i heart barre
by Stephanie Parent, 3.49am July 10th 2022

“You’re so fucking flexible.”

Anton dug his fingers into my ankles, which were pinned beneath his hands on either side of my head. My body bent in half, my sinews stretched into an offering as he pounded into me on his twin-size bed.

A drop of sweat fell from his forehead to my upper lip. Craving moisture, craving salt, craving any substance that had come from him, I licked it up.

We were both getting a workout here.

I did not know Anton’s last name, or where he’d grown up, or anything aside from the fact he had striking, glacier-blue eyes and biceps strong enough to hold me down. Strong enough to flip me onto my stomach and press me into the mattress till I was completely, utterly overcome.

Anton released his grip only to yank my ponytail with one hand, and clasp my wrists together with the other. The manic thrusting of his hips climbed to a crescendo then, all at once, stilled.

Without asking if I’d come too, he carried me with him as he rolled onto his side, and cradled me into his warm flesh. My back resting against the steady drumbeat of his pulse.

His heart contracted and released, over and over, in a rhythm that was power and comfort at once.

“So flexible.” His voice had turned soft. “Where’d you learn to bend like that?” I was too sleepy to answer, but he didn’t even give me a chance. “Next time I’ll tie your wrists to your ankles,” he said.

I think I fell in love with him that night.

***

I never did tell Anton why I was so flexible, and he never asked again; but if he’d been paying attention, he would have figured it out.

Usually we hung out at Anton’s place, watching movies he’d picked, guys with guns. I didn’t try to follow the plots—we’d only get a half hour in before we abandoned the TV, tangled in each other. But sometimes he surprised me at my apartment, and I got to choose the films. The Red Shoes, Suspiria, Black Swan.

I’d always wanted to be a dancer, had spent my teenage years sinking into splits as if stretched on a rack. Yet my strength never matched my flexibility. I’d lacked both physical power—couldn’t launch myself into leaps—and to my greater detriment, I had no mental fortitude. Teachers called me out before the rest of the class:

Lizzy, straighten that leg, you look like a broken marionette.

Lizzy, get in the back row if you can’t remember the choreo.

They told me I was too clumsy, too unbalanced, simply not good enough, and I started to believe them.

By the time I turned twenty, I’d given up.

Five years later, I liked my ballet tinged with horror, the way my dance classes had once been.

I didn’t explain any of that to Anton, though. I simply let him appreciate my flexibility, the way those dance teachers never had. I let him split my legs apart, bend me backward and tie me down, then free me so I could wrap my limbs around him like a contortionist squeezing into a box.

Anton became the solid, muscular center I had always lacked. We didn’t need words, just like dancers didn’t need words. Our relationship was based entirely on the physical; we had met on a dating app where we were both DTF. We kept on meeting because of the way the planes and curves of our bodies notched together, the way my muscles surrendered beneath his.

Perhaps that should have given me pause. But all my years of dancing had taught me that physical didn’t mean superficial.

The heart was a muscle, pumping outside of rhyme or reason or conscious thought. The heart was the thing that drew us humans to and away from each other, made meaning or mincemeat of our selves.

***

I found the barre studio because once I met Anton, I couldn’t stand to be alone.

I found the barre studio because its logo was a bright red heart.

Anton was a locksmith who specialized in emergencies, people who locked themselves out of their cars or lost their apartment keys at midnight because they were drunk. He took advantage, made a killing on minor holidays like Cinco de Mayo.

I hoped that Anton loved me—or at least loved my body—but he loved making money more. He canceled our dates at the last minute when a lucrative job came along. And I, who had stopped returning other men’s texts, stopped accepting friends’ invitations to hang out till they no longer offered them, found myself alone.

Alone, desire grumbled into life within me, became pins pricking my muscles from the inside out. I needed distractions, so I made up errands, went for long walks.

One evening, I walked past the glass door with the red heart logo, a tiny white “b” in its center, just as a chattering group of girls spilled out. They wore leggings and sports bras; their cheeks glowed with good health; they smelled of sweet sweat and their ponytails whipped back and forth. One of them caught my eye, her gaze as bright a blue as Anton’s, so stunning it made me stop short. “We have a free intro class tomorrow,” she said. “iheartbarre on Instagram. You should come.”

Then the gaggle was gone, and longing rushed through my veins, stronger than blood. The heart on the glass door pulsed, beating a message for me.

I just wasn’t sure what it was.

