I’ll Fly Away
Heather M. Surls
I pin my hair in a bun, like I used to for years. I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and see the skin on my shoulders breaking out, all the medications in my body trying to escape. I see my flat chest, somehow flatter after breastfeeding, and my collarbones, slim like doweling, parallel to the floor. My ballet teacher used to say, “Lift your chest like there’s a hook there,” and I’d imagine a fishing hook lodged in my chest bone, pulling me up.
I feel anxious. I don’t know if it’s because I’m going to dance after twelve years, or because right now every emotion comes with the fast heart rate of anxiety, with tingling and numbness in my left arm.
On the floor of the dance studio I stretch with Kim, my classmate. She tells me she’s from the area, has a husband and two boys. I have a son too, I tell her; I also say that I have PTSD.
She looks me straight in the eyes. “This can be a healing place,” she says.
* * *
For some reason I brought my ballet shoes on vacation, these leather relics from my senior year of high school with holes worn in the big toes. I don’t remember putting them in my luggage. They are already molded to my feet, gray with sweat on the insides and missing the pink glow that screams “new.” Why did I bring these shoes to America? I am a packing minimalist. We planned to be here seven weeks, a summer vacation from our work in Jordan. We didn’t expect that once stateside, I’d develop a mental illness severe enough to prevent us from returning.
Never mind why I brought them. I’m glad I did, relieved that after more than a decade of life and a pregnancy, they still fit. I don’t own a leotard or tights, but at least I have my shoes to give me some legitimacy.
* * *
My teacher is a Cuban man named Guillermo. I’ve never had a male ballet instructor, so I’m nervous about that. In Jordan I rarely look men in the eyes. In the street my goal is to pass them without being noticed, without provoking stares, whistles, or worse. In Jordan I don’t go outside without long sleeves, long pants, my hair tied back modestly, carefully following cultural norms. I don’t even step onto my back porch without a cardigan.
“Guillermo teaches the Thursday night class,” the secretary told me when I inquired about an adult ballet class. Through a window in the wall I watched middle school girls fluttering across the gray flooring in their pointe shoes, narrow elastic belts clasped around their waists. I felt dowdy in jeans, with permanent bags under my eyes. For three months I’d been an insomniac, recently sleeping just four or five hours a night.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I told my husband when I returned from the studio. He’d understand; maybe he’d tell me I’m crazy. He knew that two weeks ago I couldn’t stand up for the duration of my shower. He knew how I’d grip the stair railings going down, afraid I’d fall, and how my adrenal glands would ache by the end of the day.
But he told me I must say no to fear. He told me I must dance.
* * *
A healing place, Kim says, and I want to believe her. About a month ago a woman I hardly knew said something similar. She knelt beside me to pray and in her mind’s eye, saw a girl dancing. She heard ancient words, that my mourning would turn into dancing. I guess I’m partly here to see if this prophecy will come true.
My memories of dance include a lot of wounds. When I was about thirteen I started to dance on pointe. My teachers did not allow us to wear pads in our shoes. We could wrap loose strips of lambswool around our toes, or medical tape. But we could not wear wool or gel pads that completely covered our toes. Eventually, they said, we’d get callouses and wouldn’t bleed.
After an hour on our toes, my classmates and I would remove our shoes and survey the damage. Sometimes I found just water blisters; sometimes I found open sores. I had to wear flip flops in the winter and sleep with my feet uncovered so my blisters wouldn’t fuse with the sheets. Dancing hurt, but we didn’t call it pain.
* * *
After my first class with Guillermo, I came home and took two hours to wind down. My heart was pounding. This is not anxiety, I coached myself, though every physical symptom contradicted my words. This is your body being strong.
Under a pummeling waterfall of endorphins, I could hardly believe what I’d just done. At home, I could barely carry the laundry baskets downstairs to the washing machines. I hadn’t scrubbed the toilet in weeks. People had been bringing us meals so I didn’t have to stand and cook.
But I’d just waltzed, leaped, and jumped for an hour and a half. Have I really been immobile on the couch for hours each day? I asked myself. Maybe my weakness was in my head; maybe my flawed brain chemistry was holding my body prisoner.
The next evening, when my boy begged me to play trains, I remembered how free and strong I’d been in ballet class. I ignored my depressed thoughts and pulsing adrenals. I spread my arms and ran across the lawn, blazing a train track before him.
* * *
Every Thursday night I drive our borrowed car three blocks to the dance studio. My eyesight after dark is getting worse from my medication, a strange side effect. Sometimes I sit in the car before or after class, feeling caged by my body and mind.
