The words “LoveSex” are emblazoned vertically on the leg of sweatpants worn by the woman beside me on the elliptical machine. She’s probably had better luck securing free personal training than I’ve had with my own exercise pants, which read “LoveCarbohydrates” across the shanks. More irritating than the public pronouncement of her love for sex is her evident love for cardio. While her legs complete revolutions with the speed of Wile E. Coyote pursuing the Road Runner, my own pace is akin to Driving Miss Daisy. Quite literally, I need a man in a chauffeur cap to manually rotate my legs while I turn pages in my book and sip sweet tea.
I turn away as the blur of her legs gives me motion sickness. My gaze falls to the woman in front of me, on a rowing machine, whose plodding pace provides the Dramamine effect I need. I glance at my machine’s clock. Two minutes.
I return my eyes to the rower who happens to have exactly 30 visible tattoos. I determine to study each tattoo for one minute to fulfill my parole upon this machine. While entranced by an Ancient Chinese character that she believes to say “Determination” when it actually is the sinograph for “Hungry Dragon for Pork Flavored Top Ramen,” I am interrupted.
Yes, Silvia, 26 minutes left. Put your name on the clipboard. Yes, I’ll wipe down the handlebars. I know I’m sweating like John Candy at an Easter buffet.
By the time I reach the rower’s impressive harem of multi-colored serpents, Silvia stands behind me, cane leaning against the machine and sweatbands in place on her pulse points. I disembark the machine and make my way to the free weights. I half-heartedly raise my dumbbells while simultaneously reading the Economist. I collapse upon the mat in between Harold and Edith, both working themselves toward a partial stroke with their elastic bands. Our bodies heaped upon the vinyl, we huff and puff and exchange a united look. A look that imparts one common philosophy: Why the hell are we here?
That united mind is precisely why I am there. To be around others like me. Those who have no business exercising. People who stare at a running track like it’s the Gobi Desert. Folks who need a spotter not for the bench press but to rescue them from an unwisely attempted toe touch. These are my gym compatriots — granted their definition of depression means standing in line for a bread ration while mine means waiting on hold for a Zoloft script — and we see each other three times a week. Unless one of us dies from overexertion in water aerobics.
Friends don’t understand why I go if I hate it. I go because there’s no taboo on gray hair, no shortage of Icy Hot cream and the child care is free. I drop the kids off and start boring an escape hole through the wall like the place is Shawshank. Any occasion my children can be cared for at no cost while I stretch on a mat discussing why Richard Burton was really no good for Elizabeth Taylor with a limber dame named Pearl is worth some discomfort.
The day a friend offers to come with me to the gym throws a dumbbell in my routine. She wears legitimate sporting attire, made of materials like Goretex and fabrics that wick. She boards the cardio machine next to me and turns her dials to Annapurna levels. I scan the floor for Phyllis in case we require a few puffs of her oxygen tank. As I acclimate to my negative acceleration rate, she pokes me in the ribs and points strongly at one of the overhead monitors. Suze Orman. Today’s subject is financial advice for the chronically in debt. I turn my volume louder and gesture toward my own monitor and pantomime “Also financial.” Court TV. I’m learning about the legal system and how it impacts those who borrow cars without asking permission and meet bankrupt lovers online.
She dares to the distant end of the weight shelf that my kind never visits. She asks me to spot her while she lifts an anvil. She spies me on an adductor machine and attempts to drop another weight plate on the stack. I tell her I will drop my uterus on her Nikes. After what seems an interminable workout, I inquire if she is ready to leave. She tells me she is still in her core routine and will need to do something called a cool down. My cool down happens over cups of decaf and collective blood pressure assessments before the assisted living bus arrives. I leave her to wait in the lobby. I wait so long that Harold, one of the young at heart, dies from aging complications. She emerges with wet hair.
You took a shower here? You live a mile away.
You don’t want to go to Dunkin Donuts? That’s the whole point of going to the gym. Lard is repelled from your body if you eat within 20 minutes of exercising. Everyone knows this. At least Sal and Esther do.
I’m unconvinced that friends who exercise together stay together. This is why, I presume, all of my gym friends are widows or widowers and wear nylon pants that read “LoveLipitor.”