Living in the South Tower of Phase One, my bedroom window overlooks the Malibu Club Spa and Fitness Centre, which means the first thing I see when I wake up each morning is my neighbour Char’s triumph over the ineptitudes of the flesh. Depending on how many times I hit snooze, I’ll see her doing thigh abductions or pistol squats or this weird move where she’ll stand before the mirror with her hands on her protruding hip bones and wiggle from side to side in a way that, though I’m barely awake, profoundly embarrasses me. Most of the time, though, my eyes will open to the sight of her hunched over Lifecycle One, all of her bones from the waist up draped over the handlebars in submission to the Task, which I can only assume, from this vantage point, is the total obliteration of the body mass index.
After I get out of bed, I’ll stand there looking down at her from the window for a long time, even though it exhausts me—physically, spiritually—to watch her. Oddly, from this distance I feel no hatred, even though she is my sworn enemy, even though I know a showdown between us regarding the time-slot issue is inevitable. Sometimes, a small pity will even bloom in my heart for that hunched, pedalling figure. But not for long. The clarity I enjoy looking down upon her from five floors up fades the moment I pull on my gym clothes and prepare to join her.
As I make my way to the Malibu Club, which sits between Phase One and Phase Two of Beyond the Shore, a gated-living community that has nothing to do with California (we are nowhere near California), I brace myself for the impending confrontation. Entering the gym, I eye the Cardio Machine Booking Sheet, where I’ve printed my name in the 7 a.m. slot for Lifecycle One in big block letters, pressing deep into the page. I see her name written above mine in cursive for the 6:30 slot. My name in unsharpened pencil. Hers in irrefutable ink. Though her handwriting seems easy breezy, I’m not fooled by those lackadaisical loops. I know from experience that she will not go gently into the time-slot change.
I’m right. Though it’s currently 7:00 by the gym clock and 7:02 by my own watch, which has been set by an atomic clock, she’s still on the Lifecycle, pedalling like she isn’t cooling down anytime soon. I choose, as I do each morning, to be the bigger person. First, I do some passive-aggressive calf stretching within her peripheral vision. When she still grips those handlebars like she’ll never relinquish, I inch closer, doing shoulder circles while burning holes into the side of her face with my eyes. When still she proves impervious, I ahem.
She turns to look at me, and it is terrifying, this moment, when I am forced to take in the whole of her cardiovascular effort. The sweat rivulets dribbling down the hollows of her haphazardly made-up face. Those blotches of coral blush she burns into the crotch of each cheek. On her pursed mouth, a slash of lipstick the colour of blanched tangerines. The way she looks at me, eyes wide and full of a cardio-induced fury, makes me feel the pouchiness of my lower abdomen; the cumbersome fact of my thigh flesh sticking together; and the bat wings that Howard told me would take time, be patient (he once had a client on whom they just disappeared like magic). She’s taking it all in, my whole fat-to-muscle ratio, and I know it’s making me less credible in her eyes, which say she has named me, too. Probably something like Inconsistent Gym User. Or Fat Ass.
“Are you on here next? ” she asks. As if she didn’t already know that in her soy milk–fed soul.
“Yes,” I say, telling her like it’s news to both of us—unfortunate news of which I’m sorry to be the bearer.
She looks from me to the clock and shakes her head like we are both her enemies. Like the clock and I are in cahoots.
Seeing that time is against her, she returns her gaze to the swimming pool where the aquafit women are bobbing up and down in unison to the sound of “Kokomo,” their boulderous bodies making the green water waggle. Though her nod, barely perceptible, tells me that she has registered this knowledge about her time being up, she doesn’t get off. In fact, for a few minutes she grips the handlebars tighter, pedals faster, forcing me to contemplate her long, fibrous back and recall how many minutes she’s stolen from me over the years. They add up, like anything else. Those sticks of Trident I don’t chew. Those crystallized ginger hunks I try not to steal from Bulk Barn. Those handfuls of microwaved Orville I do my best to refuse from my father on Friday nights during Fawlty Towers marathons. I draw in breath to ahem once more, but she beats me to it, disembarking from the machine in a sudden huff and storming off toward the stretching mats to begin her long, complex toning routine. Making me feel, you know, like I’m the small, petty one.
By the time she gets off the Lifecycle and I get on, I’ve got only twenty-four minutes left by the gym clock before the anorexic flight attendant shows up with her Spanish fashion magazines and begins anxiously shifting her bird-like weight from right to left behind me. Though I try to make these minutes count, I can’t help but feel like this time slot, so hard won, isn’t making much of a dent. Howard says I ought to “Trust the Process, Love the Journey.” He’s here at Malibu now, standing over one of his oldest clients, Margo—whose body, as long as I’ve known her, has resembled a potato perched atop two toothpicks. He’s got Margo balanced on a Bosu ball, and though she’s teetering violently he’s encouraging her to do one-legged squats. I catch Howard’s eye in the mirror, and he mouths “Monday” at me over Margo’s flailing limbs. Then he punches the air and winks.
