By Erika Erhart
I started thinking about joining a neighborhood gym after a dozen ads featuring a former Baywatch star invited me to make fitness a part of my life. I gave in after four pounds of Fannie May on Easter.
A slim blond in the membership office tells me all about the benefits of wellness: better sleep, a rise in self-esteem, more energy and motivation, fewer colds. She rattles off the various aerobics classes they offer. "Power yoga, tai chi, kickboxing, aerostep, funk 101. These are classes designed to firm your butt and free your mind," she says, pointing at my forehead. After I sign three contracts, each containing six pages of exclusions and warnings, I am led upstairs to the fitness desk.
"Hi, I'm Sara," says another thin blond as she shakes my hand. "Welcome to wellness. You've entered the fitness area. I run the fitness desk. You can see me for any information regarding your wellness and fitness experience here." She suddenly excuses herself to turn up an INXS song.
"I can't believe the lead singer killed himself," Sara laments when she returns. "That sucked. I haven't gone to cardio since."
"Cardio-funk. It's my favorite class. It's like dancing with barbells and jump-roping to rap music."
Sara flexes her arm and demands I feel it. "Courtesy of cardio-funk," she asserts. I pinch the flesh on my arm and decide I want to look like Sara.
"Come meet Jake--the fitness god," she whispers, pulling me into a small room next to the tennis courts to introduce me to my personal trainer.
"Hey," says Jake, looking up from a copy of Muscle & Fitness. He sizes me up with his piercing gaze. "Welcome to wellness."
I am too stunned by his bulging chest to reply and instead blurt, "I'm huge."
He laughs and explains that I will work alone with him over the next several visits identifying my target areas, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. I tell him that I have no fitness goals and that I only want to lose what I affectionately call the Belly. Jake assures me that fitness goals are an important part of life and can be achieved by "reducing your daily caloric intake to 1,800, maximum." I envision giving up Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, my nightly postdinner ritual, and shake my head. "I can't do that."
Jake grabs my shoulder and looks at me seriously. "Yes, you can. You can do it. I gave up chicken patties. You can, too."
Before I have a chance to announce that I pride myself on having never eaten chicken patties, A ponytailed personal trainer who must moonlight as Sporty Spice bursts through the door. "Excuse me, I have an appointment scheduled for now." Her ponytail sways back and forth, brushing me in the face.
Sara rolls her eyes and we head toward the tennis courts. "Pammy is totally PMS today." I nod and look around for Jake the fitness god. I decide I love him, chicken-patty weakness and all.
"There's Danny, the tennis guru. Danny boy!" Sara is waving at a tan guy with big calves.
Danny comes up to shake my hand. He has a firm grip, and as he is crushing my fingers he steps away and looks me over from head to toe.
"We can work together to improve your game. But understand, I don't allow wussies on my courts. And I don't think you've worked out hard enough until you're puking your way back to the chicks' locker room. 'K? By the way, don't wear those crummy running shoes on the court. They'll tear up the new surface." He points at my Nikes and shakes his head.
I nod and decide I will never play tennis with Danny. Ever.
As Sara leads me back through the fitness area I hear an aerobics instructor yelling. "My fucking blow-dryer broke! I have frizzy-ass hair today! And this leotard hurts!" She is a short brunette with a long braid, and she's dancing alone in front of a mirror, wearing a thong leotard and a headset.
"That's Pepper. She's a psycho bitch," Sara says. Pepper sees me looking at her in the mirror.
"This isn't a beginners' class!" she yells, tugging at the cloth strip up her butt.
"So, anyway, do you want to sign up for your personal training session with Jake yet?" Sara asks.
I look across the whizzing treadmills and rowing machines and spot Jake, who despite his striking physique and beauty now reminds me of a Cro-Magnon. He's helping a startlingly thin woman with her sit-ups. Each time she comes up to meet her knees she smiles at Jake, who is flexing his biceps and resting on her legs.
"I'm so fat," she whines, exposing her ribs. "Right?"
Jake leans in closely. "Not even close."
Her abs of steel contract and she giggles in delight.
Sara hands me an appointment card. "Stacy works the front desk here." Jake catches my eye and smiles. I return the smile and glance at Stacy. Her eyes are narrow slits and she has increased the speed of her sit-ups.
"Let me show you the elliptical machine. We just got a bunch of new ones." Sara leads me to a room filled with cardiovascular equipment and sweating bodies. We walk by a tall woman in short-shorts who's running on the treadmill and sweating profusely. As we pass, sweat slaps me in the face and we're enveloped by the smell of onions.
"Jesus," I exclaim, turning to look at her. She's frowning and staring at the television in front of her. A supermodel is being interviewed on the Today show.
"Beware of Stinky," Sara says, explaining that Stinky runs for two hours every morning, until she's sweated most people out of the room.
"Put it this way--you don't need a sauna after running by her stinky ass," Sara laughs loudly. I cover my nose and notice that Stinky has already been running for 70 minutes.
"Isn't there a 30-minute limit on these machines?" I ask, pointing at the large laminated signs posted on the walls.
"Uh-huh, but no one pays attention. I mean, you can sign up for a machine and, like, give dirty looks to the person who's on it, but it doesn't always guarantee you'll get it."
As Sara's talking I notice the ad with the Baywatch girl on the TV. In the ad people are laughing and talking, joyfully working out together in jazzy outfits.
Stinky has set her machine so it's raised on an incline about three feet higher than anyone else's. A pale, hairy man with pudgy thighs and electric blue satin shorts stepping on a StairMaster farts and turns red. A middle-aged woman with a half-shirt that says "Under Construction" waves her towel toward the flatulent man and rolls her eyes. I wonder where all the Baywatch people are.
Stacy reappears and heads for an elliptical machine. She starts the machine and reaches up to change the channel on the television, complaining that there is no E! channel.
When Jake walks in Stacy raises the level of her workout and sucks in her stomach. Stinky gets off the treadmill, gathers her personal belongings, and wanders to the sit-up machine, where she grunts and moans and does 50 reps. The flatulent man stares at Stacy's bouncing butt.
"So, what do you think? Are you ready to change your life?" Sara asks, smiling intensely.
"Well, I think this is--"
"This is the first day of the rest of your life," she interrupts, flexing and winking.
I look back at Stinky, Stacy, and the farting man, toward Sporty Spice, Pepper, and Jake the Cro-Magnon.
"Yes. I'm ready. Let's do it."
The next day I'm to meet Jake before work, around seven. I must remember to wear cover-up.
"No food or drink, except maybe water, before the appointment. It'll screw up your stats."
"OK," I reply sadly, imagining a morning without a poppy-seed muffin.
The road to wellness is bumpy and cruel.