Last night, stuffed with lobster, I watched Day of the Triffids before bed, a not entirely lousy late-’60s British horror flick in which a meteor shower blinds the populace, who then stumble around unconvincingly, avoiding the compounded problem of mobile, voracious plants on whom the meteor’s effect has been not blindness but mobility and voraciousness. It’s a near-go for the human race, but the alcoholic, lighthouse-bound biologist figures out how to stop them just in time, and, as the narration says at the close, “Mankind survived, and once again had a reason to give thanks.” My dreams were appropriately garish and fierce, so in the morning I decided to go to the gym.
At my gym is a love story, and another chapter was unfolding this morning. The love story is one of sublimated desire. The lovers are a white, middle-aged professional-looking man wearing a wedding ring and a comfortable, familiar layer of flab that is not likely to go away no matter how many mornings he works on it—let’s call him Herb—and his young, enormous, skeptical black trainer who let’s say is the Marquis. The courtship began with small free weights that Herb used in arm curls while the Marquis hovered and spotted him, although the weights looked like five-pounders, so it was a little bit like spotting somebody who was carrying a dictionary across the room. From overconsideration the couple moved speedily onto oral sex: Herb raised and lowered a large barbell between his legs, while the Marquis kneeled in front of him and occasionally steadied the tip. After a few days of this, Herb took to lying face up on a mat, with one of those huge beach-ball things between his legs, and the Marquis—I swear I am not making this up—lay face down on top of the beach ball and rocked him back and forth. Today, they did this for a few minutes and then the Marquis dismounted, took the beach ball out, and spent a few minutes massaging up and down Herb’s sweat-panted leg.
It’s mortifying. Herb is a grunter, letting out those Uh!s that I suppose are involuntary, like being allergic to practically every food, but like being allergic to practically every food, how come it only happens to one type of person? Herb Uh!s and Uh!s, and all I can think is: Just go for it, guys. I’m sure Mrs. Herb would be less ashamed of an extramarital quickie than all the fuss you’re making on the mats. I’m half-tempted to toss them my keys: “I live five blocks away, fellas. I want you out of there, with the sheets changed, by the time I get back.” For a while I thought I was the only person who was watching this love story unfold, but lately other people have been catching my eye. I’ll be on the abs machine, and someone across the way, lunging, will look at me during an Uh! and we’ll both blink. We don’t dare smirk—Herb and the Marquis have spoiled any behavior approaching even a remote suburb of flirtation—but we know, the lunger and I: We’re watching the same story.
It’s comforting to find this mutually acknowledged narrative, because whenever I’m at the gym I have trouble figuring out what I’m doing there. I can’t use anything that puts me near a mirror, not out of any sort of Naomi Wolf nervousness about my body, but because every time I catch my own eye in the mirror I have an existential moment: Where am I? Why am I? No reason I can figure. Like Herb, my body isn’t really going to change shape, given my rate of exercise. Staying fit is supposed to prolong your lifespan, but whenever I feel fit I let myself indulge in an extra cocktail or dessert, so it probably evens out, or more likely tilts the wrong way: Let’s have fondue; I exercised three days ago. It feels good, I guess, sure, but not that good, not like fondue, or spending an extra half-hour in bed. So I go to the gym with halfhearted faith, let my mix tape rattle in my headphones, work up a vague sweat, all the while feeling like I’m stumbling around some garishly Technicolored outdoor locations, blinded by overdubbed special effects. It’s unconvincing. The treadmillers feel the same way, I can tell by their deer-in-the-headlights look as they stare up at muted MTV: If I want to watch R.E.M. videos, why don’t I do it at home, with an extra cup of coffee and the sound turned up, instead of running nowhere, like a pet hamster? To feel the sand tumbling out of the hourglass by nightfall is one thing, but the ache of feeling your life Habitrailing away in the morning makes one want to throw in the complimentary towel.
The love story saves us. Herb and the Marquis give me purposeful weight, like a big beach ball between my legs: I’m at the gym to watch these two men fall in love. I watch the deep, meteoric story in front of me, this sublimated courtship of sweat and barbells, this Erotica Dell’Arte, and once again I have a reason—Uh!—to give thanks.