PE changed the day a woman named Doctor interrupted our game of badminton. She said, Today, we’re going to learn how to inhabit the body. She looked at me, then over my shoulder. I need all the girls to follow me. We lined up in alphabetical order by our first names while the boys took turns lobbing shuttlecocks at our backs. For the most part, these birdies torpedoed off our shirts and onto the floor, but some we would catch, some we would steal away to crush their feathers within our pockets. I fingered the two I’d stuffed in my jeans until Doctor noticed and took them away. It looks like you’re touching yourself, she said.
She led us to an empty classroom. Someone had shoved all the desks against the right wall and left in their place large blue mats, the kind that stick to your skin when you sweat or the kind that make you sweat when they stick to your skin. We sat crisscross keeping as much space between our knees as we could without anyone falling to the floor. Doctor surveilled us one at a time, running her hands along our head to discern the shape of our skull—its divots, bumps, and bald spots. She told us to stand and measured ratios of hips to waists to thighs to knees, then stepped on our feet to determine our resilience. Grace yelped and squirmed the loudest. I did my best to stay silent when Doctor approached, but my shoes were thin and she was tall and muscular. I felt the full brunt of her body and I let out a squeal.
Doctor told us we would spend the next ten minutes concentrating on the sting of our feet, locating with precision the exact place it hurt. Close your eyes and follow the shooting pain back to the tops of your feet, she said in the voice of a hypnotist. I no longer felt anything, so I searched out the memory. Wisps of pain swirled up my calves and my right leg spasmed. When time ran out, Doctor had us go around the room and share where we ended up. Every girl said ankles or feet or toes. When it was my turn, I hesitated before pointing to my right knee. The room giggled. And why do you feel pain there? Doctor asked after the room had settled and I whispered a story of how the first time I rode a bike, I fell and shattered my kneecap against the blacktop, how my brother was forced to stop playing tetherball and carry me home, how he complained the whole way and I was forced to reassure him through my tears. That pain has yet to leave you, Doctor said and turned away before I could nod in agreement.
Class continued and we stretched and breathed, circled our arms around each other’s waists and held on. My body tingled every time Doctor spoke. Before the close of the hour, Doctor interrupted our unilateral hamstring stretch. For our last activity of the day, I want you all to place your hands on either side of your head, she said and we complied. Now, twist your head first to the right, then to the left. Continue this motion until you feel your neck muscles loosen. My muscles gave almost immediately and euphoria buzzed through me. Calm had turned me to liquid, fluid and strong. Stay here in this space, she said, keep your grip and reach up to the ceiling. The room filled with the sound of vacuum burps as we pulled our heads from our bodies in a haunting procession.
Air stung the gape of my neck. I clutched my hair tightly in fear of dropping my head to that sweaty mat. My chest heaved, mimicking breath while Doctor pleaded with us to retain our senses. As we murmured our dread and pinched our cheeks, she walked around the room and collected our heads, pulling hair from our careful fingers. She then lined all our heads in a row beneath the blackboard. Here, I could see only knees and feet and the blue of the mats. Dust the custodians had neglected to sweep. I wished for long hair to keep from witnessing the moment our bodies rose and stumbled forward.
The lesson is complete when you find and reattach your head. Then and only then, you can leave. The moment grew chaotic as bodies scrambled to reach the front first. The ordered line we had formed earlier gave way to desperation, pushing and scratching. Legs passed in front of my eyes and I squinted in search of my jeans. To my right, Lindsay’s head disappeared from my peripheral. Maggie’s flower-print leggings tripped as they stepped from the mat and her arms pinwheeled to keep her chest from crushing the head on the far end. In their rush to leave, some girls took each other’s heads. Jesica-Grace skipped out first, followed by Hanna-Arielle. The muscles of my throat swept up chalk dust as it clenched, once, twice, three times. A panic settled behind my eyes like a migraine. Pulsing. I felt certain my eyes would soon pop from their sockets and my assemblage would take on new dimensions. My body came last. You’ll get better, Doctor said from where she stood by the door. Set yourself right.
I approached myself on my knees.