up, I just know the boys at school will take note of my bangin’ body.
Bang, bang, bang; hold your hammer low.
Bang, bang, bang; give a heavy blow.
For it’s work, work, work; every day and every night.
For it’s work, work, work; when it’s dark and when it’s light.
— “The Building Song” by Shirley Cohen, which I sing in Jewish Day School every Passover season.
2017: Sherman Oaks, California
Today is April 5. I know the date by heart and even that it’s a Wednesday because I have a 7:30 a.m. Pilates class to teach, and then I’ll be heading to Pasadena to civilly wed my Canadian fiancé Eric (sexual partner #94), who moved here just over a week ago.
Because Eric is not legally able to work in this country yet, he and I are temporarily living with my mom and her boyfriend of five-plus years, Dean. The thing is, we haven’t invited Dean to the ceremony. We have a real wedding planned for four months from now — a Jewish wedding with cantor and cake and guest-list, and Dean and his grown children will be at that one, along with 100-plus other guests.
This day in Pasadena is meant to be an intimate affair, just for the purposes of satisfying the requirements of our K-1 (fiancé) Visa. We assumed the attendees would be my mom and dad, plus two of my friends to act as officiant and witness (in addition to divorced-parents buffer). But, four of my closest friends end up being free, and now Eric’s mom and sister have decided to fly out from Toronto. They want to see us get “married” even though it isn’t our real wedding, as evidenced by the fact that I’m going to work this morning.
Back to the banging.
I have a naked husband-to-be in bed with me, and my mother is waking me like it’s the morning of the Northridge earthquake — not the morning of my marriage.
“This isn’t right, you two. Dean’s feelings are incredibly hurt. You have to fix this. How could you not invite him to your wedding when you’re living with him?” she yells through the door.
Allow me to rewind. I did invite Dean to the ceremony, last night, when I realized that the guest-list had grown beyond my initial expectations and that it was starting to feel weird that he wasn’t included. “You’re welcome to come,” I told him, adding that I knew it was last minute and a Wednesday and that he probably had more important things, like work, to attend to. He nodded and said he’d try to be there. “No pressure,” I added, lest he feel bad for being unable to make it. Problem solved. Then, I called my dad and told him he could bring his girlfriend, Ruth. My dad seemed grateful. Ruth did too. As a bonus: There’d be more buffers to keep my parents apart. Just last year, at my grad school graduation, things had gotten tense when my mom tried to say hello to my dad, and he didn’t bother replying. More guests would equal fewer awkward moments. All of this was good.
I look over at the clock on my nightstand: 6:03 a.m. My alarm isn’t set to go off for another 30 minutes. I’m confused, and not just because I’m being startled awake. I thought I took care of the Dean problem last night. Furthermore, why didn’t Mom say anything to us sooner? Couldn’t we have “fixed” this before the day of our ceremony?
From what I can understand through the door, I didn’t invite Dean graciously enough yesterday, but how gracious can a last-minute invitation really be? Ruth wasn’t slighted by the last-minute add. On the contrary — she seemed delighted. So, why is Dean being so sensitive about my — our — marriage day?
I throw stretchy pants on, and underwear at Eric, before making a beeline for my car. I will not engage. What I don’t do is: extend a more gracious invitation to Dean; allow my mom to be present, as planned, when I get ready for the ceremony; take the tranquilizers she later offers me when she realizes she was in the wrong, and I might still be upset with her (I am and, for the record, she takes the drugs herself and looks high in all of the photos); forgive her, or Dean, for making me remember bang-bang-bang instead of the ding-dong of wedding bells every time our April anniversary rolls around.
Fall 1995: Sherman Oaks, California
Dad is home, so it must be a Sunday, the only day he doesn’t drive to his business — a photo shop in Lakewood, over an hour away. Mom is catering, so my best friend Joanna and I have planned a trip to the Central Library in downtown L.A. to do research for a school project. I hear Jo’s mom Diane do the double honk that means, Get your butt down here, Melly, and I’m about to do just that when Dad stops me.
“Are you planning to wear those shorts to the library?” he asks incredulously. By those, he means my barely there cut-offs that hover mere inches from my crotch — a very popular style among us fifth-graders, especially those who, like me, shave, wax, Nair, epilate, or otherwise remove unwanted leg hair. We’re all rushing to grow up.
“Yes, actually, I am planning to wear them,” I say, making direct and unwavering eye contact like I’m trying to win a staring contest. No way he’s making me change when I have to wear a stupid uniform all week. “Diane is waiting,” I say. “I have to go. Right now.” And then, just for good measure, I take one step closer and add, “You can’t stop me,” as though I’m daring him to try. That’s when I smell a funny smoky smell on his clothes. Not cigarette or clove or pipe or cigar. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Ick! I take a step back all the same.
