“Why do you say yes to everything?” asked Helen, peering backward into the bathroom mirror. Her back looked as if she had been attacked by giant leeches. Like she’d been running for her life and they fell upon her, attaching their suckers to her spine, her shoulder blades, leaving large, perfectly circular hickeys. And she had just lain there face down, as if paralyzed, and let it happen. That part of it was true, actually.
Ernestine had told her that cupping was her new thing. She had been reading up on it, she said, and Helen’s body and its particular needs had popped into her mind. Helen couldn’t help it—she liked hearing about popping into Ernestine’s mind. It made her feel cared for. That was the reason Helen had transitioned from taking Ernestine’s yoga class Saturday mornings to coming in Wednesdays as well for a bodywork practice called redirective therapy. Ernestine said, one Saturday, as Helen unrolled her mat, “You know, I have been thinking about that wonky shoulder of yours. Make an appointment—I might have a trick that can help.” Helen, who had a chronic hip thing but hadn’t even known about the wonky shoulder, said yes.
Ernestine flounced into class in neon-pink tights and oversized tops with proclamations on them like JOYFUL or interrogations like WHAT are you GRATEFUL for TODAY? And the tops were always elaborately spangled, which you didn’t often see with athletic wear, but apparently Ernestine possessed some kind of crafting device that allowed her to bedazzle all her clothes.
For most of her life, Helen had avoided flakery. When her physio first advised she try yoga, she went out of her way to find a class that defied every possible cliché. She found one in midtown that was run out of a kickboxing club by a former junior hockey player named Gary with a perspiring face. He called it “kick-ass yoga,” and he always opened class by shouting: “Who here is ready to get their ass kicked?! ” And the participants were supposed to scream back at him: “Sir, yes, sir! ” Helen thought this was great until she noticed that every class, when Gary would cue them into happy baby pose, he’d make the same joke, which was: “Or, as I like to call it, happy husband pose! ” None of the women lying on their backs and hanging onto their feet ever laughed at this. But Gary kept making his joke.
So Helen started looking around for other classes. Ernestine was flaky, but her flakiness was so extreme and insistent that it struck Helen as honest in some objective way. It didn’t feel trendy, like a vibe Ernestine had picked up from social media. It seemed essential and unselfconscious, like she had soaked it up in the womb. Whenever she came bounding into the studio on Saturday mornings, it felt like someone had thrown open a set of heavy curtains to let in the daylight—the proverbial ray of sunshine.
And it wasn’t like Ernestine didn’t know how she came across. She was often apologetic about what she called her “intuition.” Every once in a while, while pulling and twisting Helen’s limbs this way and that, she’d let something slip about Helen’s “energies,” which Ernestine indicated she was “picking up on.” Then she’d chuckle self-deprecatingly and say, “Sorry if that sounded a little wavy-gravy.” But Helen didn’t mind. Yoga people were supposed to be that way. Gary had been fun for a couple of classes, but Ernestine was a far better teacher, her classes more meditative and uplifting. And, as for the bodywork, Helen always left Ernestine’s table feeling better, lighter. And that other thing—cared for. Ernestine would pull Helen’s arm one way and then the other, across her body, then above her head, murmuring to herself as if deep in contemplation. She’d place a hand on Helen’s hip, let it sit for a moment, then shift it, gently but decisively to one side, and exclaim, “That’s the money!” It made Helen feel understood in a way that she didn’t even comprehend herself.
The cupping bothered her, though. The furious, identical circles emblazoned across her back, like she’d been branded. Ernestine had said, “I just wanna try something out on you, okay?” And Helen had said yes. Yes, because she was there on the table, blissed out, feeling Ernestine’s hands radiating warmth and compassion into her muscles, listening to Ernestine’s murmurs and cooing. And saying no would have ruined it.
It seemed to Helen that she didn’t used to be such a pushover. During corpse pose at the end of her classes, Ernestine would play music that sounded like wind chimes, over which she’d utter a stream of platitudes that Helen just tried to ignore, because if she didn’t, she thought she might snicker. But, once, Ernestine had murmured something about how important it was to “hold yourself in kindness,” and Helen, who had been drifting contentedly up until that point, had thought, How inane, and then burst into tears. She sat up, and Ernestine was at her side, enveloping her, ushering her swiftly to the back room, where her massage table lived.
“Yoga brings up so much,” Ernestine told her, rubbing her back. “And, Helen, you hold on to so much. Can I say that? You carry so much.”
A woman named Dana, who Helen didn’t know, reached out to Helen through her university email address. The message was brief and uninformative, asking only if they could set a time to speak on the phone. Helen scanned and then deleted it, because at the bottom of the message, Dana identified herself as “Assistant to Nicola Rasmussen,” which to Helen’s mind was like identifying yourself as assistant to the ocean—or Santa Claus.
Then Dana left two or three voicemail messages, also through the university, which were easy enough to ignore. “If she calls again, just tell her to fuck off,” Helen told the secretary. “It’s an angry student or something.”
The secretary was aghast.
“No, no,” Helen amended. “I mean it’s someone trying to prank me. She says she works for Nicola Rasmussen.”
The secretary blinked at the famous name, then laughed. “It could be legit! Maybe she wants to star in a movie about your life!”
Helen grinned and looked down at her own chest. The secretary grinned back. They were both thinking the word the whole world associated with that name, which was “tits.”
“Yeah . . . I can’t see it,” said Helen.
“Poetic licence!” chuckled the secretary. “The magic of Hollywood.”
Helen tried to imagine a movie about her life starring Nicola Rasmussen: Corpse Pose is a lush cinematic feast about a large-breasted woman with noticeably hard nipples crying at yoga.
