The man sitting on the locker room bench looked like he was asleep, but he was merely exhausted. Sweat coursed down his massive torso and dampened the white towel tucked around his waist. His stomach, of which he was always aware, spilled over the towel and rested on his thighs. In two weeks he’d lost seven pounds, most of it water, though he didn’t understand this. He also didn’t understand how he could gain back five pounds by going off his diet for one day. But now his workout was through, and he felt spent and pleasantly sad. He’d accomplished something, even if it didn’t seem fair how hard he had to work at it.
He sat silent and still, Buddha-like, barely registering the sounds around him: the shuffling of shirts, pants, and shoes; hollow clank of metal locker; click of combination lock. With another person present, he was even more aware of his immense girth. Not that he ever wasn’t, but awareness came and went, except when he dreamed. Sometimes in dreams he floated up the sides of the midtown skyscrapers, hovered in the air, and drifted earthward slowly as a balloon.
When he awoke from these dreams, his heart sank.
The other man finished changing into his gym clothes and began to leave the locker room. He paused, looking above his spectacles at the obese, non-moving Buddha. His own slight curve of a beer belly betrayed a skinny frame, with wiry, vein-protruding arms, bony elbows and shoulders, and a prominent Adam’s apple that moved up and down. “You okay, big guy?”
The Buddha’s eyes opened halfway. “Oh, yeah. Just tired.” Despite the towel, a puddle of sweat was forming beneath the bench.
“Be sure to drink some water. You can get dehydrated.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m all right, just tired.”
“Okay, take it easy.” For a second he thought of patting the big guy on the back or shoulder. He’d like to be the kind of guy who patted other men on the shoulder. This would be one of those times it might be appropriate to do such a thing. Why was it that his best impulses seemed to pop up when he was least likely to act on them? He fought back his revulsion at the big guy’s fat, sweaty shoulders and walked out of the locker room, a twinge of guilt tightening his stomach.
The gym was fairly crowded with the post-work rush, and he frowned at the smell—something like sweat, but stronger. From the speakers, Cher’s voice sang, “Do you believe in love?” He scanned the row of cross ramps for an open machine. Yes, there was one at the far end, in front of the windows. He moved quickly down the alley and twisted himself around the cross ramp. He climbed onto the steps and pushed the settings—manual mode, age 36, weight 145, time 20—and began sliding his legs back and forth. These machines were set so close together. He recalled how the last time he’d used this machine, a woman’s sweaty arm had brushed against his hand. He squinted at the clock on the far wall, then checked it against the clock on the wall above the entrance: twelve, fourteen minutes till six. He picked up the pace. He needed to relax a little before she got here. He didn’t want to blow it by appearing too nervous.
Across the room, a black man in a loose tank top that proclaimed “No Fear” tossed a medicine ball repeatedly to his workout partner on the incline bench. His bald head shone, and with each throw the long, horizontal furrow across his brow creased as if his forehead might fold in half. The freckles that dotted his upper cheeks had often frustrated his attempts to look fierce when he’d wanted to, but he’d never know how many people they’d helped feel more comfortable with him. As his partner rose from each sit-up, No Fear tossed the ball first straight over his head, then to the left, then a second time to the left, mixing it up, making his friend react, throwing him slightly off balance, punishing those abs—”That’s it, go get it!”—before tossing the ball again to the right. “Go get it!” This is something he’d heard someone else say.
His partner grunted.
No Fear put on a show, talking loudly, drawing the eyes of many as their hearts raced from the Stairmasters and cross ramps and treadmills, or as they caught their breath between weightlifting sets. He needed this audience to spur him on, to make him work harder. And he needed these times with his partner to feel strong. At home, he’d end up silent and drained, nothing to say, when his wife argued with him about something that three weeks, a month later, he wouldn’t be able to remember. “Come on, baby,” he’d say, meaning, “I love you, baby. Isn’t that enough?” But as his voice became softer, his wife’s grew louder and more hateful. This is something he’d never understand.
After a few more tosses, No Fear smiled and counted aloud, “Twenty! Good job!”
