I'm so close to doing the splits that it barely matters that I can't really get there. I've been practicing on and off for a couple years. I do my little workout to warm up, like I've done a thousand times before. I move the coffee table out of the way and wince on my mat. I watch a video where a former ballerina tells viewers that once we pass the phase of stretching that's so uncomfortable we'll want to die, we'll start loving it. I put my foot on a stray shirt so it will slide more easily along the floor. I use my hands to guide my descent. Every day, I reach approximately the same place, and every day, it hurts. In geometry, an asymptote describes a line that continually approaches a given curve but doesn't meet it at any finite distance. This is the exact relationship between my crotch and the floor.
It won't get easier. I'm 26 now. When I search for a splits age limit, a 90-year-old woman appears on my screen, her legs splayed outwards. She wears pearl earrings and says her splits aren't due to luck, only discipline. The ballerina posts that her birthday makes her sad because she's another year closer to not being able to do the splits. She's two years older than me.
I'm usually annoyed with the ballerina. She entered my life when I started watching workout videos in my living room instead of going to the gym. At the time, I shared a small apartment in Richmond with my friend, Hannah, who I met after posting a roommate listing. When she emailed me, I looked her up and found a photo where she wore both the exact same clear frame glasses and straight-across bangs as me. I thought, Cool girl! Her work bio said she liked embroidery and jumping into the ocean. We quickly became close. Our linoleum floors looked eternally dirty, but we kept sunflowers on our sweet little kitchenette table. I loved living there. I loved our leftover Halloween decorations and thin walls and that I could hear the guy in the next apartment, Caleb, as clearly as if he were in my room. Our beds pressed up against opposite sides of one corner, so our heads were barely a foot apart when we slept. I loved hearing him pick up the phone and exclaim, "You're at Maggiano's, man?" He sold drugs in an unconcealed way, and sometimes lamented, "I'm tired of code stuff. Why don't you just say you want cocaine?"
I used to meditate in the morning, while Caleb rummaged around beside me. Sometimes I followed a loving kindness guide. I liked the idea that kindness was a muscle I could strengthen. The narrator would tell me to first think of myself and say: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at peace. I couldn't beg, or it wouldn't work.Then, I had to call to mind someone I loved and offer these words to them. Then, I was supposed to expand the wish and hold every existing being in my mind and hope the same for all of them.
This was the step I struggled with because my brain is simply too small to fit every living being in the universe, and because this always brought up the notion of impossibility, of food chains, of coyote life that's sustained by deer death, the notion that both animals deserve health equally, the fear that everything we ask for is built upon suffering. So I modified this step and called to mind every living being in the range of the building, primarily the first floor. I'd think of Hannah and Caleb and me and the cat outside who was mangey and friendly and desperate for attention, and say: May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be at peace.
Sometimes I challenged myself to wish health and happiness upon the ballerina too. Her name is Madeline. She has a blonde ponytail and a tattoo of birds along her ribcage. She's a trainer for an online workout video service, and I'd signed up for a free trial. When I tried to cancel, I was an hour late and had accidentally paid for six months. Madeline and I were stuck.
My grievances about Madeline are multifold. The only one with any backing is that she hasn't seemed to realize that, as a culture, we've changed our language surrounding exercise. I can't fault her for this too much. I know the ballet world that shaped her is particularly rough, within a broader world that offers deeply conflicting messages on how to consider the body. Sometimes she posts about re-learning to eat enjoyable food after her ballet career, and I imagine that, like me, like many of us, her relationship to all of this is contradictory and oscillating and unclear even to herself. She hasn't heard that we don't say words like "calories" or "the fat is melting off your body" anymore, only "toned." I think of Caleb who just wants to shout cocaine over and over in a public space.
When I lie on the floor, doing a crunch where I reach my arms above me Madeline cheers, "Go on, pretend you're reaching for what you really want! You're reaching for a Snickers bar." I think, Oh my god, Madeline, I just can't handle you right now. It's a pretty good workout.