“Watch your tongue, Melody,” Dad warns, the oil inside him simmering.
“But I can’t see my tongue!” I say, sticking it out and crossing my eyes in an effort to prove my point.
That does it.
“I’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” he promises. His crooked grin makes my stomach turn.
Solemnly, I walk to the car, knowing my concentration will be shot and the trip to the library pointless. I was dumb for speaking back to him. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. I wonder if I should say something to Diane. I can trust her. This is a woman who once took me to my yearly check-up at the pediatrician when my parents were out of town. She generously held the cup for me as I pissed into it, and all over her hand. (Since then, she’s affectionately called me Melo-pee.) Surely, she’ll protect me if I tell her Dad is planning to hurt me. He’s threatened violence before, and now that Mom is out of the house working, I just know he’ll follow through with it.
I’m not sure why, but I don’t tell Diane. In fact, I don’t say anything at all. Numb and silent, I curl into myself and spend the day in a fog. When I get home, Dad is sitting in the dark den, waiting for me, as promised. I can taste fear, bitter and acrid in my mouth, as he pulls me upstairs by my arm. Mom is still out at her party, and my younger brother Sean is completely oblivious, happily playing Nintendo in his room with the door shut like the nine-year-old pest that he is. I can hear the annoying Mario Bros.’ music through the walls.
Dad tears through my closet then, ripping out all articles of clothing he deems inappropriate, including cut-offs like the ones that got me here in the first place, and my temple best — black Mary Jane heels from Wet Seal. I begged Mom to buy them for me a few months back, and I absolutely adore them. Dad says they’re too high in that mean voice of his, and he throws them into the big black trash bag with the rest of my things. I can’t believe how unreasonable he’s being. I can’t believe my bad luck — no one is there to so much as vouch that this is happening; no one is there to intervene.
“I’m locking them all away,” he tells me, as I watch my wardrobe dwindle. “I’m saving you from a terrible future,” he adds, staring at me with ice cubes for eyes before connecting the dots: “Outfits like these are for Sunset Boulevard.” And then a pause. “Where you belong.” In that moment we are the same: leggy and lanky and losing control. How does he see me, I wonder — truly, as a prostitute, navigating tourists on the sidewalk in my slutty clothes?
I lie there, feeling ashamed as he asserts himself. As he takes back the power. As he rips off his belt, and his chemical-splattered jeans sag, revealing a hint of his white Jockey underwear band. I flip onto my stomach (“prone,” as I’ll call it years later in Pilates classes), bracing for the sting with tightly squinted eyes. Whip, whip, whip goes his black leather against the backs of my upper thighs. Red, redder, reddest go my legs. I wonder if he’s giving me welts, as I clench my teeth to stifle my cries.
If I’m honest, it doesn’t hurt that much. Sure, it’s unpleasant. Sure, it feels ridiculous. Spankings are for babies, and I’m 11. Plus, if I’m going to have leather on my skin, I’d prefer a stylish jacket. But I’ve had my legs waxed before. That’s worse, at least on the pain scale. It’s also better, of course, because I consent to it. Because afterward, I feel pretty and smooth. Because it takes away the shame of so much blonde hair wrapping around and around my skinny calves.
This is all shame, no gain. This is all pain, no payoff. This is Let me show you who’s boss. This is I can silence you. This is I will put you in your place, little girl.
Dad takes me by the arm next — yank — and rubs soap against my braces by the bathroom sink. “Not this again,” I think to myself, as perfect potato-like shreds fall to the counter in long, aggressive curls: white flakes meeting white tile. It is strangely beautiful, in a perverse way, like the pandemic will be 25 years from now.
Ten months back, he did the same: forcibly rinsed my mouth when I kicked my twerp of a little brother out of the bedroom we temporarily shared, post-earthquake, in our Van Nuys rental house. Now here he is, not even a year later, storming off with that too stuffed trash bag and the carefree naïveté of my childhood. Now here he is, not even a year later, leaving something behind that’s black and frayed with a silver buckle — a something I name weapon and hide under my bed until I move away for college: when I’ll lose myself in sex the way Dad lost himself in this very beating.
February 7, 2019: Woodland Hills, California
My annual weigh-in at this morning’s physical makes me think about my journey in relationship to this body. Over the years, in addition to my many different hair styles and colors (and this is 13-plus months before I’ll learn the horrors of COVID color), my shape has also shifted. In my adult life, I have weighed between 118 and 142.5 pounds, and, at this very height in my pre-adult life, as few as 94. I know these numbers well because numbers have occupied a great deal of my time and energy, as well as space in my brain. I use the past participle here (pluperfect tense) because they no longer do. I don’t own a scale. I only get weighed by the doctor once a year. I don’t count calories: more numbers. I don’t get on the treadmill and subtract calories either, but I once did. (To be fair, I used to add numbers up, too — obsessively tracking my mounting personal debt and sexual conquests.)
