Standing at the entrance to the aerobics room, I think, All I have to do is get through the next forty-five minutes. I tell myself that kickboxing sounds like fun, not dreadful or boring. I chose kickboxing because it resembles martial arts — something I studied briefly in the past.
I scan the room and note the dozen or so people gathered at the far end, joking and laughing together like old friends — fit old friends who surreptitiously inspect me, the newbie. I suddenly feel adrift, like I did when I was twelve and starting classes at yet another middle school, courtesy of my peripatetic father’s string of retail-management jobs. I never quite got used to being bathed in the spotlight of insider scrutiny, feeling soft, gawky, and alone.
How am I going to kill the next five minutes before class begins? I notice a man in a blue shirt off by himself, stretching. How sensible. Bless him for not being part of the fitness cabal at the far end. I take a seat on the floor nearby, demurely yet assertively spread my legs into a vee, and reach for my right toes.
I have always been good at stretching, even when I haven’t exercised seriously in years. Touching my nose to my knee, I consider whether joining this gym in January was such a good idea. A postholiday trial membership is a terrible cliché, and I like to think I’m not so predictable. Yet here I am, smelling the acrid floor.
There’s nothing quite as disgusting as the corpulence I feel after an end-of-year bacchanal. Twenty-odd pounds of gravy, cocktails, and pie have taken up residence around my midsection. My newly thick calves jiggle as I walk. My derrière, already ample, has gained shelf space. I am exhausted by this and exasperated with myself: more of me to loathe. Why do I repeat this cycle every year? Isn’t ten years in a row enough? Or fifteen? This pattern is so reliable that my winter wardrobe is a full size larger than the clothes I wear the rest of the year. So I’ve opted for drastic measures at the gym: lose the pounds as quickly as possible; fix it and be done.
According to an online body-mass-index calculator, I need to drop about twenty pounds if I want to inhabit the rarefied realm of “normal” weight. That I’m even within spitting distance is a testament to the various dietary adjustments I’ve made over the years. In college I weighed nearly two hundred pounds, having gained a freshman fifty-five as I ate my way through the sadness of leaving home and the stress of realizing I was neither as rich nor as thin as the majority of my classmates. Out of my element and not wanting to brave keg parties, sorority rush, or even the cafeteria line, I holed up in my dorm room with endless packages of microwaveable macaroni and cheese, cans of Pringles and Cheez Whiz, and stacks of saltines. I slid into a carbohydrate-fueled depression, unsure whether I was more miserable emotionally or physically.
Since then I’ve adjusted my food intake in a stunning variety of ways, most of which have yielded noticeable results — for a while. High-protein diets worked just about as well as low-fat, high-carb regimens. (And a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese sans bread was just about as appealing as frozen hash browns cooked on a nonstick griddle sans oil.) The ubiquitous cabbage-soup diet passed on from a friend of a friend on worn copier paper? Check. Macrobiotics, raw foods, juice cleanses? Check, check, check. I’ve sought to balance my doshas by cooking ayurvedically. I went vegetarian, then vegan. I’ve subsisted for ten days on nothing except glass after glass of a concoction made from lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper. I once tried to go ten days on organic brown rice and gomasio, a sesame-based condiment, but couldn’t make it past day two. I’ve liver-flushed, colon-cleansed, and fasted. But, with the sole exception of my brief martial-arts stint, I’ve resisted engaging in activities that would make me break a sweat. Thus I’m feeling somewhat anxious about this kickboxing class.
As my nose hovers over my left knee, I hear a small tearing sound. The inseam of my navy blue running tights (in which I’ve never run) has just given way. I feel heat rise in my face. I suppose I can’t blame the seam for wearing out; I’ve had these pants for more than ten years. But I can’t shake the feeling that the threads’ failure portends doom.
“Hey there,” says the man in the blue shirt, startling me. “You’re new, right?”