She says, "This is what we're here for! Getting sexy stomachs!" Speak for yourself, Madeline, I think as I squat and punch the air in front of me. I'm here to be healthy in body and mind. I'm here to be happy, healthy, and at peace. I have no idea how true this is. I think I exercise mostly for health and stability, but it's entirely believable that I'm hiding other motivations. I know Madeline didn't invent diet culture—she's trapped in this too, although she's also profiting from it. When I complain about her, my friend finds Madeline's story sad: a woman who trained as a ballerina, who retired after injuries at 25, and then what? What does she do with these skills? What would Madeline's purpose be, if not being extremely small and flexible? My friend says: it must be terrifying.
My other problem with Madeline is more basic and unjustified: I don't think I'd know how to talk to her in real life. She's energetic and goofy and exaggerates the word "booty." Her workout model, Vicki, rolls her shoulders backwards, pumping her fists horizontally, and says, "I feel like a choo-choo train." Is this what people I don't relate to say to each other? Is this how I'm supposed to talk? Is this what I'm missing? I roll my shoulders and look into a dark window that operates as a mirror at night. I silently mouth, "I feel like a choo-choo train."
I never did ballet. I liked gymnastics as a kid, although my understanding of gymnastics was wiggling my body on the grass and cheering, Gymnastics! My repertoire included: headstands, handsprings, and, of course, the splits.
I've heard that calling it the splits rather than a split is old-fashioned and betrays that I was never trained. Still, I like the idea that this stretch is so ultimate, so delineating that it warrants this: it's not a split, it's the splits. When you achieve it, you win flexibility. There's a goal, and it has an endpoint.
This—a goal with a conclusion—was appealing to me both as a child, and a 24-year-old in Richmond, bursting with sudden urgency to leave this apartment I insisted I loved so much, an apartment with windows that faced brick walls. I was so happy, I reminded myself constantly. Yes, I'd expected to leave the small city where I'd gone to college by now, but really, my friends were nearby and my cost of living was low. I found my job interesting. It didn't pay much, but provided insurance. I loved the pastel Edwardian houses. I loved feeling like I knew the people who lived here and was known in return. I loved drinking Cheerwine with my feet in the dirty river. I would say, if 20 years from now it turns out that I never moved away because I was always so happy that I never wanted to leave, would that be the worst thing?
Something in my chest kept tightening anyway. I told acquaintances that I was thinking about moving to Montreal to see how it felt. I started editing my resume, then not sending it, then really sending it, making lists of grad school deadlines, wondering if I'd ever find a reason to leave. I pressed submit, and that was that. The outcome was out of my hands. This, I told myself, must be why I wanted to do the splits so badly, why I wanted to set a goal and see it through, wanted a body that would do what I asked, even when I asked something pointless.
I worried that I'd take this restlessness wherever I landed, or worse, I'd move and I wouldn't feel restless: just financially insecure and lonely and unsure how to build a new life. Sometimes I'd hear Caleb's voice through the wall, and every day of every week would mush together into this endless sweaty summer, and I craved nothing more than a firm grasp on time.
My mom moved to the US alone at my age, but on the phone she reminded me that it was out of necessity. I'm so happy here, I'd remind myself. I have everything I need. I had an annual Halloween party and had recently dressed up as the sun and attempted the splits in front of everyone. It was a nice touch, I thought, that I only got 80% there, a demonstration of my willingness to perform, even with no skill to offer.
As a child, when a conversation veered too far off-track and I needed to bring the room's attention back to me, I'd slip my legs out to either side and sink to the floor. I knew then as I know now that my body could be manipulated in ways that would make me seen. The process was generally uncomfortable, but not as painful as feeling forgotten. There's a finite amount of time this attention lasts. Unfortunately, nobody wants to sit around and watch you do the splits all day. No plank series will secure the love of someone who once brought you jars of orange blossoms in the months before he tells you it's not like you did anything; it isn't that you aren't funny or flexible or interesting or strong, but there's some fundamental way he's never felt let in. He thought he'd feel closer to you by now.
The splits were especially thrilling when I was a kid because I was spectacularly bad at every other physical task. In PE, I walked the mile with a friend. I pretended that this was to gossip, and, in high school, choose people in our class and guess virgin, not a virgin, but I was also just embarrassed by the thought of letting everyone see me sweat and pant and suffer and still come in last, to try earnestly and still fail to throw a ball or catch what was thrown to me. I had this one redeeming skill; I was very bendy. I'd put my feet against a block for the V-sit, and when the teacher told me to reach, oh, would I reach.
