I began referring to him privately as “The Swede.” From in between my crunches on the exercise mat, I snuck glances at his pale, chiseled face. His square jaw and high, sculpted cheekbones stood out as if his face was sketched from the pages of a superhero DC comic.
I crunched. He lunged. His impossibly long, lithe legs sawing back and forth in a predictable rhythm. I started thinking of him as a preying mantis—all right angles and smooth movement. His hair was thin, the color of a Wyeth field, and from time to time I wondered if this wispy business bugged him, made him feel less masculine or made him wish it would all fall out so he could go ahead and embrace his baldness.He cycled through a strict roster of exercises—lunges, squats, push-ups, crunches, lather, rinse, repeat.
I spun his story for him.
He was a competitive biker. He was a marathoner. He was someone who did those punishing contests that involved running, biking, swimming, leaping over buildings in a single bound, saving a group of orphans from a burning school. My own workout was pathetically casual. He was intense; he was a man on a mission.
A few weeks later I was coming out of the women’s locker room, my mind not yet quite awake, my body even less so, when I nearly ran into The Swede. Startled by the sudden proximity to another human, I reflexively looked up, smiled, and murmured “morning,” which is when I noticed the two, small gold earrings dangling from each lobe. They were not the hardware of someone who likes to fill their skin with interesting and inventive accessories. These were more like the type of earrings you’d impulse buy off the display at the register of Ann Taylor.
“Morning,” he said with a grin and a nod. Definitely not Swedish.
The additions began rapidly after that, or maybe it was that I started looking for them whenever I saw him working out. One day it was a striking, cerulean headband, catching the sweaty stays of hair. Another it was a pair of larger hoop earrings. And after that, I could see make-up. Smudges of blush resting on those beautiful, already completely perfect cheekbones, delicate slashes of blue eye shadow, red gloss on lips.
Then one morning I ambled into the locker room to see her sitting on the edge of one of the purple metal benches. She fixed her errant heel over her foot, stood up and flipped the ends of a long, blonde wig over the collar of her light spring jacket. I smiled. She smiled.
“Morning,” I said.
“Morning,” she replied, nodding.
“Have a good one,” I said, which is like saying a book is “interesting” or that your house is full of “stuff.”
I think you’re brave and awesome and I’m so happy for you, I really said, silently as I watched her leave. And just as quickly I thought about being in this particular space. Though it’s a no-frills kind of gym that discourages huffing, puffing, and grunting He-Man antics, it’s still a space imprinted with things like strength and health and unattainable ideals of masculinity and femininity. You’re on display, vulnerable. Please be okay, okay? I added as a prayer chaser.
That fifteen-second encounter sparked days of rumination for me.
I could have said a variation of those things to her and maybe I would have come off as intrusive, condescending—a white, privileged, cisgendered, woman presuming to know what it’s like to wrestle with a body, an identity that does not belong to you.
How many times do we miss out on opportunities to connect because we’re sheltering in place in our silos of uncertainty? As a liberal feminist, advocacy feels organic to me in principle, but it’s a whole lot stickier in practice.
That was easily a year ago. Shortly after, my schedule changed forcing me to haul myself to the gym at an hour only respectable for farmers or club dwellers finally giving in to last call. I stopped seeing her, but I never stopped wondering about her.
I thought about her a little obsessively over the last few weeks as disheartening news came out of Washington that the current administration would overturn Obama’s protections for transgendered students. It was one more step on a treacherous road to eventually excoriate the rights of trans individuals, and it made my heart plummet when I thought it had already reached the sub-basement.
Why didn’t I say something? The question followed me around like a toddler.
I’m at the gym later than usual this morning, my body on auto-pilot, my mind similarly adrift, and a burst of noise cuts through the terrible, techno music pulsing over the gym’s speakers. It’s laughter. I’m momentarily annoyed in a Liz Lemon kind of way that people would break the implicit social contract that we come here to sweat and punish ourselves in silence.
The laughter is coming from a trio of men hanging out in the space between the info desk and the medieval-looking weight machines. That’s when I see her that I initially mistook for one of the three. One of the guys stretches, telling what appears to be a detailed story based on how intently they listen and how often his hand gestures interrupt his stretch poses. She throws her head back, laughs and claps, and leans forward to say something that makes everyone else crack up.
My heart shifts.
People are good. People are kind. People support one another. People see one another without blinking, without turning away. People are at their best when they understand that they belong to one another.
People don’t always need to be able to say the right thing when doing the right thing can matter so much more.