The Things You Notice When You Start to Exercise

Push-ups on your bedroom floor. Twenty, then twenty-five, forty. Feel your muscles grow sore. New lines in your triceps and shoulders. Notice your verve. Notice the the itch of the carpet on your fingertips. Notice the dirt in the carpet, and the dried roach, and the serpent. The serpent. Hissing at you from under the bed. Coiled and slick and fat as a tire. His black diamond head as big as yours. His eyes open, red spotlights on your skin. He bares his fangs, licks his evil teeth. Notice his tongue, thin and purple like a vein, like a knot, like a noose. Notice the bed, raised three feet on his hump. Notice the shape of the hump, consider what it reminds you of. Your brother. Missing since Monday. Hear the serpent and convince yourself he did not hiss, “You’re next.” Head down. Pay attention to your form. Notice the color of the carpet. Stare at the carpet and only the carpet. Convince yourself you saw nothing. Convince yourself the carpet is beige and everything is okay. Ten more push-ups, notice the stretch in your biceps and back. Ten more, and then ten, and your head is clear. Stand up, cross today off your calendar, and notice the pump in your chest, the satisfaction of hard work, how good it feels to close your eyes and plug your fingers in your ears and walk out of your bedroom shouting, over and over, “There is no snake.”

Three at a Time, Four at a Time

My boyfriend takes the stairs three at a time because he is an athlete and he is a man. The lunch bell rings and he takes off and the tubes of his long silky basketball shorts rub. He fires past the other boys, pushes the twins to the ground, bounds skyward in triplicate. Hup, hup, hup, hup, on the 200 level in four strides. He pants and I swoon and my girlfriends look at me, so jealous and wanting.

Well my boyfriend takes them four at a time. He attended a soccer clinic over the summer taught by a former professional and he came back twice as lithe and limber. Your boyfriend huffs and sweats and my boyfriend laughs. The second bell fires and there he goes, a lightning streak on the concrete patio, roaring up those metal stairs by four — one, two, three and he’s done. Looking down on the other boys, the drop of sweat on his forehead. He wipes it with the bottom of his t-shirt and we see the new hairs under his belly button. Coo all you like, girls. He knows he’s mine.

Well, I didn’t have to say it before, but if he’s really pushed and has proper motivation my boyfriend can do five stairs at a time.

Wait, what?

Just do it, okay? You can do it. It’s just two more than three. Jump faster or whatever.

I don’t think I can. I don’t want to.

Are you serious?

Why are we doing this?

We’re done if you don’t do five at a time. Done. Breaking up. I’ll go out with Douglas next. Or James. I don’t care. Anyone but you if you humiliate me in front of my girlfriends.

Come on.

Do it.


My boyfriend takes the stairs five at a time because he is the most athletic boy in the grade. He stretches his lean legs in his silky shorts, deep breaths, crosses himself, kisses his hand, holds it to god. Vice Principal Graves yells that we’re all late for fifth period and we make him think he does not exist. My boyfriend’s eyes lock on the stairs and he ignites, a bullet to his target, he springs skyward and past two, three four — five! and clang! Right knee hammers the stair, instant bumblebee bruise. But the left shoe cleared stair five. He did five! I told you all, my boyfriend does five.

So my boyfriend will do six. Who cares about five? Five is peanuts, it’s limp, it’s nothing.

What are you talking about? I can’t do six.

Do six.

I can’t.

Just do six. I insist.

Please, do not make me do six. Let me do anything else. Paint my nails. Braid my hair.

It’s an ultimatum. Six.


No girlfriend.

My boyfriend rubs his face like he’s kneading dough. Stares into the trees, face red and flat. Eyes dead. An adult’s eyes. I’m making a man of him. My dad says a man makes tough decisions. He does hard things and hopes he gets it right. My boyfriend whips around and charges for the stairs. Kids clear the way and watch and he launches his long legs up into the air and my heart swells and our class holds our collective breath and crack! His left shin shatters. Hammer to a fluorescent light tube. His leg a horrible slime purple mess of knotted skin and ungraphable angles. He’s on his back, head at the bottom. But his right shoe rests on step number six. My man did it.

