The Gym – Los Angeles, 2002

“So what is your fitness goal?” The salesman asks me.

I’m sitting across from him in an uncomfortable chair beneath the unforgiving glare of florescent lights, making good on at least one of my New Year’s resolutions with more than a small amount of trepidation. Everything about the gym intimidates me.

The salesman’s face is comprised entirely of pearly, white teeth and bronzer.

“My fitness goal?” I repeat back to him.

“What are you hoping to achieve by working out?” He asks.

I’m not a person who has a fitness goal, or, let’s face it, goals in general. The truth is, steadily approaching thirty with no career, no long-term relationship, and what can only be described as an unhealthy predilection for chocolate chip cookie and Nutella sandwiches, I came to the realization that I have no other choice than to join a gym. Genetics have cruelly doomed me to an unfortunate body shape that resembles a sack of potatoes kept alight by a couple of  elongated pipe cleaners. To be competitive in the dating scene, one is pressured to be rich, have a fantastic body, or an enormous penis, or ideally all of these things. Being 0 for 3 I figured that having a nice body was at least theoretically attainable.

I realize that my internal dialogue has been going on for an inappropriately long time, and the salesman is uncomfortably awaiting my response, so I say, “To tone up?”

This satisfies him, and he goes on to regale me with the numerous benefits of joining his gym, the classes, the personal training, the state of the art machines, the olympic sized pool, as my eyes glaze over. All I want is to get this bit out of the way so that I can get the actual working out bit out of the way, so that I can get some cheap, Chinese food and curl up in my bed watching zombie movies.

“You don’t have to sell me,” I say.  “I’m already sold. Can I just give you some money, and you let me start working out?”

His relief is palpable.

He gives me a tour of the facilities.

“So your name’s Lance,” he says. “You must be a Lance Armstrong fan.” (This was before that Lance’s well publicized fall from grace.)

I don’t see how one thing follows the other, so I say, “As guys with one testicle go, I like him more than Hitler.”

After this I am relieved from the unpleasantness of having to make further small talk. He points at various machines, explains their purpose, and carries on. I pretend to listen as I scope out my fellow gym members, the ponytail blondes with sports bras on the cardio machines, the ripped t-shirts squat thrusting with necks bulging and prominent veins. I never wanted to be one of these people, the tank topped men with fake tans, glow in the dark teeth, and bodies like chewed up pieces of bubble gum. I always prized brains over brawn, but so far my GRE scores and collection of French novels have impressed no one.

The tour takes me past the machines upstairs, the free weights downstairs, past the pool, the sauna, the hand ball courts, through the locker room where old men lounge unabashedly on benches like beached manatees, with white towels slung over their shoulders, and pendulous scrotal sacks swinging to and fro as they struggle slowly into clothes.

We end the tour once again upstairs where the salesman introduces me to Colt who is going to conduct my free, complimentary training session.

“Is Colt your actual name?”  I ask as we begin.

He nods confirmation, and I make the mistake of following this with, “It’s just I’ve never heard the name Colt outside of gay porn.”

Colt is not amused. He is in fact a Nazi, tall and blond with chiseled, Nordic features.  I feel like a humiliated, anorexic dwarf standing next to him. He weighs me, and has me lift up my shirt so that he can take a pair of what looks like alien salad tongs to measure my fat to muscle ratio. Despite the fact that I’m somehow grossly underweight, he deems my flesh to be entirely body fat. I’m disheartened to realize I’m made entirely of bones and gristle.

“Let’s start out with a warm up.” He says, instructing me to run for ten minutes on a treadmill in front of a flatscreen TV tuned to a women’s volleyball tournament. I smugly think to myself that ten minutes is nothing, and that this will likely be a piece of cake. A metaphorical piece of cake that will precede the well deserved literal piece of cake I intend to messily devour following my workout. I press the big green “Start” button and the treadmill begins to move. Colt pushes an arrow that causes the speed to increase until I’m struggling to keep up, and he’s satisfied that any lingering self esteem I may have had has been obliterated.

“I’ll be back in ten.” Colt says.

Ten minutes is not actually that short a length of time after all. On the treadmill ten minutes seems to span millennia. After two minutes I am panting and sweating profusely. As soon as Colt is out of visible contact with me, I press the down arrow, lowering the speed to a brisk walk. I knew I was out of shape, but until this moment, I had no idea how embarrassingly out of shape I actually am. Eight minutes later Colt returns and asks, “How was your warm up?”

Then it hits me that this is only the warm up, and I’ve got 45 more minutes of yet unimagined torture remaining. We proceed downstairs to the weight room. Down here the patrons are almost exclusively men. Sweat drenched, muscular men with perfect hair working out in pairs. Loud, obnoxious dance music blares from the speakers overhead. If the lighting was dimmed, and if the protein shakes were alcoholic, there would be very little separating the gym from a gay bar. In fact, there is an alarming amount of overlap.

Colt has me lie on a bench near three men who are so perfectly sculpted I name them the Adonis Triumvirate. I’m torn between the desire to lick the sweat off of the bench they’re working out on, and the humiliation of having them see that I’m only barely capable of bench pressing the bar. In fact, everywhere we go in the gym I feel like I’m being quietly judged, and any attraction I feel for the men working out near me is quickly diminished by shame, and an increasing desire to collapse into a puddle on the sweat stained floor.

The gym is full of other people who have no doubt made it their own New Year’s resolution to get in shape, and from time to time we pass one another and exchange tortured glances of solidarity from our respective training sessions.  Colt has me do something he calls “super-sets” of bicep curls followed up by tricep extensions.

“We’re going to get you huge guns!” He says, in order, it seems, to motivate me.  I’ve never expressed an interest in gun ownership, huge or otherwise, but I can tell he is trying to be encouraging, so I don’t point this out to him. He is an unrelenting task master, and before I know it he has me goose-stepping across the gym with a 30 pound weight slung across my shoulders.

“I think I need to rest a second.”  I tell him between gasps for breath when he has me doing lunges.

“You’re tough, you can keep going!”  He says.

I immediately throw up on the floor at his feet.

For a moment we regard one another. I waiver between horror at what my traitorous body has done, and a sick sense of satisfaction. To his credit, Colt lifts the weight from my shoulders and admits, “Looks like I worked you too hard, buddy. You okay now?”

I nod and turn to flee as the disgusted onlookers go back to their routines. On the stairway back up to the main floor, I pass a janitor with a mop and bucket going down.

“How was your first session?” The salesman asks as I emerge.

“A great start.” I lie, still panting and waiting for my heart to decelerate to it’s normal, sluggish rhythm.

“Good to hear.” He says. “I heard some guy just barfed down there,” He says.

“Yeah. How pathetic!” I hear myself say.

He smiles his toothy grin with a nod of agreement, and says, “See you next time.”

“Sure thing!” I lie again, seeing the open door in front of me, and already envisioning my escape, never to return. As I’m walking out, a pale, young man with glasses, shouldering a gym bag and holding a book is entering. His eyes meet mine, and a trace of smile passes across his pink lips. I smile back, and I’m outside in the fresh air, and with dismay, I realize that it wasn’t a lie after all. There will be a next time. My desire for beauty, for a connection, for even the barest hint of a connection outweighs my desire to compulsively eat ice cream on the couch alone. In the end I want to eat ice cream on the couch with someone else. So I will force myself to go to the gym again, although possibly in disguise.

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