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The Temple: Working Out, and Up, and Across

"For me, the gym is a temple where one goes to pay tribute to the muscle. It is about will, more than anything else. Can we do it? Can we finish? Can we take ourselves further than we ever thought possible, beyond sickness and age?"
 
 
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I exercise hard at a gym in Culver City, California, a bright, clean, pretentious place with lots of chicks in skimpy leotards and guys in monochromatic sweats and baseball caps. There's hip-hop aerobics classes that I myself never attend, Tae-Bo for the trend-conscious, and a big swimming pool for those with one condition or another. Personal trainers in jade green shirts stand around with pencils and clipboards, leaning on the machines, hoping to get hired, if only for the hour. For the most part, folks here are considerate of other members, friendly even. From a distance we smile, greet each other, chat about hair, wink.

For me, this gym is a kind of holy place that's all the time flooded in sunlight, a temple where one goes to pay tribute to the muscle. It is the muscle, you see, that turns me on, that gives me power. I can curl 40 pounds, with one hand. And, over the 10 years I have been lifting weights, I have watched my body change from that of a girlie-girl to that of a girlie-woman. I like it. So do the boys.

This Tuesday evening I slam the locker closed, snap the lock, plug in my earphones, turn on Buju Banton, throw a white towel around my neck and head upstairs toward the Lifecycle, where I will pedal hills on level 6 for 24 minutes, burn a couple hundred calories and sweat so much so that I will be drenched. I celebrate this wet; it is a kind of anointing.

Sometimes I close my eyes and pedal so fast that I imagine myself taking off, like a rocket. The dancehall sends me to that high, and I hardly feel my body as it works. It is the rhythm, only the rhythm. I can't talk, can't reason, can’t stop my legs. My heart races to the reggae beat of Yellow Man. I am a million miles away from my nasty boss and my sad mother and my all-too-daring kid, a million miles from the slow traffic and the home invasion killings and corrupt cops and ugly architecture and poor LA schools where kids pull guns on each other. I wipe the sweat from my neck with a towel, pat my cheeks, chin and forehead, then throw it over the computerized handlebars on which the spent calories flash 135 ... 137...139. A black man with tiny dreads and sculpted biceps sits down on the bike next to me. He puts his water bottle in the plastic holder at the side of the handlebars. His blue-suede covered feet begin to pedal. An actor, I'd guess, since a lot of others sculpt their bodies here. He examines me in that fiery way men in big city gyms examine women, blatantly. He flashes a hey-baby smile. I'd turn and acknowledge him, thank him, if I weren't still half a million miles out. After all, it’s what I huff and puff for, isn’t it? ... 145 ... 147.

A fiftyish woman with big silver earrings and purple striped tights sits down on the bike to the other side of me. She is blonde, but not tonight. A purple turban just about covers her bald head, and this grounds me ... 161. "Shave your head?" I ask her ... 165. Beverly is her name, a dentist, hangs out with a built black guy who wears gold wire glasses and a sweatband around his head. As a mixed couple the two have always fascinated me. She clings to him; he ignores her. It seems to work. She could shave her head -- she's bold enough, funky enough, I think.

The hill I am about to climb is a tough one, and I've lost the rhythm...169. I wrap the towel around my neck, tight.

Beverly pedals slowly, unconvincingly. And her man isn't beside her, as he usually is. Her partner, she calls him. "No," she tells me. "Chemotherapy."

I run my hand through my wet hair. The chill makes me shiver. "What kind of cancer," I ask as I pedal, still effortlessly.

"Breast," she answers. "A nasty cell-type. I had a lumpectomy, and after the chemo, I will go through radiation," she says, pedaling, with effort, slo-mo. Tears fill her blue eyes, make them look even bluer. Black eyeliner turns her lids a kind of Sophia Loren dark and dramatic. Beautiful, she is. She can barely move. "It takes all my strength just keep up my practice, then to come here ..."

I sense the gym is a temple for her, too. It is about will, more than anything else. Can we do it? Can we finish? Can we take ourselves further than we ever thought possible, beyond sickness and grief and age? It is the primal fighter instinct in us all, the macho aggression focused, redirected, about not letting go, not ever. I might not get what I need from the job, or from the husband, or from the house or the car or the closet, but I can be tight, and firm, and defined, at least on the outside ... 187 ... 189.

I turn my music up, louder. Shaggy and Raven are rapping about summer and all the brown behinds on the beach. I think of all the times I obsessed about my butt, and the playful, seductive way I imagined that it moved. Where was my head?

My sister was diagnosed nine years ago with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, too. She died anyway, after 18 months of brutal treatment. I tell Beverly about my sister, but not about her death. I can’t. She needs me not to.

"The odds are good," Beverly says. "Ninety percent." My sister's were 93 percent, I think, but don't say ... "In the summertime, we got women; we got women, on our minds ... " coos Shaggy in my ear.

"Did they catch it early," I ask Beverly, turning down the music, afraid of her answer, acutely aware it could be me, or my mother, or my one remaining sister, aware that to fight this one requires muscles neither of us have developed.

"With a mammogram. It was small," she answers, holding her head high, biting her lip.

We both pedal; me for the blast-off, Beverly for the life in her.

My prowess becomes pathetic. The hey-baby guy to my other side wants to flirt. I can feel his eyes on me. "What do you listen to?" he asks me. "It sure makes you move." I pretend not to hear him. Just now he makes my skin crawl. Such sad fools we are.

"Do you pray," Beverly asks me, meekly, as if she might be imposing.

"I will," I tell her. "Every single day." And hold my breath in tunnels and knock on wood. I want to cry, for Beverly, for my sister, for the woman I am not ... 197 ... 199 ... 201.

I am in low gear now, heading downhill. I want to touch Beverly's hand, but I barely know her. Tragedies build bridges for strangers to cross. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. I try to cross as many bridges as I can. It is what the angels have asked of me. I watch my sweaty hand reach across to hers. She thanks me for my generosity. I want to cry, again. I think I will be sore tomorrow. It's the ache that happens when I work something new.

My warm-up is finished and I pedal backwards, to slow my heartbeat, that was, only moments ago, at around 175. Now I go to stretch, then to pump the iron. I am wondering if I could bring myself to the gym after part of my breast had been removed and with toxic chemicals coursing through my body. I think too about Beverly's partner, wonder where he is, how he helps her, if he helps her. Steel, we are not, for sure. I stagger down the stairs, looking back at the sexy man with dreads, who smiles, and then to Beverly, who’s huffing and puffing, not letting go, not ever.