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Elizabeth Losh

Sweat

I knew that woman didnít belong here. There was no way she was really pregnant. For months on end she was the same size. And when we got down on all fours to exercise together, I could see that her belly was soft, like a bag of laundry.

But Anna was so beautiful that she had gotten away with it. She was long-limbed with honey-blonde hair and looked like the perfect pregnant models in parenting magazines, the ones who always smiled and showed their wedding rings and lived in houses that were never dirty. In the gym she wore crisp maternity clothes in the seasonís current colors. And when she was naked in the shower room, her glossy golden belly was as glorious as a pear.

But I knew that Anna was a fraud.

One day after class I decided to ask the instructor about it outright. I was helping put away gear. It was work to be done quickly. Tufts of hair floated out as we snapped mats shut. Baby toys were tossed in corners. Barbells clanked as we moved boxes. Mirrors squealed where we polished them clear of fog. The room had a large picture window that fronted the street, and the people who ran the gym didnít like to have us in that particular exercise room for long. They wanted attractive, sexy singles on display.

"When do you think Anna is due?" I asked.

"Thatís a good question," said the instructor. "Iíve lost track. Soon."

But I could see that the instructor was mulling it over in her mind. In the mirrored wall she frowned just a little bit, and the image behind her frowned and the image behind that.

"The last time she said anything about it," I said, "she said that she was due in three months. But that was three months ago. It was before I had my baby."

The instructor pulled on one of her dreadlocks; sweat sprinkled off it when it sprang back into place. "Itís hard to tell. There was a girl in our after-school program who had a baby in the restroom last month, and she was the size of my daughter. Not even a bump showing."

The instructor was black and had five children; I was white and had one.

"But when I joined the class I distinctly remember the fact that Anna was going to have her baby first. We were both going to use the same hospital, and she was going to tell me what it was like."

"Itís her own business," the instructor insisted.

"But she canít be pregnant. Itís been over a year!" I hadnít meant to sound emotional.

The instructor patted me on the back. "Once you have kids you worry about your own problems."

"But she even comes to group and does it. Acts like sheís one of us."

Every Friday after class the gym held a motherís support group that was run by a licensed therapist. We sat in a circle Ė some cross-legged, some kneeling, some lying prone up on elbows Ė and solved each otherís problems for sixty minutes. Babies crawled from lap to lap. Jokes about sex were made, and older children were shushed when they asked about them. More time was spent on the subject of training husbands than training children. Usually someone cried.

I was grateful for the company of the other mothers. All except for Anna, who just talked about how wonderful her husband was and how romantic and how helpful around the house.

"People are entitled to say what they need to say in group," the instructor said. "And everyone is welcome in my exercise class. You donít have to be pregnant or have a new baby to come."

For a moment neither of us said anything. We were both probably thinking about the perfectly made-up redhead with the stillborn child, the one who had come to class for months after her baby died. I had to admit that redhead worked out hard. Sweat had pooled on the mat under her, so much sweat that I slipped on it once. The women in class who knew her better said that there were gruesome details about the stillbirth. The only signs of her loss I ever observed first-hand were a few tears shed down her freckled face when we did the stretching exercise where we pulled one leg up and rocked it back and forth in our arms like a baby. Maybe the redhead cried when she really worked out too, but the tears were lost in all that sweat rolling down her nose and her chin.

On the days that I was really tired from being up with the baby, I could sweat and cry in public, and no one knew the difference. My sweat even tasted like tears when it ran down my face, even when I wasnít crying. I could work out hard and feel perspiration drip from earlobes and nipples, and the feeling was so purging that it was like a good cry.

I was determined to make my point with the instructor. "Sheís not just lying to us. She must be lying to other people. What do you think her husband thinks?"

"If I got involved every time that a woman lied to her husband, I wouldnít have time to run an exercise class at all," the instructor laughed.

I was surprised. I thought the instructor liked me. No one worked out harder in the class than I did. And I always stayed after class to straighten up the room, even when my nose and ears were numb from lack of sleep.

"I liked the old mats better," I said. "The new ones are too thin."

The instructor didnít seem to hear me. She had made herself busy with making my baby laugh instead. She rattled his rattle under his nose and kissed his feet with loud kisses. He rocked his head back and forth, chuckling in response. When he moved, I could see the bare flat spot on the back of his head that bothered me.

"I bet we could get the old mats back easily enough," I continued. "They never throw anything away here. I could ask about it. I could find out."

No one answered. I might as well have been at home talking to myself again. The instructor and my baby whispered nonsense to each other.

