Her tears wet my shoulder. I hardly knew her.
Three minutes earlier, we’d been standing next to a cement pillar, talking quietly but intensely. Our bodies were close, the conversation intimate. An onlooker would have guessed we’d known each other for years.
Yet I’d only spoken to Molly a couple of times before–in the locker room, maybe once in yoga class after she moved her mat to make room for me. Nothing in our limited history paved the way for this conversation. It had started with me asking, casually, “How’s life?” while we gathered and laid out our equipment for the Core Challenge class that was about to start.
That’s all it took. As she answered, we stopped fussing with body bars, stability balls, hand weights. We stopped rustling up props. We stopped traversing the wide expanse of the third floor of the YMCA, where group exercise classes are held. We slowed our hustle, stood by the pillar, and turned our faces towards each other.
“My son’s been having a hard year,” she confessed. “Before high school, his grades were good, and he did well socially. But now he’s depressed and can’t focus, and he’s having trouble with friends. We’ve got him on the wait list for Amberwing. We’re all counting down until that can happen…”
I interrupted: “What’s Amberwing? I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know what it is.”
“It’s a mental health program for kids. Once he’s in, he’ll go there instead of to school; he’ll still do his work and everything, but he’ll also have the support and counseling he needs. After three weeks, he’ll transition back to ‘regular’ life,” Molly explained.
“Don’t you love a world where your struggling kid has options like this?” I asked. “I mean, he may not be in any state to feel appreciative about it, of course, but, man, if he’s in a tough place, and you feel like it’s bigger than you and your husband can handle, it’s terrific that this resource exists. How does your son feel about going into a special program? I can imagine it might make him feel stigmatized or something…?”
“Oh, no, he’s actually really excited about it,” Molly clarified. “He knows something needs to change, and he has hopes that this will help him. He’s just trying to get through the days until he’s off the wait list. We all are. Things at home aren’t helping…because…well, it looks like my husband and I are getting divorced.”
Although she tried to announce it casually, a flood of tears overtook her. “It’s all so…”–casting about for words, she wiped below her eyes, trying to preserve her eyeliner. The director of an important community organization, she had a meeting later. Trying again, she managed, “At home…it’s just not…” before another wash of tears filled her eyes. Crumpling, her face was full of agony as she choked out, “And he doesn’t understand…I’m the bad guy…but I’m so unhappy…and he just…”
Oh, hell. This poor woman. Although I was sweaty from working out before the Core Challenge class, I moved in and grabbed her, hard.
Swaying quietly next to our mats, our hug marooned in a sea of hand weights and stability balls, we stood together, her head on my sweaty, exposed shoulder, her mascara dotting my freckles.
I whispered to her,”Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. What a crappy time for both of you. Damn.” A fresh wave of grief poured out of her. At the same time, the third floor was filling up with other class participants; awed–or made uncomfortable–by the unexpected display of public emotion, they averted their gazes, flowing around our embrace, grabbing their equipment, tightening their hairbands, pulling up their socks, readying themselves for the warm-up.
Then the teacher walked to the front of the room, oblivious, completely unaware that the premiere episode of a new daytime drama entitled Tears by the Pillar was airing. “Time to get started!” she called out. “Let’s begin with some squats. I hope you’re all good with the eighties mix I’ve got going on the iPod today!”
Pulling back from Molly, I looked at her eyes. “You okay?”
“Yea. This is kind of how it goes these days. I have random breakdowns, and then I get back to life. I’m fine. We’d better do some squats.”
With that, I stepped onto my mat, faced the teacher, and bent my legs. In an unprecedented move, I had just turned my back on a crying woman. Behind me, Molly dabbed at her eyes as she, too, squatted to the beat of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
After four squats, I couldn’t take it. Breaking form, abandoning my mat, I stepped back to Molly and acknowledged, “Okay, this is really weird. Like, you’re telling me your life’s woes, and we’re having a moment, but then, in a split second, I’m all ‘Buh-bye! Time to squat!’ It’s just bizarre.”
Agreeing, Molly said, “It’s super weird. You’re in front of me, though, so I’ll pass time during class by hissing ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ every time you bend over.”