I feel free while dancing, focused on the movement. Inside class I don’t think about the metal band around my chest. But outside of class I think: I’m taking Xanax twice a day. I’m on an antidepressant. I’m taking sleeping pills every night. I’m in therapy twice a week.
Sometimes I have “intrusive thoughts.” One day while trying to nap I remembered the assault. I got up in a rage, convinced my anger wouldn’t dissipate unless I beat someone up.
I read in a book that reenacting your trauma and responding how you wished you had can help it fade. So I went outside and stood near a wall. I stood quietly, imagining myself on the street in our Jordanian neighborhood, cars passing as people drove to work. I imagined the man in black pants and hoodie running up behind me. I relived the shame of being caught with his hand between my legs.
But instead of standing there with clenched fists, watching him run away, I pulled off my shoe and beat the wall. I shouted all the things I wish I’d said. I threw my shoe after him. Then I sat on the ground in the fall leaves and cried.
* * *
I borrowed the film “Swan Lake” from Guillermo one day. I can trace my history with dance back to this performance, which I watched at my grandma’s house when I was little. I couldn’t understand the story then, why the swan and the prince threw themselves off a cliff at the end. Mostly I liked watching the ballerinas dance on their toes, wondering how that was possible.
More than 20 years later I watched and understood the story. The white swan and the prince were committing suicide? They were in such despair that death sounded better than life?
I never had suicidal thoughts, but I did want to hurt myself. Several months after the assault and several weeks into insomnia and depression, I was chopping cucumbers. I held the big knife and thought, Maybe I should cut myself. Maybe that will make all this pain go away.
Anxiety isn’t painful, actually; it’s more like suffocating. So why did I think that cutting would help me breathe?
Months after the knife incident, I bit my lip hard, tasted iron in my mouth. Then I understood. Just biting my lip brought a clarifying adrenaline rush, which for a few minutes cut through all the numbness of my anxiety and tied me to the present, pulsating moment.
Kind of like the blisters I walked with in high school. They hurt, but they were proof I was alive.
* * *
Guillermo wears T-shirts and sweats to class, and fuzzy purple socks that slide well on the marley. He has one pierced ear, a pot belly, and hair that he’s always flipping out of his eyes. His Spanish accent is thick and endearing. “OMG!” he exclaims whenever I make a mistake, which is about every two minutes.
Mostly, returning to ballet is like returning to a bike: my body remembers the positions and movement. I forget some things, but ninety percent of the time I respond to a series of French words I haven’t heard in my adult life and my body makes art.
The other ten percent of the time, I make mistakes. I barely get through a combination without majorly botching something or just standing there in utter blankness of mind while Kim goes on in glory. But I laugh it off, realizing how much my brain has been altered by motherhood, international moves, and trauma. Mistakes don’t matter.
Over the course of nine months, Guillermo laughs at me and exclaims “OMG” hundreds of times. He never looks at me inappropriately, never makes me want to disappear. He touches me only once, on the arm, to correct my position.
* * *
When I dance, parts of me don’t fit anymore. My hips, especially. They’ve widened, which affects my legs and feet and makes them resist turn-out. The top half of me hasn’t changed, though. My bones were shaped by my ballet classes as a girl. Although I sit sloppily like anyone else, when I stand straight, when I imagine the fishing hook in my sternum, I feel like I can breathe.
I’ve never had muscular arms, but I can make them strong. If I hold my arm out from my body, parallel to the floor, I engage dozens of muscles. The deltoid rolls backward, anchoring the arm in my back. At the same time, the bicep rolls upward and the muscles of the lower arm rotate, gently twisting the radius and ulna bones. My wrist bends slightly, energy drops off at my thumb, but strength radiates from my fingers.
For me, this is one of the most natural positions in the world. I was made to stand like this, to hold my head up and my shoulders back. I was made to stand tall, not hunched down, trying not to be noticed. I was made for freedom.
Every time I dance, every time I put tension in my muscles, I’m confronted by my limitations. I want to burst out of the cage of this body and be limitless. I want to throw back my collarbones and fly. And even though I know that’s physically impossible, mentally I’m a soaring bird, if only for an hour and a half.
And so I slip on my old leather shoes. I stand up. I place my hand on the barre and dance.
Heather M. Surls
Heather M. Surls' work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ruminate, River Teeth, and Silk Road. She is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler and Culture Keeper. She lives in Amman, Jordan, where she can often be found knitting, chasing her six-year-old boy, or sipping tea with women from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.