Julie Marie Wade | Essays

I remember how my friend Kara said “I like to marinate in my own juices awhile” when she didn’t change out of her sweats immediately after Tie-Bow.

I couldn’t remember if Tie-Bow was one word or two, or if there were any capitalizations or diacriticals involved, so I had to look it up.

For the record, this is how you write Tae Bo correctly. Two words. Both upper-case. No hyphen. It is not the syntactical inverse of a bow-tie.

I remember when I asked what Tae Bo was and Kara told me, but I don’t remember what she said, only that she mentioned the man who invented Tae Bo was named Billy Blanks, and I asked, “Is his last name a profanity or something?” After that, I remember Kara and our other friends erupting with laughter—guffawing really—there in the University Commons, standing on the thin, stained carpet outside the cafeteria, even though I was perfectly serious.

I remember this happened a lot back then. It still happens with some regularity now. I don’t feel too bad about it.

It turns out Tae Bo is technically TAE BO® according to the TAE BO® Nation website, and it turns further out that Billy Blanks is still teaching TAE BO® more than 20 years since Kara was doing the workout on what I assume was a VHS tape in the living room of her college rental with all the furniture pushed back against the walls.

I don’t remember why I never did TAE BO® with Kara since it seems like something I would have enjoyed—all that sweating and hurling my body around—and certainly, marinating in my own juices afterwards.

I remember I loved the house where Kara lived, how it evoked the Victorian era—white with a pointy roof and something that resembled a garret, or at least what I thought a garret should be. I remember I loved her room on the second floor with the chili pepper lights strung high along the walls. Maybe there was a star, too, with cut-out shapes and a lightbulb inside, or maybe I’m just thinking of a lamp I liked at Pier 1 Imports. Kara’s room felt like I imagined being inside that lamp would feel—warm, glowing, perpetually incandescent. A lot like Kara, actually.

I remember the lavender body spray she bought at Victoria Secrets and how I bought it, too, though I can’t remember exactly how it smelled on account of smells being always evanescent. I remember that I didn’t know Victoria Secrets sold anything but fancy bras and panties made from satin or lace and that the women who modeled these things made me nervous. I remember thinking I wasn’t very good at being a girl, so how was I going to be any better at being a woman.

TAE BO® would have taken my mind off such matters, I think, at least for a little while. And then the marinating afterwards. Such sweet, if brief, relief!

It turns out Victoria Secrets is actually Victoria’s Secret. The name is singular, and the secret, apparently, is singular, too. What is it? What could it possibly be? It turns out the company was founded in 1977, two years before Kara and I were born. I read this on the website as I was learning about the de-pluralization of those secrets. Just one. Wow.

Later, but not too much later, I got engaged to a man and ordered a matching pink satin bra-and-panty set from the Victoria’s Secret catalog. I remember I actually checked a box beside the picture and circled my size and folded the page and tucked it inside an envelope and bought a stamp and dropped the envelope in the slot at the post office labeled Outgoing Mail. Then, a few weeks later, another envelope arrived in my mailbox, a lumpy envelope that was faintly glossy, the color of egg shells with fuzzy black print, and inside, wrapped in plastic, was the matching pink satin bra-and-panty set. I tried it on and began to perspire profusely. Then, I got nauseous. My stomach lurched as I peeled the lingerie from my body, hid it in my bottom drawer.

I didn’t marry the man.

Later, but not too much later, I took all the contents of that bottom drawer, dropped them in a Hefty bag, and hurled the bag over the cyclone fence that surrounded the Goodwill (it was after-hours, you see) in Bellingham, Washington.

I remember feeling like a renegade and then wondering what renegade goes out after dark only to donate clothes incognito. Now I’m wondering who Victoria is, since the founder of Victoria’s Secret is a man (go figure) named Roy Raymond. Maybe she’s the woman who broke his heart all of a sudden without explanation—or maybe she’s the woman who broke his heart all of a sudden with an explanation he didn’t want to hear.

