It’s just the two of us in a gym with floor-to-ceiling equipment, ropes, and balls, which makes a personal training session with JT feel like meeting a bossy older kid at the playground. But two months into these workouts, I’m getting more comfortable, and I know what to expect, so I’ve begun telling him more about my life in those rests between reps: that my left shoulder was damaged in the first set of Covid vaccines, that when I go for a walk, I call it a hike. That I’m trying to get comfortable saying no.
“I read a book that recommends saying no in the mirror while looking into my own eyes,” I report. “Apparently, that should not make one squeamish.” The gym has two full walls of mirrors—I try never to look at myself.
“Cool,” he says, moving us to the first piece of equipment. “Ok, let’s try something new. Come over here, take this cable, and pull down.” He demonstrates. “Weight on your heels.”
“No,” I say politely, but I hold very still and keep my eyes on the floor. He releases the extension on the cable pull laughing, then extends it to me, again. “Very funny, here you go.”
“No,” I repeat, looking up with a smile. I’ve just noticed I feel different– oddly good. “I’m sorry,” I continue, “that doesn’t work for me. No.” I’ve just flexed a new muscle and I’m inspired to practice, but we are both laughing now, and that happens a lot. These intimate exchanges between strangers when humor disarms, and laughter connects in a surge of goodwill. (You know that’s what I’m doing with you, right?)
Now I’m lying on a padded bench lifting a set of free weights while JT stands over me to keep me from breaking my own heart when I tire and collapse the weights to my chest. I think of something funny, lose concentration in a way no one could possibly see, yet he says, “What? You just left. Where’d you go?” There’s no doubt that the seat of humor is in the right brain hemisphere where intuition resides, where we seek patterns and understand metaphor.
For now, the endorphins are kicking in and I’m getting stupid-silly. “Look, I’m stylin’!” I say, placing my dangling dead arm, the one not being used, jauntily on my hip, then over my head in a ballerina’s extension.
But I don’t laugh when I’m really struggling. (I say tortured, JT says challenged.) Potato/ Potaetoe. My arms tremble and I know I’ve reached the limit of my endurance.
“I can’t, I just can’t,” I pant, warning JT that he better be ready to catch me, I’m going to have to let go.
“Oh, shut up,” he says. “Just shut up with ‘I can’t’.”
“Nice,” I say. “I tell you no, you tell me to shut up, and we’ve got playground equipment. I’m four, and you’re what, six?”
But I know why he says this. The brain believes what you tell it. (Did you know that we are affected by false flattery even when we know it is false?) And rather than contradict a negative statement— “I’m unworthy, unforgiven—oh, and I can’t lift 12-pound free weights,” your brain will look for evidence that those things are true because you said they were. So, tell only your best and brightest stories about yourself and about everyone because they are more than words, they are energy.
JT’s always watching without watching—to see how far he can push the limits to get the last drop of gas out of the tank and he’s got the deft sleight of hand of a card dealer or magician. He’ll swap out weights in the middle of a routine for heavier ones and deny it, but because I believe I can lift what I’ve been given, I can.
“Okay, get down on your elbows in a plank and do this,” JT says, now demonstrating yet another maneuver that no actual human being would do. “Do it yourself,” I say just to mess with him, but I do as I’m told. Supervision is nice. Not being in charge is a relief.
Maybe we laugh so much because straining against resistance, having someone to catch you when you have to let go, doesn’t just make you stronger, it lifts burdens you didn’t know you were carrying, frees your heart. Makes room for the new.
If there is a God, and in my experience, there is, he’s definitely at the gym. In this environment of communing, of partnership, you are worthy, you are forgiven. You can lift 12-pound free weights. You can say no to what doesn’t serve you and yes to what does.
“You did good today,” JT says as I get ready to leave. He takes a swig from a water bottle on his desk and squints at me appraisingly in the afternoon light. “Do you know that because you’re my last client on Friday the weekend always starts off with something fun?”
It’s a casual remark whether or not it is true. Even if it’s false flattery, I’m affected by it. I’m ridiculous. I love the idea of making someone else happy just being myself, without giving something away in exchange. Yet every molecule in my being wants to deflect the intimacy of being liked, (really? still?), wants to make a joke, then walk out the door. But here at the gym, I can do whatever I believe I can. So, I smile in the mirror and say, “Yes.”
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.