But, the next day, Nicola called Helen on her cellphone.
In her films Nicola Rasmussen played women you couldn’t trust. She joked about it in interviews—these were the only roles anyone would give her. Nobody saw her as a faithful wife or devoted mother or a frazzled lady scientist peering into a microscope, frantically searching for ways to save humankind.
She started out famous in a basic sort of way, for being stunning and young. But she “exploded onto the scene,” as the saying went, because of the nipple business. A-list actresses didn’t usually show their breasts in those days, but Nicola Rasmussen not only showed her breasts on screen, she did things with them, like smoosh them together or cup one breast in one hand and the chin of some man in the other, who she would then draw slowly to her. But the real detonative moment happened when Nicola’s breasts were completely covered—albeit by a sheer material. She caressed, and then flicked, her left nipple with one manicured finger, making it harden in real time, right there on camera, on the big screen. She became an instant object of cultural loathing and celebration as a result, and that had never quite gone away. It had been decades ago, but when her name came up, people still found it funny to call her Nippla.
“I’ve been trying my hand at poetry,” said Nicola Rasmussen when Helen spoke to her on the phone.
“Okay,” said Helen. “Wow!”
“I think I might eventually have something.”
“I see. Huh! Like . . . a book?”
“Well, Helen. This is why I reached out to you. Only you can tell me if I’ve got a book on my hands.”
Nicola Rasmussen had somehow got a hold of Helen’s twenty-two-year-old sophomore poetry collection. The book had gone nowhere and done nothing other than provide a line on her CV, which may or may not have helped Helen get the job she currently had. Helen had garnered a lot more attention for her first story collection but understood now how much of that had come from the fact that she’d been a twenty-something woman with an intriguing author photo. Her boyfriend had taken the picture at two in the morning at a hookah bar. Helen had her head thrown back and was releasing a stream of fragrant smoke into the air above her. Her fingers looked extralong and poetic, twined around the pipe, fingernails painted black. Massive earrings, shitloads of eyeliner. She’d looked decadent and squalid, like a lady poet should. Wow, people used to say, when they flipped the book over and beheld Helen’s expanse of exposed white neck. Her publisher, Melanie, who was also her publicist because she ran the whole (now defunct) publishing imprint as a one-woman show, had told her the photo hinted at a story of some kind, like a Hopper painting, and that’s what people responded to. They bought the book hoping to know more of Helen’s story.
“I’ll bet 50 percent of your sales came out of that author’s photo alone,” Melanie had said.
“Huh,” said Helen. “Three whole books!” She was cynical and impish and dark back then. She certainly didn’t do yoga. She took long, intense walks that sometimes lasted four or five hours, during which time she would smoke several cigarettes. But, by the time she’d published her second book, the one that had so captivated Nicola Rasmussen, she’d had to quit smoking because it triggered her migraines. And the issue with her hip came about from walking for hours in bad shoes.
Ernestine came racing into the studio wearing a tights and bra set that was covered with rainbows. She whipped off her bedazzled top (which today read Grace) so everyone could admire the outfit.
“Running a yoga studio is not always easy,” she told them. “But there are perks! I get outfits like these offered at a discount!”
Helen thought it was the kind of pattern that might have been sitting in the discount bin anyway, but of course it looked natural and right on Ernestine, who turned around and raised her muscled arms and flexed her extraordinary buttocks, making the rainbows shimmer.
“I am really trying to focus on this kind of thing lately,” Ernestine confided to the class. “Things that delight me, that give me joy. Little things. It doesn’t have to be a material thing, it doesn’t have to be something you buy. But if that’s what gives you joy, what the heck! Focus on it! Don’t focus on the furnace!”
The furnace in the studio kept shutting down in the middle of class and had been doing so throughout the winter months. Ernestine had started encouraging students to “bring lots of layers,” which Helen and the other diehards had obediently done. Some even wore fingerless gloves. Ernestine herself had started bringing a woollen cap with teddy bear ears to class for the very bad mornings when the furnace had shut off at some point during the night and the studio felt like a walk-in freezer.
But Ernestine always put on a happy face. She cultivated gratitude and joy all winter long. “You’ve heard of hot yoga?” she’d declare to her bundled attendees. “Well, today we’re doing cold yoga!” And then she’d pull a pair of spangled sweatpants on over her tights.
Then, in the spring, Ernestine became more ebullient than ever because she had found a yoga boyfriend. Helen knew from their conversations during bodywork that Ernestine was divorced, that her ex was a bad man—bad in ways she didn’t get into but that Helen could guess at, having a bad ex of her own. Ernestine hinted that custody arrangements regarding her little girl were an ongoing trial because of this man’s stubborn selfishness. Ernestine often talked about the travails of being a “single mom and small business owner”—how demanding the two roles were, how easy it would be to get overwhelmed if not for her regime of fitness and wellness and cultivating joy.
But, once the boyfriend had been acquired, Helen realized that Ernestine had in fact been putting on a brave face through much of the winter. She talked a good game, speaking of her gratitude and her health-giving routines and her vast love for her daughter and her work and for Helen and all the diehards who showed up for yoga on Saturday mornings. But to compare Ernestine then to Ernestine now—it was like she’d been uttering her winter-long affirmations through gritted teeth. Because now, in the springtime of her yoga boyfriend, Ernestine actually glowed, she beamed, bouncing from mat to mat to give instructions during class, sometimes impulsively embracing Helen and the others as they balanced and strained, planting a nurturing smooch on a random shoulder or the back of someone’s head once she was finished adjusting their postures.
