FORTNIGHTLY SHORT STORY
Work-Out by Libby Sommer
first published in Quadrant
You run up the stairs to the gym avoiding the women and men from the previous class rushing down the stairs. Keep to the left. Give your membership card to the girl at the desk and then in through the turnstile. Rummage for the $2 coin in your bag that works the locker. Insert the money, leave the bag, take the towel and the bottle of water and the book to read then up the stairs to the third floor to the exercise bikes all the time hoping there’ll be a reclining bicycle free and not one of those awful uprights that hurt your bum. Sit on the bike read your book, wipe the sweat off your face, drink from the bottle, look out the window to the workers erecting a block of apartments that are gradually blocking the view of the harbour. Warm up for 60 seconds on a low speed, then 20 minutes at a higher speed and a sixty second cool down. Then into the main gym for the body power class. Get a step, four platforms, a rubber mat and a long weights bar. Two large discs, four small discs. Stand up the front so you can see yourself in the mirror and in front of the fan. Fight for this prime position. First the warm up, then legs, lunges, squats, chest, back, shoulders, legs, triceps, biceps, stomach. Bend from the hips. Clean and press. Dead rows. Wipe the sweat from your face, adjust the bar across your shoulders. Knees over toes as you squat. Straight back, stomach in to support the back, shoulders back, head up out of the neck. Concentrate on the music, the instructor speaking, the fan in front of you. Watch yourself in the mirror, the women beside you and behind. Check out how old they are and if their weights are heavier or lighter. Smell the sweat. Swallow the water. A quick stretch between tracks. Calfs, quads, shoulders and back. Lie down on the platform for the chest track. Use your nipples as markers. Down to the markers, up slowly. One, two three up and then slowly down. Vary the rhythm.
Don’t waste time
Take a chance
Move your butt
Come on let’s work
Let the music take control
Let the rhythm move you
The telephone rang while she was running the bath. She stood in front of the mirror examining the droops of fat below her shoulder blades, the second fold at her waist. She turned around further noticing the dimpled flesh in a widening rear. She stopped and listened and then turned off the bath. She went to answer the telephone.
Anny, he said. How are you? What are you doing tonight?
Hi Simon. Nothing.
Well come over for dinner. We’ve invited a friend, a single bloke and we thought maybe you’d like to come too. He told me to tell you he’ll be there.
Tim. He’s split up with his wife in Port Macquarie and lives with his mother in Bondi.
Not that older bloke, the dentist you introduced me to ages ago.
No not him. This is Tim.
Not that doctor with the practice on Bondi Road who lives with his mother.
No. Not him. Don’t worry about it. It’s only a dinner.
Anny could hear Simon relaying the conversation to Stephanie in the background on the other end of the phone. Anny looked out of the window to the huge spears of bamboo projecting from the floor of Tamarama Gully like giant asparagus shoots and wondered when the man was coming to cut it back. She remembered meeting Simon – nearly twenty years ago now. The meeting in Bali and then touring around on the back of his motorbike. After returning to Australia Simon moved in with his girlfriend Stephanie and the three of them had been friends ever since.
What time do you want me to come over? Anny said.
Seven. And bring your photos.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a bloke, Simon, she said her voice dropping lower. A bloody long time.
You don’t want it to close over now, do you?
She laughed. That was Simon, always going on about sex.
Anny reversed up the driveway backing into the turning circle beside the rubbish bins. Up the driveway and out on to the street. As she drove, she looked at the people who hurried along the sidewalks arm in arm. She glanced at the darkening sky, filled with clouds, and at the houses with high fences and flowers in the front. She was feeling pretty dreadful as she usually did at weekends. No-one seemed to understand but she just didn’t fit in anymore. The children grown up and left, the business finished, the house gone. She looked out on to the street to remind herself there was a world out there.
She parked outside the block of units at Randwick and turned off the engine. A man in a crisp white shirt and black trousers walked past. I bet that’s him, she thought. She turned her head to the side not wanting to be seen. She tried hard not to be on time but she couldn’t help herself.
Simon answered the door and kissed her cheek. Come in. Come in. He leant down towards her ear. You mean you haven’t had sex for ages? he whispered.
I should have known better than to tell you anything, she said and made a face.
You introduce Anny, he said as Stephanie walked out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a towel.
In the loungeroom a group of large cushions on the floor in one corner. Pictures, plants, tapestries from their travels. Simon had said that every dollar he earns buys another kilometer of travel.
This is Tim.
Tim stood up and shook Anny’s hand. It was him alright. He said something to her and his eyes popped out of his head at her – with enthusiasm or wanting to please – or something. She averted her eyes.
Tim’s just moved to Sydney.
