It started with a plate full of food.
It was no different than the plate full I had eaten the night before, or the night before that.
In fact it was no different than any dinner I had eaten for the last fifteen to twenty years of my life.
What made the food in front of me repugnant was... laughter.
I could hear it echoing in my ears even as I looked down at the food.
Looking up from a meal I would have considered delicious just this morning, I turn my head. I look at my dad sitting just a few feet away ladling gravy onto a small mountain of mash potatoes. They're three large pieces of fried chicken hang off his plate. The glass bottle of beer in front of him sits next to its empty brother. I look to the open collar of his shirt. I can just make out the top of the scar from the triple bypass he had sixteen months ago. I look at his red, flushed face, a good sign his blood pressure is through the roof.
I glance over at my mom with her near equal plate of food. One less piece of chicken, maybe a bit less potatoes. She has a pile of fried okra almost half buried under the side of one of her pieces of chicken. The tall bottle of diet coke sitting in front of her catches my eye.
The laughter rings in my ears.
I look across at my little brother. He's sure growing fast I hear all the time. Last I heard he's twenty pounds heavier than I was at his age. I watch him bite into a chicken leg with a frantic haste. Like he has to get to the next leg before it walks away.
Pushing back my chair, I get up from the table.
"Dean? Where you going?" my dad asks around a mouthful of chicken.
Stopping by the door to the dining room, I look back at my family.
"I'm not hungry." I take a deep breath. I almost feel nauseous as the smell of dinner fills my nose. "I'm going for a ride, I'll be back latter."
"Dean? Are you feeling alright?" I hear my mom ask as I start to walk away. "But it's your favorite."
"I'm fine Mom, just not hungry." Looking over my shoulder I walk towards the back door.
"I'll put it up for you. You can have it when you get back." She calls after me.
"Can I have his chicken?" I hear my brother ask as I step out the backdoor and walk towards my car.
Getting in I look for only a second at my own reflection in the rear view mirror.
I try to drive away from the laughter, but it follows me faster than my car can go.
Tall glowing sign after sign calls out to me as I drive past them. Offering all manner of gastronomic indulgences. For once none of them appeal.
I pull my car into the little park near the house. It's often been a place I have gone to eat my lunch. Checking out the girls jogging around the lake. Today it's a familiar refuge. Walking over I sit down on one of the concrete benches and look out across the water at the floating white ducks.
The humiliation of it comes home with a feeling of sick self-loathing.
If it was just the laughter from this morning I could maybe just let it slip by, but it's kind of like the straw that broke the camels back. Years of it all piled together to a weight I can no longer bare. Can no longer live with.
I look down at the new fabric of my jeans, a Christmas present, they're a size bigger than last time I bought pants. Two sizes bigger than last year.
Looking up I see a jogger go past me. His pace slow and steady. As he runs out of sight I get to my feet and take off after him.
I make it maybe a few dozen feet before I start to feel the stitch in my side. I push through that with gritted teeth, then it suddenly feels like I'm trying to suck air through a pillow. I have to stop. Gasping I turn and look back at the bench I was sitting on.
It looks absurdly close.
Panting I walk back to my car and nearly shatter the glass in the door I slam it so hard. I crank the motor and turn the AC up to full blast. The feeling of air hitting my face, an instant relief.
Looking up at myself in the mirror I see the sweat on my brow, the red flush to my cheeks. I feel the throbbing in my ears as loud as a drum.
My stomach grumbles. I look down at it hating it. Hating the feeling of hunger that's steadily growing.
It's several minute before I pull out the parking lot and turn towards home. Towards the big meal mom has no doubt saved for me. Providing my brother hasn't stolen all of it.
As I drive past the strip malls with the half dozen places to eat calling my name like a lover, I see a sign that's different.
Why I pull in I have no idea. My hands all, but turn the car into the parking lot by themselves.
Through the wide glass windows I can see the myriad array of weight machines, tread mills, and stationary bikes. I watch the people running in place, or using the other equipment in it's own way. It's several minutes before I open the door to my car.