***

I came to the free class. I came in a raggedy tank top and leggings, not nearly as cute as the Lululemon sets the rest of the women wore—and they were all women, not a male to be found.

I couldn’t afford Lululemon, not with my part-time data entry job.

The second I entered the studio with its ballet barres against the walls, my heartbeat picked up. The stale taste of old failure coated my tongue. I was back in ballet class, certain I wasn’t good enough, didn’t belong. I wanted to flee—

But then the instructor introduced herself as Amelia, turned on peppy pop music and closed the studio doors with a thud. I found a spot in the corner, holding a barre for the first time in years, rising onto my tiptoes. Bending down an inch, up an inch, along to Amelia’s voice.

I quickly tired of staring at myself in the mirror—my too-big nose, the lackluster brown of my hair—so I admired the instructor’s reflection instead. She was the same woman who’d spoken to me the night before. Tall and muscular, very tan and very blonde, like some golden statue you couldn’t take your eyes from.

Something about Amelia’s icy gaze made me yearn to impress her, to distinguish myself from my classmates in their perfectly matched workout clothes. So when we lifted our legs behind us, I went for my longest, straightest arabesque. I arched my back into a hollow like an empty bowl, reaching, reaching till my pointed toe floated above my head—

And Amelia was rushing over to me, placing firm hands on my hips and flattening the arch of my back. Forcing my leg down toward the ground. “We want tucked hips here,” she said. “Lift your leg now”—she pressed her entire forearm into my lower back—“feel your muscles engage.”

I pushed my leg up, squeezing my rear end as hard as I could. But against the pleasing pressure of her arm, I could only lift an inch. An inch that made my glutes contract tighter, work harder, than ballet ever had.

I was so entranced by this magic that I forgot to be ashamed of my mistake.

After class, Amelia came over to me, close enough that I could smell her sharp, citrusy perfume. “You used to be a dancer, didn’t you?”

I opened my mouth to explain I’d been a failed dancer, but she didn’t give me time to respond. “You’ll be great at barre.” Her blue eyes looked into mine, the shade so brilliant, I wondered how they could be real. “You should sign up—”

“I wish I could, but I can’t afford—”

“We have intro offers.” She talked over me and clasped my wrist, preventing me from walking off. “You’ll be investing in yoursel—”

And that was how I signed away a portion of my miniscule paycheck to the shiny, squeaky-clean barre studio with the red heart on its door.

***

The barre classes were a blessing, because the longer Anton and I were together, the more often he chose work over me. And now, when I was alone in the evenings, I had somewhere to go.

I got to know all the instructors, distinguishing them by the colors of their perky ponytails: Amelia was blonde, Emily the redhead, Iris’s hair dark as a starless sky. I grew familiar with all the exercises, appreciating how different they were from ballet. The movements in barre were smaller, more controlled; every time I lifted my leg too high, extended too long, the instructors quickly brought me back down to earth. They held my limbs down, flattened my spine, wrapped a red elastic tube around my thighs the same way Anton wrapped me in ropes.

And as I contorted myself in these new ways, before the spotless studio mirrors, I reaped new rewards. My muscles grew tauter, the outlines of my glutes and thighs visible beneath my leggings. A few weeks into barre, and I no longer squirmed with shame before the mirrored walls.

It wasn’t just my physique—I’d swear my cheekbones had chiseled, while my hair had grown shinier, my eyes brighter.

Must have been the lighting in the studio. It was designed for Instagram selfies, after all.

My muscles, however, were no illusion: even Anton noticed my transformation. He held my legs up while I was lying on my back, had me flex and point my feet so he could admire the definition running up from my calves. He kissed and nipped his way to my etched-out abs, and if he only grazed the area most men would have paid the most attention to, I didn’t care. I was happier to give pleasure than to receive it, and the groan when Anton reached his own release told me how pleased he was.

We floated in our post-coital afterglow, and I waited for Anton to tuck me into his chest, my back against his heart. Instead he turned me to face him, looked into me with those blue eyes. “You’re glowing.” He smiled. “You look beautiful, Lizzy. I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working.”

He kissed me, and I rested the side of my head above his heart. The muscle inside his ribcage squeezed and opened, squeezed and opened, the one constant that propelled everything else.

Anton wrapped his arm tighter around me, as if he might never let go, and happy stars danced before my eyes—

No, not stars. Tiny red hearts, each with a little “b” nestled in its center. B for barre.

