I wear the same gym outfit that I bought while living in New Orleans in 1997: elastic waistband shorts with an unraveling inseam hem, and a short gray T-shirt that doesn’t cling to my hips. When I say I wear the same outfit to the gym, I mean that I wear the same outfit to the gym every time I go, without deviation, except for varying underwear, which I sometimes flash when I wrestle myself into and out of my rubber resistance bands.
Finding shorts that fit me in 1997 was traumatic enough that I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon. The elastic will fail someday, and the shorts will slip to my ankles while my legs go round and round on a torture device named the Elliptical for the way it makes your brain spin with questions: “How can it only have been 23 seconds since I last looked at Time Elapsed? Couldn’t these absurd machines feed the power grid? Does this ever get any easier? Where does everyone else park? Will I remember my padlock number or be like that other woman who’s been at the lockers, banging her head against the sleek Ikea wood veneer, failing at her combination for the last ten minutes?”
The shorts around my ankles could then double as the resistance bands my physical therapist requires me to use in sexy poses such as Supine Clam Shell.
I wear my silvering hair back in the same, failing-elastic scrunchy. I carry my portable CD player around in a pouch originally intended for lunches: I require a bag with handles, because I need to hang it off various grips on the equipment. Modern cardio equipment no longer has a shelf big enough for the CD player: slender lips of plastic are meant for perching computerized electronics that as easily slip into back pockets as slipping their owners into debt with monthly fees. The portable CD player alone sets me apart. Tattooed exercisers around me probably think it’s an oxygen machine or one of those electrified paddles to shock me back to vegetatitve life should my heart fail.
I must seem like I’m on the spectrum to strangers, with my outfit and my lunchbag, not to mention the way I sterilize the equipment and wash my hands, but I just don’t like getting sick. Lately, with scratches from the kitten all over my legs, I can’t successfully shave, either. My legs look like Ma Sasquatch with the mange.
A lot has changed since my exercising days in New Orleans, where my trainer, a banjo player named Daryl, owned the gym and gave me personalized training. If I struggled to complete a full set of reps, he’d threaten to break out his banjo, an incentive that never failed to push me over the hump. I could do 100 sit-ups. Because of my fanatical gym routine in the Big Easy, I never gained a pound, despite the shrimp Po’ Boys, beignets, sweet potato pecan pies, and the generic boxed macaroni and cheese (five for a buck) that made up most of our diet, because we had no money. On the flip side, I never lost a pound, either.
My new gym is part of a chain, and the owner probably lives in Dubai.
I’ve been going to gyms since before there was a clothing item called “yoga pants,” which is what women wear now, I think because they’re spandexyish and disguise our jiggles and cellulite. For me, they’re too hot for cardio, and I no longer fool myself that my wardrobe choices fool anyone as to where I stand on height-weight proportions.
At one of my first gyms, an innovative, new piece of equipment called the StairMaster was delivered, and it was so popular that the gym introduced boxing classes so we could fight over it. Women attended sensible aerobics classes, but then steps were introduced to those, too. It’s as if we were pretend-climbing all those years in order to break through the glass ceiling. That day never came, so many of us turned to yoga so that we could learn to breathe deep and control our anger.
Maybe we’re getting close to equality, though, because I notice many more men work the cardio machines than they used to, and some of them are wearing their hair up in buns. The playing field is leveling.
I’ve belonged to nearly a dozen gyms over the years, including a gym that used to be a nightclub where I saw Robyn Hitchcock perform. But when my hip injury caused me to re-up at a gym after a decade of a free, state-of-the-art, outdoor exercise called walking, I couldn’t return to the old nightclub gym, which is a small business owned by a local: I know too many people who go there, and I can’t small-talk at a gym, mostly because I can barely breathe, much less speak coherently. People I love and respect don’t need to see me in my 1997 shorts; even the Man I Married doesn’t see me in that outfit.
So I chose the low-tech community center’s weight room, where the cubbyholes often reeked of cigarettes from members’ stored coats. Now that’s my kind of lackadaisical athlete. The same three Us magazines provided the only entertainment on days when my CD-player batteries failed. We had real windows that I opened to let in real air. Windows that looked out on grass and trees. I once saw a hawk chasing a squirrel round and round a tree trunk while my legs went round and round on the Elliptical, and I felt integrated with the Darwinian world. I watched women performing contortionist feats to get child seats out of cars and heft them in to daycare. I watched dog-walkers and father-son baseball tossing and Frisbee throwers and electric pole workers swaggering in Carhartts and safety vests (I doubled my workout time that day).
