Greg was staring at himself in the locker-room mirror when he noticed the tall man behind him slipping into a pair of nylon running shorts. His attention shifted from his own protruding stomach to the man's well-sculpted torso.
Greg was in week 13 of his new every-other-day workout schedule. He was just spotting the first hatchlings of change. Thick fat was finally starting to recede, and a more recognizable chest was forming where there once were embarrassing breasts. The well-toned body behind him, however, revealed how much further Greg needed to go before he could feel that old confidence when walking shirtless among his peers.
If he were an aging retiree, it'd be different, he told himself. The wrinkled, misshapen older men around him cared little for appearance and instead sought only longevity. They stood around in bodies seemingly pulled from New Yorker cartoons. No self-consciousness haunted them as they talked, wearing little more than flip-flops.
The lean man in the running shorts now stepped toward a mirror of his own, studying his body's proportions as he stretched his arms toward the ceiling. Greg noticed his designer gym bag and pondered what the man did for a living, how smart he was, and to whom he made love.
Fifteen minutes later, Greg was in the weight room noticing the toned back of a woman at a large machine. With every rep the woman's dark ponytail bounced softly off her light-brown skin, and he stared at the lines of her neck and shoulders. Behind her, the lean man in the running shorts was grunting and panting, lifting free weights, once again positioned before a mirror. Images flashed in Greg's mind of the man and the woman together. They were the type who pair up, he thought. They were the kind who live in parallel worlds of exciting careers and interesting parties, waking on Sunday mornings to the delight of each other's bodies and sharing bloody Marys at downtown bistros.
Greg crouched atop a rowing machine and tucked his torn, weathered running shoes into the stirrups. He hunched forward and pulled on what he pretended were long wooden oars. He imagined the spray of the water, closed his eyes and pictured a Princeton crew muscling past Harvard to the finish line as throngs on shore cheered them on.
His reverie was broken by an argument erupting nearby. An older woman and a younger man were debating whether it was necessary to wipe down the weight machines after each use. The man balked at the notion, and the annoyed woman was complaining she was having to do the work for him.
What strange things they are, Greg thought as he counted his strokes, these modern, fluorescent-lit rooms where people gather to do what nature no longer demands. He recalled Alexis de Tocqueville's descriptions of the burly rural folk of 19th-century America: "tall and strong, with a national physiognomy and a rough and energetic appearance."
Greg wondered what muscles he could develop chopping firewood, churning butter, digging potatoes, plowing, planting, hoeing, and harvesting, He imagined himself under the autumn sun in the Tennessee countryside, his skin toned and tanned. Then he thought of the image of his pale appearance behind the counter at the Bloomington camera store he managed.
The pair nearby continued to argue. A YMCA staffer hurried over and sided with the older woman, telling the man patrons were indeed expected to use the available disinfectant and paper towels to wipe down machines after each use.
Greg turned toward the man in the running shorts, who was now doing push-ups. He wanted to count them and compare the number to the 50 he planned for his own workout. He realized, as he stared, that the man bothered him, and he pondered how strange this was since he didn't know him at all.
He thought of the brunette in the ponytail and how much he wanted to talk to her, perhaps even have coffee with her, though he hadn't yet seen her face. He thought of the couple who were arguing and how it reminded him of the fight he had with his wife 13 weeks earlier, the day she had picked up the last of her things. He wondered what she'd say if she ran into him now, 15 pounds lighter and full of regret.
In the distance Sting's "Fields of Gold" could be heard over the radio as Greg stood and moved past yet another wall mirror, this time furtively peeking from the corner of his eye to see if there was something new he was becoming.
© TD Mischke