***

Saturday evening: the one night without barre classes. The night Anton was always rescuing some poor soul who’d dropped their keys in the gutter, on their way home from the other kind of bar.

I’d been taking barre for a few months now. I’d completed the new member challenges, had upgraded to an unlimited membership even though I had to take out a new credit card. With a night to myself and no texts from Anton, I put on the new version of Suspiria and settled myself to stretch on the floor. It would be a good change—there was no stretching in barre classes. Their system was all about toning, not splitting your limbs apart.

I lay on my back with my legs in the air, let them fall in opposite directions, imagined Anton pressing me open and tying me down as he’d done so many times before.

A stabbing sensation shot up the insides of my thighs. My legs stopped halfway, as if I had encountered an invisible wall.

I sat up, extended my legs forward and reached for my toes. This had always been easy; I’d draped my head below my knees with barely any effort at all. But my hands would not reach my feet. My muscles throbbed like they were being pulled apart. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed figures dancing on the TV, wearing shredded red dresses, the exact color of the barre studio’s heart.

I made one more effort to fold myself forward, and my muscles screamed in time with the girl on the TV.

I shut off the movie and stopped.

***

I did not try to stretch again. I did not want to know what I might be losing, as the strength of my muscles grew. As the arch of my back flattened out, like a metal rod had been inserted into my spine, keeping my tailbone heavy and my hips tucked.

I began to crave the studio—how the mirrors and barres always gleamed as if freshly polished. How the pop songs on the sound system timed themselves to my happy heart. How the teachers all had luminous skin, their flushed cheeks an echo of the heart logos on every spare spot—the doors, the lockers, the lobby walls.

I used my nearly maxed-out credit card to buy a sixty-dollar tank top with that heart logo. I wore it the first night I completed every rep of every seat exercise without a single pause, without releasing the straightness of my leg or the point of my toes. After class, Amelia gave me an approving nod.

On the walk home, I made sure no one was nearby and then, in the growing darkness, I leaped and kicked my legs long in my joy—

Or tried to. They would barely lift, and agony echoed up toward my torso. Serrated. Toothy.

Better not to kick my leg to my head anyway, I told myself. You never knew who might be watching from the shadows….

That was my last thought before I unlocked my apartment door, and stepped inside, and saw a lamp lit by the sofa that I was sure I had not left on. And to the far side of it, a pair of broad shoulders.

I opened my mouth to scream, when the figure said, “Lizzy?” in a familiar voice. “Where the fuck were you?” Familiar, but angry.

“I…” I paused to flip on the overhead light, placing a hand below the heart on my shirt. “I was at barre. What are you doing here?” I didn’t bother asking how Anton got in—he was a locksmith, after all.

“I had a job nearby and I decided to surprise you. But you…” His eyes turned darker than I’d ever seen them. “You were gone.”

“I… You didn’t tell me…” Even as I stuttered, I knew that before barre, he wouldn’t have had to tell me. If I wasn’t with him, I would have been here, alone, hoping he would call or stop by.

My heart plummeted down my ribcage; I was overcome by the patheticness of my former self. Amelia and her barre-studio brethren would never have wasted their precious energy on a man like Anton.

“I’ve got to take a shower,” I said and stepped past Anton with half-faked determination, wondering if he would storm out.

But he grabbed my wrist, his skin so much rougher than Amelia’s that I flinched. I pulled away from the predator’s look in his eyes. Yet despite my newly developed physique, I was not strong enough to resist him. Anton easily pushed me onto the sofa, tugged my leggings down, lifted my ankles toward my head like he’d done so many times before—

And the pain was back, ripping up my legs like the muscles were shredding, every sinew tearing apart. I bit down on a scream as Anton let go, stepped back, said in a flat voice:

“You’re not flexible anymore.”

I had imagined I’d become the strong one, since discovering barre. But a fragile longing for Anton enveloped me—a yearning for his heartbeat against my back, beneath my ear—as I watched him turn and walk out.

***

When I walked into the barre studio the next afternoon, I could not hide the water pooling in the corners of my eyes. Once class started, and I lifted my leg a few inches behind me—as far as it would go, now—the tears trailed down my cheeks.

For the first time in months, I could not bear to look in the shining mirrors. I focused on the corner, where the first smudge I’d seen in the studio appeared, a smoky stain that blurred my reflection.

When I glanced that way again, the stain was gone.