I fit right in with that gym. One man regularly climbed the stairstepper in his overalls and sandals; he leaned on the monitor just like I’m sure he leaned on the bar at his favorite watering hole. Other gentlemen there wore slacks, or jeans, or even corduroys. A few young bucks wore sweatpants and hoodies and grunted in the free weights corner. I never saw an Amish-wannabe beard or a manbun or a tattoo there, but I don’t wear my glasses at the gym—partly because I don’t like the way they slide down my sweaty face, and partly because I ascribe to the toddlers’ philosophy that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me—so it’s possible I mistook a Manson beard for the back of someone’s head.
Women at the community center gym were rare, but this was my gym-going tribe: thin wallets, wide waists. I was often the only person there, which sounds great, but I worried I’d twist my ankle hoisting myself up onto the Elliptical, and no one would find me for hours. I didn’t like being the only woman, and limited hours and broken equipment led me to switch to the new gym in the now hipster center of my once old fogey neighborhood: Tattoo parlors now outnumber Swedish pancake and lutefisk eateries 1-0 (used to be 0-2), fancy cocktail bars outnumber family restaurants 23-0 (used to be 2-5), froufrou pillow stores outnumber drugstores 37-0 (used to be 0-1), and the number of espresso shops and craft breweries climbs but the ratio remains equal, reflective of our pioneer law of old, requiring the number of churches and taverns to be equal, which is why our suburb has so many churches. But these days, we’re religious about coffee.
At my new gym, the tattoos are large enough that I don’t need my glasses to see them. I can never make out what they’re supposed to be, though, even with my glasses, and tattoo etiquette stymies me: I need to stare to figure out what the blotchy designs are supposed to represent, but, if caught staring, wouldn’t the tattoo-ee construe it as hostile or judgmental, even though they obviously choose their clothing to display the ink, sporting shorts or tank tops even on wintry days? Staring at the gym feels like a double no-no.
But it turns out that, while my new gym has plenty of hipsters, it’s blessedly full of weirdoes, too, and I fit right in. There’s a young buck in swimtrunks and a complicated double manbun. But, hey, if I could do what he can do one of those rolly balls, I’d wear whatever the heck I wanted, too. I figure he’s training to save people from sharks. He probably tells his brainiac girlfriend about the dumpy lady at the gym who wears the same outfit every time, wondering if she ever washes it.
There’s the teeny tiny senior lady who wears a perfectly ironed, flowered kerchief, bobby-pinned to her hair above each ear. There’s a lady with a walker and a guy in a wheelchair. There are doughy folks and Ichabod Cranes in jeans, slacks, and corduroys (I have yet to see overalls and sandals, however). There’s a gal who wears her fanny pack on her abdomen, a guy in a button-down shirt with perfectly pressed collar points, and then there’s the guy in the same pair of really short shorts (I wonder if he washes them?).
It would be a lovely melding of old and new Ballard, except that nobody talks to each other.
There’s no fresh air, and I can’t see much of the new condos across the street around the row of six giant TV screens. I put my glasses on and watch 100 Best Crashes, Rescues, and Disasters. I learn that Zayn has left One Direction. I learn that across a room and without my glasses, I can still recognize Valerie Bertinelli in weight loss commercials. But mostly I try to look anywhere but at the televisions, which is tough, because that means staring at the ass of the person laboring in front of me. When I succumb to the temptation of the boob tubes, flitting through the audio channels for all six—and wondering if men used to take their shirts off that often in soap operas of old—I feel the opposite of an endorphin high when I leave the gym: I feel soiled (so I quickly check to make sure that menopause hasn’t changed her mind).
Although, come to think of it, I never leave the gym with an endorphin high. I stagger out in a state of shock. I limp home, and the Man I Married and the Little Monkey have learned to leave a wide, clear path between me and a long, hot shower.
Instead of watching TV, I mostly listen to my library books on CD, and I up my weirdo factor when I snort-laugh at Tina Fey or Ellen DeGeneres.
I did receive one free personal training session at my new gym, where my slender, 12-year-old trainer told me about his calorie-counting app, and I refrained from telling him that at his age, my peer group counted beer bottle caps. His response surely would have been that that’s why I was in expanding shorts and Physical Therapy, whereas he was getting paid to order women around as he checked out their asses.
One couple trades places at a succession of weight machines, yelling to each other, “Isolate! Isolate! Isolate!”
Commanding isolation, they are the only two people at the gym talking to each other. Everyone else is plugged into machines and staring at screens. It’s a science fiction movie, but with mostly overweight people.
But it’s why I joined this gym, where I have not yet bumped into anyone I know. Isolated is how I prefer it, especially on days like the one when the Elliptical turned out to be stuck on Steep Climb, and I nearly required a parachute to dismount: Maybe that’s what the other woman keeps in her fanny pack.
Resistance bands: Jennifer D. Munro