Arlene was my gym buddy a couple years back. For a while, she was my only friend. Forty years my senior, Arlene and I had similar interests of shopping and collecting beads and we both wanted to get in some kind of shape for summer. My current boyfriend was on the cusp of leaving me. The less I heard from him, the more I worried, and yet the more we talked, the less likely it was that we would rekindle a loving relationship. It was a lose-lose situation. I really wanted to move to Los Angeles eventually, and he really wanted to stay in Florida forever. I loved him though because he was warm. And when I slept over, he moved towards me in his sleep; a phantom movement made in the quiet of night.
I was living at home at my parents’ condo in Delray Beach. It was nice, if you were the kind of person who knew how to be happy. There was the beach, of course, a heated pool, a hot tub, grills for barbequing. Old people lay like fish on the sand and children ran amuck, jumped into the water and splashed and splashed. A mother was always yelling about sunscreen or that it was time for lunch. And one day my own mother introduced me to her friend, Arlene, in her black one-piece bathing suit and straw hat. She wore gold jewelry and her sunglasses were more expensive than my car.
At first I was being polite for my mother’s sake, but then somehow we got to talking about health and fitness and realized we both had memberships to the LA Fitness on Linton Boulevard. We would go the next morning together at 7:40AM to make the 8:00AM cycling class. I would drive. It was the first plan I’d made in months.
During the spin class, Arlene’s gelatinous form roared on her bike and far surpassed my own speed and capacity for athleticism. Sweat dripped down her sleek, black Lululemons. I found myself out of breath as her legs whipped around and around the spokes of her stationary bike. I kept stopping the ride to check my phone and see if my boyfriend had texted or called. He hadn’t. And it didn't make me pedal harder or faster. It made me want to die, disappear. I always had a theory that if I drove somewhere far like Miami or St. Augustine, maybe someone would miss me and go looking for me. I once drove three hours north to Orlando for the day because I thought it would make a guy love me. I drove to an outlet mall and had a slice of pizza and bought a half-priced red polo shirt that I never wore. The guy I loved took the opportunity of me being away to see get drunk with his friends and see Toy Story 3. I had wanted to see Toy Story 3 with him so badly and it hurt me beyond words. I later showed him the red polo and he said it reminded him of his high school uniform. When he eventually broke up with me, I sold the shirt to Plato’s Closet for seven dollars.
I waited until later in the day to call my boyfriend who still hadn’t contacted me. He didn't answer, and I took this as a bad sign. I began to worry and shake and refused to eat. I drove by the railroad station where AA meetings were held on Monday nights. It was a Monday and I had Improv practice, but the station was only somewhat on the way. I saw his blue beat up Mustang in the parking lot. I started to cry and kept driving to West Boca for my class. I sat in the parking lot for fifteen minutes and debated going in. I had paid $700 for the eight-week set of classes, and missing one would be stupid, wasteful. But I was so depressed. I couldn't even drink my Sprite that I got from the gas station; a weekly ritual along with the peanut M&Ms I had in my purse.
Just then Arlene called and asked if I’d go back to the gym with her the next day. I told her yes, my voice shaking, and she said she’d be downstairs by 7:40AM. “We’re gonna look damn good!” she said before she hung up.
In Improv class the instructor gave us a lesson on how to say “yes” in a scene. If your partner tells you you’re a big, purple elephant, then you agree. If your partner says you’re in outer space flying a shuttle to Mars, you agree. To say “no” is to cancel everything, to ruin the bond you have and the trust you bestow upon each other and earn during each action. Our class got to yell out objects and scenarios for a pair of actors to improvise. My partner Josh and I were told to be gypsies selling clams at the state fair. I nodded and began to pantomime a basket full of clams that he mistook for a barrel of apples. Ruined, our instructor yelled “cut” and asked what we could both learn from it. Josh said I could have made my clams look more like clams and less like apples. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I told myself I was doing the best I could do. “You’re doing a good job,” I kept repeating until another member of the class, Alana, walked in and asked if I was okay.
“I thought your clams looked like clams,” she said and tried to kiss me. I left class and went home without saying bye to anyone.
Arlene’s knees began to hurt after a few days of us going to the gym. “I think my own cartilage is starting to turn on me!” she said on the phone. I didn't care that I couldn’t go to the gym with her anymore. If anything, it was a relief to not have to wake up so early and do things. Now, I had more time to worry and think about my doomed relationship. I still hadn’t seen or heard from my boyfriend. It had been almost a week. The next morning when I woke up, I tried to go to spin class without her, but I ended up falling back asleep and having a nightmare that my boyfriend dumped me and moved to another country to honor his ancestors. I freaked out and called him and he answered. “Where have you been?” I asked, still sitting in bed, sweating. He said he needed time to think, time away from me. He asked how I was doing, if I had been hanging out with anyone. I knew he meant a guy, but I said Arlene’s name. He said it sounded like an old woman and I lied and said it was a girl in my building who was my workout buddy. “We’re having a lot of fun times,” I said. “But I miss you.” I bit my cuticles and my middle finger started to bleed. I sucked on the spot where the skin was broken and waited for him to respond.