She had met the boyfriend on some kind of retreat, and Helen had yet to catch his name. He was long haired with a Christlike centre parting and beard, always smiling gently, showing wonderful teeth. As a couple, they gave off a giddy air of all-consuming sexual infatuation. Helen found it disconcerting to be in the studio with them. The boyfriend would join the Saturday morning classes—he and Ernestine tumbling into the room like puppies, pawing and nipping at each other. Sometimes, when everyone was seated in a cross-legged position, Ernestine would rise like a sleepwalker, go over to her boyfriend, and wrap her arms and legs around his shirtless torso in a full-bodied embrace.
“I’ll be honest with you. I had a pretty hard winter,” Ernestine confessed one day in the treatment studio as she guided one of Helen’s legs straight into the air and pushed it back toward her head.
“I wouldn’t have known,” said Helen. “You always seem so positive.”
“That’s because there’s no reason not to be positive,” murmured Ernestine.
“Was it the furnace?”
“Yes, the furnace. I was so relieved when the weather finally warmed up. I don’t know what I’ll do next winter, but that’s a worry for down the road. And my daughter, you know, she’s a tween now . . . ”
Ernestine went quiet for a few moments, becoming lost in Helen’s quadriceps. Helen felt them loosen, and then everything else seemed to loosen along with them. Her eyelids fluttered, and her mouth fell open.
“She wants stuff !” exclaimed Ernestine. “Like, out of the blue. Her father took her snowboarding at Christmas. Now all she talks about is snowboarding next year. She wants all the gear. And she doesn’t want to go sledding anymore, which I think is so sad, because I love sledding! You don’t have to be a kid to love sledding. But she says it’s lame.”
Ernestine fell silent, and Helen blinked at the ceiling, dozy. “But now things are looking up,” she ventured.
“Exactly,” said Ernestine. “And that’s my point. No matter how hard things get, the most unbelievable joy is always around the corner. You just can’t lose faith. Faith is like an ember—you have to blow on it! You can’t let it fade!”
A day later, Helen heard herself repeating the ember thing into the phone to Nicola Rasmussen. She was so nervous and, after an hour and twenty minutes, was struggling to find something to say that seemed like the words of a serious and deep-thinking person. You’d think a line of actual poetry might’ve popped into her head, maybe a snippet of Mary Oliver—always a crowd pleaser. Or any one of the authors she’d spent the last decade reading and talking to students about. But no. She quoted Ernestine.
“What does that mean?” Nicola Rasmussen demanded. “How am I supposed to blow on it?”
They sat and talked another two hours as a patch of afternoon sunlight slid from the upper corner of the wall into a warm, square puddle at Helen’s feet. What threw Helen wasn’t that Nicola wanted to talk for so long—it was more that all she wanted to talk about was death. Helen didn’t know what she had expected going into this, their first official “work” call, but it hadn’t been that. Nicola had not yet sent Helen any of her writing to read. At the outset, Nicola asked Helen to consult with her about her poems—to perhaps become her editor if Helen thought there was a book there—but added that she wanted to have “a good talk” with Helen first to explain what it was she was trying to achieve. Helen said that sounded okay by her, so they booked this second call, which at first seemed like it, too, might be businesslike. Nicola picked up precisely where they left off, bypassing small talk, and explained to Helen that her poems were about her mother, “who I adored. Who I worshipped my whole life.”
An empty notebook page stared up at Helen from the table, so she wrote on it: NICOLA’S MOM. “I think that sounds lovely,” said Helen. She had a sudden memory of a magazine cover that featured Nicola—back in the late ’90s, one or two years after the nipple furor. Nicola had faded into the background during that period, as it was widely felt she should, but this cover—likely timed to promote a film—had been some publicist’s notion of a cheeky nod to the controversy. NICOLA RASMUSSEN: SUPERNOVA OF SEX, read the headline. She’d been wearing a gown that looked to be made of disco balls and stood with her head thrown back the way Helen’s head had been thrown back in her hookah photo, arms extended, backlit in such a way that her golden body seemed to exude light. Both nipples were prominent.
“It wasn’t lovely,” said Nicola, “because my mother died from Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, and she didn’t recognize anybody for two years before her death. Every day she would wake up and look around in horror, not recognizing anyone or anything, terrified, thinking she had been abandoned by everyone who loved her.”
“Oh my god,” said Helen.
“And I’d come to see her and I’d say: ‘Mommy, it’s me, Nicki.’ And if I had just said to her, ‘Hi Mrs. Rasmussen, I’m Doris or whatever, your designated visitor today,’ that would have been less traumatizing for her, but instead she’d stare at me and start screaming, ‘What have you done with Nicki? Where’s my daughter Nicki?’ Then she’d just start screaming my name: ‘NICKI! NICOLA!! NICKI!!’ While I’m right there sitting in front of her and there’s nothing I can do to console her, to convince her I’m there, because as far as she’s concerned, I’m one of the horrible strangers who is keeping her captive and torturing her by pretending to be her daughter. And then she just died one afternoon. I’d brought her some muffins, and she threw a fit and shoved them off the plate onto the floor, and she just died, thinking and feeling all those things. Calling my name at the same time as she was screaming at me to get away from her.”
“Oh my god,” said Helen again.
“So I’m trying to write about all that,” said Nicola. “That’s what I need help with.”
