Air Can’t Punch Back
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Beach House"
Originally featured on 06-17-2008
As part of our series "Summer Indulgence"

By the tenth jumping jack, I was feeling like my feet and gravity had exchanged some bitter words and would be spending some time apart, perhaps sleeping in separate beds. Kind of like me and Jessica. …which is, more or less, the reason I’m at the spa. She knew that’s where I was headed, even before I stomped out of the apartment.

How the heck did she know that? Must have been the bulge in my knapsack that could have held nothing other than a towel and shorts. Or maybe she wanted me to, and was projecting want.

She even made fun of me for it. “Going to the gym, huh? You are, aren’t you? Good for you, take that machismo and go curl some dumbbells.” She did her generic dumb-jock impression that always used to crack me up, the one where she narrows her eyes and pulls her mouth toward her hunched shoulders so that they almost meet, and talks like she’s holding hardboiled eggs deep in her throat (when I offered that description once, she joked that she was bench pressing the eggs with her tonsils). “Me angry, me had fight with girlfriend, me go lift weights and feel better, then come home all sweaty and-

I slammed the door before I heard any more of it.

Getting in my car, I thought, I can’t go to the gym now, not after she ruined it. Then I thought, screw that, I’m going to be the embodiment of her little taunt. That’ll show her. Maybe there’ll be some cute women working out, they’ll see that look in my face and that driven determination in my physicality and they’ll know why I came and they’ll feel sorry for me. I mean, not that I would…

(My other thought was that I’m pretty sure I heard something fall and crash after the door slammed.)

When I got there, for some reason I didn’t much feel like lifting. Then I saw the line of people filtering in the door of the little aerobics dojo with the orange and navy green “MOTIVATION” banner hanging from the ceiling, the one with the letters all formed by cartoon shapes of flexing spandex-clad bods. I couldn’t resist. There’s nothing Jessica despises more than aerobics classes.

The instructor was this petit Latino woman with bangs and an I-just-ate-your-sister-for-lunch smile—her jaw was slightly too big for her head—wearing a leotard with lightning bolt graphics. Her arms and legs looked not unlike lightning bolts. Summer…

By the eleventh jumping jack, I know that this isn’t for me. The pulsing bass of a revamped electro version of some Rick Springfield song over surround sound makes the rectangular room feel like we’re all microbes traversing the inside of an aortic valve. I can feel the beat unequivocally, but I’m not exactly inspired. My legs feel like they’ve been doused in gasoline and set on fire from the inside.

It’s not as if I’m not challenged, but this does nothing to evoke the thrill and work ethic of exercise drills in high school baseball practice. The people in this room are not training for an athletic competition that will bulldoze open doors to their future. There’s no team camaraderie or purpose; it’s a room full of strangers who just left the office and wanted to get some blood flowing in the sixty seven minutes before they’re due to pick up their kids from daycare. This has nothing to do with victory. This is TV shopping mall fitness. Jessica is right; it represents everything that’s wrong with America.

But then something happens. I think it’s around the fourteenth jumping jack when that smile is aimed in my direction. This time it’s not saying ‘I just ate your sister.’ Summer has scanned the room and targeted the shy new guy who’s never been to a group aerobics class before, and her smile is saying ‘it will all be alright.’ And as long as I’m doing jumping jacks, I believe her.

Now she’s talking about heart rates and beats per minute—BPM’s—and pointing to a color-coded pyramid poster on the wall. She tells us that we’re entering the red zone, the anaerobic portion of the hour, and it’s time to give it all we’ve got. Abs engaged. Get those legs higher, hold, hold, one more count, don’t lose it.

“And if you get lost, just keep moving!” At high volume, the accent in Summer’s voice is like the hint of alcohol in a white wine marinade sauce.

After leaving Summer’s Step To The Eighties cardio class and holding onto the water fountain as if it will float away, I think back on the day and realize why I slammed that door (and I definitely heard something fall and crash behind it). The reason is so simple and obvious it amazes me it took me till now to see it. It horrifies me to think that I might have gone through the day and never come to that nugget of self-awareness.

I wonder if all the people leaving class are having their own personal epiphanies as they hydrate themselves, nuances of their day snapping into place like combination locks opening in their brains. In the locker room I peel off warm, sticky layers of clothing and fling them onto the bench where they reverberate with a rubbery slap.

I visualize the weight of those putrid wadded up clothing articles as globs of body fat that will never have opportunity to exist in my skin. Standing naked, I struggle to remember the combination to my lock.

In my lightheadedness, I suppose it should feel strange to be walking around naked among men. I’m not used to locker rooms—not since high school. I try to think of it as ancient Rome as I make my way to the shower. Are all the other men sizing me up?