Sixty minutes later, her tears replaced by perspiration, Molly’s face was shining. As we carried our body bars to the rack, I picked up the thread of our earlier conversation. “So we know that your son has something to look forward to. Thanks to Amberwing, he feels like he can escape the pain of his current situation. But what about your current painful situation?”
There was no protecting her eyeliner. Tears smudged the black while Molly provided details of her marriage and divorce, admitting that she initiated the break-up; that her husband was a decent man who, romantically, did nothing for her; that his sadness blinded him to hers. She wiped her eyes and described the sensation of watching life leave her behind. More than anything, she didn’t want the years to pass with a grind of “I’m existing” but, rather, with joy and energy; at the same time, she was struggling with guilt over pursuing divorce when her marriage was “okay enough.” Beyond the sadness and guilt, she was grappling with her parents’ potential reactions. Knowing how deeply committed they were to Catholicism, she feared their judgment. As a result, she was avoiding seeing them or telling them of her decision.
Our equipment put away, knowing she had to get to a meeting, I dared quick counsel: “Only you can hunt down your own happiness, and if a divorce is necessary for you to be happy, then you’re doing the right thing. If you get stuck on everyone else’s reactions, you’ll never move your life forward into what you want it to be. I don’t think you should feel guilty. You should congratulate yourself for having courage–because that’s what it takes to blow up your life so that it can become a better thing. Don’t view yourself as weak or bad or wrong. Give yourself credit for handling your problem. I respect people who look the tough stuff in the face and deal with it. Oh, and one more thing before you zip off to change clothes: tell your parents. Once you tell them, then they can show you who they really are. So long as you avoid the conversation, you’re conjuring their reactions, which isn’t fair to them. Take their reactions out of your imagination and let them handle reality.”
With one last hug, she headed back to work. We both felt lighter. In myriad ways, that’s what The Third Floor does.
The next day, I was again on the third floor, running around the track, when I noticed a friend, Flynn, doing yoga on the wooden floor.
As I passed him, I pulled out an ear bud and called a quick “Hiya, Mister.” Sheepishly, he laughed as he greeted me and explained, “I feel silly doing yoga in front of the mirror like this, but I really need to see how my Warrior Three looks. Something about it isn’t feeling right.”
“Dude,” I affirmed, “we all need to see how our Warrior Threes look. Not to mention our Trees, Lotuses, and Crescent Warriors. A mirror is so helpful. I always think I’ve got my hips down and my shoulders tucked in, but then I glance in the mirror and it’s a big ‘Uh-oh’ moment of adjustment. A mirror is your friend, so have at it. Also, what I mean to say is, ‘Gollee, but you’re vain. I’m so sure you’re doing yoga in front of a massive wall of mirrors like some sort of insecure super model.’”
Laughing again, ever jovial, he revealed, “I actually did used to be vain about yoga. You know, I started practicing back in the ’70s, before it was the big trend. I just did it by myself, never going to a class, but I got pretty good at it. So I was the 1970s guy who’d do yoga and then go to a party. Everyone would be drinking, swallowing pills, getting high, and I’d pull out my headstand. I’d pop up into it and dazzle everyone. It was the best party trick!”
Supposing it was his excellent party tricks that first attracted his wife, I shifted the conversation into asking after her–and for an update on the apartment they’d been radically rehabbing over the past few months. Continuing to stretch on his mat, Flynn admitted that he’s glad he married the woman he did; she’s a force in all the best ways, particularly when it comes to home renovations. “She’s so gifted at overseeing all the work that I call her ‘Commander,’” he told me, grabbing his ankles and lifting them into the air. “But then we look at her mother, and we all have to concede she’s the real Commander, what with having raised that huge household of kids. Maybe my mother-in-law is the ‘Master Commander’ while my wife is merely ‘Commander.’”
Nimbly leaping, the conversation segued into the idea of families with lots of children. I told Flynn, “When Byron and I met, I wanted three kids. Byron, though, was a proponent of Zero Population Growth and insisted we should replace ourselves, nothing more. Ultimately, we shook hands, exchanged rings, and agreed that we’d take it one kid at a time.”
