I started lifting weights the week my my ex-partner had sex-reassignment surgery. We were in Trinidad — a red, cachexic desert town of blue-collar families, pre-operative transsexuals, and feral cats — and I already knew things were going to end badly.

Usually, I hung out at the hospital or the bed n’ breakfast. But there was also this gym, one with more iron than cardio.* I paid $40 for a week-long pass and went from one sheared-off metal thing to another, testing and trying and dropping plates on my toes.

You have to understand: Until then, I’d spent my life trying to be smaller. I was a 103-pound woman doing 20 shy bicep curlettes at LA Fitness, trying to get “toned.”** Suddenly, in Trinidad, I was OK with getting bigger if it meant I was made of stronger stuff. If it meant that I was stronger. It happened when my lover was able to get out of bed for the first time, and I helped walk her, slowly and carefully, to the shower. Her powerful, athletic body looked shriveled; vulnerable; not just because of the draining and bruising between her legs, but because she couldn’t really move. Under the warm spray, I realized that physical movement is a gift. It can be taken from us, so best to do what we can while we’re able.

Also, I knew I was going to need the strength. I knew that she would leave me. That when she could walk again, she would walk away.

I don’t have to try to make a metaphor out of this.

Do you know when muscles grow? After you lift. You’ve broken down your muscle fibers — done real albeit minor damage — and your body handles the trauma by building itself up again. But stronger this time, because it knows more damage is possible. Probable. It doesn’t trust you anymore.

It’s ready for the next hurt.

When I see strong, trained female muscle, I see healed pain. Muscles are scars that can do things — lift, push, pull, carry — unlike scars from a razor blade, a needle, or the ground-in half moons you get from scraping front teeth against fingers. Stop starving and shrinking me, the body says, and I’ll carry you. Stop fighting me, and I’ll help you fight for yourself.

That was five years ago. I’m bigger now, and smaller. I have more scars that can do things; fewer scars that show I tore myself up. It still hurts that she walked away, and I still don’t really understand, but I am covered in ripples and dents that show I can choose productive pain over waste-of-time pain. And I am grateful.

*Most cardio machines are more pointless than decaf coffee and dental-dam sex. Elliptical machines = the Sisyphus of gym equipment.

**THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “TONED.” There is only “muscle” and “fat.” You cannot “tone” a muscle without making it bigger and stronger. You don’t like it; take it up with science. Or the deity of your choice.