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Where Guidelines Fear to Tread

A man and a woman bundled up in several layers of clothing entered the front door of the gym just as I rolled up on my bicycle. This particular man and woman are memorable because they always walk with their heads close together, violating all personal distance guidelines. I can’t say what it is exactly about their whispers and posture but I always get the feeling that they are co-conspirators, not lovers.

I locked my bike and made my way in. A turnstile located at the end of large administrative counter blocks access to the stairs leading to the weight room. It was at this turnstile that I again encountered the couple. The lady straddled the turnstile and her companion was right behind her.

I watched, my access card in my hand, as the man also crawled over the turnstile while one of the ladies in the administrative area just a couple of feet away slammed her hand against the glass and yelled. The couple turned, dug in their respective pockets, and flashed their access cards. The lady in administration frowned, muttered something that did not sound Canadian-friendly, and stared at me.

“Uh, is there something wrong with the machine?” I asked because I could not convince my mouth to sit this one out.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with the machine!” the lady in administration yelled.

The couple, who seemed to be enjoying the show, stood in the stairwell just past the turnstile. As I passed them I heard the man say, “You see, that’s how they get you. They track when you come in. They know when you leave. Everything!”

I silently gave myself a high-five for previously labeling them conspirators and made my way up the stairs. A few minutes later, while I did my best to pretend to know how to use a rowing machine, the female conspirator (now free of all the bulky layers of clothes and stripped down to a clingy, zebra-striped outfit) came down the main (only) skinny aisle in front of me. She held small barbells in her lean hands, flinging them from side to side as she did some sort of crabwalk down the aisle.

I watched as the other members of the gym ducked and retreated as she passed, the barbells coming dangerously close to the heads of those on the machines that lined the aisle. She terrorized the area for about fifteen minutes, causing impromptu huddles where some of the other members pointed at her and muttered.

Eventually, my row-to-nowhere complete, I walked down the now clear aisle towards a set of machines in the corner. My progress came to a halt behind and eighty-something-year-old gentleman who stood in his saggy gear watching the male half of the couple.

Unlike his female companion, the male half of the conspiracy duo still wore a hoody that completely obscured his face while he performed some combination of Brazilian jujitsu and a channeling of the camp movie Gymkata. Using a bubble balancing platform and a medicine ball, our conspirator performed a series of flying kicks, forcing the gentleman in front of me to retreat. Ducking, weaving, and kicking, the conspirator gained confidence and ground as he went. He now blocked access to three different sets of machines and made any move to the nearby rack of barbells risky at best.

The gentlemen in front of me turned and looked at me with an expression that said, “Why?”

I had no good answer, and retreated to another part of the gym to bide my time. I watched as the old man channeled his inner Frogger and stutter stepped his way to the leg machine in the corner (the one that makes you feel awkward because you’re opening and closing your legs, which is probably why they put it in the corner facing the wall).

After five minutes, the old man finished and I seized the opening, ducking a few kicks as I made my way to the leg machine of shame. The old man and I shared a moment when we both ducked a particularly wide kick and ended with our faces just a few inches apart. His face again screamed, “Why?” I still had no answer.

As I alternated between pushing in and out a meager amount of weight, I heard the huffs and puffs of the male conspirator as he jumped on and off the balance bubble, threw the medicine ball in the air, and kicked unseen foes in every direction. This was no mean feat as I wore headphones blasting my favorite music — grunge with a plaid chaser — hoping to inspire my flaccid muscles to levels of performance not seen since junior high.

At some point I realized I could not push out with my right leg. I looked over and saw that the medicine ball had rolled over to my apparatus and wedged itself. I turned and saw that the conspirator was gone. All that remained of his unique approach to exercise was the balance bubble and the medicine ball. I saw no sign of the female conspirator. Peace had returned to the aisle, and the weight room.

A few days later I found myself slowly adding weight to the bar of the bench press. Long held out as the fitness equivalent of penis size, how much you bench press is supposed to say something about you as a man.

Several years before, when I still had a real job, and shoulders that worked, I was at a conference sitting around a large, round banquet table where the latest variation of rubber chicken was being served. The man seated to my left, whose form-fitting shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest to show off his pecs, was an unabashed user of human growth hormone. He spoke at length about how his blood was monitored and the various injections he received. He made a point of flexing whenever possible and I noted that, while the skin of his ample chest looked strong and youthful, his face belied his advancing years. His pecs said thirty-five, his face said Ronald Reagan’s neck.

The HGH enthusiast turned to me at some point and said, “Marshall, you’re a big guy, how much can you bench?”

I typically find that I’m funny (er) when I have the benefit of at least forty-eight hours to respond, preferably in writing. I don’t remember what I said that occasion. It wasn’t funny. I do know that I’m reminded of that silly conversation every time I walk up to the bench press. I watch as the eyes of the men placed around the gym evaluate the quantity of weight I place on the bar.

“Only two 45s and some 20s? Why even bother?”

It’s with these whispered doubts and accusations that I grabbed the bar above me, gathered my breath, and prepared (hoped) to do three sets of ten without requiring medical assistance. I had just pushed the bar off the rack when a woman’s face appeared just a few inches above mine.

“You know I was here first,” she stated, a scowl on her face.

“What?” I puffed as I lowered the bar back on its supports. The bench press had been empty for at least ten minutes, and I had taken my time loading my not-massive amount of weight.

“Didn’t you see my water bottle?”

She looked to the wall behind me and I followed her gaze to a water bottle sitting against it.

“Ok, but you can’t save a piece of equipment with a water bottle, and you haven’t been anywhere near here in at least ten minutes.”

She huffed and I felt the air on my face. “Well, I was talking to my friends, but that is still my water bottle, and I was still here first.”

I stared at her, still just inches away, and realized that she was wasn’t going to leave. In her mind, her placement of a water bottle some time earlier had reserved this equipment and there was nothing anyone could do to change that. I sat up, and she gave ground. I was nearly as tall as her as I sat on the low bench.

“So, what do you propose?”

She smiled and said, “We can use it together.”

I looked over at the modest amount of weight on the bar and back to her. “Ok, so how much weight do you want on it?”

“Oh, none. I just use the bar.”

I silently counted to three. “So you want me to strip off all the weights after each of my sets so that you can press just the bar?”

“That would be very nice, thanks.”

As I age, ungracefully, I find that more and more I need to pick my spots. I can’t get mad at everything that enrages me or I’d just wind up as the crazy old man who stands in his yard shaking his fist at the speeding cars. I didn’t need to get amped up over this. The gym, any gym, is a strange place where the occupants strive to avoid the guidelines. Where a subset of people wear enough perfume or cologne to overwhelm a skunk, while others try to find the magic point where tight is too-tight and a little skin turns into a lot. Where turnstiles need to be hopped so you can avoid The Man tracking how much you can bench press, and when you do it.

“Sure,” I said, “whatever.”

She smiled and backed away as I again squeezed under the bar. “I’ll just knock out this first set and then we’ll take the weights off.”

I did, and we did. After she finished lifting the bar five times I put the weights back on. I put on the same amount as I had used for the first set, made to lie back down on the bench and heard the woman harrumph.

She stared at the weights on the bar, then looked over to me. “That’s it? You’re not going to add more?”

I silently cursed the world and everyone in it and pondered how much it would cost to buy a home gym.