Flynn, a holder of public office and jailed Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War, empathized with Byron’s concern about the future of an overpopulated planet. “Fortunately, the Commander and I both knew we only wanted a couple of kids, so we didn’t have to debate the issue.”
I nodded. “Yea, as it turns out, two kids has been exactly right for us. I wasn’t completely sure after Paco was born, but then the eminently logical Byron put it to me this way: ‘At the end of each day, do you feel like we have more time, money, and energy to give? Or do you feel, with the two kids we already have, that we’re tapped out?’ Basically, when he asked me to consider those things, it became clear that I’m completely tapped out just taking care of my own self–I mean, some days just getting into a bra is a seven-minute endeavor–which means I’m beyond tapped–suffering from negative tappage–after factoring in two kids. So we sent him off to the doctor to get a surprisingly traumatic vasectomy. But that’s another story. All you really need to know is that it ends this way: our bathroom was smeared with blood, there was a four-hour emergency surgery, Byron lived, and we didn’t have any more kids.”
As I spoke, I peered over my shoulder to see if any other runners were coming around the track, and in the process I caught a glimpse of Flynn in the mirror. Although in his sixties, his neck still smacked of the 18-year-old draftee he’d once been. His hair, adorably curly, had to be one of seven hundred things the Commander loves about him. However, for me, a member of the public he serves, it wasn’t the body I saw in the mirror that held the most appeal. Rather, it was his laugh, a velvety chuckle rolling across the open space of the third floor, that made our conversation feel like a heart-opening yoga pose.
“All right, my friend. I should let you do your thing,” I said, regretfully, tucking the bud back into my ear.
“Yea, I only have a few minutes for this today, and if I don’t do it, my back goes out. These days, I stand at a lot of my meetings, in fact. My back gives me such problems, but most days, I can’t find time to do the stretching and yoga that keep it functional.”
Wanting to continue my streak of unsolicited counseling, because I’m nothing if not willing to intrude where I haven’t been invited, I raised my eyebrows and noted, “Now, I know I’ve given you this mini-lecture before, but let me reinforce it one more time before I twirl off into the dim recesses of the third floor and your mind: if you step back and consider your life’s priorities, I’m sure the usual topics surface–family, work, health. But if you really stack those three things in order of importance, I’ll wager work isn’t ranked higher than health, is it? I’ll bet, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, health and family come before work. So live your every day accordingly. Schedule an hour each day that is devoted to yoga and doing the things that preserve your back’s health, and set that hour in stone. It is non-negotiable. Then, when someone from work says, ‘Let’s have a meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday,’ your answer will be, ‘I’m sorry. I already have a commitment at that time. I can meet at 2 or 3 p.m., though.’ Here’s the thing, Flynn: the second you start scheduling work first and then try to fit exercise around the work hours, the exercise doesn’t happen. Schedule exercise first, if only because a healthy Flynn is a gift to his family, which is your other top priority. If your back goes out, and you’re immobile for days, then you’ve just put a burden on the Commander and those who love you. You don’t want that, right? So take the steps that keep you healthy, and that will then help your family, and it will also make you more effective at work. A hunchy, limping Flynn isn’t doing anyone any favors.”
True to form, Flynn chortled throughout my entire lecture, smiling and nodding. “You should become a motivational speaker, Jocelyn,” he noted.
“I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is that I’d need to end every talk in anti-motivational fashion. I’d grab my audience by their shoulders, shake them soundly, and then slap them across their faces, à la Cher in Moonstruck, while yelling, ‘SNAP OUT OF IT!’”
With that, I gave Flynn a wave and started trotting around the track, calling out, “I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”
And then there’s the Japanese woman, Aiko, who is a special Third Floor pal. Our friendship grew out of commonality: we two are always racing in at the last minute, frantically pulling off our snow boots, twelve layers of fleece, and a dusting of down to reveal sassy tank tops. A few days after I chatted with Flynn, I was hanging out with Aiko after a class where we’d been in the same group while doing circuits. Together, we’d jumped sideways over hurdles, carried thirty-pounds in each hand while race-walking around the track, panted shoulder-to-shoulder during cross-body mountain climbers on upside down Bosu balls. Even though our verbal exchanges had always been quick, how could we not be intimate after sweating, side-by-side, unable to speak for lack of breath?
