Monday, January 08, 2007

Working Out

It is a Thursday morning, I put on a sweater that reminds me of one reason I go to the gym. I had not worn this sweater for a while and it was expecting to be worn by someone who is more pear shaped than I now am. All around the mid section the sweater bags, in the belly region especially. It bags out and collapses in all at the same time, as though it is looking for the rest of me that is no longer there.

It is 5:30 as I walk out the door. It is a half hour walk to the gym, I like this walk, the city is either asleep or just waking. It is a good warm up for the gym and in some way a better wake up stimulant than my morning pot of coffee. The streets belong to the homeless and delivery drivers. It is a quiet time, a place I can be by myself and can find some space inside my head that is just for me. It is still the darkest time of the year and the sun won't put in an appearance for another hour. I am glad I put on the sweater regardless of its misshapenness, it is cold out and even baggy sweaters are warm.

I use my electronic key and let myself into the gym, walk up to the desk and swipe my membership card and exchange my keys for a towel. Down to the locker room. I open my locker, strip and begin to put on my gym clothes. I have been doing this for over a year now. 5 to 6 days a week I worship at the altar of physical fitness. It drives my buddy the Buttermonkey a little nuts that I am never satisfied with the results. “Male body image studies are grossly underserved.”, he says to me one day.

I think about this while I am lying on the floor, my butt pressed up against the wall, my legs straight up. I am doing crunches. I am isolating my lower abs. I have never had a washboard. A few short weeks away from 52, I know I never will. Slowly up, slowly down, smooth steady motion 25 times. I have the iPod cranking, Eurythmics “Missionary Man”. I start out with squats using the hack press. I am not doing free weights today. My knees feel a little sketchy and I am not looking for any further setbacks.

The usual morning crowd is straggling in. It is always fairly deserted here in the morning. Most of my gyms clientele is college students because the place has the 2 virtues of being cheap and clean. These kids tend to come in later, they are young and like to sleep late, so it is a strange mix of old farts like myself and the seriously fit, getting a jump start on their day. We nod or say hi, acknowledgement. It is a cordial crowd, but not social. We are here to work out. I nod, I say hi, I head upstairs to the machine room. It is a gym, so there are mirrors everywhere. I look at myself, and try to see me. Not the me that I hate the look of, but the me other people see.

It's a machine day and I am a free weight guy, but I am not at an age where I can afford to argue with my body and my knees are making unhappy sounds. Sports injuries seem to hurt more and take longer to recover from. Hector has forgotten to turn on the radio that is always tuned to a station that I find irritating which gets pumped through the sound system on all the levels. From my personal gym mix Evelyn “Champagne” King start singing “Shame”, as I begin lowering myself and then contracting my butt, standing back up. 12 reps.

I have gotten tired of hearing “Oh you were never fat!” I bring in a picture that was taken a couple of years earlier. I am standing in my garden wearing a polo shirt and some old khaki pants. The shirt bulges over my belt and it is obvious that it is not just the shirt that is bulging over. I show it to a couple of people at work. “Oh, you weren’t that fat.” My co-worker Lisa picks it up. “Jesus Christ! What in the fuck were you thinking? You looked like somebody’s grandfather.” I think I love her.

My waist is 4 inches smaller, my chest is 4 inches bigger. I have thrown out my old pants, they bagged at the ass and had to be cinched in with a belt. I am getting rid of some of my old shirts, they are getting tight under the arms and are no longer comfortable. Signs of progress.

I belong to the community garden that is in my neighborhood. It is a clear early summer day, and I have been working out all winter. I am feeling a little better about things because I do not have a roll of fat that sags over my belt all around. I am even not horribly embarrassed that I am talking with one of my neighbors with my shirt off. It’s hot and I’ve been weeding. Another gardener walks up to us. He is friend of my neighbor. One of those good looking friendly guys, he has always been cordial, but has never looked at me twice. He starts talking with his friend, looks over to me. “Dude, look at you! Man, you’re pumped.” I guess I look surprised, uncomprehending. “Seriously, very nice. You ought to get your nipples pierced.” I am embarrassed and pleased. Mostly though I am now in a tight little world of red hot embarrassment. I excuse myself and go back to my weeds.

I move over to the quad machine.. I load on 65 lbs., down from the 70 which I have been doing, I have been away from the gym, a combination of having had a cold and holiday malaise. Hector turns on the radio, and I crank up the ipod to drown it out. I should be up to 75 lbs., but.... setbacks. In my earphones Jimmy Somerville's eerie falsetto begs "Don't leave me this way" I concentrate, don’t kick, use your quads to lift with a quick even motion. Lower with a slow even motion. I dismount, leaning against a machine I stretch, standing on one leg, gripping my other ankle I pull and stretch my quads back out.