Helen’s plan for the summer otherwise mainly involved researching a paper that would, ideally, get her accepted to a conference in Barcelona next year. But all she really needed for that was an abstract, so she told Nicola she would help however she could. Then she dug out her old reading copy of her second collection, bulging with old yellow Post-its. It had been published so long ago that she found it hard to remember how she’d been as a person then, what her life had felt like. She took a look at the pages she had always chosen to read in public and read a few out loud to herself, trying to spark old synapses, remind herself of their writing, and then, hopefully, detect whatever the thematic and emotional currents were that had sparked with Nicola.
She was relieved to find that she liked the poems—they weren’t naive and callow, didn’t have any of the qualities for which she had typically berated herself when she was young. It was the work of a person obsessed with fleeting moments and impressions, who spent hours trying to resurrect them on a page. Helen found she could kind of admire that person, how tireless she had been. The way she’d decided that this weird project—attempting to capture the ineffable and then fixing those attempts onto a piece of paper like a specimen of insect—was so important it should take up all her time and mental energy.
Then again, that person didn’t have much better to do. That person didn’t yet have a perpetually aching hip or a crippling course load or aging parents. She hadn’t yet met the person she would move in with and, eight years later, file a restraining order against. Really, she didn’t know how good she had it all those years ago, dawdling over her PhD, losing days in the library, student loans a worry for down the road—a future worry for this person, this Helen, to deal with. She hadn’t even suffered much by way of loss at that point, except for the family dog being hit by a car when she was fourteen—which was, admittedly, awful. And, of course, the death of grandparents. But everybody lost their grandparents. In Helen’s intro poetry class, she was regularly besieged by dead grandparent poems.
Ernestine wrapped her hands around Helen’s ankles and gently pulled. Helen loved everything about the exercise—the feeling of space it created in her hip sockets, the feeling of Ernestine’s strong, warm hands wrapped around her lower legs. Helen had a brief fantasy of levitating above the earth. Drifting helplessly upward into god knew what. Ernestine taking hold of her ankles just in time, beaming up at her, gently guiding her feet back toward the ground.
Then Ernestine released her ankles and moved midway up the table to push down with either hand on Helen’s hips.
“Oh boy,” said Helen.
“That’s the money,” Ernestine agreed.
There was a spell of humidity that summer, and the studio was stifling even for morning classes. Ernestine arrived to class carrying what looked like a large pickle jar filled with yellowy sludge. To Helen, perspiring on her mat, it looked like humidity in a jar. Ernestine explained that the sludge was bone broth and unscrewed the jar lid and took intermittent sips as she set up her mat at the front of the room. “It’s so good for you,” she told them.
Helen noticed that Ernestine hadn’t bounded into the room the way she usually did. A woman with a thick black ponytail—someone Helen felt companionable toward because they always seemed to set up their mats alongside each other—must’ve noticed Ernestine’s subdued energy too. The ponytail woman asked if Ernestine was feeling under the weather.
“It’s a low-energy day,” said Ernestine. “We all have them! That’s your body saying: Pamper me! Baby me! ” She sipped her yellow muck. “So we’re going to have a gentle, low-key practice today.”
Someone else asked where Ernestine’s boyfriend was today. No one felt shy about asking these kinds of questions because Ernestine overshared as a matter of course. She had told them about her ex-husband’s erectile dysfunction and her daughter’s sexual precociousness and the incontinence issues she’d had to deal with after the daughter’s birth. “I’m the queen of TMI!” Ernestine would declare. But, this being a low-energy day, she merely waved her hand. “He’s at his cabin this weekend.” Helen knew that the boyfriend’s cabin three hours outside the city was not a place he just went to unwind and be in nature every once in a while—some middle-class urbanite’s cabin. The boyfriend had built the cabin himself. He lived in it full time—or had done until he met Ernestine.
“It’s all part of self-care,” Ernestine explained with respect to the missing boyfriend. “Sometimes you need a little space.” She raised the jar, toasting them like she was hoisting a pint of Guinness, then shoved it against the wall, causing the muck within to slosh. “You need ‘me time,’” she continued, scratching the side of her neck. “To focus inward.” That was when Helen noticed the large patch of flaky red skin creeping up from Ernestine’s collarbone—the scratching had caused it to glow brighter.
Writing poetry was also about focusing inward, which was maybe why Helen had done so little of it over the last couple of years. She joked about that during her calls with Nicola, which, now that classes had resumed, took place on Wednesday afternoons, when Helen didn’t have to teach. But Nicola, it turned out, had no patience for such jokes.
“Helen, I hate it when women beat up on themselves.”
“Oh, I’m just kidding,” said Helen.
“I used to be self-deprecating all the time,” said Nicola. “I thought it made me cute and relatable. I’d say, Oh I’m such an idiot. Oh I don’t know what I’m talking about. And then I started to notice that no one was arguing with me. They’d just smile and nod as if to say, Yup—assumption confirmed.”
Helen started to protest that she wasn’t being self-deprecating, exactly, she was just admitting to a certain fearfulness that had begun to make sitting down and thinking about anything that wasn’t right in front of her—exams to be marked, grades to be submitted, taxes to be filed—feel like too much of a heavy lift. It wasn’t self-deprecation, she wanted to explain, it was self-care. It was letting go, like Ernestine was always encouraging her to do, be it bad thoughts or muscle tension. Nicola thought Helen had been berating herself for not writing poetry anymore, but really Helen was just acknowledging that she didn’t want to.
Because imagine being Helen as she was back then, writing the poems that comprised her second collection—just sitting around wallowing in all that contemplation. Now let’s think about dying. Let’s think about the War on Terror and the Highway of Tears and the serial killer with the pig farm. Let’s think about cruelty and indifference and the essential impossibility of connecting meaningfully with another human being. Let’s spend the prime of our lives doing that.