Privacy is a modern bourgeois notion that’s absurd when you really think about it. Communal showers make sense. Guys idly exchanging pleasantries as they towel themselves off with their genitals hanging out, it makes sense. Nobody’s sizing anybody up. Even electro pop remixes of Rick Springfield hits makes sense in a way. Outside the concrete walls of the spa, people are wasting away sitting at their desks, in front of their televisions, behind the wheels of their cars, typing away at computers and watching Reality television programs on their cell phones while I perform endless jumping jacks till my body tries to go on strike but Summer intimidates the crap out of me so I burst through my fatigue threshold and everyone in the room whoops and claps their hands because they all feel it too, the choreography and the pounding bass invading our bodies until there seems to be nothing else left inside. And then we’re naked and the world slows down by half a beat, and things become clearer.

 

I slammed the door because if I had waited any longer and heard another syllable of Jessica’s demeaning soliloquy, it would have made me smile.

 

Now I have no choice but to start attending Step To The Eighties every Tuesday and Thursday, and maybe check out the Core Octane Power Punch class Summer leads Saturday mornings at nine thirty. I wonder if burning calories is really what it’s all about. I will not tell Jessica about this new habit of mine. Unless she asks. …Unless she asks.

She asks.

“Actually, y’know, I kind of liked it.”

She didn’t ask right away when I came in. And she didn’t ask to ask; she asked because the silence was drilling a hole in her stomach. She may win the argument, but I’m much better at the tense, silent part, the stage of the fight where we both go about our own business, because I can hold out infinitely longer. I was in the house for twenty minutes before she asked me how the gym was and I told her about the class.

Yeah, I kind of liked it.

“Of course. You were pissed at me. Room packed with women in tight clothing, insecure women, all hot and sweaty and shaking their booty, what’s not to like?”

I look at Jessica, trying to make my look say ‘I won’t dignify that with a defense, you know I’m not that kind of guy,’ but my face probably says something more juvenile and less grammatical.

“I can’t believe you went to one of those things.”

“Those things? You say it like it’s a cult orgy.”

“What’s the difference? You’ve got a leader in the front of the room giving a sermon, she says dance, you dance, she says on the floor, you enthusiastically assume position, she counts to ten and you shout’em with her. I believe that’s called a catechism. Then, once you’re exhausted from the ritual, she says go get your mats. Kind of like saying open your prayer books and turn to page we’re all a bunch of sorry, unimaginative, diet-obsessed suburban lemmings looking for our next cliff.”

“I agree with you. But try one class. I dare you.”

“If they would keep their mouths shut, I’d almost consider. You really think I want to spend thirty minutes of my day listening to drivel about fitting into some old pair of jeans, and their neurotic obsessions with the half a chocolate chip cookie they ate between meals, and the cute running joke about the chocolate chip cookies you’re permitted to eat after class, and those guilt trips—girlies if you shake your hips like you knows you wants to, you’ll burn ten more calories, and if you yell whoohoo like you’re enjoying yourselves, you burn fifty. I’d rather spend an extra half hour on the toilet being constipated—I’d learn more about myself, and I’d probably burn more calories that way.”

“You’re totally missing the point.”

“I’m honored to be missing the point. Give me a medal to wear around my neck that says I missed the point and I’m proud to have missed it.”

“Granted.”

“By the way, this is your fault.” She handed me a dustpan containing the shattered remnants of the green seashell that had been mounted above the door since we first moved in, the one I had found during our weekend at her Uncle Edwin’s beach house on Clambake Island last summer. I looked down at it and did not take the dustpan from her hand. She shook it and jabbed it into my chest. “Take it, jerk. Go to the coast and find us a better one.”

“Now?”

“No, two hours ago.”

“It won’t be that sweet of a gesture now if you thought of it and demanded it.”

“You like when I tell you what to do.”

“Oh?”

“Wait, no. You like to be ordered around by some bimbo in spandex. How about I go slip into a sports bra and sweat pants, put on some of the worst nineties dance music I can find, and then send you on a mission to the coast to bring back something beautiful. Will you?”

“Come with me to one class, and I’ll do anything.”

She turned on the radio and tuned it to the local Oldies station. She removed her jeans and her sweatshirt. “Looks like we’re at an aerobics class and you’re the teacher. We should probably start with a stretching routine.” She lifts up a leg and tries to raise it above her head.

I run to the door, exit the apartment, get in my car and start driving. The coast is about two hours and fifteen minutes away. Why I ran out at that moment—for the second time today—I can only guess. If I go to another class tomorrow, maybe I’ll understand the summation of my actions while I’m collapsed over the water fountain.