On either side of me, the other 7 a.m. time-slot people are already minutes into their treading and cycling. Mainly women of a certain age. I try not to look at them. If I look at their temple sweat, at their mouths half open and panting, at their faces contorted with dreams of impossible future selves, at their eyes skimming pulp fiction or fashion magazines, at their leg cellulite (which is just as discernible through their gym shorts now as it was five years ago, when I first moved here), I’ll begin to feel like we’re all a bunch of sad, fat Rodentia upon whom a terrible, sick joke is being played.
Instead, I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead on the floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the swimming pool, and I watch the aquafit women doing their arm flaps. They remind me of this bird I once saw in a nature film trying to escape an oil spill. It was awful to watch those wings flutter uselessly, to witness the inevitable triumph of the dark oil. Yet I couldn’t help but bear witness, then and now. There is something about their department-store swimwear, their grim sloshing, that is as hypnotic to me as ocean waves. Some young, unfortunate woman in denim shorts stands at the pool’s edge, doing the motions in the air that the women’s iceberg-like bodies are meant to parrot underwater. She must be their new teacher. In my many, albeit intermittent sessions in the 7 a.m. slot, I have witnessed the aquafit women terrorize their way through three different instructors. No one looks especially pleased to be following this girl, either, except for one man—a Russian eccentric whom I often see in the evenings, sifting through the recycling bins for I’m not sure what. Because of his big, enthusiastic splashes, the women give him a wide berth. I think they suspect him of mocking them and would try to have him banned, except that they also fear him slightly.
“It’s your time, and you have to make that clear,” Ruth tells me that evening over warrior bowls at Zen, an eatery in the Beyond the Shore complex. Ruth’s a divorce lawyer and a Treadmill One enthusiast who lives in a townhouse in Phase Three. Being a treadmill user, she doesn’t have much to do with Char, but as a Malibu Club veteran she’s well aware of her daunting presence and is sympathetic to the time- slot issue.
“You have to be firm,” Ruth says, pointing her chopsticks at me. It’s the kind of place that gives you chopsticks with your meal even though you’re eating salad. To make it fun. “It’s not as if you can reason with her. She won’t listen to reason.”
“Where is she getting these pens to write her name down is what I want to know,” I say. “I never see anything but pencils on that Cardio Machine Booking Sheet podium.”
Ruth hunts through her power greens for hidden hearts of palm. “Don’t you know? She brings down her own. I’ve seen her do it. Tucks them into her bike shorts.”
“Isn’t it obvious? She’s terrified someone is going to erase her name.”
“But that’s ridiculous. Those podium pencils don’t even have erasers,” I point out.
“We’re not exactly dealing with a rational being here,” Ruth says, readjusting her black shrug, worn on this hot day to conceal her upper-arm flesh.
“I guess I could just switch to Lifecycle Two,” I say. “Have done with her altogether.”
“Why should you have to make adjustments? ” Ruth says. “Besides, you hate Lifecycle Two. You said being on it was like being in a nightmare.”
It really is. The pedals aren’t in sync. Ruth says she’ll try to bring that up at the next condo board meeting. Ruth is on the board.
“So why even consider it? It’s like me with Treadmill One. I don’t know why, but it works for me. You have to go with what works for you.”
I nod, looking at Ruth’s gut, which, despite her unwavering dedication to the Malibu Club and the fact that two of her dinners are delivered to her door each week by Heartsmart, hasn’t diminished in all the years I’ve known her. In fact, Ruth basically looks like a slightly deflated version of the seventeen-year-old fat girl she showed me a picture of when I went to her place once to borrow her calorie counter. This picture, displayed on the mantle of her fake fireplace, is meant to bolster her spirits, to remind her how far she has come. And yet, to me, there’s no difference between that sad girl in the bauble cardigan and the woman sitting across from me now, fervently shaking hot sauce over her power greens to give them kick.
I turn away and look at the lake through the window. From here, the water looks beautiful, but I have seen with my own eyes during the walks I sometimes take to mix things up that nothing lives under the surface but the junk of the world and eyeless, acid-ridden fish.
“Do you ever feel like the joke’s on us? ” I ask her.
