On Balance

Published on March 28th, 2019 | by Carla Rachel Sameth



She has begun to spin. Thirty minutes on the bike, thirty minutes on the weight circuit, trying to follow along. Keep her body moving, round and round.

The gym sits in the little town of Sierra Madre where her older sister lives with her family.

She is the middle sister who lives nearby. Like the Rose Parade floats, she makes the trip from Pasadena traveling on Sierra Madre Boulevard, but the floats only go once a year on their voyage to their holding spot near Sierra Madre, on Orange Grove Avenue.

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

She will be sixty years old soon.

She was not a stay-at-home mom; she assumes that the others at the gym are, that they are soccer moms. They work out every day. They are young-er. With younger kids. Her son is 23 now. She was a working single mom and time to work out was at a premium.

She doesn’t feel sorry for herself.

They lift twelve-pound weights—she tries five.

Around her, women chat about children, about school, about subjects she no longer has access to. And her son only played soccer for a second. Their hair tied back, neat ponytails. Her hair grown out on the side where it was shaved, the other side falls in her face. Her tattoos. Her taped neck for pain.

When she goes to the little upper-income town to work out, she feels old and creaky. The other women, ponytailed with perky outfits, fast fluttering legs, quick minds (they don’t need to hear the exercise explained over and over again, before and after each circuit).

Churches and canyons surround this little town of Sierra Madre; once artists populated the canyons. Once no one locked their doors.  Now, after break-ins began to occur, even in this little town, people lock their doors, many get alarms.

Her older sister’s home, full of comfort. She wonders if her son had grown up in this, would he have been different? Would they be different? Would she want them – her and her son – to be any different? Only today, because for three days in a row he sounds irritated with her. One day he says he was “hangry.” The other two are unaccounted for.

She was irritable, even angry, with her own mom until her forties. Her mom died a year ago and lived for awhile in the little town of Sierra Madre, where they moved her to be closest to her older sister. There was an assisted living facility called The Kensington, with a memory care unit, but they often forgot a lot of things that she’d wished they’d remember about her mom.  There were a lot of Christmas and Easter decorations, many church-going folk that lived in the assisted living. In the little town. Not so many Jews.

Sometimes her older sister brought their mom to her house for Shabbat dinner, for Passover. Perhaps their mom recognized the blessings; they don’t really know, their mom was almost out of words. But maybe the tunes were familiar.

There was a piano player at the assisted living in the little town of Sierra Madre who their mom found repulsive. She also looked at Trump on television and said, with a few more words than usual, “That man is so repulsive.” She once threw popcorn on the piano player’s head. When the piano player noticed her or her older sister and their mom walking by, he would begin to play Hava Nagila faster and faster instead of the normal wartime melodies, American standards or Christmas songs. She imagined being forced into a hora, spinning round and round, until he would stop abruptly and they would fall to the ground. Broken Jews.

Photo by Hugo Kemmel on Unsplash

She wishes her mom were still alive so she could apologize for all the irritated, impatient years, but maybe showing up and changing her mom’s diapers makes a bit of a new accounting. Though she was irritable and sometimes angry with her older sister. Why? Because she felt guilty, afraid she wasn’t doing enough for their mom. And her sister was doing so much and was so tired.

There is only one man that goes to the spin circuit class; he seems to go with the younger moms; their kids must go to school together. In the little town of Sierra Madre. Richard always uses the heaviest weights and seems to believe he has a fine body.  “It smells like old women’s sweat,” he announces as he saunters in, the usual five or ten minutes late. His baseball cap turned to the back. She holds her breath and remembers that she forgot to put on deodorant, though passing menopause seemed to mean less body odor.

The class before Spin Circuit is “Easy Does It,” and the older women walk slowly out, chatting. She imagines that she might soon be ready for that class. Richard may think that she already is, but then again, he probably doesn’t think of her at all.

She is so old, she is running out of adjectives. Which is a good thing perhaps. But she wonders how she might describe it all in imagery. Spinning queen bees while she is a lowly old fly. Not capable of making honey or stinging intruders. Their legs move quickly, a powerful cyclone. She tries to keep up. Her brain sometimes takes her on a journey as if she has flown overhead, left the little room at the little gym with all the bikes.

Once she thought it strange to take a class that involves pedaling and going nowhere. Then she realized she had the same dream for years, during the bad, bad times, of blended and unblended families, bankruptcy and broken noses. The dream that she pedaled incessantly hardly moving on a little scooter-type half bike, half tricycle, where she traveled laboriously walking, scooting and pedaling, trying to move, getting nowhere. Legs pedaling and pedaling, exhausted and it took so long, what should have been a car trip. Trying to go somewhere, stuck.