His partner held his sides and smiled. “Yo, Dog, that hurts!” “I’m tellin’ ya. That’s how you know it’s doin’ some good.” This was also something No Fear had heard someone else say. He said it with authority even if they weren’t his own words.
He made eye contact with a woman on a cross trainer, tried to decide if she was pretty, then went back to tossing. The woman on the cross trainer snapped her gum and reached behind her headset to adjust a bobby pin. Her hair was wiry gray-and-brown, and despite her attempts to bob it up in a stylishly unkempt way it managed to look like a large, abandoned bird’s nest. On the console a chip clip held open a used copy of a spiritual self-help book. She listened to praise music and began thinking about next summer, though it was still this summer. Less than a month earlier she and her husband and two sons had returned from what was becoming an annual mission trip to Nicaragua with other families from metro-area Evangelical churches. This was the one time in the year when she felt most herself, most alive, doing something that was so clearly the Lord’s work. Seeing the puffy thunderheads off the coast, brilliant white against a crisp blue sky, she experienced once again the truth that God is light. The salty Pacific had felt surprisingly warm on her skin as she’d jogged through thigh-high water fully clothed. She’d forsworn bathing suits a few years earlier after she’d gained forty-five pounds in just under two years. Her weight gain had paralleled her spiritual growth, and it seemed that this was the Lord’s way of testing her priorities—and perhaps her husband’s. Putting others first—setting the alarm and cooking a warm breakfast and dropping the kids off, knocking off two or three errands and chores from an ever-expanding list, picking up the youngest after trumpet practice, fixing dinner and a boxed lunch for her husband for the next day—left little time for working out.
Indeed, she was beginning to feel that inner twinge that came when she was alone for too long. She shut off the machine, closed her book, and headed toward the locker room to retrieve her satchel and keys.
The man on the cross ramp two machines over clenched his teeth against the smell of gum and perfume. He frowned and looked at the clocks again. His date was late. She wasn’t coming. He knew this, but he would never know why.
No loss. It probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. She did have a sexy overbite, but those hands! The nails tapping the table in unison, not really drumming, no isolated finger movement, nothing but fingers together, like something sub-human. Raccoon hands, reaching for her drink, not waiting for the bartender to set it on the bar. Grabbing, clutching. She was one of those women who’d stick her tongue in your mouth and just leave it there. She wouldn’t move it around, not French kiss with the lips soft and pliant, but just stick her rigid tongue between your teeth and keep it there, as if she were plugging herself into a socket, sucking out his energy.
She’d move in. He’d come home to find her wearing his best T-shirts, laughing at sit-coms, staining his leather sofa with Haagen Daz. Her towel would never be wet, his soaked. It would get that rancid smell. He’d develop a rash, something that would confound the doctors. She’d eat all the gourmet wheat crackers he’d just bought before he’d even had one. She didn’t even leave him one! He screwed up his face, his Adams’ apple rose and fell.
On a Stairmaster nearby, a woman moved her legs ploddingly slow, as if her weight barely registered on the pedals, the machine set at its lowest setting. She wore wire-rimmed glasses even when meditating or working out, and when she smiled, which was rare, the corners of her mouth turned down. She was an artist, but she did not know this. What she knew was that she was dissatisfied with her life, and that she’d been dissatisfied for as long as she could remember, though she didn’t know why.
Yet she had once created a world.
Perhaps it was a world to rival Tolkien’s. Years earlier, throughout junior high and early high school, she’d spent every spare hour, whole Saturdays, entire summers, creating outlines, diagrams, maps, character descriptions, detailed chronological histories. She’d written five episodes of a planned twelve-episode saga, writing the last two segments, then the first two, then switching to one in between, feeling like everything was starting to come together. As she wrote each chapter she thought of details to add to other chapters, character nuances, plot twists, making things fit. She jotted down notes on numbered sheets she kept in separate folders, sometimes ending a night with her eyelids closing and eleven or twelve sheets of paper scattered across her comforter.
What had happened to this world?
She’d come home from school on a Tuesday, garbage day, to find the stack of material missing from the side of her desk.