That day, as Aiko jammed her feet into her boots after class, I lingered to tell her I’d seen her the previous week at the store, but she’d seemed busy, so I hadn’t said hi. Scanning her memory, she recalled that outing, explaining, “I have new job as home healthcare aid. My client like me go Co-op with her. We choose teas and oils. It fun!”
“That does sound fun,” I agreed, suddenly entertaining thoughts of work as a home healthcare aid. “I thought you worked as a translator, though?”
“I do that, too,” she replied. “Actually, I have get home now for translating. Last night, very late, I received court document that need translating. They need it today.” Then pulling her hat snugly over her ears, she added, “With court document, I have look up every word. It take long time!”
As Aiko and I were talking, a third woman, Kiera, chimed in from the sidelines. Kiera has gorgeous porcelain skin and a fluff of yellow hair; her affect is gauzy and drifty, and whenever she floats around the third floor, from weight bench to water fountain, she reminds me of a handful of dandelion fluff wafting through the air on a lazy summer afternoon.
Two days before, Kiera and I had started talking after class while she was stretching. When I raved that she smelled amazing–one of my finest pick-up lines, startling in its simplicity–and told her she was essentially a human Aveda salon, she went to her bag and pulled out a tin of salve. Apparently, during her late teens, her period stopped, and she went two years without menstruating. Instead of embracing the interventions of traditional medicine, she researched holistic options and discovered a company that sells natural, homeopathic treatments. Since then, she has applied this amazing-smelling salve all over her body every day, even in her hair. Her period returned, her skin looks fabulous, and I have to restrain myself from nuzzling her arm pits whenever she’s next to me during class. Not only does she lead with a tang of peppermint when she arrives late and races to clip her stretchy band on to the Core Pole, she ripens sweetly once the sweat begins. As an added bonus, she is now a distributor of these products, so “…if you ever want, for $50, I can get you a tin of your own salve.”
Thanking Kiera for the generous offer, I grabbed my gym bag and head for the stairs while thinking,”I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”
She’s actually quite lovely. But The Third Floor is my special place. I don’t take my wallet there. I am not a consumer there. Rather, I’m a mover, seeking the detoxifying cleanse offered by an honest sweat. I chat; I smile; I rock out; I become stronger. The Third Floor is my version of The Third Space.
The concept of The Third Space was presented in the late 1980s by author Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. This book notes that most people have two social environments: home and work–but Oldenburg also looks at the “other” spaces that provide us with a sense of place, that contribute to our feelings of community and engagement. In previous centuries, many civilizations had informal meeting places, say, the town square or the public baths, but nowadays, people have become more deliberate in seeking out Third Spaces. For some, The Third Space is the local coffee shop, maybe the library, perhaps a bar. The Third Space could be a center where volunteer work is done. No matter how it manifests in one’s life, The Third Space is an anchor of social life, community building, and creative interactions.
For me, The Third Space is The Third Floor, an open expanse where rich interplay happens twenty feet from a punching bag. Nowhere else in my life do I carry out conversations in close proximity to medicine balls. There are mats, then talk. There are weights, some disclosures. There are stability balls, rolling about unattended while tears are shed. There are two-minute exchanges that keep my brain working for hours.
It’s a unique spot in my life, The Third Floor.
There, we exchange deep intimacies and then ignore each other. We are there for each other yet expect nothing of each other. The interactions are authentic and simple–clean in a way that much of life isn’t.
So I spend seven minutes getting myself into a bra. I tighten the laces on my Mizunos. I park in the ramp next to the Y. I trudge up the stairs, dropping my bag with a thump at the top. Then I look around and see the familiar faces, feel the buzz of anticipation, tap my foot to the beat pulsing through the speakers. I catch eyes with someone. I ask, “How’s it going?”
And we’re off.
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