“Serpentine” by Ember Johnson
Ember Johnson’s essay “Serpentine” was a finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. In this piece, Johnson masterfully evokes tension and anguish through her poignant exploration of her experience as a military wife and widow, offering a unique perspective on the burden of carrying on alone.
by Ember Johnson
At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband’s body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bed sheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss. Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin.
First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I’ve been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I’m a military wife. And he’d come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.
I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.
I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.
“Where,” I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, “where did you go?”
Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.
The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It’s easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it’s doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted, European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.
It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim florescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next.
Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind herself. It was for his clothes. And I was to help.
He tossed his boots into it with a thunk and crumpled his T-shirt into a basketball, which he shot from an imaginary free-throw line. He stripped off his underwear.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You can’t leave your drawers on?” The surgeon wasn’t operating anywhere near there.
“Believe me,” he said, “I’ve tried.” And his glance toward the curtain said it all. VA hospital nurses are a harassed and hardened breed.
I unballed the socks he handed me and added them to the sack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the papery blue surgery gown and flailed around his waist for the ties.
“Here,” I said. “Lemme get those.”
I tied two bows, and he stepped back to give me the full view. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he said and licked a finger that he ran across an eyebrow. “I wear this well.”
Two nurses returned, pointing him to the recliner, and covered him with a thin white blanket from the waist down while they began prepping his IV. They hustled me out and pulled the curtain closed one last time, asking, “Do you know your way to the surgery lounge?” I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. This was our third surgery for the same ear that had been blasted by an IED in Iraq. Yes. I knew the way.
Now, as I get ready to leave the funeral home, the director hands me a similar paper bag. Nearly identical to the one from the hospital. The medical examiner who autopsied my husband’s body has filled it his clothes. Jacobson, B. is scrawled across the top in black marker.
“Are you waiting for your father?” was a common question I got asked in the surgery waiting room. “No, my husband,” I’d say. And then to clarify that I wasn’t married to someone twice my age, I added, “He served in Iraq—well, still serves.” None of his injuries eliminated him from a deployment rotation schedule, so he was always somewhere in the process of going back to war. Instead of making small talk, I usually sketched new layouts for the garden or our farm’s pasture. One year during a surgery wait I added fruits—apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. The trick would be keeping the chickens out. During another surgery wait, I devised a new rotational grazing system for our lot of horses, goats, sheep, and llamas. But I’d also figured a way to temporarily block the entrance of the driveway to allow them to graze the yard.
Once I actually encountered another Iraq War vet. He was several years younger than my husband and had a large, irregularly shaped dent in his skull where part of his brain should have been. The verbal abuse that this soldier hurled at his nurses traveled easily through the thin walls to where I sat waiting for my husband in the MRI waiting room. “Bitch,” he spat. “Cunt.” He didn’t want to get on the exam table. “Michael,” one nurse’s voice cut through the wall, “You lie down—and then tell me if you want Johnny Cash or Elvis—I’ll give you headphones.” A no-choice choice. A fake choice. Designed to redirect someone’s attention away from what he really wants, which is always the one thing he can’t have. In Michael’s case, I imagined it was to have his mind and body back the way they were before the war. In my case now, my husband is dead and never coming home again. So, my no-choice choices: Burial or cremation? Family cemetery or Fort Snelling? Coach or van?
Traumatic brain injury is tricky because every injury is different, and so is every brain. VA doctors had concluded that the blast that took out my husband’s eardrums also sent a concussive force through his head. Combined with the sustained stress of living in a combat zone for two tours of duty, each an entire year in duration, this had caused him to come back from his last one with short-term memory problems, severe neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and a sincere desire to kill people who irritated him: mostly strangers, but sometimes his boss. At the National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in St. Paul, he worked as an electronics mechanic on Blackhawk helicopters, but his boss, a first sergeant, had never deployed to a war.
To cope, he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Instead he built a castle out of wood, set it up on the floor in the middle of the living room, and he and our three-year-old son staged epic battles between Transformers, X-Men, vintage GI Joe action figures, and all the Marvel superheroes. They played for hours at a time. Day after day. Until one evening, as I washed the dinner dishes and listened in, it finally hit me: this wasn’t normal. What appeared to be a loving, engaged father was a loving, engaged father but also a man who wanted to avoid paying bills, helping with farm chores, making decisions, and having an adult relationship with his wife. He would wake up at night and not know where he was. He looked for IEDs in the road during his commute to work. And while we used to banter with ease and tease each other over money or day-to-day living decisions, now there was no playing around. He simply stalked off.