Recently, my grandpa asked me what I weigh, and I told him honestly, “I have no idea.” I sent him the update today after the doctor’s visit because he seems to care more than I do. Perhaps this numbers fascination is a family trait, but I’ll give him a pass because he has a degree in accounting.
Can I tell you how freeing it is not to be driven by numbers? Pilates has allowed me to just be. I look at photos from various times in my life and feel so grateful that I don’t have a gaunt face anymore. During those restricted periods, I wanted everyone to tell me how thin I was. They did, which made me smile, like the sight of my too thin face in the mirror. There were equally unhealthy and unhappy times, though, when I looked at my reflection, and a puffy face stared back at me. Now, I can focus on just being strong and healthy. And you know what people say to me? “Look at those back muscles!” Or yesterday at the nail shop (remember those?), “What a darling figure you have.” I love Jewish grandmothers. They make me miss my own. The words are nice to hear, but I don’t need the validation, either. I do this for me.
I’m blessed to have stumbled upon this life-changing method, Contrology (buh-bye, scale!), and to know the many faces of balance, from calibrating the doctor’s scale to standing on one leg in Pilates to living between the extremes and feeling really damn good about it. What feels even better still is tossing this Kaiser After Visit Summary in the nearest recycling bin (after giving it a once over, of course, and confirming my healthy BMI of 19.47). Now, I can promptly forget about numbers until next year (or maybe even the year after because, you know: 2020).
1995: Burbank, California
Mom sits behind the wheel of her turquoise Mitsubishi Montero, and Dad rides shotgun. He pushes his seat all the way back to make room for his long legs. A fifth-grader, I plop into the backseat reluctantly — the same way I do most things these days. I’m 11 now, so a bad attitude is a given.
My younger brother Sean stays behind with a babysitter, so I have free rein of the backseat. I pick the spot behind Mom because there’s more space there. I can actually stretch out if I like. Not that we’ll be in the car for long anyway. It’s only a 10-minute ride from Sherman Oaks to Burbank, but I’m dreading it all the same. A few weeks ago, Dad hit me with his belt and then washed my mouth out with soap; now I can’t stand to be near him. The backs of my legs (which got the worst of it that day) stick to the car seats angrily, as if in solidarity with me. As if they still remember. Why does leather always have to burn?
In the front seat, the energy is equally sucky. Mom and Dad are about to finalize their divorce for the second time (there’ll be a third and fourth yet to come), and the air around them feels heavy and strained. Yet, between Dad and me, it’s even worse. I believe in my bones that Mom and I, and even my pest of a little brother, would be better off without him. Not that it’s my choice to decide — hard as that is for me to believe. At 42 years old, Mom’s still quite striking with wavy brown hair that frames soft, pleasant features. And with a full-time teaching job and a catering side-business, she’s a successful businesswoman, too. (This, in comparison to my dad, who no longer makes “six figures” or “brings home the bacon” because, as I’ll later learn, he’s too busy gambling or smoking it.)
The whoosh of the air conditioning distracts me from my thinking and brings me back in my body, here in the car. Then, Dad takes out his nail clippers. The clip-clipping of his already too short fingernails against his metal clippers is louder than the whooshing of the artificially chilled air, but I can still hear the whoosh in between clips. It almost sounds like a conversation — clip, clip, whoosh, clip, clip, clip, whoosh, whoosh — one that, happily, can’t escalate into an argument. I imagine the white crescents piling up on Mom’s floor mats below (the same way my now-husband’s do on our blonde hardwood — what is it with men and their nail clippings?), and I wish that I could shake the mess out over a trash can or use one of those mini-vacuum cleaners to draw it all up and away.
Cutting his nails way beneath the subtle line at the top of his fingertips is one of Dad’s favorite hobbies. Oftentimes, he sits in our driveway to finish the job. Late at night through my brother’s bedroom window, I can watch Dad manicuring himself — a dot of a man, lit by his car lamp, cast against the dark shadows of our avocado tree. There is something spooky about it, about him. Sometimes, he uses his clippers on me, too, entering my room unbidden to do so while I sleep. I can’t exactly call it inappropriate touching, but the square head of his clippers pressing up against my tough nails feels wrong — like it breaks some unwritten rule (a rule that someone ought to write down), in addition to breaking my nail tips. I always beg him to leave me alone — to turn off the lights and let me go back to bed. I can cut my own nails, goshdarnit (I can’t say “goddammit” because I go to Jewish Day School). But no matter how big a fight I put up, it seems like no one ever hears me (a theme that will come up for years in therapy): not Dad in the moment and not Mom the next morning when I plead with her to make him stop.