After class, Amelia pulled me aside and asked, “What’s wrong?”

My gaze ran down the silky wisps escaping her ponytail, past her rosy cheeks to the flawless skin and chiseled lines of her arms. I could never tell such a superior creature I’d let a man break me.

But she knew. “It’s a guy, isn’t it?” She put a hand on my shoulder, and her touch was so soft and warm that I crumpled and told her everything.

Once I’d finished and my tears made the room shimmer like melting ice, Amelia said: “Why don’t you become an instructor here?”

The ice refroze all at once, my surroundings sharpened with my shock. I must not have heard her correctly. “You…you think I could teach barre?” I could not possibly be good enough.

“We need new instructors.” Amelia patted my shoulder. “It will give you something to focus on. Forget about Anton. Boost your confidence…because you are good enough.”

It wasn’t till I’d agreed, signed the contract, received the instructors’ manual, that it occurred to me:

I hadn’t said those words—I’m not good enough—aloud.

***

That wasn’t the only time Amelia seemed to read my mind. She knew how taxing it was to study all the positions and choreography, to learn to adjust my students so they tucked their hips and flattened their spines. I practiced on the instructors after class, and Amelia brought out syrupy-sweet, cherry energy drinks that buzzed on my tongue.

For many nights in a row, we lingered till long after dark, adjusting each other into the anatomically correct foldovers and lunges, the turnout that would challenge our adductors. Every time I touched Amelia’s toned biceps or Emily’s defined deltoids, my resolve to become a great instructor grew. I could stay here forever, needing no food or rest or sleep—

The others left, and I stayed behind to perfect my form.

By midnight I’d finished all the energy drink, emptied out the big pitcher in the breakroom fridge. I stood before the mirror, going up an inch, down an inch on my highest tiptoes, wondering when I could stop. My tensor fascia trembled, my iliotibial band throbbed. The mirror before me blurred.

I gasped as cracks crawled across the glass, liquid seeping into the jagged spaces, the same color as the studio’s hearts. My fragmented reflection lost its color, blood draining from my cheeks, muscles dissolving till only skin and bone and dull eyes looked back. Exhausted. Emaciated.

I shook my head and the glass gleamed again, whole and unbroken, reflecting my rosy, healthy form.

But still my muscles cried out, telling me I needed to stretch. To lengthen, not contract. I lifted my tired left leg onto the barre, the movement like breaking through a brick wall; I turned my torso toward that leg and reached, inch by inch, for my toes.

I heard cracking, but whether it was the mirror or the sinews inside me, I could not tell. I steeled myself against the pain that blistered with every millimeter I pulled forward, till my fingertips brushed my foot—

The back of my leg snapped, and I fell to the floor.

***

“It’s just a sprain, just overuse,” Amelia told me. She was right, I supposed. After all, I had gotten up last night and used both legs to walk home; I’d hobbled into the studio this afternoon. “You’ll feel better tomorrow,” she said. “We’re having a special event—‘bring your boyfriend to the barre.’ Get Anton to come.”

“But Anton’s not my boyfriend anymore.” I was confused; special classes were always announced weeks in advance.

Amelia grabbed my chin and twisted my face toward hers. “You’ve got to bring Anton. Trust me.” Her blue gaze burned.

***

I did the one thing I knew would get Anton to come: I texted him that my fitness-instructor-slash-new-girlfriend was desperate for a threesome. He just had to come to this workout class and meet her, and if he would do me this one favor—

I hadn’t finished the last message before he’d responded, asking what time. I didn’t know what I’d do when he discovered the truth, but I couldn’t stand to think much about it. Couldn’t think much at all, with my left leg screaming as though it were being chopped into pieces from the inside out.

I met Anton outside the studio. He looked out-of-place in his track pants with the racing stripes. He’d used too much hair gel, was wearing too much cologne.

As I stepped toward him, my injured leg protested my every move.

 

Anton frowned down at me. “Are you limping?” His tone was more derisive than concerned. “How are you going to work out like that?”

I did my best not to let his harsh gaze pierce through me, did my best to ignore my throbbing thigh, and I opened the door. Amelia waited inside, and when Anton saw her his irises glazed with lust; at the same time Amelia’s pupils narrowed, becoming the predator’s now. “You brought him.” She clasped red-nailed fingers around Anton’s wrist, her voice turning tough. “Good girl, Lizzy.” She licked juice-stained lips. “Good girl.”