He’d run out of space inside himself. He could no longer hold his two lives together: the one we’d built together, with a large vegetable garden and a lively barnyard, and the one he’d made out of sand and Kevlar. Animals got sick, needed shearing, or we ran out of hay. Their babies came breech or young ones got stuck in a snarl of fence wires. His career was a dizzying array of schematics for helicopter systems. Circuit diagrams. Training modules. His performance could determine the outcome of a life-and-death situation for the crews that flew them.
“We’re going to start over,” I declared. “I’ll sell the animals and we’ll get back to where we started. We’ll wipe the slate clean.” It was a grand gesture. I knew that I was the only one who saw that places of waiting were also places that were mostly empty. And bland. A skylit room with plastic plants. A television on mute. I could give him all that I had learned of patience and liminality. I could create his space. In return, I hoped, the debris of war stuck inside him would break loose and float to the surface. Maybe even float away. “But tell me,” I said after I explained it all to him, “are you going to go through the VA for therapy or will you look for a civilian psychologist?”
And I was right. One day my husband called me, breathless, from a place where he had pulled off the highway. He’d been at the VA for a therapy appointment. “I always thought it was weird that the checkpoint was empty,” he said without preamble. “Only a couple of Iraqis stood by a shack on the next hill over.”
I heard him light a cigarette, and he inhaled its smoke through his words.
“The mortars started coming—”
“And I saw them hit a couple hundred feet away—so I nailed the gas to get through the serpentine—but they weren’t coming from the hill where I saw the two men—”
I tried to picture it. A serpentine checkpoint is a snake-like path built out of concrete road barriers, a path that folds back in on itself, meant to slow vehicles down to a crawl. A convoy stuck in the middle of one would be like fish in a barrel.
“I couldn’t figure it out—and the dumbfuck LT—I saw the trucks behind us still trying to get through the serpentine—so I yelled at him to radio back and tell everyone to just go around it and get the hell outta there—but that’s when the dirt and sand hit the windshield,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “It was an IED.”
Several seconds of silence breathed between us. This was what he had been searching for. A memory of the actual blast that had taken his eardrums. What we’d learned from his psychologist and occupational therapist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them. Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.
“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of that serpentine alive.”
I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.
First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACU’s, but I don’t know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn to cut the early morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.
That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him, but I hadn’t turned around.
I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m hearing them for the first time.
The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast iron sink; he rummages in the dish drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.
But that morning I didn’t pay him any attention. Not until the refrigerator door sucked open—a giant jaw that flooded the dim kitchen with light—and snapped back with bottles clanking against each other. A magnet slid off, and the school calendar fluttered to the floor. I sat up straight and watched his reflection in the darkened window in front of me. His movements, everything, suddenly felt hard and extra loud. Abrasive. Chair legs scraped against the oak floor, his combat boots thunked to the floor, and he grunted as he sat.
A cold draft seeped behind me. It was from the broken mudroom door. I rose from my chair to slide his heavy farm boots in front of it. During his last deployment, it had stopped latching properly, and the official doorstop became whichever pair of boots he wasn’t wearing.
“Are you okay?” I remember asking him.
“Fine,” he said, crouched over, tucking one camouflaged pant leg into the high upper of his combat boot. He zipped the laces through the top holes as he pulled and tucked with callous, mindless efficiency.
I stood by the door and waited.
“You know,” I said, “if you’re not ready to go back to work today, then you’re not ready.” It had only been a week since his ear surgery. The boys at the AASF could certainly make do without him one more day. “Fuck ’em,” I said with a shrug.
He switched feet and tucked and zipped and pulled. As he reached down, the fabric of his uniform buckled in starchy folds under his armpits and along his ribs. “No,” he said and sat up, slouching against the back of the chair. “I’m ready.” Bright white cotton balls protruded from his ear, still catching some drainage, and I wondered if he was lying to himself.
“Just stay home one more day,” I said.