T tells me I look great. T thought I looked great when I was 30 lbs overweight. We have been seeing each other for a few years now. We met in the park across the street, I invited him over, better than standing in the mud in the reeds. He is a lovely man, with his Ivy League education and his accomplishments and his modesty. Our relationship began with sex and that was all that it was about. But things change when you begin to talk with the people who you are sharing your body with. Now it is an easy friendship that involves sex, but is about books, and gardens and whatever topic of interest is on our mind. T makes me feel funny and smart and sexy. "Don't you love the way you can feel the blood filling your muscles as you are working out?" he asks. T is 15 years older than I am. 66 and he is still as sexy as when I met him.

Back to the wall. Lift your shoulders off the floor, use your lower abs to raise your torso off the floor, isolate. 25 times. The Fine Young Cannibals are now singing "Suspicious Minds" Roland Gift’s voice is as odd and beautiful as an exotic bird, a rare orchid. I concentrate, keeping the movement slow and steady using the muscles in my belly.

The crowded Green Line car pulls up to the platform, and people struggle to get out as those on the platform push their way onto the train as if afraid the car will pull out before they have a chance to board. Among the shovers is an old boyfriend. We have not seen each other for what, one maybe 2 years? We are both awkward, but 20 years of country manners have never quite been beaten out of me, even after 30 years of city life. I ask how he’s been and we begin to talk. It’s the small talk of people who really have nothing to say to each other. "You ought to shave that beard off. It makes you look old.", he says to me. He finds my beard, now white with streaks of grey, upsetting. When I first met him, my beard was black and I had a full head of hair. He also doesn't like that I shave my head now, either. There is no point in explaining that my hair has become so thin that even keeping it short only emphasizes that I am loosing my hair in a way I find more pathetic than honest baldness. We had tried to be friends after we broke off, but it was too high maintenance. He needed to be called all the time to be reassured that we were still friends and left alone all the time because he was in a funk and needed to be left alone. He has been dyeing his beard. It is that unnatural almost black, with brassy highlights where the dye has imperfectly taken on the grey. I do not mention this. I do not tell him he might look better if he stopped dying his beard. I am only looking for an escape route, away from the litany of woes that seem to make up his life. Non-stop drama. I finally arrive at my stop and tell him I have to get off the train. "Give me a call.", he calls after me, as I start my way to the door. We both know I won't and I walk down the platform feeling mean and unkind.

I lie down on my side on the mat and tuck my heels up under my butt. I put my right hand behind my head and place my left on my side. I concentrate and use my obliques to lift my torso up. 25 reps. I roll onto my right side and repeat the process. Ce ce Peniston is singing “Finally”, as I see if I can cinch in my waistline a little more, create that beautiful curved muscle that is a sensuous line like melted wax on the bellies of young men I sometimes see at the beach.

“Are you keeping up with the gym?”, he asks. I am talking with Wahbags. It is not an accusation, but an inquiry. We have known each other too long for that sort of thing. We are sitting in Starbucks, not my favorite spot but Wahz likes it there. He is retired now and it is part of his routine. I can walk into that location any morning between 8:30 and 9:00 and find him there, reading the paper or holding court. I love Wahz. He has been my friend for almost 30 years. He is all the good parties I have ever been to, he is our nexus, the connection point where so many friends first met. I remember when I met him, he was just entering his mid thirties and so handsome and hunky. We slept together once and have been friends ever since. In later years he started to gain weight, which depressed him and he ate more and became more depressed. In the past couple of years since he retired he has lost 100 lbs. He is happier than he has been in a long time and feels better than he has in a long time. It makes me happy to see him this way. We keep track of each other’s workouts and compare notes on routines. It is a way for us to let each other know we are looking out for each other.

Calve presses. I start with 65 lbs. I am taking it easy and only doing them straight on. No repositioning of my feet to get all of the muscles in my calves, just enough to remind my muscles that they are there. Gnarles Barkley is now singing “Crazy” to me. I lower my heels and then contract the muscles in my calves. 12 reps, I am feeling better about things and throw on 10 more pounds and then lean forward into the wall to stretch. “Crazy” has ended and now Donna Summer moans, “love to love you baby”. My hands are on the wall and I lean at a 45 degree angle. I bring one foot forward and keeping my feet flat I lean, calf muscle stretching. I bring my foot back, and switch. A slow motion hokey-pokey, danced to 1970’s disco.

“Dabunny didn’t believe me when I told him how old you are.” It is shortly after I have started my new job. I am talking with Buttermonkey who is going to turn into a friend. He is 20 years younger than I am. We have already hit it off. I like this guy, he is funny and intelligent and brave. He has worked for the circus, and for the ice-capades. Now he works in an office and is working on his masters degree in psychology. I make “yeah, sure.”, noises. “No, I figured you were maybe 40.” I tell him I am old enough to be his father and I look it. “Stop saying that! No one who’s old enough to be my father gets to be in as good shape as you are. When you’re at work, you don’t get to be any older than 40!” It makes me laugh, and I want to hug him, because he’s young and thinks he can give me back 10 years that I have already used up.

