A few months after I became a member of a cheap gym in Hell’s Kitchen, it dawned on me I had visited the place only once—when I signed up. I needed professional help.
The trainer occupies an odd position in our lives: despite often being someone you would have never met outside of the gym, he’s privy to your tenderest intimacies and physical vulnerabilities. Like a parent or spouse, he criticizes your smoking, drinking and eating habits, and you actually feel guilty. You’re his boss, sort of, but he’s also yours.
I’d long thought of trainers as an indulgence of the well-to-do. Paying someone to perfect my body seemed a sexy soupçon of vanity and sloth, as decadent as having a private chef. Then again, I told myself, maybe my suffering would lend the endeavor just enough wholesomeness to preserve my radicalism. Plus, the first session was free.
“Do you work out?” my taskmaster, Bashar, asked me, 15 minutes into our introductory session, as I struggled to bench-press the bar. Since I had not done anything more strenuous, for years, than bounce along on the elliptical for the duration of a medium-length Terry Gross interview and two Rihanna singles, I lied.
He laughed. “You’re crazy. I never meet anyone like you.”
He was 33, the son of Palestinian immigrants. He was sinewy, a lean, healthy looking alternative to the Pumping Iron vogue that—news flash, gym-absentees—still hasn’t gone away. He noticed my Observer T-shirt and asked if I was a writer, and if I could write about him for “a paper people read,” like the Daily News. When I demurred, he proposed that I help him create his own magazine instead. This was the only power I had over him—the power of the pen—and he piled on more reps each time I expressed reluctance about these projects.
“I’m going to make you a monster,” he would say.
In my daily life, the idea of exposing myself to five minutes of conversation, to say nothing of an hour of criticism, from someone like Bashar would have been unthinkable. I try not to throw up around anyone, certainly not during daytime hours. I don’t talk about the circumference of my arms.
But there’s something thrilling about paying someone to yell at you, a structured reminder of one’s frailty. Soon I was working out with Bashar twice a week. He asked me what rappers I liked, then mocked what I thought was a very credible answer. We had a camaraderie, though he laughed harder than I would have preferred whenever I sat backward on a piece of exercise machinery. And I didn’t love the way he took breaks to do his own reps or jokingly admire his physique in the mirror while asking me my opinion. These were the moments when I questioned who was in charge: was I really paying to watch Bashar preen, and to feel humiliatingly inadequate? He seemed to sense when he had gone too far, bringing me a bottle of water. “We gotta help each other, you and me.”
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