He stood, zipped his fleece coat to cut the early morning chill, and slung his lunch over his shoulder. He picked up his coffee mug and paused and looked into my eyes.
I stole a glance at the clock. He was way ahead of normal. He never ran this much ahead of schedule. But his eyes never broke from their path and I turned back to meet them again.
“What,” I whispered. It was a statement and a question.
He fiddled with the knob to the broken door.
I had to leave the house that morning too. But before I left, I heard the mud room door open again. I turned in expectation, thinking he had changed his mind and come home, but no one was there, and the broken door remained closed. I headed upstairs to rouse my son.
As we left for town, I braked hard on the hill that drops into the valley below our farm, just in time for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of us. I waited and switched on the radio.
A fatal accident occurred this morning around 6:20 and shut down the Hastings bridge in both directions. Authorities hope to have it reopened in the next couple of hours. In financial news the rate of foreclosures continues to increase—
Without thinking, I did the math. There were two different routes my husband could have taken to work that morning. One was under construction, and the other was that bridge. Every military wife knows how to do this type of math. My hands started to shake. I honked the horn at the slow birds bringing up the rear, and my son startled in his seat behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”
On impulse I chose a shortcut to town that was a minimum-maintenance road. I hadn’t used it in two years and bit my lip and hoped the spring thaw hadn’t made it difficult to navigate. After a one-lane bridge, tight, steep curves with an uphill on one side and a deep-cut ravine on the other, showed signs of washout. Ragged root systems protruded from the tumbled rockside, and worrisome chunks of earth had broken from the ledge and fallen into the ravine below. A green canopy of untrimmed branches arched low overhead and blocked out the clear morning sky. I took it forty feet at a time, craning my neck around every curve, while keeping an eye on that ledge. The truck’s engine dug in against the grade, and we climbed.
Suddenly a low-slung branch heaved toward the windshield and sprang back.
I slammed the brake, and giant black wings raised up in front of me.
A vulture—a big bastard—labored against its own heft and lifted, pushing itself through the thick canopy overhead.
I did the math again.
I walked my son into his preschool class and left my husband voicemails with forced vocal inflections that made me sound casual. I ran errands and chatted with people in store aisles. Chunky peanut butter or creamy? Call the local hospital or the one in the town where the accident had occurred? I took a brisk walk around a city park. I imagined the scene of confession later that night, when I would tell him how all day I’d thought he was dead.
When my phone finally rang, it was my husband’s mother. She never called me.
“Where are you right now?” she asked without saying hello.
“Just pulling into home after preschool,” I said. And waited through an awkward silence. “What’s going on?” I finally asked.
“We’ll be right over,” she said.
Ice and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The hand that held the phone began to tremble uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” I said again, this time louder. “What is it?” I said louder still.
“We’ll be right over,” she repeated. And hung up.
I snapped at my son’s slowness in getting out of the truck, three times in a row, until I heard myself yelling at him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry.”
I settled him in front of the television with his lunch and went straight to my laptop on the table in the corner of the kitchen. News websites had already posted pictures of the bridge accident. They showed the front end of a Toyota pickup resting precariously on top of a highway guardrail and a dented maroon BMW behind it, sideways across two lanes. My husband’s dark green Saturn wasn’t there.
I chain-smoked outside on the front porch, waiting for my husband’s mother. I thought about calling someone. I called my husband. It rang until it went to voicemail, and I hung up without leaving a message.
I hated waiting, I realized. I had always hated waiting.
I leaned into the frame of the open front door and stared at our silent, empty pasture. All of its gates stood open. Big black water tanks sat overturned beneath the shaded overhang of the barn.
“Show me everything,” I said to him every time he left. Because he was always leaving for places where I could not follow, and because I was afraid that I would lose him to all those things I would never see. All of those things he experienced without me. “But I bring you with me,” he said in return. He didn’t understand what it meant to be the one left behind.
At that moment, I felt him pace the porch boards in front of me. He walked its length and abruptly turned and put his hands on his hips. “This is not ideal,” he said.
A declaration. Almost funny. The half smile; the half panic that skimmed the upper edge of his deep voice when a plan was about to go south. And maybe he saw me recognize him. Because my eyes widened and welled and darted to the side. I held my breath. He hadn’t gone anywhere, I thought. He’d been trying to tell me, since I heard the front door open that morning, that he died and came right back home.
