The Night I Lost My Faith in Woman Power, and the Day I Gained it Back.
New York City. Friday morning. I am in the SoulCycle class at 8:30 am and wondering why all these people here are not working, studying, or rushing someplace at this time. I am in my 50s, and it seems as if a whole century separates me from this crowd, which consists predominately of girls from the ever-awesome millennial generation. They know what they want and they get it. They do not do what they do not want. That is why they are not at work or school, but here at 8:30 for the cycle class.
The class is full, about seventy people; seven rows of bikes squeezed into a room the size of my apartment. It is filled with young, incredibly fit girls with beautiful torsos. They are stripped down to their Lululemon bras and fancy leggings in anticipation of a sweaty ride. The lights dim, the music starts, the instructor shouts a few encouraging words to give us a boost of energy, and we all embark on a 45-minute trip to the moon and back.
The girls in the first six rows are flawlessly synchronized. They are moving enthusiastically, beautifully, and intensely. They are one giant, unstoppable machine of energy, strength, and perfection. Speaking of perfection… They all have perfectly round, firm butts, which I call “SoulCycle butts.” Seriously, they all exert power, courage, and a strong sense of self-worth. These girls are the modern Amazons, fiercely spurring their bikes on the road to equality and independence.
I am in the last row and spend the first ten minutes of the class trying to fit my cleats onto the wrong side of the pedal. Finally, success! Pedaling twice as slowly as everybody else, desperately trying to follow the moves, listening to the music and the instructor’s inspirational commands, pushing myself to the brink.
It does not stop. I’m sweating profusely, trying to listen to the lyrics (it helps!) while pushing myself harder and finally realizing, “Yes, I can do this!”
I’m trying to convince myself that if I can somehow get through this, I can stick with these girls and go anywhere with them. I can work, travel, ski, hike any mountain, and fulfill my wildest dreams. I am not in the ditch yet; I am still driving down the middle of the road. I am crying. Luckily, it is dark in the room, and nobody notices.
The long-awaited water break, and then we are doing weights while still pushing the pedals. I am raising the five-pound weights up and to the side. I push them ten, twenty, thirty times. My muscles are burning, but there is no escape. Everybody will notice if I stop. Then, we have to do a boxing kick, punch while holding onto the dumbbells.
Punch? I feel confusion and anger arise within me. I think, “No, oh, no, no, no! This is an aggressive, scary, and misleading move. It just creates an illusion. Yes, you girls are strong and fearless. You are unstoppable, and spiritually, you might outrun men, but physically… Please! Do not kid yourselves.”
A situation comes to mind. I remember that beautiful fit girl I read about in the newspaper. The one who ran in the early evening in the park in Queens. She was raped and killed. It is horrible to say, but I think if she had not fought back, she would’ve been raped, but not killed. She would’ve lived, seen many sunrises and sunsets, and enjoyed many more runs in the park.
One cold evening in Leningrad
Long ago, in my college years, I was still living with my parents. One evening, I had a fierce fight with them, slammed the door, and left. Sadly, it was late in the evening, and I had no place to go. All my girlfriends lived with their parents, hotels were out of reach for me, and I had no boyfriend at the time.
I flipped through my mental Rolodex and made a few calls from a phone booth. The people I called were either not home or could not offer me a solution. I was out of ideas and out of phone tokens.
It was November in Leningrad, and it was cold, damp, dark, and miserable. I was looking for anyone from whom I could buy more phone tokens, but people rarely went out at that time of night. I was not giving up though. Not yet. Worst-case scenario, I thought, I would sleep at the train station.
Suddenly, a car stopped, and the guy at the wheel asked me if I needed to go anywhere. I said, somewhat sadly, that I had no place to go and asked him to sell me a phone token. He gave me a few and left. I made a couple more useless phone calls. I had no place to go.
Half an hour later, the same car returned and stopped again. The driver asked if I need somewhere to go. “No!” I said, almost crying. “I do not need a ride!”
Then, he softly said that he could help me, that he had a place in mind for me to stay, that it was not that far away, and that I did not need to pay him anything. I hesitated, but the man looked decent, spoke in a slow, calm voice and projected nothing but confidence. I got into the car.
I thanked him for his kindness and said that one day I would pay him back. He smiled and said nothing. He did not give me his phone number and did not ask for mine.
After a short ride, we stopped next to an old apartment building. We walked a couple of flights up, and he opened the door to what turned out to be a vast communal apartment with many doors on both sides of the long dark corridor. He opened one of the doors and pushed me in.
