Because I didn’t have anything else to do, I went to the gym every day. This was in middle school and early high school: I was homeschooled, and going to the gym felt social. All those people in the weight room! All those people on the stationary bikes! Gym classes presented an even more salient form of social contact: structurally, it was built into the wiping down of yoga mats, the anguished eye contact in the middle of a Zumba instructor’s yells. The trainers all knew me and would stop and chat with me, asking me kind, teen-appropriate questions.
My mother, who went every day to the gym, was the main factor in my habit because she drove us all. But then again, why wouldn’t I go with her? I finished school early in the afternoon and by five, my options were limited: read Little Women again, or sit on a stationary bike for an hour, slowly reading Self Magazine. That wasn’t the kind of choice that would endear me to college admissions officers, but those magazines did give me my first sets of cultural capital, as little synapses fired away in my brain: ah, this is who Spencer and Heidi are! Ah, here are 5 Sex Positions He Secretly Loves! Ah, wait OK, that’s what sex is! The gym was a place for very physical activities, but for me, it was a metaphysical place full of fantasies.
Everyone that worked at the gym was beautiful, which I now know is true of all gyms, but I didn’t know that. I thought my gym was special. In particular, I thought the guy at the front desk was special. He was tall and Germanic and could have been anywhere from 18-30. Privately, I called him Hercules. He also knew everyone in my family by name, which I thought was impressive, since there were 9 names to remember. It felt good to be recognized. It seemed less the result of someone who scans names every day and more, a subliminal profession of affection. My desire to have a cool, highly casual relationship with Hercules was inhibited only by the fact that, instead of parking, Mom routinely pulled our 15-passenger van in front of the gym entrance and opened the double-doors so we could pile out.
“Aren’t you going to get out?” she’d ask, as my little brothers tumbled out with their floaties.
“Nah.” I said. “I’ll walk from the parking spot. More exercise.”
But this was only a plea for privacy: the illusion that, strolling ten feet behind my family, I was a chill, relaxed unit, too bored to walk fast. Once inside, I could believe I was indistinguishable from the after-school highschoolers walking around the halls in their lithe swimsuits, with their casual towels around their neck and their casual choker necklaces and casual friendship bracelets.
Once, a friend who was swimming came out and told me that I looked beautiful when I was sweaty, and I thought about this for years, treasuring that image of myself: Mystery In Workout Shorts! Who is that girl? She doesn’t appear to be a public schooler, but she sure can do a lot of reps. WHAT? I would go to the gym and swim 1000 laps. I would go home and run five miles. What I lacked in actual athletic ability, I made it up with the interior bravado of a 15-year-old boy: I felt fearless, flawless, capable of freestyle. Teen Gym Rat.
I know, at least from the friends who had very different childhoods, that having an outlet for angst is a pretty common teen thing. The causes would have been slightly different – I had no boyfriends to weep over, no broken friendship bracelets – but many would also overlap: loneliness, body image,
insecurity. The main difference was that I had no metric of comparison, no Rookie magazine to mediate my angst – and so I spun, lifted, Zumba-d. Here, I was complete: My Gym, My Family.
When I was sixteen, I got my first speeding ticket. I was late for church. The cop pulled me over on a country road, and I turned the engine off before I had rolled the window down, and panicked, thinking that if I turned the engine back on, the cop would think I was trying to escape – so instead, I chose the far worse option, of aggressively swinging the whole door open when he walked toward me. He leaned down and looked at me, and I recognized him at once. He’d been part of my Gym Family for years! A few days before, he’d even biked beside me in spin class. I made eye contact and whispered, in a strangled voice, So so late for church, but he just tore off a ticket and walked away.
I was very late for church. My gym was not my family.
I went, with some regularity, to the gym the first semester of college. It wasn’t the same. Hercules did not work at the front desk. No chatty middle-aged women asked about my weekend. The gym was huge, like a cathedral, and everyone that worked out there, worked out with the intensity of someone who was about to lose something very precious. A sense of aggressive competition permeated the weight room, and against the long mirrors of the cardio room, I recognized a girl less sculpted, less adequate than the rest.
The lack of a social context in high school had, at least, given me one fleeting gift – I hadn’t known I was supposed to feel bad about myself when around other women. I hadn’t known that my relationship with my body was supposed to be peppered with disclaimers. Self Magazine had given me hints, true, but without any kind of real-life application, I hadn’t understood. But I knew this, now. I recognized no one from my American Studies department, and began to believe there were divisions about these things – that the gym was the domain of a certain kind of person who could maintain a certain kind of thing, and everyone else ate sushi at night and joked about failure.
If you wanted to get into the business school, you did Zumba. If you wanted to be a writer, you joked about how terrible you were at Zumba. I believed this was the evolutionary order of things, all the way through college.
I have a membership to a neighborhood gym, now, which – at $25 annually – would have been almost embarrassing to pass up. I go, with much irregularity. The women at my gym are mostly over sixty, and do not give a flying fuck about me, as long as I remember to bring my own hand towel, since the gym doesn’t have paper towels. The only class is a sit-down cardio class, which I haven’t tried yet. As an institution, it is neither intensely social nor intensely competitive, nor intensely anything – instead, people are absorbed in their private routines, as if they are shopping at Target. Still, sometimes, on the tread climber, I glance in the mirror and am surprised to see the Teen Gym Rat staring back at me. It is a startling sight, but it is not unwelcome.