The Body’s Defenses Against Itself

by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Thompson-Spires-Defenses-Artwork2The back of the woman’s neck is already sweaty. Liquid pools in the dark creases behind her ears and around the collar of her over-sized T-shirt. She has worn loose sweatpants, the cotton kind, and thick white socks to class. She stands at the back of her mat, scratching one ankle with a big toe, turns around suddenly and smiles. I avert my eyes, annoyed by her expectation of familiarity, and focus on aligning the front edges of my mat with one of the faint slats in the polished hardwood. I watch her face in the mirror. She could be a distant cousin, her nose not unlike mine, but she is fat.

The room always smells damp before class even starts, misty from the deep exhalations, draining lymph nodes, body odor, and steam that the previous students left behind. Bodies fold and unfold, adjusting themselves—or allowing Biniam to adjust them—in quiet discourse in the heated space. The new woman struggles through tree pose, even with one foot tucked around an ankle. Biniam steps behind her, places a hand gently on her back, and says, “You might do better if you remove your socks.” I can’t see her feet in any detail after she balls the socks and sets them down, but I imagine white cotton lint clings to the deep brown of her skin. I lift my foot higher and press my heel into the space where my thigh meets pubic bone. I am wearing short briefs and a sports bra, the standard uniform for class. If the new black woman is self-conscious of the bagginess of her clothes, and her body, then her face, pleasant, does not let on.

“Relax your face,” Biniam says to me. I try to unclench my jaw, letting the sweat run down my forehead and bare arms. The woman is watching me in the mirror. I close my eyes.

*

The summer I turned eleven, my body would not stop sweating. Before then, I welcomed the Inland Empire’s dry heat, imagining myself a brown lizard, sunning myself on a flat rock in red sunlight, camouflaging, until my parents would call me inside the house with lectures about heat stroke. It’s still the kind of heat I miss in humid, foliaged Nashville. Nashville is more like the Bikram studio I attend there, damp all year round. Ontario, California, isn’t really damp, except in the morning when the fog hovers. It can be cold in the winter, but a dry, quiet cold. In the valleys, there’s no elevation to carry the heat, so the cold settles over everything like more dust.

My sixth-grade classmates, noticing my sudden hyperhidrosis, called me Sweatima. Fatima Sweatima. I seemed to be the only one who sweated through the cold as much as the heat. I sweated through daisy-print dresses and sunflower T-shirts. I sweated through jackets and coats that I kept on all day to hide the sweat. I sweated through a sweaty cycle that only made me sweatier and more ashamed of the sweat and sweatier still as I tried to hide it.

“It’s anxiety,” a doctor said, but we were against medicine then. “Is there a history of trauma?”

My mother and I looked at each other and back at him and shook our heads no in unison. Maybe it just had to do with being in that specific body, a body that didn’t match everyone else’s and wouldn’t do the things that other people’s did, or that did too much of them. I would try harder to relax, my parents and I concluded.

‘“Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. Thermostat. Thermostat. And hold on. Hold on for one more day, ‘cause it’s gonna go your way.”’ Mom’s voice merged with Wilson Phillips’, forming the soundtrack to our daily commute. The perspiration usually started each morning between Fairwood and Rio Rd., as my mom turned the corner and made the block towards school. I had double anxiety, anticipating the trials of the day, and of the unrelenting moisture that left all of my shirts permanently marked with green and yellow stains that made Shout silent and wouldn’t Bounce back. I would make a mental list of possible retorts, canned answers for the insults that would undoubtedly dart towards me at some point during the school day. The list never helped.

I wasn’t good at coming up with retorts, even if I practiced them beforehand. I had my stock “Whatever,” which came with a head turn and an eye roll. And I had, “Hmm, maybe you’re projecting,” something I’d picked up from talk radio. And I had self-righteousness, loads of it: “One day you’re going to be sorry that you didn’t take the high road like I did.” That never worked. The high road is too abstract; kids can’t see it, and really neither could I. I would only hold on for one more day, grasping the idea of retribution because there was little else I could grasp. The best comebacks always came to me in my bedroom, hours later, when I sat watching reruns of The New Mickey Mouse Club or Kids Incorporated and brooding over the day. And wishing that when I lifted my arms, they were as dry as Stacy Ferguson’s or Rhona Bennett’s.

