A Warm-up with Coral Walls
By Ian Cooke-Tapia as ouitlined by SlapHop
Continued from A Prologue with an Electric Hum
The fluffy, four-legged sausage yipped happily as it snuggled its nose against her gloved and before being quickly yanked away on its leash. The owner, with eyes of those who skim tax money from the state, apologized with a tobacco-chewing grumble before disappearing down a back alley, pulling on the dog’s leash a little too close on the animal abuse side of yanking. The street was nearly empty, framed by cars parked on either side as if they were acting crowd control, keeping the terrace houses in check for the chill, crisp wind to blow uncontested. With every lick of wind, the iron-casted and hermetically sealed sky felt more oppressive and perpetual. But in that backdrop of grey, leaves danced in the wind, moving as if trying to escape the autumnal finality of ruska; yet in vain they dance, and soon trapped by windshields and green bins they become.
With a hand of calloused knuckles, K took a leaf out that had been wind-lodged inside her black jacket. She watched it try to catch up with its brethren as she zipped her jacket up and huddled against the low brick wall to her right. She gazed up at the crumbling masonry of the terrace house; painted over façade, and condensation-stained window, that it was. K waited. Not that she minded, really; sometimes it was good to simply exist quietly. However, the day was passing and she really, really wanted to get on with the plan. She checked the time on her phone and rolled her eyes. Ten minutes. No messages. Rubbish reception in those old houses. She sighed, pondering if it would be better to just knock on the door. She made as if to move, but then remembered Glen. She shuddered at the memory of that… fellow. She took a deep breath and slumped over the wall. How could Veronica share the same space as that… guy? K made a gagging sound.
Another minute passed. Overhead a seagull laughed. Was it laughing at her? Maybe. No, not really. But maybe they learned to laugh at people. She really doubted an animal that spent so much time with people wouldn’t learn a thing or two… A car went down the road, disregarding the speed limit. She frowned an icy stare, staring longer than she should’ve. Anything to time-travel to a moment when Veronica was out of the house— Pressure on her shoulder. Breathe fast, lift the thorax, raise the elbow and spin on the heels, fast, ready the left fist, teeth clenched
Smack. Forearm caught the impact of the elbow.
K took a step back, fists raised, body tense before it all went out of her. A hand extended in apology, she said: “Nana?” She leaned closer, apologetic. “Oh, sorry! I didn’t know it was you… Y-you startled me!”
Nana rubbed her forearm, scowling slightly more at her being caught off guard than anything. “Sheesh, you have to control that, K.” She said sullenly, quietly, but not angrily.
K paused, not knowing what to do. But they knew, they had been through this dance before. “Not that easy, you know?” K said finally, trying to look at Nana’s arm.
Nana’s eyes stared flatly behind the glare of thick glasses. Her small lips betrayed an emotionless tiredness, framed and exalted by the wildness of her shiny, black hair. “Considering how eager you’re to break someone’s bones… you waited long?”
K rolled her eyes at the house, sneaking a glance at Nana. She was hiding under layers of wool and oversized fabric, pastels and blacks arranged like a showroom at a fabric shop. “Fuck, like ten minutes now. Maybe twenty?”
“I told you,” Nana said, letting her hands go back inside her woolly, warm pockets. “That’s why I am always, like, lying to her. I say I’ll pop by, like, say, an hour before. That way I never have to wait.”
K simply breathed out through her nose.
Nana opened her mouth to say something when suddenly a gust of wind blew. Her scarf wiped like a badly pegged tent, and her fingers clutched at the red, knitted hat that just nearly joined the army of leaves. Suddenly there was a cracking noise and a branch fell from a nearby tree with a loud thud followed by the scratching sound of smaller branches desperately trying to grab, clutch, attack on their way down.
“Ah!” Both cried as the branch missed them by an inch or two.
“Don’t be cry-babies, it didn’t even touch you,” Someone said behind them.
Luckily this time K was too excited to react dangerously. The two friends jumped at the voice, turning around to see Veronica standing tall, a full head taller than the two, with her crown of fiery curls stoic against the wind, like an ancient standing stone against the tide of time and modern culture. K’s eyes looked down at Veronica’s legs for a fraction of a second – bright, green tights, double layer by the look of the doubly shiny pattern of the nylon – and quickly looked up.
“So, we going?” Veronica asked in a happy lilt, stomping her feet in a little, impatient jig.
A second passed before K rolled her eyes at the tardiness.
Nana, being Nana, simply said hello.
A frisbee flew overhead, hovering for a moment before being shot far away by a sudden gust of wind. Two lads cried in abject surprise, running after the disc like a commuter two seconds from a train leaving the station. Nana laughed behind her hand. Veronica looked at her phone. And K just walked on ahead with a brisk step, every now and then twirling in place with arms outstretched, and breathing in deeply the crisp, chill of November. If only she could make this one moment last longer, but the fleetness of time made it so enjoyable.
Through the park the three walked to the music of treetops rustling and the subdued words of those brave enough to venture into the park on a day like this. From the trees, leaves fell like disgraced politicians, soon joining their brethren on the fields, trenches and lower commons to be carried, without a lick of control, by the economic uncertainty of the wind. Some flowers followed the three as they left the park green for the grey of pavement, and soon waiting at a crossroads. Two cars passed by, and Veronica pressed the button on the pedestrian light too many times.
