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11/4/08
Gym People

I’m at the gym tonight, doing my thing on the elliptical machine. I’ve brought a book with me, but for the moment I’m content to people watch. Most of them are familiar to me. They follow the same schedule I do, and though I’ve never so much as uttered a single word to them, I know them. They are my gym people.

Tonight is a fairly busy night, and several of the treadmills in front of me are full. To my right, doing a fairly respectable pace is the guy I’ve nicknamed Just For Men, because he looks like the poster child for the hip, successful, yet graying middle-aged man. You know the commercial where the guy is surfing and singing in a band and generally pretending that he’s still in his twenties except for the fact that he can color his hair yet still look natural by keeping a little gray? That’s this guy. He’s in shape, he’s not bad looking, and he carries that air of confidence that says “I’m not old…I’m just keeping a little gray”. He has his headphones in, probably listening to his Led Zeppelin and mentally reliving the free-spirited 70’s of his youth.

Next to Just For Men is Aunt Jemima, who ironically, looks nothing like a large comfortable black woman known for her pancakes. Instead, this is a young, fit, white man, probably in his late 20’s, whose only transgression is a fondness for working out with a bandana on his head, thus the nickname. (I suppose he could have just as easily been Biker Guy or Pirate Guy…either of which he would have probably preferred, but as soon as I saw the bright red bandana, I thought of Aunt Jemima, and the mental nickname stuck). Actually, Aunt Jemima is one of my favorite gym regulars to watch because he is a beautiful runner. He quickly gets his treadmill up to speed and settles into a graceful bound, running effortlessly like a gazelle. His movements seem so carefree and fluid that it appears to be no effort at all for him. He almost seems to be floating. It makes me want to get on a treadmill just to see if it really is as much fun as he makes it look. (It’s not. I’ve tried. I am not a graceful floating runner. I am the jerky, arms and legs flailing awkwardly for a minute or two before tripping over my own feet and falling off the end of the treadmill runner). But Aunt Jemima makes running look at natural as breathing. And tonight, he’s on the treadmill right in front of me so I can watch him with envy without being obvious.

Two treadmills down from Aunt Jemima is a new runner. I don’t think I’ve seen her before. Or if I have, she hasn’t stuck. Like Aunt Jemima, she’s running, but unlike him, she is not floating gracefully. She’s pounding. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! go her feet against the belt. She runs with jarring steps that slams down with each step. I pity her knees. The entire room is filled with the sounds of her stomping, drowning out the music and causing other patrons to glance over at her. I mentally christen her Angry Girl, since her run seems to be about intense frustration and maybe even a little self-punishment. I wonder what happened that made her so mad. I wonder if she really is mad, or if she always runs like that. She’s facing away from me. I can see her general reflection in the window in front of her however, and if she’s going to run like that, she needs a better sports bra. She’s going to knock herself out with all that jerky stomping. I tsk at her. If Angry Girl is angry now, she’s really going to be seething when she gets ready to leave and her “girls” drag along behind her.

Just For Men starts his cool down.

On the other side of Angry Girl is Mr. Male Pattern Baldness. He wears and oversized t-shirt and those giant basketball shorts that hang down below his knees. Why do guys like those shapeless shorts? It makes them look like they have no rear end whatsoever. And short deformed legs. Honestly, they don’t even look good on professional basketball players. Overlooking the unfortunate wardrobe, Male Pattern Baldness has another problem. He’s got the treadmill going too fast. He runs right on the edge of flying out of control. His body gives off waves of panic as he just barely keeps himself upright on the spinning conveyor belt. He has a death grip on the handlebars. I can’t say I blame him. He’s half a step from shooting off the end of the treadmill into the stratosphere. I can’t look away. It’s like a car crash. I want to yell at him to slow down, but I also want to watch the destruction.

Just For Men finishes his workout. He wipes down the machine and saunters over to the water fountain. Angry Girl drops her speed down to a jog. She’s still stomping, but at least it’s at a slower pace. Less bouncing too. I wonder if my rear end is bigger or smaller than hers. I mentally measure my butt. Hard to tell. Probably about the same size. I’m okay with this. She’s got a decent shape.

Male Pattern Baldness gives up and slows the treadmill to a walk. Good. Despite the unattractive shorts, falling off the treadmill would be mortification that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Angry Girl gets her second wind. She bumps the speed back up and resumes her beating.

On the elliptical machines to my left are three Barbies. They’re blond co-eds with perfect figures and matching sorority t-shirts. I wonder why they come here instead of using the gym on campus. Despite my nickname for them, I don’t begrudge them anything. They come just like the rest of us to work out and nothing more. They can’t help it that they’re Barbies. It’s just one of those college phases where everyone wants the same clothes, the same shape, the same blond hair. Identity through conformity. Pretty, but an exact clone of the girl next to her. Don’t worry, I tell them silently. Once you graduate, you’ll find yourself again. I’ve been there. I’m the wise older sister. Oblivious to me and my mental encouragement, they pedal along to their I-pods, lost in their world of Beyonce or T.I. or whatever collage girls are listening to these days.

Male Pattern Baldness is watching the TV turned to CNN. I can just barely see the profile of his face. He looks like he’s working out a very difficult math problem in his head.

Aunt Jemima finally slows. He’s been in a Zen-like state for close to 45 minutes now. He’s not even sweaty. I suddenly wonder if he’s attractive. I can’t tell from behind. He has the classic athlete’s body, with the wide shoulders slimming down to a trim waist. The perfect V shape. He’s well-muscled but not bulky, and he has nice calves. Dark hair peeks out from under his bandana. I can’t see his face though. (Not that I’m in the market, mind you. I’m just passing the time).

A new woman, (I'll call her Every Mom) gets onto the elliptical machine next to me. She’s probably late 40’s, and wearing a plain blue t-shirt and yoga pants. Very Soccer Mom-ish. She’s flipping through a Southern Living magazine, but she’s not really reading it. Just glancing at the pictures. Something to keep her occupied while she exercises. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She’s in pretty good shape, although she’d probably never believe it if you told her. Women her age always seem to hate the way they look. I feel like the bridge between her and the Barbies. This was me 10 years ago, and this will be me 10 years from now. I wonder if anyone else has realized that we’re all pedaling away in chronological order. Probably not.

It’s getting late. I’m almost through with my workout. I switch to my cool down.

Aunt Jemima leaves. I remember my earlier curiosity about his face, but he never looks in my direction. I shrug it off. It doesn’t matter what he looks like. He’ll always be Aunt Jemima to me.

Angry Girl also slows to a stop. She didn’t really do much of a cool down, but it looks like the battle is over. I hope she found some peace.

The workout summary pops up on the screen and I roll to a stop. Another day done, another workout mastered, and I’m feeling strangely connected to all my gym people. We’re kindred spirits, dedicated to our nightly workouts as we commune silently together on our various machines. Good night Every Mom! Good night Male Pattern Baldness! I’ll see you next time Barbies! You don’t know it, but your unacknowledged familiarity comforts me in my routine. You are my gym people.

1 comment:

Erin said...

I loved that. I totally do that. You know, make up stories about people that I see living their daily lives unawares that they are being scrutinized by me. I felt like I was there and I felt very connected to them, too. I was kind of sad, in a way, when "our" workout was over. Does this count? Can I say that I was at the gym? :)