Excerpt from The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask
Renee wears a multicolored headscarf and long silk dress—sleeveless, in celebration of the springlike weather. When we sing Happy Birthday to her, she joins in, conducting our chorus with two elegant fingers. When we all say “Renee,” she drags out “me” to accommodate the rhythm. She adds a musical trill.
Renee is Ingrid’s yoga instructor, which is how they met. But she does so much more than that. “I’m trained in multiple healing arts,” she explains once we’ve passed around the cake. “Massage, acupuncture, reiki… I’m kind of a Renaissance woman?”
“Renee-ssance,” I say before I can think better of it. I cringe at myself, but she tosses her head back in a laugh. “That’s honestly the first time I’ve heard that—‘Renee-ssance!’’ She pauses to sip from a coupe glass of amber liquid. “I should put that on my business card.”
Despite my own unremarkable outfit—jeans, a sequined tank, winter boots because the ground is still muddy—Renee has crossed the room to speak with me. I know I should be honored, and I don’t take it lightly. She is turning twenty-nine, and when she asks me about college, it’s as though she’s attempting to access some long-forgotten dream. I tell her about my research paper, about my interest in Virginia and Vanessa, and she nods with her eyes wide. “It sounds like they experienced some serious energy twinning,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say and sip my drink. But I can’t pull off the bluff. My curiosity gets the better of me. “Remind me what that is again?”
She purses her lips as if bracing herself to reveal some essential secret. Her green eyes reflect a fragment of the light hanging overhead. “So, I took this workshop in Wyoming as part of my movement therapy training,” she explains. “Two weeks in this little colony a few hours north of Cheyenne. Have you been to Wyoming?”
I shake my head.
“Oh, you have to go. It’s just gorgeous. But not in that quaint New England way. It’s more of a…transcendent beauty. I felt so small there. You know that feeling? Like awe? Like when you just totally surrender?”
It makes sense that Renee’s aura of majesty has something to do with her having spent time in Wyoming. I nod. It’s not a confirmation; it’s an attempt to feed off a foreign feeling.
“So there were about ten of us in the workshop, and they had us fill out a questionnaire. It asked us about race, religion, educational background, random likes and dislikes, etcetera. Then they matched us with the person most similar to us. My partner was this woman, Eva. She was older than me, maybe in her late thirties, but she was so beautiful and I was so flattered to be paired with her. They led us a mirroring exercise. Do you dance?”
“It’s a pretty common technique. How it works is I lift my arm—” she draws her palm up the side of her torso until her it reaches her armpit and then extends her arm into the air. I find myself doing the same, though less gracefully.
“Exactly. Oh, you’re a natural. So yeah, we spent the whole first day just mirroring each other without touching.” She sets her drink on the counter and waves both her arms around in space while I continue to mimic her. “Taking turns being the leader and the follower. And then the next day we moved on to contact movement.” She lowers her hands and I realize that a few other bodies in the kitchen have angled themselves toward us. To be in Renee’s orbit is to be on a stage of sorts. “We won’t do it here. It’s too physically draining. And I don’t want to wrinkle this dress.”
“It’s a beautiful dress,” I say.
Around us, the party is buzzing. I rotate to take it all in, and that’s when I see Ingrid emerging from the bathroom in the hall. Her face is damp and ruddy. She wipes her nose with her sleeve and extracts a cigarette pack from her pocket. She cuts through the crowd in the living room and steps out the door leading to the porch.
“With contact movement,” Renee explains, “first you establish a code of consent—‘you can touch me anywhere’ or ‘you can touch me everywhere except here, here, and here’ etcetera—and then you move in response to each other’s energies. You go slowly at first until you start to feel more comfortable accommodating each other’s bodies. And we practiced this every day for two weeks straight. You get really familiar with the way your partner moves, how they carry their weight. And a strange thing happened after around day three. Even when we weren’t in class, I’d catch myself moving like Eva. It was like she was the one controlling my body, directing me through space. I started standing with my hands on my hips in this kind of sexy, confrontational way. I never used to do that before. That was all Eva. And I wasn’t the only one to experience this kind of thing—all of us in the class underwent a kind of…”—she pauses and looks directly into the incandescent bulb of the light fixture hanging from the kitchen ceiling—“…expansion of the self. What they call energy twinning. It was like we weren’t ourselves, but we were also more ourselves than ever. Does that make sense?”
I’m not sure it does. I nod again.
“And then the craziest thing happened on the last day. One of the pairs, Tyler and Anthony, started physically fighting. Like, their contact movements became violent. And some of us were freaked out, but the instructors told us this actually wasn’t unusual. That we should just let it play out. I know that Tyler and Anthony both struggled with substance abuse, that this was part of the reason they were interested in dance therapy. So maybe that had something to do with it? I don’t know. But it seemed like they were having this revelation. Like they were expelling something from their body. Their bodies.”
