The first time I saw the Skinny Russian Girl, I judged her in the exact way I dread others judging me. She tiptoed into yoga class late, and before I’d even seen her face, when all I knew of her was a vaguely narrow form in the periphery of my vision, I thought the damning word: weak.
It became pretty clear almost immediately, however, that she was the strongest person in the class, let alone girl. Whenever we went into twists, I propped my elbows on my knees and innocently stared. Where did her strength come from? She had no outward appearance of muscles. She was a twig in shorts and tank-top, braless and small-chested with dark hair elaborately pinned to a delicate head. Chandelier earrings dangled from her ears in small crystals. Her eyes were heavy with kohl. When arched on all fours, she could swing through her arms in one graceful motion and land noiselessly into a seated forward bend, her body creased in half at the hips like rolling paper.
After class, the few men in the area would line up to speak with her.
“Where are you from?” I heard someone say, leaning towards her intimately in the coat room as I struggled to find my scarf in a pile of boots. “Russia, right? Somewhere in Russia?”
She shyly mumbled a response, seemingly eager to get around him and out the door.
“You know,” he smiled wolfishly, “I . . . speak a little Russian.”
Dipshit, I thought at him. That’s exactly the sort of thing you’re supposed to say in Russian. I mean, come on. I’ve never taken a single Spanish class, but I could tell you I spoke it, un poco.
“Some guy touched her arm today!” I would exclaim. “Like he owned her, and he said ‘hey, nice to see you here again.’ Come on. Doesn’t he know that she’s always there? She could freaking teach at that studio, and he says nice to see you here, like she’s doing him some kind of favor by showing up. Geez!”
Or, “she seems to know Elliot, the instructor, pretty well. He asked her if she’d be attending his workshop this weekend, and warned her that it’d be a long drive from her place.”
Or, “I heard her talk today. I’m not sure what she said. She has the quietest voice.”
I’d recount the amazing physical feats I’d seen her accomplish, the neverending pairs of earrings, the heavy eye makeup that wouldn’t smear a centimeter. I had begun to suspect that she was magical. Every class, she would tiptoe in a minute or two late, and place her mat next to mine.
“All right,” Elliot said, “pair off time. Girls with girls, guys with guys, or just, whatever. You two, you two, you two.”
I had been paired with Skinny Russian Girl. I could feel a million male eyes burning with jealousy as I edged onto her mat.
It was actually the first time I’d ever looked Skinny Russian Girl directly in the face, and I was immediately startled. For one thing, she was much younger than my discreet darting glances could have discerned, or my eager-to-dislike mind to have guessed. For another, there was an eerie prettiness to her. I had assumed she would look cheap up close, sad with the effort of cosmetics mashed with the effort of warrior poses: but mascaraed eyes and all, she just looked unearthly. And where were those muscles? Those muscles, that stretched in all manner of ways and allowed her to do those things?
I began my awkward spiel. “Hi . . . I’ve actually only done this pose one other time before, so I’m still not quite sure how to do it, and . . .”
“Oh!” she whispered, smiling co-conspiratorially. “Here.”
She pulled out a binder of laminated diagrams of poses, and ran her finger down the list until it rested on our assignment. She crossed her legs and took my hands.
I . . . am in love with you, I thought as she pushed her joyful face up to mine. I had never seen a person capable of smiling mid-sit-up.
“Oh!” she giggled quietly afterwards. “That was so difficult! Your turn!”
I focused very intently on the coordination required to roll up my mat.
I looked up.
She stood there, quietly, until I’d put my mat in my bag and stood up to meet her.
“How long have you been doing astanga?” she asked, eyes fluttering downcast. Everything she said seemed to be italicized, slanted slightly with her accent.
“Oh, uh . . . not long I guess . . . um . . . since January? Yeah.” Pause. “You?”
“Wow, hey, that’s neat . . .”
Uhhhhh . . . think brain, think . . . how do you talk, again? How do words work? What are the appropriate corresponding facial expressions? Follow-up questions?
“So . . . I will see you next time, then?”
“. . . Yeah!”
At this she shuffled away, evaporating out of the room and dispersing her molecules into the night.
He raised an eyebrow, just as any proper Bostonian should when addressed in a friendly fashion by a stranger, and I ran out into the rain with hood flying, slamming my feet violently into the puddles like a twelve-year-old. “Yay!” I thought with each step. “Yay! Yay!” My purse filled with rainwater. My fingers became stiff with cold, and my socks like sponges soaking up water and filth from the streets. “Yay!”