Once, I joined a book club that met at Kara’s house, but even though I loved books in general and Kara’s house in particular, I didn’t click so well with the other readers. I remember feeling on the outside of things, even though I was sitting in the middle of Kara’s living room on the plush couch that was probably pushed to the wall every time she did TAE BO®, with my shoes off, my feet propped up, eating cheese most likely (I was always eating cheese) and trying to look like I fit in. I was probably drinking white wine, too, or perhaps rosé, because before we turned 21, this seemed like the most grown-up thing we could do to pose as grown-ups. I have never liked wine, never liked beer, never liked spirits of any kind, but I do like saying Chardonnay as though it’s the password to a secret room.

I remember, despite everything that happened in college, and everything that didn’t happen in college, I always felt safer there—and happier, too—than I did for most of my life in my parents’ house. Maybe that’s my secret. And so it makes a lot of sense, in retrospect, why I decided to stay in college forever. And when you stay in a place for a long time—not the literal place per se, but the same kind of place, the same general environment—reminiscing about it becomes a given, the way a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show was a given every weekend at the arthouse cinema downtown or the way we stayed in the car every time “My Heart Will Go On” came on the radio, singing along even from the parking lot outside our dormitories because no one would dare blaspheme Dion by turning the knob mid-song. That’s just how it was. “That’s just how it always was,” we say. “I remember.”

It turns out Billy Blanks started TAE BO® in 1976, one year before Roy Raymond started Victoria’s Secret. It turns further out that the name TAE BO® is a portmanteau, a combination of taekwondo and boxing. I’m not sure why it took until the 1990s for TAE BO® to become so popular or why, even though people practice TAE BO® all over the world today, it’s still considered a fitness fad.

I don’t remember how long Kara did TAE BO® —why she started or why she stopped. I wish I could remember why I never joined her.

Sometimes my students say, “Tell us about the ‘90s,” and lean forward in their chairs, like the ‘90s was a place I traveled through in some magnificent spacecraft or pulsing neon capsule. Many of my students—most—were not born until the new millennium. They ask surprisingly little about Y2K and even less about 9-11, though one student did inquire in a serious way, feet crossed at the ankles and hands folded on his desk, “Was it a thing for people to party like it was 1999 in 1999 while listening to ‘1999’?”

I told that student I wasn’t sure—probably some people did—but I wasn’t one of them. He looked disappointed. I remember I took my first poetry class in 1999, which was clearly the most important thing that happened to me that year. When I told the student I couldn’t remember what I did on New Year’s Eve 1999, he gasped, then cocked his head to the side, serious and sad: “But how could you forget? You got to live through the turn of a century and a millennium. No one else in this room will ever get to do that.”

My student had a point. Maybe someone, with lucky genes and excellent nutrition, would live to see the year 2100, but would it even be worth seeing? Would it even be worth hanging around for? To pivot softly away from that pain, I asked my students if they knew that Prince released “1999” in 1982. “What would happen if you wrote a poem today addressed to a future 17 years from now? Maybe your future self? What would you want that future self to know? What secret would you share with that yet-to-be version of you?”

I remember I took my first poetry class with Kara, probably around the same time she was doing TAE BO® and I, inexplicably, wasn’t. The class met on Wednesday nights, so we met on Tuesday nights to eat Skittles together and talk about the poems we would be tested on the next day. Two of our other friends joined us, and we sat in four chairs arranged like quadrants of a heart in the basement of the University Commons outside the Scandinavian Cultural Center, which was always, rather mysteriously, locked. Often, though, instead of talking about the poems we had read for class, my friends and I read aloud from poems we had written ourselves. Later, but not too much later, Kara wrote a poem for me about that time in our lives and shellacked actual Skittles onto the cardboard page. I still have it, of course. Obviously, I still have it.

I remember in 2016, shortly after Prince died, I was flying home to Florida from a literary festival. As the plane began its initial descent into Fort Lauderdale, the flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights, then lit up the aisles with a purple, strobing effect. How they did this I’ll never know. And over the speakers, they piped in “Let’s Go Crazy” at robust volume, which you may recall is the song that begins, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” I remember how no one on the plane questioned this unprecedented series of events but simply sang along until the plane touched down, and then we cheered, collectively, as one voice. Sometimes I fear we will never cheer that way again, any of us, let alone all of us together.

