Charlotte Sullivan-Swain


This body was something I used to control. It ate out of the palm of my hand. Broccoli, carrots, diet Barq’s root beer. One pound down, 120 to go. Make this body fade away until all that’s left is me.

Make me a skeleton again. Hang me from the roof of your porch. I’ll watch the children trample your garden and knock on your door. I’ll show you a trick—I’ll make myself disappear.

I wanted to become a phantom, to be a perfect version of everything I could be. Perfect student, perfect gymnast, perfect sister, daughter, friend. I wanted to become everything you wanted me to be. I wanted to vanish, to evaporate into thin air.

I’m trapped. Lying on the living room floor watching another episode of iZOMBIE; I can feel you inside of me.

I was raised believing I was somehow unique, like a fingerprint distinct among fingerprints, my lines and curves unique in every way. I could be anything I wanted to be—a snowman, snow pile, an astronaut on the moon.

You lied to me.

I’m on my right side, my left heel reaching toward the ceiling—up, down, up down—25 times. Hold for 30. Make a square with my toes—up, forward, down, back—10 times. Counter-clockwise 10 times. Circle forward; circle back—10 times each. Repeat on right leg. Roll onto left side. Repeat.

You did this every day.  With 20 lb weights on each foot.

I roll onto my back. Legs bent. Tuck pelvis. Slowly lift one vertebra at a time until my body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Hold for 30. Return to starting position. One vertebra at a time. Repeat.

You did this without effort.

I contract my abdominal muscles but cannot return to a seated position without the help of my elbows at my side.

How many sit-ups could you do at a time? 100? 200? You spent your energy on more difficult exercises: slow bikes, hollow holds, v-ups.

NASA has been shut down almost entirely, with the exception of Mission Control remaining open to support the astronauts serving on the space station. There are no more lunar landings, no more space explorations. Lungs at 70% capacity, restricted by sclerodermoid connective tissue and skin, limited by radiated layers of organ scarring. The common cold becoming more than a nuisance. Two hours spent gasping for breath, drowning in a sea of sand. Blistering red sores across my hips, chest, back, and abdomen. I pick, pick, pick until I bleed. I cannot be an astronaut.

When I close my eyes, I feel myself inside you. We stand on a panel mat facing the low bar. Right leg bent, pressure on the ball of our foot. Left leg straight but not locked. Arms by our sides, sweat pooling beneath yellowing cotton wristbands. Chalk on our hands, our leotard, our lungs. Hardening leather against our palms and between the top knuckles of our fingers.

I feel it all.

How do I become carbon dioxide, exit this space called my own and venture into the free world? Connect the molecules—one carbon for every two oxygen—within the confines of my lungs.

Lick our lips and exhale. Try to break free. Right heel drops. Knees bend. Arms swing back and chest leans forward. Quadriceps flex, and we’re weightless. Defying gravity. Reaching for the bar. Toes pointed, muscles tightened, legs straightened. Glide to full extension of the body. Toes to the bar. “Pull your pants up.” Bar against hips. Bend in half. Cast and drop. Wait, wait, wait. SHOOT.  Toes to ceiling. Keep head in. Don’t arch. You’ve got it. Together, we hold the handstand. Together, we keep our core tight. Legs straight, toes pointed. Every muscle flexed—glutes, calves, biceps, triceps, deltoids, traps, quads. We bend at the hips, and the toes on our right foot come to the bar.

I feel the strain on my hamstring. A part of me understands, comprehends, acknowledges the impossibility of this feat in my present body. Even you had difficulty grasping your toes. Your feet trembled as Karla pulled your straightened leg closer to your chest. Your lower back ached after that car accident in sixth grade when our brother fell asleep while driving you to gymnastics practice. His 1972 Chevy Chevelle Malibu didn’t have seat belts that strapped across your chest, only across the lap. Our vertebrae shifted forward, never returning to their natural position.

This body is Martian. Everyone confirms it is mine, but the disconnect between me and these legs equals that of my generation’s understanding of the planet Pluto. My legs do not perform this way. My legs bend in half, my heels against my glutes as I sit upon the floor. I fold myself at the waist until my face rests on my knees. This is what my body can do. This is what this body cannot.

How can I call this my body?

When my toes don’t lift as I walk, causing me to stumble—again. Permanent scarring on my right pinky knuckle, a divot on my forehead, scratches on my glasses. “I prefer to catch myself with my face.”

When my arms don’t reach over my head, failing 75 degrees away from upright. These are not my shoulders. My shoulders hyperextend. My wrists on a box two feet off the ground, my chest can touch the ground.

My body twists and contorts, bends but does not break—sprains, bleeds, bruises, and swells but does not break. I fall asleep with my head on my knee, crooked to the side of my body. I sleep curled on the single-seater cushion of a Greyhound bus without discomfort. This is my body.

Our right foot on the bar, we lean back and pull. The bar bends beneath our weight, the forces of gravity and momentum working together to create torque. Wait, wait, wait. RELEASE. Reach for high bar.