Last summer, a few weeks before my move, I posted a photo where I appear to be in a split, although if you look closely, my foot is sinking into sand. A friend messaged me: "I'm training for it too. It hurts so much, but it's going to be worth it."
I couldn't stop thinking about this message and wondering: what was she talking about? How would it possibly be worth it? I turned on Madeline's video every day anyway. Still, I couldn't shake the thought: spending what culminates to hours, maybe days of my life trying to get one leg forward and the other backward is so clearly, so profoundly not worth it. I'm not a dancer; I've only ever been a fake gymnast. This isn't a dedicated yoga practice. It won't change how my body looks, and it's not about sex. I can't imagine performing the splits in sex. I can only hold it for 20 seconds before it's unbearable. The only obvious explanation is that I love showing off.
The splits aren't even good for you. There's debate about the extent to which even gentle stretching actually prevents injury or soreness. The splits are a trick, a trick that can easily cause injury without caution, or even sometimes with it. I hate to say it, but I don't know if I square my hips enough. It feels like an inconvenient afterthought on my great quest to get to the floor.
The classic idea of stretching poses that, if you practice, your muscle fibers will do just that: literally stretch, growing longer over time. Some researchers debate this, and argue that what your body gains is mostly a gradually building tolerance for discomfort, a familiarity with pain.
My friend said they like exercise best when they can put on TV and disconnect from their body. I started exercising more when I told myself that I enjoy the sensation, that I like slight discomfort. This is why I eat spicy food; this is why people enjoy horror movies. This is a treat, I told myself, walking to the gym in dead winter, framing it as a break. You love this. I imagined feeling satisfied with myself when I was done.
I told my friend I tried to lean into the pain of stretching. I paraphrased a yoga instructor who spoke about exhaling through discomfort. I said something about how it made me feel like I was really experiencing the body, that it made me feel more alive. My phrasing was clumsy, and I immediately worried that whatever I'd said about wanting to be present for pain sounded too similar to casually declaring a belief in self-harm. I backpedaled rapidly. Still, isn't there something to that? To watching yourself breathe through a smaller pain and walk away with greater confidence that you can handle discomfort, that you can handle what will happen to your body whether you want it to or not? Can you believe I just invented one of the tenets of mindfulness in this very essay?
The thing about spending ten minutes a day practicing the splits is that you can only do so many ten minute increments a day of anything, that ten minute increments are what days are made from. I tell myself that I'll meditate, make earrings, study Spanish, go to Zoom school, that I'll write, read, cook, exercise, walk aimlessly in thought, paint, call my dad, FaceTime my friend who's going through a breakup, and do the splits. I have an app for logging every time I go to the bathroom, because I pee constantly and I've read that postponing it strengthens your bladder. I'll design a logo for my friend's teaching organization, or else I'll forget. I'll click on a suggested video called Yoga For Loneliness, which I once followed timidly while Hannah studied for the LSAT in the kitchen. I'm lucky that this is what my days are made from; I know this time is a strange gift. I try to get around to all of this, and pretty soon, the day is done. I'm another day further in my life, another 24 hours closer to the day I won't be able to do the splits. I worry these vanishing days aren't an accidental byproduct of these tasks, but actually the central point.
Once, Hannah and I watched a movie where someone worked on a puzzle. I turned to her and said: "I hate puzzles. You're just not doing anything. Someone else made a picture and then broke it up and you have to make the picture they already made? Why don't you paint your own picture?" Hannah said: "I think you fundamentally misunderstand what puzzles are for." The splits aren't doing anything either, but at least they get applause.
At Hannah's mom's house, her family completed a puzzle on a table, and then layered a tablecloth over it and completed another. This made me sad in a way I couldn't explain, this picture they completed, that already existed, a picture they couldn't look at and couldn't destroy.
I once dated a guy who saw all this love for doing as a real zest for life, one that was so potent he found it unrelatable. I couldn't believe how much he missed the point. He said that on our first date, he had read me as a nervous talker. I insisted that I hadn't been nervous, just a talker. But if I was nervous, it was only in the way I'm always nervous about what would happen the second I stopped talking, stopped attempting the splits and tracking my pee and rolling polymer clay and growing my Duolingo streak and even using my mindfulness app, pausing from a task and making that pause itself, also a task.
