2nd Place winner of the Leslie Garrett Fiction Contest - Knoxville Writers'
The Cross Trainer
by Rita Welty Bourke
I turn off the shower and slide open the curtain and there’s a woman standing there. Outside my shower stall, no more than three feet away, she’s looking directly at me.
It’s a long lingering look. She stares at me, at my breasts, down my body to my thighs and legs. When she’s seen all she wants to see she looks into my eyes again. She seems quite at ease with herself.
I grab the towel off the hook and attempt to wrap it around myself, but this is the Jewish Community Center. The towels they provide for members who use the workout facilities are not thirsty oversized Ralph Laurens. They’re small, scratchy, and thin. Like towels from a Motel Six.
She’s an old woman, and she wears a purple flowered bathing suit. Very purple, very flowered. A member of the swimmercise class, I imagine. She’s part of a group bussed over from the Belle Forest assisted living complex. Every Tuesday and Thursday they come en masse to the JCC for their 10 A.M. class. They shower before and after their workouts in the pool.
You have to be seventy to join the class. She’s that, and then some. Will I look like that in thirty years? If I do, I won’t wear purple.
She continues looking at me. I look at her. I raise my eyebrows. Yes? Do you want something?
She answers with a torrent of unfamiliar sounds. I understand not a word. She’s speaking Yiddish. No one has ever addressed me in this language before, though I’ve heard it spoken.
Does she want my shower? There are two empty stalls beside me. She can have either one of them. The shower on the end has a seat, if she needs that. It has one of those movable European shower heads. She can have that, too.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her.
She answers with more Yiddish.
Maybe she only wants to look.
In the three months I’ve been a member here, I’ve developed a latent talent. Useful for times like this. My eighteen-year-old daughter has taught me how to get dressed while covered with a towel. She has three suite mates at college, so it’s something she’s had to learn for herself. One day she’ll get to the point where she’s more comfortable with her body. Maybe I’ll get there someday, too. But I’m not there yet.
The technique involves holding the towel under your chin and one arm while you wiggle into your clothing. What would Molly tell me to do in this situation, I wonder? I didn’t expect a face outside my shower curtain. I had no time to grab the towel to cover my nakedness, and my towel was too small anyway.
I hear more Yiddish, but now it’s coming from the grooming area. This is the land of mirrors, hair dryers, sinks, lockers, benches, a television above the paper towel dispenser.
It seems to have an effect on the Purple Bathing Suit. She answers the Yiddish from the grooming area with a stream of her own. Then she turns and shuffles on down to the third shower stall.
I watch her walk away. The purple flowered suit has a nice skirt that will billow out when she gets in the water. Purple earrings would look nice with it. I have a pair at home I could give her.
I step out of the stall and begin to dry myself, wondering if I should take one of the beginning Yiddish classes they offer. Maybe I can get a tape out of the library and learn rudimentary Yiddish. If I want to keep my membership here, and I do, it might be helpful.
The workout facilities at the JCC are the best in the city. Ten treadmills, six stairmasters, four cross trainers, mats, various weight and exercise machines. The five TVs attached to the wall are wired to the cardio equipment, so you can put on your headphones and tune to whatever is playing: MTV, CNN, FOX, National Geographic, History Channel. Occasionally someone turns to Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, then someone else will come along and change the channel.
The cross trainers are located behind the treadmills. “Life Fitness Elliptical Trainer”is the logo written on the sides of the machines. Molly calls them Precors. College slang or brand name, she doesn’t say. Working out on one of them is like going on a cross-country skiing trip, she tells me.
Number one and number two cross trainers are the newest and most elaborate. They measure heart rate, distance traveled, calories burned, other things I haven’t figured out yet. You can select cardio, fat burn, manual, or reverse mode for your workout.
Number three cross trainer is quite old. It has no handles and no heart monitor. It does not adjust to keep your heart rate steady. No one wants to use it. Mostly it sits idle.
Number four has a built-in thirty-minute limit. A certain member at the Center has been known to do thirty minutes on number four, clear the display, then reprogram for another thirty. From the looks of him, perhaps even a third thirty. He brings his own personal fan and works out until his shirt is soaking wet and the sweat is dripping on the machine and the floor around him. He wears a doublewide sweatband but it doesn’t help.
Number four cross trainer is the only one with an electrical outlet, and that’s why he likes it. He never uses any of the other machines. Mention the Fan Man, and everyone knows him and the machine he uses. He has lots of friends who stop and talk to him, but nothing slows his flying arms and pumping legs and spraying sweat.