Helen didn’t get around to saying any of this, however, because Nicola was now narrating a memory of some acting teacher who used to SCREAM at Nicola whenever she gave any indication of feminine self-effacement.
“She’d SCREAM at me if I cast my eyes downward, and she’d SCREAM at me if I smiled too much, and she’d SCREAM at me if I giggled nervously, and you can imagine I was doing a hell of a lot of nervous giggling around that lady.”
“What would she say?” asked Helen.
“She didn’t say anything, she screamed.”
“She’d just scream in your face?”
“Yes,” said Nicola. “She would scream in my face.”
Helen always felt relieved when Nicola wanted to talk about something other than her own poetry. But she always came back around to the poems, speaking of some as if they were already written and of others as if they were still in her head. Helen couldn’t always tell which was the case, she only knew that Nicola talked about them incessantly but still hadn’t sent Helen anything to read. The best part of the calls was when one of Nicola’s long, grim tangents would unexpectedly feature a twinkling glint of Hollywood lore. Once, Nicola had been talking about losing one of her best friends to AIDS, rushing to his bedside but not being allowed to see him and having to comfort his boyfriend outside the hospital because the boyfriend wasn’t allowed to see him either, and the boyfriend ended up killing himself shortly after Nicola’s friend had died. The call had strayed over the two-hour mark again, and Helen was lying on the floor of her kitchen watching the patch of sunlight make its slow diagonal crawl across the wall when suddenly Nicola pivoted and started griping about a man she happened to be sleeping with during that period, an Oscar-winning director, someone whose films Helen had seen. Helen sat up, electrified, and Nicola treated her to a twenty-minute exposé of the famous director’s multilayered sexual dysfunction and emotional impairment.
Helen kept hoping something like that would happen again, but the aspects of Nicola’s life that were most interesting to Helen seemed least interesting to Nicola. “I have nobody else to talk to about this stuff,” she’d say as she wrapped up an anecdote about a conflict with the nurses at her mother’s long-term care home. They had apparently taken Nicola’s mother’s call button away because she pressed it incessantly. So Nicola kept finding her mother, in this posh institution for which Nicola had paid through the nose, in various states of neglect—soiled or thirsty, her skin gouged from where she had scratched herself with nails that hadn’t been trimmed or even cleaned. One time, Nicola arrived and her mother casually handed her a turd like it was a keepsake pebble from the beach.
“You’re the only one who wants to hear about it,” she told Helen.
Helen arrrived for bodywork again, and they began, as they always did, with Helen standing, facing Ernestine, a few feet of distance between them, so that Ernestine could assess Helen’s body.
“You’re all out of whack,” she said after a moment. “It’s like someone sort of picked you up off the ground by your right shoulder and kind of dangled and shook you for a bit, and now the right half of your body is higher than your left.”
Helen lay down on her stomach, and Ernestine lightly placed her hands on Helen’s shoulders.
“Aw!” Ernestine exclaimed, as though someone had let her down.
“Oh no,” said Helen. “What did I do now?” She chuckled as Ernestine pushed more firmly on her shoulders and leaned over to whisper.
“Helen, you didn’t do anything wrong. You know that, right?”
Helen stopped chuckling because a lump had manifested in her throat.
“You’re feeling low today. You’ve got a lot on you. Sometimes we stop being in tune with our bodies. Our brain decides it doesn’t need that connection, that it can just operate independently. And the brain sort of leaves the body behind—and then everything falls apart!”
Helen started to relax, and the lump lessened.
“You’re someone who is very in her head,” said Ernestine, who was now sort of wobbling Helen’s hamstrings.
“Yeah. Not great in here,” said Helen.
“Especially today,” murmured Ernestine.
How did Ernestine know? Helen hadn’t arrived red eyed or blowing her nose, hadn’t been dragging her feet. Helen, as far as she knew, was the same as always—except for, apparently, her body being wildly out of alignment. But Helen’s younger sister, Wendy, had called the night before, not long after a marathon call with Nicola. And Helen knew she had to take the call this time. Wendy was angry Helen had not visited over the summer. And she’d been emailing all month about wanting to speak on the phone and making it clear what she wanted to discuss—that their father had started peeing in his chair and was refusing to talk about it.
At first, Helen told herself, in the name of self-care, that she should delay this conversation, because it felt big and she had her hands full with her job and this absorbing new project working on poetry with famous movie star Nicola Rasmussen. But then the calls with Nicola started hitting Helen in the same way her sister’s emails were hitting her, like a hard finger poking her in the windpipe—a thing her ex used to do when poking her in the shoulder didn’t do the job. The calls with Nicola started to feel like counterparts to Wendy’s emails, somehow, as if Nicola and Wendy, from their opposite poles of Helen’s life, were in touch, in cahoots, working together to nudge Helen toward the same pit.
On the phone, Wendy told Helen that their father would silently get up, change his pants, put some towels down in the chair when he returned, and sit back down. It was more domestic labour than he had ever performed in his life and the total extent of his acknowledgement of what was going on. “Remember,” said Wendy to Helen, “when you went off to school? And I joked how my greatest nightmare was being left behind to look after Mom and Dad when they got old and senile?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
“Well, guess fucking what?” said Wendy.
“How is Mom?” Helen had asked after a moment.
“Mom,” said Wendy, “is a whole other conversation.”
“Can I suggest an exercise for you, Helen?” said Ernestine, after Helen had dressed and was lacing up her shoes. Helen braced herself, because Ernestine’s exercises mostly required holding her body in unnatural positions for excruciating amounts of time.
But, instead, Ernestine asked, “Do you ever write?”
