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Meditations on the Gym

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On Sunday I joined a gym for the first time. When the receptionist asked me why I was joining, I shrugged and said, "It's Father's Day." It seemed as good a reason as any, and I don't always like to satisfy people's curiosity.

There are few things in my life that have filled me with as much terror as the gym. As a gay kid, I was most afraid of being "found out" in the locker room. I learned to fix my gaze rigidly to the cinderblock wall and vowed never to return once I earned my mandatory P.E. credit. My last competitive sport was tee ball. My parents signed me up for baseball and swimming lessons and even golf, but all efforts were as productive as me closing my eyes whenever a football came hurtling toward me. If I looked asleep, I figured they would stop throwing things at my face. I'd rather be alone with a book, or a computer screen, or a pen and a piece of paper.

Like most gay men, I struggled with a certain amount of self-loathing and managed it through ways both healthy and unhealthy. (Frank Bruni has already written about it better than I could in Born Round.) But I never worked out. I sat in freshman biology lectures, clenching my stomach, praying for abs in between PowerPoint slides. I had two or three dance moves in a college performance of Footloose, which was like being in a gay club without alcohol. I was so bad that the director took the taps off my tap shoes.

For an adult, the gym is a peculiar place, and I come to it with virginal eyes. It is brighter than I expected, cleaner, nicer. People are friendly but generally try to avoid looking at each other. Or maybe that's just Boston. I almost walk into the women's locker room by accident, but fortunately I spy a pink lock from the incoming hallway.

The membership guy isn't there, so I take a self-guided tour. People are fit and in shape, mostly. Some aren't. There is a pregnant woman on the elliptical machine, and I imagine her newborn babe stepping out of her, toes ready to hit the Olympic field. He would take his first step in the delivery room and ask for a pedometer.

I would look as good as anyone next to her, I decide. I don't take the machine right next to her; it seems like the same sort of rule as a urinal, where you space yourself out as long as there are plenty available. There are two TVs in front of me, one with the official gym channel, and the other with Fox News.

The gym channel, with the logo prominently displayed, gives tips for the novice gym user. "Remember to wipe down your machine," it chides. I always wipe down my machine. Don't you? It then switches intermittently to popular and inspirational music videos. There's Fall Out Boy on a motorcycle with an attractive woman. This is you after going to the gym, it suggests. In another sample, someone who looks like Rihanna but isn't Rihanna is throwing musical instruments into a bonfire. Free yourself from the rhythm, the song might go. Come on, shake your body, baby. Do the conga.

I don't listen to my own music -- not yet, anyway. It would be too much sensory overload at this point; I might go flying off the elliptical into some catastrophic orbit.

The Fox News television has closed captioning. Promising. "Money back guarantee," it reads over a Kia commercial. Then it switches to President Obama looking befuddled. "Money back guarantee," it reassures. It's broken, hopelessly optimistic, assuring us that, yes, you can get your gym money back if you're not satisfied, but only if you're a quitter.

I look down at the device and start a program. I move my fingers fast like they do on Star Trek so that I look like I know what I'm doing. There are lots of choices and a list of muscle groups that I'll be working out. If I go on a Variety Journey, there will be more glutes, but quadriceps are queen for the day on the Uphill Excursion. I realize that I'm in front of a large mirror. In my undershirt and baggy, gray workout shorts, I look like someone wearing his older brother's clothes.

Are you supposed to look sexy in the gym?

Pretty soon I am panting and glancing down at the clock, and time enters this taffy vortex where it stretches out with each pedal, each climb up my ladder to nowhere. It's as if Sarah Palin invested in a hardware store. The music video has changed to someone named Katrina, perhaps after the hurricane, or a Kardashian sister cut off from the rest of the family. Someone is asking her in bubble letters, "What's it like touring with Meatloaf? Is it thrilling? Is it diabetic? Is it like going to hell and back?" Katrina is captionless, so we'll never know.

"Money back guarantee." But Greta van Susteren will never get back her old face.

I am really struggling to breathe. My asthma inhaler is far away, behind a non-pink lock. I will finish these 30 minutes, I tell myself. I will not let this pregnant woman beat me. I will not go to the French bistro after this and eat mussels in cream sauce.

I begin to enjoy myself. I look at myself in the mirror, sweating, and think, "There is an athlete inside me, waiting to emerge, like a clumsy butterfly headed into oncoming traffic." It has been almost five minutes on the elliptical machine, and I will come back in two days, and I will do this again, and I will not ask for my money back, because I already signed that contract. And I'm no quitter, just some guy who's glad to be not-pregnant.