Anny nodded and sat on the couch breathing in a familiar smell of after shave – the kind that most men his age seemed to wear.
It’s so different in the city, Tim said. On the farm you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do on a Sunday. There’s always a fence to mend or a horse to shoe.
Anny’s just come back from China said Simon coming in from the kitchen with a tray and four glasses of red wine:
I cycled across southern China.
You must be a masochist, Tim said.
Hong Kong to Beijing by bicycle, plane and train.
If you said you’d ridden across China on a horse I’d understand, Tim said.
She told them all about the trip how it was minus three degrees in the south and no heating and minus ten in Beijing but apart from that she had a great time. She’d booked with an adventure travel company. There were eight of them in the group including two triathletes and two bicycle couriers so she’d ended up trailing along behind.
Why did you go in the middle of winter? Asked Tim.
I wanted to be out of Sydney for the millenium changeover. I hate being alone on New Year’s eve and I’ve always wanted to see China and maybe lose some weight too. Simon told me I’d come back looking like a greyhound.
Everyone I spoke to didn’t do much on New Year’s eve, Stephanie said. Watched the fireworks and then went to bed.
Your holiday would have been so much better if you’d had someone to cycle with, said Tim.
Okay, said Stephanie. Everyone sit at the table. The food’s getting cold.
The smell of garlic and prawns sizzling in oil. They sat around the wooden table under the window with the view to the west. ‘We can see the mountains on a clear day,’ Simon was fond of saying. There was a choice of butter or avocado to spread on the bread that Simon had baked in his new bread maker.
Talking about travelling in a group reminds me of that bus trip I did to Ayres Rock, he said. It was a 21 day trip. I was the only man with 21 women. I realised it was perfect numbering. I could have a different woman each night for the entire trip.
Simon you really are disgusting, Stephanie said.
And then there was a set of 16 year old twins.
This will make you want to vomit, said Stephanie with that long suffering look that said ‘we all know what Simon’s like’.
They were the ones who approached me, Simon protested. Came up and sat next to me one on either side and asked me for a hug.
Sure, Stephanie said.
It was all very innocent. We just sat there with our arms around each other. I didn’t touch their boobs or kiss them.
Thanks for sharing those details with us.
Anny passed around the bread.
Avocado thanks, said Simon.
I don’t eat butter.
I’ve known you for a long time, said Tim to Simon. And this is the first time I’ve sat around at your table.
No. You’ve been here before.
But I’ve never sat at your table.
We go back a long way.
Thirty years it must be. Since you were married to Kath. And I suppose your shit still doesn’t smell.
Simon laughed and turned to Stephanie. Well does it, Stephanie? he asked.
I don’t know, she said. I’ve never put my nose that close to it.
No thanks, said Anny when Simon passed around the icecream.
Go on, said Tim. It’s greyhound food.
Go on, said Simon. Just a small spoonful.
I read an article saying that women go for men who are bigger and more powerful than themselves, said Anny. Men who’ll protect them. Whereas older men go for younger women who can bear children.
Apparently we choose partners on the basis of resources in exchange for physical attractiveness, said Stephanie.
Caring for a family in return for good breeding potential.
A theory that explains why rich, ugly men can still attract young, beautiful women.
She could have found someone closer to her own age.
A man could be small and bald even and not powerful, said Simon. But be very interesting. Say, a writer. Women would be attracted to him wouldn’t they?
Sure, said Anny. That’s true.
After dinner Anny showed them the photos and told them about Robert.
This is something you’d like to know, Simon, Anny said. A bit of romance and all that. This is Robert. He was on the trip alone. We hung around together, sat next to each other at meals. I confided in him, told him how much I was suffering with the cold. I thought Robert and I might have a holiday romance in the beginning. But the closest we got was on New Year’s Eve when he kissed me on the lips.
Did you wet them first? asked Simon.
It was an unexpected kiss.
You’re so flamboyant – he was probably waiting for you to make the first move, said Stephanie.
I went to his room one night to see how his remote worked because mine wasn’t working, Anny said. He’d invited me in. The next morning he told the others I’d been into his room to play with his remote. They laughed of course.
That’s a bad sign, said Stephanie. That he told the others.
And then the next night after dinner when we went for a walk he excused himself and said he had to go back to his room and write a letter home to his mother.
What nationality? Tim said.
Well that says it all.
I told him I was so cold I slept with all my clothes on with two doonas on top. One time he said to the group, ‘who’s done the most whinging on this trip?’ and then he pointed to me.
Too old for you, Stephanie said. He doesn’t look your type.
You’ve got a funny idea about a holiday, said Tim. My idea of a holiday is to lie by a swimming pool with a martini in my hand.
Good night, and thanks for a great evening, said Anny at the door.
