“Pinche pendejo. ¿Qué chingados cree que está haciendo? ¿Qué chingados?“ Claudia projected her asshole ex onto the punching bag. She shoved it hard with both hands.
It’d been a couple days since the breakup. She’d cut things off, no trouble, even though he whined at first and then started to get pissy if she so much as breathed in the direction of another man. And of course he did that enough to qualify as a pattern within the past 48 hours. How the fuck was he even finding her? Yeah, ok, so she knew how the fuck he was even finding her; he was never not at the gym and she was never not at the gym either, being Miss Universe and all. She caught the punching bag before it smashed her with her own momentum, landing a right hook where his stupid nose would be.
Petty jealous bastard Rex McMahan; fucking glasses McAsshole with his damn red shirt. And no, she didn’t blame him. She was more frustrated with herself for getting into this sorry state, and was boosting her workout routine by riding the unmatchable teeth-clenching energetic high one gets when thinking about asshole exes.
Claudia’s flailing left arm was reflected in the mirror closest to the entrance. The angle the mirrors were hung at wasn’t flattering. The lighting wasn’t great either, being that the storm outside cast a pall over the entrance while the fluorescent gym headlamps beamed down to lend a cheerful atmosphere to the patrons’ ex-induced punching frenzies. Hitting the punching bags produced more of an echo than it should. The dim lighting and repetitive motion was what Claudia needed, blocking her senses enough to recover from the past few weeks. Her back’s reflection was visible from the weight room at a certain angle. One person facing the mirror could have watched Claudia rain blows on her effigy, though he couldn’t have cared less. He wasn’t there as a gym voyeur.
It was impossible for the other weightlifters not to overhear the conversation between him and his friend, though he did most of the talking. It was also easy to deduce that everything in the gym overwhelmed his friend with confusion. They appeared to be following a lopsided program: one glided through a memorized sequence, the other required three minutes of explanation and a visual demonstration of each movement, validation that he was doing it right, and further validation that even if he wasn’t doing it right it would come with practice, so just do something and pay attention to how it feels. The other patrons appeared to be focusing on their own reps. Most listened in, secretly evaluating his advice, imagining how they would say it better.
The chap facing the mirror, the one in short shorts, guided the machine to its starting position as slowly as a foam mattress decompressing after an informercial C-lister put their hand in it. The clack of metal on metal sounded as the weights dropped. As if that weren’t enough of an aural cue that he was done with the set, he sighed in relief, glancing left to check if his friend was watching. He wasn’t. They’d started at the same time, but the friend’d spent so much time figuring out what to do with his shoulders, forearms, elbows, lower back, pinky finger, neck, what else have you, that he was only halfway done.
“Xiyuan.” The man in the mirror shook the tension out of his chest. “You feeling special in the arms yet?”
“No. What does that even mean? Help.” His palms and forearm dug into the machine’s cushioning. “I’m unfamiliar with this action.”
They’d unintentionally chosen machines that matched their shirts. One was too busy overthinking and self-chastising to form opinions about such things, the other thought the 1960s-sci-fi cockpit one was nicer, had a solid feel with its sleek lines and inexplicable waist lighting. He could also watch his reflection. He was trying to make this easy on Xiyuan, whose confusion he felt came from a lack of confidence.
“Oh come on, you got this! Just put everything you got into it, brah. Push those forearms together!”
A voice sounded between him and the mirror. “No.”
“No. The action is changed depending on which part of the body is focused on. If he’s thinking about the forearms, it’s going to strain the shoulders.” This suggestion came from a woman whose figure, although blocky and toned, was much smaller than his. Her vowels had a singsong quality to them and she delightfully flipped the ‘r’ in ‘strain.’ It was possible she was a regular. Some female bodybuilders had smaller frames, he remembered, so he couldn’t immediately size her up gym-knowledge-wise. And she was baptized in sweat, and wore no makeup. But regardless of that, she should have felt like a matador in his last moments, a slip if a thing like her coming up to lecture a guy who clearly spits creatine.
“Ok then, missy,” he emphasized ‘missy’ to point out her obvious naiveté regarding gym etiquette, “if he’s not bringing the forearms together, what’s he doing instead, because that’s literally what the exercise is?”
