I told myself I joined
the gym to get in shape and to meet women. It’s
only six blocks from my apartment, so I jogged there and back. Two months in
I’d lost ten pounds, felt great, and had met nine women, three of whom
gone on dates with. Things were looking up.
Let me start again: I joined a gym to meet women and because I had a lot of
time on my hands. It’s six blocks away, so I drove to it. I gained weight, felt
more tired than I’d felt a month ago, and had met zero women. Things
were looking normal.
I was desperate, so I got a trainer. His name was Phil, but he pronounced it “Full” in
this low-nasally, tough-guy voice. He was really into working out, had a degree
in it that he showed me five minutes into our first session. It was framed like
a doctor might do, on the wall near the treadmills. But I totally believed Full
knew what he was doing because he looked fit like that actor I’d watch
growing up in ’80s action movies. Full had shaved his head, and wore
a pair of swishy pants and a tight t-shirt with the name of the gym on front,
“Always start off with a handshake, it’s what men do,” Full
said as he walked me to the aerobics machines that make people look smoother
are. He had a firm grip, and I winced even though I was ready for it. But this
Then he said, “Lose the glasses.” He looked serious. This was not
“I kind of need them,” I said. “Is this like a safety thing?”
“Nah,” he said.
I lost the glasses.
* * *
About halfway through the session, in the middle of my bench press, he
are you doing this weekend, Clarence?” I had told him my name is Chase,
which it is.
I couldn’t speak because I was worried I’d drop the bar on my windpipe
if I exerted effort from anywhere other than my arms. Full was supposed to
be spotting me, but instead he was looking all over the place like he was waiting
for someone. I yelped at him like a small dog. It came out sharper than I thought
it would, and probably the handful of people in the gym heard it.
“What?” he said, still looking around. “You say something?”
Maybe Full thought this was the answer to his weekend plan question. And
maybe it was. My arms were shaking at this point, and he finally grabbed
the bar and
helped me rack it. I dropped my arms fast, let them drop straight down so
that my fingers dangled just above the hard rubber floor.
“Nice pump, Clarence,” he said.
“That’s not my name,” I said, sitting up slowly. I was feeling
“Yes,” I said, wiping my brow. “It’s not.”
He paused, hands on his hips, looking at me, like my real name might be stitched
somewhere on my clothing. “It should be,” he said. He moved one
hand to his chin. He was really thinking about this.
But then like a distracted child, he started looking around the gym again. “Can
you believe the chicks here?” he said.
I looked around, dazed.
“’Cause if you really want to know,” he said in a loud-whisper, “I’ve
had three of them, but that’s another story.” He looked like he
wanted me to ask about this story.
“That’s really great,” I said as neutrally as I could like
he had just talked to me for a long time about taxes. Squinting, I think there
some older women, like retired older, chatting in the corner, and that’s
about it, so I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“OK, OK, I got time,” Full said, plopping down on the weight bench.
He sat real close like a friend would.
I unfolded a towel, draped it on my head and looked at the floor like I’d
seen big guy weight lifters do at the gym. It gave the impression that they
had just worked up a good sweat. That they had been doing what they were supposed
to be doing as hard as they could be doing it. And then they rested.
* * *
Ten minutes later Full
introduced me to what he called the “Shark Tank.” It
was where the “real men” worked out, and where only the “strong
survive,” etc. etc.
“Will you survive the Shark Tank?” he asked me in this weird game-show-announcer
I kept thinking I was on that show on TV where slim, fit contestants—accountants
or elementary-school gym teachers—compete in physical competitions
against hulking people with names like Zap or Thunder. But I think Full
me to answer this question of survival.
“I believe I will,” I said, believing that I probably wouldn’t.
“No one talks like that,” he said.
“Like what?” I said.
“Like you have a small animal up your butt.” He glared at me. “Man
I substitute teach a few days a week and the rest of the time I sit at
home. Sometimes I go to the skate park and watch young kids skate. I
anything to any of them, and, no, I don’t like them like that.
I go there because I imagine rewinding my life, becoming small and young
again, frail and hopeful,
that version of me as a skater in too-big elbow and knee pads, swift
and smooth, ollies and wicked stops. But I can barely stand up on a skateboard
alone ride one. I thought that joining the gym would be a kick start,
an awakening, if you want to go crazy with it. Making my life anything
I wanted to try to explain my adult lethargy to Full, to get on the same
page with him, but instead all I said was, “Let’s get going.”
Full said, “Now you’re talking.”
* * *
The Shark Tank was this big Plexiglas box in the back of the gym that housed
the heavy free-weights and a few mats for stretching.
“This is where the men are separated from the boys,” Full told me,
stopping in the doorway and flexing his bicep for what felt like a long time.
was the size of what I imagined a boss’s office to be. There
was sweat or condensation all over the lower part of the glass. It
was pretty gross, and
I made a joke to Full about how it reminded me of when people sneeze
on the sneeze guards at Howard Johnson’s salad bars.
