Sweat dripped down my face as I leaned over the end of the bench. A weight banged down behind me. Van Halen blared over the speakers. Beside me, two huge men in their late twenties were doing deadlifts. I stared as one of them began his set. 450lbs?
I want to be strong like that.
I laid back to do another set of bench press. One hundred and eighty five pounds. Not much compared to the others in the gym, but it was the most I’d ever done. I managed to lift it seven times, and while I struggled with the last rep, I was careful not to make any noise. I was the kid, the apprentice. I knew my place.
I sat up and looked at the old photos of competitive bodybuilders on the walls. Galaxy 2000 was Welland’s local gym for serious weightlifters. The smell of mold and decay and sweat marked the ancient rubber mats and steel plates scattered across the gym. Families did not work out here. Neither did old men. Even the women had arms the size of my legs.
I loved it.
I’d just turned seventeen, and from the first moment I’d stepped inside the gym, it felt different to me. It reminded me of a library or a book store. A place of possibility and growth and safety. A place where I could challenge myself.
A place to be.
I took a deep breath and leaned back for another set.
I leaned over the end of the bench and wiped my face with a towel. Drake rolled through the speakers. The mirrors gleamed in the dim light. So did the trainers, with their bright red shirts and perky smiles. It wasn’t my kind of gym, but it was steps from my condo. I could make do.
I pounded out a set of eight chest presses and let the dumbbells thud to the floor. The gym had always been a place to forget about the outside world. Forget about my job. Forget about the emotional flotsam in my life. But lately it had become difficult to relax.
I thought back to my first summer lifting weights and learning the rhythms of the gym. Little did I know that it would become a sacred place for me. A place where I could go when times were hard. A place to remember that time passed and healing came. The gym had seen me through three painful breakups, numerous battles with mental health issues and every form of displacement. Wherever I was, whatever happened, there was always another bench. Always another set to do. Always another weight to rack.
I rolled the dumbbells into place and grunted as I propped them on my knees. I’d recently finished a book about being present in my life. In it, the author* discussed the importance of staying in the moment, of not getting lost in what was to come or what had happened in the past. It was a challenging idea. How could someone be in one place – physically, mentally and emotionally – when there were so many things that still needed to get done? When my “to-do list” numbered one to infinity? When my personal life felt like a wave pool?
And even if such a thing was attainable, there were reasons for avoiding the moment. I’d just emerged from a decade long relationship. The memories were painful. Some days they bubbled to the surface, and to face them was hard. So was the understanding that I hadn’t always wanted to be present during that relationship. That I’d been unwilling to confront my unhappiness – our unhappiness – in a healthy way. That for all I’d fought for a good ending, too often I’d closed my eyes during the middle of our story.
And it wasn’t just a recent phenomenon. I could point to far too many times over the course my life when I’d wanted to be anywhere but “here.” Sometimes it looked like sports. Sometimes it looked like rum. Sometimes it looked like work. The faces changed, but the notion of “escape” remained.
And for as much as I’d learned the past year, I still struggled with it.
Instead of dealing with the bouts of loneliness that had plagued me for most of my life, I preferred to look at my phone and find the latest on my teams, lose myself in my novels or argue an arcane point on Facebook. There was always another world to explore, another place where I could escape the hurt and fear and anger bubbling to the surface.
This week had been especially tough. Fresh memories of old wounds. Scabs peeled. New dabs of blood on my skin. I’d come to the gym to help me get back to the present. To help me stop running. To help me find the strength to remember that the pain would pass and time would heal.
I replaced the weights on the rack and carried another set over to my bench. A thick guy in his early thirties was doing curls near the back. I walked over.
“Hey, man. Can I get a spot?” I said.
He strolled with me to the bench and glanced down at the weights. “Wrists or elbows?”
“Elbows,” I said.
I cleared my mind and took three deep breaths. I’d never lifted this much weight. I let out a loud grunt, and with help from my spotter, managed four clean reps.
The dumbbells thudded to the floor.
“Thanks, man,” I said, standing.
He shook his head. “Wow. I hope I’m as strong as you when I’m your age.”
I smiled at the back handed compliment as he walked away.
How strong was I if I couldn’t relax at my sacred place? If I couldn’t face what I needed to face? If I couldn’t deal with the things that had risen to the surface.
I got a new set of dumbbells as moments from my previous relationship began to scroll through my mind. Moments of laughter. Of joy. And pain.
Relentless and ruthless, it was all I could do to even out my breathing.
I let the memories roll through me as I continued to work out. Continued to breathe. Continued to be. I slumped onto the end of the bench as the film finally rolled to a finish. It would play again, but not today. I stared into the mirror and realized the man looking back at me was smiling, ready for the next exercise.
My smile widened as I leaned back for another set. Listened to the chatter behind me. Felt my hands curl around the steel.
It wasn’t perfect.
But I was here.
And that was something.
*Rob Bell, How To Be Here