“Did he die, then?” she whispers.
“I guess so,” I whisper back.
My client and I are eavesdropping in her building’s gym. We do that a lot. Some trainers are chatty and vivacious, but I’m more of a “facilitator of conversation.” If my client wants to talk, I can talk. But I rarely initiate conversation and am perfectly able to train in silence, aside from the occasional instruction: “Left side. Bent over rows.” Or whatever few incomplete sentences I need to get out to continue the work.
It’s not that I’m not interested in their lives—I’m extremely interested. I’m interested in most people, for that matter. That’s why I eavesdrop when it gets quiet. I want to know what people eat for dinner, what was the worst purchase of their lives, which luxuries they can’t live without, and whether or not they believe dish racks are necessary. I want to know it all.
It comes back to the great contradiction at the center of my life: I truly think that everyone’s mind is the same as mine, and that if I can just crack it open, they will realize they agree with me. Food wise: Tomatoes are delicious. Anyone who doesn’t like them clearly just hasn’t had fresh tomatoes. Entertainment wise: television steals precious time from your life and should not be a daily ritual (although I’m fine with reading). Political wise: why waste time on Trump’s tax returns when global warming is happening?
I believe all these things, and I believe that, if I can plunge away whatever gunk is clogging their pipes, that I can make their mind the same as mine.
Of course, this is the contradiction. Because although I know that I am right, I also know that this truth is only true for me, and that I also know that they aren’t the same as me. Our minds and desires are as different as two galaxies. The shape might feel similar, but the order, conclusions, and contents are millions of miles apart. Communication, then, is a poorly executed bridge building attempt: we send steel garters and braces out among the stars with the hope that our construction can lead us some place familiar—a planet far away, but maybe with the same gases or dust as ours. Then we can agree! WE BOTH HAVE THAT SAME DUST. And then there’s the that human pleasure of discovering that we match in some way and the bridge holds.
But my job, as I see it, isn’t to communicate. People say personal trainers need to be personable, yes, and sometimes people joke that we are therapists. But I like to point out that we are absolutely not. Our job is to make people stronger physically. So that’s what I do. The conversation is secondary to this goal, not just for me, but for both of us.
My client, R., and I have seen each other once a week for two years. I know the names of everyone in her family. I know about her different parenting struggles and what’s going on with her kids (on a level so personal I don’t even want to write about it). She knows almost nothing about me. She doesn’t know that I have a girlfriend. Whenever I go on vacation, I have to remind her where I was when I get back. That’s not true for all my clients, but I don’t feel the need to share my life if they aren’t asking questions. And, as my friend once told me, “It’s not your job to tell everyone you’re dating a woman.” Before my friend told me that, I was crumpling under the pressure of coming out to everyone. I was behaving like I carried Ebola felt obligated to warn people for their own wellbeing.
But R. and I are united in our desire to eavesdrop. She lives in an old Upper West Side building, with confusing elevators and a giant Oriental rug in the lobby. The gym is in the basement, and you have to walk past a clothing recycling bin and a bulletin board covered with dog sitting flyers to get there. The gym itself is overcrowded with equipment, and a good portion of my job is to find a way for us to train without annoying the other users. And everyone has trainers, so we have to fit the member and the trainer, which makes it feel even tighter.
There are no windows, and the four TVs never seem to work properly. There’s a white board that’s filled with complaints. Why don’t we have treadmills with individual TVs? (The answer, written in a different color: this is not a for profit facility.)
I never knew Martin’s name while he was coming to the gym. That’s why R. and I weren’t sure if he was the one that died. But when we heard his trainer talking about a funeral, it was possible to guess. Martin was so frail that he barely spoke above a whisper, and his limbs would shake and quiver like blades of grass during a mild earthquake. It would have been impossible for him to balance on one leg, and it was nearly impossible for him to balance on two. He seemed to have a sense of humor, but it could be that his trainer was just humoring him by laughing loudly after listening closely to his breathy words. He was so frail that simply gripping the handles of the machines was his exercise, and his trainer was careful to stand behind him and guide him whenever they crossed the room.
He is the second person who used this gym that has died. That I know of. The first was a woman who simply stopped coming. It was an easy guess, as she carried her oxygen tank with her and sat of the recumbent bike, often coughing and spitting. Once, she forgot to plug in her headphones and played “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak” from My Fair Lady to the room.
Watching both of them, I had wondered if they could have prevented their decline. Maybe if they had taken exercise seriously when they were younger. Or maybe not. I often tell my students that most people don’t prioritize their health until they are forced to. And then it is often too late. But that’s a young person’s perspective—both me and my students (who are between eighteen and twenty-one) still think we can control the world and its outcomes. But that’s just another contradiction: we have complete control and no control, all at the same time.