“I’ve only been to two classes, and they don’t say much.” He jabs his thumb at the other students. “I’m Milton. I’m glad you’re here. Maybe we can keep each other company? I barely got through those first two classes alone.”
Milton’s smile is a life jacket thrown into rough waters; his last comment, however, concerns me. I notice that his blue shirt, which covers ample pectoral muscles, is imprinted with the logo of a military school in Texas. Milton is terribly athletic, and I fear I’ve probably chosen the wrong class in which to begin keeping my New Year’s resolution.
The door flies open, and the teacher, a glinting barracuda in short shorts, breezes in with a boombox and a tangle of rope in her arms. With brisk efficiency she gets a thumping dance mix going and stretches the twined cord — which turns out to be a rope ladder — across the floor. “OK, folks,” she shouts, “let’s move!”
I consider bolting from the room. Milton must see my eyes widen, because he says, “Listen, just stick with me. We’ll help each other.” Buoyed by his kindness, I swallow my fears and follow him into the circle of students running around the room. We will get through this together, I think. Me and my new best buddy, Milton.
One minute later I think, Hey, running is fun! Oxygen good!
A minute thirty: Mostly good.
Another forty-five seconds: I wonder if I can keep this up . . . and what the hell is that rope ladder for?
Three minutes in: Oh, dear, sweet Jesus, I pray that you smite this gymnasium with lightning so that the power goes out and we are plunged into darkness and silence. Please, please, please. Amen.
Three minutes, forty-five seconds: Huuuuhhh, huuuuhh. . . .
Next our dominatrix instructor divides us into two groups: one to work with her on the platform at the front of the room, the other to work in pairs on the heavy bags. Blissfully I am chosen for the latter, as is Milton, and we grab our boxing gloves. I’ve even brought my own, retrieved from attic storage. Finally something I can do well: beat the shit out of this bag. But I’m so exhausted and out of shape that my roundhouse kicks are feeble swipes, my knife punches dull. I shake my head, mumble apologies, and suggest that Milton take a turn while I steady the bag. He nails every punch and kick.
Why does she have to scream everything? I hobble to the water cooler, where Milton has already downed two paper cones of water. He hands me a fresh one. I’m growing fond of this guy — so positive, friendly, and supportive. I’ve been checking my flirtation radar for ulterior motives, but he doesn’t seem to be hitting on me. I think he’s just trying to be nice. It’s been years since I’ve related to a man this way — not since Joe and John introduced me to martial arts.
John was a record producer with whom my college a cappella group had recorded an album. Joe was a gentle, quiet physical therapist who also happened to have an NRA membership and a small arsenal in his closet. They’d met in a tae kwon do class and advanced to the black-belt rank together. When their beloved sensei returned to Korea, they’d continued working out in Joe’s basement.
The summer after I graduated from college, John brought me along unannounced to one of their workouts. He wanted to toughen me up before I moved away to the city to begin a singing career. I was bored, and learning self-defense seemed like a good excuse to get me out of the filthy, cramped apartment I was sharing with three roommates. Joe wasn’t pleased by the unexpected appearance of a young, undisciplined student, and I couldn’t blame him, but I wore him down by showing up week after week for grueling two-hour sessions.
At first I was leery about exercising in front of two older men, so I wore oversized t-shirts to hide my body and didn’t say very much. I was relieved to discover that they weren’t interested in me that way. I began to relax and settle into our unusual workout arrangement: two forty-something black belts schooling a twenty-one-year-old novice on how to throw a proper punch (thumb goes outside the fingers) or break a chokehold from behind (move hips aside and smash the assailant in the balls). I proved to be a good student.
Joe delighted in finding nefarious new workouts for us to try, such as the U.S. Navy SEALs training program he discovered in a magazine. Later he read about Herbert Hoover throwing a medicine ball around on the White House lawn with his cabinet members and insisted that we begin our own medicine-ball regimen, followed by weight lifting, sword katas, and blindfolded balance-beam walking. We had only two cassette tapes in the basement, so all our workouts were set to the tunes of either Manfred Mann or Michael Jackson. We talked about how desperate we were for new music, but no one ever brought any. I pummeled the heavy bag to the sounds of Thriller and for years afterward, every time I heard the song “P.Y.T.,” I wanted to hit something.