In the days after our conversation, I couldnít help but view Anna like some unprosecuted criminal in our midst. I couldnít imagine how the instructor could be so unconcerned. Women who faked pregnancy had even been known to kidnap babies. What if Anna went into the childcare room some day and stole another womanís infant? I never put my baby into the childcare room, naturally, but other mothers did. And the staff was always distracted with one crisis or another, especially with the pretty little girls who peed into their crinolines or infested the dress-up clothes with lice.

Sometimes I got so mad at Anna that I wanted to give up on being subtle and poke her. Anna deserved a real no-nonsense bony-fingered poke at the top of her fundus, the kind that curious old ladies in elevators specialized in, the ones who made guesses about the sex of a baby. A sharp little poke! What a small price to pay for such fakery! I had suffered through five months of morning sickness, four months of backaches, twenty-eight hours of labor, and a c-section at the end of it all.

I just wanted to prove that Anna was the crazy one. Especially when all the other women admired her peach colored skin or her thick wavy hair or the way that she kept so fit in the third trimester.

Finally I couldnít take it any more. I had to expose the imposter. I couldnít concentrate during class; I couldnít keep to a rhythm; I couldnít get sweat flowing. Anna would do the easy "pre" exercises, cat stretches and pelvic rocks, and it would make me so distracted that I couldnít do my own.

I had been to medical school for two years, so I knew there were many ways to prove that Anna was not pregnant. The most accurate method would require a urine sample. I spent days trying to think of how I could manage to collect it. I felt like a detective in a crime movie who had to come up with a clever way to get fingerprints or a sample of handwriting from a suspect. It was only after I followed Anna into the ladiesí room with a pregnancy test in my purse that I finally gave up on the idea. It was bad enough to be seen pushing ahead of a seemingly pregnant woman in line. Then I had to sit in the stall trying to figure out how to attach the test to the toilet bowl. Afterwards I listened to Anna flush away the evidence, as I washed my hands, defeated.

So I moved on to Plan B. Plan B made me uncomfortable, because it required actual physical contact with the woman. I would have to manipulate Annaís abdomen like a real doctor would do. In preparation I read about globular, soft, anteflexed uteruses. I studied diagrams for bimanual exams. I flipped through color plates of womenís large discolored bellies and tried to remember what it felt like to touch a patient.

In my case there wasnít much to remember. In medical school I had liked cell biology the best. Under the microscope I could admire the translucence of the body like stained glass windows. Even in exercise class I still thought about the aesthetics of the microscopic view. Muscle cells were crystalline. Sweat glands looked like bunches of clustered rosebuds. I looked at my baby and imagined the glittering zygote he once was.

The one time that there was an actual medical emergency in class, I didnít know how to respond. There was a woman who came to class who was hugely pregnant and almost due. She was in her forties with short hair. She always made herself invisible in mannish clothes. She never stayed for group.

As a class we were rarely in synch Ė it was difficult to keep pace while stepping over babies Ė but on this particular morning we were. I was in the rear of the room. I could see a dozen backs in front of me, each one with an hourglass of sweat, all except for the middle-aged woman who nobody seemed to know. She was moving more slowly and out of step with the rest of us.

Sheís not trying, I thought, and worked out harder. The other women kept to my pace. Sweat seeped across the backs of their shirts like a dozen symmetrical inkblot tests: swans, vases, pairs of faces. I made associations and enjoyed the fact that you couldnít really exercise and think at the same time.

"Monica!" the instructor barked. Then more gently, "Whatís your name?"

It was then that I noticed that the middle-aged woman had been standing stock still for the last few minutes.

"Whatís your name?" the instructor asked again. What a weird question, I thought. She just said her name.

The others broke ranks and clustered around Monica. I was irritated. I had eaten three pieces of pie for breakfast and needed to work out that day. I still had twenty pounds to lose. Just because one woman was tired, I didnít want to stop.

The instructor was getting upset. "Monica, do you know your name?"

"I . . . I . . . I," Monica whispered. She shook her head as if she were trying to shake a piece loose inside. When she tried to talk again she couldnít.

The instructor looked at Monica. "Call 9-1-1!" she screamed.

The instructor had realized right away that Monica was having a stroke. I had been to medical school, but I had assumed that she was just tired. I expected that a person having a stroke would fall down or bleed from the nose or do something dramatic. But Monica looked fine, just a little confused, as if she had walked into the wrong exercise class.

After a few minutes, she could only sigh and shake her head. Otherwise she looked normal. In the hall people repeated Monicaís age, "forty-two," to each other.

