I stand outside the conference room, where dozens are already gathered. The briefing begins shortly, and I’m nervous about walking in late, but I delay my entrance, hovering close to the door.
Hello? I text. I have to put my phone away.
Paul responds. Sorry…she was right here. Lunch is great.
I shove the phone in my back pocket, tug up on my waistband, and find a spot to hide in the back of the room, between the pressed-shirt interns and the agency veterans in black.
The Partner is the last to enter, and he informs everyone that a recent social media post from our marquee client, a popular denim company, generated immediate backlash, and it’s our job to handle it, to make people forget. He paces at the front of the room, his assistant refilling his water glass each time he takes a sip. “We need more than damage control. We have to authentically engage our target with relevant content.”
“We could start a campaign,” says a male colleague. “Free jeans for homeless women with every purchase.”
“Too overplayed,” rebuts another. “What about an event at an art gallery? Women could spray paint their frustrations on fabric mounted on the wall.”
My phone vibrates, and I reach my hand into my pocket, lowering my eyes without moving my head.
“You in the back,” the Partner says. “Something more important?”
“No,” I say, sliding my hand back around to rest on my midriff. “Sorry.”
“Other ideas?” he asks the room.
A model-like woman near the front volunteers. “I’ve always been naturally thin. People accuse me of being anorexic. Point is, women’s bodies are all different.”
Everyone nods in a group gesture, and the Chief Client Officer smiles, as if he’s cracked a code. “Yes,” he says. “That’s it. Let’s not overcomplicate this.”
We return to our desks to find an approved script in our inboxes.
Hi (first name) - One of our founding principles was creating jeans that *all* women love to wear, and feel comfortable in. We failed to live up to that, and we’re sorry.
Open laptops in a row, we navigate to our assigned platform and respond en masse. Even though our digital team immediately removed the offending post, thousands have already seen it, and many of them have posted screenshots on blogs, feeds and forums. Pixelated, poorly cropped, and permanent, the images feature a woman, wearing the brand’s signature royal blue jeans, a polka-dotted bow, and a pair of black pointy glasses. With two hands, she holds up a large pair of pants that nearly eclipse her figure. The caption reads: In 1950, portion sizes were half the size…and so were the jeans. #Reclaimskinny #skinnyjeans. #ThrowbackThursday.
Unacceptable. What were they thinking? writes one commenter on Facebook.
When did we become so politically correct? a woman responds. It’s just an ad.
As soon as I type a boilerplate response to one user, more comments appear, and my task seems endless, blinding. I need a break, so I type in a familiar name in the search box and click on a recent picture, where she stands next to Paul at a birthday party, one arm wrapped around his back, the other hand perky on her hip.
I blur my eyes like I always do, so her face becomes the obscene mouth of a clown, tiny teeth disappearing into a big, black hole, but I can’t un-see her body, trim and sculpted, like a figurine hand-carved from soapstone.
It’s lunchtime, and I know I have an hour to slip out while the rest of the account executives journey to their favorite salad spot. By the time they have gathered, taken the same elevator down, and formed a line to customize their orders from a menu of forty-five possible inclusions, I’m already at Paul’s apartment building, waiting in the lobby for his signal.
He and I have a routine, too. First, I stand in front of him clothed, and he runs his hands over me with precision, like he’s taking measurements. I have flesh in places she doesn’t, and I jut out in certain spots, filling dead air that she passes through anonymously. I know this because I examine her images, but I also know because he tells me, says he wants me because I’m not like her. “She’s cold,” he had told me when we first started sleeping together. “She makes me feel like shit for having desires.”
Today I am wearing a new pair of black leggings, a freebie sent to our office from our new atheleisure client. Paul seems disappointed. “I can’t see you in those,” he says, waving a hand. “Take them off.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, and I wriggle my legs, bit by bit, out of their smooth ash sheath. I don’t admit to him how satisfied I felt wearing them, shiny and flattering down my figure, molding me into a type. No, I can’t let him sense my hesitation; here, my doubt is not allowed.
“What else?” he asks, leaning back against the couch to take me all in. “What happens when you’re with me?”
“I love myself.”
This part always makes me nervous, but I follow his direction. I pull my t-shirt and bra over my head, and I begin to touch myself—on my breasts, lifting them up to fit in my hands, then around my nipples, hardening them as I circle.
“Good girl,” he says, unbuttoning his pants. “Keep going.”
I take a deep breath before moving down, where my wrists slide over my stomach like I’m molding clay. I watch him for signs of distaste, but he is smiling, stroking himself.