That year, I’d managed to get through the first months of school without any major incidents. But the late fall and seventh-period math brought the worst trial by far. When Val sniffed me, she stuck her nose near my coat with a look of smug satisfaction and disgust on her face. It was the kind of coat with fur around the hood and far too warm for me or for that day. My mom had insisted that I wear it because of the chill in the air, and once the sweat started, I kept it on despite the warm classroom.

I never understood how Val chose her target each day. I wasn’t the only one, but I was her favorite, both the most obvious choice—the only other black girl, the one with the special name, the girl who sometimes insisted on wearing ‘80s clothes in the ‘90s, the sweater—and the least obvious. It seemed to me, at first, when I met her in second grade, that Val and I should have been friends. We had skin color and intelligence in common, and my mother wanted me to have a black friend. It was one of the ways she could justify putting me in an otherwise white school. Everywhere besides skin, though, Val and I were different. She was the kind of black girl who wore fake hair, something I could never do, and bragged about having “Indian in my blood” to white listeners, who seemed bored or amused yet clearly unimpressed. Her stomach made her one of the heftier girls in the class, and when I got up the courage to look down on her, I made a point of flaunting my thinness—the only desirable thing about my body—over her tendency towards chubby. People could make up their nicknames, but I made sure no one would ever call me Fati, Fatty.

*

Biniam leads us through garudasana, eagle pose, and Sputa, which sounds like a dirty word in Spanish, but it means fixed-firm pose. Biniam is vaguely African—Eritrean, Ethiopian—with a thin nose and thick shiny curls. He says, in that accent that women find attractive, “Fatima, relax the shoulders, soften the gaze.” With the new black woman in the white cotton socks, there are three of us in this class. The other black woman flops down flat on her soft stomach instead taking a vinyasa on the way to down dog, collapses instead of hovers. Once Biniam said, “Fatima,” dragging out the last syllable, “that name is honorable. You should look up its history.” I keep meaning and forgetting to do that.

“Turn your gaze inward,” he says, making his way towards me. I try, but I watch the woman. Her eye catches mine again. I look away.

*

I don’t know if it was the differences between our bodies or the one similarity that made Val hate me at first sight. She’d expressed her hatred over the past four years in sporadic, disjointed ways that felt like emotional abuse. One day she’d pull up my shirt in front of the entire class and reveal the pink undershirt that should have been a bra, and the next day she’d give me a really expensive present, like the Hello Kitty pencil box from the Sanrio store, with all of the compartments and the matching erasers.

“I wish I had some good tweezers to make this easier,” she said once as she helped me remove the splinter from my clammy hand after an accident on the balance beam. I barely felt a prick when she gently pinched the skin around my palm, then held up the tiny piece of wood between her index finger and thumb. “Got it.”

“That wasn’t bad,” I said, examining the tiny pink hole Val had left in my palm.

She paused then and grabbed my hand again. “You have a lot of calluses,” she said.

“Monkey bars. Remember in elementary? I used to play on them every day.”

“My mom says calluses are the body’s defenses against itself,” Val said. Her mother was a doctor and Val a walking medical book, among other things. She paused, still holding my hand. “I can read your fortune,” she said.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I backed up, taking my hand with me.

“Just real quick,” she said.

Warmth passed between us and she ran her finger over my palm.

“You’re going to die young,” she said with seriousness in her face.

“Where does it say that?” I pulled my hand away again to search it myself.

She laughed. It was a throaty, almost phlegmy laugh with a shrill edge. “Hihihihi,” like she used the wrong vowel. Who laughs with an “i” sound instead of an “a” or an “e”? “You’re so gullible,” she yelled and ran off.

Later that school year, we wrestled, in a fight that almost got us both suspended, over her accusation that I thought I was better than she was. She made me feel confused and unstable. I avoided her, she sought me out.

The day she sniffed me, I heard her coming. As she approached the pencil sharpener, she made the kind of noises she always made when she set out to make fun of something. I heard her “hihihi” horse whinny, the same sound she’d made when she, on her way to sharpen a pencil, convinced Rhianne to stick the tack on Renee Pott’s seat, and the same whinny when she found out the next day that Renee had to get a tetanus shot.

I know I didn’t smell like Teen Spirit. No deodorant can completely eliminate the odor produced by a combination of excessive sweating, excessive anxiety, an excessive coat, and eleven-year-old hormones. But I was still surprised when, like ants, my classmates one by one made their way to the pencil sharpener and sniffed me on the way back to their seats, carrying over their heads the words “musty,” “gross,” and “so weird.” I sat frozen in a cold sweat, imagining myself somewhere else. It was too vague to visualize, just not here. Mrs. Trebble never let on that she noticed, but she gave me a piece of candy, a half-melted Hershey’s kiss, after class.