As I step inside I feel the eyes settle on me. As my feet carry me to the wide front desk I see the smirks and hear a few snickers from around me.
The laughter...like this morning.
For half a second I almost run out the gym, but the knowledge I couldn't get to my car without breathing hard and breaking into a sweat stops me.
The gorgeous lady behind the desk smiles a practiced smile as I sign the member ship papers. I can all but hear her thought as I hand her my credit card.
I take the little booklet from her with my membership card and walk into the gym. I look down at the floor so I don't see the smirks.
Looking around unsure of what does what I finally make a decision, keep it simple. I watch a guy as he gets up from a bench press and walk away toward the treadmills. Walking over to the weight bench I sit down. The leather is still hot from his body as I lay down and lift my hands up to the bar above me. As I start to push up a pair of hands catches the center of the bar and stops me cold.
Lying on my back I stare up at what is probably the most intimidating woman I have ever seen in my life. Her hair a short iron gray it frames out a face tight to her skull. Her skin is a deep bronze color from many years of tanning. Deep lines run from her nose down the side of her mouth like they were carved there. From either side of her neck stand out large muscles that flow into rounded shoulder and thick arms. Her breast sit tight to her chest under the thin T-shirt she wears. I see the gym logo between them. My eyes go a little further down the waterfall of her stomach then back to her face. Her blue eyes stand out from her dark tanned skin like sapphires.
"How much do you weigh?" she asks me in a voice that has more of a rumble to it than my own.
I swallow, but don't answer.
"It's a simple question." She shrugs. " I can guess if you like, I'll probably come close, I just don't want to insult you if I'm too high." She gives me a slight smile.
I look away from her face.
"Two ninety eight." I know it's really higher, but I can't say that number.
"I was going to say three o five. Can you do a single pull up?" she asks softly. Her voice doesn't carry beyond me.
Closing my eyes I give my head a little shake.
"Then answer me this. If you can't do that what in the hell makes you think you can lift this?" She glances to either side of the bar. "See the big weights? Those are fifty-pounds apiece. You'll note the four of them. See the two small ones those are twenty fives. You were about to lift within forty pounds of your weight off these pegs, without a spotter I might add, and try to press it without even doing the first warm up lift."
"You would be the one sorry if I hadn't seen what you were doing and stopped you. If some how you had cleared the pegs this bar most likely would have come down on you face, or throat. Now get up from there."
I let go of the bar and sit up. I look down and away from the eyes of the others in the gym. When I glance up at her face I'm expecting pity, but what I see is a frank look of appraisal. Her eyes slowly going from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.
She looks around and I see the people in the gym find better things to look at.
"Tony!" she calls out to a guy who looks like he could lift the bar I couldn't with two fingers. "Mind the shop."
"Sure Vicky." He gestures to another guy in a gym staff shirt who comes over and takes over spotting for a lifter. 'Tony' starts to walk the floor offering encouragement and advice.
"Follow me." she says with a jerk of her head.
I walk behind her my eyes going to the play of muscles along her calves, thighs, and ass as she walks. I try to make a guess at her age and can't. Her hair would belong on a woman of forty plus, but the way her body moves says thirty.
We walk into an office and she closes the door behind me silencing the noises of the gym.
"What's your name?" she asks me taking a seat on the side of her desk. When she crosses her arms across her chest the muscles of her forearms stretch tight and I can see the lines of her veins.
"Dean." I tell her snapping my eyes up from her now hidden nipples to her eyes.
She looks at me for a second then an eyebrow slowly rises.
"Any reason I shouldn't know your last name? I can always check your membership papers."
"It's Martin." I tell her looking away from her face and at the walls of the office. I see the bodies that I envy on the posters around me.
"Your parent have a sick since of humor." She tells me after a second. "So Dean what are you wanting?"
"What?" I ask confused. I look back at those deep blue eyes.
She smiles at me, it softens her face a lot.
"You came into my gym...I'm Victoria by the way. Victoria Corbrit. You came into my gym wanting something. What is it? I seriously doubt it was to commit suicide by weight bench."
I look over at one of the posters. The guy is massive, but every muscle stands out in clear definition from his body. He looks like he doesn't have an ounce of fat on him.
