I will cancel my membership to L.A. Fitness next week. I’ll be moving at the end of the month, and I’ve calculated that I would burn more gas on my way to the gym three days a week than I would calories once I got there.
I’m sure the staff will try to talk me into staying. The curly-haired dynamo at the reception desk will remind me of the Monday morning spin class I never attended, the world-renowned personal trainers I never enlisted, or the squash courts I never entered. Or the whirlpools to soothe my aching muscles after spin class, training sessions and squash games.
But my mind is made up. I will cancel my membership.
I’m sad about it. I learned a lot from the gym. I’ve heard veterans say the army toughened them up, broke down their walls and helped them form their identity. The same could be said about L.A. Fitness. I may not have influenced the gym, but it changed me. It taught me life lessons I’ll remember forever.
The day I joined the gym, Cheryl the receptionist matched me up for a complimentary assessment with a personal trainer. His name was Buck. Slouching, he measured 6’3. The dark skin on his arm stretched as tightly over his protuberant muscles as the hide on an African drum. He smiled like someone who gleaned enjoyment from bench-pressing his car.
I craned my head to look him in the eye.
“How’s it goin’ Champ!” he asked, playfully tapping my shoulder in a way I knew would leave it bruised for days.
“So, Champ, what do you want to get out of your workout today?” he asked, scribbling information on a sheet of paper he carried on a cork clipboard. I couldn’t see what he was writing but I suspected the words scrawny, anemic, and lily-livered were involved.
“I want enough upper body strength to open a pickle jar and the stamina to climb a flight of stairs without blacking out.”
He smiled. “Sure thing, Champ. Let’s start with a few easy exercises to see where you are, then go from there.” He led me past a horde of growling, tank top-wearing free weight lifters to the far side.
“Okay. This is called the chair.” He patted his thick hand against the wall. “Rest your back firmly against here and bend your legs until you’re at ninety degrees.”
I struggled to assume the position while Buck called out instructions.
“Engage your abs!”
“Lift your chin!”
“Pull your knees together!”
“A little lower!”
He finally looked satisfied.
“Lookin’ great, Champ.” He patted my other shoulder.
At least the bruises will be symmetrical.
“Hold that position,” he said.
I smiled. Not so bad. I stifled a yawn. After a few moments I glanced over to Buck. He was talking to a young blond with yoga pants suctioned to her legs. A faint tingle in my thighs reminded me that I was working muscle groups I’d barely heard of, let alone trained.
The blond left to re-apply her makeup and Buck was now passing his time by performing one-armed pushups with his left hand. His face was as serene as if he were completing a Tibetan yoga breathing exercise. The tingling was starting to feel a lot more like pain.
“Ah…Buck?” I said.
He glanced toward me, “Lookin’ good, Champ! Embrace that pain! Love that pain!” With that he went back to his one-handed pushups, this time using only the tips of three fingers.
By now the pain felt more like my quads were the victims of close-range target practice for a band of Al Capone’s hit men.
“…99…100. Okay!” Buck said, jumping to his feet and shaking his arms. “Good warm-up. Now onto squats! Let’s try nice, slow sets of forty!”
Jesus take me now.
As a child I was fairly private. My friends preferred the term prudish. My fears of death by stabbing and dentists were the only more horrifying prospects than the possibility of having to undress in a public changing room. I always managed to avoid such a situation.
As a teenager, I was a member of a synchronized figure skating team. The other fifteen members stripped out of their outer layers in the dressing room every morning after practice, joking and analyzing our latest footwork techniques. I went down the hall to the private family bathroom and triple locked the door.
My real dread arose when “pantsing” became popular. My teammates took devilish delight in tearing the sweatpants down to an unsuspecting victim’s knees. This wasn’t meant to be a form of torture as outlawed by the Geneva Convention, but was considered a practical joke. A car bombing seemed like a funnier joke to me. I was the only one who showed up to practice in belted blue jeans.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like my body. I would just rather it didn’t become a point of observation for others to analyze.
The women at L.A. Fitness have no such qualms. They can hardly wait to peel off their sweaty workout clothes the minute they pass through the tinted double-doors. The plump ones are the least inhibited. The private changing rooms are as functional as a framed still life. No one bothers with them.
After one of my first workouts, I entered the dressing room to retrieve my purse from a locker and found half a dozen African-American women dancing round the locker room stark naked. Their dark thighs jiggled as gravity forced them in all directions. They bumped hips with each other and laughed as they compared portions of their anatomy I wouldn’t let my doctor examine.
My cheeks burned and I became intensely interested by my ASICS-clad feet. My hands stretched in front of me, patting blindly along the wall until I reached my locker. Without raising my eyes I began emptying its contents.
“How you doin’ girl?” one of the ladies asked.
Stomach clenched, I glanced up at her. “Er, good.”
She smiled at me.
After a moment, I offered a weak smile in return.
