as soon as i caught sight of my hair in the rear view mirror, i knew mo had been too kind. however, here i was, on my way to the gym, and the worst was over. or so i thought.
the friendly freak was lurking in the change rooms. if you go to my gym, you know this woman. there's something off. she desperately wants to be friends with -- well, with everybody, really -- but is oblivious to all the codes governing social interaction. and so she is always, always alone. i deftly avoided making eye contact and headed to another part of the change room. i was just about to pull off my shirt (the one i'd slept in, by the way) when in walks a colleague of mine. she's a statuesque woman, a former ballet teacher, who lost her husband a year ago at that very gym. he just collapsed in the middle of his workout, the first semester past his retirement, of a massive heart attack.
"nora!," i said. "are you here for a swim?" i can't imagine being her, being here. "yes," she said, "it does me good." and then sighed a little. i feel awful for her, but we're not exactly intimate, so i'm not sure what to say. and besides, i'm distracted by the sudden nudity issue. if i just strip down in front of her, what will it be like next time we run into each other on the fourth floor? on the other hand, heading into a private cubicle seems unnecessarily mannered. i think i'll have to just go ahead and change. will she notice i'm not wearing a bra? wait, why don't i start from the bottom, take off my jeans. it's rule #1 of the locker room that no one looks at your underwear. then i remember i don't have any underwear on. what can i tell you: it's laundry day, i spent the afternoon vacuuming in my boxer shorts. maybe a cubicle would be best.
i look up to the nearest change room, only to discover that the friendly freak has retired to it, apparently to do her feet. she has not closed the curtain. she's rubbing away at her left heel above a quickly accumulating pile of dead skin. she grins at me. ridiculously, i wish i had brushed my hair.
by this point, nora has slipped into her own cubicle and reappeared wearing a navy swimsuit. she says to me, "i just lost my nephew." i think, stupidly, does she mean "lost" as in he's somewhere in the gym but she's not sure where, or does she mean lost-lost, lost-dead. "a stroke," said nora, "at 47." "jesus," i said. "what?," said the freak. "a stroke?" nora edges a little more precisely towards me. i still have my sleeping shirt on over my gym shorts, which i'm wearing commando. "47 and four teenage children. in ontario." "oh, nora," i say. "was it his first?," asks the freak, "his first stroke?" nora politely answers "yes." i say, again, "oh, nora." and add, "i'm so sorry." "did he die right away?," asks the friendly stranger. "yes," says nora, a little more crisply. then, to me, "i was quite close to him. to him and to my niece." "i'm so sorry," i say. then, for reasons passing understanding, quiz her: "your niece his wife, or your niece his sister?" nora stares. "you know, it's almost better that he just died," says the freak, cheerfully, moving on to her right heel. "i had a friend who had a stroke? and he lived for ten years afterward. but he never walked again." i try to recover, ask "are you going to fly out for the service?" nora says, "no. the service was today, but i couldn't get a flight." you can always get a flight, so this is code for it was too expensive. i can't imagine how much a flight would have to cost not to take it. at this point i'd give my left nut to be flying out of this locker room.
"so, are you going for a swim?," asks the freak. she's put her gym socks on and is fastening the velcro straps of her black doc martens, her workout footwear these days. i am hopelessly unmoored by the disjunctions. they can't be real doc martens, not with velcro straps. "yes," says nora, "i am. going for a swim." she looks at me. i say, "it's a beautiful pool." the freak says, "the 50m pool? yeah, it's nice, but guess what? you're not swimming there. not today! there's canoes in there." nora says, "i guess i'll swim wherever there's room." i say, "there's nothing like swimming for quiet meditation." the freak says, "i think it's canoe polo." i say, desperately, "i think you're right, i think i saw that on the sign coming in." i will never get out of here. i will be stranded in the basement of the kinsmen field house in perpetuity, wearing my What Would Gramsci Do? t-shirt.
of course, the freak saves the day. "you better get at it," she says, a bit disdainfully. nora pads off to the showers. "what about you?," she asks me. "uh, yeah," i say, "uh, i'm going to work out." "oh good," she says. "i'll walk up with you." and happily sits back on the little bench in her cubicle until i'm ready to go.