"I want to look like him." I tell her looking at the posters. My eyes flick to her then back to the guy. She follows my gaze.
"That's five time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates." She looks me up and down. "You have a long road ahead of you. Why?"
She shifts her arms till her right elbow is in her left hand and she's tapping her lips with a finger.
I look down under her gaze.
"I'm tired of looking the way I do." I say softly.
"Okay, but why now? You have to have looked like that for a long time, what made you walk into my gym to change?"
"A girl." I tell he glancing up for only a second. I hear a soft chuckle.
"Of course." She gets up and moves around her desk to her chair. "Have a seat."
I move to the hard wood chair in front of her desk and sit down.
"You have a story Dean. I like to collect those. Something changed for you today I want to know what." She rests her hands on the arms of her chair. For a second my eyes go to those two sharp points in her shirt, then I look back down.
My eyes come to focus on my hands resting on my stomach. They are a pale white.
"I saw a girl at the beach last summer. She was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I was too...nervous to go talk to her. She looked like a goddess on the sand. Tanned like a painter's hand had done it. I looked like a pale fish's belly."
Victoria is looking at me with no judgement in her eyes when I look up.
"I never found the courage to go talk to her." I swallow past the lump. "I got some money for Christmas. I thought that maybe if I went to a tanning salon from now till summer I wouldn't look so pale." I go silent.
After a few minutes of me just looking at my hands I hear her sigh.
"What happen?" she asks softly.
"She was working at the tanning salon, the girl from the beach. When I walked in and saw her I kind of got...nervous, tongue tied. Then I asked to use one of the booths...she looked at me and laughed."
I fall silent. The laughter doesn't. It continues to ring in my ears.
She takes a deep breath and looks me over again. She steeples her fingers in front of her chin.
"To begin with you're going to have to be on a diet. It will be a tough one, full of a lot of foods you won't like. Don't get it in your head that you will ever be able to stop being on it either. It will be what you eat for the rest of your life." She points to the poster. "That's what that takes. Can you do that?"
"Yea." I tell her after a second.
"You said that real quick. Think about what I just said. Ten years from now, you look wonderful. Your body is just the way you want it. You're on a date, at a restaurant. You look at the menu; it takes you fifteen minutes to go through their selection just to find something you can eat. You have to send special instructions to the cook on how it has to be fixed. Hell you might as well not go to most big chain restaurants. All you could order there is water. Still think you can do it?"
More slowly now I nod.
She nods back.
"Okay. Diet alone wont get you to where you want to go. Weights alone wont either. Your going to have to rev up you whole body to new levels. That takes a butt load of cardio. You live near that beach you mentioned?"
"It's a couple of miles away." I tell her. My eyes wander to the thick ropes of muscles running down from her hands to her elbow. The veins standing out from the back of her hands.
"Perfect. I want you to start getting up in the morning." She stops and grins at me. "Before the sun. Walk to the beach, then run in the sand for as far as you can. Then walk back home again. It's a good warm up, good cardio, then a good cool down. Now your clothes."
I look down at my blue jeans.
"Till it warms up I want to see you in a full sweat suit. Shirt and pants." She tapes her desk with a pencil drawing my attention from her body back to her face. "Once it warms up though I want to see skin. You need the sun not a tanning booth. It's the best vitamin D you can get. Shorts and a tank top. Once your more comfortable with your body lose the tank top."
I nod. The idea of running, or working out around people without a shirt on bothers me.
She looks over her desk at my feet.
"Running shoes. Buy a good pair, not something a celebrity endorsed." Her head lifts, her chin points out towards the gym. "Bring you a water bottle and a towel with you when you come here. It's bad manners to sweat all over the equipment and then just get up and leave it like that."
I watch her get up from behind her desk and come around till she's standing in front of me. She is both beautiful and scary as hell all at the same time.
"And you are going to sweat! I promise you that. You are going to be sweating out stuff you drank from your Mom's tit and every thing in between." She points to the poster. "Cause that's what that look takes. Sweat."
She squats down till were eye to eye.
