Register Monday | September 24 | 2018

The Yoga Teachers

Second-prize winner of last year's Quebec Writing Competition

Risa’s mother tries for what seems like hours to get Risa’s thick bumpy hair into a French braid.  The hair is remarkably resistant, though Risa’s mother uses a snagging angry-toothed comb, thirty-seven bobby pins, and half a jar of Dippity-Do.  Ow, Risa says every time her mother pokes a bobby pin into the damp sticky mass.  Her hair stands in gelled ridges over her head, like an aerial photo of the badlands.  Finally when Risa and her mother are both near tears, Risa’s father knocks on the door, and Risa must get into the car with him and be driven through the long snowy corridor to her dance class.

Every week it’s like this, the vinyl floor that lifts at the corners like old slices of cheese and Risa’s teacher who is too too beautiful, with her, Risa does not want to think breasts but that’s what they are, breasts like long smooth loaves inside her unitard and her heavy circling arms.  First position, second position, fourth position.  Bras bas, which Risa knows is French for “arms lowered” but still thinks of as bra-BAH, a rallying cry shouted by staunch men on horseback as they ride into battle.  First position hums like a calm day in an open field.  Second position is a loud embarrassed relative.  Third position is a mythological creature, half soldier and half clamshell.  Fourth position is grey and ticking like the inside of a watch.  Fifth position might be a little bit magic because of the way your thighs squeeze together.

Risa was not meant for ballet, this she knows.  She knows it’s because of the shape of her head and her thick, bumpy hair.  Other girls, like tiny, flexible Shauna, have neat buns that rest comfortably on the back curve of their skulls, like gravity-defying robin’s eggs.  Their buns stay done up without hair nets or Dippity-Do, and they don’t have greasy braids crunchy with bobby pins.  Their heads are streamlined and aerodynamic.  They look like small fighter planes, doing grand-jetes across the floor.  In comparison, Risa feels like a wooden cart or a wheelbarrow; creaky, unstable, about to crush someone’s toe.  Her teacher rolls her eyes when she thinks Risa isn’t looking, then puts her in the back row.

This week, though, Risa’s fat, beautiful, cruel teacher is not there.  Instead there are a man and a woman who are here to teach them yoga.  The man is blond and tanned and muscular, but he is not a “babe” the way her friends talk about babes like David Hasselhoff.  His hair is dry and tufted and he wears a purple sleeveless shirt out of which his arms dangle like braided rope.  The woman is small and intense, with an oily nose and torn blue sweatpants.  They are American, so they can’t pronounce the last names of the kids in her class.  Jurczak, Konwalchuk, Jzojzofsky.  The yoga teachers want Risa to concentrate on her breath.  Her breath is a retractable column like a telescope and she has to push and pull it around her chest like a toy on a stick.  She never knew this before, but she can see that it’s true, because sometimes it sticks in her neck, where part of the column must have rusted.  The woman demonstrates the proper way to inhale and exhale, and her breath echoes through her as though her chest were an underground parking lot. 

The yoga teachers tell her to do strange and impossible things, like lift her heart.  Soften your lungs.  Soften your eyes.  Open your chest.  Risa pictures her chest opening like the cabinet where her parents keep the good china, her guts stacked like plates and her softened lungs sitting on top like a matched pair of teacups.  The man leans over Risa and murmurs into her ear, Find your breath, and suddenly Risa feels a wash of energy move through her legs.  The man has a long, gentle face like a horse.  Do he and the woman do it together, opening their chests and lifting their hearts?  Risa cannot imagine it.  The woman seems another animal entirely, a musky and active one, like a ferret.  Risa closes her eyes against these thoughts and focuses on the column of her breath turning over and over in her glass-cabinet torso.

After class Risa walk across the parking lot to her dad’s car.  She can still hear the rasp of the woman’s breathing and her voice saying Soften, soften, soften.  Her eyes feel blunt and smooth as fingertips.  She floats to the car on waves of breathing, so light and serene and feelingless, and she senses that the expression has slipped off her face like a plate of leftovers dumped into the garbage.  She slides into the passenger seat and straps herself in silently.  What, her dad says.  What is it now.  Nothing, she says, feeling that peace and goodwill must be flowing from her in waves.  For godsakes, her dad says, turning the ignition, what are you upset about this time.  Maybe it’s time to think about quitting these classes, all they do is make you miserable.  Risa feels her soft heart fold in on itself.  Her face changes from radiant to sullen, but nobody can tell the difference.