The first weight gainer shake I drank was thick and lumpy; it’d been poorly stirred so that the powder didn’t dissolve but instead changed into several gooey globules that floated in the light brown water like marshmallows in hot cocoa. I was 14 and I weighed about 95 lbs. There was nothing I wanted more than to have a normal body weight and to have muscles. Muscles were my dream. I fantasized about going from Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno overnight, shocking the kids at school with my new uber-body. It seemed hopeless, though. As much as I wanted to go to a gym or – even better – to have my own set of weights to lift in the house, I was too nervous to ask my father about it (“What do you want weights for?” he’d probably say. “You won’t be able to lift them.”) Without any other options, I found a big encyclopedia in the basement and I’d lay on my bedroom floor and bench press it. Sometimes, when I really wanted to exert myself, I’d up the weight by balancing another book on top. It was embarrassing, though. Kids at school would say, “I’m benching 250. What are you benching?” and I’d have to reply, “A big ass encyclopedia and Atlas Shrugged.”
That was nearly twenty years ago. I still don’t have any muscles and I’m still woefully underweight. A couple of months ago I got out of the shower and, before I dressed, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. I looked bad. My arms were thinner than they’d ever been and I could see all of the bones in my chest. I tilted my head to the side and I really looked like an image of death. The easy analogy would be to say that I looked like a skeleton, but I didn’t – I looked like a dying person. It was scary.
The first thing I decided was that I had to change my diet. No more throat drops and cigarettes for dinner; I had to make the switch to food. The second thing was that I had to join the gym. This reality frightened me more than the starving child I saw staring back at me in the mirror.
I have a lot of hobbies, but I’ve never really been into the whole public humiliation thing. This is how I thought a trip to the gym would end up. “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” my inner voice shouted. But I’d learned that I wasn’t going to get muscles by lifting books, and as much as I’d LOVE to have Soloflex shipped out to Korea, that wasn’t going to happen. I swallowed my pride, hoping it had some calories, and took out a membership at the Orange Fitness across the street from me.
The first month was a complete wash. Using my lack of sneakers and workout clothes as an excuse, I avoided the gym like girls I want to date avoid my texts. Time has a way of making us feel guilty, though, and eventually I dragged myself into the gym, where K-pop was blasting and there was a spit bucket strategically placed by the water cooler, so the Koreans could hock up some phlegm in the middle of their workout routines. I had a card from when I’d signed up over a month ago and I slid it through the card-swipe thing. Then I just stood there.
The Korean woman working behind the desk came over to me. I tried to explain that this was my first time…where was the locker room? She looked into the computer. “One month!” she said, and repeated it a few times. “I know I know,” I said. “Very busy. Extremely busy.” She showed me to the locker room, where I ditched all the stuff I brought but didn’t need – bottle of water, towel to wipe off machines, mask to hide my identity. I put on the shirt they gave me and off I went, praying to God that the Koreans would just leave me alone.
That would be impossible, obviously. From the second I picked up a dumbbell, it seemed like everyone wanted to either help or watch me. I could only imagine what was going through their heads: “He lifts so little”; “He has no idea what he’s doing”; “I wonder how large his penis is. I look forward to checking that in the shower later.” One guy took it upon himself to show me how to use every machine in the place. He’d stick the pin in at a certain amount of weight and then, when I couldn’t life it, he’d shrug and make it lighter.
“First time?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, barely able to make eye contact. Maybe I should’ve lied and said, “No way man! I’m a veteran at this game! This is how we do in America. USA! USA!”
Instead I let him guide me for about twenty minutes, and when he left it got worse because a woman came over and took over his role as my physical trainer. It’s one thing to have a well-built man watching you work out; having a skinny 35-year-old woman is a whole new level of embarrassment. Whereas the man just wanted me to lift stuff, the woman was more concerned with form. She kept scolding me for not having my back straight enough or for bending my wrists when I pushed up on the handle bars of the machines.
It didn’t take long for her to ask me the question I was waiting for her to ask – “First time?”
Yes. Yes. Yes. In total, my first trip to Orange Fitness lasted about an hour. Walking home, the sense of embarrassment was overshadowed by a surprisingly strong sense of pride. I had gone to the gym. I did it. True, I still couldn’t lift a wet loaf of Italian bread and I looked like Gandhi on Slimfast, but I’d finally taken that first step in the right direction. I lit my cigarette with a sense of accomplishment. The next day I went back, happy to think that if anyone asked me if this was my first visit, this time I could say no.