Previously: The Waiting Room: Girls on Oxygen
Not long after we began exercising together, my husband looked at me and asked, with some degree of horror, “Is this something we have to do for the rest of our lives?” I told him that I understood regularity to be part of the whole exercise thing, and he actually shuddered.
But since neither of us is getting any younger, and my doctors want me to stay as otherwise healthy as I can to compensate for a progressive neuromuscular disease, we go.
We’ve never been too athletic, so it’s a mercy for us that the gym we use is populated almost entirely by other people connected to our local Tech Giant. In my experience, software engineers and those of us who love them are more apt to take part in sports whose names include the word “fantasy” than in a session of CrossFit. Most of us heaving ourselves back and forth on the elliptical machines wear baggy, many-years-old t-shirts promoting obsolete software products. Everyone ignores one another as much as possible while we’re sweating and breathing heavily about six inches apart from one another. This is the kind of gym for me.
The problem, though, is that everything I need—the women’s locker room, the cardio equipment, the bathroom—is upstairs. Up lots and lots of stairs.
I can’t really say I’m surprised. After all, the gym is a place that’s all about physical ability. It’s not as though the facility was laid out with the disabled person in mind. It’s an assumption of the building’s design that, if you’re “fit” (a term I hate, by the way) enough to shuffle along on the treadmill or swing some free weights around, you’re fit enough to climb a flight of stairs. Yet stairs require a whole different set of motor abilities, and they aren’t exactly a friend to many of us with disabilities both visible and invisible. If, for just two examples among many, you have foot drop (trouble lifting up the front half of your foot), or, like me, muscle weakness that makes your knees crumple beneath you at unpredictable intervals, stairs are both slow-going and dangerous.
Now, my gym does have a little Elevator of Shame that I’m sure meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it’s a far cry from being a positive experience to ride. Using the clunky thing requires a trip through the mass of humanity swarming the downstairs athletic shop and a long wait while whatever freight task the elevator’s also being used for is completed. Once upstairs, it spits the rider out somewhere behind a coffee bar, where there’s perpetually and inexplicably a man vacuuming the same square foot of space without giving one damn whether anybody can leap out of his way before he trips her.
So stairs it is. On a good day, I’ll get a clear shot at the handrail, and I can make my way up, Jell-O-knees and all, without incident. On an okay day, I may have to climb, stair by slow stair, behind a toddler who’s just learning to walk. (Sometimes, my looming behind these kids frightens them. To the little guy who pointed at me last week and shouted, “Mom, I’m really scared of the lady,” my apologies.)
But on a bad day, I end up behind a pair or trio of women—often the same ones, though not always—who stop mid-flight and lean on the handrail for a lengthy confab. The scene is roughly the same every time: I clear my throat to alert these women that someone’s waiting behind them. I wait.
Eventually, I say “excuse me.”
The women look at me for a moment, then go back to their conversation.
“Excuse me,” I say again. “I need to use the handrail.”
Once, when I was very lucky, they moved without argument. But most of the time, the women take my request as an invitation to scoff and make icky faces at what I guess they take to be my lazy-cow-ness, and tell me to walk around them.
Sometimes I’ll tell them I can’t, and other times I’ll give them a look that would melt steel. Other times, I give up, shuffle around them and their overstuffed gym bags, and risk tumbling down to the tile floor below because there’s honestly a limit to how much confrontation you can take in one morning. Usually, I vow never to take the stairs again.
But then I take the stairs the next time, not because I have a deluded belief I’ll get any better at climbing them, but because I hope that one day, these women will have some kind of breakthrough of the imagination—that they’ll hear me say “I need to use the handrail” and think, really think, about what I mean. I’m waiting for it to occur to them that just because someone like me looks like she should be able to hoof it up and down a few flights without trouble doesn’t mean she is able. I’m waiting for the day that people think about sharing public space—even this ability-driven, ability-focused space that is the gym—with different kinds of bodies.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.