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Chapter 4: Just a Facade

September 19, 2009

Walking out of the darkness inside my house feels like stepping out of a coal mine. I prefer to have natural light throughout the house, but my roommates like to keep it locked down, as if the cops were on a stakeout across the street. I suspect they keep the drapes closed because they like to nap during the day. But I can’t stand it. I like to be outside and feel the fresh air whirling around me.

Today the Sonoma County air is refreshing and the hazy sunlight invigorating as I walk to the gym. It’s sort of misty, cool, with a light breeze—how air is supposed to feel. There is, however, a strong smell of manure from the area’s many cattle and dairy farms. That’s not how air is supposed to smell, but around here you get used to it—me and my friends laughingly call it the Sonoma Aroma.

I arrive at the gym and do one of my usual three-hour workouts. Then I wait outside for my roommate, James, to pick me up. James has been my friend since middle school. He’s kind and generous, and always seems to have a smile brighter than the shine from his orange hair, or for that matter, his pale complexion.

Since my car was totaled in the accident, I’ve managed to get around, mostly thanks to James. He has let me borrow his car many times and given me rides back to Martinez, where we both grew up and have family. He’s been considerate enough, without even being asked, to avoid driving over the Napa River Bridge. I haven’t been back to the bridge since the car accident, and don’t plan to anytime soon, but I am ready to get another car.

James drops me off at the bank, where the owner of my soon-to-be Nissan Xterra is waiting. I withdraw $7,000—the entirety of my financial aid disbursement for the semester, which means that, for the next several months, I will be living off a part-time income, a struggle that’s familiar to many college students, but one that is still better than not having a car in a suburban city.

The owner of the Xterra takes my money, neatly packed into a bulging envelope, then she signs the pink slip, hands over the keys and, just like that, the car is mine. My inaugural drive of the Xterra is through Rohnert Park, a small city about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. It’s where I live and go to school at Sonoma State University. Most of the residents of Rohnert Park, with the exception of students and the occasional free-thinker, like everything structured in strict conformity to social norms. One time I went around hanging up flyers for the fitness boot camp classes I teach and found them all taken down by an aggressive neighborhood watch person who was trailing behind me at every streetlight.

The neighborhoods in Rohnert Park are organized by a strict code. Each section of the city is named alphabetically so that every street starts with a corresponding letter. On my way home I pass through the first few letters of the alphabet before arriving at M section. From Middlebrook I turn onto Maureen, and then Mary Place. The neighborhood is the epitome of suburbia, everything insipid—driveways, houses, sidewalks, fire hydrants, lawns—it’s all one big blob of vanilla ice cream.

My house is toward the end of Mary Place, a short dead end street near the SSU campus. I park the Xterra in the driveway and stare listlessly at the steering wheel, waiting for something bad to happen. I anticipate an onslaught of legal issues—calls from the Department of Motor Vehicles, my lawyer, and the District Attorney’s office could resume any moment. As a preemptive measure, I turn my phone off. Then I take out my wallet and find the laminated hospital bracelet. I hold it in my hand for a few seconds, rubbing its plastic seal. Keeping it in the car feels like the right thing to do—that is, opposed to just throwing it away or putting it in a box for a decade or two until I’m ready to get rid of all reminders of the day I killed someone.

I reach up and attach the laminated bracelet to the overhead visor, just below the mirror cutout. Then I flip the visor back up and walk in the house. James has beaten me home and is inside playing video games. I join him for a couple hours, then leave for work. This evening I’m teaching a boot camp class that runs every Tuesday and Thursday evening at Saint Rose Catholic School in Santa Rosa, about a twenty minute drive from my house.

I have around fifteen clients signed up for the class. Most are middle-aged soccer moms, who rarely show up despite having paid a monthly fee. Assuming my role as a tough trainer, however unnatural to me, I regularly message them on Facebook if they don’t show up to class. When I’m in a good mood it’s usually something to the effect of: “Hey, we missed you at boot camp today. It was a great workout. Hope to see you next time!” When I’m in a bad mood it usually goes something like: “Why weren’t you at boot camp today? Everyone else was there. You paid for the classes, you should use them. Be there next time!”

With a whiteboard and equipment bag in hand, I speed walk to the blacktop where a few of the clients already have their shtick ready. As if I’m a comedian taking the stage, they start heckling as soon as I show up. And it seems they’ve been practicing.

“How come you never do the exercises with us?” one of my clients asks. “Are you one of those ‘do as I say, not as I do’ trainers?”

“Do I look like one of those trainers?” I scribble the exercises on the whiteboard and hook up a pair of portable speakers to drown her out with some Black Eyed Peas.

“I guess not, but you do look cocky,” the woman says over the music, as the other clients start cackling.

“Oh, okay, remind me to take away your discount next class.” I look at her deadpan. “If I do the exercises with you then I can’t point out all the mistakes you’re making, like how your torso leans too far forward on squats, or how your knee goes past your toes on lunges. These are all things that can cause injuries.”

“Yeah, yeah, but can we get back to how narcissistic you are?”

“Wow, you’re relentless.”

What did you expect? You haven’t told her, or anyone besides your family and close friends, about the car accident. You can’t expect people to take it easy on you, especially if you don’t tell them anything. They look at you and see a healthy fitness trainer unfazed by everything. They don’t know that you’re doing all you can to make it seem that way. They don’t know that it’s all just a façade.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5: Venting of Internal Monologue