As Full picked out the two smallest barbells on the rack, then replaced
them with the two second-smallest barbells, he said that was a pretty
and asked if it was an original joke, or one that I had heard someone
Standing inside, looking around, all I could think about was this fish
tank in one of the classrooms I substitute teach in. I had only been
four times, almost a year ago, but the tank was new on my first day
in this second grade classroom. The kids were whooping and hollering
asking if they could go back and watch the fish. I started giving two-minute
bonuses to look at the fish tank. So if they got all their vocabulary
words right, or were pretty damn close, they got two minutes with the
so on. Kids
were back and forth, smiling and basically happy all day. They watched
the fish and the plants and the bubbles drifting to the surface so
out and lived in that tank. Didn’t matter what was going on with
the world, they were swimming and bumping into plastic seaweed. Swimming!
the place eating those flakes of fish food that look like bits of colored
paper. This had been one of the best days of my life, and I had never
“Shark tank!” Full yelled, jogging in place, punching the air, a
small dumbbell in each hand, one-two, one-two. He thrust the weights
at me. They felt like all my problems condensed together.
* * *
With ten minutes left in my session, Full kept glancing at his watch. There
were a few other guys in the Tank, all grunting and looking at their
muscles. I was
doing slow, tired sit-ups on a mat in the corner as Full kneeled
next to me. I did a weak set of twenty, then sat up, struggling like I
my arms on my bent knees. I tucked my head low between my knees.
I started a new set of twenty-five. Full wasn’t even paying attention.
I was counting sit-ups in my head, but every once in a while, he would just say
a progression of numbers, so he’d say “thirteen” then a few
seconds later, he’d say “uh, twenty-two.”
“OK, that seems real good, Clarence,” he finally said. “Wow,
yeah, real good!”
“You should push me,” I said, breathing hard. “That’s
“OK!” he said, and stood up over me, and pushed me hard back down
on the mat. I hit the back of my head.
“Just kidding! Just kidding, bro! Just messing with you!” Straddling
my body, Full said this like he was not sorry, and then was actually
This, I realized, is what big guys do to each other. I stayed down on my
back for a while, trying to catch my breath. The Shark Tank’s
reach the ceiling, so it resembled that tank at school. I wanted
it suddenly to be filled with water, for someone to drop fire hoses
over the top, the water
pounding into the tank, into the weights side by side on the heavy
duty rack, into us, to slow us all down, to make life the same for
everyone in the tank.
If Full had asked me at that moment what my life was like, I’d
explain it like this: Imagine yourself doing everything under water.
slow, and tricky, and you slip on everything. You find it hard to
breathe, to see.
And if all you know is this water, nowhere else seems like it would
be any better.
I was looking at the ceiling, still breathing hard from the sit-ups. “Can
I ask you to think about something?” I finally asked Full.
“Yes,” he said, drawing out the word as if he were saying it and
thinking about the answer at the same time. He kneeled next to me.
“Imagine,” I said, “if this tank was filled with water. Like
suddenly there was all water in here, right up to the top.”
“Haw!” Full bellowed. “Killer!”
“No, seriously,” I said, tucking my hands behind my head. “Like
Full stopped laughing. He thought for a long time. “Would the weights
still be here?”
“Absolutely,” I said looking at the ceiling. “Everything would
be the same, except for all the water.”
Full looked from me to the ceiling, then back down at me. He stood.
“What would we do?” I asked. My breathing was almost normal.
“We’d swim out the top, bro,” he said, shrugging. It seemed
so obvious to him.
I guess what I should say here is that I was looking for something, and
have defined it before this moment. I had been thinking of those kids I teach
when I’m called early in the morning, their noses pressed
up against the fish tank glass, or the kids at the skate park, and
I imagined them all as
inevitable adults, as me or Full or the women who won’t date me or any
of these big guys or old ladies in the gym, or anyone really, and this got me
feeling terrifically sad, and I was looking for a spark. I didn’t
hear everything Full said next, a canned motivational speech about changes
and personal bests that he probably told to all his clients at the end
of their first session so they return for a second. But he was really
into it, and that
was sort of beautiful.
Full checked his watch for the last time and told me that our session
was over, that we’d pick it up again next time, if I was into
a next time, which would probably be an excellent idea because there’s
a lot of potential, a lot of potential. But for now he had another
the person was waiting, he
said. Schedules are important in this business, he said. Gotta stay
on track, he said. He did a chopping motion of one hand into the
palm of the other.
“Fine,” I said. “That’s fine.” I meant it.
I lay back down on the floor for a little longer. Muscle-y people stepped
over me, grunted, wailed around me. Weight machines grinded somewhere
beyond the tank.
I put the towel on my head and waited a while, and the sounds became
something dramatic, something like suffering and pain.