Looking outward, looking inward

Half the fun of going to the gym is the chance to observe its particular biosphere. It’s treasure trove of wildlife. I say you ought to get something out of it. Lord knows I hate going to the gym.

It’s a symptom of my inexorable laziness. But I see results when I work out, and male vanity is even more compulsive than laziness. So I go. But always in the morning before work—because I hate going after work even more.

So I’ve become familiar with the characters of my morning routine. I think you see a more consistent recurrence of the same people in the morning. Everyone’s routines are a little more regimented early in the day. We still have discipline in the morning, and hope—as opposed to later in the day when we are apathetic and undone and much more inclined to get a cocktail than lift anything heavier than a gym bag.

There’s this guy and his girlfriend who spot for each other every morning. He watches MTV on the little screen of his elliptical trainer. She always watches some kind of reality show. And afterward they lift weights—super supportively!—in front of each other. It’s adorable.

Me, I prefer to be alone. Working out is a solitary exercise for me. But they work as a couple. I don’t think they’re really a couple. In the life for them I make up in my head, she is a nursing student and he is the gay roommate. They’re struggling to pay the rent, but the one thing they can agree on is the other’s fat ass. Just kidding. They’re both in pretty good shape.

There’s the emo guy with the floppy hair and the tattoos on his legs, the skinny lesbian who looks like a Brazilian soccer player, the guy with the massive chest and shoulders, shaved head and tribal tattoos.

I once heard him whining to another guy in the locker room about how much weight he’d lost when he was sick for a week and unable to work out. “Dude, I feel like I have. Like. No muscle left,” he said.

I felt no compulsion to convince him that he was just as … er, robust … as always, but I was very glad to have proof that I am not nearly as dependent on my workout routine as he is on his.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of this woman who talks on her phone while walking the elliptical. We are both creatures of habit, it seems, because she is always two machines down from me in my row, against the wall, near the window.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack. She whirs and stirs and yaps into the microphone dangling from her headphones. I try to ignore it by turning up the volume on my own earbuds, but I can still hear her mood, her expressiveness, her insipid cadence shine through the Kylie Minogue, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Gaga and Madonna.

OK, here’s the thing. If she has enough wind during her cardio routine for a leisurely conversation, she’s not working hard enough. She ought to just cancel her membership and take it outside. Go for a leisurely stroll around the block. Or maybe do something a little more strenuous, like, you know… getting the mail. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and money for her—and an annoyance to us.

There are signs posted in the gym telling patrons to restrict cell phone use to the locker rooms. This is interesting in itself, because my old gym posted signs expressly forbidding people from using cell phones in the locker rooms. I assumed they didn’t want pervs taking pictures of naked dangly bits and posting them to porn sites. I guess it depends on your priorities.

At this gym, apparently they are less concerned about clandestine snapshots than they are about loud phone conversations breaking the concentration of everyone else in the room. I think they have the right idea.

Personally I have never understood the appeal of broadcasting one side of your conversation to a bunch of strangers in close quarters. And what does the person on the other end of the phone think about it?

“Was there blood on the sheets? What? Oh, don’t worry about it. Yeah, whatever. Yeah, I’m at the gym, but… Mom. MOM. Mom, it’s fine. Mom, I don’t give a shit what they think. Mom. Listen, lady, you’re lucky I’m calling you at all!”

People do this on the bus, and it’s so weird. It’s like an establishment of dominance or something. Like walking into a room and farting and daring someone to do something about it.

You don’t like that smell, do you? Well… what are you going to do about it? You going to gather an uprising and throw me off the bus? You gonna tattle on me? Go tell the bus driver? What’s she gonna do? She has to drive! the damn! bus!

There they sit, divulging personal details, or just saying stupid shit, and forcing all of us without the blessing of earphones to endure the inanity.

The first time I saw her in action, she turned a few heads in the rows in front of her. What is that noi— oh, it’s her.

She didn’t seem to notice or care. But the next morning there were more signs up, including one within perfect view of the elliptical machines, inviting members to use their cellphones in the locker room only. Please. Thank you. Yes, this means you.

Didn’t make a difference. The next time I saw her there, she was on her phone. I was about 300 calories in and waist-deep in a Kylie Minogue playlist, so I could ignore her easily enough, but at times she spoke so loudly I could still hear her yap yap yap. Bla bla bla. And people from all sides of her were craning their necks to spot the chatty Cathy.

