We’re laying on the couch, watching Netflix. My girlfriend rests her hand on my belly. I shift on my side, so her hand slides off. She puts her hand back on my stomach. I browse through the movies, reading the descriptions below the titles. She rubs my belly and sighs.
Fine, I say. I get it.
When you sign up for a gym membership they send out a fit middle-aged man who is uncomfortably enthusiastic to get to know you while you fill out your safety waivers. He said that the use of the sauna is included as well. I told him my best talent is sweating. He slapped my back. That’s great, he replied, without any sense of irony.
The first few times I only got on the treadmill, but that was just to buy time to see how one “gyms.” It’s a strange environment, where people try to look good while ignoring everyone else. It’s hard to escape all the mirrors and the feeling that you stepped into an 80s horror movie, where mist rises from the floor and a clown comes out of nowhere to chase you. I suppose the point of the mirrors is to see that you’re lifting the weights properly, but if I’m going to be forced to look at myself, I want to be doing something more interesting than picking something up and putting it down again. On every machine is a sketch of an androgynous man demonstrating how it works. He’s robust and well-built, but doesn’t look quite human. That’s how I’ve always pictured people who went to the gym.
My girlfriend has taken me out to dinner for my birthday. Somehow we have started talking about looks and physical appearances. I point out to her that she has never said that she likes my body.
Yes I have, she says.
Nope. You certainly didn’t.
Well pretty much, she says. I told you I don’t like muscly guys.
I tend to go in the middle of the day. You start recognizing some of the people there, but you don’t say hi. People who go to the gym in the middle of the day do so because they don’t want to be seen. Those proud of their bodies make up the hectic bustle of the evening crowd, but we’re here because we don’t want to tell anyone that we go to the gym. I used to despise the gym and those who worked out. I figured that anyone decent would be doing farm work, and whatever shape resulted from that was good enough. I had decided that if you needed to lift something, make sure it was part of getting something done. These are the things I think about as I try to push a metal bar over my chest while avoiding my eyes in the mirror.
Still, I’d like to think that us regulars of the afternoon crowd are connected by a little more than just proximity and the smell of stale sweat. There’s a few humanities professors on the bicycles, thinking of papers they will write or how weird their children turned out. There’s two Eastern European girls who sit on the machines and talk, barely pretending to use them. I imagine them both married to older businessmen who insist they stay in shape, and playing with their phones instead of working out is a form of resistance. There’s always a few attractive girls, and an old women who watches me to see if I look at them. There’s also an old man who gives me a knowing nod and looks at them himself.
There was one guy who looked uncannily like a housemate I had ten years ago. I looked at him every time we passed, waiting for him to say something. He never did. I would lift the shoulder press and glance at him, always changing my mind about whether it was Kyle or not. I was trying to decide that, if it was him, which one of us looked more different than ten years ago, and therefore who was more at fault. More importantly, how could our friendship rebound from having spent several months ignoring each other. This man-silence thing was getting out of hand.
Finally I called him on Skype. Kyle, I said, did you go to the gym in Galway this morning?
Hey man, I’m steering a military vessel off the coast of Italy.
Thank god, I replied.
It is not easy reconciling being a farmer’s son and going to the gym. I’ve made myself a few promises for my own peace of mind. It seems like that to really work out hard who have to grunt when you lift something, but I’m not a grunter. I refuse to grunt. I will not take a shower before I go to the gym, just so I can look normal for the thirty seconds before my face gets red and sweaty. And I will not, upon pain of death, wear a tight shirt or short shorts. These small victories are the only thing I can salvage my dignity from as I slip on my tank top.
We’re laying on the couch, watching Netflix. My girlfriend puts her hand on my belly. I’m waiting to receive a compliment. Maybe a congratulations, or even a thank-you. Instead, she suddenly sits up straight and glares at me.
Hey, she says. Why are you going to the gym so much? Are you trying to make me feel fat?
This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.