Even Anna managed to be helpful. She went over and held the other womanís hands. She kissed Monicaís fingertips. "Itís going to be okay," she said.

I went over to the instructor and told her that it wasnít her fault. It was my fault, I thought to myself. I set the pace. If we hadnít worked out so hard, Monica might still be fine.

The sighs became louder and rattled in Monicaís ribcage. Finally the ambulance pulled up outside the window. Red light wobbled around the room. Anna helped Monica sit down. She made eye contact. "Theyíll be here in a few seconds, and then youíll be fine."

Anna was right. Monica was fine. She came back to class a few months later with a big towheaded baby. Her short hair was shorter where it had grown over her brain surgery. After the stroke she talked plenty but did so with a noticeable lisp. Now Monica led the other women in fussing over Annaís imaginary pregnancy. It drove me crazy.

My husband noticed that my medical books were out again and was, at first, encouraging. But when he found out what I was up to, he was angry. He thought that Plan B was a very bad idea.

"Iím trying to help," I said. I was studying at the kitchen table. My books rested on an unpaid stack of bills.

"What if she doesnít know?" he demanded. "What if she thinks sheís pregnant?"

I looked around the kitchen. I was annoyed that he never folded up the highchair after the baby ate. But as usual I didnít say anything.

"This has been going on for months. It will only be worse once other people notice too. She needs to face reality."

"Youíre one to talk about facing reality," he said. "You have all that stuff of your brotherís in the basement. If you want exercise, you should clear it out."

I slept in the babyís room that night. The next day at class, I stayed right next to Anna and worked out hard.

Perspiration soaked three layers of clothing; my shoes sopped. When I was young and single, I had drenched the sheets when I made love. My lovers could hardly stay on top of me; I was so slippery. Now that I was married, exercise gave me some of the same feeling. And when I looked at myself in the mirror when I was sweating, I liked what I saw. Sweat made my skin look finished, like a figure that needs glaze.

During the break I initiated Plan B. I went right up to Anna with false concern.

"I think your abdominal muscles are separated. When was the last time you saw your doctor?" I asked.

I could see that she had to compose an answer. "Last week," she finally replied.

I got closer. So close I could smell her fresh fruity perfume. Anna could probably smell the spit-up on me. "Have you had an ultrasound yet?"

Anna seemed uncomfortable with direct questions. "Doesnít everybody these days?"

"When exactly?"

She hesitated. "Iíd have to think about it."

Before she could move away, I put both hands around Annaís belly and probed deeply. "Does this hurt?"

"Ouch! Yes it does!"

"How about this?" I palpated her abdomen. Under her small intestine, I could feel that her uterus was hard. It wasnít a third trimester uterus but it was enlarged too. Even Annaís body had begun to believe her stories. I let go, confused, doubting my senses.

Anna was flustered too. "What should I tell my doctor?" she asked. She put her hand daintily over her navel.

"Ask your doctor if you have pseudocyesis." I instructed. "Itís a rare condition, but maybe heís heard of it."

Pseudocyesis was the Latin name for an imaginary pregnancy. Over the past week I had studied up on its pathology. It produced many of the same symptoms as real gestation. Researchers thought that it might have something to do with the temporal lobe. One study showed Roman Catholic women were ten times more likely to have pseudocyesis than Protestants. Another article said the condition was most common in veterinary subjects: pigs, dogs, cats, rats. Everyone thought that Anna was so beautiful and special, but I knew she was just like a crazy dog whining over puppies it would never have.

"Thanks," Anna said. "Iíll ask him."

The music started up again for the workout. Since I was post-partum, I usually spent the second half of class looking at the ceiling while I did sit ups and bicycled upside down. The ceiling was made of squares and circles, cottage cheese panels and round speaker grids. Ever since I had decided to have a baby, I felt like I spent much of my life looking up at the ceiling: up at the bedroom fan while we were trying to conceive, into the claw of operating lights in the delivery room, over the striped ceiling as I rolled on the gurney to my c-section. From this position, I could hear two women debating about a babyís head stuck in a staircase railing that morning.

"You really canít yank. The headís too big at that age. You have to calm him down and pull all of him through."

"Thatís not true," said the other woman. "You can just grease him up. I keep salad oil handy. It happens all the time in our house."

With their talking, it was hard to think, but I came up with another plan. I would confront Anna after class. I would do an intervention in group. I would present my observations as conclusively as a detective on a TV mystery, and Anna would have no choice but to confess.

The therapist came in, and we formed a circle with her on the floor. She had silver hair in a bun, and she always wore blue and beads. When she moved the beads made noise, so when she listened she kept herself still and silent.