Nana began, “So, K. This place–“
“Is it a gym or what?” Veronica interjected.
Nana glared at Veronica, who simply shrugged.
K looked over her shoulder at the two, basically bouncing on her feet. Oh, if only they knew. Well, they would in time, so what was the point of telling them now? K smiled a knowing smile as she hid her telling hands in her pockets. She could have her fun. “Oh, I’ve told you what it is,” She said, turning her head to look ahead, avoiding their doubtful eyes.
Nana groaned. “No. No you have not told us a single bloody thing!” Her slender hand rubbed at her temple. “You keep saying that it will be fun and interesting-like, and that we’ll all have a banging time of it all but, for fuck’s sake, you have not–“
“But you haven’t said what the place is. At all.” Veronica added.
The green man appeared on the pedestrian light across the road and K took the opportunity to sprint forwards. The other two took their time, as a driver in a grey Nissan glared at them.
“Well…. You’ll see what this place is soon. It is just over the river.”
Nana sighed. “Yes, we know.” A pause. “I don’t even know why we’re, like, following you to this place, mind. You know I am not that… comfortable with gyms.”
“Isn’t that an industrial area? Odd place to have a gym.”
“That’s because it is not just a gym. It is a fun playhouse, and a ninja dojo all rolled into one.”
K glanced over her shoulder meeting Veronica’s confused eyes before turning forwards.
“What’s that mean?” Veronica whispered.
Nana shrugged. “Very… little, and I am starting to wonder why I am outside today at all. Just look at this fucking sky, mind.” Her shoulders hunched, giving her the look of a yarn turtle. “If it starts pissing down, K, god forbid…”
K just kept smiling, increasing her step. “Look, I really want it to be a surprise. It is a gym; you know, with the static bikes and weights. But that’s just one part of it, like how the icing is not the whole cake. Well, better to call it a sports centre, with a lot of things on offer…” She chuckled softly to herself. Oh, as if she even knew what the place really was. “Look, I bet that you’ll find something that will be of interest. At the very least, one thing! Failing that, you’ll love the building.”
Nana and Veronica shared a confused look before having to cross another street. The shops had given way to open parking lots, to dying trees and wire fencing. Litter was collecting in-between sheet metal fence poles, under abandoned lorries, next to half-sawed through bikes attached to make-shift secure spaces.
K continued, “Look, guys, let’s just take a look around. Just one look. Okay?” K turned around to give them a bright, white smile. Still walking backwards, her hands stretched in front in full honesty. “Look, if you don’t feel comfortable with the place we can do something else. But I really want to take a look at this open day, and at the very least sign up for something. I need a new thing to do.” Hands came together in a pleading mime.
She smiled and both Nana and Veronica had to agree. It was just a look, a peek.
“But we’re not dressed to do anything…” Nana whispered, dubious, once K turned her back to them.
Veronica patted her on the shoulder, and leaned close. “She hasn’t realised that. Maybe we’ll get out of this one.”
Nana growled and decided to simply wrap her arms in sullen, cold silence, fingertips itching. The two knew better than to put a lid on K’s spirits, if anything it would only make the misinformation worse and turn her sour against them. So the two left it at that and followed their friend across non-descript warehouses and over a traffic bridge crossing the river. Here the air smelled both better, the river adding a fresh crispness of humidity, and worse, as the cars and motorbikes sped past. And on K went, whistling happily and going on about something else, cheerfully excited about the sights around them. Nana kept looking about, eyes shifting to every corner. This was, at least as far as she knew, the seedier side of town: the industrial side; the abandoned place people came to work and to solicit. She shuddered; they had no business in an area like this. Veronica simply looked at her phone, every now and then interrupted K. However, before Nana’s skin began to fragment off her very being, trees began to appear again as they neared what was a newer set of warehouses.
“Just around this corner!” K said suddenly in a chirpy voice, bringing Nana back from her own thoughts. Nana’s hands stopped scratching at her skin as she looked up to see K disappear around a bush. Nana looked at Veronica and then the two followed, only to stop in their tracks.
The building was an impressive in its reclamation of disuse. A warehouse, industrial, soot stained, steel sheet-plated skeleton that shed its purpose like a cicada shed its outer shell. A skeleton wearing a surprise of a new skin: the front of the building, once a single flat façade like every warehouse, now was covered with a thick layer of plants; vines and bushes going all the way to the top of a third storey. There were flowers growing there, too, around small, clean windows. The wall of green was like a face and its mouth a corridor sinking into the greenery, with a pair of wide doors deeply sunk. Obviously the wall of green was separated by, perhaps, two or three meters from the real building, creating a cosy little threshold-tunnel that would keep one safe from the rain. There wasn’t a sign, and, really, you didn’t need it. To see this was to want to know, to walk through the glass door and, perhaps, awestruck, ask for a membership. Nana and Veronica looked agape.
“Holy shit! I didn’t know this was here,” Nana said, looking up towards the top. “Look! There’s statues hidden in the plants.”
Veronica lifted her hand and snapped a picture of the statues at the top, not once moving her face.