But what I remember most from that flight, beyond the news-to-me that planes could be transformed into aerodynamic jukeboxes at 30,000 feet, was the fact that I was no longer trying to “get through this thing called life” any more than I was trying to get through this thing called college. I was so happy with my wife, our cats, my job, our home, that the afterlife held absolutely no appeal. “Hold, please.” The way people used to say. And despite all the marked imperfections of the world in which I had come of age, I knew I wanted to stay in that holding pattern, which is to say this holding pattern, forever.

This past summer I taught poetry in a gymnasium, or more precisely, in a small classroom inside the same building as a large gymnasium. On the first day, every student observed, nearly-late or really-late, “I had no idea there were even classrooms in here!” As we read poems and wrote poems and talked about poems, we could hear the squeak of sneakers on the other side of the wall, referees shouting, whistles screeching. From time to time, a buzzer wailed like a hungry baby, announcing the scrimmage had come to an end.

One day before class, I saw a young woman practicing her dance routine just outside the closed gymnasium doors in a spandex unitard (shades of 1982) and black ballet shoes. Beside her, a boom box on the floor (further shades of 1982) quivered perilously, while an impassioned coach clapped his hands and counted: One-two-three-four! One-two-three-four! I don’t remember if it was a Prince song playing, but I choose to believe it was.

One day after class, I saw a young man practicing Tai Chi beneath the massive banyan tree that stretched from the gymnasium almost all the way to my car. No music, though his body moved like music, which I suppose was the point. And as I unlocked the car and slipped from one heat into another—the jellied heat of the late-afternoon air into the turbid heat of the already-damp upholstery—I could have sworn “My Heart Will Go On” was playing at a gentle volume, even though my radio was set to NPR.

I remember riding around in Kara’s cars. First, the sporty red Honda, and later, though not much later, the brown Volvo station wagon she called Porto, after a Portobello mushroom. She drove that car for years. I remember the feeling of trust I had, that no matter where we were going, planned or unplanned, she would get us there safe, bring us home happy.

Before I met her, my wife spent years with a fearful commute and years after I met her with a series of fearful commutes. She is content now, for the most part, to let me drive. And when she’s there beside me, I aspire to give her that same feeling—of safety, of happiness—I once had in the passenger seat, so she can close her eyes if she likes and drift off for a while, marinating in her own dreams.

It turns out TAE BO® is not just a portmanteau. Like Scuba, TAE BO® is also an acronym—though most of us forget that Scuba is an acronym at all. It means Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. I remember when my father told me that’s what Scuba meant, what the letters in the word Scuba actually stood for, how I gazed at him with the reverence befitting an oracle. What a wildly specific thing to know!

Unlike Scuba, TAE BO® doesn’t mean something singular, though. It stands for a series of progressive imperatives: Take Action, Execute, Believe, Overcome. Billy Blanks must have paired these words with the letters after coining the term—a little built-in advice column, some implicit self-help.

I mention this now because on the last day of last term, I heard a series of thumps and stomps and satisfied ka-pows coming from inside the gym. This pattern of sounds wasn’t familiar to me, so I sauntered over to one of the square, rippled windows cut into one of the tall, stalwart doors and peered inside. Was this a PE class? A summer camp? I still don’t know. But there were all these bodies twisting their hips and kicking the air, twisting their hips and punching the air, and in a way that seemed elegantly singular—all these bodies moving as one body, not the same but not exactly separate either.

Was this TAE BO®? Was this what TAE BO® looked like, sounded like? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure. But I stood for a long time with my nose pressed to the glass, leaning in the way we do at the prospect of a secret revealed, the kind of secret that might sound like a story we recognize after all, that leads us to exclaim, “I remember that! It’s been such a long time, but I remember!”

*For Kara Larson, then and now