My leg shrieked and my entire body wobbled. I realized with a lurch of my heart that I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake, and I couldn’t run.

Amelia cast sharp eyes toward my left leg. “Don’t worry, Lizzy—we’ll fix that.” She grabbed my arm with her free hand, guided us both toward the studio, where the lights were out and candles made shadow plays of the mirrors and barres.

“Wait a second,” I protested, “what about the class? Where is everyo—”

But Anton spoke over me, like always. “Nice atmosphere. Kinda kinky.”

He must have seen the tubes hanging in the corners, their red lengths lurid in the candlelight, like viscera. He thought this was the threesome. “Anton,” my voice shook, “you should go.”

Amelia laughed high and long, like a bell. “Oh, Lizzy, you don’t want to save him. Stop fooling yourself.” She released me and led Anton, willing victim, further into the room. Iris and Emily rose from the shadows, holding butcher’s knives behind their backs, out of Anton’s sight.

“Holy shit,” Anton said, “an orgy?”

Amelia grinned, her lips wet and swollen, grotesque; she pressed Anton’s back into the barre and ripped off his shirt. “Come on, Lizzy. Hold him down.”

I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Emily and Iris were inching closer, blades beginning to peek out. “Don’t be a baby, Lizzy.” Amelia traced her nails across Anton’s bare torso, and he barely squirmed. “There’s enough blood in this vessel to heal your leg, make you strong and beautiful, just like us.”

I whimpered and all three women laughed. “Really, Lizzy?” Amelia went on. “You didn’t wonder how we got so perfect, so powerful? You didn’t ask yourself why the studio was always so shiny and spotless? You didn’t suspect what was in that red juice?”

Iris reached her knife out and, quick and slippery as a silverfish, sliced Anton’s chest. He groaned but, eyes still glassy, did not move.

Amelia ran her ring finger through the blood, drew it to her mouth and sucked. “You,” she told me when she’d removed the clean digit, “can have the heart.”

My leg sung like a siren, as if I’d plunged it into a sea of razor blades. I wanted the heart. I wanted the pain to stop; I wanted to be beautiful and strong.

Amelia had grabbed another knife, now, and offered the handle to me. “Come on, Lizzy…”

I took shaky steps forward, wrapped trembling fingers around the hilt, inhaled the coppery-sweet scent of blood. I looked into Anton’s eyes, wild with fear beneath the stupor, and I pointed the blade at his heart. Pushed hard enough to part the skin, power sizzling up my veins, as the other women stepped back to watch—

I pivoted and pressed the blade to Amelia’s throat. “Run, Anton,” I gritted out. “Now!”

He didn’t hesitate. I was right behind him, brandishing the knife to ward the others off. But they sliced at my back, shredded my tank top, carved my flesh till the pain rivaled my leg. Amelia wailed with outrage; perhaps I’d pierced her perfect flesh.

I toppled through the studio doors, the precious knife slipping from my hands. I didn’t trust myself to bend to retrieve it and get back up. In the lobby, Anton held the front door open for me. Blood poured down his body, his flesh deathly white. I stumbled into him and we half-fell onto the sidewalk where I shouted, “Help! Help! Call 911!”

We hobbled down the street as onlookers gathered and in the distance, a siren roared. When blue and red lights announced our rescue, Anton clasped me to his chest, against the thump, thump of his bleeding heart. “I’m so sorry, Lizzy. For everything.” I heard the fragile sincerity in his voice, smelled the male essence of him beneath his cologne. He was human and imperfect, unlike the vicious women we’d left behind. “You saved my life. Can you forgive me?”

Then the paramedics were there, pulling us apart. “Come with me in the ambulance,” Anton pleaded, clutching me tighter. His grip felt like something I could sink into; it felt like love. I did not want to let go.

But I pushed into his chest, pushed him away, soaking my hands in his blood. I spoke with more certainty than I ever had in my life: “Go fuck yourself.”

I walked away as the EMT called, “Miss, we need to look at those wou—”

Moving faster, I licked my hands. Felt my torn skin and muscles knit back together with every drop of blood I slurped up.

Once I was far from everyone else, I stopped and heaved out a great breath of relief and regret. I let my head fall to my shins, wrapped my arms around myself in a contortionist’s hug. My supernatural strength would fade, but my flexibility was returning; I was a very lucky girl.

I would bend and not break, this time around.