Palm Sweat

Originally published on The Tusk.

My shin is pressed hard against the pole. My hands are wrapped around it a little above my forehead. The back leg’s knee cinches the pole on the other side as I pull myself into a sit. Then I stand, pulling my chest to the pole. Then I move my hands up. What I hope to do next is grip the pole in my hands, slide my knees up until I’m sitting again, push my butt back, stand, do this over and over until I’m at the top.

My palms are soaking wet. I move them up, the pole is slick with the sweat. I can’t grip, so I can’t shift my weight to my arms long enough to move my legs up. I wipe them on my shorts. I try again. I slide down.

Pole dance classes don’t make sense for me in a couple of ways. My palms sweat almost all the time. I bruise easily. I have little upper body strength and lots of lower body weight. I decided I was definitely not going to pursue transition and was going to make my peace with womanhood only 5 months ago. When I am around the other women in my dance classes, who are normal, with husbands and kids and highlights, I feel like an altogether different animal.

I don’t tell my family or my friends about pole dance classes. I’m a real concern right now. I moved back home from my California sojourn and started wearing thick eyeliner and big hoop earrings and very tight pants. Where I used to arrange and pressure everyone to come to big group events, now I only want to hang out one on one. For every one night spent in someone’s company I need two spent only in my own.

I’m boomerang-ing back to compulsory femininity and I can’t pick apart the pressures driving me. If I’m going to be a woman I’m going to be the sexiest woman you ever met. I’m not just going to have a big ass and big tits, I am going to be painted up and scooped into elastic and perfumed and my jewelry will jingle and you won’t forget me and you will feel humbled by how badly you want access to me.

As I said, I’m a real concern.

The problem with sweaty palms is you can’t grip. If you can’t grip then you can’t lift your body weight. Pole dancing depends on shifting between the muscle groups that are holding up your weight- sometimes it’s your upper arms, sometimes it’s your lats (turns out that’s what back muscles are called), often it’s your core, sometimes it’s your thighs. But first you have to get yourself up on the pole. So it’s best if you’re working with dry palms.

My palms sweat every day. Inside my winter gloves my palms steam up mini saunas. Holding hands with any partner has always necessitated lots of quick, surreptitious wipes on my pants.

When you meet a new therapist they are supposed to note if you have sweaty palms. It’s a sign your sympathetic nervous system is ramped up–that’s the system that releases cortisol and activates your fight or flight response. This is supposed to happen when there is good reason to be stressed–like a tiger, bear or maniac coming up quick on you.

My sympathetic nervous system has been out of whack for years. I wake up with racing thoughts. Sometimes I wake up and can’t get out of bed for an hour because of the rush and force behind my worries. My hands and feet stay cold. I find myself holding my breath for no reason. I get migraines. I wake up with a sore jaw from grinding my teeth. I have serious trouble with sustained focus.

Indeed it seems the only pursuits that can hold my focus are ones that are both heroically difficult and mark me as a weirdo. Comedy. Transition. Now pole-dancing. I might be a cortisol junkie.

Or maybe I just like to feel myself in the effort, like struggling, like secrets, like proving them wrong, whoever they are. One of these struggles is going to redeem me. In one of these quests, I’ll be enough.

The women in my dance classes tend to get good at it much faster than me. Many of them grew up on dance or cheer or gymnastics, and they instinctively point their toes and extend their arms gracefully and roll their rib cages forward to jut out their breasts.

That’s hard. Before I bound I was sports-bra-ing it every day. Before I sports-bra-ed it every day I carried my breasts like I was running cocaine under my shirt–shoulders slouched forward, up in my ears, chest cavity collapsed.

I badly want to have done cheer. I want a husband and kids and I want to have gotten bored with pilates. I want to need to spice things up in the bedroom, I want to wear Uggs and yoga pants and I want long hair in a ponytail with highlights. I want to be basic, as basic a base as the Midwest can produce. I want to be basic and expected and often sweet and usually boring.

For me now, basic is very difficult and weird.

I am a real concern. One area of special confused concern among my friends is that I only date men now. I would like to feel some certainty or clarity when I try to explain this. It’s tempting to chalk it up to testosterone, because indeed, my desire for men while I was on testosterone was intense and deeply unnerving. I had desired them my whole life, but not in a way that felt uncontrollable and not in a way that eclipsed my desire for women. By the time I decided to transition I felt very peaceful with the idea of never dating a man again. They had become junk food–easy to get and bad for you. Then I went on T and it was like the dollar menu burgers became 40 dollar steaks. The more unattractive my body became to them the more I couldn’t stop sniffing around. It felt disgusting. It felt sick. It felt degrading. It felt unstoppable.

