“Slowly reach down to touch your toes,” the nurse instructs, and so you bend, like Ms. McKay has you do in gym class. You gaze in obedient silence at the floor and wonder what the nurse is seeing, wonder if your back is wrong or if it's perfect. You imagine straightening up to find a grave expression and weary shake of head, and then perhaps a typed letter that will have to go home, an envelope passed from sweaty hands to suspicious ones. You try to imagine the medical procedure you will need to correct the curvature you’ve already have convinced yourself is there; awful surgery, probably, that will involve slicing and sawing and recovery that will involve splints and braces and wheelchairs. Pain, you will feel such pain. And then the nurse taps you gently on the shoulder, “Okay, dear, you’re fine--” and you can go back to class. You’re fine.
That was elementary school, when your cottony hair was braided in sections and partitioned by strips of black elastic with shiny baubles at the end, that would snap against your scalp if you weren’t careful in removing them. You were a tall child and are now a tall teenager, limbs stretched disproportionately away from skinny to gawky. Your hair is short and not permed and you hate and love its glaring authenticity as you hate and love to suppress your own. The way it grows out of your head is the way that people see it. If only you could be so bold, so brass. Your body wilts underneath the hot gaze of your own neuroses: you swallow every lie your insecurities tell until your back bows from the weight. “Straighten up,” Mom reminds you, endlessly, and you adjust your posture but really, you’re still bent. You carry heavy bags and walk with a slouch and scowl into every mirror you see. You walk across the fading carpet in your parents’ bedroom, balancing one, two, three books on your head. Mom watches, directs. Gestures and points. Mom used to be a model, and is still stately, still proud. Her nails are always polished and her perfume smells like home. You don't want to disappoint her. You walk, and walk, and you do not drop a book.
You're finally an adult, and your waistline is uneven. You notice it one day and you can’t stop seeing it: every time you change your clothes, you find the imperfection in the mirror, haunted by its obviousness, its glaring disregard for symmetry. Where both sides of your waist should be narrowed, only one side is noticeably so. Crooked. You are crooked. You feel fundamentally wrong and wonder why, why this flaw? In summer, at the pool and beach, there is no hiding it, no subterfuge. You wonder if people notice, if they wonder. Even with more clothes on, you feel distinctly off. You find your own self-absorption grotesque even as you cower. You are still bent.
In France, so many years and miles away from middle school, they summon you for a medical exam for some vague reason pertaining to your visa. You have x-rays done and the doctor sits you in his office to show them to you, to relay his concern. He does not say the word you first heard all those years ago in elementary school: scoliosis. You do not know if there is a word for this in French. “This is very severe,” he says instead. “You should sleep with a pillow between your legs. Do stretches every morning and every night.” You follow his instructions. The same stretches you did in gym class, in that nurse's office, you do them in your studio apartment. You consider your spine and its gentle curve. The crookedness of your waist. The slight ache in your back, in your heart. You can hide it beneath layers and sweaters and wine and within books. It is not apparent. The white envelope containing the photographs of your wayward bones: you slide it beneath your bed, where it collects dust until you pack away the last nine months of your life into suitcases. You board a plane and stare out of the window at the rapidly shrinking city beneath you. Your spine and your hair and your scars and every little part of you that is physical, and that is nonphysical, that grins and groans when you look into mirrors, it’s all there with you, hurtling through frigid air. And it’s all very heavy. You are still bent.