We begin with a bar and a limb. A bicycle handlebar and an eight-year-old forearm. I fell sideways, put my hand out onto the grassy edge to catch myself. The handlebar found my arm bone, hammering it in two. Next I was fetal, screaming. Tears and heat. My mother carried me through the garage into the house, where she lay me down on a couch and went to call a doctor. “Shock,” I heard her say—the doctor’s warning. She said it quickly as she stood over me: “She could go into shock.” And through the pain I still found a moment, a space in my mind, for curiosity. What was this “shock”? How exactly did she mean that I might enter it?
Another time, and again a bar, a limb. I was a teenage gymnast doing a back flip off a small trampoline. Something went wrong and I flew straight up, flipped, came straight back down. Landed on my shin on the square metal edge of the trampoline. No screaming this time, but the same tears, the same heat. Then I was on my back on the blue-carpeted spring floor, heads circling me—coaches, teammates. I gripped a coach’s hand as the muscles in my stomach, my neck, my back seized up from the pain and I fought to breathe, fought to speak. “Adrienne,” I croaked. I couldn’t relax until my sister’s face appeared among the others and I saw her eyes—her look that took in all and gave nothing away. It was enough.
Something was revealed when pain pushed me through the membrane that usually separates me from all other things.
How does the body accumulate its knowledge? Through actions, through injuries. And what I remember best of the most painful assaults on my body—the broken arm, the chipped shin—is not myself but the person standing over me. This holds true, too, of the less directly physical injuries I suffered later. Something was revealed when pain pushed me through the membrane that usually separates me from all other things. In that space I heard the others, saw them, felt them completely.
Gymnastics celebrates the body but also abuses it. I came home from practices covered in bruises. Small, greenish ones on my hips where I beat against the uneven bars every afternoon. Large multicolored blotches of black, purple, and pink on the outside of my thigh if I fell onto the balance beam. And all types in between, in every imaginable place, most of which I could not remember acquiring and did not recall having suffered for.
It was through gymnastics that I discovered what little girls are made of. We were made of spit and gristle and callused palms, and giggles and neon leotards and fearlessness to a degree that no one over the age of twelve has any right to claim. Our innocence was our power. We could plainly see what we were good for (flight, propulsion) and what we had (muscle, joy). Some in the media worried that the way the sport favored a very small, muscular physique amounted to a veneration of girlhood that put us at odds with womanhood. But I don’t think that’s fair. What put us at odds with womanhood was broader and deeper than sport. It had something to do with the outsized significance non-gymnasts placed on parts of our bodies—breasts, hips—that did not, for us, have the meanings they insisted on.
When I remember gymnastics there are no eyes on me. There is only my body and the objects of my intention. The feel of fine chalk powder on the skin of my palms. My idle habit of rubbing my calluses with my thumb, knowing the hardened skin, its texture, its dimensions. The smell of the leather grips I pulled from their plastic bag; the chalk-dense wristbands drawn over my hands, letting loose clouds of white dust. The grips, each with a strip of suede worn and bent and tugged and wetted and dried to follow the contours of my hand—looping up around the dowel that gave me an extra inch of reach to link my limbs to the bar as I swung, spun, turned, let go, and caught it again. When I wrapped myself around the bar, the chalk rubbed off into the crease of my hips, penetrating the stretchy cotton of my leggings. Back on the mat, I could pull at my leotard and let it snap, releasing puffs of chalk. I breathed it in. The smell, the taste of it against the roof of my mouth: a little bit alkaline, a little bit interesting.
When did that other thing creep in? That shift to seeing yourself through others’ eyes? Men’s eyes? It comes when they start telling you what they make of you. It comes when you discover that the things they say you are have nothing to do with the things you always thought you were. Was it the day my father tugged at my shirt and turned to a friend and said, Look at that, she’s got a waist! Was it the day on the bus when I overheard two boys behind me sizing me up? She’s a dog, one said. I went home, stared at the mirror, considered my face: Am I a dog? Was it when I learned the song we gymnasts sang, about how everyone turned to look at a gymnast girl walking down the street because she had that strut, that butt? I couldn’t understand why the song unsettled me. So I sang along, about a million guys wondering just how far she’d really go.
They thought she ought to have a different kind of body, the kind of body that could not do what she had just done.
Was this an injury? If not, it was something like one—a betrayal, at least, remaining in the body as betrayals do—stashed in brow muscles that still twitch in recollection. What does it mean that by the time I was sixteen and two boys in my class wanted me to show them my palms because they had heard that my calluses were amazing—their eyes were genuine, impressed—that I held back my hands, embarrassed? That I let them look only reluctantly, knowing that my crazy lumps of dense, toughened, yellowed skin were not what the world was going to want me for? Knowing it already too deeply to unknow it, even as my hands, my badges of honor—of untold hours spent gripping a wooden bar and swinging and banging my body at it, around it, against it—were what those boys liked about me in that moment on that day? When did I begin to tell them what they ought not to like?
I don’t think I understand, really, the strength of women. But I do understand the strength of girls. I understand the teenaged Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics, running and vaulting and landing on a broken ankle after a fall on her first vault broke the bone she then jumped and pounded on. Sticking the landing, winning the medal. I understand the adrenaline charging through her—its power to numb the pain and the way it jacks you up so that you trust your limbs and your flips are high. Audiences murmured uncomfortably about her mannish features: the broad-shouldered frame and the chiseled quads that gave her the power to fling her body end-over-end. They thought she ought to have a different kind of body, the kind of body that could not do what she had just done.
By that time, my own body had lengthened and softened and curved into the one that America wanted Kerri’s to be. My monthly blood had finally come a year before, when I was a freshman in college. I tell people this and they say, after a moment of stunned silence, Oh, because of gymnastics. But I hadn’t had a body like an elite gymnast’s, like Kerri’s—one with so little fat that menstruation dries up, or simply does not come. I was never all that strong, that lean. I was thin but I ate whatever I wanted. Still the periods stayed away for years. In high school, a doctor examined me and assured me nothing was wrong. But I couldn’t help feeling like this bloodless state wasn’t the right way to be female. It seemed a kind of physical naiveté, a way of not being in on the secret. Then I became that kind of female and it felt like capitulation. I still don’t know how to feel about this. There are so many levels of betrayal at play in the way a woman sees her body that parsing them seems impossible.
One day two years ago, my brother broke his body. It was an irreparable breakage and a final one, achieved by lodging a wad of paste made from lotion and toilet paper deep in his throat and stopping his own breath. His mind had long since been broken already, by schizophrenia, and I believe he saw no point in having one without the other. (I disagreed, of course, but was not consulted.) It is not lost on me that the break was achieved not by rending his body asunder but simply by denying it the air it needed to keep moving of its own accord. Denying it agency. He understood that a lack of agency unmakes a body.
But I hadn’t known that an assault on another body could break mine, too. That grief of this kind is a physical trauma on a massive scale. In grief, my mind’s pain became my body’s pain and my body’s pain reshaped my mind. The pain invaded joints, tissues. The exhaustion was constant. Sometimes I stopped just to pant, winded for no apparent reason. In months two and three I had the sleeping schedule of a small child. Ten, eleven hours a day. Any less and I’d get sick, come down with a cold or a cough. I got two vaginal infections in six months—the same one, recurrent, a yeast-like bacterial bloom that my doctor couldn’t explain. For half a year, when people asked how I felt, I said: Like all my blood vessels have been torn out.
Grief at that intensity shakes you out of the world and out of yourself. In its grip, I shed all my phoniness, not because I wanted to but because I didn’t have the energy to resist. I began asking questions of myself that I didn’t know were there to ask. I waited all spring to see a childless older friend, just so I could ask for her thoughts about that choice. I asked without asking: What should I do? At a book signing by an author who long ago lost a baby, I told her I’d been unable to write since my brother died. She held my forearm in her hands, hugged me, said kind things as I fought back tears, astounded at myself for breaking down before a stranger. Who have I become?
What I’m trying to unravel is the difference between merely existing in a body and truly inhabiting it—to untangle passivity from receptivity. My woman-body has never been as easy for me to love, with its big breasts and disorienting cycles, as the girl-body that hurled me so beautifully through the air. To be sure, the woman-body has been good for sex, for attracting my husband’s touch, but sex is just one aspect of the whole—one that for me has never felt like a primary purpose. And as I find myself choosing not to use the body to create a child, it now seems that the one act its whole design evolved toward will be one it never performs. I’m looking for a new working definition.
This woman-body is always breaking itself down and building itself back up again. Each month the blood comes out, the mood goes astray, then the system rights itself and continues on.
It’s odd how, when the body seems most broken down, some of the most stunning experiences are made. A few months after my brother died, I found myself in a bar at a ‘90s hip-hop night with a group of friends. Song after song we danced as I rose higher and higher into the rush of music and movement and drink. After midnight I felt euphoria approaching. All at once my skin was electric. I sucked in air and looked up as if through a tunnel of sound, of beats, of swirling lights, of limbs churning and turning. Until suddenly the moment in all its fullness contained only my brother. He was everywhere, everything, in every note and every step. And as he broke over me I felt elation flip into bleak desperation, and I knew that my limbs would not hold me and that I would fall. Panicked, I bolted out into the night.
How difficult feeling can be. Like any action, any effort, any cascade of processes the body employs. Breath, heart rate, muscle tension, sweat.
When people used to ask about my bruises I would shrug and say, I bruise easily. Girls nodded, said, Me too. Boys, never.
Tears were lodged in my cleavage, in the creases of my neck, drying into salty crusts in the crooks of my elbows.