This is all good material for our counseling session, which is convenient because that’s where we’re headed — to yet another psychologist. The last one, The Witch Doctor, gathered my entire family, grandparents included, for an intervention of sorts, wherein the goal was to medicate me. Witch Lady put me on Prozac, then Zoloft, then Paxil, and then, because it was only the ’90s, she ran out of options, and I eventually got to quit them all.
When the car stops, and, not surprisingly, no one shakes out the car mats (I’m the only neat freak of the family — or “sick,” as my dad likes to say), I follow my parents up two flights of outdoor stairs to get to the medical building’s above-ground entrance.
Inside the therapist’s office, Dad unleashes. When asked why he thinks we’ve all come here today, he says, “Our daughter Melody is obnoxious and rude and needs to be reprimanded.” He goes on to say that I need to be taught who the boss is — him, of, course — and to stop thinking I can manipulate every situation to get my way. (Yeah, like that’ll ever happen!)
It’s super weird, and by that I mean uncharacteristic, that Dad is hogging the conversation, and also that he’s still wearing his sunglasses. Normally, he is quiet in a way that’s almost eerie, and Mom is the screamer. Normally, Dad holds everything inside, while Mom lets it all out for the neighbors to hear. Today isn’t normally though. Today is his breaking point, and I am his target.
His upset is making me upset, and I make no effort to hide it. “These two,” I tell the lady doctor, pointing at my parents for emphasis, “need to get a clue and split up already.” I think I’m so clever with the Valley Girl speak and the up-talking I’ve modeled after my favorite TV shows: Clarissa Explains It All and The Secret World of Alex Mack. After so many years of watching not only television, but also my parents’ back-and-forth dance, I’m sick of it. I don’t want to be caught in the middle anymore. I don’t want to break up another late-night screaming match. I don’t want Dad to take his anger at Mom out on me.
I’m pretty articulate for an 11-year-old, not that I know that word yet (although I did just learn to spell facetious from an older boy in my carpool). My eloquence and precociousness are a direct result of being the only verbal child in the family. Sean had no words at all until he was three, and after that, he spoke meekly and with a speech impediment that he still has traces of today. It’s no wonder then that growing up, I did all the talking. I was the only one who could. I used to answer the phone, “Greenfield residence. May I ask who’s speaking?” and when the callers would say their names, I’d tell them that my parents were “currently unavailable” but that I’d be happy to take a message. Then, I’d pretend-scrawl on a scratch piece of paper because I was only a toddler and didn’t know how to write. I often wonder how my nasally child’s voice didn’t give me away, but family lore is that Mom’s business contacts were utterly astounded every time she explained why she didn’t receive their messages.
Perhaps my relative maturity is the reason Mom confides in me about money and her marriage and all matter of grown-up things — I seem so much older than I am (although in my adult life, I’ll get confused for a teenager with more regularity than I’d like to admit). I use words like picante at the dinner table, eat the Beluga caviar Mom brings home from parties, and hold my own in adult conversations. But on the inside, I am still very much a child. I see right and wrong as black and white (still do) — thou shalt not litter or steal or cheat — and my parents’ marriage is yet another thou shalt not. I can’t empathize with the fact that they’ve been each other’s everything for 13 years, even if a dysfunctional everything. I don’t know yet how hard it is to break up. I just want them to do it, so it can be just the three of us — Mom, Sean, and me.
I proceed to tell the doctor the story about the belt Dad used on me a short while ago — the one I’ve since hidden under my bed in fear. “I’m a preteen,” I say, as if trying to convince myself and them, “and I’m not supposed to agree with everything my parents say. But that doesn’t mean they should hit me.” I know I’m right about that much at least and wait for confirmation from the fancy PhD, who is sitting there looking self-important with a fountain pen in her mouth, giving off an I’m-better-than-you vibe on her big leather swivel chair. I’m pretty sure this appointment will be over fast. The doctor will agree that my parents need a divorce lawyer, pronto. Maybe she’ll even give them a referral. (This is L.A., after all. We probably have more divorce lawyers per capita here than we do Starbucks.) Then, if this lady is any good, she’ll also agree that my dad is a beast of some sort, hiding so much hate behind his giant Maui Jim sunglasses (the same type he used to photograph me wearing when I was a baby, and he still adored me. Dad thought a little head in giant shades was pure comedy.). Speaking of which, why hasn’t she called him out on the glasses yet? Instead, she says that I need “a moment to regroup” and asks me to please step outside, so she can speak to my parents privately. What the heck?
I wonder why they brought me here just to banish me, but I’m not about to argue with a stranger. I do what I’m asked, which might as well be headline news for me these days. I start down the winding corridor. I even get a good 20 steps away. But then curiosity gets the best of me. I don’t trust this woman. She can’t be much different from the other “-ists” I’ve been forced to see in the past: psychologists and psychiatrists in the competitive mental health market, hungry for business and eager to side with the people who are paying them. I’ve been to them all over my short 11 years.
