I raise my arm to write on the chalkboard, and the skin draped over bone and muscle swings in contrapuntal melody. I am ashamed to be caught in the act of living in skin. I hope my students are not hypnotized by the distracting motion. I hope no one sees this hammock of flesh and lumps me onto a mind’s-eye heap of sad discarded women. I look up the name for loose upper-arm muscle and see “bingo arms” or “lunch lady arms.”
I remember women with working bodies spooning food, sorting papers in a classroom, women who did not have time, money, or desire to join a gym. As a child I didn’t know this upper arm of an older female had a name. I saw a unified whole, an older woman whose flesh was a cool miracle of softness and solidity swathed in mysterious folds. You came to her with problems and she both solved them and smiled at you through layers of fondness and days, sorting like a savant all the miracles in the heart’s mansion-chambers. Her hands and muscles and mind could do anything that was needed.
These twin sags of skin mean I am older, past child-bearing age. I still dress like a twelve-year-old boy and yet estrogen ebbs in a patterned shift, my share expending in a justice of limitations. Everything slackens and pillows. Maybe I fear the softness and curving because it is yet another mark of the feminine, with which I have had an uneasy relationship. This container is a target, my wing-flaps a sign of vulnerability.
I am forty-four and of wiry build, with muscles just starting to bow and slacken. The earth pulls and wants us all back inside her. My arms’ curves trace the geometric pull of the heavy spinning planet against a skeleton audaciously spiking outward from the Earth. We call them “flopping fish,” “turkey wings,” and “bat wings”—and yet think of a bat, its sonar navigation at night, its closed dark face with bright-pricked eyes, its durable leathery skin, its swoop, and its feather-light folded power at rest. I imagine these twin folds as the regal crest of wisdom, the monk’s hood and stole, the mark of a woman who can take imaginative flight backward in time and yet bear to return to her body.
I hold up an arm and an inch of flesh hangs, dipping inward beneath the bone, forming a hollow that runs from armpit to elbow. Its cross section would be a teardrop. The flesh has a soft substantial weight, the curve of a slackened triceps brachii, the “three-headed muscle.” Its job is to straighten the arm, so when the arm is bent, it is slack. It is composed of three bundles, called heads, and each is employed to a different strength depending on the level and duration of force required. It holds the elbow joint in place for fine movements, such as writing. This is our writing muscle.
Of three-headed beasts there is Cerberus, the three-headed dog, who guarded the gates of Hades.
And then as soon as I start thinking about praising them, I Google suggested exercises. One link is listed under “arm fat.” I put my palms flat on the couch behind me, hover in the air as if I am seated, and lower myself onto the floor, then back up. Ten times. I wonder if I might continue to do these for the feeling of being in my body. I do a few awkward movements with my elbows and feel a pleasant burn of oxygenated muscles.
I think of the upper-arm ideals: Angela Bassett, Michelle Obama.
Do I long for isolated hardness to deny what I become? It is alluring to focus on a few movements to tighten my three-headed dog, to push against the slackening. But I forget. My dogs wag their tails at me, my fierce dogs who remind me that the underworld is with me even now.
Sonya Huber is the author of three books of creative nonfiction: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the forthcoming essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys: Thoughts from a Nervous System (spring 2017) as well as a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration, and the guide The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Terrain.org, and other journals. She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
Artwork by Allison Dalton