They say that people who signed up for that trip to the moon, down payment more than $100,000, want their money back now.

She wants her money back—she spent more than $200,000 on her second marriage, her blended family’s home. And time, she spent billowing amounts of time. The blending that brought the stepdaughter into her life. And then went nowhere. But down.

Photo by Scott Higdon on Unsplash

Mostly she wants her heart back. And her son’s. They invested. Lost daughter, no longer wants contact. But she has to accept, kids are not an investment. The daughter from the second marriage, the blended family, was sunken costs. Her daughter of the heart.

Her son came with the first marriage. He stayed with her; the umbilical cord once wrapped around his neck, but a miracle brought him out alive. They are still fiercely connected. In spite. Of it all.

She goes to the gym twice a week. The soccer moms go five days a week, maybe six. Yes, Saturdays too. Sunday is their family day. For church.

She binge-watches series on Netflix, Hulu, HBO. Sits back leaned against her wife, her third marriage, pillows and the cat with the paw covering its face; they eat ice cream, rocky road, salted caramel, and sometimes even candy. There have been so many episodes: Nurse Jackie, Ozarks, Shameless, Homecoming (and those are only the latest, before with her son, it was Breaking Bad, The Wire, Weeds, and more.) Perhaps the biggest crime, which is his therapy, was Family Guy.

She remembers running. It’s been almost forty years since she regularly ran, but her wife says they used to run together four years ago. Perhaps if she’d continued to run and taken less Ativan, she’d remember more.

In the little gym, with the soccer moms, the instructor who tolerates her explains leg movements, where the butt is placed, how the arms work over and over again. And the abs. Wishful thinking.

One day she learns that the woman who shares her Middle Eastern looks, her strong nose, is 63. More than three years older than she is, and lifts much heavier weights. She begins to wonder what else she doesn’t know about the women in the spin class. Maybe they too, have lost something, a dog, a house, a spouse, a child even.

After awhile, a few months of twice a week, doing spin circuit, most of the time, she knows something. Working out, doing these strange spin classes is awful, but afterwards the feeling is exquisite.

After class, she believes in herself again. For a few minutes, she believes that she can, she can, she thinks she can.

And here is where the story should end. Muscles strengthened, endorphins activated, hope renewed.

It does not. It goes on and on, the feeling of what might have happened had she lived in the little town with the little gym, the soccer moms that work out there. Owning it; this is their place. Don’t get her wrong. She doesn’t long to live there. She just wonders that corrosive thought, “what if?” or “if only.”

And so she goes back to her older sister’s big beautiful house in the little town where the old weary dog, Phoebe, is somnolent in the same spot she left him. She is dog sitting for her older sister, this well tended home that she often has rested in, and the dog is so frail, almost ready to go away to that floaty dog heaven. She is like her grandma who once said, “I can’t see, I can’t hear, I can’t walk but I just made a plate of blintzes and feel just fine.” But Phoebe doesn’t make blintzes.

Still, she doesn’t feel quite right, she feels as if she is trespassing a life she didn’t live, will never live. And it doesn’t matter if she wanted it or not. She has her worn out body, her little house in Pasadena, her cluttered home where her son’s old schoolwork is anything but organized, half thrown out. And the school records, the evaluations, the explanations (“please understand my son, he is a dreamy intellectual not a label of ADHD” and so on), the failed classes.

At the older sister’s house, she remembers her niece and nephew’s perfect report cards, the well mounted photos and pictures her sister painted of her well developed family.

She does keep her son’s first tap shoes from that first performance. Rescued from the garage, shoved high above on a closet shelf.

And she keeps going to spin, twice a week. Going nowhere but still. Still the feeling. She might be going somewhere.

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About the Author

Carla Sameths memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published July 2019 and her chapbook, What Is Left is forthcoming (Oct./Nov. 2021) with dancing girl press. Her writing on blended/unblended, queer, biracial and single parent families appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including: The Rumpus, MUTHA Magazine, Brain/Child, Narratively, Longreads, Brevity Blog, Entropy, Angels Flight Literary West, Anti-Heroin Chic, Global Poemic, Full Grown People, and The Nervous Breakdown. Carla’s work has been twice named as Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays. A Pasadena Rose Poet, a West Hollywood Pride Poet, and a former PEN Teaching Artist, Carla teaches creative writing to high school and university students, and has taught incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena with her wife. https://carlasameth.com/

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