Ruth frowns. “The joke’s on us? What do you mean? ”
“Well, you know how some people go to the gym regularly and they don’t look any different? ” When I say this, I keep my eyes on her face and not on her stomach or her excess upper-arm flesh, which her shrug is still failing to conceal entirely. “And it’s just, all that time, all that energy, you know? When we could have been—”
“When we could have been what? ”
I have an image of somewhere like Paris. Some woman walking for the sake of walking. With friends. She’s happy.
“I don’t know. Something.”
“I don’t know what you’re driving at exactly, but I will say this: On the days that I don’t work out? I, for one, definitely feel a difference. Yes. Without a doubt.”
She takes a sip of her stevia-sweetened skim-milk cappuccino as if to seal this statement. Then consults her watch. She says, speaking of which, she’s only ten hours away from her next time slot. We’d better get the check.
I want to grab her by her shrug lapels and confess that I’m an unbeliever. That being on that machine makes me feel like I’m drowning in some sucking substance worse than mud. That I feel out of control, inches from the lip of the abyss. That while we’ve been sitting here, there’s this angry, hungry maw in me that is fathoms deep. But even though Ruth’s only a hair thinner than I am, she’s way on the other side of the fat-girl spectrum, looking at me from the safe, slightly smug distance of her own self-control and conviction.
So I say, “I know what you mean. Me, too. Absolutely.”
As the elevator door opens, I see a Maine Coon, one of Char’s, dart past me. She’ll do this—let them roam the corridors in the evening. She calls it airing them.
I’ve learned a bit about her cats via clipped conversations in the elevator, though we’ll always avoid a ride together if we can help it. I know one is asthmatic and one is prone to seizures, and one requires needles and the other a pill that Char has to crush and mix in with its food, but I forget which is which. I’m sympathetic, having recently parted with an injection-dependent cat of my own, Mr. Benchley.
In the corridor, I crouch down beside the cat, hold out my hand for her to sniff. Behind me, I feel the door to Char’s apartment open. I know she’s standing in the door frame watching me, but I don’t look at her. Instead, I ask the cat, “What’s your name? ”
“Toffee,” Char says behind me. “After her coat.”
“Well, Toffee,” I say. “You’re beautiful. You are. You are, you are, you are.”
Then I stagger toward my front door without once looking back, without saying good night.
I don’t like to think, as I lie here, already dreading tomorrow morning’s rigours, about how Char and I share a bedroom wall. I lean against the eggshell primer and know she is likely leaning against the other side. Is she consuming fermented sea kelp from an eyedropper? Gloating over the protrusion of her spine nodules? Tallying up her visible ribs with an abacus? Sometimes, I’ll lean there and listen for evidence of a secret life. How I would love for her to have a secret life. What I hear is disappointing. What I hear is silence. Frasier reruns. The opening and closing of a closet door.
The next morning, I have it out with her. Finding her still bone-flogging the Lifecycle when I enter the gym at 7:04, I stride right up to her and ahem. And when she turns her awful, sweaty visage toward me, I do not clam up, I do not cower. I tell her point-blank that I am on this machine next, as she well knows. And when she says, “Just give me a few minutes,” like I’m a fly that needs to be swatted, I remind her—loudly, within earshot of every woman working out ineffectually—that she cut into my time yesterday and the day before that and the day before that, and that’s when she cuts me off and shouts, “Fine! Fine! Fine! Relax!” And though a red fog burns my neck, I do not waver. I remain standing there, my arms folded over my faded “Just Do It” T-shirt, silently supervising her cleaning of the seat and handlebars. I even point out the splotches of skull sweat she missed on the monitor. When I do this, I think she’s going to strike me, but she just turns away and wipes those down too. When she’s finished, she runs toward the stretching mats, swearing, and I hear, under her breath, her name for me. It’s worse than mine for her. It’s worse than any name I’ve ever hurled at myself in the mirror like a rock. It’s worse than anything I could have ever imagined.
To work out in the humid wake of her is always a disorienting experience. Today, it’s like working out in the aftermath of a war, like treading on bone-and-blood-and-skull-strewn earth. The handlebars are still poker hot from where she gripped them, seemingly for dear life. The skull-sweat splotches still fog the monitor. Behind me, I feel the pointed blade of her anger aimed at the nape of my neck as she does her lunge matrix, hip wiggles, and abductions. As I mount the machine, I feel the truth of what her outraged eyes are etching into my back: that these minutes will make no difference to what Howard delicately refers to as my problem areas. Then I see Ruth mouth “Good for you” from where she’s doing isometric shoulder holds in the mirror. And I propel one ludicrous foot in front of the other, even though it’s like that nightmare where I’m running on terribly soft earth, running even though the ground is giving way beneath me.
This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.