Helen secured her shoelace with a double knot and straightened up. “Do I write?”
“Like, journalling,” said Ernestine. “Or inspirational thoughts? Or poetry?”
“Sometimes,” said Helen.
“It can be so therapeutic,” said Ernestine. “I was feeling anxious the other day. And I said: I’m just going to write down all the things that are making me anxious! And you wouldn’t believe how open my hips felt afterwards. So I’m going to share with you what I did. Try writing, like, a dialogue. Get your favourite pen and some nice paper—I have paper that smells like strawberries. And first, you write what’s bothering you, whatever’s at the heart of your anxiety. Just get it all down on your nice paper. Then you reply to yourself as love.”
“I reply as what?”
“As love. Just love. If love was a person, what would love say? How would love respond to you?”
Helen stood a moment. “Okay,” she said.
I think I have systematically shut myself off from all the people I’ve ever cared about, and anyone I might have the potential to care about, because I would rather not feel pain. I’ve tried pain voluntarily the way you watch horror movies to try out fear but then when you feel actual fear, you’re like, Yikes, no thank you, and that is how it’s been re: pain, both psychic and physical. When I say I tried pain voluntarily, what I mean is I feel like I have courted it somehow in my writing when I was younger, and even though at the time I thought I was doing the MOST IMPORTANT AND MEANINGFUL THING IN THE WORLD, now I think that maybe I was being ignorant and careless, like a teenager who drinks and drives because she believes she is immortal. And then I think what if the thing I have devoted my adult life and a good portion of my youth to actually amounts to a kind of pathetic dabbling, what if it wasn’t daring or bravely artistic at all but yet another way of shutting myself off from people while telling myself I’m very busy doing the MOST IMPORTANT AND MEANINGFUL THING IN THE WORLD? And instead of embracing actual relationships and human feelings, I was embracing bullshit chimeras and counterfeit grief without realizing I didn’t have to bother because the real thing was just around the corner?
Helen looked at the page. She put her pen down, shook the cramp out her hand, and picked the pen up again.
But that was all that Love could think to say.
September passed, and Nicola emailed to say she was coming to town at the end of October. She had a friend who was acting in a one-man show, and she was going to get tickets and buy Helen dinner and then take her to the play.
For the first time, Helen wished she had told someone about what she’d been doing all these months—so that she could now announce that Nicola Rasmussen was taking her to dinner and a show without sounding unhinged. Nicola’s fame was of the sort that caused people to unravel—to imagine she was their antagonist, or their lover, or that she was sending them coded messages in her movies. It was literally a maddening level of fame.
Helen had a game plan for the meeting. She would insist that Nicola finally show Helen some of her poems. It had been months of Wednesday phone calls, and at the end of each call, Nicola would say: I’ll send you something by the weekend, and she never did. At one point, midway through one of Nicola’s long, awful memories of her mother, Helen blurted: “I would really encourage you to get this down on paper. I mean, if this is the stuff you really want to write about. But you know what? It’s okay if it’s not.”
Nicola seemed blindsided. “Of course it’s what I want to write. Why else would I be here?”
“It just seems like a fraught topic for you,” said Helen. “You know, writing doesn’t always have to be therapy.”
“Oh I’ve done therapy, believe me,” said Nicola.
“But that’s not what your work has to be is what I’m saying,” said Helen.
Nicola paused, which was unusual. She hardly ever paused. “This is my subject matter,” she insisted. “It’s painful. But I have to confront it.”
“But what if you let go of that?” Helen was aware on some level that these words would be taken as heresy. But they were almost into hour three of this particular call, she was starving, and she had nothing in the house. She had planned to order noodles, and now noodles, glistening with soy sauce and sesame oil, were all she could think about. “Writing can be play,” she ventured, thinking about noodles. “Really, it is play. The idea that it’s anything more . . . maybe that’s what—”
“Poetry is the most serious thing in the world to me,” Nicola said in the booming stage actor’s voice she hauled out whenever she felt that Helen needed correcting. “Deadly serious.” The words travelled from Nicola’s diaphragm into Helen’s ear and silenced her—silenced her because they’d made her angry.
If it’s so serious, she thought, why don’t you try actually writing some?
But, ever since childhood, words would desert Helen when she got angry—if she felt any kind of strong emotion, really.
It was a sunny and beautiful autumn day, but it stopped feeling that way once Ernestine arrived. She was wearing a slouchy pale pink top that read LOVE & LIGHT. She also wore her knitted cap with the teddy bear ears and kept it on as she unrolled her mat at the front of the room. But it wasn’t cold in the studio, and it wasn’t a cold day outside either.
“Hi,” said Ernestine, without making eye contact with anyone. Usually, she swept her beaming gaze around the room the moment she arrived.
She plopped down on her mat and adjusted her body into a cross-legged position. Helen was bothered by her posture. Ernestine looked off-kilter today—one of her knees sat slightly higher than the other. Then again, Helen wasn’t one to talk—she was sitting with all her weight on one butt cheek because the opposite hip was killing her. Normally, Ernestine would notice something like that and ask her about it—maybe run and get Helen a bolster from the shelf in the corner.
Everyone watched Ernestine in silence. She sighed. She’d brought her backpack to the mat with her and now unzipped and started rifling through it. “Some mornings are easier than others, guys,” she said into the backpack.
A couple of women said quietly how true that was.
Ernestine pulled out a tube of something and then yanked off her LOVE & LIGHT sweatshirt. The blotch of red that Helen had previously noticed on Ernestine’s neck had crept toward the opposite collarbone and was encroaching onto her chest.
The woman with the black ponytail gasped.
