Woman at the gym the other day… three-foot blood orange pony tail, blood orange as opposed to ginger, a pharmacy orange. Seen her before. She’s easy to spot between sets as I’m working on getting my breathing under control. I’ll look out across the gym and pick my points of reference, a good spot for me to focus my energy, my concentration for the next lift. If it happens to be a person and they stare back, I’ll look away. Not interested in any kind of interactions when I go to the gym. Often, and if I’ve got no other options, I’ll stare at a tangle of black powder coated nothingness, chipped and greased, my eyes looking more inward than out, a dead sleep you wouldn’t want to disturb, a pulleyed, levered, nexus of a lifting g-spot, an orgasmic focus I come looking for every damn day — it’s why I get up in the mornings. But finding that intensity of focus and concentration ain’t always that easy. It’s something you have to dig up at the first station, make it from nothing because this ain’t ping-pong or flipping bottle caps. It’s painful, a zillion micro tears a la hypertrophy — the name of this game. You tear it down and hopefully it’ll build back up stronger than before. That’s a good day. But if I’m slightly off my game, I’ll get distracted, the high traffic areas with loosened and empty asses struggling for the changing rooms, their drunken weave steps, da fuck in the tilted, lolling, heads. And moving in opposing force, the ever-present couple of aggressive meatheads projecting their voices, laughing, guffawing like it’s a natural thing to do when you’re an alpha male and you don’t give a fuck about anyone else who might be trying to find their groove. Idiots. I watch/judge, lose my concentration, perform poorly on my next set, exhale sharply as I sit up, as I berate myself, them, but not too loudly. A “fucking arseholes” slips out, just above a whisper. I’m desperate for my next point of reference now, powder coated in black, chipped and greased, maybe, to save the workout, because this people watching shit ain’t working out. And then I spot her, the blood orange ponytail.
She had on a grey tank top and those stretch pants women wear that stop just short above the ankles, same colour as a complete set of Playdough from childhood when we’d finally given in and mixed all the colours, a purplish swirl but with some of the primary colours showing through in a marbled pattern, pretty veins down her legs, a thick arm band with gizmo attached (a music machine I’m thinking), bulbous headphones, and lime green sneakers with orange laces to complete the ensemble.
On the best days, I’m blind to what’s going on around me. It’s that cardboard box from my youth, or the inside of a kitchen cabinet while playing hide n seek with my siblings, or a rainy day and a comic book, insulated from the immediate commotion around me, but from life also, the big picture, whatever has me by the mind from the moment I push my feet into my morning flip-flops, the stuff that absolutely has to run its course, stuff that overlaps, stuff I have to write down just to keep track, tuck away in the glove box with my cellphone when its time because I absolutely need that hour and a half every day, to distract myself so all that other stuff seem like the distractions and not the end of the world, the range of motions, muscle contractions, forced reps… all like second nature, a morning dump.
Back day. Lots of basic pull down movements, but also heavy bent over work. Not as fun as pumping up the arms, or blasting the chest. It’s a day you expect to leave the gym with a tight lower back and sore grips. Funny though, I enjoy the most painful of my back exercises, the barbell rows. I save this movement for last because I’m spent thereafter. Why do I enjoy it? Because it’s a power movement.
There’s a lone squat rack in the smaller downstairs section. I like to use that for my barbell rows because the serious squatters use the racks in the big open room where their moanings and farts reverberate best. So I make my way there and wouldn’t you know it… there she is, the three-foot, blood orange ponytail.
No problem. Quick thinking mode kicked in. I sat at the lat pull down machine to keep my back warmed up. She’d finish soon enough. Gym calculating. Quick math. I’d start light, high reps, so my arms wouldn’t overheat, give her time to do her four/five sets. But as she set up her barbell on the squat rack, I then watched her set up a second barbell off to the side of the rack on the floor. Okay. She was going to do some sort of compound movement. I pumped out 16 light reps. Watched, wondered how she’d squat. I’ve seen women squat two plates with perfect form. 225 lbs.
Good shape, those tights accentuating the swell of her hips. Nice looking woman, full-equipped, gizmo strapped to her bicep like some Amazon, sneakers the brightest lime green, laces all loose and bouncy, not balled up in a triple knot like mine, my skuffed and greasy Penguins I got at Marshalls, your over-stock/last years models emporium. She irradiated. I pumped out another set of low weight/high rep, content to observe now. No doubt she felt my presence. I could sense she felt my presence, both of us trying not to seem obvious, but for different reasons. As a rule, a gym rule, I don’t stare at women working out. If I feel I can’t help it, I’ll sneak a peak through the mirror, or a quick sideways glance, my facial expression as dead as can be, lost in space, glazed over eyes, much the same way the women do it. I don’t want to invade their space, and I don’t want to interrupt their set by making them feel self-conscious. She was about to muscle through a set, didn’t want her feeling self-conscious because some idiot guy was staring at her ass. I wasn’t, but that is the dynamic here.
