A Girl’s Guide to Hot Mess Yoga

by Lori Horvitz

Imagine lying in bed, drifting off to sleep, when you receive a text from a model-slinky Natalie Portman look-a-like. She says I can’t stop thinking about you, I can’t wait to kiss you, and her texts get more suggestive. You never sexted before, but find yourself sexting, and now you’re not so tired. This Natalie Portman woman is named, coincidentally, Natalie. You met her two weeks before, at a bookstore, at your reading, and you went for coffee. She smiled a lot, whipped her hair back, applied gloss to her lips. She told you about her love of animals, her work as a veterinarian, how her favorite surgery to perform was bladder surgery because the bladder is so elastic. Charmed by her smarts, her gentle voice, a voice that could calm the anxious owner of a sick poodle, you exchanged phone numbers, figuring that was that. You didn’t expect anything more than a Facebook friend request. After all, she lived a plane ride away and had three young children. But the next day she texted, said she was smitten, and you said, well, come visit, figuring she wouldn’t.

***

You talk on Skype, her three-year old daughter in her lap and touching her face. She asks if you’re dating anyone. You say you haven’t been with anyone in eight months. She asks how you manage. You say, “How do you think?” She tells you she’s dating two people–a man, a woman, nothing serious, friends with benefits. “But you,” she says. “You make my heart flutter.” She hasn’t felt this way since meeting her ex-husband. She bites her lip. You see yourself smiling in the corner of your computer screen. Behind Natalie, her son smacks her older daughter and her daughter screams. Natalie has to go, but before ending the call, she says she’d love to visit.

She texts details of a proposed flight, and your anxiety level shoots up, and your heart races and your gut hurts. You run to a yoga class and breathe and can’t find your center, even when resting in shavasana position. You write Natalie an email, ask how this is going to work, with her three children, and living across the country, and seeing other people. After all, you’re looking for a long-term relationship. She says maybe down the line she’d be ready for monogamy, but she just left an abusive marriage, she needs time, she wishes she met you in a year. But if you only want a friendship, she says, that’s fine too.

You Skype, and as soon as you see her face, her lips, as soon as she says, “It’s okay, I understand why you’d be concerned,” you cut her off and say, “Yes, I’d love for you to visit.” You’ve always been monogamous, except for a year or two, after you got involved with a British woman, the first woman you’d been with, the woman you met on the Trans-Siberian Railway, on a slow-train to China, when you were twenty-three. She talked about monogamy, how it was so bloody boring, and you thought, yeah, you’re right, it’s so bloody boring. When you came back to the States, your moody ex-boyfriend promised he’d change and wanted to try again, and you said okay, only if you could date others. You dated a boyishly handsome Englishman and had a fling with a blonde Catholic girl, and there were others. And for a moment you thought you were so fucking hip. But in the end, your heart couldn’t take it, and when New Year’s Eve came around, you told them all you were sick and stayed home because it was easier that way.

Natalie tells you about the psychological test she took in order to gain custody of her children, how it came out fine except for one thing; something that could be construed as negative–she has hedonist tendencies. You say, “What’s wrong with wanting pleasure?”

Before she visits, you ask what foods she likes. She says she loves cake, especially chocolate cake, and you say you love a good chocolate cake too. She loves making cake, and at that moment, she’s making a dragon cake for her daughter’s birthday. She sends you a picture, and you ask how she made the dragon’s scales. “It’s fondant,” she says. “What fancy wedding cakes are covered in. Making cakes is my one kitschy secret.”

You meet in the airport, and all the sexting makes things awkward, so you keep your distance, don’t make eye contact. In the car she comments about the beautiful mountains in the distance, applies lip-gloss. Once you arrive to your house, she gets down on the kitchen floor and scratches behind your dog’s ears. You ask if she could check the lumps on your dog’s belly; after all, Natalie works as a veterinarian. She palpates her abdomen, says you shouldn’t worry. Natalie’s roller suitcase stands upright, and she wheels it behind you as you lead her to the guestroom, no assumptions.

You take her to an Indian restaurant and eat fried onion dumplings and dip them in tamarind sauce, which you refer to as magic sauce. Natalie’s foot touches yours and you freeze, then move your foot closer. She leans her elbows on the table, her silver bracelets clanking downward. She thanks you for inviting her.

Later, you lie down on your bed and ask if she wants to join you. She rests her body near yours and asks if you’ll kiss her, and you do, and you don’t think about her kids or friends with benefits, and the kiss lasts and lasts, and you can’t keep our hands off each other, even when walking through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and you watch the sun go down and feel a calmness you haven’t felt before.

Everyone who meets Natalie–the lesbian waitress at the local cafe, the colleagues you run into at the farmer’s market, the friend you meet up with at the sushi restaurant–comments how Natalie is hot, a looker, and you say she is also sweet and smart, and a doctor, and now you’re confident and goofy, and when the magical weekend comes to an end, you bring her to the airport and take selfies of her kissing your cheek, a big grin on your face. She asks when you’ll visit and you say soon.

