I’m riding in the middle of an empty black road. My front light bats like a moth at road signs. There’s no sound except my ticking wheel and the wind scooping the warmth out of my ears. Because I keep forgetting to buy winter gloves, my hands have turned into raw gizzards. This cold, dark ride is a tiny speck in a long line of cold, dark rides. I am going to the gym.
I’ve been a member of many gyms. One stands out in my memory. I went there because it was cheap – a small centre attached to a vast sports stadium. Early mornings, you’d walk through the chilled stadium, past a neon-blinking fast-food canteen, to get to the doorway of the gym, where you’d be greeted by a guy sitting motionless on a stationary bike, watching Breakfast on one of the televisions suspended from the ceiling. I’m not sure why the joylessness of the place was so profound. Maybe it was the windowlessness, the lack of music – the dominant sounds were the chemical whirr of cardio machines and the TV burble – and the shifty-eyed guys wearing their shirts on their heads and plodding around with their arms held out from their sides, bodyguard-style. The curious thing that made it really miserable, though, was a man who always seemed to be there at the same time as me. He was forty-ish, grey-haired, grey-faced, wiry as a greyhound. Because the gym was always fairly quiet – I doubt many people even knew it was there, secreted as it was at the back of that building – it was impossible not to notice him. He would sprint for what seemed like an eternity on the treadmill, his sprig legs hacking at the belt. Then he’d ride at a hectic pace on the bike, amping up the resistance until he was standing, contorted, threshing about on the pedals. By this time he would resemble a soaking, grey, mop. Finally he’d get on the rowing machine and throw his diminishing limbs around for another eternity. This routine made me wish I could rescue him from himself, wrap him in a soft blanket and bring him bread and soup. A few times I saw him emerge, ready for work, from the showers. He always looked so small and limp, like a bit of fimo inside a suit.
I’m fascinated with gyms, and I kind of wish I wasn’t. The exposed structures of their buildings, the motley staff members, the relative meanness or gentleness of the instructors, the people on their own small islands of effort, rebuilding themselves after injury or whittling away at stress or guilt or miles towards some desired number. I’ve tried to write about gyms before – in poems, usually, and once in a long, anguished essay about body image – but none of these attempts ever feel adequate, I guess because my feelings about the gym are so muddled. I swing from loathing to happy absorption and gratitude, from rigid determination to catatonic half-assedness. I also feel that the gym, as a choice of place in which to spend time, isn’t that easy to explain or defend. For a start, it looks tedious. It’s easier to say ‘What a depressing place’ because that’s understandable, relatable; maybe even a bit cooler. It’s easier to ask ‘Why don’t you just go for a run outside?’ because that seems to make more sense.
At the moment, because I don’t have a permanent job, the gym is the only place where I belong to a community of familiar strangers. The cheap council gym I go to has a number of intellectually disabled people as members, and often people will come up and chat to you when you’re hefting a medicine ball or perched on your forearms in a crumbling plank, so it’s not always possible to stay disengaged, to ‘go into’ yourself. There’s one particular man, elderly-ish, with very slurred speech, who strikes up a loud conversation with anyone close by. He’ll remark on the speed and hill steepness of the person on the stationary bike next to him and request that they help him strap his feet into the pedals or unstrap them. Last week I half-listened to him talking to a younger man on the bike beside him. He was loud and animated, making a number of points that he’d indicate on his fingers, but I still couldn’t decipher what he was talking about. The conversation went on for about twenty minutes, the two of them pedalling along at similar speeds, the younger man nodding politely and leaning in, and then I finally heard the younger man say, ‘Sorry, I just – it’s just quite hard to understand what you’re saying.’ And the older man began to apologise, over and over. It was such a strange interaction, this prolonged, polite confusion and then the gentle admission. I can’t imagine it happening at any other gym I’ve been to.