“That sounds intense,” I say.
“One of the instructors—her name was Tatiana—Tatiana told us that this rivalry is a natural side effect. That once you fuse energies, a violence can emerge.” Renee sets her drink down and places her hands on her hips. It does look sexy and confrontational. She looks down to examine her elbows.
“So, you think I should write about this in my paper?” I ask.
“The one I was telling you about? The painter and her sister?” I imagine Vanessa and Virginia wrestling in a empty dance studio. I imagine Vanessa grabbing an ankle, flipping Virginia so that she lands on her butt.
“Oh, right. The paper,” Renee says. “Yes, it’s definitely a phenomenon worth analyzing. There are real studies behind it. I mean, there’s still a lot left to explore—how and when this energy can be harnessed, etcetera, etcetera—but I saw it for myself. This workshop in Wyoming was the real deal. Swear to God.” She puts her right hand over her heart. I do the same with my left hand.
Someone is now calling for Renee. The bluetooth speakers have run out of battery. She releases me from her gaze and turns to extract a charger from a junk drawer under the kitchen counter. “I’m coming!” she yells, whipping the cord in the air so it wraps bracelet-like around her wrist. “I’ve got the juice!” She kisses me quickly on the cheek and slips away into the living room.
I am newly exposed and alone. My face flushes with the self-consciousness of someone who has never been to Wyoming. Someone who has never experienced surrender. Someone wearing chunky snow boots indoors.
I fish my phone out of my pocket to fill the void of company. I open my exchange with Dan. The face with plump red cheeks stares back at me. He still hasn’t written anything more. This failure of communication is a relatively new reality. Before college, I used Ingrid’s hand-me-down flip phone for calls and pay-per-use text messaging. There wasn’t a need for anything fancier. There was no critical distance to span. You could find people when you needed to at Lancaster. If I wanted to tell Jonas something, I knew to look for him by the math and science center in the morning, on the lacrosse field in the afternoon, in his dorm in the evening. I told him almost everything: that I’d illegally programed a function into my calculator before my Pre-Calc test and scored ten points higher than usual, that I was worried about a certain cyst on my inner thigh. I was the bravest I have ever been in those days.
Something shifted though. By the time I stepped onto my small, Midwestern college campus, my very cellular makeup had changed. They say that this happens every few years; there is real science behind it. By my freshman year, my cells were different, and I had grown quiet, and one afternoon I sat in the lecture hall of my Modern U.S. History 1945-Present class staring at the projector as we watched a famous Jimmy Carter speech. Jimmy had looked at me with kind, concerned eyes. I imagined him reaching an arm through the projector, placing an avuncular hand on my shoulder. A Crisis a Confidence, he told me, blunt and no-nonsense, like a well-meaning relative. Yes, I thought, accepting my diagnosis. That’s what this is. A dip in morale. A temporary discontentment with the state of my world. I’ll just have to wait for it to pass. My quality of life will eventually improve. My confidence will be restored.
But it hasn’t passed. I know now that I’ll need to take conscious steps to will the Crisis out of my body. I’ll need to be sexy and confrontational.
My fingers are sweaty on my phone screen and I breathe in sharp. I try out some mantras: I am part of a nation that survived the Great Depression, I tell myself. I am part of a nation that put a man on the moon.
The room swells with Stevie Nicks singing about a Gold Dust Woman.
I will win the war on the energy problem. I will be more like Renee.
I take a giant sip from a plastic cup on the counter.
I am a Renee-ssance woman.
The gin burns as it runs down my throat.
Women supporting women.
I realize too late that it’s not my drink, but I do not care.
Sisterhood, I tell myself. I am part of a sisterhood.
I take another sip from the cup.
I will return to a position of energy independence. I will not rely on foreign oil.
My thoughts generate a certain fuel that I transfer into my fingers. I start typing before I can stop myself: At a party! I text Dan. 3102 Columbia St. You should come.
I stare proudly at my handiwork. The music is muffled in the background, and for a moment it is just me and the rosy-cheeked smile and my courageous invitation. I don’t notice the body beside me until I feel a brushing against my arm.
“She’s wild, huh?”
The song has changed. I look up to see Jeremiah. He cocks his head toward the living room where Renee has configured a huddle involving three other party guests. The huddle rotates slowly, swaying in rhythm to Neil Young’s gentle whining. “What were the two of you talking about, anyway?”
“Energy twinning,” I say. I slip my phone back into my pocket and place my hands on my hips. “Sounds like witchcraft,” he says.
There is something irritating in Jeremiah’s coolness, in the manufactured way he rocks from one foot to another and runs his fingers through his hair. I instinctually scan the room for Ingrid, but she’s nowhere to be seen. She must still be out smoking on the porch.
“Did the two of you brew up a potion?” Jeremiah cautiously sets his cup down in front of him and mocks choking.
“What’s up with Ingrid?” I ask.