K turned to look at the building with glee. Such a simple idea, the façade repurposed, remade to subvert expectation; a flower hidden amongst coals. It created a shift in awareness, and from this point onwards you did not know what to expect. K smiled, feeling the magic of the space work on her. She had seen the photos from their facilities, but not of the outside of the building. Her expectations had been, as of now, transformed. She knew she had to come here to properly feel what the space was. There was no other way. This effort put outside was entirely unnecessary, and perhaps a waste of resources. But if the pictures online were accurate, then, the space had many priorities. With such effort put on the front of the building, then, how much effort would they put on the inside? On the classes? K smiled, hoping that equal or more effort and love was put on the services offered.
“So, what do you think?” K said, turning around to look at her friends, arms outstretched in showgirl fashion. She saw Nana staring at the building with wide, twinkling eyes behind enormous glasses. She saw Veronica, pouty lips opened in surprise, phone in her outstretched arm, documenting, documenting, keeping mementos. Like a fisherman understanding the pull of every fish, K allowed herself a small victory cry. She had them.
“Okay,” Nana whispered, holding on to herself. Her arm shot to point at the doors. “Now, I need to see what this place is like.” She blinked for a second and then shook herself. “But that doesn’t mean I will sing up!” She stomped.
Veronica laughed, put her phone in her pocket and took a step forward.
The glass doors led into a room like a cave made from a million years of water sculpting emeralds and jaspers. Every angle was a curve; every curve was a ripple of texture. Just looking at the space made it seem like nothing in the Universe ever stopped, but rather flowed, changed, merging into something else. The carpeted floor seamlessly joined with a wide desk of swirls and marble-like smoothness. Posters and timetables and notice boards covered the walls, but looked about to be swallowed by the textured, marble-like walls. It was a space that made you want to dance, that whispered about the reality that beginnings and ends, well, those are just but illusions. The three stood in the middle of the space for a second, people moving from the left to the right, from the right to the left, going in and out of the long corridors and doors on either side of a reception desk. This was simply marvellous. And there was a queue in front of them.
The place had a quiet buzz to it, like a hive just about to start the day. Here and there people passed by, some in trackies, some in spandex leggings. Some people looked like they were on their way to work, sports bags over shoulders the only badge of belonging in this space. Other, quite simply, seemed lost in the space between spaces. Music didn’t play in the lobby, but rather the hum of a building fulfilling its role – at least the one officially on paper.
The queue soon dissipated, people disappearing with intent or being guided by black-and-white shadows. K leaned over the desk, letting her hands rub the smooth, glass-like surface; it was cool to the touch, perfectly smooth, and refracting light like a childhood dream. Nana and Veronica gave K space to chat to the man at the desk, a short, stocky fellow with a clean-shaven face. His hair in a top knot, and a shirt of tight spandex made it look it was keeping some beast from breaking free. The man looked up with clear, clear eyes and a smile that felt… no, it wasn’t anything. Just a smile.
“Oh, hello there,” K said.
“Good day, girls. Is it three possible members I see there?”
K gave a funny look to the other two. “Maybe. We’re here to take a look at the facilities, actually. See what’s going on.”
The man stood, which was barely over the height of the reception desk. Slightly shorter than K, if that was believed. “Oh, you’re in luck today,” He said, pulling a couple of leaflets and brochures in front K. Nana and Veronica leaned over to take a look. “We have our Open Day today, just about to start. So you could actually see the space in action, and see how much people enjoy it. We have a variety of facilities on site, such as a swimming pool,” He began leafing through the brochure. “Which includes our aftercare area, with a sauna and jacuzzi.”
“Jacuzzi?” Nana whispered in the back.
“But the real crown jewel is- crowns,” Stop, a stammer. “Crowns are our other facilities,” He continued “We have a training area for muay thai, kickboxing, and other martial arts. A space for adult gymnastics, freerunning and tricking. As well as a traditional gym that would put Easy Gym and The Gym to shame, mind.” He looked up, offering the brochures. “To be honest, it would be better for you to take a gander and maybe try some of the open, free classes today. There’s just too much here.”
Veronica lifted an eyebrow. “Too much?”
The man laughed. “Miss, I’ve been working here six months and I still don’t know how many things there are here. There’s even parts of the buildings I am not supposed to know about.”
“Ummm…” Nana began.
“So, what do you two say?” K turned at them. “Take a look or…”
Nana shook her head, idea forgotten. She leaned forward. “So, things are free today?”
“Everything is.” Said the man.
Nana bit her lips and then pouted and then whispered, “Free sauna.”
Veronica suddenly tapped one of the brochures, a serious frown on her brow. “Have you tai chi as an option today?” Her eyes were wide, serious, stern. Her finger tapped, tapped, tapped with the intent a treasure hunter one puzzle from finding the ancient treasure.
“Lemme check,” The man smiled. “You’re lucky. That’s in about two hours.
“Damn it… I didn’t bring any clothes. I could go home and change and come back just in time, maybe…”
Nana huffed a laugh, “Yeah, right. It takes you like one whole bloody hour just to find anything in your house, Veronica. Yeah, you’ll do a banging job of coming back in time.”
Veronica looked hurt and torn.
K raised an eyebrow at the sudden sarcasm from Nana, quiet Nana.
“Actually, we have a store on site and part of the Open Day is that we have some amazing discounts.” The man said diplomatically.
