“Keep Smiling Mary K” by Leah Kaminsky

Keep Smiling Mary K (Still Life with Anole)
“Still Life with Anole” by Suzanne Stryk, 2011, acrylic on canvas

Now you can perspire in the comfort of your own living room, viewers, with Christian Aerobics, broadcasting all over the Middle East from here in Nicosia, Cyprus. Get ready to start your heart pumping, girls. Exercise your faith.

Thighs hurt, especially the left one. I was always weaker on that side. OK, I’ll push. It’s worth it to get rid of the flab. The baby lies on the couch, mouthing for my breast. Nipples are so sore. Push on.

Lift the knee, two, three. Come on, you can raise it higher.

Fat chance, lady. It won’t go. The whole lot just won’t push back into place. Definitely not nubile; more like voluptuous now. No, not true. Definitely obese. Stretch marks on the tummy. I’ve tried the creams and Jane Fonda’s video. He, on the couch, all of six weeks, stares at his mother who is leaning on a chair and pushing herself around the living room, a beached whale straining to get back into the water.

Four more. And four and three and two and one. All right, you deserve a break now, you’ve all worked hard. Here’s a letter from Mary K in Beirut, who watches us every day:

‘Dear Justine,

I love your show and your Health Club is the answer to my prayers. I’ve just had my fifth son and I’d like to know how I can get back to my pre-pregnancy weight.’

Thank you for your letter, Mary K and I’ll pray for you, even though I’ve never met you. You are so sweet. The answer, Mary K, is to keep pushing away from the table when you are full. Eat natural foods. Anything that is the way God made it, right from the earth to you, is good for you. Avoid batter, exercise your faith and keep smiling!

It’s the veins that really hurt, and I’m still bleeding, but there’s no time. I’ll go and get a check-up when Shlomi gets back from reserve duty. It’s hard to keep smiling, Mary K, when you feel like a lump of dough.

Come on, girls! Leg raises, one two, one two. Concentrate on Jesus, surrender to His heart. Exercise your faith, now’s the time to start. Good, good.  Now lift your shoulders, in the name of the Lord!

I can’t do it, Mary K. Can you? They hurt from all that carrying. I live on the hills of Jerusalem; the world balanced on its shoulders. Justine, the blond aerobics instructor in her tight pink leotard, broadcasting from Nicosia, can’t feel the weight of our children. They pour over the top of their baby scales, heavy with the weight of the dead. But the washing has to be done and the nappies hung out to dry in the Middle Eastern sun.

In the name of the Lord, tighten those buttocks. And don’t forget to smile!

Are you smiling, Mary K? The girls are at my mother-in-law’s and I’m home alone with the baby. I get so tired and, late at night, I cling to Shlomi’s empty pajamas. He is in Lebanon, Mary K, and won’t be home for a month. I wonder if you saw him over there?

Breathe in, two three, and out, two three, raise it higher, tighten those tummy muscles, girls.

I saw your dark eyes once, I think, Mary K, in a little Lebanese restaurant on Brunswick Street, back in Melbourne. And I saw you crying when you held your first-born son in Bankstown hospital, in Sydney. I have tasted your foule, your falafel, your hoummous, your tabouleh. I met you in Australia, where Beirut and Jerusalem lie on either side of a back fence.

Are you still smiling, girls? Give it everything you’ve got. Come on, try harder. Up two, three, down two, three.

I cried when my son was born. That week, an ancient cemetery came crashing down on a street cafe in a laneway of Jerusalem. The dead kill the living and the living live on the dead. That is the weight of Jerusalem-of-gold. Will my son follow his father’s footsteps? Will his father step wrong one day before his son takes his first step?

The first step is always the hardest, girls, but you can do it, in the name of the Lord. You can be slim again. Come on! And one and two.

I am knitting booties for my son. I polished Shlomi’s boots before he left and today there was more shooting on the border. Purl, plain, purl, plain: it soothes me while I watch the 9 o’clock news. But right now, it’s pelvic tightening, so we have to concentrate Mary K and strengthen ourselves for the next season’s fertility, family, fodder, fruit, festering wounds.

That’s the way to do it, well done, girls! For the love of the Lord, do it for all mankind. Strengthen those pelvic muscles. Up and down, and up and down.

Forget it, Mary K. Let’s have a cup of tea and some honey sweet baklawa from the bakery next door. Let’s face it; we’ll never be the girls we were before we gave birth. And Jesus, Moses and Mohammed all know that neither of us will ever, ever lose the weight.



Leah Kaminsky, physician and writer, is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia and Online Editor at Hunger Mountain. She conceived and edited Writer, M.D., an anthology of contemporary doctor-writers (Vintage Knopf US 2012) and her award-winning poetry collection, Stitching Things Together was published in 2010. Her work is published or forthcoming in Huffington Post, Monocle, Griffith Review, Hippocrates Poetry Prize anthology, Poems in the Waiting Room, The Ampersand Review, and PANK, amongst others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. (www.leahkaminsky.com)

Read an interview with Leah here.

9 thoughts on ““Keep Smiling Mary K” by Leah Kaminsky

  1. This is beautiful, Leah! These women will stay with me for a long time.

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    • Anne – so glad you enjoyed my story. And yes, aren’t the illustrations for this issue wonderful! Thanks for reaching out.

  3. Leah, What an amazing story! I find it really intriguing how you structure this piece around the exercise tape, and how you start with a tone of humor and then build tension and then take us to a place that’s quite heart-breaking. Nicely done and I’m happy to read your work again.

  4. Pingback: Interview with Leah Kaminsky | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal

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