“It’s eczema,” Ernestine told them. “Kind of out of control right now. It happens when I’m under stress.”
She began to slather lotion from the tube onto her blotches. There were blotches on her arms and elbows, too, and Helen saw, as Ernestine rubbed her hands together, that her fingers looked as if they had been dipped in boiling water.
“We don’t have to do this,” Helen heard herself saying. Everyone turned to her. Helen knew she had spoken too loud for a yoga studio—she had spoken like an affronted Nicola, from her diaphragm. Ernestine looked at Helen, scratched her neck, then realized what she was doing and made herself stop.
“We could all just take it easy today,” said Helen. A few women on nearby mats began to nod. “We could just—lie back. Do corpse pose.”
“Oh Helen,” said Ernestine. “If I lie back now, I might never get up again.”
She tried to laugh—a grinding, squeaky sound, like a rusted bike chain.
Helen sat in the hotel restaurant for twenty minutes as the waiter kept returning to smile and fill up her water glass. Finally, she got a text from Nicola: Where are you? I thought you were here?
I am here, wrote Helen. Are you here?
Yes, I’m here!
I can’t see you. Where are you?
In the corner by the fake fireplace.
Helen looked around. There was no fake fireplace. She texted this to Nicola, wondering if her nerves and general apprehension had sent her into some kind of fugue state. They had confirmed it was the right hotel, in the right part of town. So it was here or nowhere. But maybe it was nowhere. Maybe, thought Helen, the last few months had been an elaborate catfish and her initial assumption, that a disgruntled student was playing a prank on her, had been correct all along. It was an apprehension that had never quite gone away during their weeks together on the phone.
Or what if Helen was, in fact, the thing she’d been worried people would assume of her if she ever mentioned Nicola? One of the maddened? That almost seemed more likely to Helen now, as she sat alone, with the waiter shooting her pitying smiles every time he passed her table. What if Helen had beheld Nicola’s face in some old movie on late-night TV last spring and something about her glossy early ’90s perfection had caused Helen to lose her grip?
In the basement, texted Nicola.
At the bottom of the stairs was the entrance to a pub called The Bulldog, and Nicola had found herself a secluded and fireplace-adjacent corner within. The gas fireplace generated real, if overly uniform, flames. Flames like soldiers—side by side, identical, obedient to the twisting of a knob. Nicola was twisting that knob as Helen sat down, making the flames swell, then shrink.
“They told me I could fiddle with the fireplace as much as I want,” she told Helen. “I’m always too hot or too cold.”
They sat and smiled at each other. Helen realized she was starving. “I’m so hungry,” she told Nicola. They ordered food.
It was difficult to sit across from Nicola and not think about the way she looked. Helen couldn’t imagine it as anything but an inconvenience. How it must have been in the way her whole life, tripping Nicola up, like having one leg longer than the other. They chatted about the city as they ate—Nicola had lived here in her twenties—and then the school where Helen taught—Nicola had attended a year of an undergraduate program in drama before realizing the best thing she could do for her acting career was to leave Canada as soon as was humanly possible. Helen leaned forward, thinking this comment might lead into a few glamorous stories of twenty-something Nicola taking Hollywood by storm, but instead Nicola started talking about a sound poet she’d met the following year in New York who didn’t wash as a rule and never wrote anything down and also refused to allow anyone to make audio or video recordings of his work. He always said he wanted to appear and then disappear without leaving a trace, which Nicola said was ironic, because you could go into a room he’d exited hours ago and still smell him there. Nicola said she had followed him around Berlin for the better part of a year, but the sound poet was elusive—“That was his whole thing! In art and life! Being elusive.” So she never really got anywhere with him. On the upside, she did end up developing a deep appreciation for the city and its arts scene at the time.
A waiter in a Union Jack waistcoat noiselessly removed their plates as Nicola plunged into a rhapsodic memory of Berlin in the late ’80s. But Helen had made a deal with herself that she would say what she planned to say as soon as they were finished eating. “At this point,” she interrupted, “I’d really love to see some of your work.”
“At this point?” repeated Nicola. “You mean right now?”
“No, no,” said Helen. “I just mean—soon.”
“Of course,” said Nicola. “I’m planning to send you something early next week.”
“Okay,” said Helen. “Then maybe we should postpone our next call until after I’ve taken a look?”
Nicola paused. She looked at her the way Ernestine had looked at her when Helen suggested they all just lie back in corpse pose for the duration of their ninety-minute yoga class.
“But why would we do that? I find our calls so fruitful.”
“Because I feel like we’re not really getting anywhere,” said Helen.
Nicola sat back in her chair but held Helen’s eye. “Well,” she said, “I’m actually glad to hear you say that.”
“Yes. And I’m wondering why you think that is.”
“Because,” said Helen. “You won’t show me anything.”
“But why is that, Helen?”
“For months you’ve been listening to me bare my soul,” said Nicola. “I’ve told you all about my heartbreak with my mother, what I went through with my family . . . I don’t think there’s anything about me you don’t know at this point.”
Helen was nodding. Was Nicola commiserating with her? “I know!” she said.
“And so,” said Nicola, “why aren’t we at a place where I can trust you yet?”
Helen sat blinking. Nicola explained that a thirty-year acting career allowed a person to develop a razor-sharp intuition for how others are feeling. She was especially good, she said, at intuiting “resistance.”
It seemed like an Ernestine thing to say. I’m feeling some resistance, she’d whisper, wobbling a knuckle into a knot of fascia. Breathe through it, Helen.
“But the more I open myself up to you,” said Nicola, “the more you seem to close yourself off.”