“Almost there,” he says.
I part my hair with my fingers and then let my hand trail down my thigh, to my calf, leaving a thin streak of wetness behind.
When I reach my toes, and my nails graze the tops of my feet, he stands up, puts on a condom, and positions himself behind me, grabbing my thighs. As he enters me and thrusts forward, he repeats, “Your body’s so thick. So thick.”
I cringe, imagining ripples of cellulite cascading through his calloused hands, but I can feel the intensity of his arousal, which allows me to get lost in the moment.
“You know you’re fucking hot, don’t you?”
I don’t respond.
“Don’t you? Answer when I tell you to.”
My groin tingles and swells; my favorite part of our game is when I have no choice but to give in. “Yes. I’m perfect.”
“You are soooo—,” he cries out before coming, with an extended, guttural growl.
I pee, trying to wash away his residue, pull my leggings back on and head to the door. The quick, silent exit is also part of our ritual.
I turn back. “Yes.”
“Those pants look great on you.”
Back at the office, we gather to examine the results of the morning’s collective damage control.
“Social sentiment is neutral again,” the Partner announces. This time, he stands in the center of a large huddle and points a laser at a line graph. “Now how to get back in the green.”
The catwalk-type from earlier raises her hand. “What if we got Iskra Lawrence as a spokesperson? Her post on Instagram where she eats chips is badass.”
“Honestly,” I say. “I think their marketing team needs some sensitivity training.”
Heads turn toward me, and I feel exposed. The room is silent until the Partner responds. “This isn’t old-school PR,” he says, nodding to his assistant, who laughs on cue. “It’s strategic communications. We have to engage our audience here. Other ideas?”
Regretful for speaking, I slump down in my seat, letting my stomach fold over the Lycra band. After the meeting, I hide out in the bathroom, waiting for my feelings to pass. I think about texting Paul, but I’m not allowed to do that unprompted, so I sit clothed on the toilet and browse Facebook. I scroll past some ads for a new lingerie brand, past pictures of another classmate getting engaged, and past a map of the country, color-coded by TV-watching preferences. I read a listicle about weight loss secrets and end up clicking on “30 Telling Signs You’re Not with the Right Guy” from a journalist-turned-blogger-turned-content-aggregator (#7 is If the thought of having sex with your boyfriend is as appealing as drinking a warm salmon milkshake).
I am no longer embarrassed, but I now feel alone. I navigate back to the picture of Paul, and I zoom in on his girlfriend, examining her arm, with its carved muscles and skin stretched across her bones, then her flat stomach, unselfish with space. I blur my eyes again, but this time, I see myself in the photo, standing on his other side, making his silhouette lopsided. He’s still standing in the middle, with a cocky grin, high on not having to choose.
I leave work soon after coming out of the bathroom, and I travel through the city. I take one leaden step and then another, willing myself to stop at the bright and airy matcha cafe, dosing out flavonoids in a glass, and to stride past one of the city’s many boutiques of one thing, where I’d find row after row of Argan hair oil or lacy bralettes, only to find myself gliding past a single flickering lamp in the doorway to sit at a bar, next to other people who are alone, staring at bottles reflecting on our little screens. I order a beer, drink it fast, and leave; I am seeking a different kind of comfort.
I wander further, turning the corner onto a residential-only street, where I see a Soul Cycle studio. Out front, on the sidewalk, there is a bright yellow sign that says: Others find their way. You find your soul.
I stop a few feet away and pretend to look at my phone, while I peer up at the gathering crowd of women outside. Their workout outfits signal discipline with shades of electric pink and green or loud geometric patterns—unflattering on most, couture on them—and their faces are rosy with active confidence. Maybe this is something I can obtain, if I play the part.
I keep my eyes to the ground, and walk past their circle, into the building, and up to the third floor, where I’m greeted by a toned blonde with a sheer top. “Welcome,” she says. “You’re in the right place.”
“Yes,” said a second receptionist standing by the reception desk, with a toss of her shiny brown hair. “Welcome.”
“I’m here for my first class,” I say, out of breath. I eye the exit, and then look back at the receptionists. On the wall behind them are hundreds of photos of riders and instructors, arranged in a collage.
“That’s everyone who’s gotten soulful with us,” the first receptionist says.
“Yes,” says the second, handing me a pair of shoes and a bottle of water across the ivory counter. “We know you’ll have a great experience.”
“Don’t forget the release,” the first says, sliding an iPad toward me. “You’re on Bike 23. Usually that’s for regulars, but we had a cancelation.”