He recomposes himself. “What do you mean?”
“Why did she look like she was crying?”
“Oh. That.” He raises his arms in exasperation and then settles them across his chest, flexing to make a tendon bulge. “We had a disagreement. Or, actually, she had a disagreement with this chick Megan and then got mad at me for not taking her side. Ingrid’s side.”
“This girl that works at the restaurant with her. Apparently, Megan agreed to pose nude, and Ingrid took and developed all these brilliant shots—” he mimics the low, breathy voice Ingrid sometimes adopts when talking about her work, “but now she—Megan—wants to like, retroactively rescind her consent. The way I look at it is: It’s her body that’s going to be on display. She should get to make the call.”
“But Ingrid spent so much time in the dark room,” I say.
“And then she started getting on my case about random shit. Like, ‘I always come to your gigs and you never come to my shows,’ and how it’s obvious I think my music and my movies are higher art forms than photography, which I never said, but also, like—there are just more technical components when you’re working the moving images, you know? And with music, there’s the composition, the lyrics, the performance aspect… And yeah, sometimes it’s hard for me to pretend that pointing a camera at pretty things takes as much skill and discipline. But I swear to God, I’ve never said any of this to her. I don’t know where all these accusations came from. I’ve been nothing but supportive.”
Someone is entering through the front door. Before I can make out the figure completely, my chest warms at the possibility of it being Ingrid or Jonas or Dan. Someone to make me into a sister or a nostalgic ex or a flirty prospect. But instead it is a redheaded woman in a long fur coat. She flings the coat onto the couch, waves a hand in the air wildly, and approaches the mass in the living room. The huddle opens up to engulf her.
I am left with Jeremiah, to whom I am no one real. To whom I am a less interesting facsimile of Ingrid. I could be more interesting, if I wanted to. I could harness the power of my mantras. I could play someone else entirely. I could feel as I did on opening night of Steel Magnolias in my big, puffy sleeves and full head of Southern curls. I hold up a finger to tell Jeremiah to wait while I extract my phone again. I hold it close to my face. Come before I make a mistake, I text Dan. I then grab Jeremiah around the wrist—platonically, like a kid sister. “Do you want to see what Renee and I were talking about?” I ask, and before he can answer, I start leading him across the kitchen through the hallway and into a spare bedroom.
The room is dimly-lit. A salt lamp on the nightstand emits a pale pink glow. When I turn to shut the door behind us, I see we’ve tracked mud through the hallway. I close the door, remove my boots, and burrow my socked feet into the shag carpet.
“This is all very mysterious.” Jeremiah takes off his shoes, too enthusiastically. “But I’m honored I get to be in your coven. Do we have to make a blood pact or something?”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” I say and position myself facing him, my feet wide and back hunched. “This is called contact movement. We move in response to each other’s energies. Something cool should happen if we do it right.”
Jeremiah places an unquestioning hand on my shoulder. He runs it down my upper arm, unlike an older brother.
“Wait, actually—” I step away from him. “We should start with the mirroring.”
He grins at me stupidly. “I don’t get what the fuck this is, but I’m opening my mind to the experience.” He grabs a piece of silk fabric hanging from a hook on the wall and wraps it twice around his forehead, knotting it in the back.
“All you have to do is mimic exactly what I’m doing,” I explain. I balance on one foot, slowly drawing my left knee up to my chest. He does the same but adds kung-fu arms, turning a palm up and beckoning me with his cupped fingers. “Are you going to take this seriously?” I ask. He drops his hands to his side and smiles shallowly. There is something in my stern tone that he likes. He intensifies his stare.
We move in congruous movements—my leg returns to the floor and his follows suit. My neck stretches laterally so that my right ear touches my right shoulder. He does the same. His gestures are more mannish, less controlled, as though a hostile, eager energy is coursing under his skin.
“My turn,” he says after a minute, and steps his left foot toward me. I step backward. “We’re mirroring, remember? You step toward me.” I oblige. He then places his hand on my shoulder, and I place mine on his. His body is hot under my palm; I am nearly shivering in my tank top. Our energies are not aligning; we are two very different people. The brief alliance we formed out of a mutual respect for pens and music rights has dissipated. We know nothing of each other’s histories. I’ve never felt less of a twinship with anyone. Is it despite this or because of this that I want to draw him in closer? To run my fingers across his skin as though familiarizing myself with the foreign, mountainous terrain on some three-dimensional map?
Before I can sort out the answer for myself, Jeremiah moves his hand to my face and cradles my jaw. His lips brush against my cheek, and soon his tongue is in my mouth.
Amanda lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN, where she is a fiction candidate at the University of Minnesota’s MFA. She is the recipient of the 2017 Gesell Award in Fiction and a 2019 Graduate Research Partnership Program fellowship. Her critical writing has appeared in Electric Literature and her poetry has appeared in The Common Ground Review. She is currently at work on a novel.