“What, really?” Veronica’s eye brightened.
“Yeah, we have a shop selling the stuff down the hallway to the left. Place loops around, so you won’t miss anything if you go either way.”
Veronica jittered in place. “Okay, let’s do this!” She exclaimed with a loud clap.
K laughed and then turned towards Nana, laying a soft hand on her shoulder. “You alright with this, Nana?”
Nana took a deep breath, looking down at the floor, “Not exactly my idea of a good day, mind, but you two look excited. But–“ She added sternly, finger stopping K mid sentence. “we have a look first. Look, then decision. You promised, like.”
K pressed her lips together, brought her hand close to Nana’s upright finger and grasped it with her pinky finger. “Promise.” She said in a soft, tender voice.
“Oh, and there’s your guide,” The man suddenly said, looking towards the left.
The three friends turned to see the alien folds of the hallway expel a sentinel. She was a ship’s mast given human form. Her legs, encased in a pattern of black and white diagonal lines, some going right to left, others left to right in a pattern that wasn’t quite pattern-like. The lines led, or didn’t lead to the brightest trainers the three had ever seen. Bright pink, bright green, contrasting neon things that would’ve made amazing signs for an airport runaway during winter storms. Even in the dazzle camouflage of her leggings, the contour of the hard years of training was visible. She stepped forward or, rather, flowed forward as if one with the space they were in. The set of her shoulders, the sharp lines of her tight, orange top, led the eyes to her impressive bosom, framed by muscular, slender arms wrapped in long black lycra sleeves. For a moment the three thought a battleship was about to ram them, sink them into a unknown underworld .
“Greetings,” Said the way she nodded. A little pull of the lips, charming, if distant. Her eyes brightened, but it seemed the brightness of someone who had found a new toy to play with. She looked at the three in an inscrutable way. “My name’s Tasha,” Said the tall woman in a coach’s voice. “I hear you’re here to take a look at the space?” The question left no space for a negative.
Nana hid. Veronica jumped before K, interrupting her. “Oh, yes. Just a tour, if that’s possible. Might join. But I really, really, really want to see the tai chi before it starts.”
Tasha laughed a hearthy laugh. “Oh, that’s the sort of spirit we like here,” She said, running a hand over her tight, brown hair and down the high ponytail she wore. “Well, if we take the right here,” She said, starting to walk between the three and towards the opposite hallway, “We’ll just get to the space on the first floor. First thing to see, that way you can decide and I’ll have someone take you to be fitted for the class.” Her distant eyes fell on them in a moment of sharp focus. Somewhere in their minds, somewhere in the long past, they felt their ancestors turn slowly to look up at a dark jungle canopy only to see the bright eyes of a predator silently about to pounce.
The three shuddered before following Tasha, the man’s voice wishing them good luck.
The coral shapes of stone and marbles gave way imperceptibly into something more traditional. A long hallway where five people could walk abreast, with in-facing windows on the left, and on the right a wall decorated with posters and timetables and artwork intercalated between out-facing doors. Every couple of windows they could see groups of women stretching, or huddled in a group, or just chatting, all under the close eye of a woman dressed just like Tasha. Soon, people started passing them by. The space was abuzz, humming to itself in a language yet to be understood. Most everyone looked festive by way of the elliptical trainer, an aesthetic that made K think of aerobics videos, or sexualized pop music. There was even an older woman in bright tights, leotard and a waist belt! In a way, it felt as if they had walked into a quintessential modern pop music video.
“So, what is this place, exactly?” K broke the silence, getting the question out of her chest, eyes going to the left where they could see a group of women playing basketball in an open court with quite an audience. They were wearing tight green shorts and yellow skin-tight tank tops, both with stripes of the opposite colour. Their legs are way too shiny to be just skin, K thought for a second.
“Well, it started as a small group began using the facilities for weekend classes. But then the council tried to get rid of it when the cuts started coming down, and one of the people involved managed to buy it before it got given to a multinational for redevelopment. Some hard work and crazy networking and here we are.” Tasha turned around. Her breasts didn’t even move in that tight top, K noticed. “And as you can see through the windows, here is our court.” She thumbed over her shoulder. “Basketball right now, but later today we have handball, indoors volley, and even some skating later in the evening.”
“Sounds lucky,” Nana said flatly. “The building and business timing, especiall-”
“Rollerskating?” Veronica interrupted with a surprise, curious voice. “Man, I haven’t tried that since I was a kid!” Nana glowered at the red head.
K bit her lips and forced her eyes off Tasha’s legs. “Yeah, that’s neat. But what is the space, exactly?”
“She just answered the question, K.” Nana said sharply, quietly.
“Some of it,” K added. “That doesn’t explain why people should come here besides the awesome facilities. Spaces are more than what they are on paper.”
They passed a set of double door, leaving behind a group of women in baggy shorts over bright leggings and towels over their shoulders leaving a room. K managed to spy a room full of bicycles before the door closed.