Now she only has time for the occasional text, too busy with the kids, the lawyers, the job, even at night, and you don’t think she’s still sleeping with the others, why would she when she has you? Or maybe you don’t want to know. Natalie sends a text: Being with you makes me feel beautiful, like I have no flaws. You buy a plane ticket.

Sweat coats your body at night and granted, menopause has kicked in, and even though Natalie texts now and again, you get sweaty and anxious and run to yoga. You’ve never gone to so many yoga classes. In the past, yoga made you anxious. You could never follow directions, and the teachers tugged and pushed at your body to help you get in the correct position, which only made you more anxious, but now, thank heavens, yoga calms you.

You ask Natalie if she still sleeps with her friends with benefits, and she says yes, she still sees them, though it’s only sex. She knows most people can’t understand, but after spending so many years in a controlling relationship, she’s not ready for monogamy. “Down the line,” she says, “I could get there.” But her heart is opening, and her kids can’t wait to meet you, and she’ll make you her delicious chocolate cake.

Natalie’s explanation, in theory, makes perfect sense, so you try to be understanding and empathetic. After all, you’re a women’s studies professor, and besides, you already bought the plane ticket, and as a consolation prize, you’ll have good sex and homemade chocolate cake.

When you step into Natalie’s arms, your anxiety falls away. In her white minivan, three empty child safety seats in the back, you kiss and grope and you move Natalie’s hair from her face, and things get sweaty and hot and you say, “Let’s not get caught making out in the airport parking lot.” She drives to a pub and you hold hands and share a grilled salmon dish with ginger, your legs intertwined, and she tells you she’s in no rush to get home, she hired a babysitter, and also, she spent the afternoon making chocolate cake. When the waitress asks if you’re interested in dessert, you say we’ll get that at home, meaning the cake, but the waitress rolls her eyes and walks away

Natalie’s children hold your hand and touch your face, and her middle daughter sits in your lap and wraps her arms around your waist. Natalie hands you a giant slice of cake, a slice so delicious, rich, moist and sweet you only eat a few bites.

Finally, finally, she tucks her children in, sings them lullabies, and crawls into bed with you, and you spend hours caressing her body, breathe it in as if it were your own breath. Now you don’t miss yoga, you have Natalie, and you sleep well, so well you don’t hear her get up and turn the television on downstairs. Even though she says she hates when the kids watch television, she lets them watch today, a special day because of you.

Natalie hires sitters to watch the children much of the weekend, but you do spend time building Lego cities and reading children’s books, one after the next, and you show her younger daughter a magic trick. You point to a napkin covering a ball and wave your hand over the napkin and say abracadabra and slap the napkin down. Then you pull the ball from her ear, and she laughs and screams and says, “Do it again!” and you do, again and again, pulling the ball from her butt, her nose. You show her how to do the trick, how to make the ball’s indentation by pressing down on the ball with napkins, and when you take the ball away, it looks like the ball is still there. You say, “It’s an illusion. You believe the ball’s there because it looks like it’s there.”

Natalie books a room at a five-star hotel overlooking a river, just the two of you and a king-sized bed. At the hotel restaurant, you eat homemade guacamole and fried oysters and don’t think about breathing, not until late into the night, when you hold her and ask why she has to sleep with others. She says, “Because I like sex and you’re not here.” You look at the river and imagine another naked body lying near Natalie’s. “If you get to the point where it’s too hard for you,” she says, “let me know.”

You don’t feel comfortable asking for that; you don’t want to come off as possessive. The others are just sex, friends with benefits. You wrap your body around hers, and in the morning, she takes you to a hipster café, lots of tattoos and piercings, and she puts her arm around your shoulder. You eat scallion pancakes and eggs, and before she takes you to the airport, she tells her babysitter, a family friend, what’s going on. “She was surprised,” Natalie says. “But said she’d never seen me look so happy.”

When you get back home, hot flashes and anxiety come back with a vengeance, and you inhale, exhale, take one yoga class after the next, but your lungs get tighter, your breath disappears, like the ball underneath the napkin. You guess she is with her male friend when she doesn’t answer your texts, and you can’t sleep, and now you don’t care how well she treats your dog, how much she looks like a movie star, how great the sex is, because if you can’t breathe, you can’t live.

You tell her you understand she needs to do what she needs to do, but you need to take care of your heart. She guessed how you were feeling, even discussed it with her male friend the night before, but she doesn’t want to lose you, and if she stops sleeping with the others, would you still see her, would you be her girlfriend?

Exhausted and weak, you say yes, you’ll be her girlfriend.

Natalie makes time to talk every night, after she puts her kids to sleep, but sometimes it gets late, close to midnight, and you text Maybe we could talk tomorrow, and she says Give me five minutes, and you hate waiting, always waiting, especially when you need to teach in the morning. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, she calls, and for the moment, her voice soothes you.

When she visits again, she makes French toast and strawberries and real whipped cream and puts cream on her lips and you kiss. You walk through town, hand in hand, and you introduce Natalie to a friend you run into. Your friend later says Natalie is dreamy, that she could feel the energy between you two.