Very quietly, I tiptoe back and listen by the door. I can hear them blabbing on about the usual — marital problems, money, the divorce — all things I’m privy to as Mom’s daughter-slash-confidant. Four years back, for example, she interrupted my bath time one day not to help me lather up but to confide in me about a “frivolous lawsuit” that had just drained her bank account in much the same way that she was about to drain my bath water. My paternal grandmother had helped them to “settle,” but it didn’t matter — my parents might not be able to send me back to private school the following year. I nodded my head like I got it but could scarcely understand. At the time, I thought checks were like Monopoly money and was always begging Mom to write them at the supermarket. (Two decades later, I’d treat my Tinkerbell-themed credit card in much the same fashion — swiping it freely every time I passed “GO.”) And, while I don’t know it at the time, a couple of years from now, when I’m in the seventh grade, and she and Dad will separate again, Mom will come home from dates and tell me which ones are good kissers, taking my confidant status to a new level.
Just then, a loud noise jolts me back to reality. It’s my normally quiet, Canadian father, and he’s shouting about me: “I hate her, and she hates her too!” I hear through the door. His words are a banging drum — they fill my head with noise until it aches. Bang-bang-bang goes the drum as his comments, past and present, play on repeat in my brain: “I hate her, and she hates her too; she’s a witch, Sean — a witch (years later, my middle school students will adopt a witch-themed moniker for me, and it will break me all over again); you belong on Sunset Boulevard, Melody; you’re out of control; you’re poisoning your mother against me; I hate her, and she hates her too.”
Looking back, I’m sure my dad didn’t mean what he said. And in my adult life, I have been fortunate to know him as a transformed man — he’s in a happy, long-term relationship with Ruth, and he’s become a loving and gentle father. But at the time: He hated his life; he hated his marriage; he hated spending his weekend at another therapist’s office; he hated not having the tools to parent. They both resented that, I think — how their own upbringings had left them ill-equipped for the job of parenting. But at the time, all I could do was hate him back, then internalize the hate. I thought about jumping off the ledge of the building but knew a jump from a two-story building would accomplish broken bones at best. Plus, I could faintly hear Mom’s voice over the bang-bang-banging in the back of my head: “I lost my mother too soon. Promise me I’ll never lose my daughter.”
So far, the center — our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment — is holding, despite the chaos of this epidemic. We have one table: it functions as our writing nook, the place where we eat, and my husband Eric’s desk. As I write this now, I can feel something sticky under my laptop. I also see little flecks of sea salt. (Total sodium junky here: guilty.)
We have one main room: it has become my office. Our living space has strewn Pilates equipment — a spine corrector here, a C-Shaper there. Now, even a Wunda Chair and a Reformer.
We have one bedroom: it is Eric’s second office. Sometimes, he angles his camera just so in order to obscure the bed, so he can take Zoom conferences in there. The bedroom is the only room with an official door, although the kitchen has a sliding one, which also helps to muffle voices as we each conduct work calls.
There are yoga mats in every corner of this house. You might think they are for rent. Recently, Eric talked about blowing up my giant stability ball to create another place to sit (separate from the floor, the three wooden chairs, the overstuffed chair and ottoman, the queen-sized bed, and the green loveseat). I worry that, like my free weights and push-up device and wooden bar, the stability ball will be one more thing to potentially trip over in this small, delicate ecosystem that somehow is holding.
Laundry (clean and dirty); dishes (washed and drying); books; notebooks; lemons; potatoes (russet and sweet); headphones (big and small); water bottles (metal and plastic); towels (wet and crumpled); bags (reusable and hanging); appliances (unplugged and bulky) can all be seen from the sticky, salty writing nook which is really a kitchen table but also Eric’s desk.
Yet so far, this beautiful mishmash of home/office/marriage/heart-center is holding, and I’ve never felt more at peace.
2014–2015: Toronto, Canada
I check off the merchandise, style by style, and begin to make piles. Grouping specialty bras by shape and size, texture and fabric, and custom-fitting the women who will wear them, is my job now at this high-end lingerie store. All of the sorting I do — of undergarments and women, too: from the small waisted and big breasted to the large waisted and small chested; from the tan to the pale; from the young to the old; from the pert to the saggy; from the top heavy to the bottom heavy to the side heavy to the barely there — sends my mind spinning. As I pull my measuring tape tightly around a young girl and her beautiful young breasts (can she sense, I wonder, that I’ve had my mouth on dime-sized nipples like hers before?), I can’t help but think back to my first bra-shopping experience.