There are lots of ways pole makes sense. It’s hard enough I can’t think about anything else while I do it. It’s brain-clearing like being onstage telling jokes used to be. When I’m holding the pole in my armpit and trying to get my lower abdomen muscles to somehow lift my legs into a V, and my ab muscles and my legs are all “bitch, what?” my brain has to cede the stage. Getting my brain to drop the mic and let the rest of my body get some attention is the struggle of my life. I learn a lot about my body during pole. I learn my thighs can grip hard and hold me up for a long time. I learn my legs are not used to fully straightening. I learn I rely on my arms and shoulders when I could be using my core to move myself around. I learn I often don’t notice when I’ve hurt my feet until I see they have bloomed blue and purple.

I learn around normal women my palms spill moisture. I learn I am so scared they are picking up on my inherent strangeness. I learn I am extra smiley and extra jokey and extra enthusiastically supportive in response. I know this fear of rejection used to have an erotic element. I remember, but my body doesn’t. I can’t bring up the sensations of attraction with the memory. I know feeling queer used to mean both a pull and a push–the sexual pull towards women and the social push of feeling alien to women. Now only the push of alienation remains.

They warn you about your desire changing on the informed consent form. I should have taken the warning more seriously.

Now that I’m in tight pants and earrings men come easy again. The thing that’s taken me so long to learn is that I am deeply appealing to people. What people generally hope for from me is a gentle acceptance, smiles, laughing at their jokes, assuring them with body language that I like them even if we have so much to agree to disagree about. I used to feel resentful of how especially men were so hungry for this mothering from me. I used to resent how scared and angry people got when I wouldn’t play nice mom. Now I kinda get it. I’m hungry for mothering too. This life is terrifying.

I’ve always needed the people I dated to also be difficult pursuits. The men I like are classic dirtbags–self-centered, controlling, filled with secret rages, sporadically letting their true Buddha natures only after patient coaxing. The women I used to be attracted to were the same way. If a person isn’t enough of a problem to take up my entire field of vision, I probably can’t sustain focus on them.

I do miss the denial that’s available when the narcissist you lust for is female. You can very effectively pretend that since there isn’t a historic precedent for one of you owning the other one that you got your shit figured out. When a man walks all over you you see the parallels to a Lifetime movie right away. There’s no doubt if you keep co-creating this dynamic someone’s bed is going to have to be set ablaze.

The men are coming around these days; they are texting, they are attempting to make plans, and it is undeniable and scary that only the problem men interest me. Only the difficult and the weird feel like enough. I know what is pulling me is the temptation of an engrossing struggle to hide in. I know I want my field of vision blocked out with difficulty. I know these quests are a bunker, from a world where everyone is suffering and everyone needs a mom, and I am simply not enough. I push myself to conquer because I don’t trust I can meet the world. I don’t trust that I can meet the world because I can feel the moisture gathering in my palms.

My mom got me and my siblings to adulthood fueled with blind terror. We were always broke, we were always screaming, every bill was an emergency, every haul from the grocery store simply had to last us a week longer than it ever did. It was only this year, after working at a medical clinic, that I understood how difficult the nursing career she sustained our family with was. Sick people are generally, and totally understandably, needy dicks. Doctors are generally, and a lot less understandably, bigger and needier dicks. Put yourself in the middle of those groups, and then also have three little people be dependent on your paycheck. She would insist on us all going to church and then at church she’d cry into her hands, and I was so angry at her for embarrassing me.

Little kids are also needy dicks. I didn’t understand that mothering means needing to be so much more than you are. I didn’t understand mothering means bearing so much weight you crumple, and then you have to figure out how to stand back up or your kid doesn’t eat. I didn’t understand how heavy the world is. I didn’t understand meeting the world is how you find out exactly how not enough you are.

I asked one of the women in my class, blonde, petite, matching bra and shorts, if she thought she was still so strong from her high school cheerleading. “Oh no, it’s from carrying my kids around,” she replied. She is as basic as it gets. She is so much stronger than me. She climbed up to the top of the pole her first class, she can lift herself beautifully, moving her body around with precision.

I’m relieved to have more time to only carry my own weight. If I’m going to lift more than that I need to understand why my palms are sweating. I need to understand why my lower back tightens in a painful knot. I need to give my legs, my hips, my womb, my gut, my lats, my breasts, my arms, shoulders, neck, brow a chance to tell me what’s going on.

I tell a difficult man I’m taking pole classes. He makes fun of me. I won’t tell the people I know have my best interest at heart, but I will tell him, and it’s because I long for that obliterating struggle. Because if my focus rests on him I can avoid learning about this fear that lives in me. If I am wrestling with the giant problem of him, maybe I’m going to be redeemed. Maybe I can prove I’m enough. Maybe I can avoid noticing how afraid I am. Maybe I don’t have to tackle the problem of why my palms are always sweaty.

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