by Lizzie Cooper-Smith
Carrie has been keeping a secret from Darren. It all started because she opened the wrong door.
Where there should have been spinning bikes, there were poles and walls of mirrors. Eight women, ranging in age from about twenty to fifty, were chatting and stretching at the front of the studio.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Carrie said. ‘Wrong room.’
She turned to leave, but a woman in pink Lycra shorts jumped up from her lunge and jogged over. ‘Wait! Aren’t you my last taster student? I’m Jo, pole teacher.’
‘Erm, hi.’ Carrie gripped the doorhandle. ‘I’m looking for the spinning class, actually.’
‘It was cancelled. But why don’t you stay and dance with us?’ Jo gestured to the poles behind her and Carrie noticed how muscular her arms were. She was petite and compact, with a striking asymmetric bob.
Carrie shook her head emphatically. ‘Oh no, I don’t dance.’ She thought back to her first university night out. She’d flailed her arms about so wildly that she’d spilled a Blue Lagoon on herself and the boy she’d been trying to impress. He’d left before she could apologise, and she’d walked home alone, sticky and humiliated.
‘Don’t or won’t?’ Jo grinned. ‘It’s a free taster class – you’ve nothing to lose.’
Carrie wished she was the sort of person who could just say ‘no’ and walk away, but her feet were rooted to the floor.
‘Come on,’ Jo said, her eyes sparkling. ‘You look like you need a bit of fun.’
Carrie might have been offended if a friend had said this to her, but Jo was a stranger. She didn’t know Carrie as the overworked office manager who had stumbled through her life, falling into a job and a relationship without really choosing either. Carrie could be anybody.
‘Alright. I’ll give it a go.’
Carrie had expected she’d be terrible at pole dancing. She didn’t get a single move right and she tripped over her own feet twice, but she laughed the whole time. She laughed at herself, she laughed at the music, she laughed with the woman behind her when they both fell off their poles. Nobody told her she was getting it all wrong – Jo offered only words of encouragement and praise.
By the end of the class, Carrie felt warm and tired, as if her muscles had softened like butter in a saucepan. All thoughts of emails she needed to send and meeting rooms she needed to book had evaporated. The haze that normally surrounded her was lifting.
‘See you next week, Carrie?’ Jo asked as she packed away her speakers.
‘I’ll think about it,’ Carrie said, realising that she actually meant it.
She walked the long way back to the tube station, enjoying the cool night air on her skin. She stopped on Waterloo Bridge to look at the view; the city lights had transformed the Thames into a kaleidoscope of colours. For the first time in years, she wished for her paints and easel. She took a photo and saved it to a new folder on her phone.
Darren was portioning anaemic chicken breasts and steamed greens into plastic containers when Carrie got home. He had suggested a joint New Year’s health kick just after she’d finished her third helping of Christmas dinner. Carrie had agreed, reluctantly, to avoid the awkward conversation about who this was really benefitting.
‘Want some?’ he said, waving a forkful of limp broccoli.
Carrie could think of nothing more uninspiring. ‘Not really. I might get a takeaway.’
Darren added spinach to the containers. It began to wilt next to the hot chicken. ‘Aren’t we doing the healthy thing?’
‘We can have a treat once in a while.’
‘I guess.’ He picked up an embossed invitation from the pile of post on the counter. ‘This came. Another one for next year.’ He pinned it to the noticeboard next to four other wedding invitations and two ‘It’s a girl!’ cards.
‘Everyone’s getting on, aren’t they? Doing all that,’ he said, tracing the font with his finger.
The unspoken question hung in the air. Carrie pretended to read a text message. Darren balanced lids on top of the containers. They were labelled with dates for the next week.
‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘Good spinning class?’
‘Great,’ she said quickly. ‘Actually…’ She thought about telling him the truth, but the words wouldn’t form in her mouth. She couldn’t connect the carefree woman she had been an hour ago with this man so diligently portioning out the future – her future – into numbered plastic containers.
‘Mmm?’ Darren looked up.
‘I might go again next week.’
She hated lying, but this wasn’t something he’d understand. Darren had strong opinions about what was, and wasn’t, right for Carrie. At best, he would see pole dancing as a frivolous waste of time. He did nothing just for the fun of it. He read only business books and went running with the sole purpose of beating his previous effort.
Darren was the one who’d encouraged Carrie to go for the senior role at work, even though office management was meant to be temporary, until she found something in design. When she got the job, he’d bought her a Swarovski bracelet and taken her for dinner at the Shard. She had fallen for him easily, enamoured by his cool blue eyes and sophisticated charm. But the thrill of this new romance had soon faded, and Carrie had settled into a comfortable, corporate existence – one that was not entirely unhappy, but not quite everything she had hoped for. The most artistic thing she’d done in the last five years was choosing new crockery for the office kitchen.
Carrie went upstairs and closed the bedroom door. She peeled off her clothes slowly, easing into each movement. She tried a spin in front of the mirror, fell out of it and laughed at her own reflection.
“She chooses where her body goes, what shapes she makes. It reminds her of the hours she spent in her school art studio, translating emotion into colour and texture with swift, sweeping motions of her paintbrush.”
It’s been four months since Carrie started pole dancing. She still can’t do most of the moves, but she loves every minute of it. When she dances, she’s participating in her own life instead of watching it happen to her. She chooses where her body goes, what shapes she makes. It reminds her of the hours she spent in her school art studio, translating emotion into colour and texture with swift, sweeping motions of her paintbrush.