A week after my shower encounter, I get into trouble with the Fan Man. Number one and number two, the most desirable cross trainers, are already in use when I arrive at the gym, so I get on his machine. Shunning number three, of course. No handles, no heart monitor.
Twenty minutes later he walks into the gym. Number one is now idle, but he walks past one, two, three, and stops in front of four.
“How long do you have to go?” he asks, and he twirls the blades of his fan.
“Twenty-five minutes,” I tell him. I planned to do forty- five minutes. I’d done fifteen, reprogrammed, and was five minutes into the thirty minute limit.
He turns away. Katie Couric is interviewing Harrison Ford on the Morning Show, and I’m watching, but I’m watching the Fan Man, too. He’s irritated. He picks up a fresh towel from the basket beside the water fountain and goes into the hallway.
There’s coffee out there. Regular and decaf. Art work hung on the walls. There are windows where he can watch the Purple Bathing Suit doing her morning exercises in the pool, if he’s into that kind of thing. I judge his age to be close to mine, so she probably holds no interest for him. I judge his weight to be fifty pounds over. I should get off his machine.
Then he’s back, walking down the aisle behind me, towel flung over his shoulder, fan in one hand and bottle of Aquafina in the other. He stops behind my machine and takes a drink.
He’s checking my monitor. Reading my numbers. Trying to calculate exactly how long I intend to stay on his machine.
Why didn’t I pick up a towel when I got to the gym? I could have thrown it over the display. If I’d brought a magazine from home, I could use that to cover the numbers he’s so interested in reading.
I let go of the handle, expecting the machine to tell me to “keep hands steady on sensors for accurate heart rate.” But this is number four, not one or two. It tells me the time elapsed is seven minutes, my heart rate is one fifty-five, and I’ve burned ninety-four calories. If he does the math, and I’m certain he will, he can see that I have twenty-three minutes to go.
Harrison Ford is lovely when he smiles that shy, little boy smile, and I try to concentrate on that, but the Fan Man is standing behind me, drinking his water, twirling his fan, watching my ass, and why did I ever join this gym?
In the first week of my membership here a woman walked past four spray bottles of disinfectant to take the one off my Precor. I acted as if I didn’t notice, didn’t care, wouldn’t care if I did notice. But why would she do that? Was she trying to send me a message? That I don’t belong?
A few days later someone moved my bag off a bench in the shower room. When I finished drying my hair and turned around, my bag was on the floor. A blue one sat in its place.
“Maybe it just fell off,” my husband said that evening.
“No. It couldn’t have. There was plenty of space for both bags. Someone did it on purpose.”
“It’s a woman thing,” he said. “Men don’t behave like that.”
My husband is such a nice person, he would probably get off number four and let the overweight Fan Man have it. But I think about how much money I paid for this membership and that I was here first and why should I give way, and even to my own ears I sound like a spoiled, selfish child.
I surf the five TV channels, looking for something that will distract me. The stock market is down, a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, and Regis Philbin is gushing over a new Hollywood starlet.
It’s not good to get in a rut like that, I could tell the Fan Man. It’s bad to be so inflexible you can’t ever use another machine but only this one particular one. You could bring an extension cord and run your fan from a wall outlet, a roll of duct tape to cover the cord so no one would trip over it. For once in your life, you could get on another machine.
He finishes his bottle of water, walks past the stair masters, through the floor mats and weight machines, and stands at the window. I can feel him watching me.
I hit the stop button on the cross trainer, clear the numbers, wipe down the handles with a washcloth and disinfectant, grab my bag and walk out of the JCC. Inside I’m churning.
t’s not just a woman thing. It’s something different. It’s territorial. I get the message.
I try to time my workouts so I arrive when the gym is least crowded. I learn that by 8:15 in the morning the stock brokers, financial advisors, doctors and lawyers have gone to their offices. The stay-at-home moms are still clearing the breakfast dishes, making beds, getting the kids dressed.
When I arrive one morning a month later, there’s a police car parked in front of the building. Two policemen sit inside, drinking coffee from paper cups. There have been threats that have reached across the Atlantic.
A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a crowded bus in Jerusalem. Ten Israelis are dead, an infant child among them. Three Palestinian gunmen have killed six settlers in a West Bank settlement. The Israeli army is searching for them.
For days on end there seems to be no end to the violence in that biblical land. Innocents are murdered, buildings blown up, houses bulldozed, olive trees uprooted and burned. The appetite for death and destruction is incomprehensible.