Maybe Natalie’s the one, you think, maybe you could help raise her kids; you always wanted a family. She says, “It’s so easy with you,” and you say, “Yes, it’s so easy,” and she says her kids adore you, and you make plans to meet up in New York, your old stomping ground, a city she’s never been to. You go shopping at Target for clothes, and in the fitting room you kiss, take selfies in the mirror, the two of you embracing in your new dresses.

In New York, you see the musical Fun Home, a coming out story of a young woman with an emotionally abusive father. During a particularly harsh scene, you hold Natalie’s arm, scared she might be reminded of her abusive ex. Later she says it did rattle her but not so bad. You eat cannolis in Little Italy, and you take her to your favorite Cuban restaurant, where you meet your friend, who later says, “I like her best of all.”

In the meantime, she goes out with her friends with benefits, without the benefits. You don’t want to sound controlling, but you say it makes you feel uneasy. She says you shouldn’t worry; she isn’t even attracted to the guy. “Sex with you,” she says, “is so much more fun.” She has plans to go to a movie with him that evening. She asks if you want to FaceTime with him later. “Maybe,” she says, “if you meet him it would ease your worries.”

“I don’t think so,” you say, scanning the yoga schedule.

A week later, Natalie asks if you’re sure you couldn’t open up the relationship. Just the fact she asks makes you anxious. She dreams about you checking her phone—that’s what her ex did, and again she asks about seeing other people and now you have to push your heart back into your chest.

***

You step into Natalie’s mini-van and her son orders her to change the radio station, the other two children strapped in and silent. At a restaurant, a carousel in front, her kids jump on, and the antique horses move up and down, and carnival music blares, and around and around they go, until her kids are dizzy. Natalie takes pictures of her children waving. You make small talk, and because she doesn’t make eye contact, you feel her vanishing. During the night, each child wakes up, one by one, screaming from nightmares, night terrors, wailing, and at six in the morning, alone in her bed, you get up to scan the rooms but can’t find Natalie. Did she drive off and leave you with the kids? Do you have to call child protective services? You look again and find her sleeping beside her little girl, Natalie’s body blocked by the bed railing.

She sorts through a box of her ex’s stuff, to see if you want anything to sell at a garage sale to raise money for your sick friend. She pulls out beer mugs and a pair of army boots and slouches against the wall, face in hands, tears streaming from her eyes. “What’s wrong?” you ask. She says, “Those boots, he kicked me with those boots.”

Her son screams and rips up his underwear–he doesn’t want to be confined by anything. And neither does Natalie. You sit her down. “You’re disappearing,” you say, “and so am I.”

She tells you that last night she came up with an escape plan.

You say, “From me?”

“That’s what I did with my ex,” she says. “It has nothing to do with you.” She cries and holds you, and you focus on an upside down doll, its legs sticking from one of the many unpacked boxes scattered around the house.

You change your flight to leave a day early. When her son learns you’re leaving, he screams, asks why you have to go, why can’t you marry his mother?

At the airport, you listen to announcements and watch businessmen and hipsters and mothers with children board planes. You are free of Lego pieces and screams in the night, relieved when you finally find your airplane seat. You can’t wait to get home, to your dog, your friends, your self.

The pilot says something about a mechanical difficulty, it will be taken care of shortly, to hold tight. A mechanic who looks about twelve sprints to the back and everyone claps. Twenty minutes later, he walks through the cabin, his face sullen. Another mechanic climbs aboard. The sun goes down, and the new mechanic, after working for a good thirty minutes, walks to the front of the plane, his arms hanging down. “Folks,” the pilot says. “We have bad news.”

Four hours passed since Natalie dropped you off. You could get a hotel, but you text her. She asks if you want to come back. You say yes.

You call your dog-sitter. “Now that I’ve had some time and space,” you say, “I’m ready to go back to Natalie’s.”

“It must have been really bad,” your dog-sitter says, “for you to be ready to go back only after plane-ing and deplane-ing.”

Natalie’s son screams when you swing open the minivan door: “Yay! The plane broke! Maybe it’ll break tomorrow too!”

You say, “Yay for the broken plane!”

Natalie touches your arm. She winks and says, “I’m glad the plane broke too.”

You help Natalie prepare dinner, and when she drains pasta, you embrace her from behind. She leans her head back into yours and you kiss her neck. Her children don’t notice, or care, but instead watch a video, Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” Her younger daughter practices the vanishing ball trick and performs it for her brother. With his arms crossed, the boy analyzes his sister’s every move. When she slaps the napkin, he jumps up and down and yells, “I know how you do it! I know!”

The ball falls to the floor and her son picks it up and screams for his middle sister to watch while he performs the trick. “Abracadabra,” he says, and pounds the napkin with his fist. He runs into the living room, where he shows her how to perform the trick. “The ball was never there!” he says.

But for now, Natalie is there, free from commitment, free from confines, free from the future, and together, you find yourself breathless, alive, and wake up holding Natalie–no strings, no illusions, free of worry, free of waiting, your breath intact. Imagine that.

Lori Horvitz’ personal essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including Epiphany, Chattahoochee Review, The Guardian, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, and Hotel Amerika. Professor of English at UNC Asheville, Horvitz is the author of the memoir-essay collection, The Girls of Usually (Truman State UP).