Wellness by Kim Bowman

I was taut as a bow string, every muscle tensed. My pulse quivered, my heartbeat rushing up to fill my ears. I was muscle and blood and elevated heart rate. I was the sheen of sweat gathering across my body. I was a predator, top of the food chain, and everyone around me was fearful prey. They shrank from me, intimidated by my strength, my boundless energy, my flexibility.

My toes did flex, battling off a spasming cramp. I fought the urge to scream at the stabbing sensation prickling up my leg. I needed to sprint. I needed to chase, release, fire that arrow of pent-up energy.

‘Exhale, that’s it, drop your hand, let go of your foot. Find our fold. Don’t be afraid to bend the knees if your muscles are feeling it today, ladies. Listen to that breath, connect with it, two, three, four…’

The soothing voice of the instructor broke the spell. I slammed back into reality. No one was looking at me. Still, I held the advanced dancer pose for a full two breaths longer than everyone else in the yoga studio.

I stretched and sighed out with twenty other people. Our breaths rippled through the air with the music that accompanied each class, a mix of serene nature sounds and calming singing bowls. Each mellow ring and droning note made me want to dig my nails deep into my ear canals.  Our sweat mingled with the humidifier which puffed out intermittent clouds of sage and eucalyptus-scented vapour.

Smart watches all around me buzzed and glowed. Everyone flitted about, energised, enthusiastic and chattering away. I thumped my head against overpriced microfibre.

By the end of class, the studio was shimmering. I flopped onto my peach-coloured yoga mat, panting and sweaty and defeated, like everyone else. Camille, the yoga instructor, slid from her one-legged handstand into a perfect split.  Her walnut-coloured hair rippled behind her, an elegant banner unfurling, not a strand out of place. I sulked through the final relaxation phase.

Smart watches all around me buzzed and glowed. Everyone flitted about, energised, enthusiastic and chattering away. I thumped my head against overpriced microfibre.

‘Aw, muffin, you look sad!’

From this angle, peering over me as I lay on the mat, my friend Angie looked terrible. All I could see was the protruding barrel of her chubby stomach, the bulges at her hips, the width of expansive thighs. I reflexively tensed my own abs, reminding myself that I would never let that be my future.

‘Hard class today,’ I grimaced and let her think she was helping me off the mat. Her engagement ring dug into my hand. I should have flipped onto my feet. I should have bounced up with a massive grin, whooping about how amazing I felt and how I loved the rush of endorphins partying around my body. I should have, but I don’t like to show off and make her feel bad.

‘Did I tell you I’ve decided on my colour scheme?’ Angie herded me over to the coat pegs.

She would make a great bouncer if she were taller, or an even better collie sheepdog if she could stand living out in the country. I couldn’t see it though. Angie was entirely reliant on city comforts like Starbucks and multiple choices of hairdressers and retail shopping parks and Thai food delivered to her house minutes after tapping the order on her smartphone. She’d never self-sustain without next-day delivery.

Angie’s voice faded into white noise and she blurred into the background, packing up my stuff as well as hers. She was helpful like that. I should have asked her if she wanted to clean my place or sort my recycling, but I was staring at Camille. I went through phases of admiring her, eating only chia seeds and berries, powering through Pilates sessions, chugging cucumber water, practising gratitude. But other phases involved swearing off yoga forever so I could stop pouring my money into class after class. I still couldn’t do the splits.

Mostly I wanted to peel her skin off and wear her like a coat.

She was so lithe and limber. Her body was perfect, obviously, and I told myself it had to be to sell spaces in her class. You want to buy what’s on the poster. Her splotchy cream leggings and matching leopard crop top clung to her desperately, showing off the sculpted body that she tricked us into thinking we could have too.

A member of the class was speaking to Camille who nodded, ponytail waving. It always captured my attention, her stupid glossy walnut hair. I’ll give her this, she acted concerned and invested in all the right places. I’d never be able to copycat those round chocolate-drop eyes. Everything about Camille was warm, from her burnt honey skin to the wide smile and big brown eyes. Even her voice. Especially her voice, those measured tones, the husky burrs of certain words, so reassuring. From the first class she’d had me hooked, like falling asleep to a cosy narration or sipping a whisky.

‘I need a drink. Want to split a bottle of wine?’ I interrupted whatever nonsense Angie was babbling. She froze. I could have punched myself for the slip-up. This was the yoga crowd: all decaf, no joy. ‘Kidding! How about some matcha?’ I linked my arm with hers.

‘Sure. Matcha has benefits – better for you than caffeine.’

Angie was about to give me the entire history of tea leaves ground into a pulp. I schooled my face into something pleasantly warm and attentive. As we signalled our last goodbyes and headed for the exit, I scanned the studio.