Stephanie was behind her. What do you think of him? she whispered.
He’s not my type but I’m trying to keep an open mind..
Anny touched the doorknob.
He’s in denial, Stephanie said. He said he’ll miss the horses but not the woman. He’s going through major stuff. A marriage breakup, losing his farm. Major life change and he says it’s nothing. I’ve tried to get him to talk but he says, ‘It will pass soon’. What would it be like living in the same house with a partner but in separate bedrooms? He said, ‘She’s menopausal. She won’t talk to me. I’m not going to put so much into it next time. Every time I put so much into it. I’m not going to do that again.’ You have to, I said. Everyone does when they’re in a relationship with another person. You put so much of yourself into it.
Don’t waste time
Take a chance
Move your butt
Come on let’s work
The next morning the phone rang.
How about dinner on Saturday night?
That would be nice.
I don’t know where. We’ll decide on the night. Spontaneity that’s the thing. It’s good to be spontaneous. I’ll pick you up at seven.
Tim wearing his brown leather boots to the ankle, jeans, wool flecked jacket over white shirt, slight bulge of stomach over his belt.
Let me help you out of the car, he said.
It’s not as if she needed any help.
Don’t jump out so quickly, he instructed.
You’re obedient, he said. I only had to tell you once.
In the restaurant he kept saying how good the food was. She agreed. The foods good. Very good food.
There’s no doubt about Simon, Tim said. It’s a wonder Stephanie stays with him.
She has an interesting life with him. They travel together.
He touched her arm as they spoke.
That feels muscley, he said.
She flexed her biceps at him.
I don’t like strong women, he said. It’s very unfeminine.
The cutting of the bamboo started as a loud crash as one huge bamboo spear crashed against the balcony before thudding to the ground. She could see a man in a blue top up a bamboo shoot sawing it down. His white gloves flickered and his scythe flashed as she watched his young blonde hair reflect in the sun.
Let the music take control
Let the rhythm move you
You choose the gym as a place to have your next massage, not your own home where you’re more vulnerable but a public place with people around where you’ll be quite safe – and an unattractive masseur this time – an older man with a lisp who you don’t fancy at all. Receding white grey hair, fat lips, dressed in white. You try him out and if he seems fine you book for a series of four massages at a reduced rate.
You tell a friend you need to be touched and that’s why you have a massage. You ask your friend if she removes all her clothes for the massage or leaves her underpants on. She tells you she leaves her underpants off so you think it’s safe and okay when you’re having a regular massage in a public place like a gym. ‘The lower back area feels great when you stretch and pummel it’, you tell him. ‘I know a lot of us hold our anger in our buttocks’, you add.
This time after he finishes your back you say to him ‘have you got time to do my chest?’ Yes, he says his voice a bit husky ‘And your tummy?’ Sure, you say. So there you are lying on your back having your chest massaged, under the armpits and in and under all the bits of your chest and ribs when his hand starts vibrating across the tips of your nipples very lightly. Well, you know from her daughter who’s a naturopath that masseur’s aren’t meant to touch your nipples. ‘Sometimes they have to touch the breasts if they get in the road of getting to the ribs’, she’d said. ‘You have to lift them up and move them out of the way’. ‘Is it good for you to have your stomach massaged?’ you’d asked her. ‘Yes’, she’d said. ‘It helps the bowel and aids digestion. A regular massage is very good for you. It helps remove the blocked up toxins, boosts the immune system and aids against cancer by removing the stored tension in the body.’
So the masseur hovers at first over your breasts and then before long he’s massaging them. You remember reading in the newspaper about male doctors accused of massaging their patients breasts and then manually bringing them to orgasm.
At first you resist. You don’t want to feel any expectation to perform – to have an orgasm at his instigation. Afterwards you open your eyes and look at the clock on the wall to see how long it has all taken. You’re surprised to see you’ve had the massage and the special extras and it’s all within the allocated hour.
After you dress the masseur says, ‘I’d like your discretion. It’s an added service that is available to you at any time for no extra charge.’
You are in shock so you don’t say anything. You just make a time for your next appointment and decide that next time you’ll say, ‘No special extras thanks all the same.’
Stephanie rang to say Tim is in love.
Thought you’d like to know, she said. Tim has met a girl. He brought her over to our place. They’ve just left. He said he’s in love. He’s worried because it was so quick. ‘It was like a blow to the back of the neck,’ he said. Those were his words not mine.
Now the bamboo is cut down Anny can see the waves breaking on the shore again. The rhythmic rise, the white foam gathering, suspended, then breaking and tumbling into the sand of the beach. Next to her window the waterfall gushes after the rain – the drops dripping and plinking on the steel of the veranda.
Copyright © 2016 Libby Sommer