"I will have to push you, and push you some more, then push you till you break. Then I will push even more and show you just how many pieces you can break into. You want to look like him? You want to look like a Mr. Olympia?" she points at my chest. "You are going to have to all but live in this gym! Can you do that Dean?"
"I can work a person till a drill sergeant would cry Dean. I'm going to have to do that with you. Now what do you do for a living?"
I shake my head.
"I only work weekends. I stock shelves at Wally world."
"Excellent. Moving boxes for hours at a time. See if you can get on three days, your going to need the money for your diet. Now." She gestured me to my feet with a single finger. "In the morning I open the doors at six. I want you standing there with sand in your socks."
Nodding I start to turn away, then her ice blue eyes are just inches from mine.
"When you go to leave look at the two posters behind you Dean. I can make you look like you want to look. I have the knowledge. But you... you have to have the desire. The Will power. I can't be at your house to wake you in the morning for your run. I can't make you get in your car to come here. You are going to have to give one hundred percent till you drop. That's all I ask."
Nodding I take in the stark beauty of her face. The faint lines by her eyes, the hard lines beside her mouth the only sign of her age. I turn and see two posters of a much younger Victoria. In both she is in a very tiny bikini, posing. A tall trophy stands next to her.
"I place number two in the Ms. Olympia." I hear her say from behind me. "I was only four points behind the winner."
I look at the poster see the muscles in places I didn't know there were muscles.
"See you in the morning Dean. Get ready to sweat. Come on, I'll get you a copy of the diet your on."
* * *
I lean on the trash can feeling the air burn a pathway through to my lungs. I stand up and take a deep breath. The days of puking up every thing, but my socks into that trash can are weeks behind. Trying to calm my breathing, I start the long walk towards home. A shiver goes through me as the cool spring air hits my sweaty face. After about a hundred feet I pick up the pace to a long stride walk. Then in a bit more to a slow jog.
Looking up at the stars as they wheel over head my eyes focus on the slowly growing place on the horizon where they are starting to disappear. I finally get my breathing into a steady rhythm.
As I go past a large ranch house I see the homeowner in her thick pink nightgown outside walking her poodle. She's there every morning. At first the dog barked at me, now it wags it's tail and want to go for a run with me. She lifts her hand and waves.
I nod and wave back.
Once I'm past her I just fall into the meditative state that the slap of my shoes on the asphalt seems to bring on.
Five weeks. They seem to have flown by and at the same time they were a slow crawl of agony. The mornings waking up to muscles so sore I am crying as I try to tie my shoes. The endless days of Victoria telling me just one more. Okay now just one more after that.
That fucking Bitch can't keep count for shit.
Twenty reps more often than not becomes thirty.
I jog past my house and look with longing to my car in the driveway.
I switch from jogging to walking, then back again, as I cover the five miles to the gym. This is the first week of this and I already hate it. I'm a zombie of exhaustion when I get to the gym. I remember the horror of the medicine bag work out I did yesterday and thank all that's holy I wont be doing that again today.
Not that today will be any better. It's Wednesday...that means Victoria will be training me personally. Unlike Monday, or Tuesday when she leave me to the gentle hands of her trained ogres Tony and Russ.
Those two. Those fuckers could play catch with a truck and they seem to thing that I should be able to do the same.
As I cross Parkway I see the sign 'Victory Gym' come into sight. I take a deep breath and ramp it up too a full out sprint!
That last quarter mile... my god! I lean on the back of Victoria's truck watching the sweat fall off my face to the parking lot like a river. I pant listening to the thunder in my ears.
I look up hearing the doors of the gym open.
Victoria walks over to me with a weight in each hand. She holds them out to me like they're soda bottles.
"Four times around the gym in a slow walk to cool down, then come inside get you a drink." She tells me in greeting.
I take the two fifty-pound weights and nod.
It's a long four laps around the gym. My arms are burning from the weight by the time I go through the door.
I put the two weights back on the rack and go to Victoria's office to get my gym bag. I grab out the water bottle from yesterday and go fill it at the cooler. I take slow sips. The days of turning it up and then puking it out are also gone.