Then there’s the guy who just struts around the gym floor bellowing jocularly to the front desk attendant. He’s like the crazy uncle at a wedding carrying around a can of Miller Lite in an Indianapolis 500 beer cozy. He’s in his late 50s. Maybe he’s 60. A brilliant, full head of white hair. Still wears muscle shirts. I bet he owns a motorcycle.

At first I thought they knew each other, but now I think this guy has just chosen his favorites, and he just forces them into thoughtless chit-chat. About TV. About sports. About wives.

He’s just trying to be friendly, but he tries a little too hard and a little too often. He wanders around talking to people. Then he stops and does about five arm curls. Wipes his forehead. Grabs a slurp from the drinking fountain. And then he’s back wandering around again, barking jokes at the front desk—”Oh. Yeah!” you’re supposed to say. “Good one!”—or relaying some factoid from ESPN Sports Center.

Then of course there are the guys who grunt and moan and bang and crash their way through a set of free weights. Look at me! I beg you. PLEASE? Look at meeeeeee…

It’s all far too much nose and interaction for an environment meant to be so inward-focused. You’re supposed to be paying attention to yourself. That’s what the floor-to-ceiling mirrors are for. There’s no more narcissistic a place than a gym, because you’re there to make yourself better. It’s more appropriate to stare at yourself, check your posture, correct your form, watch the interplay of muscles under your skin.

But, uh… no—for heaven’s sake. Don’t lift your shirt to wink at your shifting six-pack. That’s just unnecessary douche baggery.

Most importantly, I think, you are there to challenge yourself, to push yourself, to check in with yourself. Get in, do the work, and get out—back to the more important things in life.

Enter the personal trainer. He’s gay, and he’s pretty. And I’m super-intimidated by him. I could never hire him. It would be too hard to concentrate. Is it his dark good looks? The tattoos? The—oops!—peek-a-boo reveal of his nipple under those cut-off shirts? Who can say?

One of his regular clients is an older gentleman, who I think is also gay. He’s 60 if he’s a day. Hair pulled back in a thumb-length ponytail, more salt than pepper. Seems to be in decent shape. I think he pays the trainer just to have someone to talk to. Talking is mostly what he does. And who could blame him? I’d love to have a little visit with trainer man, too, but I can barely mutter “hello” or “excuse me” to him without blushing shamelessly.

The gentleman client is less troubled. He’ll get some instruction, and then he’ll sit there and jabber about some argument he had with a waitress at brunch the day before. Then he’ll lift something a few times, and then he’ll lean back and make some remarks about the dance tracks playing in the gym that time of the morning.

I haven’t used a trainer in years. I do those free sessions they give you when you first join a gym just to outline a good routine, and then I want to be on my own. My last guy told me that I roll my eyes back in my head when I’m really pushing myself. He’s right. He thought it was funny. Now it kind of distracts me to think about it.

There’s always a fit, presumably straight guy to look at—but always with care. I don’t want to be caught staring. It’s rude.

Usually they are too tied up looking at themselves to notice. Pure narcissism. They certainly don’t care what I think. I don’t imagine they even care what girls think.

The other day, standing in the middle of the floor in an overlarge basketball tank-top, was a new guy. New to me, anyway. He was blithely unaware of the shape his arms took while he stared mutely up at ESPN, the contours of his shoulders, the rolling, pastoral foothills of his traps, delts and triceps. Oh, to go grazing on that.

I didn’t imagine him naked. It’s better to keep the clothes on. (The only reason to take them off would be because they are so bloody ugly and grossly oversized.) Just that little bit exposed is good. Just an arm. Just a shoulder.

In that moment—and I only looked for a moment. I’m not a complete perv. In that moment, all I wanted to do was lean him back, raise that arm over his head, and bury my face in his armpit. Soak his scent into the skin of my face. The sweet and the sour. Rough stubble combing through damp hair. His deodorant would be a distraction, unwanted, but not unpleasant. Bitter, artificial, but forgivable. Because the rest of it matters so much more.

All this in a brief moment of gawking. But then he turned away from the TV. I snapped back to my meager 100 lb. setting and squeezed out another 12 reps until my my eyes turned back in my head and my elbows quivered. Literally looking inward, I guess, is nothing more than an extreme sort of introspection. Perfect for the gym.


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the untallied hours

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