Maybe I thought it would be funny to retreat at the moment of reconciliation, that transitional tenderness between post-argument hostility and passionate makeup sex. She loves illogical randomness—we could laugh about it for years. But I don’t think that was why I did it.

Perhaps I found her playfulness inappropriate, and was actually un-aroused by the proposition of parodying fitness for foreplay. Sexual overtures are sacred, her general irreverence toward all things is sacred, and other things are sacred too. Somehow the combination was abominable. But, still I’m just guessing.

I will reach the beach by sundown. As I sit above the highway feeling the miles groom my scalp, I twirl the radio dial between my thumb and pinky and find some Eighties music and I wonder if it will all be alright.

 

For that hour, you don’t think. You can’t think. And after you leave that rectangular room that’s made almost entirely of mirrors and condensation, you can’t feel, you can only think. That’s the point of it; the exertion renders you emotionally numb. This is how I will explain it to Jessica when I get home.

When a person daydreams, as a person normally will, a person’s mind knows where the boundaries are, and in the interests of avoiding minefields, certain subjects go unprocessed and certain prepositions un-pondered. With emotions turned off, your mind is issued an all-access press pass—you can think about anything and anyone without experiencing anxiety or pain. You can walk on fire and stare directly into eclipses.

The effect lasts for a couple hours at most, and that’s when you do your best decision making. Jumping jacks deliver you to objectivity. Jessica will think it’s pretty rad when I put it to her like that.

But first, I need to find something beautiful.

 

Walking in the sand, all I can think of is that pulsing bass and that rectangular room. There is a clear and definite hierarchy in there, and it has little to do with who stands in the front row and who in the back; it’s how many of those plastic notches you place under your Step. Novices are advised to use one. The more experienced use two, and the brazen use three.

By February, I will be using three.

In my fantasy, Summer is walking along the beach toward me, we meet, ankles buried in the surf. She makes a quick evaluation of my shirtless torso, shakes her head and says "Do you want to get serious about your fitness or don’t you?" She starts to remove her bathing suit-

I stop short and my head jerks back like a fish flopping in sand. I just made an impromptu hundred and forty mile road trip to acquire some cheesy memento for Jessica, and I’m fantasizing about screwing my aerobics instructor. Then again, who doesn’t, these days?

I need to broaden my recreation. Yoga, cycling, kickboxing, so many calories to burn, so little time. Thinking about it, I break into a jog, and then I remember that it’s difficult to look for exotic shells when you're jogging and humming the Rocky theme song under your breath.

 

I return home at a quarter past midnight. Jessica is asleep. In the morning, she rolls over and asks me—half consciously—what I brought back for her. I say something evasive, kiss her on the cheek and go to work.

 

By my third visit to the rectangular room, I can fully diagram the social spectrum of archetypes. You have your packs of confident young women who smile and laugh and make the choreography look easy when we’re standing, but once we get down on our mats for pushups, their fun is over. Then you have your business professionals who come to relieve stress (I imagine these women at the start of their careers were offered a choice between a smoking habit and a gym membership, and tossed a coin).

-None of this would entertain Jessica-

There’s always the innocent newcomer, who is immediately welcomed and made to feel at home by the gruff middle-aged woman who is infectiously congenial, and you get the feeling that if everyone was in a bar and a motorcycle gang came in and made a single lewd gesture at Cute Innocent Newcomer Girl, Gruff Middle-aged Woman would be throwing glasses and swinging bar stools before the biker’s tongue could retract back into his mouth. Avuncular best describes this archetype, if there was a female version of that word. Which brings me to the most troublesome archetype.

Male attendees are, as expected, in the minority, but there’s always that one male regular who feels the need to assert his presence by exaggerating all the movements and never once smiling.

-Jessica might be amused when I describe this guy-

He stands about five foot five and has the body of a fifteenth century Scottish lumberjack. When he does jumping jacks, his eyes open wide enough to swallow my entire skull, and his body moves with the enthusiasm of a tongue savoring mead. This is his feast. If I ever met Creepy Stout Male in a dark alley, I would hope Gruff Middle-aged Woman was by my side.

If I ever crossed paths with Creepy Stout Male naked in the locker room, I would want Gruff Middle-aged Woman there with me even more.