I remember watching TV aerobics when I was home sick from school, hunkered under a duvet on the couch. The ringleader at the front and a three-or-four-member crew grapevining behind her, all in smiling leotards. I got off the couch and tried to join in, shambling across the lounge in my pyjamas, then after a minute or so stumbled back to the couch, dizzy. TV aerobics gave a definite shape to my idea of ‘being fit’: it involved harbouring some sort of brightly coloured energy. There was also a book called Women and Wellbeing, which had sat forever on a bookshelf among Reader’s Digest encyclopedias and Alison Holst books, a birthday present from my father to my mother; on the cover was a headshot of a tanned, tousle-haired, Australian news presenter called Sue Kellaway. There were photographs of Sue jogging along a beach, Sue blowdrying her hair, Sue laughing into a banana smoothie. One of the first instructions in the book, under a chapter called ‘Health: What Is It?’ was to stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and critique yourself – the relative firmness of your limbs, the glowiness of your skin, the clarity of your eye whites. I did this and found myself profoundly rattled: I craved self-improvement. I was maybe eleven. When my dad joined Te Kuiti’s only gym, Bruce’s Fitness Centre, I decided I wanted to join too. The sight of my dad in readiness for his Step Reebok class, wearing his polyester shorts and loose t-shirt, his Reeboks and white calf socks with two stripes around the tops, was totally compelling to me. This was more tangible than the yoga or meditation classes he would sometimes go to, after which he would try to teach me how to meditate: ’You have to zoom in on every physical sensation in this moment: the seat you’re sitting on, the clothes you’re wearing, even the air around your face.’ I was too impatient for sensation. He was the key to the more dynamic, sports-sneakered world, and I wanted in.
At Bruce’s I quickly tired of the repetitive and vaguely embarrassing Step Reebok classes and instead I would pick my way around the machines. No one had shown me how to use them, so I tried to figure things out. Most of the machines were easy: you strapped your feet to a board and lay down, you hugged two foam pads with your forearms and clamped them together, you tucked your feet under a roller thing and kicked out as if swinging your legs on a chair. I avoided anything with numerous components and anything with cables where it looked like something heavy could fall on me. Using the machines made me feel grown-up, in a similar way that buying a new exercise book and a pencil gave me a sense of importance: I was doing my work. While blatting away at the leg press one day, a hand clamped down on my shoulder. ‘I need to show you how to do that properly,’ a man said. His damp hair fuzzed over the top of a sweatband. ‘I don’t want you to hurt yourself. You stand up now and I’ll show you.’ I did. I don’t remember anything about the lesson he gave me other than his hairy legs expertly pressing down on the plates as if working two large inkstamps. ‘There, how’s that?’ The man got up, clamped me on the shoulder again, and wandered off. I waited a while then went over to the treadmill and never used the leg press again. But that encounter, and other similar encounters in which a well-meaning gym-goer would tutor me in the right ways, taught me that I really, really wanted to be left alone at the gym. I would do whatever it took to achieve this. I began to watch people more keenly, to copy what they did, to see how they interacted, to assess how at ease with themselves they seemed, and I began to moderate my own behaviour accordingly, eventually perfecting a closed, faraway expression as if my body were moving about of its own accord while I was off doing something else.
Over the next ten years, I got familiar with the strange limbo that is the early morning gym, when it’s dark outside and inside humans are moving around silently in the fluorescent space, processing themselves on some kind of inner conveyer belt, casting off thick layers of sleep and stasis, ready to emerge into the day. I became obsessed with this imagined process of casting off something and emerging bright and clean. I became obsessed, certain that there was something sluggish and doomed inside me and that I could excise it at the gym. I’m being vague here because the basis for that compulsion was vague, too.
Going to the gym is now less of a mechanical activity driven by compulsion, and more a need to manage my mental health. (It has been difficult to explain this to well-meaning gym trainers, who often assume that people want to lose weight or flatten various bits of themselves; these are the assumptions they’ve been trained to make.) It’s as if acknowledging that simple fact – that I’m there for that one, primary purpose, to feel brighter, and stable – gives me permission to look around a bit more rather than to be drawn down into my quicksand-ish inner quietness, and I find myself more forgiving of other people’s oddnesses. Maybe now I wouldn’t be so bothered by the fimo-like man because his frantic sprinting wouldn’t remind me of my own. Maybe I wouldn’t even be bothered by the tiny-shorts-wearing man at a London gym who on the crosstrainer would punch the air and crow like a rooster, who would throw heavy barbells down and bark like a dog (actually – no, no, I still would be bothered by that). I can shrug off the various absurdities of gym culture, like the time I was the only person in a spin class and the instructor insisted on calling me ‘Team’ throughout the class; or, the techno song that opens with the shout ‘ARE YOU DEAF?’ when a profoundly deaf man is in the class; etc.. It’s often when I’m riding there that I feel particularly grim, in the face of the knowledge that I have to go to this place in order to kick-start my brain, and that this ride is just one in a long line of rides. But afterwards I know I am a little bit further ahead of myself.