Every morning between 5:00 and 5:15 am, I arrive at a gym in my neighborhood, walk up to a desk and scan my UPC identity from my keychain. The attendant mumbles something I assume is “Good Morning”—I hope so, because I always say “Good Morning” back—and then I make my way to the locker room to stow my stuff in preparation for working out.
Every morning I can expect to see the very tall man wearing the Pabst Blue Ribbon tee-shirt who ought to bathe more often…or get another shirt. I see the woman with bowling ball calf muscles who leaps on and off a flying treadmill and yet never takes a “Jetson” or, for that matter, an unsteady step. I see the dreadlocked male model in crocs and the barrel-chested man who lifts the maximum weight on several machines, but walks around on bird legs.
Every morning one of the three trainers will be busy encouraging someone to step on and off a bench or lunge with hand weights or hop from leg to leg as if they were speed skating without the bother of ice or forward motion.
And every day, they must see me. Who knows how they might describe me—”the guy who does the same damn thing in the same damn order every single damn day” or “the guy I always catch looking at me.”
We know each other and don’t say a word.
Sometimes this habit we have of ignoring each other is hard to maintain. If I’m not careful someone might catch me with an open expression on the brink of speech. If I’m not careful, they might see recognition, even affection.
Recently at a store across from work, I was in line behind one of my gym mates and felt a sudden urge to shout “Hello!” the way you do when you see an old friend in the airport, in the theatre lobby, or at an art opening. An unexpected meeting, especially after a long absence, always elicits a natural warmth in me. But I didn’t speak because the absence wasn’t long—we’d just seen each other that morning—and what could be more expected than another unacknowledged encounter?
Today is an imitation of yesterday and that was an imitation of the day before, so we don’t dwell on what we might have said on the second day of our acquaintance. Not speaking is fundamental to the rhythm of our relationship. We meet daily and choose—again—not to initiate eye contact.
Still, inside, I hear my voice speak. I see myself turning to the girl who takes the elliptical trainer next to mine three or four times a week. I hear my voice telling her about a deep embarrassment I once suffered in the second grade, a story I tell only my closest friends.
I could tell her. We have known each other long enough to expect that sort of intimacy, as I spend more time with her than with most of my other friends. And, after all, she knows my basic animal self—the scent of my sweat, the broken way I breathe when I’m past controlling it, my involuntary grimaces of exertion.
I know her too.
Yet, instead, I leave her the way I found her, someone real I’ve chosen to imagine, another person I know and have decided never to meet.