Tasha raised an eyebrow, looking over at the short girl with the inquisitive eyes. The coach was silent for a second. “People come here for various reasons…” Tasha’s voice became softer, like that of a lecturer, “Some to lose weight, some to have fun, other just to try something new,” She walked a couple of paces and stopped before another door, painted green and magenta; textures, organic and crab-like decorated it. Only then did K realise that every door they had passed was similarly decorated, “And we’re here to facilitate that transformation. We’re here to nudge and guide people into becoming their better selves and show that a space such as this could, in principle, act as a springboard towards a more radical change, an internal one. We believe that by creating a space people can develop a positive relationship with, then, they will not have to force themselves to come here for any reason.” She paused and then pushed the door open, leading them up a flight of stairs and onto the first floor. “Government loves that sort of thing, but that’s on paper. Really, any space can affect your mind in many, many ways and we’re aware of it. That’s why we try to make it so that people’s decision’s to come here is less of a shore, but rather a necessity. A need. Because it is so fun, and it can lead them paces they never thought they could get, and they get to improve and become better and take refuge from what is out there, in the cold, lonely spaces.” They came upon another corridor, similarly lit, with doors a deep purple. “On this floor we have rooms for smaller, more personal classes. On the third floor there’s a huge weights gym. And it is part of the design to have so many minds in tandem, joined by this one place.” Tasha’s eyes unfocused for a moment, a faraway look that stared at something deep inside. “Maybe that answered your question, miss.” She turned to look at the trio, a genuine smile brightening her sharp angles.
The three women stared in silence. K felt something tighten in her chest, something profound she had forgotten about. She looked into Tasha’s eyes, seeing a brightness there that didn’t betray a lie but a deep, fervent believe. Tasha didn’t believe what she was saying; she was what she said, she had experienced it. It was real, and K could see it. Suddenly Tasha looked straight at K, and K couldn’t look away.
“That is…. interesting,” Nana said, the word slowly taken from her mouth with reluctant suspicion. “Sorry to say it – and no disrespect meant – but it seems like you’re being a little too disrespectful of people.”
Tasha broke eye contact and calmly looked at Nana. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what about people who don’t think this is a right environment for “self-betterment”? What about those who just…” She paused, finding it difficult to keep eye contact.
“People who like to do things alone. And people who don’t like working out.” Veronica interrupted in the silence.
Nana gave her a stare.
Tasha paused for a second, regarding the three women. She smiled inwardly when she saw K looking down at her legs again. “We don’t believe there is a single person who doesn’t like to work-out. That’s just… wrong and unnatural.” Her hand on the door handle twitched like a glitch. “I will give you that work-out is the wrong word, yes. But we’re animals, and animals like to move. Not liking groups and other people… that we can understand and, of course, we’ve thought about that.” The familiarity of the words made her voice turn to a droning cadence, distant, and yet her skin twitched, her eyes tensed with suppressed anger. Her voice felt like an old threat, unfulfilled. “And, trust me; we in this space make sure that every experience is tailored to your particular needs. It is our duty to make you happy. It is our duty to make sure you want to better yourself.”
The three didn’t know what to say to that. The words felt like a poisoned dagger wrapped in Christmas packaging with a bow on top and a nicely written card by a racist uncle. Tasha couldn’t have been more ominous if lightning and thunder had sounded at that exact moment.
Suddenly the purple door next to them opened. Tasha lost her footing for a second before holding on to the door frame. A woman appeared, leaning over to see who was making that noise. Like Tasha, her legs bedazzled in black and white; like Tasha her hair tied in a high ponytail of dark brown; like Tasha the light cast shadows upon her skin, showing the muscles under her tight and shiny outfit. Instead of a long-sleeve and crop top, however, the woman wore a checkerboard pattern leotard with no sleeves. K found herself following the contour of her legs up towards where the tights had slipped off her hips a little bit to show that wonderful, beautiful creamy bit of skin where the leotard’s crotch dipped lower towards spaces beautiful and wonderful. K couldn’t help but blush at the sight.
“Tasha!” The woman chirped in a deep voice. She looked at the three bedazzled women. “Doing the tours already? Should’ve told me!” She asked, “Oh, do come in. Come in!” She said, opening the door wide. “I was just prepping for the class.”
Who could say no to such enthusiasm? The conversation forgotten, the four women were invited into Agnieszka’s realm. After the decorated confines of the corridors, the room was open and stark. The wooden, fabricated walls were painted white, and the smooth concrete floor was covered in crash mats of different colours, four plants in each corner, and a single radio CD-player in at the front of the space. The moment they walked in, they could feel a sense of serenity to the space, a purpose-made, designer-choice rule that traffic jams and mobile phones were not welcomed here. It was a room to let the mind focus and to let go; its simple decoration would make it seem like a space where the centre had run out of money – and maybe it was – and in a way the whole building was like that, a work in progress.
“Welcome,” Agnieszka moved like a dancer, twirling in place with arms extended. She side-stepped and came to an abrupt, well-timed stop and a bow, “to my realm.”
The three could just about make out the sounds of sweet, soft music playing from the radio. Pipes and cymbals and was that melodious ooloolating? K blinked at the calm brightness of the room, and felt a tingling sensation begin to spread from the base of her back. There was an unsullied feel to the space that made her feel unwelcomed. Like a showroom in Ikea, or a surgery theatre. K turned to look at Veronica, who was looking at the place with a wide smile and even wider eyes; dazed, eager.
Tasha put a hand on Veronica’s shoulder, whispering something in her ear. Veronica simply nodded.