And so seven shall be done. Boyfriend?

What? No.

Seven shall be done.

Kids have come out from their classrooms. All eighteen-hundred students crowd the staircase. Seven, they chant. Seven. Seven.

I am going to die, my boyfriend says, and I know I love him. He has accepted the hard truth of life. He is a man. My boyfriend’s friends hug him and kiss his cheek and share stories of the times they laughed. Vice Principal Graves reads my boyfriend his last rites from a yellowed page from his wallet. The chanting stops and it’s just the wind whispering. My boyfriend shuts his eyes and runs so hard, so mad at that staircase, but as he takes off into the sky his face brightens and he knows joy for a moment, the joy of a challenge, of achievement, and his last outfit’s a smile as he slams his forehead into that top stair and dies in a pop-geyser of hot blood.

The janitor folds him into the trash and fifth period begins.

My boyfriend gave me more than your boyfriend or your boyfriend or your boyfriend ever will. He gave himself for me, and for the rest of my life I’ll never again know true love like we had.

But all of you will never know it at all.

Beat Them to the Flame

Climb on the counter, ignite the gas burner. The class quiets down, confused, alarmed. It’s their first day of eighth grade. It’s my thirty-eighth first day of eighth grade. I’m not as naive as I look.

Roll to my side, pull my left leg to my stomach like a can opener. The girls go stone-silent; the boys in the back snicker. Carmine — arched eyebrows; trouble — mutters, “This old bag’s lost the plot,” and his crew chuckles in deference to their leader.

But this is my home economics classroom and they’re about to find out why I’ve ruled unchallenged over this domain since before their parents were born. I gasp so hard I scare the girls; suck in mouthful after mouthful of air, swallowing until my apron knot strains against my inflated back. “Look at all these flames,” Carmine whispers, bouncing his shoulders and slicking back his long, black hair. “Might have to rip a big one into ’em and scare Grandma.” His boys bite their fists with wide-eyed shock, holding in their laughter at what, to them, seems an original idea.

I lean back, pull my right leg to my stomach, my LL Bean blue jeans well broken in for this stunt, assume the angle Dr. Stein taught me for delivering my seven children. I close my eyes, whisper three Hail Marys. Carmine murmurs, “Grandma’s snoozin’ up there,” and his boys howl, all of them with loam for brains, unware of their surroundings, of their place in the world, of what power and dominance look like. Oblivious to the lesson they will learn today and hold with them forever: that a woman of my stature must not be prejudged.

My stomach’s ready to burst and I hear Carmine crawl on top of the cooktop opposite mine. Girls whisper for him to get down, to stop it. His boys urge him on. “This dusty old crone has no idea what hell she’s in for with Big C in her class,” Carmine says, struggling to operate the stove. Hands on the knobs, he paws at something firm, something real, believing he’s gripping the throne. My eyes are shut but I see he approaches the guillotine.

Squeeze my eyes, bite my lip. Rip. I moan an exorcism’s growl as I push this demon from my bowels. A dirigible’s worth of hot methane squeals around every corner of my insides, exploding out through the worn-white seat of my blue jeans and making miraculous contact with the blue gas flame of the cooktop stove and firing laser-straight across the kitchen — girls leaping to the left, boys to the right — until the tip of the furthest orange flare kisses Carmine’s rotten, smug face, Satan’s fiery tongue licking the frightened boy’s eyebrows clean off, sparking his gel-slicked hair into a wicked blaze. He moans, groans, emits embarrassing noises of terror that will haunt him through high school as he races to the sink to extinguish his hair-do.

He emerges from the sink missing half his hair; odd patches gone, like a mean child’s doll. His boys point at his face and scream laughter. Carmine’s lip quivers and he says nothing.

“Welcome to home ec,” I say to the rapt class. “Sit down, zip your lips, and listen closely to learn the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon.”

All of them pull out their notebooks — Carmine, head still smoking, works the fastest — and write down every word. They understand now how this works. They know that in this classroom, I am the father, the son, and the holy spirit. I am ten steps ahead. Lord, king, and sovereign. Out there in their other classes, they can pull off juvenile stunts all day long. But in here, Mrs. Bunch is in charge.