Gym Class Heroine

When the Body Works Plus Abs instructor tells us to grab our heaviest dumbbells, the woman in front of me doesn’t mess around. Before every class, she stops by the weightlifting area, where she selects two ten-pounders to carry through scores of squats, curls, rows, and presses.

This fitness class superstar is slim and pretty, and on most days, she wears her long hair down. She somehow appears fashionable and put together as she powers through each workout. I glance at her from the corner of my eye several times during the class—how does she do that?

Perhaps it has to do with her wardrobe, which is comprised mostly of hot pink and tiger-print spandex. But it’s not just that. When I check out my own form in the three walls of mirrors, I see that I’m using wimpy one-pound and two-and-a-half-pound weights and struggling along. When I glance at her, I note that she never drops to her knees during a pushup set and appears not to break a sweat. Ever.

It’s not just her I’ve developed a crush on, though. I’ve fallen hard for my whole gym.

The facility, located just outside the District line, could be described as…basic. There are a few rows of cardio machines, a room full of muscle-toning contraptions, a half-court basketball area, a small spinning studio, space for workout classes, and a sauna. No towel service or personal lockers. No lotion or cotton balls. And the reasonable monthly membership fee includes one personal-training session—one, for your entire relationship with the club.

Yet, like a mate to whom you weren’t totally attracted at first, it can grow on you. Soon after I joined in the summer of 2012, I started chronicling sweet scenes in my head: A locker-room greeting between retirees that bespoke years together in Aqua Fit classes; a trio of middle-aged women grunting through Body Works in old T-shirts and full makeup; the guy with a buzzed head and calves like a World Cup MVP heeding Step instructions like “walk sexy for eight!” 

Then there’s the fitness teacher who says, just as my triceps are about to explode, that we have 12 more reps to do, even though she’s spent all class saying “listen to your body,” and mine is saying “that’s enough.” And, of course, there’s the stylish strongwoman knocking out endless, sweat-free reps to the Black-Eyed Peas.

I spend most of my time in social situations in Washington worrying that I won’t be able to keep my head above water when the conversation gets intense. But at my gym, there’s no need for doggy paddling of that sort—the only time I struggle to stay afloat is in the pool, while a woman who could be my aunt calls out moves in Aqua Fit. No one cares what I do there. I want to hug them all.

Even as I passed my half-year mark at the gym, I was still appreciating these vignettes from afar. They helped me to feel at home in the gym, but I was just an observer, watching people go about their fitness, greet their friends, and then move along.

Until one morning, just before Valentine’s Day, when I find myself next to the spandex-clad fitness goddess in the locker room.

I play it cool at first. It’s not like I’ve just watched her all through our class and wondered how she keeps her manicure intact. As she towels off on the bench beside me, we inadvertently exchange a look. And as I think about what I might say to her, I realize that in five months here, I’ve never really talked to anyone.

“Did you…” I start. She looks up at me, intentionally this time. “Did you, uh, have to work up to those weights?” I ask.

The gym class heroine smiles. It’s not a catty smirk or a condescending grin. It’s more like a reminder that she’s just a normal person, too. Like when she steps out of this tiny world in a few minutes, she’ll hop into a Nissan Sentra, drive to the fourth floor of a garage somewhere, and elevator up to an office suite that smells like printer toner and powdered creamer.

“Definitely,” she says. “You’ll get there.”

Rhea Yablon Kennedy teaches English and writing courses at Gallaudet University and has written about art, culture, religion, and the deaf and Jewish communities in the past. She lives in Takoma.