So she shouldered the barbell and cranked out six reps. Decent form. Then she moved to the barbell she’d set up on the floor. Pulled a set of stiff-legged deadlifts. Okay. She was working the quads and the hamstrings at the same time. But then she went away! High-tailed it outta there, her equipment still scattered about! Into the women only room! I pulled another set of light weight high reps and waited, this not doing it for me at all. You can’t monopolize three sections of the gym at once. Not cool. Now I was getting antsy, and cold. I wanted my barbell rows. She was doing some sort of tri-set thingy. I was pissed. No old school respect here. So then it hit me. There was a bench press station next to the squat rack. If I stood on the bench, I could row the weight like that, old school.
I had already done my first set when she came back from the nether regions. I twisted on the bench where I was sitting, measuring my breathes, sitting side-saddle so I wouldn’t seem too in her face. But still I sensed some irritation on her part that I had moved so close to where she was working out. So I twisted my body even more. Now I was uncomfortable, and feeling somewhat pressed to find a point of focus. Couldn’t stare at her ponytail anymore. She cranked out her set, I adjusted because I knew she would be moving next to the barbell on the floor to work her glutes and hamstrings. She seemed bothered, so I got up, turned my back to her so I could row another set off the bench even though I wasn’t ready yet. I wanted her to understand that I was more interested in my workout than in cruising her. It was like we were working out together now, for crying out loud. Wtf! Totally out of my game here, which was in playing the older batman(dark knight) type — no gym chat, must be some mysterious backstory here, tons of experience, no doubt, fucker still with the high intensity and determination. Bah, whatever, it’s my shtick. Gotta find it somewhere. And if I believe enough in my strength and endurance and ability to achieve whatever lift I set as goal… it belongs to me. Mind over matter.
I look at the women in the gym. Of course I do. Some I look at only once, a quick look, my expression never changing from post set decompress to the moment I catch a breath for the next lift. Others, I’ll catch in the mirror, a quick one two, and then I move on. I figure even if they know, they’ll see that I was being respectful about it at least, more admiring than leering. And they’ll take it as a complement. No harm done.
I consider myself old school. I’m all about the weights, the personal challenges. I’m doing this for myself, and I’ve kinda cultivated that mystique about me in the gym. I’m one of the very regulars. I hurt, but I ignore the pain. We all fall into a category in the gym, from scrawny beginner, to the young boner feeling his first muscles, to the elder woman sweating her saggy bottom tights off, to the steroid heads with calves as big as my head, to the hot young chicks who see the gym as a club, the cross-fitters spinning their wheels, the has-been old farts who seem to think we absolutely need to see their balls in the changing room, and me. I don’t fit into any category. I’m fifty-two, but picking up where I left off at twenty. It’s all force of will for me, a stubbornness that has me moving more weight today than I ever have. I keep up with the newer techniques and principles, but I also have that old school base… heavy weight at full range of motion, strictest form, and a dogged belief my body will hold up because I say it will.
Safe to say, I don’t go to the gym to cruise.
So when the blood orange three foot ponytail finally huffed outta the area I was at, it really bothered me. Don’t even think she completed her tri-set thingy. Or she cut it short. She just disappeared. Damn! That’s how pissed she seemed. I’d been thrown out of a gym once already for making too much noise on a 405 deadlift for reps. It’s was actually my partner who got tossed first, and then me for pleading his case. I like this gym, serious and regular about my workouts. Been here five years. I started to freak out some. Had I really disrupted her workout?
But nothing happened. No one approached me from the front desk to accuse me of being a gym creep. But looking back, you know, maybe i was being one that day, inadvertently, in my mindless, take no prisoner approach i liked to call old school/hardcore, a gym ettiquette I picked up way back in the day when there were no women in the few gyms that existed. Times have changed. And I hate that it’s taken me this long to figure that out. I could have moved on immediately upon seeing the area was occupied rather than focus my insane energy on this woman. Of course she sensed my presence, and of course I derailed her workout. But I didn’t realize at the time. And my inability to see what other people, women, see, what I might project upon them, led to my confused and somewhat aggressive reaction. Being overly-defensive and righteous was the wrong response to a situation I led myself into. So I’m feeling somewhat grateful to this woman whose interaction with me I’ve wrestled in my mind for about five weeks now. Couldn’t figure it out, though I sensed there was something for me to take away from all of this. And that was to see what she saw, expand my view of the world beyond that tangle of gym equipment, an inward focus that was all too short-sighted.
I’ve seen her since, same get-up, same three-foot blood orange ponytail. She could be a super hero. She does not seem to see me, or if she does, she ain’t letting on, just like me, the dark night, my updated boundaries already set as I step into the gym.
Change Seven editor Antonios Maltezos studied at Concordia University. He is formerly an associate editor of Vestal Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, [PANK], Foundling Review, Storyglossia, Verbsap, Dogzplot, Thieves Jargon, Slingshot Magazine, Ink Pot, Skive Magazine, Mad Hatter’s Review, Pequin, Per Contra, Story Garden, WordRiot, LITnIMAGE, Underground Voices, Cezanne’s Carrot, Pindeldyboz, Flashquake, Elimae, Eclectica, Hobart, and many other journals and mags. When he isn’t running a tavern-style kitchen near Montreal, Quebec, he is working on a collection of short fiction, Setting Fires, and a novel, A Train Runs Through Here, told entirely through flash.