Helen could feel the language centres of her brain beginning to flicker, like a modem about to go offline. “I sat there,” she said at last. “On the phone with you. For months. Listening.”
“And yet I’ve somehow never felt that you were with me,” said Nicola. “Why is that, Helen?”
An early cold snap had occurred, and the treatment room was freezing. Even though Ernestine always began each session by swathing her in a heated sheet, Helen found it impossible to relax. The warmth of the sheet couldn’t penetrate the morning chill.
“Sorry, Helen,” said Ernestine. “I can’t use a space heater in here because I’ve already got one running in the studio space for my next class. If I use two at once, it blows the fuse.”
Ernestine worked on Helen in silence for a while. She was wearing her hat with the teddy bear ears again, and now Helen knew why she had barely taken it off in the last few weeks. She’d yanked it off briefly to scratch her head not long after Helen arrived, and Helen had seen a patch of bare scalp.
After several minutes of silent, chilly bodywork—during which, every time Ernestine manoeuvred one of Helen’s limbs out from underneath the sheet, she would shiver—Helen asked Ernestine how things were going.
“Well, I’ve finally had a diagnosis from Doctor Gerry,” she said. “Which I think explains why I’ve been feeling so poorly the past couple of months.”
Ernestine had said Doctor Gerry with emphasis, as if Helen would know who he, or she, was.
“Toxins,” she continued. “They’re in everything. Nickel, in particular. Oh my gosh. You wouldn’t believe how bad nickel is for you.”
“Is nickel in a lot of stuff?”
“So much stuff . . .” Ernestine murmured. She fell silent for a moment as she shifted Helen’s hips to one side, extended her top leg, and started moving it up and down like a lever. “Anyway,” she resumed. “Gerry has me on a treatment program now.”
A moment later, Ernestine stopped in the middle of levering Helen’s leg. She straightened and sighed. “Are we ever going to fix this hip of yours, Helen?”
The truth was, Helen was planning on going back to physio. She’d obtained a doctor’s prescription so that her insurance would cover it and had vowed that this time she would do the exercises they gave her every day, no matter how tedious and agonizing. Right now, however, it seemed important for Helen to reassure Ernestine in the sort of way Ernestine would respond to.
“I just think we have to have faith,” said Helen. “And keep a positive outlook. And be, you know, open.”
“You’re so right,” said Ernestine, resuming. “You’re so wise and even keeled, Helen. I always get this, like, calm vibe from you. Some days you get loaded down with stuff, sure—we all get loaded down. Oh boy, do I ever. But with you, nothing penetrates too deep.”
When Ernestine left her to get dressed, Helen threw aside the sheet, and her skin cinched tight with goosebumps. She couldn’t believe Ernestine hadn’t fixed the furnace. And now, apparently, the furnace guy was “booked up for months.” There was no way Helen could keep doing this. And there was no way she would spend another winter doing yoga in fingerless gloves and a puffer jacket.
It hadn’t occurred to Helen to ask what the play was when Nicola invited her. She only knew it was a one-man show starring an old friend of Nicola’s, some elderly theatre stalwart who Helen had never heard of. When they got to the venue, however, she saw it was going to be Beckett. The atmosphere between her and Nicola was already not good, they’d barely spoken during the short walk to the theatre, and now dread settled between Helen’s eyes like a headache. She should have, she realized, anticipated this. Every Beckett play she’d ever sat through had felt to Helen like being crouched inside someone else’s bad dream, and what had her hours on the phone with Nicola been like if not that? A filthy, ancient man sat in his chaotic study, listening to recordings of himself. Every once in a while, he’d lurch centre stage and have a banana, standing completely still with the banana sticking out of his mouth for what felt like an eternity, before he resumed lurching around and ate it. Something about the fact that he did this more than once panicked and infuriated Helen, made her want to shout: Are you kidding me with the fucking banana again? She really did have a headache now. She imagined walking out. She wondered if that might be the best and easiest way to bring this whole Nicola Rasmussen interlude to a close. Would she ever hear from Nicola again? Would assistant Dana with the impeccable email etiquette reach out the following week to confirm their Wednesday time, as she had done without fail every Monday since the spring?
Instead, she absented herself by focusing on the tape recorder as the old man played and rewound the audio. He was using an ancient reel-to-reel machine like the one Helen’s father had brought home in the ’70s. One of the first recordings Helen’s parents made was of her mother saying, “Jesus Christ, how much did that cost, Ray?” It had been high tech and extravagant—just the kind of gadget her father always liked. The very next recording they made was of Helen, their firstborn. Helen the toddler had discovered singing right around that time, and it was all she wanted to do. When she got a little older, one of her favourite things was to ask her parents to haul out the massive tape recorder and play the tapes of her singing as a toddler. She’d sit listening to her toddler self warbling away, getting the words wrong, making up gibberish to the tune of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Older-child Helen would listen to younger-child Helen, feeling wise and affectionate and superior. The funniest thing was that sometimes toddler Helen would exclaim: “I want the girl to sing it now! I want to hear the girl! ” Which meant she wanted her mother to rewind the tape so that toddler Helen could listen to herself. Sometimes, she even asked to hear “the girl” sing a song before Helen herself had sung it. Eventually, her mother had to stop everything to explain to Helen that she, Helen, was the singer on the tape. Of course, this made no sense to the toddler, the two-Helen thing, but she just paused and then launched into another song. Older-child Helen had loved that about the toddler, that she’d decided, in that pause, she didn’t care. The tape recorder was uncanny and miraculous—so what? So was everything in childhood. So what if there were two of her now—the one who sang in the machine and the one who sat outside and listened?