Downstairs is the Cave of Dudes. It is where the free-weights line up in rows by the mirror, where contraptions pierced through with grimy iron bars and corsets of straps hunch in the corners and dare you to approach. Someone has squeezed a couple of treadmills in at the back. They are the wireless kind that run on human power instead of electricity. The robot machines are quartered in the vast gallery upstairs, a whole army of them blinking out their perfectly calibrated, simulated tracks on LED screens.
Down in the cave, incline benches. Pull-up bars. Clangs and grunts. Some days, most days, I’m the only gal down there.
The Cave of Dudes skews young. They cluster in packs, spotting each other and counting off. Their tattooed calves flex with effort. When they finish a set, they pace, flushed and breathless. They turn their arms just so to see the cut in the mirror. They try to look like they’re not looking.
The few older men who dare to visit are made of sinew and focus. They grip through fingerless gloves. Intensity makes their neck veins pop. Even though they lift less, they seem stronger. Grounded. The old dudes are more likely to end up on a mat doing the peacock pose.
I am a 42-year old woman with cellulite and stained sneakers. It takes an enormous force of will to peel myself from the whirring breeze of the elliptical and descend into the Cave of Dudes. It stinks of testosterone. The man-juice is thick as brine and you’ve got to churn your way through the miasma to get to the dumbbells.
I go because I love the place. It’s a playground, full of toys to mess around with. Yet every time I start down, up drifts the bass dialogue and the metal bang. With it, a clench of dismay. Couldn’t it be silence? This time, couldn’t the room be mine alone? It never has been, not in all the years I’ve been going. There’s no reason to believe it would be now. Still. Traveling has offered up enough deserted, junky hotel fitness rooms that I know what a blast it can be to bounce around by myself.
Better yet, how about a gaggle of gals? If my girlfriends in their saggy capris and cheap Reeboks joined me, that would be a party. We could shut off ESPN and crank Throwing Muses and Flogging Molly. We could do all the wrong things with the iron maidens in the corner. We could dance between sets.
But in the Cave of Dudes, antics are unwelcome. Talking, unless it’s about muscles and stuff, is also rare. Dancing? Who would dare to try?
To will myself through the throatfuls of male musk, I’ve learned to man up. Every gal has a store of Dude inside her. She knows how to act remote and invulnerable. How do you think she survives the subway, the office, the bar, the street? When it’s necessary, she taps the supply, adopting tunnel vision and shooting straight for the target. No distractions.
Even when — especially when — those distractions are the echoes of ancient patterns learned by a girl surviving in a universe of threat.
I know rationally that the dudes in the cave have things more compelling than me to capture their attention. They may notice the arrival of a female of the species, but what’s it to them if I’m clumsy or old or weak? What do I care even if they do care (which they don’t)? I’m safe here.
I know all this rationally, but still, the sense of intrusion, of outsider-ness, as I walk in almost overwhelms me. Among the dudes, the racks and incline benches look as sinister as they do inviting. My toys, in the company of dudes, look like mistakes waiting to happen.
Stepping across the room, I try not to glance at the bench press. It’s my favorite piece of equipment. I started on it a year or so ago with just the bar. Eventually, the weights went on. Week by week, they increased.
It’s a strange kind of thrill to climb of my own free will under that iron bar. Lifting it off the stand exposes my girly chest parts and delicate neck to a grimy mass, one that’s entirely in my control. It’s danger, it’s power. Nothing beats finding out how much this body can do.
Despite all this love, I start to stride past it over to the relative safety of the dumbbells. A trio dudes are all gathered up near my beloved bench. One of them is doing some sort of big-cock-lunge-squats while the other two watch with their arms crossed. It looks like a dare. Or a hazing.
As I pass, a little voice whispers, I wish he were here.
Oh, you again.
The voice accompanies me everywhere, all the time. But I hear it right here, at this almost imperceptible moment of choice. The timing makes me pause. That wish is whispering up right as I am about to abandon my very favorite exercise on account of the presence of men.
I stop. I let that wish bob and dance like a soap bubble , the little voice a song inside it. Yes, we always got such a kick out of sweating together, punching stuff and finishing the run with a wind sprint. Yes, this was one of highs we climbed together. And yes, if he were here, every piece of equipment in this place would be fair game. We’d mess around with it together.
All this wishing. Wishing to be alone, wishing for the company of women, wishing for My Mister. Wishing to be younger and stronger. Or older and more free. Can I actually change any of these things? For the ones I can change, do I want them enough to take the leap?
Or do I choose this?
Wishing without action is a destructive habit. It’s biting nails and picking at scabs. It’s holding the fact of the terrain up against an ink-stained map of Rivendell. It’s falling from a cliff then cursing the earth that’s caught you.
He’s not here, Smirk. It’s just you, your grit, and your capacity to make your own bliss.
Get to it.
I touch that bubble with the tip of my courage and let it pop.
Then I slide on right past the trio of dudes, grab two 10-pound weights, and rack up.
Image: “River in a Cave,” John Spies, Thailand