1994: Van Nuys, California
In the early part of the fourth grade, pre-earthquake, my breast buds first appear — seemingly sprouting overnight. I spot them as I’m dancing topless in front of the bathroom mirror to Ace of Base’s latest CD. “I saw the sign,” I belt out into my fist of a microphone, emulating the Swedish pop group and seeing a sign of my own staring back at me: hardened, enlarged nipples jutting out of my chest like diamond studs. I breathe a sigh of relief after broaching the training-bra issue with Mom. Shopping isn’t her favorite thing (it’s Dad’s, but gross. I would never think to ask him), but she’s agreed to take me nonetheless. I probably shouldn’t, but I let my imagination get the best of me. I picture a mother-daughter outing, just the two of us, akin to the Mexican cruise we took nearly four years ago — the one where she met that special friend of hers — the nice Floridian entertainer man with whom, as I’ll later learn, she had a longtime affair. (Dad found out by tapping her phone line. He’s really good with gadgets.)
In my mind, I see Mom and me combing a fancy department store’s aisles, “Ooohing” and “Aaahing” over so much silk, brushing our fingertips against delicate bathrobes and expensive sleepwear, and taking our time deciding in which corner to begin. I bet it will be just like those adventures we used to go on when I was younger — the special outings where Mom would trade off one-on-one time with Sean and then with me. I never fully appreciated the adventures because of the surprise factor (Mom never told us where we were headed, which bugged the crap out of me), but I did like spending quality time with her. That thought makes me feel excited for the big bra-shopping day. Until, that is, I learn that my entrée into womanhood will happen at our local Kmart with my younger brother at my side. Lucky me!
When Mom, Sean, and I arrive at the discount superstore, we head quietly toward the intimate apparel section. The area is dusty, the garments are made of polyester, and, worse still, their selection is smaller than my tiny breast buds. Disappointed, I grab whatever they have in 32AA and dart into the nearest dressing room, leaving the two of them to wait outside. I want so desperately to show Mom how I look in my newest accessory. To model it as she nods in approval. (I’ll feel the same way a few years later when she sends me off to shave my legs without coming into the bathroom to supervise me.) But I wouldn’t dare invite my brother inside, and I know she won’t leave him outside by himself. Mom and Dad are always babying him. Even though Seany’s a second-grader now, he’s not “neuro-normative,” and his differences make my parents treat him like he’s much younger than your average seven-year-old.
I take a plastic card that says “2” on it and go in the fitting room alone to try on both undergarments. Making a snap (or rather, a hook) decision for the sake of expediting this excursion gone awry, I choose the nude-colored Playtex number over the beige Maidenform one. I rip off the tag and then, ever so carefully, fasten the training bra, tighten its straps, and pull my tank top back over my head. I’m pleased to see my reflection in the cheap full-length mirror: breasts restricted — confined like tiny earrings to a new case. As I shut the door behind me and put the plastic card back where it belongs, I remember glumly that I’m not home free yet. We still have to pay.
Head bowed, eyes cast down, I make my way to the front of the store with the other two-thirds of my family. As I approach the check stand, I can feel my cheeks burn redder. It’s now that I regret my decision to leave the bra on. It would’ve been so much easier to stick it back on the dang hanger.
In line, I hand Mom my tag, and she, in turn, hands it to Olga, the heavyset Russian woman who’s ringing us up. But Olga doesn’t scan it. She gives Mom a perplexed stare instead. “Vere iz your merchendiiize?” she asks confused, dragging the long “i” like a suitcase. Her accent is so thick, you can spread it like your favorite nut-butter.
“Oh. She’s wearing it,” Mom explains, pointing straight at me. “See? My daughter pulled off the tag, so you could charge us.”
But Olga is still puzzled. Over the loudspeaker, she announces, “Manajher to aisle five, pleeze.”
After Olga, Mom, and the manager have sorted out the whole mess, I silently vow to never forgive Mom for what is, without a doubt, the most embarrassing day of my nine-and-three-quarter years on this planet.
March 17, 1994: Encino, California
A few months later — two months to the day since the earthquake rocked our lives — my on-again parents host a birthday brunch for five girlfriends and me at Braemar, the swanky-lite country club that isn’t quite as fancy as some other local country clubs but still boasts amenities like tennis and golf and swimming and a smartly dressed clientele. Anything that’s good enough for Grandpa, who has a swim membership here, is good enough for a hearty mid-morning meal, I decide. Although I’m already counting calories, I make an exception on account of my birthday — a “holiday” I take pretty seriously. Today, I even don a skirt suit for the occasion. I feel all grown up as I smooth the wrinkles and lint away and button up the jacket like a veritable businesswoman.