The Maury Povich Show becomes more popular on the TVs. I get hooked on whether or not Deeton is the father of Candie’s baby. Maury does genetic testing, and I have to wait three days to find out, and I’m ashamed to admit I care.
Deeton is not the father. Maury announces the results and Deeton does a whoop and a holler and a dance across the stage.
I change the channel so I don’t have to look at Candie and her baby.
I learn that I can get on one of the stationery bicycles and pedal to the beat of ‘NSync, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears. The display on my machine will tell me if my heart rate gets too high from rapping with the rappers on MTV; Eminem, Ja Rule, Outkast.
A woman comes in one morning and throws her car keys into the cup holder of Precor number two. She goes to the front of the gym to change the TV. MTV is her target. I hold up my hand to tell here I’m watching that channel, but she ignores me. She switches to a movie. Humphrey Bogart fills the screen. Guns, guttural sounds, black and white morality.
I turn my receiver to Fox News. Breaking stories: the President is speaking at a school gym in Ohio, the Pope is planning another trip, Attorney General Ashcroft has busted a prostitution ring in New Orleans. Nine women have been jailed.
Satisfied with her movie choice, Key Woman heads back across the room, but stops to talk to the ninety-eight pound exercise bulimic who’s on one of the treadmills. I know her weight because I’ve seen her program it into the machine, which she has to do if she wants to know how many calories she’s burned. Her diet for the rest of the day will depend on it.
She does ninety minutes on the treadmill every morning. If the machines
are all in use and someone is waiting, the JCC trainers will ask her to get off and give someone else a chance. She’s always willing to oblige.
She has a son who is as big as she is. Once I saw them walking together in the parking lot. She was wearing a T-shirt and her breasts were no larger than his.
Key Woman and the Ninety-Eight Pounder are happy to see each other; their conversation is very animated. I’m listening to a Vatican commentator who swears the Pope’s mind is unaffected by his Parkinson’s, only his body is giving out. The Pope wants to die with his boots on, the man says.
Another woman comes into the workout area. She’s carrying a Danielle Steele novel. She puts it on the cross trainer next to me. The car keys are inside the cup holder, but she doesn’t see them.
She fills her water bottle at the fountain, comes back and gets on the machine. Within a minute she’s programmed, cycling away, and filling her mind with romance.
Key Woman comes back. She glares at the woman on the machine and her face darkens. She snatches her keys from the cup holder, and gets on number three. The shunned one.
Key Woman does ten minutes. Then she gets off and approaches Danielle Steele. “I just want you to know I put my keys on that machine before you got here. It’s okay this time, but I wanted you to know.”
Danielle Steele slows her pace. “There were no keys when I got here. I put my book down and filled my water bottle and came right back. My book was here before your keys.”
“No it wasn’t. My keys were here first.”
“No they weren’t. I would have seen them.”
“Well, they were, too, but it’s okay. I just wanted you to know.”
“You can’t hold machines.”
“I only went to change the channel, and you came in and took my machine. I don’t mind, but I put my keys there and when I came back you were on my machine.”
“You can’t reserve machines,” Danielle Steele says, and she’s cycling faster now, climbing back to fifty rpms. That’s the preferred pace for maximum caloric burn, I’ve learned.
“You had no right to get on the machine when my back was turned.”
“I did no such thing. You were nowhere around when I got here. I was here first.” Now she’s at sixty rpms and going higher.
I’ve done fifteen minutes on my Precor, and I think I could go on for the rest of the day, this is so delicious. I wonder if it could it come to blows.
And I’m confused. They both seem so certain. Which was it? Were the keys in the cup holder before Danielle Steele laid her book on the machine? I think so, but I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to be drawn into this. Let them fight it out.
Key Woman chose a gangster movie over the new Eminem video, and I was skiing ‘cross country to the beat of the American’s best known rapper, and she surely saw me signal to her that I was watching that channel, so it’s okay with me if she loses the battle.
I’ve been a member here long enough to know this could turn. I pause, clear the numbers, start the meter running again at zero. I’m so good at it I don’t even have to slow my pace. Lately I’ve been working at frowning, shaking my head, as if the machine is doing something odd, not acting like it should, and that’s why I have to reprogram.
There are other problems brewing. I’m watching the Wall Street ticker on MSNBC. The market is diving.
Another CEO is being called to testify before Congress.