“Okay,” I say, signing the form with my fingertip. “What exactly do I do?”
“Come with me,” the second says, guiding me down a long hall into a locker room, where more brightly-attired women stand in trios, giggling. They glance toward me, then turn back in unison toward each other. I clutch the shoes and water to my chest, and bite my lip.
Two touches my arm and lets her hand linger. “Lydia,” she says. “Don’t worry. It will be fun. I’ll see you after.”
I place my things in a locker, slip on my spiky cycling shoes, and stumble to the entrance of Room 3, where a plaque signals the rules. Be respectful to others. Don’t be late. Don’t sit in the front if you don’t plan to follow the rhythm. Always bring your best.
The room is dimly lit and smells of grapefruit. Large candles radiate on the stage in the front of the room. The instructor approaches me and whispers. “Which bike today?”
“Twenty-three,” I say, as I see the big white numbers etched on a circle on a bike, front and center of the room.
“Looks like you found it already,” he says, heading back toward the front of the room.
Around me, women are warming up with ease, simultaneously hitting the same point on the wheel rotation, cycling in sync with the music. I climb onto the bike, moisture gathering beneath me. I try to latch the clips on my shoes to the petals, but they slip past me, rough edges scratching my shins. The instructor comes back to my side, places one hand on my knee, and attaches first one foot, then the other. “It’s okay,” he whispers. “That’s always the hardest part.”
I see myself in the mirror, a stack of lumps below my breasts, folding over the edge of my skintight leggings. I tug my white shirt down, but I can’t seem to hide how my torso looks in the little blue spotlights.
Now the instructor is on the stage, and he gracefully launches one bronzed leg over the bike, then pedaling in a punchy rhythm as he turns up the music. “Hey,” he yells. “It’s Tuesday. I’m Liken, and I’ll be leading your journey today.”
He moves the microphone closer to his mouth. “If you’re not challenged, you won’t change.”
Two pretty girls on either side of me yell out a cheerful “Woo.” Their legs remain in perfect sync with the beat, trim torsos tucked, and their eyes are fixed on the stage, waiting for his gaze. Liken speaks again, winking at one of them.
“How you do anything is how you do everything. The way you ride your bike is the way you live your life.”
I think I feel his stare on me, so I look at his lower half, focusing on his long, smooth limbs in motion, a fleshy metronome guiding my movements. My hips loosen, freeing my thighs to move in easier circles. I peek at either side of me, where the girls are still staring at him—my chance to disappear. I stop straining to hold in my belly, and let my hair fall on my face, sweat-stained strands stuck to my cheeks. My shoulders sway side-to-side, front-to-back, and I ride, song after song.
“This is the last one,” Liken says. “You have to give your version of the best. Which is always the best.”
The girls beside me let out another “Woo!”, but now, their voices sound distorted, like noise passing through a full glass, and I imagine they’re drowning, sinking as the studio fills with water, their bloated faces still, disintegrating, while their legs gyrate on.
Liken swings his legs over the bike for the final time, turns off the overheads so I have to squint to see, and moves toward the two massive candles. He picks one up and blows out the flame, refreshing the room with the scent of citrus and smoke. The song switches to something slow, meditative, and he speaks, now in a whisper,
“You are amazing, just as you are, but you’re already stronger than when you arrived.”
The riders around me all settle in their saddles and lean forward, waiting for the opportunity to blow out the second flame. He moves toward me, and I start pedaling again furiously, maniacally, laughing as loud as I feel.
“Please,” he says, holding the candle out like a gift. “It’s time for zen.”
“Aaahooooooo,” I holler, as my body jerks from side to side, and my legs spin so fast, I feel I might fly off.
“I’m not sure what to do,” he says, still clutching the candle, and the girls in front place their hands over their mouths in shock, as I yell at the top of my lungs. “Aaaayyyaaaiiiiiiiiii.”
Everyone in the class has stopped to watch me, so I spin on. I pull off my soaked shirt and throw it on the ground, so my stomach hangs loose. As I move, my flesh bounces, and I become untethered, like a body that can’t be held back.
Christine Olivas is an emerging writer who recently completed her certificate in fiction from UCLA Extension Writer's Program, as well as workshops taught by Maryse Meijer, Tony Tulathimutte, Marie-Helene Bertino and Josh Rolnick. She is a judge for the Scholastic Teen Writing Awards, and has written articles on professional development and salary advocacy for Career Contessa, a female career website. Her short fiction can be found (or is forthcoming) in Pure Slush and Coil (Alternating Current Press). Originally from Los Angeles, she currently lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.