“Don’t Waste Your Angelic Voice on Screaming”
Bright, very bright light. A small room. Four half-naked men. Two empty bottles of vodka and another one sitting on the table. I tried to open the door. They laughed. I immediately knew what would happen next, but in case I did not, one of them spelled it out for me.
“We want to have some fun with you, baby, and you are going to play along, right? Because, if you don’t, we’ll do it the hard way, and you will have bruises and broken bones, and God knows what else is going to happen to you…”
He said it all with an ugly sneer, showing his disgusting, yellow teeth. I knew he was not joking.
“And don’t waste your angelic voice on screaming, as nobody will hear you. It’s an old building, with very thick walls, you know,” he laughed.
All four men were very fit and very drunk. Their minds were totally set on what they wanted to do. I was bewildered. I felt defeated, and not just that, I felt trampled, crushed, violated. It seemed as if my limbs had been amputated. I was numb. I could not come up with an escape plan, with some scheme to negotiate my way out of this nightmare. I could not even cry.
I asked for a glass, filled it with vodka to the brim, and gulped the whole thing. My vision blurred…
When the sun finally came up, and daylight filled the room, these four got dressed— in the policeman uniforms. The one who had talked the most was a Major. “Good girl! Smart!” he said.
The police in Russia was called “militia,” and by its nature, it was closer to the mafia than to a law enforcement group. But none of that mattered to me that morning.
“I survived,” I thought. My head was heavy. My brain was frozen. My body…
I had inexplicable emotions. No words in any world language could describe what I felt. And even if they could, I certainly didn’t want to put my feelings into words—to survive, to not to carve them into my memory, to obliterate the thoughts and emotions for good.
Until now, I never mentioned this to anyone. I just lived. In due time, I had a happy marriage, good kids, and a wonderful, eventful life. But after that night in Leningrad, Queens girl inside me— the one who thought that she was tough, who believed that she was stronger than a man—was no more. She had died, and her parents were heartbroken.
I wish I could tell you a better story, but I cannot.
Maybe Women Should Fight Back
So, here I am back in the SoulCycle class on this delightful Friday morning. I enjoy the class, but disagree with that punching move with the dumbbells. “What a stupid and delusional symbol of women’s superiority and allegedly equal physical power,” I think.
The instructor, a gorgeous young woman in a SoulCycle branded outfit that accentuates all her assets, changes the music to a slower rhythm, lowers the volume, and puts the candles in a row to create a relaxing atmosphere. It is time to stretch and meditate.
Yesterday, the night before the class, I had a more age-appropriate experience. I went to the opera to see “Rusalka,” the Eastern European version of “The Little Mermaid” story, except without the happy ending.
Rusalka falls in love with a prince and wants to become a human, to become someone whom she is not by her nature. She needs to give up her voice in exchange for the magical, alluring world of humans. She fails in her attempts. Without her voice, she lacks sparkle and passion, so the prince eventually abandons her. In the end, she is forever cursed to be tormented in her swamp. She gave up her innocence, but still never became the full-fledged woman of her dreams.
I have this dilemma all the time. How often have I wanted to be someone I wasn’t or go somewhere I did not belong! In Russia, being Jewish, I wanted to fit in, to adapt to the Russian traditions and morals. I sang the same songs, read the same books, and celebrated the same holidays. I was never entirely accepted. It was like the yellow star never left my arm.
When I came to America, I was again trying to fit in, adjust, and accept new values. I learned to speak English, developed a love for hamburgers and American football, and studied American history and political science. Still, I will be called Russian for the rest of my life.
And now, I am in a SoulCycle class designed for young, tough girls, and trying yet again to fit in…
Suddenly, I realize that I do not want to give up. Maybe, I think to myself, Rusalka did the right thing by trying, even though she did not succeed. Maybe that Queens girl didn’t do the wrong thing after all. I look around me and start to feel respect for these girls who are trying and training and believing.
Maybe I like that punching motion in the SoulCycle class after all. Maybe we should fight and be strong and cross the limits and challenge the status quo. We should try to open the closed doors, break the walls, and demand transparency. We are all “Rusalkas” at every point in life when we are trying something new. And we succeed only when we are confident and resilient.
Amazon women proved that they were equal to men and that they could be just as noble, brave, heroic, and physically strong. The Greeks were fascinated, yet appalled, by such independent women—man killers and man lovers. They were so different from their wives and daughters. Pictures of these warrior women, painted on ancient vases, rarely depicted them gesturing for mercy.
So maybe the SoulCycle women—beautiful, active, spirited, and courageous—should not ask for mercy either. Maybe women should fight back, and if we fail, then so be it—may our lives be the price.