The whole thing was more embarrassing than the time I had to leave the classroom because I was upset by the holocaust movie. It was even more embarrassing than when I misread Kevin’s kindness and asked him to be my boyfriend and when he kindly said no offense, but no. It was worse than all of those things, because it was something about my inherent inability to be something normal, to be a girl, to be perfect all or even some of the time.

My whole body burned that day, but I didn’t cry in front of them. I pretended not to hear the whispers and snickers, and Emily pretended with me. We ate lunch with our mouths quiet and our eyes tapping code. “Don’t feel too bad,” Emily blinked. “Everyone knows Val’s a jerk.”

“Easy for you to say since she never bothers you,” I blinked back.

I would cry when I got home, but never at school. With her mother’s help, when Emily got home, she would wonder why her only friend was the sweaty black girl with the weird name. We would pretend it never happened tomorrow. Tomorrow, Val might warn me with her eyes that she was capable of reenacting today. She would utter the nickname Sweatima, which spread like fire across the lockers and hallway, under the guise of saying hello. But she’d move back to bothering Renee or someone else for a while.

*

Biniam says to get into pavanamuktashana, wind-removing pose. He is attractive, but I’m not sure if he is gay. Some of the white women in the class preen for his attention, showing off or pretending to need help. If he is interested in them, he never lets on. His facial expression, a vague smile, does not change. He treats the new woman perhaps a little more gingerly than the rest of us.

*

The summer I turned fifteen my body would not stop bleeding. I had “accidents” at school, one of which culminated in a crimson stain on the back of my shorts and Val pointing and laughing as I walked—as naturally as I could—from our table in the cafeteria to the girls’ bathroom, with Emily’s sweatshirt tied around my waist to hide the mess and Emily walking behind me to shield me from anyone else’s view.

My mother asked gently, but with a wince in her eyes, “Have you done anything with anyone? Anyone?”

“No,” I repeated three times before her face softened, and two times to the female OBGYN who asked me the same question, once with my mother in the room and once after she asked my mom to step out for a moment.

I was terrified of having a pap smear after reading about them in Seventeen.

“I haven’t even held hands with anyone,” I said to the doctor. She had smooth brown skin and long black hair. My visible shame seemed to settle the matter for her.

When she called my mother back into the room, she said, “Fatima’s a good girl. I think this is related to her diet. It doesn’t seem like the vegetarian thing is sustainable the way she’s doing it. She needs more green leafy vegetables.” Then to me, she said, “Are you eating enough?”

On a good day, when she decided we were friends, Val had sat across from me in the cafeteria. Emily flicked her long brown hair and exchanged an eye roll with me, but despite the blood incident, I wasn’t anxious around Val anymore. I had lengthened out into somewhat tall and something like pretty, though I still couldn’t get a date at my school. Val had grown from baby fat to a more mature obesity, but she seemed smaller in high school, in the bigger crowd. She sat with me and Emily and some of our friends sporadically, for reasons I couldn’t process then.

I proceeded to eat my standard lunch of Funyuns and Diet Coke, making each little onion ring last for five bites.

“They say people who become vegetarians young are just hiding eating disorders,” Val said, taking a bite of something brown and wet that came on a Styrofoam plate.

“Who says that?” I said, looking at Emily.

“Medical studies. My mom said,” Val slopped a bite of the brown mess.

“You and your mom might try eating less meat,” I said, and Emily and I dragged out our laughter, consciously, until it spread across the table to the other girls. I prepared for a confrontation with Val, a sequel to our middle-school wrestling match, but it never came. I winced when I saw the quick flash of pain in her eyes and watched her walk away from the table.

*

The new woman is surprisingly balanced. Her Warrior III becomes standing splits with an effortless lift of her right leg.

*

The summer I turned nineteen, my body would not stop vomiting. I didn’t need my fingers or a spoon anymore to empty myself out.