K looked at Nana, who was staring at the radio in the corner. What had that been?
“Well, seems like your friend has found her new home.” Tasha said suddenly.
Veronica blinked as if coming from a trance. The smile never left her face as she turned towards the trainer in the leotard. “Ohmigod… I’ve always wanted to try tai chi but never… never really pushed myself to do it. I really, really want to try it if it is okay.”
Agnieszka laughed merrily. “Well, with enthusiasm you’re already more than half way there. Tai chi is easy to learn, hard to master. And, besides, is the open day! Everyone welcomed.”
Veronica giggled, fidgeting in place. She took a deep breath and turned to her friends. “You guys okay if I try this? Because… if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. And I am so tired of that.”
K smiled, wrapping an arm around Nana. Nana made a sound. “Don’t worry, Vero. We’ll tell you all about all of the fun we’ll have so you don’t miss out.”
Agnieszka placed a hand on Veronica’s elbow. “Now, class starts in soon and I’d like to prepare. As I can tell, you haven’t got the right clothes,” She started pulling Veronica towards the door. “So, come with me and we’ll get you the right uniform for this,” She said as the two faded from sight.
Nodding, Tasha turns at the other two giving them a simple, simple stare, like a lioness staring at a gazelle. “Now, dears, let’s get along with the tour,” She said. Soon she locked the door behind herself. The three stood in the middle of the corridor, this one quieter, but not empty.
“There’s so much more to see today, and I’d like you to see as much as possible. But I’ll give you two a choice. Do we go right,” She paused, extending a toned arm one way. “Or left?” She said, pointing slowly, letting her arm move in front of K’s face.
Nana took a step back from the woman’s arm, worried she might be touched. She turned towards the left, down that long corridor, but found herself staring right into Tasha’s eyes. For a moment Nana didn’t know what to do, usually she would’ve looked away by now, but those eyes… Nana felt like she had to prove something to this woman who had said such rubbish, crazy things. So she stared, and she felt her skin crawl. A disconcerting and empowering experience.
“Left,” K says in a small voice.
“Perfect!” Tasha says, pushing past the two women abruptly. “You’ll love what we have this way. Have you two ever held a longsword…?”
Nana lagged behind as the tall woman’s voice faded. She walked slowly, all too aware of how K’s eyes never moved higher than Tasha’s behind.
A couple passed in front of them. Dressed in the same coloured singlets and protection gear, they had that aura recent coupes had that made everyone look at them with equal parts envy, equal parts gag reflex. They looked happy, if sweaty. Side by side, they looked like the number ten. And they were happy, and they could probably tackle a whole rugby team on their own. They were wrestlers, if Nana could guess correctly. Greco-roman, maybe?
“This place is ridiculous. It has a little of everything,” K said, following the women with her eyes before looking at her friend.
Nana went back to her phone, scrolling through an endless feed of nothingness. She blinked, and looked at K. That intense stare made her look away for a second. Better to look down, safe, no need to rush into a decision that was making her leg jump up and down like a horny dog humping against – no! Not that thought. Wrong thought.
“Makes you think-like,” Nana whispered. “Considering what that woman said, like, it is just a small group of people working this place.”
A pause filled by the sound of the coffee machine in the background.
“You really don’t like them, don’t you?”
Nana stopped moving her thumb. She breathed in deeply, and looked up to see K staring at her. She had taken her jacket off, and she could tell why her friend wanted to be here – how she could be comfortable here – she was basically one of them. Her shoulders were wide and defined, arms bigger than average for a woman. Her hair cropped short and messy, and the open, “come at me, bro” way she sat. Nana felt a bubbling nastiness in the dark pit of her soul and quickly locked it deeply in an enchanted well. No need for that.
“It’s just that… fuck, K, you know my story. School ruined exercise for me, like. I am just lazy, and I really, really don’t like people who flaunt their bodies like she does,” Nana swallowed, realising she was about to shout.
K leaned over the table, hands together. She laughed softly. “They’re not flaunting it, Nana. They’re…” She paused, looking inside her own head. “Has it ever occurred to you that some of them might be like you? No, no, I don’t mean it like that. That maybe what you’re looking at now is the middle, if not end, of a journey? They’ve worked so hard to be who they are now, wouldn’t it make sense to show off the results?”
Nana frowned. That made sense, but it was still rude to do so, of course. Inconsiderate to others who would rather not be reminded of themselves. “No… it never makes sense; under any circumstance. It is just so bloody-“
K put a hand on Nana’s, holding tight. “Breathe.”
Nana breathed in, and breathed out, and she relaxed. Her teeth unclenched. Damn, she had been tense. What’s wrong with her?
“Look, I know you’re suspicious, but what if what Tasha said is true?”
“Which bit, the one about joining together in truth and worship towards the ideal individual?” She smirked.
“No, that part,” K laughed. “That’s ridiculous. About people overcoming themselves through finding that one thing they enjoy.”
“Oh,” Nana looked down. “That.”
“Is that a reluctant smile I see on your face?”
“No!” Nana looked up, pouting. “I… damn it.”
A woman passes them by, nearly hitting their table with the bag over her shoulder. She had blue hair wet against her nape, and dressed in a smile of someone who just accomplished something. She turned at them, apologized, and walked away with a coffee cup in hand.