In her memoir Conundrum, Jan Morris, who until mid-life had been James Morris, wrote of the intangible difference she felt in her body when she transitioned from man to woman. It was as if her skin were more exposed, she explained, and she could feel the air around her more directly. As if the membrane separating her from all things had evaporated, leaving her nerves more open to her environment. She appreciated this, its vital immediacy, but she also eulogized her days as a young man inhabiting a body that was potent and invulnerable and sure within itself. Reading her words, I thought, Isn’t that what I’ve always been going for?
I was alone in New York when I learned that my brother was dead. I had just flown in and was subletting a friend’s tiny apartment at 122nd and Broadway when I returned a call from my father and he told me the news. Racked by sudden sobs, as my mind swirled with incomprehension, an agitation came over me and I found myself standing, turning, pacing. Unable to stay in that confined space, I fled onto the street. For hours I walked the wide avenue, calling friends only to reach their voicemails, burning with emotion, unable to sit still and unable to reach anyone I knew in the city. I surrendered to the shapes of the other bodies on the sidewalks, to the sound of the cars, the lights undulating through my tears. Up and down Broadway I roamed, stopping occasionally to sit on a bench in the median and make another call. It was unlike any experience of being in the city I’d ever had. I was only half aware of it. I was flushed, spastic, wet from constant crying. Tears were lodged in my cleavage, in the creases of my neck, drying into salty crusts in the crooks of my elbows. It was as if all my capillaries had dilated—as if my whole self had dilated—into a pulsing font of tears. Nothing came into focus beyond a few feet away. Instead I felt the city as abstraction, as movement, a flow of footfalls and motors that synced with the pulsing and soothed the panic swelling inside me.
Finally, my friend Sarah got my message. She was in Brooklyn, could reach me in an hour. A few blocks down I turned in through the gates of my old university. It was a mild night and people were milling about as if in a public park. I sat down on the wide steps that led up to the old domed library and waited there.
I say this to tell you that the city rescued me that night. When Sarah saw me sitting high up on the steps, she started to run, and took them two at a time, weaving around the pairs and small groups looking out onto the lawns, and as she approached me she held out her arms and I stood and fell into them.
In memory I still see her face above me, somehow nearer and clearer for the pain. And I can still feel the city as it felt then, as intimate a companion as I’ve ever had. So often in grief I found myself on the edge of both rapture and despair.
I returned to New York the following summer and spent several weeks alone there, away from my husband. Without his nearness and the soothing of his hands on me, I soon began to feel everything more acutely. At the little zoo in Prospect Park I spent thirty minutes watching the small primates as they climbed over one another, swung, pulled tails, turned upside down to follow the light bouncing off a silver thermos. A marmoset saw me, climbed down a limb toward me. A tamarin peered at me while chewing its food. Their rhythm became my own and this seemed to say something about us all. The boys, too, break-dancing on the Q train, busking for dollars as it crossed the East River: As they flipped and spun around on the metal handrails, my skin went bumpy and the urge to reach out, to touch them, was so strong that I feared I actually would.
At the end of a long day, my experience of the city would turn visceral. I had moments of near-madness on the subway platforms at night. In summer the New York heat is thickest in the train tunnels, and backed by the echoing of voices blending to a murmur, and the rumblings of trains flashing by on adjacent tracks, it had the power to undo me. There were times, as a train approached, when the speed jolted me chemically, and grief and hormones pushed me through the membrane without warning and a wild throb passed through me, a charge flowing out toward the ends of my limbs. I stepped close to the passing train and held my arms out and took in the whipping wind of it, and I felt suddenly glorious with the speed-smoothed steel and the bursts of fluorescent light. And taking a sharp breath as water filled my eyes, I thought, This.
This body’s refusal to shield me from sensation, from emotion, from the world. On the contrary, plunging me into them, bashing me against them. This is difficult and it is sometimes incapacitating but it is also something else. I am sure it is a kind of agency—an agency that is not simply about action but also awareness. The claiming of all that a body might know, of what can be gained by not simply withstanding pain but absorbing it, interacting with it, being remade by it.
This is where we land. Feet hitting the floor, body bending and then rising into a last symbolic snap of the arms. Now we must walk off the mat and into the rest of our lives. Into that woman-body and so many other boundless, protean things. Recall that even Kerri Strug was made into something new, something unforeseeable, when she landed the winning vault on that day at the Olympics. Recall that it was barely, barely on two feet that she reached the mat. You could see that she ever-so-slightly favored the good foot, then put all her weight on it almost immediately as she turned and saluted the judges. That done, she slumped to her knees and bowed her head and paused—the pain hitting hard—and began to scoot off the mat, knees to hands, knees to hands. You could almost feel it with her, in that place where a breakage is also a joining, somehow a hinge. Feet hitting the floor. Find me there.