THE LONESOME BODYBUILDER
The Lonesome Bodybuilder
When I got home from the supermarket, my husband was watching a boxing match on TV.
“I didn’t know you watched this kind of thing. I never would have guessed,” I said, putting down the bags of groceries on the living room table.
He made a noncommittal noise from the sofa. He seemed to be really engrossed.
“Who’s winning? The big one or the little one?”
I sat on the sofa next to him and took off my scarf. I’d planned on starting dinner right away, but the gears on my bicycle hadn’t been working, and I was a little tired. Just a short break. Fifteen minutes.
Eyes still glued to the TV, my husband explained that the little one was looking stronger so far. They seemed to have reached the end of a round, and the gong was clanging loudly. Both fighters were covered in blood, I guessed from getting cuts on their faces from their opponent’s punches, and as soon as they sat down on the chairs in their corners, their seconds threw water over their heads.
“It’s like animals bathing. So wild.”
I’d tried to make sure the “wild” didn’t sound too reproachful, but my husband picked up on it.
“That’s the kind of man you really want, isn’t it?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend. I know. I know you secretly want a brute to have his way with you.”
“You know I prefer intellectual men. I don’t want an insensitive jock.”
He put the remote he’d been clutching back on the table, then pulled up his sweater sleeve and wrapped his fingers around his wrist, as if taking his own pulse. His wrist was far thinner than the boxers’, it was true.
“It’s like you might be some kind of artist,” I teased. He hated being pitied more than anything, so I was careful to make it sound like a joke.
“Are you saying you wouldn’t go along with it, if a guy like that came on to you?”
My husband spoke again. “What do you think of my body?”
“I like it. Your skin’s so fair, and soft.” Why had I never watched this kind of thing before? Boxing, pro wrestling, mixed martial arts—I’d assumed they weren’t for me. How wrong I was. I always do that. I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities. I’ve been like that since middle school. The time I went to the amusement park with my friends and decided that a quiet girl like me wouldn’t like roller coasters, I was the only one who didn’t get on the ride. Someone like me would obviously sign up for one of the cultural activities at school. Would feel at home in the crafts club. Would find a job locally. But what really would have happened if I’d gotten on the roller coaster that day? I have the feeling I would have met a version of myself I don’t know now. Lived a completely different life.
The gong sounded, and the men stood up. I’d assumed that throwing out punches was all there was to it, but the boxers guarded against every blow, observing each other’s movements with eagle eyes. That must be what they call dynamic vision. If only I had some dynamic vision too, I might not have missed out on so many things. The match was over, and they sounded the biggest gong yet.
The very next day, I started training to become a bodybuilder. I thought at first that I could aim to be a pro boxer, but I realized that I didn’t have a trace of fighting spirit in me. No desire to beat anyone up. It was the bodies of the two boxers I’d seen on TV the previous night that seemed to be seared into my brain, even while I was at my job, working the register at a natural health and beauty shop.
They turned in all directions, showing off their bodies to me. Even while I described various products to customers. This is a moisturizing cream with pomegranate traditionally used in herbal medicine. How do firm limbs feel? This hair oil is made from rare organic concentrated plant extracts. What is it like when a strong body throbs?
Was I looking for an affair? Of course not. I loved my husband. He could be bumbling and juvenile, but he was just working too hard, that was all. I only needed to hang on until he was done with this busy period, and then he’d start initiating again. It wasn’t that I wanted to touch any other man. I just wanted to luxuriate in some taut muscle. I hadn’t felt so giddy in a long time. I’d swing by the pharmacy on my way home from work and get some protein powder.
I liked the taste of the protein powder when I tried it, and decided to join a gym. I felt a little worried about fitting it into the household budget, but I found a small, independent fitness club two train stops away, whose website advertised “100 Free Sessions Until You See the Results You Want!” Having never done any serious exercise before, I had no idea what kind of progress I’d be able to make in a hundred sessions.
On the first day of my private sessions, I confided to the trainer—a boy in his early twenties—that I wanted to become a bodybuilder. He stopped writing on his clipboard and looked at me with surprise.
“Bodybuilding? Not weight loss.”
“Yes. Your website said you have a training program.”
“We do, but this is pretty unusual. Women in their thirties usually come looking to lose weight, so I assumed…”
“Is it very difficult?”
“Not really. But with bodybuilding, you won’t get anywhere with weight training alone. Nutrition is key. Could you handle consuming, say, four thousand calories a day? That’s double the daily amount for an average adult male.”
“I can spread it out over the day.”
“What about protein powder?”
“I’ve already started.”
“Do you have a specific goal in mind? Do you want to compete?”
“No. I don’t need to show anyone. Just some muscles for myself.”
“That’s pretty unusual,” said the polo-shirted youngster again, and then tapped the tip of his ballpoint pen on his clipboard a few times. I started to worry that he would turn me down, but then he surprised me by saying, “Okay. Let’s see about coming up with a training program for you.”
I found out that he’d been an athlete since childhood. He’d played rugby at university, and seriously considered becoming a dolphin trainer, but thanks to some connections he had, he ended up joining this gym as an instructor. He was a cute kid, with a boyish face. A snaggletooth. Twelve years younger than I was. He probably dressed a little dorkily when he wasn’t in sportswear. That’s the impression I got from his haircut. Makes sense, if he’d spent all his time playing rugby. He looked like he’d be into young women around his own age. My husband and I were the same age. We’d met in college.
The trainer, in his bright red polo shirt, looked at me soberly as these frivolous thoughts ran through my head. He said, “You need to be aware that public acceptance for bodybuilding is extremely limited. Be prepared. Also, you’ll definitely need your family members to be on board.”
In spite of this advice, I never did tell my husband. We’d been married seven years, and this was the first time I’d kept a big secret from him. Lately, though, he’d been spending all his time at home either buried in his work files or on his computer, and only ever talked to me when he needed me to reinflate his confidence. Marital affection was pretty much nonexistent.
I explained the change in my eating habits by saying I’d started a protein powder diet on the recommendation of one of the customers at the store. I’d tried out a lot of fad diets before, so my husband seemed not to find anything amiss. I religiously followed the training plan that I’d developed with my young coach. Hidden from my husband, who’d be holed up in the study, I did push-ups, sit-ups, squats. My basic strength began to improve, so I started to go to the gym four times a week, where I did pull-ups, dumbbell presses, narrow-grip bench presses. Reverse crunches, to add muscle definition. Ball crunches. T-bar rows. Rack pulls. Plus protein powder every few hours, and double the daily calorie intake of the average adult male.
Sculpting beautiful bundles of muscle took a lot more commitment than I’d thought. You had to reach what felt like your absolute limit, and then keep going—another two, three steps. Alone, I might have given up, but I had my coach for a hundred free sessions. Bodybuilding workouts required a partner: if you overreached on lifting a dumbbell and dropped it on your neck, you could end up dead. Coach was always by my side, making sure that didn’t happen. “One last rep! You’re doing great. Yes!”
By the end of a workout, I was always foaming at the mouth from breathing hard through clenched jaws. But even that felt like an exciting new discovery. When I had first gotten married, I had a hard time managing the housekeeping accounts. My husband, who brought work home even on Sundays, saw the way I let receipts pile up without dealing with them, and said, “You just have no willpower.” He often berated me: “Have you ever in your life actually accomplished anything?”
The thickness of my ...