“I didn’t think it was anything important,” her mother had said. So now each morning before work, this artist spent half an hour reading a book about meditation and putting it into practice. She was on her third book, and that morning she had been reading a chapter about healing meditation. The book instructed her—after relaxing, scrunching her shoulders, counting her breaths, and clearing her mind—to take her palm and place it gently on the center of her rib cage. She was to find the heart area, to hold her palm there for a minute or two, then slowly massage in a circular motion, to pay attention to any images that came into her head, any unexplained feelings. To observe these sensations, to feel them, not to think or appraise. Just to listen.
As this artist massaged her heart, no feelings arose, and no images came into her head. Instead, her head bowed down slowly, slowly, slowly, until it couldn’t go forward any more. But looking into the glass doors of World Gym is a blonde Labrador puppy, six months old, perhaps two-thirds grown. She belongs to one of the employees who’s stopped by to pick up his check. He’s told her to wait outside, but it’s been several minutes now and she’s watching the doors open and close. A heavy man swings the door wide as he leaves, oblivious to the dog until he sees a sudden movement. He pauses, looks back, and sees the dog scoot into the gym. A wet pony tail hangs over the towel on the man’s shoulders. His shirt is dampening in the humid air with that cool, post-shower sweat he finds so annoying. People hurry into his office every day panicking when their computers misbehave. Everything has to be done now, can’t wait, as if he weren’t working on five other problems more pressing than theirs.
Did they reboot?
Why, no! They hadn’t thought of that!
So now someone else has a problem. Let them deal with the dog.
The puppy prances past the front desk and up the stairs. Her wagging tail hits the base of the leg curl machine, smacks the calf of a startled woman working her abs. She stops rotating, sees the puppy, and smiles. She watches her jog toward the mats and stop to sniff the knee of one of two Hispanic men stretching their legs. He reaches out and pets the puppy, whose tail can’t stop wagging, but now she’s off again, not running but moving with the quick curious energy of the young, continuing down the center of the room.
One by one the various souls in the room come to notice the animal. One by one their faces relax.
A stocky woman with a stud in her ear and a nearly shaved head catches her breath between sets on the vertical bench press, her head bent, her arms on her knees.
There’s the puppy.
She reaches out and ruffles the dog’s ears. She’s a tough girl, won’t smile, has to stay in character. The tail wags anyway. Now the puppy heads for the stairs.
An employee is leaning over the front desk, talking to the cute ID checker with the perfect nails, when he spots the dog bounding down the stairs. He is not smiling. He is big, a giant, at least six-four, with a thick neck and a stylishly diabolical goatee. He rises up slowly, coolly, and strides puppyward. The puppy descends to the lower level to see what’s going on there. More people notice the puppy, now being followed by the Giant, their eyes turning from a TV or a shapely latexed butt to watch the unfolding drama.
The Giant is gaining ground, but she’s off again. What’s back here? She disappears into the locker room, sniffs the Buddha, wags her tail. The Buddha opens one eye and sees the puppy. Dog, he thinks. He’s too tired to smile.
Meanwhile the Giant enters the locker room. He has the puppy trapped. There’s no way out except past him.
But no! The puppy ducks under the divider of a toilet stall, pops back out within a few feet of him. This would be the time for the Giant to grab her. He might just risk being uncool for a moment and make a lunge at her. But he can’t do that. He knows what he’ll look like if he misses. This little dog is not going to make a fool out of him. He can feel the eyes on him, on the puppy. Rooting for the damn dog. Yet he is the man on whose shoulders responsibility falls, the “here” where the buck stops. He’s Gary Cooper thanklessly ridding a pioneer town of its lawless element. Somebody’s got to do it. We can’t have animals running around everywhere.
So there he is, striding stiff-legged back up the stairs, in steady pursuit of the puppy, who stops again at the two Hispanic men on the mats. Anything new here guys? They both pet her this time, and the Giant is making up ground when she’s off again, past the leg lift machine, disappearing into the free-weight room where the serious lifters strain beneath their loads.