Now it’s onto the legendary buffet. I’m talking an entire room full of food with endless, bottomless breakfast options like crêpes with powdered sugar; buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup; fluffy Belgian waffles; challah French toast; blintzes with three different jams; crispy potato pancakes; savory Russet breakfast potatoes; golden, crispy hash browns; and eggs any number of ways: scrambled, in omelets made-to-order, or poached with a creamy hollandaise sauce. As I eye the possibilities, my mouth waters expectantly, and I heap my plate high. (Diet starts on Monday, as they say.) The smile my dad captures on film that day is genuine. I feel special. Doted on. Celebrated. The morning unfolds like a dream, and I will myself, for a few precious hours, to let it. I actually think to myself: What a nice way to enter the double-digits.
What doesn’t occur to me is that planning all of this in the middle of rebuilding a house and a marriage, while also settling into temporary digs, must have been a lot for my parents. That’s where we’re headed now: to the temporary digs — a Van Nuys rental property, where we’ll live for another year or so before our Sherman Oaks place is rebuilt. Bellies filled with carbohydrates, we’re ready to unload and unwrap my many gifts.
“Gimme a minute!” I yell out to my family as I run into the room I now share with Sean to change. “I’m just going to slip into something more comfortable.” This is a new phrase for me. I’ve heard it on TV, and I’m trying it on for size. It fits about as well as the too large skirt suit I’m stepping out of because skirt suits aren’t made for kids, but I don’t know that. I’m thrilled that my preteen status means I can talk like an adult more freely and often. I’m really growing up, I think to myself as I unclasp my Kmart bra and fold it neatly, placing it in my top drawer. I have to start remembering to wear it to school. It’ll be just like two years ago, when I first learned, and had to remember, to apply deodorant each morning.
After I throw on an old pair of sweatpants, I join everyone on the living room floor. Anticipation nips at my heels like a puppy as I pull at ribbons, yank off bows, and rip away shiny paper. I’m absolutely certain that the karaoke machine I’ve been not-so-secretly coveting (subtlety has never been a strength of mine) lies in one of the beautifully wrapped boxes before me, just waiting to be unpacked.
First, I unearth a sparkly, purple ice-skating outfit. Next, small gold hoop earrings. Third, a cerulean swimsuit as clear blue as Braemar’s pool, or any of the Greenfields’ eyes, for that matter. The gifts are lovely, but none of them tugs at my heartstrings. The pile is shrinking, and I realize what I really want might not be coming.
“Oh,” I say as I unwrap the last present to uncover the board game Clue. “I guess that’s the last one.” I’ve never had a good Poker face, and Mom isn’t fooled by my attempt at graciousness.
“Oh?” Mom repeats as though she’s copying me. “Oh?” she says again. (As I’m about to discover, “Oh” can elicit quite the shitstorm.) “Was that not enough for you, you spoiled, ungrateful brat? Do you know how many hours I had to work to pay for that party?” she asks rhetorically as her voice begins to rise. “Do you know how long I had to stand on my feet catering last weekend to afford that brunch? And all you can say is ‘Oh?’ Do you see this gray hair I don’t color? Do you realize I’ve been wearing the same ratty clothes for years? Everything I make, I give to you. Everything! Fuck, Melody. Goddamn you!”
My perfect day is unraveling quickly, as is my mother. Her words send me back to toddlerhood when she’d shut me in my room behind a doggie gate and make me feel bad to the very core. “You’re out of control, Melody!” she’d taunt whenever I cried for second chances. “Go to your room,” she’d warn before shooting me an icy glance. “Don’t come out until I say so.”
Tonight, she doesn’t banish me though. Tonight, she teaches me a lesson. She is a teacher, after all, and years later, this will be something we have in common. She darts into my bedroom, grabs the Kmart bra from my dresser drawer, and runs outside with gardening shears I didn’t even know we had. I follow her, but she’s screaming so loudly I can hardly make out what she’s saying. All I can decipher are various off-color words, strung together like Froot Loops on yarn.
“Fuckgoddamnshitshitshit!” she bellows. I don’t understand how I could have set her off like this or how my perfect day so quickly came undone.
“Can’t we just start over, Mom?” I plead as I regress to that bad little girl, whimpering for do-overs. “We were having such a good time. Please, Mom, please!” I plead through the tears, which are streaming down my face too quickly to catch. “Let’s just start over! I loved my presents. I loved my party. All I want to do is go back into the living room with Dad and Sean and pretend I’ve just finished unwrapping the board game, so we can play it together.” I’m telling her I just want to make-believe that everything’s okay. I’m asking for us to hit rewind. I’m begging for a fresh start. But Mom isn’t interested. She’s not playing along.
She takes my itty-bitty training bra — a symbol of my burgeoning womanhood and independence — and cuts it up over the outside trashcan as if to tell me I am nothing without her. I am no one: just a scrap. In my memory, the fabric falls like confetti, mocking me with, “Happy birthday!” as it flutters to the bottom of the big, black bin.
Who will pick up the pieces?