“Look, let’s try something. One thing. You decide. And then let’s use the Jacuzzi.”
Nana raised an eyebrow. “Why do you want me to choose? You know more than I do.”
K leaned back on the chair, balancing on its hind legs. “Because you need to start making these decisions and understanding that failure is just part of it. You try something, you don’t like it, you move on and try something else.”
Nana considered this for a moment. She looked at K, at the arms she wore like a badge of pride. Odd, that she never considered K’s way of dressing like showing off. She had even seen her in her sports gear, and it never felt that way. Was it just because K was a close friend? Then, what did that say about her character?
“You know, I would like to be able to lift my own boxes without turning into a messy sweat.”
“Sweaty mess. Damn it.”
K laughed and stood up. “Well, we can’t do weights dressed like we are.”
Nana gave K a look. “Really? Because you look like you’re ready to survive a zombie apocalypse.”
K looked down at herself, eyebrows high. “Nah, more like an atomic apocalypse,” She stared down for a second, at her hands. “But I see what you mean. And: no. If we’re going to lift, then, let’s do it properly.” She grabbed her jacket off the table. “Let’s find that shop.”
Nana held her hand against the door feeling apprehensive and like the very eye of every god and goddess staring at her, through her, into her very being. She wrapped one arm around her chest, feeling the air, cold and judgemental, against her skin in parts that shouldn’t be bared. She looked about, and found no one waiting behind her to get out of the changing room. So she took a deep breath and told herself that no one would look at one person who looks like everybody else. That was the rule: fit in, look like others so they couldn’t judge you. She had been doing that for years, how was this one time any different?
“Come on, Anastasia, just do this,” Nana whispered to herself as she pushed the door open.
She huddled, ready to feel those stares soldering her skin into the wall, but the area was empty. With chest hammering, Nana walked until she found K chatting to one of the coaches. Nana looked down, not wanting to meet the coach’s stare. Instead, she went down to tie the laces on her new trainers. She still couldn’t believe she bought new trainers just for this, but, then, as she had said, now she would have to use them for something. At least the shop had had something in sensible, plain white rather than those neon signs with laces people seemed to wear nowadays.
Nana snuck a glance at K, seeing how she fit her outfit like a airhostess fit an airplane. Nana could still see K’s muscles in her mind, could see the tell-tale shadows moving under her outfit, as she had seen them bare, for the first time, in the changing room. K wore a black unitard with red lines going down the sides. The straps bared and framed her shoulders and arms, and the unitard came to her mid-thigh, showing off legs that, while not muscular, were not flabby at all. You could see why K always went on about doing something new. Her eyes followed the contours of K’s body and suddenly they were pulled from K towards the darker woman’s body. Those blasted tights of them, so dazzling and hard to look at but harder to look away from. Nana blinked when she realised her eyes had moved to the coach’s sports bra. She forced herself to stand and walk forward.
The coach said something and K turned around. “Oh, Nana,” K said in a passive voice. She was trying to make things normal and quiet, for her sake, and she appreciated it. Nana allowed herself a smile. “This is Maria. We were just talking about what her class involves.”
“Is it hard-like?” Nana found herself saying, quietly. The woman’s face was rounded, like the rest of her body. Round, powerful muscle bound by tight lycra in white and black. Nana tried really hard to not stare at the bared midriff, which was easier than trying to not stare at the breasts the size of her head displayed through a bright orange top with a zipper in the middle. How was it that exercise clothing was so… sexualized? Men didn’t get that problem, did they?
“Well, hard is relative,” She spoke in that same voice that every single coach they had met so far used. Slow, well-spoken; a voice used to explaining things, to being listened, to commanding attention, and being enthusiastic about it. “But it being an open day with new faces the class will start slow. Showing you form and technique, and then getting to the fun part. But, don’t worry, I won’t let you hurt yourself.”
Nana found herself nodding. She stopped. “Wait… hurt myself?” Her eyes began to go really wide and then she felt K’s hand on her arm.
“Nah, that won’t happen. You’re smart. It is just that sometimes idiots don’t listen to instruction and do whatever they want.“
Nana found herself nodding. “Okay. So, what’s happening, actually?”
K opened her mouth to speak but Maria lifted a finger to stop her, not once breaking eye contact with Nana. “A little warm-up, followed by getting into partners and learning a set of moves. Rest of the class will be guided, and you’ll lift what you can. The class is designed so that it scales.”
Again, Nana found herself nodding. She blinked. “Oh. That doesn’t sound too hard–” She stumbled, feeling K’s strong arm around her shoulder. Her skin crawled at the sudden contact, but Nana bit her tongue. K tried really hard, but some people could just not help themselves.
“And if it becomes too much, as promised, we can just go to the sauna.” K said jokingly.
Nana had actually forgotten about that promise, really. In some way, the closer she was to doing this exercise thing the less anxious she felt, even if her brain felt like a train station at peak time. But, strangely, with K in her shiny outfit, and Maria in her beautiful and confusing… uniform, Nana felt really not that self conscious in her own leggings and leotard and, well, she was wearing shorts and a t-shirt too, so she was showing less skin than the other two. She blinked, wondering when was the last time she didn’t feel horribly self-conscious in her own skin.