*

“Forearm stand,” Biniam says, “but only if it is part of your practice.” He looks toward the new woman. “You can practice three-legged dog or move to a wall so I can spot you.” Some of the women in the class begin to spread their arms in front of them, like cats leaning back for a stretch. I have gotten into forearm stand once at home, without the aid of the wall, and a few times in Biniam’s class with the wall and his support. I don’t know what has gotten into me today, why I am more competitive than usual. I prep for the pose, pushing my weight into my forearms, pushing my butt in the opposite direction, tighten my core, lift one leg a foot or two off the ground until it hovers high above, bring the other to join it in the air.

I find the pose, clenching my stomach muscles to support me. I delight in my ability to lift myself up this way. I can’t see the new woman, but I feel she is watching from the safety of child’s pose or a series of cat-cow.

I don’t know how long I have held myself in forearm stand; it could be five seconds; it could be a minute. Sweat pours from my forehead onto my mat in the space between my two perched arms. I look forward to savasana, where we will lie very still and focus our awareness on “being in this body.” My arms give out, and I try to regain my balance by “activating my core.” One leg flops to the side. I try to land in wheel pose, but the fall is so sudden that my body and brain disagree about their directions.

*

Last summer, when I turned thirty-one, my body started bleeding again, and the stress from that has revived the sweating problem. Nothing traumatic precipitated this change, and the absence of that trauma is somehow traumatic in its own way. I have been eating fine, well even, so many green smoothies every day, so many salads, very few grains. I avoid all gluten. My husband and I had decided I should try getting off the pill, which I convinced my mother to put me on after another accident in high school, so that we could prep for trying to conceive. The pill dried up the bleeding for fifteen years, but it dried up all my other juices as well. Now I’m supposed to be “detoxing,” cleansing myself of the toxins from birth control. I try to believe the bleeding is just part of the purgative process, the toxins pouring out to make me new inside, like the sweat is supposed to do in hot yoga, like a release after a large meal. I’m not supposed to practice inversions often, because they can delay bleeding and ultimately make it worse, but I do them, occasionally, to push myself, to feel like I’m in charge. If I stand up too fast, I sometimes have a big bleed; I keep super tampons with me at all times. I tell myself it’s just blackberry jam, nothing to fear. The resulting anemia has made me prone to fainting.

I have heard that Val is an OBGYN somewhere in the South, maybe Tennessee, an expert in hormonal imbalances. Funny that we both ended up so far from California. Funny that she fixes “feminine problems” now. Sometimes, I wonder if a black woman I pass in the street is her, if I have unknowingly nodded acknowledgment to her or feigned distraction to avoid eye contact with her. When I choose new doctors, I pore over the in-network lists, avoiding Valeries, Vals, Valencias, just in case. I wonder if I am taking the wrong approach, if somehow only she could tell me what is really wrong with me, could read my body better than a stranger.

*

When my head hits the ground, I don’t feel the pain at first, just the impact. There’s a quick bite and wetness in my mouth, the taste of my own blood, a stranger and a friend at once.

I am struck by the clarity of all things. I see colors more brightly, briefly. I understand. Sometimes the enemy who looks like you is but a preparation for the enemy who is you. The violence directed inside mitigates the violence that comes from outside. It prepares you, creates calluses, fills holes.

The other black woman with the cotton socks does not have white lint on her feet. I see them up close when she comes—with Biniam and half of the class—to see if I’m okay. There are only four black feet besides mine in the bunch, so it’s easy to recognize hers. Her toenails are painted fuchsia. “I’m a nurse,” she says, hovering above me. “Nobody touch her.” She checks my airways, shifts my body to recovery pose.

The steam and the smell in the room are nauseating. I vomit without my permission. Everyone but her backs away. “Looks like a concussion,” the black nurse says. Biniam’s feet have disappeared from my line of vision. The woman touches my forehead, my hair, and does not squirm at my sweat on her hand. Moments later, or maybe minutes (I can’t be sure), I am lifted by someone—not her, for I can still see her—onto a moving bed.

If the class goes on without me, I will miss savasana, my favorite part. I smell my sweat and the bile on my breath and the blood where I bit my tongue. My body has failed me again. Though I have buffeted it, it will not conform. My head and torso are locked in position, but I realize that I can still move my fingers and toes. As they carry me to the van, I spread my limbs on the gurney and take my own savasana. I lie very still, making imperceptible movements in my mind, scanning my body, considering its parts, its defenses, being aware. I think I’ve been doing this yoga since I was eleven. I wish I were more evolved.

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About Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in East Bay Review, Blinders Literary Magazine, FLOW, The Feminist Wire, and other publications. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at UIUC.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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