“You want to encourage him to start the action from the center of the body and think about it moving outward. Concentrate from the center, where the muscles are bigger and stronger. This action is coming from his pec muscles contracting. You want to think of that as originating at the sternum. That’s going to help activate the deeper muscles, pec minor and serratus anterior.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” His face stayed flat. Trying to impress him by name-dropping muscles wasn’t going to work. Being hard to impress was a matter of pride for him: there was little he couldn’t pick apart in a profound way, and most people simply regurgitated information they’d heard before. Even if what they said was new to him, it was beside the point.
“Weightlifting isn’t just pure power. It’s in body awareness. It’s in the way you think.”
“And where’d you come from, O Fountain of Knowledge, O Guru of the Gym?” He cracked a smile at his dig.
“I’m Miss Universe.” She copied his smirk. He was sure his own face fell and that’s what she was reacting to. “What, you don’t recognize me? You don’t know everything after all? What a shame.”
“Whatever.” The most mature thing to do in this situation, he felt, the high road, was to go back to his workout. He’d have given the same advice to someone in his position.
She wasn’t moving. She either didn’t realize or care that he was ignoring her. “So? Are you going to try it? You really don’t recognize me?”
Now that his patience had been tested, there was no predicting what he’d do next. “How am I supposed to know I’m talking to a space wizard?” He scanned her for something to comment on. “Is it the pants?”
“Oh, you recognize these? It’s the official uniform of the space wizard academy. All of us are wearing them.”
“Do they give you a light saber when you become Miss Universe?”
“No, but I can lift things with my mind. See? I’m lifting my hand with my mind!” She started lifting her hand as if it were a flimsy piece of rubber at the end of a lead forearm, her eyes growing wider with every shaky inch it progressed toward the ceiling. She was howling like a ghost.
He clapped his hands, demonstrating that he also had this ability. “Brava! And have your Jedi mind control powers kicked in yet?”
“Well, let’s see.” Placing two fingers to her temple, she shut her eyes and scrunched up her nose.
“Oh no…” Now he was the one with lead forearms, fighting an epic struggle to keep them from getting in place for another rep. “I feel the urge to… focus on my sternum…”
She couldn’t help but laugh at the absurd scene. The suddenness made him break character and join her, disturbing the few lifters who hadn’t been eavesdropping on this bro for the past half-hour.
This Miss Universe was surprising, he had to admit. People on the receiving end of his jokes usually didn’t riff back. But it was a welcome challenge, and great practice—professional comedians like himself have to be quick on the uptake. As he was! He scanned the audience to realize his friend had went somewhere during the face-off. Instead, he tried to read the woman in front of him, whose initially threatening demeanor had melted away. Her smile had been genuine, not mocking. And now she was looking at him with wide-eyed whimsy. He moved his pointer finger in a circle as he thought, building up the anticipation, hoping her eyes would get wider.
“Alright, Star Trek: so your job is to check and correct pec deck tech…nique?”
She paused to process the weird English thrown at her. “Amazing! Did you just come up with that?”
“Of course! It’s what I do.” Game, set, match. She’d come to throw her weightlifting knowledge around, but he’d won her over. “What were you expecting, some prepackaged line?”
It was nice of her to ask because he also had a million of those. “Girl, are you a bicycle? Because you keep appearing in my house out of nowhere!”
This got a giggle out of her. She, like all other sims, couldn’t wrap her head around these bicycle things. “What?”
“Girl, are you a bicycle? Because I keep trying to ride you on the stairs!”
He’d come up with dozens of weird pick-up lines for a bit that was just him reciting dozens of weird pick-up lines, but never got the chance to use that one: no matter how many times he repeated it, he couldn’t keep a straight face. His audience was clutching her stomach to keep from doubling over. She paused to catch her breath.
“Oh man, this is going to make it hard for me to go back to my workout. I haven’t laughed that hard in ages.”
“Oh, did I interrupt something?”
She took this statement as polite concern, not sarcasm. “Oh no, not at all! It was just all so sudden. Thank you, I needed that.” What she needed was five minutes of talking to a gym rat, her type, who wasn’t pure beefsteak anger like that shithead Rex. But she wasn’t going to say that aloud. Rather, if the thought entered her head, it was a good time to end the conversation.
“My pleasure, Miss Universe.”
“But I have to go, I haven’t finished my cooldown. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I do.” He didn’t; this was more of Claudia’s body-awareness stuff. “See you ’round.”
He watched her bring a towel to her face as she walked away, trying to conceal her laughter through closed lips. “Miss Universe,” he mumbled.
Happy holidays, folks! I mean Passover and Easter, etc., not the pandemic.