I wanted him to understand that if I stopped filling up every inch of the day for one second, if I stopped tracking everything as a goal, I might instantly fall into a deep pit of something I couldn't crawl out from. I might lose sense of time and think about deer life and coyote death and incompatible desires, inscrutable desires, of every time I'd ever left or been left, of creaking bodies and passing time, lonely cats and endless mush in bed. I worried that if I peeled back every layer of speakable hurt, there would be only a small wooden box at the center holding nothing at all. I never said this to him. I didn't want him to imagine me in that state, and I didn't want to imagine it either. I wanted to stay preserved in a light-up headband doing a bad rendition of the splits at a Halloween party. I wanted him to see that it was an act and then be fooled by it too. I wanted him to understand that I did want to learn Spanish and make earrings, that I might even have a genuine zest for life, but more importantly, I was an animal running very fast across the surface of water to avoid sinking. Eventually he dumped me, although probably for other reasons.
The summer before we moved out of our apartment, Hannah and I decided to become friends with Caleb. We had waved in the hall, but mostly, he existed as a disembodied voice, who hated codewords and loved Maggiano's. We decided we'd casually invite him over for a beer, so we casually drove to Kroger to casually pick up a twelve-pack that we pretended to have lying around. We weren't sure about inviting Caleb's roommate, so we were reluctant to knock on their door. We stood on my bed, giggling and sunburned, and knocked on our shared wall. We yelled, "Caleb! Want to come over for a beer?"
He did. We drank PBRs in the living room, and he walked around in Hannah's heels. We tried to record a podcast on a voice memo app. I showed him my fake splits, like I show everyone, and he clapped. I drifted off while Hannah and Caleb talked on the couch. I wondered if they'd have sex. I thought, Yes, I've enjoyed being alive in my twenties, yes, I've made memories with my friend. I could check this off too, this friendship and joy, this goal, which was especially big because it might be the point of life.
My roommate in my new home says it's not true that I can't do the splits. I demonstrated them for her because I thought it would be a cool twist if I suddenly got there. I said it didn't count, because I wasn't entirely flat and I was too scared to lift my hands. A good split should need no hands. I am a split purist. She said, still: the narrative that I can do a split is not untrue. And so that's the narrative I could have chosen, and this is the one I picked: the narrative where my body won't cooperate and I fall a little short. I like to think if I wasn't writing from the coldest depths of a brutally lonely winter, I'd have something different to say. I might have been kinder about Madeline.
Caleb moved to another neighborhood a few months later. Hannah started law school. I learned I was accepted to a graduate program and would soon move to Iowa. I would leave for a town where I'd never been heartbroken, in a state where I knew nearly no one. The night I got the call, I was so happy that it didn't feel like anything I knew happiness to be: happy like an exploding soda, happy like a toddler who gets overwhelmed and starts throwing up.
One of my first mornings in Iowa, I tried a split video by a different trainer. I thought if I bent in new ways, I'd get closer. The trainer achieves the splits, and then puts blocks under her feet to deepen the stretch. This is when I learned about the concept of oversplits: when you extend your legs at an angle greater than 180 degrees, rising into a V-shape. When you get to the finish line and keep going.
Every time I attempt the splits, I honestly think: This could be it. It seems plausible I could just push down and get there, and also plausible that I could push down and tear a ligament. I try to feel the limits of my hamstrings, the strain they can take. I imagine myself as a baby, wiggling my toes, figuring out how my body works and what it's like to live inside it. A baby with all the time in the world. I try to discern what feels good and what feels bad, how I can feel more of one thing and less of the other. I imagine myself getting to know this baby body of mine, a body that's young and bendy and has never been hurt, learning how to make my limbs move where I ask them, learning what they simply won't do. I count to twenty. I press my palms into the floor. I want to scream.
This essay grew out of a specific comment from a friend that stuck in my mind. I'd been practicing getting into a split, and my friend encouraged me to keep going by telling me that once I got there, it would be, "so worth it." Afterwards, I couldn't stretch without thinking about whether or not doing a split was actually worth it, and if so, why, and if not, why I kept practicing anyway. It all seemed to circle the question of what it even means for an activity to be "worth it" or "not worth it" in the first place.