“No,” I finally answered him. Out loud. And my heart threatened to give way. To simply stop beating. “It’s not.”
The sound of ripping Velcro tears a hole in the silence of our kitchen where I have been standing and staring at his clothes laid out on the table before me. There are creases of dried blood and bits of soft tissue that cling to puncture tears in the fabric. But only to the left sleeves. Where something nearly ripped his arm off. I am pulling the patches off every breast pocket and shoulder—his name, his rank, all the insignia of his career and our country; they belong to me now. When I finish, I go straight to my laptop and punch up the same accident pictures that I saw the day he died. I want to see what I saw the first time I looked at it—the Toyota’s front tires on top of the guardrail, the red BMW sideways across the lanes—but I know that I won’t see that, because I know what happened.
The front tires of the Toyota pickup are on top of my husband’s green Saturn. They sit inside the jagged mouth of its shattered windshield and look as though they came to rest on my husband’s lap. The Saturn is crumpled like a pop can against the guardrail. Its trunk is popped open. And the toys that he had hidden in there for our son lie scattered across the highway. A white sheet drapes its smashed rear window, meant to cover my husband’s dead body. Which, along with the part of me that he said he carried with him, has not yet been extracted.
This essay began as an assignment to use a first-person voice from the position of witness. It was an assignment designed to challenge what it means to tell another person’s story by forcing a writer to contend with her own subjectivity, experience, and ego. Still, it’s always a huge surprise to me how some essays come together. “Serpentine” I wrote in pieces: scenes, images, bits of reflection that I loosely strung together like so many buttons of different sizes and colors. With the pages spread across a long work table, I stood and stared for a long time. What connected the parts? What bigger thing beyond the simple narrative were they trying to say? I saw the hairpin curves of the dragon’s tail tattooed on my husband’s arm, I saw my husband’s Humvee snaking through the concrete barriers of a checkpoint in Iraq, I saw a brown paper bag appear, disappear, and come back into view. This serpentine form repeated itself through imagery. And for the first time ever, I saw how a structure of switchbacks could move a reader through a serpentine of memories, and how those memories could travel alongside a lived experience, but in the opposite direction. Which is how I ultimately defined my role as witness to my husband’s life.
Ember Johnson lives and writes in Center City, Minnesota. She was a winner of the 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series in nonfiction and most recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020. Her work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review. She completed her BA in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in 2016 and is in her final semester of an MFA degree at the University of Minnesota.
“At the Gym” by Michael Cohen
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In our most recent selection, Michael Cohen asks, “Why do we work out? Is it really about health?” His observant and gently ironic essay “At the Gym” provides some answers and reflection.
At the Gym
By Michael Cohen
The first thing that strikes me at my commercial gym is the mirrors, which occupy every wall they can, wherever there is space not taken up by the glass doors that show me what’s going on in the handball courts or how fast the stationary cyclists are wheeling in their room or what the Zumba class or the yogistas are getting up to. Here in the weight room, the mirrors stop about knee height to avoid rolling weights smashing them. But in the Zumba/yoga rooms, the mirrors go down to within inches from the floor—perhaps because those folks need to see themselves when they’re lying on mats, or to see their feet when they’re dancing.
Why do they need to see themselves? The argument in the weight room is that a lifter must see that the weights are level and the form correct. An improper lift risks injury. Not everyone buys the argument about reflected form, however. One trainer I talked to said, “Lifters need to be concentrating on the weights. Staring at your bulging muscles in the mirror instead of paying attention is the shortest way to hurt yourself.”
A woman friend says some mirrors are just terribly placed. “I myself despise a mirror next to a treadmill. Running is bad enough without having to watch yourself suffering and puffing and sweating along.” She is a regular gym goer in good shape. But studies cited by Christina Corcoran in Psychology Today (1 August 2003) have shown that women who do not exercise regularly may be deterred from going to the gym by the ubiquitous mirrors.