We almost grab it but not quite.

Rechalk.  Get back in line. Try again.

Don’t forget to finish your conditioning: 50 leg lifts (½ with weights, ½ without), 50 dips on the parallel bars (½ with weights, ½ without) making sure to lower yourself as far as possible without forfeiting form.

My body still remembers.
My body cannot forget.

Every curb I pass reminds me of our 14 years together. Sometimes I step up and attempt walking across without falling, reminding myself of little girls in little leotards, little girls in ponytails so tight their eyebrows raise, little girls in competition against each other and themselves.

Eyes closed, I can still feel the soft leather of the balance beam beneath my feet. Right foot slightly in front of the left, the curvature of my arches perfectly aligning. Pinky toes wrapping around the edges. I know what four inches feel like beneath my feet.

Two feet of beam in front of me and fourteen feet behind. Hands lightly chalked; I rub them against the black velvet of my Lycra shorts. I stare at the end of the balance beam and straighten my right leg in front of me—toes pointed, muscles flexed, hands to my sides. Pinky, ring, and middle fingers connect; index finger and thumb extended separately. “Pretend you’re eating a cheeseburger.” “Place the pencil interspersed between your fingers.” Fill lungs with oxygen. Hold. Count to three. Exhale. Step feet together.

Our body is in motion. We swing our arms behind us, lean our chest slightly forward, bend our knees. Arms reach up and backward as legs straighten and press off the balance beam. Every muscle tight. Our hands find their way to each other—right on top of left turned almost 90 degrees. When they meet the balance beam, our pinkies and thumbs grip the leather. Press through shoulders. Keep arms straight. Allow our right and then left foot to find their respective places. Deep lunge. Feet turned out. Toes grasp edges. Arms above head, shoulders tucked into ears.

You’ve stuck another perfect landing.

Circle arms behind you. 1, 2, 3, 4. Contract toward the front, allowing back of wrists to meet. Pull back in, elbows to your sides. Pose with left arm to right shoulder and right arm outstretched behind you. Chin up. Extend vertebrae. Smile.

Lying in my bed at night—lights off, eyes closed—I visualize every detail of every routine you performed. Headspace, Calm, and the Anxiety Clinic have attempted to teach me to scan my body, breathe mindfully, and progressively relax my muscles, but none work as well as the visualizations I spent years perfecting, Jessica instructing me to close my eyes and imagine perfection—no stepping out of bounds, stuck landings, faultless form.

My body remembers.
My body cannot forget.

“Don’t give up hope,” they tell me. “You’ll be back in the gym in no time,” they say. I don’t know how to tell them I’ll never be able to do a handstand again. I don’t know how to say my sclerodermoid connective tissues disallow me from bending my wrist at even a 45-degree angle, and the doctors believe the damage is permanent.

Every morning and every night as I puff my inhaler and swish my fluoride mouth rinse, I align my elbow with the bathroom doorframe, stretching my pectoral muscles. In the shower, as I allow the conditioner to soak into my hair, I grasp the towel rack and press my chest toward the ground. Driving with my fingertips resting on the steering wheel, stretching toward my lap. Bending at the wrist both forward and backward with fingers straightened and bent. Daily. For years. With minimal improvement.

This imposter body cannot throw a Frisbee, cannot bump a volleyball. It punches the sandstone of the Looking Glass Arch as it climbs, unable to actually grasp the rock.

How can I call this my body?

“Just keep at it.”

Months of physical therapy spent stretching and strengthening my muscles. Half a year of PhysioTouch suctioning to help lymphatic fluid flow and disintegrate scar tissue. Canceling appointments and canceling treatments because I’m only allowed 35 appointments per year, and we’re not seeing enough improvement. How do I explain that another day on prednisone is another day battling muscle degeneration, that if I don’t work out, I become weaker, and if I do work out, I’m only allowing my muscles to maintain the status quo?

When I’m running late or attempting to cross the street before a car comes near, I can still feel you inside me. You tell my legs to press harder against the concrete. You bring to memory each of the running drills we practiced so many years ago.

Knees high.  Heel to butt. Press backward. Arms at a 90-degree angle. Light fists. “Don’t crunch your potato chips.” “No washing machine arms.”

The memories are there, but the body is failing. My knees don’t lift, and my heels can’t reach. My muscles strain beneath the pressure. The motion of jogging feels martian-esque. How was it you were able to sprint 70 feet in fewer than 4 seconds? How was it you could climb the stairs taking 2 or 3 steps at a time—without feeling like your lungs would collapse once you reached the top? How is it we have shared the cells within us?

My body still remembers you.
My body cannot forget you.

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About the Author

Charlotte Sullivan-Swain (she/her) teaches university writing and is pursuing a doctorate in education. She has been diagnosed with cancer three times in her thirty-two years of life and lives with controlled anxiety and depression, as well as a rare autoimmune disease. In her free time, she loves gardening, editing Wikipedia articles, and spending time with her spouse and pets.