July 14, 2009
I look at the clock on my phone. It’s one in the morning. Leaving my house now will get me to the gym by two and done with my workout before the sun comes up. After grabbing a pre-workout supplement—a proprietary blend of unregulated amphetamine-like substances—water jug, and gym bag, I walk out to the car, a Ford Explorer that I’ve borrowed from a friend.
I sit in the car and grip the steering wheel. The cover on the wheel is faded. I pick at the rubbery coating for awhile, then I look at my phone again and take a deep breath. With some hesitation, I grab the keys and jam them into the ignition. I close my eyes and give a quick, forceful twist of my wrist. The engine revs and my chest tightens. I can feel my heart beating faster. My hands are sweaty and my body feels hot. My breathing is fast and heavy. I try to catch my breath, but there isn’t enough oxygen in the world to soothe my labored lungs.
I turn the car off, pull the keys from the ignition, and look at my phone. I don’t care what time it is or whether I have any notifications, I just need a distraction—somewhere for my mind to go and hide away until I can compose myself. I lean forward and rest my forehead on the steering wheel. There’s a gap between the top and the middle of the wheel. It’s smaller than the gap under the railing on the Napa River Bridge, but it serves a similar purpose. I so badly want to crawl into that little space and stay there until this moment passes.
Eventually I push my fear aside long enough to drive off towards the gym. But I still feel uneasy. It’s the first time I’ve driven a car since the accident. The last thing I want is to be in a car right now, and watching bad drivers makes the feeling worse. The car in front of me keeps swerving, almost rhythmically, as if the driver is partially in control and coherent, but distracted, maybe trying to connect an auxiliary cord or something dumb like that. I can’t take my eyes off the car and its reckless swaying.
Look at this idiot. He’s going to lose control, bounce off the median, and smash through the windshield, taking out five other cars, and killing everyone in a bloody, broken-glass-everywhere, fiery wreck.
I’ve been imagining similar car crashes a lot lately. They are usually quick nightmarish flashes in my mind’s eye, stirred by the antagonistic voice in my head. Last week on the Richmond Bridge I imagined my car had careened over the railing and into the water. Right as I was taking a last gulp of air, trapped in the corner of the capsized car, my inner voice brought me back to a reality of taillights on the bridge.
This voice is my own, but it’s more blunt and abrasive than any side I outwardly show. I won’t pretend to know what it means—maybe it’s a result of feeling helpless in a situation I can’t control, maybe it’s the voice of the older brother I never had, maybe it’s underlying guilt for having killed someone in the car accident, or maybe I just don’t want to know what it is.
Come on, don’t get all analytical about it. Everyone has a voice in their head. Besides, this is nothing new, I’ve always been here knocking around your mind.
I’ll admit, I’m a little messed up right now. Okay, I’m really messed up right now, but it would be weird if I wasn’t. I’m doing my best to cope with the trauma of the car accident. I realize that there are healthy ways of coping, like spending an evening surrounded by family, there are self-destructive ways of coping, like drinking too much at a bar, and then there is my way of coping. I go to the gym in the middle of the night because every emotion that I feel right now must be filtered through the endorphin-tinted lens of exercise.
There’s nobody at the front desk when I walk in, so I pull out my wallet and mockingly flash my membership card to the obnoxiously happy cardboard employee. I return the card to its place in my wallet, next to the laminated hospital bracelet, which I wore for a week after the car accident, then folded up in my wallet for safe keeping.
After passing the front desk, I routinely make my way to the gym floor. It’s empty and illuminated, humming with electricity from the sea of exercise equipment. It is, more or less, the same condition it will be in when the early birds arrive in a few hours.
There are many things to love about an empty gym. There is peace, comfort, and an almost indescribable feeling of privilege just to be there, like standing in an empty stadium, or witnessing the calm of the ocean after a storm. For me, it conjures up a rare, personal, and oddly emotive effect, like finding comfort watching a single light in a dark landscape.
This empty gym is where I’m supposed to be, where my energy belongs. The gym is my cathedral, the sacred place where I find my purpose and properly worship the things I care about most in this world—fitness and bodybuilding. This is where my coping, my healing, and all my other inner processes are meant to happen, and for good reason.
With no one else around I feel free to fully be myself. There are no sweaty alpha males sizing me up in the mirrors, tacitly challenging my masculinity with their condescending looks. There’s nobody to ask about the best protein powder to buy, or how much creatine to take. This is my chance to let go of my inhibitions and be myself without having to parade around like a deceptive trophy that looks impressive from afar, but up close is clearly made of cheap plastic.
A 24-hour gym is almost never empty. Even at this hour there is usually some rebellious teen taking selfies on a recumbent bike, or an old guy air drumming as he walks on a treadmill. Believe it or not, these are my people. They never bother me and are exceptionally comforting to share a space with.
That’s because they barely exist to you. They are less than strangers; they are inanimate, like a bookshelf. You just want them to stay out of your way. It makes sense—then they can’t hurt you. They won’t, by some freak twist of fate, almost end you.
In the locker room I change into an old sleeveless T-shirt. My phone now says it’s 2:30. After taking a swig of water, I pop in my earbuds as a mellow Jack Johnson song fades in and my thoughts fade out.
I charge the dumbbell rack as if it just insulted my mom, or told me I couldn’t do something.
Or stopped its car in the middle of the highway and just sat there until you crashed into it?
Grabbing two sixty-pound dumbbells, I do presses, then repeat with eighties, ninety-fives, hundreds, and finally finish the last set with one hundred and ten pounds in each hand. Next is a circuit of dumbbell flies, cable presses, and plyometric push-ups. Then I do this thing some people wouldn’t even call an exercise—except it is; everything I do during my workouts is an exercise. It’s a handstand push-up against the wall, and is mostly meant to show off to all the people in the gym, which at three in the morning is no one. But I do it anyway because I’m having fun. A lot of fun. This is my playground and I have it all to myself.
The last exercise of the workout, weighted push-ups, is my favorite. It starts with two forty-five-pound plates on my back. Getting them into place without a spotter is difficult. I shimmy and wiggle both plates behind my back until I feel stable enough to start the push-ups. I get ten reps before falling to the floor. The polished concrete is sticky and covered in debris, but getting up isn’t an option. Removing the plates from my back would be pointless, so they stay put until the next set as I stare at the dirty floor in front of my face.
It may seem like a miserable situation, but I’m loving it. It’s almost five in the morning and I’m sprawled out with ninety pounds pinning me to the floor, my mouth about an inch from a dried up collection of other people’s sweat. There’s no place I’d rather be.