“Yeah…. why not. Let’s do this.”
Chattering of faces familiar to one another filtered through unfamiliar terms reached Nana’s ears. She strained to make sense of what the women were talking about, and every now and then she was rewarded when someone talked about something not work-out related. It was then that she tried to jump in on the conversation, to steer it from something else. But nothing so impassable as a group of gossiping ladies in spandex. Nana rolled her eyes and silently moved away from the conversation about kilograms and deadlifts. K didn’t notice, and while Nana would’ve liked to be with her friend she let her have a good chat. K was sociable, and she was trying really hard to help Nana, so it was okay to be alone for a little bit. Besides, K just looked the part.
Nana saw expensive trainers of neon colours. She saw legs wrapped in smooth, patterned spandex. Some wore chest-baring outfits, others hid their outfit under hoodies and jumpers. She saw a daring girl, probably no older than fifteen, wearing a black leotard and black hosiery and little else. Nana did a double take, unable to understand the anachronistic choice of clothing on someone so young, but soon that girl was swallowed by the crowd and replaced by her older lookalike, probably a mother, stood in her place, wearing a pair of really tight, really short shorts and a tight belt around her waist. Even with all the colours and beautiful bodies, Nana’s attention kept coming back to this woman, probably six foot tall; big, powerful, and, by all standards, overweight. But there she was, in an outfit exactly like K’s. It was then that Nana realised just how different the women were, in age and body types and fitness level. Some even looked like her, all arms and legs and nothing else. Nana made eye contact with the girl and the two smiled shyly at one another. They might have different skin colour but, here, at least they could be spindly sticks together. There was something charming about the idea, that there was someone else there trying to better herself—Nana blinked and frowned. No, let’s not use that language.
“I am… good as I am, I don’t need whatever that woman was trying to sell,” She whispered sullenly.
Even so, Nana felt like she couldn’t join in on a conversation. The shyness was a barrier, and talking to another shy person was just a banging waste of time. And talking to the others… well, there was just something off about how they spoke. So, Nana looked around the room. Wider than most other rooms they had see, with a black floor that had a little bounce to it. The space was divided in three by plywood boxes and weighted discs stacked in towers. There were dumbbells and kettlebells, and long bars looking towards the ceiling as if spears in an arsenal. The whole place had a distinctive arsenal look to it, like how gladiatorial training spaces are portrayed in films. The vaulted ceiling seeing t-shirts, some muddy, some torn, hanging there like trophies that in another space would be stuffed animal heads. They were trophies with crafty logos, all talking about warriors, soldiers, fighters, and… self-betterment. It was such an odd environment that smelled of rusted iron, sweat and whatever the floor was made of. While perhaps disgusting – No. No, don´t even think about the sweat in it –Nana realised that she could get used to the smell.
“What do you think?” K said suddenly.
Nana jumped slightly and turned to see K standing next to her. “It looks… interesting-like. Though, they only seem to talk about one thing.” She nodded at the group of women.
K rolled her eyes. “Crossfitters for you,” K said, huffing disdainfully. “Can’t talk about anything else. Though, not all of them are. Some are trying things for the first time.”
“Yeah, and still they sounded… off.”
Nana raised an eyebrow. So, she wasn’t the only one to notice. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it is in the tone of—“ K began only to stop suddenly.
“And hello ladies!” Maria’s voice filled the room like an exploding balloon turned heads at a birthday party. The woman stomped to the middle of the room like a bull in the middle of a herd. The stocky woman was now wearing a t-shirt with a Spartan helmet over her uniform.
“Good afternoon, everyone!” She said in a drill-sergeant voice that made Nana stand straight and stare ahead. She had been so soft-spoken before! But, well, just look at her; that chest was probably mostly lungs.
Maria walked towards a wooden box and stood on it. “And here we go. Okay, to those who don’t know me, I am Trainedform Maria, and I’ll be taking care of you today,” She said in a voice full of excitement. “It being an open day, I am hoping to see many new faces, both to this space and to weightlifting so, come on girls, give me a hands-up to those new to the bar.”
Slowly, Nana raised her hand, a little apprehensive. When she saw another seven hands shoot in the air she felt a little better. And once more, she shared a look with the other lanky girl. Nana’s smile was real.
“Okay, now who is new to a class like this? If you still don’t know, think of crossfit without the potential for injury, by way of aerobics.”
Suddenly more than half of the class lifted their hands.
“Aha! Then it means our advertisement works,” She laughed, eliciting a group chuckle. “Now, if you’ll allow me to explain how this goes…” She began to drone and Nana found herself tuning out. She breathed in the scent of rust and old sweat, felt her chest expand against the tight, new clothes she wore. Felt how soft and comforting they were and, somehow, she could understand why the brand was called Underarmour. It did feel like she was wearing armour of her own making, one that lied inside her. Nothing could affect her if she was proud and at ease and enjoyed herself a little. Odd, how all that apprehension she felt in the morning had gone. She could just about forgive K for dragging her out of bed on a Saturday. If anything, she was starting to like how the outfit felt against her skin.
“And now, girls, time to run!” Maria said and the group stampeded forward.
K pulled on Nana’s arm, and the two joined in on the warm-up.
Continued in A Work-out with Strange Lights
To be published by the end of January, 2019
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