I liked watching her. At first, she didn’t notice or she didn’t care. She never had that thing some people do where if someone’s looking at them they feel it—a warm spot on the face or the neck—and then, without thinking, they turn. If she did feel the spot, she could ignore it. She had trained herself for that. It was part of her big project, to be as still as possible. She wanted to be unmoved.
I first met her at the gym. It was early in the afternoon and busier than I would have liked. People, on the whole, make me nervous, but not because I’m insecure. I’m self-employed and live alone. I prefer my own company and keep my own time. I’ve become very good at finding the quietest possible time to do anything, and I’ve been a regular at the gym for a while. Like any habitat, it has its own rhythm, a circadian flow. Once you know how it goes, it’s easy to make it work for you.
At the crack of dawn, you get the suits. They’ll do a quick run before a heavy round of weights. The routine is half performance, half ritual. They attend to each body part efficiently, with precision. They shower with expensive lotions before putting on their expensive shirts, fastening the buttons in the mirror like rich people on TV. They order cabs and make stops to buy coffee, extra hot. They go to work in big glass buildings and watch the doors to their offices open and close while they remain seated the whole time. In some ways, their goals are just like hers—optimize the movement so that later you can afford not to move at all. After that, there are the “morning people,” full of energy, smiling at everyone, failing to notice when no one smiles back. They’re creepy and cheerful, like cheap actors in advertisements, ones for laundry detergent maybe, or pasta sauce in a jar. It depresses me, the way they act like each day is a gift instead of something that accidentally happened to them. Then, you get the parents and carers, fresh from the nursery drop-off or the traffic jam at the school gate. They’ll come in with some child’s accessory—kids’ headphones, a miniature water bottle, a towel with cat ears. It’s like they don’t even notice the thing is too small, like they’re just giant people holding regular-sized stuff. Then, there’s everyone else: students, bartenders, night-shifters, drifters, chronic insomniacs, and people like me who keep their own time.
Between two and four—my preferred hours—the whole place feels light and calm. Between two and four, people keep themselves to themselves. They listen to their podcasts and watch TV on the little screens. They mind their own business and don’t put too much of themselves into the world—their own vibes or ideas or whatever. They take their time, they don’t injure themselves. It’s during the pre- and post-work rushes that you see the sprained ankles and pulled knees, locked shoulders, muscle spasms. Early evening is the worst. People arrive anxious, with a desperate kind of energy. You can see the color of it in the air, greyish-red and out of focus, like brake lights in the fog. That’s when the most serious damage occurs. I’ve seen all kinds of things. A tangle on the leg press, a snagged zip and a bloody mess, a concussion from a bad snatch. Once, I saw a man break a leg just doing jumping jacks on the mats. And even when there are no injuries, there’s a lot of unkindness around. People who are mean to themselves are often mean to others too. You can feel it when you get too near them, a shiver of warning that says to steer clear. I never used to pick up on that kind of stuff but, since I started taking care of myself, I’ve become more sensitive to all kinds of things. I’ve got this whole new way of knowing, just by feeling how my body responds. Muscle twitches, leg cramps, tight shoulders, shallow breathing. It’s a language I’ve acquired, one of the many things she validated for me. When I met her, I wasn’t in great shape. I couldn’t run very far and I didn’t feel good. Though I was naturally strong, I was tired and angry all the time. I was one of those people wasting my energy, getting cross with myself and being unkind. It’s taken a lot of muscle work for me to get to my personality, to make the change there too.
When she arrived at the gym that first day, the receptionist tried to direct her to the changing rooms but she ignored them and walked right in. She was wearing a shell-pink shirt, grey chinos and lace-up boots. A net bag hung from her wrist, with a water bottle, a watch, a notebook and pencil and some small plastic items—makeup or deodorant, vitamins perhaps. Among the grey and black machines, between the gleaming mirrors and the miniature televisions, surrounded by people in shiny leggings with go-faster stripes on their shoes, she looked like something from the past. She was a faded photograph of a 1940s factory worker, an early feminist icon. I got the impression that she didn’t care what we thought. She wasn’t there to play a part in someone else’s spectacle because she had her own goals in mind. That’s one thing she’s taught me about focus. When you’re walking your life path, doing your life’s work, the other stuff will fall away. It’s been a good lesson for me, and I feel lighter having learned it. Imagine a dog coming out of the sea after a long, cold swim. You’ve had a good time in the water and now you’re shaking yourself free.
She looked around, and when she couldn’t see what she was looking for she came to me. Her hips swayed as she walked. She moved slowly, holding my gaze.
“Are you Simon?” she said. Her voice was soft and low. She tipped her head to one side.
For a moment, I thought I would lie and say yes, but I stayed quiet.
“Or do you know where Simon is?” she said. “Simon’s doing my induction today.”
I told her I wasn’t Simon but that I knew who Simon was. Everybody knew Simon, he was that good-looking—one of those people who might accidentally become famous at any moment. I put the dumb-bells on the rack, walked a loop round the gym and returned to her.
“Simon’s not here,” I said. My throat was dry and the words came out strange. I coughed and then apologized. All the while she looked at me. “Try the desk,” I said, shifting my weight from leg to leg.
Her hair was shiny, there was a flush in her cheeks. She made me nervous, but it felt good. I liked being near her and that was something new. Most of the time, strange people made me nauseous. People in general gave me a headache. But she was a pleasant change, like a refreshing breeze. She smelled of mint and something sweet.
Reaching into her little net bag, she pulled out the watch.
“I’m early,” she said. “I’ll ask at the desk.”
Once again, I heard the receptionist point her in the direction of the changing rooms. Then, when Simon was finally located, he too asked if she wanted to change her clothes.
“I’m fine,” she said curtly. “I’m quite happy as I am.”
He looked her up and down. “All right,” he said. “If you’re sure.”
She dropped the watch back into the little bag.
Anticipating Simon’s arrival, I’d moved to the lat pull-down, put it on the heaviest setting and was struggling to keep form. I tried to steady my breathing. I didn’t want it to look like hard work. At any moment, I thought, Simon would touch her. A hand on her back to guide her, an encouraging shoulder pat. The idea of it gave me a queasy feeling—a tingle that ran through my arms and made the weights drop down with a crash. There was something special about her and I wanted to be the only one to see it, for her to be a mark of my excellent taste. She was like a rare painting, some subtle work of genius, a thing that no one knew to look at until the expert told them it was there. I still feel that way about her sometimes, even though I know a lot of other people are watching her too. I still feel that it’s me who really sees her, the truth of her, all the way down.
Simon was saying something quietly about the lost property cupboard.
“I can move perfectly well in these,” she said. Her voice was steady and clear, much quieter than his. She tugged the fabric of her blouse. “Stretchy,” she said.
“Okay,” said Simon. “Each to their own.”
Simon was used to people fawning over him, trying to impress him or make him laugh. They would giggle and touch their faces and blink too much. He had symmetrical features, the perfect physique. His hair was thick and, when he stood beneath the air conditioning unit, it moved in graceful waves. He was jacked, but it didn’t look like he’d had to work for it. Rather, it looked like the muscle came first, so why wouldn’t he use it to lift weights?