Calve curls. I adjust the bar on the machine. Setting 1. I am short and my legs are very short. 26 inch inseam, even for someone 5’3” that is short. I am told that is why I have such thick leg muscles, why it is easy for me to keep my legs in good shape. Low center of gravity. The machine itself looks like some sexual device. A bench you lie face down on, butt raised by the shape of the bench. I am struck not for the first time that so many of the apparatus in the gym resemble medieval torture devices or strange sex appliances, though in a way that is exactly what they are. I move the pin, select my weight, lie face down, lift, don’t jerk, I feel my hamstrings, my calves. Too much weight? Too little? Or is it like Goldilocks and just right?

“Looking good.” It is my friend Mike. I have just taken my jacket off. I was running late having allowed myself to fall into that fugue state in the gym, where having achieved a certain rhythm, I just kept working out and lost track of time. Looking at the clock I ran through the shower, yanked on my jeans and headed out to meet Mike still wearing a muscle shirt. I just look at him. “You just got out to the gym, huh?” I tell him it’s not nice to make fun of old people. He gives me a curious look, says okay and we talk about other things.

Back to the mat. Hands cupped behind my head loosely, knees raised, shoulders raised off the mat. Contract your abdominal muscles lifting your back and your pelvis off the floor. Slow and even, concentrate on using your abs and do not use your hands to cheat and pull. The Weather Girls are singing “No One Can Love You More Than Me”. Martha Wash sounding like she is singing a gospel hymn to love, to a vain man, contorting himself into unnatural positions in an attempt to fight off that enemy of gay men, flab.

FB comes over. He is in his late 30’s and he is in some ways my favorite sex date. He is a very sweet guy, sometimes he brings candy or some small silly gift as though he is courting me. He thinks I am sexy and doesn’t belabor the point. Having once stated it he feels that is enough and that actions speak louder than words. We visit a little and then a couple of hours later, we talk some more. As far as he is concerned, by virtue of our having sex, he is letting me know about my desirability in his eyes. He is slim and sexy, and the sex itself tends towards the slow and intense. We talk and have a few laughs and then he leaves as though he has been somehow intruding on my life, almost embarrassed. I don’t know why, but there is a wall between us that neither seems to get over and it stops any real friendship from developing. I hope that someday that wall will come down.

More ab work. I have my shoulders on the floor, my feet are on the bench and I arch myself up. I concentrate on muscle contraction, which, ideally, will lift my shoulders approximately 1 inch off the floor. You need to keep your body straight from knees to shoulder, not letting your butt sag down. It is tricky, and Robbie Williams sings that he is the king of bongo-bong. “Hit me when I come, baby!”

I am brushing my teeth and watching the spare tire around my mid-section jiggle. It is like some vestigial middle aged limb that I have acquired which nothing short of surgery will remove. I am in the shower room at the gym and I am wearing a towel. Suddenly, I see Michael in the mirror, checking me out. “All that ab work is paying off.”, he says. I am looking at him trying to find the handsome young guy that I met in another lifetime. A heartbreaker with reddish hair and an air of shy confidence, I had such a crush on him that I would have committed murder to be with him. Grey haired, he no longer lifts weights. I see him occasionally in the gym, where he does cardio. What is more disturbing is the palpable absence of the confidence that he once exuded. Now there is only the shyness. Have we reversed rolls 25 years on, a quarter of a century and now am I the object of desire. He the pursuer, me the pursued? I for a moment look for the beautiful young man who once fired me so, then I realize he is still beautiful, and I want to somehow reach out and touch him, tell him he is still in there.

The thing about the gym is you cannot get away from mirrors. I am not sure what other people see when they look at me. I see a short bald sad sack. There are dueling scars, the bully on steroids cousins of wrinkles, appearing around my mouth and on my forehead, frown lines my mother used to call them. Sometimes I see the scrawny teenager, who was too short, too geeky, too weird. Other times I see the lumpy middle aged man that I had let myself become, too depressed by the inroads of time and life to get off the sofa, other than to fetch more food to keep me company while I read. Now I persist. This is my means to fight, to not give up to some middle aged torpor. This is not to deceive myself into the belief that it makes me look younger, but is a stopgap to keep myself from getting too old too fast. If this were about how I look, then it would be a moot venture. I already know I will never be happy, no matter what the results, with my appearance. I seem to find men who I like, who will take me as I am and if I was out to attract other men then I would go out of an evening, instead of remaining at home with the cat and my books. I think it is, in the end, proving to myself that I can do it. Not to make myself more muscular, or hotter or whatever you want to call it. The point is to work on in the face of my dissatisfaction. This is about discipline and taking pleasure in accomplishing a task. It is about taking care of myself.

Another day, another workout, I go off to the showers, towel off, brush my teeth and then shave. I put on my clothes, cell phone, check, ipod, check, backpack, check, turn in towel, claim keys and walk out onto the street. The sun is up and the sidewalks are now crowded with people getting on with their day, getting on with their lives. I wade out into teaming humanity at the corner of Boylston and Tremont and, with Cheryl Lynn singing “Got to Be Real”, I join them and head off to work.