Gym membership should come with a complimentary “how-to” manual complete with diagrams, detailed explanations and instructions. Or at least a list of five to ten helpful tips on how to avoid death by Hack Squat machine.
All I got was a ten minute tutorial. Buck and I moved through the rows of bulky equipment with him gesturing ambiguously to the right or the left and giving a meager description. He flung his arm to the left. “This here’s a seated hip abductor machine. It’ll sculpt your lats, glutes, and outer thighs.”
I sprinted a few steps and then tried to match his lengthy strides. Judging by his hand gesture he was either referring to the machine that looked like a giant garbage compressor, the jungle gym, or the water fountain. All of the machines looked like they’d been recycled from a medieval torture chamber.
The men and women I passed grunted and grimaced. I made eye contact with one bulky man who looked to be about forty. A tear glistened in his left eye as he lifted free weights the size of tractor tires.
We finished the circuit after a few more minutes and ended up back at the desk. “Well, Champ, all you gotta do is sign these release forms in case of injury, paralysis, or death and you’re good to go!” I scribbled my signature and Buck left me to figure everything else out for myself.
I chose the closest machine. It was one I vaguely remembered Buck referencing. There was a bench and two padded metal arms. I sat in the seat and contorted myself into an innovative position that would have made Gumby wince, attempting to align my arms with the padding.
I took a deep breath and squeezed my arms together. My triceps burned. My biceps strained. Clenching my teeth tightly I did another.
A few minutes into my workout a lanky teenage boy with sweat dripping over his Nike headband stopped in front of the machine and watched for a few seconds. He wore a bemused smile.
I tried ignoring him. I grunted louder to let him know I was still actively engaged in my workout. I took deep breaths. He wouldn’t leave.
“Can I help you?” I finally asked, annoyed.
“Yeah, I just wondered when you’d be finished with that leg extender…”
By the end of my session the only machine in the building I’d mastered was the water fountain.
My seventy-five-year-old grandma Marilynn, my dad’s mom, joined the gym several years before I did. One day she asked me to meet her for her 6:30 a.m. workout for some grandma/granddaughter bonding time. When I arrived, bleary-eyed and sluggish, she was already waiting for me in the lobby. Her short blond hair was curled, her makeup perfectly applied, and she wore neon, multicolored running shoes.
“Hello granddaughter! You ready?” she asked.
I tried to respond pleasantly but my smile turned into a yawn.
“Let’s start with weights. Follow me.” She headed over to the far back corner of the gym where, I’d previously believed, only the most mentally unstable meatheads dared to congregate.
A man in a torn wife-beater tank top and with arm muscles the size of basketballs was snorting as he worked a leg press machine with giant metal discs on either end. He had headphones jammed into his ears and was listening to a violent brand of death metal.
“See, this is the machine I like,” Grandma told me. And then, to my horror, she reached her hand down and tapped the man on his globular bicep. I hoped he would shrug it off as a small insect or a particularly focused draft. When he did not immediately respond, she tapped him again, harder this time.
He sighed with annoyance at first, yanking the earbud out of his right ear. As soon as he saw my grandma he smiled. “Yes, ma’am?”
“My granddaughter would like to use this machine,” she said. I tried my best to engage in conversation with the blond working the ab crunch machine before he noticed me. But it was too late. We made eye contact and all I could do was silently plead for him to spare my life.
“Not a problem, ma’am!” the man said. “I was just finishing my last rep anyway!”
“Oh, and could you please remove these weights?” Grandma said, wiggling her fingers at the heavy discs, “I don’t want them to crush her.”
He smiled and did as he was told. As our workout progressed, I realized that every person we approached was eager to accommodate Grandma, amused grins on their faces. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that she had at least two decades on everyone else in the building.
Our last stop was the treadmills in the cardio loft. Grandma increased her speed to a fast powerwalk and began puffing rhythmic breaths. She never slowed down. After a mile or so I grew worried about her.
“Grandma, you sure you’re okay going that hard?”
“Well, in a weak moment I promised your little cousin Joshua I would go to his wedding one day,” she answered between gasps and sputters. “Now I have to keep exercising and eating oatmeal to make sure I live that long.”
I’ll think of Grandma when I cancel my membership next week. She’ll be disappointed to hear I’ve quit. Every time I see her she asks when we can work out together again. Only twenty-five years shy of a century, she faithfully wakes up before the sun to work out with the young men with rippling muscles, the single moms, the receptionists, the lawyers, the doctors, and sixth grade health teachers.
In truth, I’ve gotten a lot more from my gym membership than a few hard workouts and some strained muscles. Watching my grandmother live her life with zeal and strength, pushing my body to its limit and beyond, witnessing those who are comfortable with their body no matter the shape—it made me a better person. And it only cost $28.50 a month.
Carrie Camp recently graduated from Converse College with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. Her work has also appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle. She currently lives outside Atlanta, GA, with her husband.