-I want to see Jessica impersonate him so that we can have a new reason to laugh till our insides un-spool late at night over glasses of wine, then I’ll feel safe-

I watch him. We all do. Either out of fascination or fear or sheer spectacle, I’m not sure which. The maniac seems to think he’s the protagonist of an action movie and it’s always the final scene. He starts the class wearing a skin-tight white t shirt, and leaves class wearing an ocean. He starts sweating almost immediately. Fifteen minutes into class, there are two half-moons of it saturating his shirt just below his pectoral muscles. From there his perspiration—which smells like radioactive clam chowder—sprouts tentacles up over his shoulders and across his abdominals in a V shape toward his crotch. By the time we’re in the Red Zone, a cloud of sprits envelopes his histrionics where cascading sweat from his face has collided with the rotary motion of his arms and legs. By the end of class, there is always a single dry spot in the middle of his chest, diamond shaped and about the size of a snail shell. This makes me wonder if Creepy Stout Male fantasizes about Summer when he’s walking on the beach.

The next class I go to, Creepy Stout Male is there with his white shirt, but as his sweat circumnavigates his trunk, it takes on a pink coloration.

The alien, the creature, the fanatic, the aerobics connoisseur, the monster is sweating blood. I want no physiological explanation for this, even if there is a simple one. It makes me sick to wonder how many chocolate chip cookies he will permit himself.

-Regarding my gift to Jessica-

Later in the locker room, he seems to think we’re buddies. Gives me the conspiratorial nod—his lone brethren in a female world—and introduces himself.

-I’d like to think it’s superior to the shell it’s meant to replace-

I tell him I’m new, just checking it out. He warns me that the movements will start to work their way into my mannerisms in daily life, at the office, at home… I will start clapping my hands at inappropriate times to motivate myself. I will unconsciously be miming intense little karate chop gestures in my anecdotes.

This information from a whackjob whose shirt turns pink when he sweats.

I think of hardboiled eggs. Tonsil presses. Hunched shoulders. Potential for laughter is not within my body’s reach. Humor does not live in this locker room.

-Something about machismo-

I want to tell him that I will never become him. I want to tell him how pathetic he looks throwing punches at thin air. That’s what we’re all doing, but when he does it, it looks like he means it, like he not only intends to injure thin air, but succeeds every time.

The question I’m left with is, where do I fit in?

-We should probably start with a stretching routine-

How is it possible that I feel an expanding weightlessness in the pit of my chest, rotting the stomach tissue it touches as it spirals upward with decreasing momentum that scorches more thoroughly? I’m not supposed to feel anything for a hundred and eight more minutes. And how is it possible that Creepy Stout Male seems to understand?

 

I exit the locker room with my hair heavily clean. My button-down shirt feels like a whole city within which my exhausted body is wandering.

Creepy Stout Male is right behind me.

Summer is standing by the merchandise table giving counsel to a threesome of confident young women I recognize from the class. She stands with her palm anchored against the smallest part of her back, crouched slightly with her right leg crossed over her left knee and her other hand clasping her right foot in a stretch. She looks more comfortable than most people do when they’re sleeping.

Before I can catch any snippets of Summer’s conversation with the three women — and I am genuinely curious — they all depart. As I pass by Summer, she stops me with a friendly nod. Or perhaps her nod is meant for Mister Crimson Pores behind me.

“Thanks for coming,” she exclaims. I’m not sure what it is that compels me to turn around. My educated guess is it’s the rising inflection — not like bread rising, but like a sprinter ascending a staircase — of her voice that is disarmingly intimate when stripped of a microphone and the surround-sound bass of a rectangular dojo.

I tell her I’m enjoying myself.

“You’re picking up fast.” She pokes me in the shoulder. She then says to Creepy Stout Male, “I hope you’re not talking locker-room trash to my new boy here.”

Creepy Stout Male raises his hands in a guilty-as-charged gesture and says, “That you, Summer? I didn’t recognize you standing still.”

For some reason it worries me that the two of them have rapport. I’m tempted to ask her a ridiculous question, something specific about my diet, but I can’t think of anything, so I sneak past them with a smile and a wave and briskly leave the gym.

-By the way, this is your fault-

 

I really hope Jessica will like her gift. I know she will.

I close the door behind me and toss my knapsack onto the bed, realizing that there’s more snap in my movements than before. Anything I notice, Jessica will have noticed eons earlier.

I stand against the door and wait for her to speak. She speaks. “Hey, stranger.”

“That was weird of me to…um.”

She swings her legs around in the chair, twirls a brownish apple core in her fingers and says, “Hey. Take off your shirt for a moment. No, never mind.”

I attack like a bolt of lightning and snatch the apple core out of her hand with my teeth. She shrieks. We’re on the bed before her startled cry finishes in a laugh like fizz from a jostled soda bottle after the hiss.

By the nine hundredth jumping jack, I will know better.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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