These observations raise the question, too, about the room with all the bicycles: What is the advantage of watching yourself cycling? Or for that matter Zumba dancing or doing yoga? Is it vanity alone? My friend has noticed “the fellows (often wearing a great deal of cologne, for some reason) who sit down with a weight or two and are just captivated by their own image in the mirror.” She points out, too, that mirrors enable a less direct form of people-watching by “the folks who semidiscreetly ogle other folks.” Is there a connection between the idea of being fit and the fact of surveillance by self or other? Just asking the question makes it impossible to deny that we’re all at the gym to be fit and healthy, which can mean not only feeling good but looking good. Armand Tanny, who with his brother Vic ran one of the first chains of commercial gyms in the country, said “We did a survey . . . we found the main reason for working out was not for health, but for looking good. That was among both men and women.”
The omnipresence of commercial gyms is a relatively new phenomenon of American life. We’ve always had school gyms and, for a couple of centuries, facilities to prepare boxers and other athletes for competition; the New York Athletic Club and its Los Angeles counterpart are examples. But the modern commercial gymnasium and the fitness trend that built it have a more recent history that takes us, like so many American trends and movements, to California for its beginnings.
Marla Matzer Rose argues that it all started in Santa Monica. In Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2001), Rose tells how the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles sparked local interest in gymnastics. Paul Brewer, a student at Santa Monica High School, was frustrated when the construction of his school’s planned gym was delayed on account of the 1933 earthquake, so he and his friends began to exercise on playground equipment on the beach, near the base of Santa Monica Pier, four blocks away from the high school. Local adults helped the kids add a tumbling carpet, parallel bars, and high rings. Over the next few years the area became very popular as a place to practice and show off not only ordinary gymnastics but also group acrobatic routines involving young men and women doing handstands, making human pyramids and towers, and tossing and catching each other. It was a young bunch, attractive and also muscular, since strength training was required for some of these stunts. The people and their activity soon began to be noticed by the beachgoers who flocked to this section on the weekends and christened the place Muscle Beach.
Some of the young people who were regulars began to open their own gyms; others designed and distributed gym equipment that hadn’t been available before. Rose argues that participants in Muscle Beach activities, including Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny and his brother Armand, Joe Gold, George Eiferman, and a dozen others who opened commercial gyms starting in 1936, were responsible for the American fitness trend, which accelerated when servicemen returned from the war in 1945 and has been steadily building since. At intervals over the years, the trend got an additional boost from good publicity. Muscle Beach regulars Buster Crabbe and Steve Reeves had movie careers, while Jane Russell was an occasional visitor to the beach athletic scene. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a bodybuilder in his native Austria, was an import to a later manifestation of Muscle Beach up the coast in Venice, California, after the original Santa Monica Muscle Beach was closed.
That closure came about at least in part because of a movement from strength and fitness training to an exaggerated emphasis on muscle development. According to Rose’s account, there was an intense effort at the weight-lifting aspect of gym activity early in the 1950s, leading to the triumph of the US Olympic weight-lifting team in 1952. This increased interest in weight training was reflected at Muscle Beach. The original athletic group at the beach, whose interest in weight training had been subservient to overall health and acrobatic prowess, gradually dispersed—a lot of them were working hard running their own newly founded gyms—in favor of men who were exclusively weight lifters and body builders. And they were all men, since women’s bodybuilding had not yet acquired its later appeal. Not so many people came to Muscle Beach when muscles were all it had to offer. Watching biceps, pecs, and lats grow to what became, especially after the coming of anabolic steroids, exaggerated and even grotesque size turned out to be without the same appeal as watching normally well-muscled men and women having a good time and entertaining the crowds at the same time. Eventually the Santa Monica conservatives, who were more than a little suspicious of the morality of hugely muscled and nearly naked men walking around and flexing for each other, prevailed, and Muscle Beach was shut down.
Today, as usual, I spend most of my time at the gym on the treadmill. This particular one, I noticed at my last visit, has “Time Elasped” instead of “Time Elapsed” under the LED readouts on its control board. And before I got on it today, I looked at the other treadmills in this row—they’re all Matrix brand machines, and yep, they all say “Elasped.” Oh, well, it’s physical culture we’re here for, though as Virginia Woolf once wrote, “After all, imagination is largely the child of the flesh.” Michel Serres muses in Variations on the Body on the splendid physical shape and the “athletic bodies” of Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint Francis of Assissi, who both walked enormous distances in the hilly terrain of their respective countries. “Saintliness follows health” is his speculative conclusion. Certainly getting my blood flowing seems to clear my thinking, though I doubt it improves my spiritual life. But I like to keep my mind occupied here, as well as my body. When I don’t have a book to read or to listen to on headphones, my attention and curiosity go out to the people around me.