“Come over after Improv,” he said, and there was nothing more to say after that. He wanted me, and I wanted him. And we were going to have each other, very soon.
I bought the Improv classes as an early birthday gift to myself. I was turning twenty-six that year, and I felt like I needed to connect with others, a skill I always put on my resume as “communication.” I was still a graduate student at a local community college, which is where I met my boyfriend, and I wanted to explore comedy and what might happen if I didn't make it as a writer. I couldn’t imagine sitting at a desk job for the rest of my life, or even saying screw it and marrying some rich man in Boca Raton and becoming a housewife. I wanted a big life, to do important things and be around other creative individuals. I wanted to move out west and never return. Florida felt like the armpit of the earth. I could get a job teaching high school, wear flats and drink sour beer, talk to the other teachers about how dumb my students were, and then one day have a baby or a few and never do anything for myself because it would all be for them. I’d eventually become Arlene, an old woman who got excited about going to the gym, and I’d wear gold bracelets and designer sunglasses and wait for my children to visit from Connecticut because they went off and had better lives. I think that’s the kind of life my boyfriend wanted though; to stay in one place, to be grounded and have roots, like a tree, like a big, meaningless tree.
The Improv classes became pointless though. I couldn’t focus on anything except checking my phone to make sure my boyfriend wouldn’t cancel on me. I ended up leaving an hour early and driving to his house to surprise him. “I got out early,” I said, and wanted it to sound like class had ended early that night instead of me deciding to leave. He was wearing only basketball shorts and eating Nutella with a wooden spoon. Within ten minutes, I was naked underneath him on the couch. He came on my chest and threw me his underwear to wipe up with.
In the bathroom, I noticed long strands of black hair in the shower. Still naked, I ran out to the living room, crying.
“You cheated on me!” I screamed instead of asking. “I saw black hair in the shower!”
“My friend from high school needed to stay here for a few days,” he answered calmly, like it wasn’t a big deal, like he shouldn’t have told me and that I was stupid for even wanting to know anything about it.
“And she showered here?”
“Yeah. People tend to take showers.”
“She could have used the guest bathroom.”
“Well, she used mine.”
He was watching football on the big screen TV, also naked, his dick flopped out on his right thigh. He started playing with his balls and I wanted him to care so much more about me than he did. I wanted him to understand how upset I was, not just about the friend in the shower, but about everything. His warmth only radiated to other people and not to me. It didn't matter if I were there or not. I got dressed and took a Flannigan’s cup out of the cabinet and filled it with water from the sink.
“I don’t think you should stay,” he said.
“Can I just have some water before I go?”
“Of course. But like, this doesn’t mean we’re back together.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you I needed space, and time to think, and now with Sheryl being here . . .”
“Who is Sheryl? That sounds like an old lady’s name.”
“She’s my friend from high school . . . the one who’s been staying here. Her dad is in publishing. I think we might start things up again.”
“But we’re dating. You and I.”
“We never talk though. All we do is fuck. And you want to leave anyway, right? I can’t leave Florida. My whole life is here.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to leave? You could make something of yourself. You could make a new life . . .”
“I like my life how it is. You’re just trying to change me.”
We both looked around the room for a while. Finally, he put a couch cushion over his junk and said I could stay if I wanted. But I knew I couldn’t stay. I knew I shouldn’t stay.
I stopped at McDonald’s on the way home and got a kid’s meal with chicken nuggets and hot mustard sauce and a pink lemonade. It felt good to eat in my car. It felt good to make myself happy.
When Arlene died in her sleep, I didn't cry, but I sat on the beach all day and stared out at the ocean. I imagined the last few days of her life as if it was my own. Not working out turning into not walking at all, lying in bed watching Maury on TV all day, looking out my ocean-view apartment window and wondering what it’d be like to swim so far I could drown, sink from the weight of my own body. My husband, out playing golf when it happened, coming home to realize I was gone. And then I’d be just another nice lady in the building who passed too soon. Everyone would remember my arms, how they were too big, even though I tried so hard to tone them.
I went for a walk and trekked so far that I started to see buildings along the shore I didn’t recognize. A little girl was carrying a basket of clams on the beach, which I thought was really weird but also funny. I didn’t have my phone with me, so I couldn’t take a picture. No one in my Improv class believed me. They were all mad at me for not committing to them, and they had every right to be. As punishment, I had to do a scene where I pretended I was married to a painter and we were stuck on a plane that was going down, fast. It turned out there was only one parachute on the plane. I gave it to him. It seemed like the right thing to do.
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