Camille was still with that class member. The other woman was dressed in top-tier yoga gear, the stretchy soft leggings and dark green top stamped and emblazoned with an expensive logo. Camille’s strong hands gripped onto the outstretched arm, thumb stroking and kneading, all the way to the junction of her neck and shoulder.  I flayed the woman with my gaze and made sure to let the door slam hard on the way out. I decided that I would fake an injury next week.

The next few days passed at an intolerable pace. There was an issue with the Wellness Space and Studio booking system, a system glitch. I refreshed the pages, signed in and out of my account, wiped the clouds of dust from my clunky laptop and finally logged on. Join waiting list? Camille was popular and her classes filled up quickly. The grit from the bottom of my coffee rolled around my teeth and stained the ceramic mug like iron-saturated blood.

But her classes were full. I scoured social media, the official page for the gym, and noticed a promotion. Camille was overrun with new students taking advantage of the trial discounts. I painted my nails and picked at the raggedy edges, nasty cuticles all raw and bloody. Once the polish dried, I sawed them down to blunt stubs.

I had followed Camille’s personal accounts but our friendship was still stuck on ‘pending’. I created new email addresses and bashed the ‘follow’ button again and again. Surely one of the alias girls I invented would strike her fancy? It was a matter of probability.

There were plenty of spaces in the body combat class. The instructor looked vaguely familiar. All the teachers looked alike on the website, with their sleek hair and sleeker, sculpted bodies. James and Ryan and Beth grinned at me, begging me to join their workout session to become the best version of myself. But only Camille’s pearly smile looked real.

I signed up for body combat and circuits with James. He seemed the most desperate. I had never done combat before. Would I need gloves? Those shields that boxers slip between their teeth? Arnica for bruising? How hard would I get to hit somebody?

After my forced absence, The Wellness Space & Studio seemed even more shiny and welcoming. The bushes in the car park were greener. Someone was washing the windows. I had my own playlist on, but the birds were probably singing out with joy. The sun glared down, reflecting against the clean, streak-free glass.  I enjoyed the fresh air, sipping iced coffee and leaning against someone else’s fancy navy-blue car. I shook the plastic tumbler, what was left of the ice cubes rattling like teeth.

Camille was demonstrating the plank. Her back was perfectly flat. You could have used her as a bench. Everyone else was arched too high, not sucking in their core hard enough, not fighting the trembling of their arms and collapsing to the floor. I would have stayed locked in place for a full two breaths after everybody else.

My phone vibrated against my left leg, lighting up the snug pocket it lived in during workouts. The alarm chirped and buzzed, set in time for the end of Camille’s class. I abandoned the melting iced coffee and left the plastic cup on the roof for whatever bitch owned this gigantic, toxic fume-spewing car. Think of your carbon footprint, you know, save the planet.

It was difficult not to tread my usual route. I forced my feet to keep going, chunky Nikes squeaking against sandy wooden floor.

‘Hey there! Ready to get a sweat on this afternoon?’

I turned slowly, savouring the warm whisky voice I’d missed. She sounded sweeter than ever, a dollop of honey added just for me.

‘I thought I’d try something new. Body combat.’

‘Good for you! Who are you with?’ She wandered closer to me. She was wearing giraffe print, a patchy mix of beige and brown and orange that should have looked hideous. Her glorious hair was wrapped and knotted into a long braid. I wanted to run my fingers down its links. I wanted to entwine it into my own inky black strands. I wanted to slice it off and pin it on my wall.

‘James.’ I smiled at her. My lips felt like rubber. Did I normally stand like this? Should I lean against the wall?

‘Jamie, oh, he’s great. You’ll have to let me know if you enjoy it! I better get my class started. I’ll see you at the next one, Angie,’ she waved and loped off, giant giraffe strides as I stood rooted to the spot.

Angie. She had thought I was Angie. It was worse than despising me, crueller than banning me from her classes. It was worse than being no one. Worse than being invisible.  I went too far down the corridor and missed the start of combat class. Turns out you don’t even get to punch anyone.

Afterwards, I marched to the front desk. CULTIVATE WELLNESS, ACTIVATE HYDRATE, RENOVATE BEAUTY, screamed the banner over the receptionist’s head. What a load of crap, thought up by someone who thought, Wow, sometimes words kind of rhyme! Enlarging them really makes them pop! James really should have let me punch something in his class.

‘Can I help you?’

Wasn’t this place supposed to have helped me already? I wanted to yell but my throat was threatening to bubble into a sob. ‘No,’ I snapped, then my phone chimed a few times against my leg and I hurried away.

Camille McKay has accepted your friend request, Camille McKay has accepted your friend request, Camille McKay follows you…

I grinned as the notifications kept rolling in.

Kim lives in Scotland and can be found doing anything other than writing when there’s a deadline looming, or drinking copious amounts of coffee.