Gym fashion is as interesting a phenomenon to consider as any. Gym goers often dress as they would to mow the lawn. Shorts are popular, and light T-shirts. An occasional fashionista in a two-toned workout ensemble stands out like a tangerine in a box of rocks. Except for the dedicated bodybuilders in muscle shirts and spandex, there to show out as well as work out, the emphasis is on loose fit and comfort. T-shirts are everywhere, and that means, because some people like to talk with their T-shirts, there are messages.
The gym T-shirt with a message reveals a good deal about the types and their motives for being here. There are belligerent, call-you-out, my-workout-is-better-than-your-workout shirts, which fit with a general trend of insulting text on clothing tops, in or out of gyms. I’m not talking about the narcissistic “God of the Gym” self-promos, but the “Maybe You Should Train as Hard as You Complain” messages.
Most T-shirt injunctions I see are the self-encouraging kind: “No Day Off,” “Hustle for the Muscle,” and the ones that urge us to bear down: “Better Sore Than Sorry,” “Earn Your Shower,” and “Sweat Shirt.” Some are self-congratulatory, suggesting the shower has already been earned; others, such as “Body Under Construction,” hint that there is still work to be done.
The best messages try for humor, from the resigned “Well It’s Not Going to Lift Itself” to the hapless “Does Running Late Count as Exercise?” and the perhaps wistful desire to be elsewhere in “Gym and Tonic.” Gender matters; few women’s shirts talk about quads or lats. “I Don’t Sweat, I Sparkle” is popular, with or without glitter. My favorite women’s T has a quote from Shakespeare: “Though She Be Little She Is Fierce.” Is there a gender-specific message in “Strong Is the New Sexy”?
We’re a mixed lot here at the gym. I consider myself among the hard cases: the hurt and the halt and the lame. I discovered after my second back operation that only regular exercise could keep me from back spasm and sciatica, so I am an almost daily communicant here. Others are recovering from joint replacements, fractures, surgeries. The very obese among us have finally had their resolve to lose weight, for so long a mere velleity, energized by grisly warnings from their doctors. I come often enough to watch progress in my fellow gym goers, including real weight loss and the return of muscle tone. Most, alas, I don’t see after a few visits; they have either lost heart or gone to a better gym.
The fitness bunch are largely young people who use the aerobic machines with occasional short visits to the weight room. Some of these are athletes, here because their regular training places are unavailable for some reason: it may be a holiday, or they’re on a holiday away from home. The others in this group are not athletes but just like to stay fit. My estimate is that young women predominate in the fitness bunch. But for men and women alike, the gym can be part of their discipline to control their weight as well. And they may be here just because of the general good feeling and energy regular exercise gives.
The “muscle batch” is what I’m calling the denizens of the weight room whose efforts look to me to be exclusively aimed at building muscle. I consider them the oddest specimens here, though you might say this is a house they and their kind built. They come out of the weight room and wander the rest of the gym sometimes to cool off or just to display, but I rarely see them on the treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical trainers, or stationary bicycles that make up the cardio machine section.
There are young men there who look like the Greek ideal visible in statues of the kouros, an idealized figure of a youth who is moderately muscled, wide at the shoulders, narrow at the hips. But for many in the weight room, it seems that ideal is not enough, and they go past perfection to a stage where biceps, chest, and shoulders look not so much developed as inflated.
It’s my impression that most of the muscle-batch guys are shorter than I am. At five feet nine, I am a half inch below the current American male average height, according to the CDC’s 2010 Anthropometric Reference Data. Interestingly, Marla Matzer Rose says a lot of the men in the original Muscle Beach crowd were small.
I sometimes see men here who apparently work on upper-body strength to the exclusion of everything else, so a fellow with large biceps, pectoral, and abdominal muscles seems to be walking around on spindly legs. But then a second take tells me the legs are perfectly normal but just look attenuated by comparison with the hyperdeveloped upper body. Differential bodybuilding in men shows up all around me in barrel-chested guys who’ve worked hard on biceps and other arm muscles but who have prominent bellies.
The women who spend a lot of time in the weight room develop upper-body muscle but never approaching the bulging biceps of the men. Some have prominent gluteal muscles and a tendency toward frog thighs. I can only guess that within this body culture, the look is perceived as sexy. At any rate, it seems to be sought. I suspect that women who visit the gym on a casual basis regard the machines that work hip and thigh muscles as slimming. The muscle-culture women know better and are cultivating muscular thighs and glutes. Personally, I find the muscled butt unsexy, looking steatopygous rather than toned: a muscle-bustle.
The subject of who’s attractive in the gym leads me to a favorite people-watching activity here: looking at the couples. Lots of couples come to the gym. “My favorite pair,” says my woman friend, “is an elderly couple that shows up together and maneuvers from one machine to the next, very slowly, she coaching him and he listening very carefully to her.” The fitness couples may come in together, but they usually split up right away, each with a program in mind. I will sometimes see him join her when she’s almost finished with her run on the treadmill, or vice-versa.
The muscle-batch couples occasionally have separate routines also, but the pairs that interest me are the ones who work out together, he showing her how it’s done with the big numbers on the resistance setting, then scaling them back for her workout on the same machine, and finally giving her little tips about form as she does the same routine. The couple I’m watching at the moment is one muscled guy accompanied by an equally strong-looking and slightly taller woman. Today I’ve also seen a couple at the resistance machines consisting of a large man and a woman half his size.
When I consider these romances seemingly growing out of a mutual love of physical culture, I can’t help wondering whether the romantic passion and the passion for body toning are equal on both sides. Could one of the lovers have a less avid love for the clean and jerk than the bill and coo? Does she—or possibly he—go to the gym so often just because the other wants to?
There is another book with the title Muscle Beach, but this one is a novel, written by Ira Wallach in 1959. Wallach tells the story of a muscle-building couple, Jocie and Harry. The narrator of the novel is a New Yorker transplanted to California, named Carlo. Carlo sees Jocie on the beach and becomes infatuated with her perfect body. By means of deception and guile, Carlo succeeds in detaching Jocie from Harry, and for a while, he imagines that he’s got his dream girl. But Jocie and Harry are thinking about each other when they’re not thinking about their own bodies, and when Jocie leaves to rejoin Harry, Carlo is a little sad, but he grasps the inevitable mutual magnetism of the pair.
“Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body,” advises Walt Whitman, who wrote a column on “Manly Health and Training” for The New York Atlas in 1858. Though nothing like the modern commercial gym was available to him—and he preferred the open air anyway—Whitman endorsed using weights, boxing, sparring or punching a heavy bag, walking, swimming, rowing, jumping jacks, climbing—even dancing—as exercise. It’s fair to say that Whitman’s enthusiasm for vigorous exercise leads him to exaggerate its virtues. He claims that “natural moral goodness is developed in proportion with a sound physical development.” Exercise often goes to people’s heads, as when Michael Serres says it is allied to saintliness. Whitman, with characteristic self-admiration, thinks it also makes him handsome—“yes, handsome—for it is not for nothing that all through the human race there is the universal desire that the body should not only be well, but look well.” And this brings me back to the mirrors.
I reject the interior decorators’ banal explanation that the mirrors are there to make the rooms look larger; the truly enormous gyms are the ones with the most mirrors. No, the mirrors are there so we can look at ourselves. The gym experience is all about self-regard. We’re all at the gym because we have looked at ourselves: literally, in a mirror, or in the mind’s reflecting on our state of muscle tone, energy, endurance. We have looked at ourselves and decided we want to find or preserve something in us: decrease a belly or augment a bicep; make a joint more mobile or a back stronger. Even for the least vain among us, the mirrors serve a purpose. My woman friend, who has just finished her run on the treadmill, picks up her bag and gives a little smile to her reflection in the mirror by the door as she leaves.
Michael Cohen’s A Place to Read: Life and Books (Interactive Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-922120-92-2, is available from Interactive Press: http://ipoz.biz/ipstore and from Amazon, in paperback or Kindle http: //tinyurl.com/k8m6zyb or from Barnes & Noble, in paperback and Nook http://tinyurl.com/qzwsy2b
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