These days, even when I’m doing nothing, I’m doing something: reading a book, watching a show, or, lately, practicing yoga nidra — a form of meditation done from lying down, also called “yogic sleep.” I’ve found I need them, these non-doing moments, to quiet the noise — the loud of the world — even now that the noise is less hustle-and-bustle and more bad news and unending, conflicting information being hurled at us through our various screens: the noise of doom. I need these moments when time slows down because either time feels ongoing and endless, continuously rushing forward, or like it’s dragging its damn feet.
I’m learning, a small dose of solitude and stillness helps to cut through the loud of living in the 21st century during a pandemic, which is still something each of us is “doing.” Now that I’ve transitioned to teaching Pilates in an online-only format, I hear the sound of my own voice all day long. It’s become a constant. Deep listening is the opposite of how I’m doing quarantine. I spend my time deep information-giving, cue-providing, advice-doling, cheerleading, and correction-offering, but also (thankfully, necessarily) “doing” sleepy yoga. You come out of it not sure where you just were on the consciousness spectrum, but you know you went on a journey — a guided one.
Suggestions range from imagining snow-covered mountains to conjuring to mind the sound of a waterfall, the feeling of a warm bath, or the smell of jasmine. Yet, even doing stillness requires my doing: I sign up for class, I pay a fee or make a donation, I get out any requisite props, even if just an eye mask and two pillows, to make myself “supremely comfortable,” as one teacher puts it. I do not have the knowhow or the willpower to simply do nothing on my own. I have to be guided into it. But that’s okay, I remind myself. Be kind to yourself. You’re showing up.
That’s how it was for me with Pilates, too. Although I loved it, right from the start, I had to quiet the inner critic that knew I was doing it all wrong: I was too uncoordinated, too inflexible — and not just in my hamstrings. (Mom used to say that flexibility was the “f” word when I was a child: It was like a four-letter word to me.) In those early Pilates days, I felt like a little girl all over again — the kind who scored only one goal during her entire (short-lived) soccer career, and it was for the other team.
Do you remember that Friends episode from season one, where the gals go tap-dancing, and the teacher says to Monica: “You’re getting it all wrong!” That was me for the first year (or five) of weekly and then twice- and thrice-weekly Contrology classes. But remember Monica’s response? “Yeah, but at least I’m doing it!” That’s how I felt too, and it’s how I feel all over again with meditation, which is hard in its own way. It’s new and uncomfortable, and it makes me turn down the volume, which, surprisingly, I crave.
With Pilates, I had to learn to be patient with myself as my body (very slowly) figured out the various shapes it was supposed to make from round to tall to arched. I stumbled over choreography. I fretted about how and when to breathe. No matter how much I looked around the room, I simply could not replicate the movements that the regulars were effortlessly achieving. But, I kept coming back. I allowed myself to step into the unknown. To cede some control. To trust in the process. Now, I’m doing the same with yoga nidra — finding the beauty in quiet moments that still my brain; restore my voice; nurture my heart; settle my soul — even if I’m not perfect at it, and my mind still sometimes wanders. Contrology taught me to slow down, sometimes to a fault. (One instructor joked during our first session together that I was putting him to sleep.) But if I hadn’t first discovered Pilates, I never would have been open to trying meditation, which is slower-paced still.
And then I remember this: an afternoon spent on the floor of our rental house. Mom and another friend of hers have hired a woman to take us through a guided meditation to help us heal from the trauma of the earthquake. She has us flying over meadows and fields of gorgeous wildflowers. It feels like medicine but without the side effects of my anti-depressants. Even though the teacher is taking us out of our bodies, I feel completely in mine. It’s the strangest thing. Although I can’t exactly articulate it, I can feel it. I’m flying, but I’m grounded. I’m hazy, yet I’m present. My outline feels heavy against the floor and floaty all at once. Something about the voice above me soothes me in the same way that my current teacher’s will all these years later. How has this memory eluded me for all this time?
I may no longer be in the epicenter, but I’m still managing, if not mastering, this modern-day crisis. I’ve had the tools all along, it seems. The meditation seed was first planted way back in 1994, and it, along with Pilates, has been invaluable to me during this latest upheaval: 2020. While Contrology necessitates a mixture of focus and flow, yoga nidra requires total surrender. They are perfect companion practices that emphasize the breath and teach me to be present in my mind, body, and daily life.
Without so much as a bang, I can manage my breathing, my policies, my prices (goodbye debt, hello, savings!), and my mood. Without so much as a bang, I can center myself (one of the six principles of Pilates); self-regulate. Without so much as a bang, I can self-soothe. Without so much as a bang, I can find harmony, even in a pandemic.
Melody Greenfield has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. This LA native and Pilates instructor has been published in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, Annotation Nation, The Los Angeles Review, and forthcoming in The Manifest Station and HOOT.
Featured image: “IMG 0438 2-1” by Bernie Clark is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
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