Carleton Gym, a writing exercise

It’s the lighting that sets the mood. A dim fluorescence. No windows. Green tile floor, concrete walls.

It’s a place no one would go to relax.

There’s a smell of sweat and rubber, the clink of weight machines, and the clang of barbells being dropped on the floor. Overtop of all this, a techno track soars, lyrics about love over an electronic drum beat.

And little puffs of breathing, like steam coming out from under the lid of a pot.

It’s as if there’s a code of silence — but really, what is there to say?

You lift until your muscles burn. You rest.

It feels almost intimate to share physical exhaustion with strangers.

But a workout is also, in some ways, a performance. A long mirror covers one wall, and it’s hard not to feel the eyes, to appraise yourself, and to look.

The room begins on the far left in the land of the treadmill – and the land of women. A dozen of them, with a few men thrown in, on running machines and ellipticals. One has a copy of Elle spread out over the front of her stationary bike. Others gaze into the machines’ screens as if they’re gateways to Wonderland, lulled, their heads bobbing back and forth like pendulums.

On the floor next to the treadmills are a few mats for floor exercises. A woman lies on her stomach, with one leg curled behind her and upwards in some kind of stretch, all while chatting on her cell phone.

The people on the treadmills look out on a sea of weight machines that take up most of the room – and a sea of men.

One, with shaggy hair, stubble, a bandana and big headphones, heaves a pulley up from the floor, which in turn lifts a stack of black weights. His round, bare biceps frame a black tank top that says “Megadeath.”

There are all body types here, from round to narrow – and in droves. To reach the water fountain in the far corner, you have to navigate through sweaty traffic.

A pair of women stand out among all the men. One, with a blond ponytail, sits in a machine that forces her to twist her whole body in a kind of sideways crunch. Her friend looks on, a willowy Asian woman wearing leggings and two tops – a white tank top that looks almost lacy underneath a loose green shirt with an open neck that seems stylishly lopsided.

A Black man with muscles bursting out of a tight black tank top arrives on the scene, tiny white ear buds dangling from his ears. His thighs are probably each the size of the Asian woman’s waist.

“Are you waiting for this?” he asks her, indicating the machine, as the blonde girl finishes.

She looked like she was waiting. But she makes a sound that seems to intonate “Oh not at all”  and seconds later, the man is in place, twisting away.

At the far end of the room, far from the treadmills, are the barbells, and a little community of talkative gym rats. They take long rests, chatting, their bulging muscles appearing almost unnecessary when not in action, like extra blankets you didn’t need after all. Then one goes to work, hoisting an unspeakable amount of weight. Never have I seen so many veins — like pulsing lengths of blue string underneath the skin.

The gym is a place no one would go to relax, but at the same time, there are moments of bliss: the breaks between sets, the ecstasy of relief after exertion.

The water from the shabby old plastic fountain is cold enough to hurt your teeth. It feels like the only cold thing left in the world.

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