I acted blasé about my relationship with Joe and John, but secretly I was thrilled that these men had adopted me. I realized I’d been craving such attention. When they discovered that I’d never fired a weapon, they took me to an outdoor range and, like good surrogate dads, showed me how to discharge a shotgun, a .38 special, and a 9 mm. I gloried in our camaraderie, my newfound tomboy status, and the nonsexual male interest, all of which had been missing from my life for a long time.
Joe and John were my mentors for a little more than a year. Just before I moved away, they surprised me with a formal tea ceremony in which they presented me with a sword and a blue belt. Leaving them broke my heart and also ended my exercise routine. I tried to work out on my own and even took a martial-arts class, but it wasn’t the same. I went back to spending my nights on the sofa eating Apple Jacks and watching Melrose Place.
“Break’s over! Switch places! Let’s go, people — NOW!”
I scurry to the platform at the front of the room with the rest of my group and find that the only open spot is next to the instructor. No way will I be able to lie low. I take my place as she begins to step vigorously on and off the platform to the beat of the music. I’m able to keep up until she begins hopping on and off with both feet, arms pumping. I have to omit every other hop, then stop entirely for a moment. Her head whips around, and her eyes bore into mine.
Between gasps I say weakly, “I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis, and I don’t want to reinjure myself.”
The corners of her mouth lift, but her eye muscles don’t join the effort. Instead of a smile, I see small, pointy teeth. “Do what you can,” she says.
Everyone else is keeping up, including two skinny sorority girls who look like they’ve never touched a barbell. I feel a flush of shame.
Finally this particular version of hell is over, and we get in line for the actual kickboxing portion of class — only there’s no instruction on technique or methods, just relentless reps. Suddenly I understand that this is an aerobics class, not an instructional course, and I feel trapped. I glance at the clock and see that we’re not yet halfway through. For God’s sake, we haven’t even gotten to the part with the rope ladder.
I know at this moment that I am going to bail. John and Joe would be ashamed of me. I’m ashamed of me. I don’t want to quit and abandon my new friend, but when the teacher moves to assist another student, I lean over to Milton and whisper, “Hey, I’m going to go.”
“C’mon, Angela,” he says. “We’re getting through it. How can I convince you to stay?”
“Milton, if I don’t leave now, I won’t come back. It’s too much. I’ll see you next week.” (I suspect he knows this last bit is a lie.) I thank him profusely, then duck out as fast as I can, feeling many eyes on my back as I bolt through the door and escape to the parking lot.
I don’t return to kickboxing class, and I will probably never see Milton again.
I decide to take the opposite approach to exercise: to go it alone and stay as far away from the gym (and potential humiliation) as possible. I take up speed walking.
I wake early the next morning, layer myself with clothing until I resemble a burrito, and head out into the cold darkness. My initial pace is brisk, but I have trouble maintaining it. I’m tired and would rather be in a warm bed. My thoughts wander like the cats that roam my neighborhood. I remember cold days outdoors as a kid: my dad teaching me how to chop logs into kindling, how to build a fire without lighter fluid, and how to cook a cube-steak dinner in aluminum foil over coals, Boy Scout–style. My younger sister and I were his protégées for a while, and he taught us enough basic survival skills to get us through a few days without power during an ice storm. But by the time I hit puberty, my father had taken a job that required a great deal of traveling, and he was rarely around. Eventually he was living at home only on the weekends. I remember being surprised by the occasional sight of him wandering through the apartment in faded white BVDs, an exhausted ghost of a man. At other times the only evidence of him was the racy science-fiction novels he’d leave lying around — books with covers depicting lounging slave girls in various states of undress. I sometimes joined him in the living room to watch Sunday-afternoon football games, but he had no time or energy for hiking in the woods.
