Nick Sylvester

Nick Sylvester

Nick Sylvester. Photo by Jon Caramanica.

These are the names of athletic trainers who have given me complimentary workout sessions: Red, Samson, Rainbow, King, Horse, Knots, Big King, Mr. Cooper, Trainer, Eddie Flex, Blingsby, Mad Dog, Excitement. I entertained their courtships because I wanted to know what motivated them. I could use them for greater purposes, I thought: a short story, a novel, maybe a song. Nobody to my knowledge had written successful gym fiction. Maybe this was my lane. When I met Big King, he stood over my shoulder as I inputted his number into my phone, making sure I had the proper spelling of his name. Trainer, a man who had legally changed his name to Trainer, had a business card with an American flag on it. He was one month away from becoming a certified level-five Life Coach, and throughout the entirety of our thirty-minute session, worried about the cost of ordering new cards.

I was on a treadmill, in a long row of treadmills that faced another long row of treadmills head to head. It was a Friday night and no one was there, so I had the run of the place. When the televisions aren't working, I like to think about possible altercations I might have at the gym, and how I might handle them. What if a beautiful woman had gone past the thirty-minute cardio limit during peak hours. What if a maintenance worker attempted to wipe down the treadmill in the middle of my exercising, and what if I tripped on his rag. What if an angry naked man accosted me in the shower. What would I say to the man to calm him down. Ten minutes into my run, an older woman in bright clothes stepped up onto the treadmill next to mine. We were the only two people in the entire gym. Maybe she wanted company. She walked at a steep incline for several minutes, then settled into a ferocious run, much faster than anything I could do. Her hands she placed on the top bar of the treadmill, where no one is supposed to place her hands, which meant she didn't run with the tread so much as stomp her feet down on it, not unlike a sewing machine needle, or a jackhammer. The noise was unbearable. On my walk back home, it occurred to me that this was how the machines become broken.

Also I had begun to use freeweights. In my gym, the weights are partitioned off from the rest of the equipment, not unlike the adult section of a video rental store. Every time I approached the area, I found myself second-guessing my reasons for entering. These people–I didn't want to believe I was one of these people. Earlier that year, Big King had taught me an exercise that required 15-pound dumb bells: lying on the bench, holding the weights, jabbing up into the air for twenty counts. I had made it through the first two sets of twenty, but in my third, my right arm gave out. As hard as I tried for one more repetition, I just couldn't get my arm to cooperate. Nearby a man was holding 125-pound weights in both hands. He had just enough facial hair to grow a kind of wispy chin strap, and was holding his weights like they were handbags. When I let the weights fall out of my hands and onto the gym mat, I realized he had been watching me. Now he was smiling. “Hey,” he said. “We've all been there.” This was the same man I had seen earlier that afternoon walking around the machines with no purpose I could discern, when suddenly he jumped up and grabbed a horizontal bar I didn't know existed, and performed exactly 35 pull-ups. All my days at the gym afterwards, the man just seemed to appear out of nowhere and do something like that.

In the locker room, if you wrap a towel around your waist first, you can slip off your gym shorts without anyone knowing about your genitals. Usually I walk into the shower stall with my clothes still on. I fix the thin blue curtain until the cracks on either side are gone, and in this confined space, not much bigger than a hollow refrigerator, I contort my limbs out of the sopping clothes, trying as carefully as possible not to touch the walls of the shower. The similarity to the game Operation just occurred to me, just now as I wrote this. In the shower I only think about one thing: What will I do if someone takes my towel. I deliberately place the towels–two towels–not on the hook outside the stall, but over the metal curtain pole, and this is how I can tell if anyone is making a move. A lot of the more muscular men seem to know each other, and I worry sometimes that, at the sight of me, their camaraderie will take the form of bullying. The hot water runs out fast at my gym though, which might be why nothing ever happens.

Once two men were standing in front of the sinks. Each had come out of his shower stall at about the same time, and in single file formation, they walked out of the wet towards the short row of sinks. One of them had considerable chest hair that, because of the water, slopped down his belly like runny makeup. Neither man was wearing a towel. I was washing my hands at the sink–I had just used lifting equipment and was worried about bacteria–which is how I saw them coming, in the mirror's reverse. They stood next to one another at the sinks and, while each rubbed moisturizer on himself, the two men talked about the exercises they had completed. They made eye contact only through the mirror, and after they had traded statistics, a long silence followed. The bigger man, who was two from my right, then turned to his friend and said, “Nice pork.” This must be something these people just say to one another. The friend said thanks–that was it, just thanks–all the while rubbing excess lotion into the thick of his thigh.

Thanks.

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