Half the women were pregnant, and half had new babies. It was the only all-female social group that I had joined since Girl Scouts. Usually we just talked, but sometimes we had expert speakers as guests. Once the breast cancer lady came, and we passed a clear plastic bag of silicon full of lumps to feel. Another time, we took turns fighting a man covered with blue padding in the center of our ring. He was the only male who ever came to group. He had come to talk to us about self-defense. One of the pregnant women wouldnít stop kicking him. No more men came.

"Something is really bothering me," I began. "I have this friend . . . "

"A friend?" The therapist raised her eyebrows.

I looked at the other women in the circle and was suddenly unsure about how to characterize my relationship to them. I started over. "Well, I know this woman. Sheís pretending to be pregnant. Sheís living in this fantasy world."

Anna was almost directly opposite me. In the early afternoon light she looked like a golden Madonna. She sat between the instructor and Monica. The instructor glared at me and shook her head almost imperceptibly. A toddler eating a banana wandered into the center of the circle. He stood in front of me and eyed me suspiciously too.

"And how does this make you feel?" the therapist asked.

"Angry," I said, before I realized that it was a trick question.

"And why does it make you feel angry?" the therapist asked.

I could feel a trap but answered anyway. "Because sheís lying. Because itís not true."

"Are you angry now?" Usually other women joined in by now with their advice and experiences, but the therapist continued to be the only one speaking.

Everyone was looking at me. Even the eyes of sleeping babies seemed to have popped open. They were all acting as though I was the criminal who needed to be unveiled. I was sweating again, but this time it wasnít the cooling sweat of exercise.

"Why shouldnít I be angry? Iím right, and sheís wrong. If a woman was married to a liar, you wouldnít say that she was the problem."

"That might be exactly what I would say." The therapistís gray hair sparkled in a shaft of sun.

"But thatís crazy!" I exclaimed. "That makes no sense at all!" I implored the other women. "Does that make any sense to any of you?" I looked around our circle, faced with their irrational judgement of their implacable tribal law.

"So why are you so angry?" Monica asked. The paralysis made her face look even more quizzical. "You have a beautiful beautiful baby."

I felt bad. I hadnít suffered the way Monica had to get her baby. But I couldnít go back now. I looked right at Anna.

"Because I care about the truth. I made real sacrifices to have my baby. I paid a price. It wasnít all baby showers and cards and bed rest. I had to leave medical school."

I felt very tired, as if having all my sleepless nights at once.

"But that," the therapist pointed out, "was a choice. And you still have choices. You can go back to medical school. Or you can stay at home and be a Mom. People usually feel angry when they feel that they donít have choices."

I couldnít swallow. It was as though all the hard words that I hadnít said to my husband were stuck in my throat.

"If you want to cry," the instructor said. "You can cry now."

And I cried as obediently as if she had told me to drop and do twenty push-ups.

"Whatís behind your tears, Kristin?" the therapist asked.

I couldnít answer. It was as though behind my tears there was only another curtain of tears. And the farther I looked, the more I cried.

"Talk to us. Tell us about it, Kristin," the therapist said.

Everyone was silent. The only sound was the spastic suckling of babies at breasts.

"Iím so alone," I wailed.

It sounded stupid like anything true. But I couldnít explain. And I certainly couldnít tell them how much I missed my brother. I couldnít tell them how much it pleased me when my baby looked like my brother rather than my husband, or how being with the baby reminded me of when we both were young and would talk together as siblings, just the two of us, when only I could talk.

"Youíre not alone," said Anna. "You have friends. Iím your friend."

This was a ritual feature of the group. The moment when one woman volunteered to help another. It was the central drama of every week. Everyone looked at me with the expectation of relief.

"But youíre a liar," I almost answered.

But I didnít. My brother was a liar also. He didnít tell me he was dying. Even when he was too sick to go out with me, even when the pillows and the mattress were saturated with his perspiration, he lied. When we buried him we couldnít find clothes that werenít stained with his sweat.

Anna made a gesture of openness. "Lunch," she said. "My treat."

The baby had begun to fuss in my lap. I jiggled him quiet. "No," I said. "Mine."

I was going to get her to tell me the truth over lunch. I would bring a tape recorder. This time it would work.


Elizabeth Losh is the Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course at U.C. Irvine. She has an M.F.A. from U.C. Irvine and was a U.C. Regents Fellow in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Sulfur and The Santa Monica Review. She is currently working on a series of short stories about bodily fluids or "humors," of which "Sweat" is a part.

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