“Hey.” Key Woman is calling. Is she calling me, or Danielle Steele?
I look over. She’s standing between number three and four. “How much longer you gonna be?”
I lower the volume on my TV control, look down at my display. “Keep holding handles for heart rate,” it scrolls. When I adjusted the volume, the machine knew I’d let go of the sensors.
I shrug my shoulders. “Keep holding handles for heart rate, it says.” I try to smile at her, but I know that’s not appropriate.
She keeps looking at me.
She wants an answer.
“Twenty minutes,” I tell her.
She looks away.
We keep pedaling, me on number one, Danielle Steele on number two, Key Woman back on number three, Fan Man on number four, arms pumping, sweat spraying, sparks flying.
Danielle Steele keeps reading. Key Woman goes into reverse mode, back pedaling on her machine. She has no handles, so she fakes it, swinging her arms in the air, back and forth. But she’s angry.
I’m preoccupied with the math problem I’ve created for myself. I wanted to do forty-five minutes on the cross trainer. I planned to do fifteen, pause, clear, restart, then another thirty. But with all this romance novel and car key activity, I paused and restarted at ten. So now I need to do thirty-five, but I just told Key Woman I’d get off in twenty, and I was at three minutes when I said it.
I wish I weren’t in the stock market, what with all these white-collar criminals at the helms of these blue chip companies.
I’ll keep going until I’ve done thirty-five, I decide. But when I hit twelve minutes, Key Woman gives up. She gets off her machine, wipes it down with the disinfectant spray. She gets on one of the Hip Abductors on the back wall, piles on weights to what looks like a hundred pounds. Push in to reduce inner thighs, push out to reduce hips and outer thighs. She does them in sets of ten. This is one powerful woman.
I keep pedaling, thinking about how I’m learning to survive in this place. Keep your head down. Focus on the TV screens. Do not make eye contact if you think someone will be confrontational.
I paid my money. There are no time limits on the machines, except for number four, which the Fan Man regularly overrides.
The old women from the swimmercize class are milling around the grooming area when I get to the shower room. They’ve already showered, and their wet suits are hanging over the rail along the wall. The familiar purple flowered bathing suit is there, dripping pool water onto the cool tile. She should rinse it out, if she wants the flowers to stay bright.
I take my time in the shower, letting the water run longer than is ecologically sound. I like listening to the old women.
Most of them have emigrated from Russia, my husband tells me. The facility where they live provides provides meals and transportation. I’ve seen them arriving in the morning in their white van, climbing back into it when their workouts are done.
Somehow, they’ve found each other here in America. When they’re all together they speak in their native tongue, and they sound like carefree school girls. I like listening to them. I don’t try to understand what they’re saying, but it’s nice to hear the joy in their voices, the undulating rhythms of the language.
My grandmother used to speak Russian to me. She died when I was very young, but the sound of these women reminds me of her. I stand under the running water and listen for my grandmother’s voice. Of course it’s not there.
My grandmother was deeply ashamed of her Jewish roots. She’d married a German soldier sometime after the war, my mother once told me. Or maybe it was during. We never knew for certain. She would not talk of it, to my mother or to anyone else.
Did she fear for her life, I wonder? Or was she trying to protect her children, and so she denied her roots? Whatever the truth, it is hidden from us.
But someday I’ll tell Molly the things I remember, and the things my mother told me. Molly has a right to know. I wish she were with me now. If she could hear these old Russian women chattering among themselves, she might begin to wonder how they endured, and how they survived. She might stand in awe of them, as I do.
The old women are still there, clustered around the benches, when I get to the grooming area. I take longer than I need to put on mascara, eye shadow, liner, lipstick, perfume. When I’m finished I look up, and the Purple Bathing Suit is standing beside me, looking at my reflection in the mirror. She’s wearing black now, shirt and slacks. Heavy silver jewelry. A touch of pink lipstick.
I raise my eyebrows. Yes? Is there something you want?
She takes my arm in her hands. Brings it to her face. Breathes in. “Perfume?” she asks. She’s mangled the word, but the gesture is pure.
I take the bottle from my bag. Hold it out to her. “It’s called ‘Obsession,’” I tell her. “By Calvin Klein.”
The room has gone quiet. The old women are watching. Listening.
She nods. As if she knew all along, and I had only confirmed it. She turns and goes back to her friends sitting on the benches, and they begin to gather up their things.
The murmuring resumes. My arm is warm from her touch. I feel like a child again, safe in my grandmother’s arms.