She was thin, so thin that her breasts had disappeared somewhere in the folds of her warm up jacket. It was certainly not the first time I had seen her in the gym. She was there nearly every time I was, running like a rat in a maze—fast and relentlessly on a treadmill or exercycle. She was in the best shape of anyone I’d seen in quite a while. No matter how fast she exercised, no matter how much sweat dripped from her body, I never saw her pant. I could really discern no reason why she should stop, except from boredom, or because she had an appointment. When I saw her on weekends, when there were no other time demands, she outlasted everyone. I began to think of her as a fixture—one of the machines, perhaps a demonstration model.
I began to notice another pattern. Though she looked as if she had not eaten for weeks, she watched the food channel, selected the station on both flat screens available in the gym. She would follow the creation of all sorts of concoctions, some of them with thick honey and sugar glazes, or whipped cream, or cheese fondues, or lavish icings. She took it all in. She seemed to be consoled that someone was handling all these important details about food.
I was random at the times of my exercising. I would arrive at 6:00 or at 8:00 or sometimes 9:00 in the morning, or perhaps on a weekend at 2 or 3, or 4. I never knew, but she was often there, and it began to concern me in the way you wonder about homeless people with mental problems: are they as harmless as people say? Even so, I found myself resisting entering into a conversation with her, or befriending her, concerned that the exchange would either be irrational, or if rational, would overlook the fact that an emaciated elephant occupied the living room. She had her supposed secret. Being polite, we agreed to act as if the woman in front of us was not flirting with death.
Over the months, I noticed she seemed to grown more gaunt. She seemed like a machine shedding everything except pulleys and cords that moved just beneath her oversized clothing. Her concentration was amazing. She seemed more and more pulled into her own movements, until her world existed as a tight circle just inches from her body. Her determination to push herself for hours at a time would have been heroic if only it had a cause.
One late evening, I decided to do a workout. As I walked to the gym, I doubted anyone would be there, but I thought of her, as if in a dream she had become a ghost haunting the place, or a fixture that only the management could remove. I half expected to see her there. The TV monitors were on. When I entered, I saw her around the corner, reading a magazine, peddling hard.
“Excuse me,” I said, walking up to her. She looked up from her magazine. She glanced up at the TV monitor to do a quick check of the meat being braised by a very flamboyant chef. Then, annoyed, she looked at me. The point was to leave me standing there a few seconds waiting for her acknowledgment. She didn’t speak. “I have friends who suffer from eating disorders. I just want to tell you that you’re obviously not well, and need help. I urge you to get medical help. Your situation is very serious, even life threatening.”
She looked at me quizzically, as if I had just made a totally incomprehensible statement. “Do you have a problem?” she retorted. “I just come in here to work out, and I really don’t like being harassed by someone I don’t even know. So, if you don’t mind, I have to go now.” I watched her walk quickly toward the door. The exchange was so quick and her response so adamant, that I was left with no words. The words “I’m sorry” came to mind, but I could not say the words. I wasn’t sorry. Had I crossed a boundary? Of course, but I did not regret it. Silence was polite, but complicit.
Weeks passed, and I did not see her. One Sunday afternoon I rested by the pool, the sun warming my face, and lulling me into a peaceful sleep. A siren grew close, and then immediate. I looked up to see an ambulance drive through the gate, and turn toward the gym.
I stood up, walking to the end of the pool to get a better view. Through the iron fence I saw paramedics rush into the gym with medical bags. When they brought her out some minutes later, she was hardly visible under the oxygen mask and blanket, but I recognized her.
A small number of people had gathered near the ambulance. I joined them just at the ambulance sped away. One of the men standing there was in work out clothes. “Were you with her in the gym?” I asked him. “I was the one who called 911” he said. “I looked over, and she was just lying on the floor next to the treadmill. Passed out. Not breathing. Fortunately, I had my cell phone with me.” “Did they get her breathing again?” a mother asked as she tried to keep her pre-school daughter from darting away. “They used paddles to resuscitate her,” he said, “but she never spoke or opened her eyes.”
The weeks passed, and I never expected to see her again. I suspected that she was dead, or had become brain damaged for lack of oxygen. Perhaps she was being kept on life support in some “rehabilitation” center where people went to die after some period of time of futile measures to revive them. I was shocked one early morning to find her back on the treadmill when I arrived for a workout. She was more emaciated than I even imagined. Her arms were like sticks. Her running shoes seemed impossibly large and heavy for her spindle legs. I felt that I was watching a near skeleton move without blood or muscle. Seeing her unsettled me. I stood there for minutes, not able to begin my usual routine. Finally, my eyes found hers. She immediately looked away, toward the TV. Together we watched an ebullient overweight African American woman squeal with delight that her pastry dough was just the right texture to receive large helpings of blueberry filling.
© FXP 2010