I remind myself that I need to move faster to increase my heart rate, but my body resists. It hasn’t always been this way, damn it. I think again of the basement workouts: taking a round on the heavy bag, a minute and a half of full-throttle punching and kicking as John and Joe egg me on. They want my kicks to be sharper. I’m leaning in, red-gloved fists flying, skin gleaming with sweat as I throw my entire body into the effort. It felt so good. Why has that experience become such an anomaly in my life?
As I round the corner toward the elementary school, I see the first teachers pulling into the parking lot, and I note that my pace has slowed again, which infuriates me. A woman jogs by. I both envy and pity her: envy because she’s whippet thin and runs with ease; pity because she’ll have to keep increasing her distance and speed in order to maintain her current level of fitness. Running feels like a scam to me, and I’ve always assiduously avoided it. Maybe I’m just more cerebral than physical, but all that heavy breathing and heart pounding makes me feel like a hamster on a wheel. Forget it. I value my time and, come to think of it, my knees. And yet I can’t help wondering how it must feel to glide so freely above the pavement. I can’t imagine myself being that graceful and fast. I wish I could. I wish I wanted to move like that.
As I walk past the red-brick church, I recall that I once used to love moving my body. When I was a young teenager, I’d dance alone for hours. I’d run my dad, mom, and sister out of the living room, then play my dad’s LPs: Steely Dan, Iron Butterfly, Donna Summer. I’d place the needle on the record, then step in front of an imaginary audience and become a Solid Gold dancer, just like the fabulously sexy women I saw slink across the TV screen each week. I danced while Tina Turner sang: “I’m your private dancer / a dancer for money / I’ll do what you want me to do.” I played Ravel’s Bolero and morphed into a harem girl who had to seduce her prince to survive. In front of my adoring audience I could dance forever. I was invincible, beautiful, loved.
One night when I was about fourteen, I played Steely Dan’s “Aja” over and over again while envisioning myself dancing atop a halcyon California hill. The long instrumental section in the middle gave me an opportunity to whirl my body around in circles. Each time the song finished, I returned to the record player, exhausted but happy, to reset the needle, positioning it carefully over the LP.
“You look good when you sweat.”
I whipped around. My father was standing in the living-room doorway, gazing at me with an expression I’d never seen on his face before. I had no idea how long he’d been there. My insides went as cold as the fish we’d caught together when I was a kid. “I asked everyone to leave,” I hissed. He heard this but stayed put. The moment seemed to stretch interminably. Not knowing what else to do, I snapped off the record player and ran to my room, where I fell onto the bed and marinated in an icy stew of disgust, fear, and confusion. What had just happened?
A school bus roars up the street, bringing my thoughts back to the present, and that’s when I realize: that moment in the living room with my father was when sweating became dangerous.
This understanding slams so suddenly into my consciousness that I stop walking and hear myself give a short, peculiar laugh.
You look good when you sweat. Those six words have held me in suspended animation for more than twenty years. No wonder my time with Joe and John was so unusual. It took the extraordinary efforts of two good father figures to create an environment where I felt safe enough to move my body with abandon. I’d never found such a situation again, and because I didn’t know how to re-create it, I’d been holding back.
I notice a rabbit standing stock-still in the grass beside the road. It thinks that, because it’s not moving, I can’t see it. Then a runner passes by, startling the rabbit, which takes off into the bushes.
I’ve had enough of this drama: my delaying tactics, the endless diets, my passivity. As I resume speed walking down the wooded path behind my house, I feel something unraveling deep within my body, and I begin to run. No audience, no men, no witnesses save the trees — just me running alone in the gray January dawn.
Who knows why memories arise when they do? I don’t know what this insight will mean come December, or next year, and I’m not so naive as to think it’s simple to change. But I don’t care. None of that matters right now. The cold air hits my lungs as I run, and a sudden lightness overtakes me. I think about how this small loosening sensation might be the only significant change I’ll see this year. And it might be enough.