She’s started drawing again. Her sketchbook has become the source of a silent argument between her and Darren. She leaves it lying around the house; he puts it back in her bedside drawer. She hasn’t told him about the pole dancing. She doesn’t want to give him that version of herself – that self she has so carefully, lovingly designed.
But she can’t always hide it. She bought a lime green sports bra with matching shorts. She hasn’t worn shorts since university, let alone anything lime green. She pushed a trolley down an empty Homebase aisle and jumped into it. When Darren found her sitting in it and giggling, he grabbed her by the arm and marched her back to the car like a child.
That night, Carrie gets through an entire pole dancing class without falling over. She is so thrilled that when Jo suggests they all go for drinks, she agrees instantly. When she remembers that it’s a Wednesday, she feels a sudden burst of glee at being out on a weeknight. By 10 p.m., she’s three cocktails down and sharing a bowl of nachos with Jo.
‘What is it that you do again?’ Jo asks, reaching for another nacho.
‘I’m an office manager.’
Jo takes a swig of her beer. ‘Wouldn’t have had you down for that.’
‘Really?’ Carrie says, pleasantly surprised.
‘You don’t seem like the type.’
‘No,’ Carrie says, pushing the miniature umbrella around in her cocktail. ‘I wanted to work in design. I used to draw a lot; I did all the design for my university paper and loved it.’
‘Now, that sounds more like you.’
‘Yeah. I think so.’
When Carrie gets home, Darren is typing on his laptop in the kitchen. His face is lit only by the screen’s glow.
Carrie flips the lights on. ‘What are you doing sitting here in the dark?’
He doesn’t look up. ‘Still working. Mad week.’
She takes off her jacket and a miniature umbrella falls from the pocket. She fished it out of her glass before she left the bar.
Darren snaps his laptop shut and stands up. ‘Where have you been?’ He clocks the miniature umbrella on the floor. ‘And what is that?’
‘I went for cocktails,’ she says. ‘With friends.’
‘Yes. Is that so hard to believe?’ The words come out sharper than she means.
He pours himself a glass of water. ‘I thought you were at spinning.’
‘We went for drinks afterwards.’
‘You never drink during the week.’
‘Well, maybe I’ll start.’
Darren rubs the back of his neck, tugging at the skin. He notices the lime green sports bra poking out from underneath her top. ‘Is that new?’
Carrie folds her arms over her chest. ‘Yes.’
‘Not your normal colour, is it?’ He tips his water down the sink. ‘I’m going to bed. Some of us have an early start.’
She waits for him to go upstairs, then she picks up the cocktail umbrella and puts it back in her pocket.
On Saturday morning, Darren goes for his usual run. Normally, Carrie would start cleaning the house, but she gets as far as yanking the hoover out of the cupboard and leaves it lying on the floor. An hour later, Darren finds her in the bath with the radio on.
‘What are you doing?’ he shouts over Beyoncé.
‘It’s the weekend.’ She lifts her leg and watches the water drip from it, impressed at her newfound flexibility. ‘I’m enjoying it.’
‘But we’ve got things to do.’ He grabs her phone and turns the volume down. ‘The house is a mess. You’ve left the hoover out.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘What is going on with you?’
She shrugs. ‘Turn it up, will you?’
He throws his hands up in the air. ‘What has gotten into you recently?’
She slips under the water and blows bubbles through her nose.
On Wednesday, Carrie lands her first ever fireman spin. She rides the tube home in her shorts and smiles back at anyone who stares. When Darren gets in, he finds her at the kitchen table with her sketchbook and laptop open.
‘Haven’t you eaten yet?’ he says, surveying the kitchen for evidence.
‘Busy with what?’ He looks at her legs, sees her shorts. ‘And what are you wearing?’
She closes her laptop. ‘I’m leaving my job. I’m working on my design portfolio.’
‘I’m not happy there. I never have been.’
‘But it’s a good job, and the money – we need it for…’ He looks at the wedding invitations on the noticeboard.
She follows his gaze. ‘It’s not what I want. It’s not me.’
‘Where is this coming from?’
‘I’ve been dancing.’
‘When I said I was spinning, I was pole dancing.’
‘Pole dancing? Strutting around half naked?’ He gestures to her bare legs. ‘What is this, an early mid-life crisis?’
Carrie stands up. ‘You think the only reason I could want to do something different with my life is because I’m having a crisis?’
‘Calm down. Listen to me–’
‘No!’ she shouts. ‘You listen to me. I don’t want my future neatly portioned out into boxes. I don’t want to live my life never knowing what it’s like to take chances, to get tipsy on a Wednesday, to jump in a trolley because I feel like it. I’m not going to miss out anymore.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You wouldn’t.’ She gathers up her things and walks to the front door.
‘Carrie, wait,’ Darren says. ‘You can’t go out in those shorts.’
‘I already have.’ She laces up her trainers.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m not sure yet,’ she says. ‘I’ll figure it out.’
She opens the door.
Lizzie Cooper-Smith | @evlbyname | evlbyname.com
Lizzie is a copywriter by trade with a passion for ballet and plant-based baking. In her spare time, she tries to navigate the chaos of her twenties through short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry.