You jog to the pool every morning. The sun flirts with the horizon, but youíve been up for two hours already doing push-ups and sit-ups on your bedroom floor. Sets of 100 or 200 depending on the exercise and the muscles they target. Youíve eaten a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread for breakfast. One piece of bread folded over. Your mind thinks itís a sandwich, but youíve saved 110 calories. Youíve cut the jelly, too. The end product probably contains around 450 calories. Youíre estimating the amount in the peanut butter; itís 190 a serving, but you didnít measure it. Now itís time to burn it all off.
You dive into the pool and begin the first lap of what will be a thirty-minute swim. You can taste the remnants of the peanut butter half-sandwich in your mouth. Its sweetness is motivation. For you, food is not something to be enjoyed, itís something to be burnedóa commodity measured in the number of laps in a pool or sprints up the metal bleachers at the high school football field. Youíre chasing Adonis, and he never stops. He never slows down.
When youíre done at the pool you shower, throw on a dark-blue polo shirt and head to work. The shirt is tight. It contours to the ďVĒ of your torso and the concave of your waist where your hip bones protrude and slope down past the safety of your belt. Youíre hungry. Your muscles twitch, but your endorphins kick in. The high they bring is a momentary relief from the thought of food. You can make it. You donít need anything yet. Your next meal is scheduled for 3 p.m. Egg whites with lettuce. 120 calories maximum. Itís 8 a.m. now, and sticking to your routine wouldnít be too hard if you didnít work in the kitchen of a deli.
This is your summer break. Your time away from college split between work and off-season training. You play baseball. You pitch, and youíre good, but youíre not good enough to spend these months in a big-time summer league. You have to make do with what you have, and you find your ways.
You spend the first four hours of your eight-hour shift frying eggs and omelets, making pancakes and French toast. Deli policy is to measure everything. Thereís a strict amount, a quota of ingredients for each meal and sandwich. You always put in a tad more, and when youíre behind the counter with the meats making heroes you stuff them a little bit thicker with cold cuts and lettuce and tomatoes. They bulge through the wrapping. Lettuce spills from their sides as you drop them in the brown-paper bags that you hand to the customers with a smile. You like cooking for people. It makes you happy, and sometimes youíre lucky enough that those you serve sit on the benches outside the deliís front window to eat their lunches. You pause for a moment to admire them if you can, to see them gobble down turkey and roast beef and Virginia ham and Muenster cheese layered together between Kaiser rolls. Their enjoyment brings you a special sense of satisfaction. Maybe one day you wonít need to watch what you consume. You tell yourself that you will be one of them, someday.
On your longer shifts or when itís slow you grab a chocolate-chip cookie from the display case and head to the bathroom where you chew it for a bit, savor the taste of the chocolate and the butter and the sugar before you spit it out into the small garbage-can next to the toilet and rinse your mouth with water. The momentary ecstasy is enough. Youíve tricked your body into thinking it was fed. Diet Pepsi works too.
You have a girlfriend. She came up to you at a party and told you that you were cute. She told you that she saw you all the time at the gym. She wanted to know why you never said hi to her, but she flitted away before you could explain.
Two weeks later you woke up naked in her bed. You went to pull your shirt from the floor but she stopped you, asking instead for a second to admire you. That thrilled you. It isnít every day you hear a former model utter such words. You joined her back in bed. You had a languid morning, but when you left you didnít brag to your teammates; you headed to the gym.
Soon you started researching food and supplements. You've always been active. You've always been in shape, but now the stakes are higher.You fall in love with protein-to-carbohydrate exchanges, with anything that is protein.
You know sheís spending a semester in Spain next fall. The summer will be rough, but you make plans to see her every three weeks. She says she doesnít mind, that it wonít be that bad. In your mind you imagine meeting her friends. You imagine how they will whisper to her when you are out of earshot: I wish I had one like that. Itís the refrain that echoes through your head each time you flip-turn in the pool.
Your mother says youíve never passed a mirror you didnít like. Itís true, in a way. Itís not that youíre vain; youíre concerned. Mirrors are opportunities. Theyíre random check-points throughout the day. Car windows or darkened glass doors. The front of the medicine cabinet in the deli bathroom. You pause in front of them. You glance around before lifting your shirtóthe surreptitious ab-glance. Sometimes you think it will disappear if you donít check on itóthat mountain range on your stomach. You fear it will erode, vanish in an instant, be swallowed by a hungry layer of skin. Your mind counts quickly in pairs: two, four, six, eight. Theyíre all still there. You drop your shirt and continue on.
Lately carbohydrates have become the enemy. You fight the war the best you can, but itís hard. Youíre Italian. Youíve been raised on pasta and grains, on olive oil and plump loaves of moist semolina bread. Your mother always cooks. She thinks itís her job to have a meal ready for you when you arrive home to begin your second workout of the dayóa five-kilometer runóbut you leave the lasagna and manicotti untouched. You move onto tuna fish and skinless chicken breast, always plain. Itís the protein that counts. Occasionally you allow yourself a slice of mozzarella cheeseó160 calories per two ounces. Occasionally.
Every three weeks you visit your girlfriend. You drive through Brooklyn and Staten Island, sitting in unmoored traffic until you arrive in New Jersey, the mainland. There you speed along tree-lined roads and through the Alleghenys towards the weekends in Leola, PA where she will gaze at your body with that awe as she climbs on top of you. You live for these visits, for the validation that your regime is working. So you allow yourself to be a bit decadent. For three days you allow yourself a break from your routine. You allow yourself to splurge. You allow yourself four slices of crappy Pennsylvania pizza, but her friends never say anything. They never cover their mouths to whisper. When you arrive home you begin all over again. Theyíll say something, eventually.
You arrive back at college: 160 pounds, tan and cut, the envy of the men you pass, the desire of the women. You walk around the quad with your shirt off for the first time. You enjoy the slow death of the summer sun on your bare chest, your exposed back. You see heads turning towards you out of the corners of your eyes and you force back a smile. This would all be fine if you werenít 6í4Ē tall, if you didnít wear a 46-long jacket, if in high school you hadnít been 210 pounds and built like a no-neck linebacker with just a bit of flesh covering the bumps of your abdominals, the bulge of your pectorals and the lumps of your biceps. But no heads had turned then. Mass sacrificed for the greater good.
When you receive the e-mail from your girlfriend about a Spanish man named Alfredo, you vow never to eat that sauce againóas though you would eat something composed entirely of butter and cream anyway.
In seventh grade youíre in the locker room changing. You wore a jockstrap that rode up on you underneath the tight pair of blue, one-size-fits-all shorts that was the dress code for P.E. when your friend M— grabbed the side of your waist and yelled pudge! You slapped his arm away, but he pulled at the skin, laughing as you hurried to throw your shirt over your head. M— was lean, a runner. He looked like a pre-pubescent Andy Garcia and you envied how his body glistened in the muted, fluorescent locker-room light, how girls tended to not care when he yanked the scrunchies out of their hair as he passed them in the hallway. You think of M— when youíre on the treadmill or doing morning sprints. You recall the last time you saw himóhis mature form. His growth stunted at 5í6Ē, a round stomach bursting with the pasta you no longer eat, hints of gray marring the tops of his once jet-black hair, and you smile.
When you see G—, your teammate, heís wearing a backward Texas Rangers baseball cap and gray sweatpants. Itís 88 degrees and humid, August in upstate New York, but heís cold. Heís from El Paso. He greets you with something in Spanish that you donít understand; the language makes you cringe.
As he approaches you, you study him. His black shirt lacks sleeves, having been cut away to reveal thick arms and the hint of a line underscoring the bottom of his swollen chest. Heís only 5í7Ē, but heís probably pushing 190 pounds. The weight youíve shed seems to have been magically transported to his frame.
He hugs you. You tell him about your ex, about Alfredo. He tells you he will get you big and make you pretty. He says sheíll regret it. He smiles and whistles the way he does when heís excited. You smile even though you know G—ís juicing. Itís not possible to gain the weight heís gained in three months. Youíve done the research. You think about doing it yourself on the days your body wonít respond to the weights. You think about Andro and Testopropenol and whatever the FDA hasnít struck from behind the counter at GNC, whatever the NCAA isnít testing for nowadays. Youíre 157 pounds and throwing 86 miles per hour from the bump. If you got your weight back you could be pushing 90, and imagine what you would look like at 195 pounds, layers of muscles over the muscles you already have, but the idea of gaining weight scares you.
You want to ask G— some things as he strolls to the bench and loads the bar with weights. 300 pounds total. Almost two of yourself. You spot him as he benches it effortlesslyóone, two, three, four, five timesóbefore he rests the bar back on its cradle, springs up and whistles giddily. You tell him youíve been doing sets of one-arm push-ups. He tells you that youíre joining him six days a week in the gym. He tells you that he doesnít do this for himself; he does it because women are superficial. You laugh. You want to tell him that you do this because youíre chasing Adonis, that because, maybe, if you do it long enough, sheíll come back, but heís already lifted the bar from its cradle before youíve had your chance.
You and G— live inside of the gym, and youíre there whenever you can be, whether or not heís there with you. Sometimes you go twice a day, others three, but only if youíve eaten an extra meal that you need to burn off. Itís harder to eat well. The college dining hall fries everything. You live on egg whites and toasted wheat bread.
There are days you see your coach walking by when youíre on the treadmill. He waves and smiles. He opens the door and sticks his head inside. He yells get after it at you. You point at him in recognition. The treadmill is at 10, a six-minute mile, though it feels like a jog even as you watch the “Calories Burned” number rise upwards of 400, 500, 600, but inside youíre furious that the machine doesnít go any faster. The one to your right used to. It went up to 12. A plastic sign reading Out of Order sits atop it now. You rode it too hard. The belt started skipping and one day it just shut off on you. You beat it, but the gym staff responded by capping the rest of the machines at 10. It doesnít matter. Youíll beat this one, too.
When you get tired you tell yourself each lunge on this treadmill brings you closer to Madrid. It surges your adrenaline. You try to run faster, but your thighs only end up bumping against the safety bar.
Weekends come. Beer abounds, but you donít drink it anymore. Youíve spent too much time researching the calories of each brand—Bud Light: 110, Coors Light: 102, Miller Light: 88, Busch Light: 95, and you canít justify wasting the time youíve spent in the gym on these excesses. Long nights require longer mornings filled with hoppy, malted sweat. You switch to Bacardi, 151 proof—you figure on getting the maximum output for the minimum input, except that you used to be a happy drunkógarrulous and harmless. Now you punch out windows, and you wonder if these acts are somehow whispered to your ex in Spain.
Hallowe’en you dress up as Jesus. You wear a white robe and a pair of gray boxers with a button over the fly, just in case. Youíve earned the body youíre trying to show off. People flock to you. They tell you itís a great costume. People you donít know pose for pictures with you, and you hope that these shots end up on the internet so that your ex can see them. Provocatively-dressed women are ubiquitous, but you ignore them. Half-naked, you feel cheap, on sale. You try to make a phone call to Spain, but it fails to go through. You donít know the country code, so you go back to your dorm where you change into your running shoes and spend the rest of the night running up and down the flights of stairs that lead to your fourth-floor dorm room.
In November your coach calls a meeting. Heís not happy with the efforts heís seen. He says that he passes the weight room daily, and that he sees the same faces all the time and not enough of them. Then he points to you. He praises you. He holds you up as an example. He extols your work ethic. He wants the rest of them to be like you. Youíre 153 pounds now, and sheís decided to stay in Spain for the year. You found it out through her friend.
The pool has closed, but youíre back on the high school bleachers. Theyíve paved the track and you use that more now. Itís easier on your knees than those metal stands. As you run you can see him off in the distance, through the clouds of your breath that form in the January air with each panting breath you take. Itís tougher to run in the cold. The air chills your lungs. You tire more quickly, but you can still see him off in the distance—Adonis, his blond hair flowing and bouncing with each one of his graceful strides. He wears a loin cloth. His skin is smooth and brown and he doesnít seem to mind the cold. He never stops. He never slows down. And he never turns to look at you, to check if youíre gaining on him. Heís not concerned. And you? You put your head down and push, harder.
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