Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing (W.W. Norton) and her new book, Companion to an Untold Story, selected by Susan Orlean for the 2011 AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction, was published this September. Aldrich is the former editor of Fourth Genre and teaches at Michigan State University.
In The Women’s Locker Room
She’s gone. Gone as in I don’t expect to see her ever again, this nameless woman, who was so much of a fixture in the women’s shower and spa area of the health club that she came to define my experience of it. She’s vanished and when I asked the head supervisor if she knew what had become of the woman, she nodded. “Oh her,” the woman laughed, “She just stopped being here one day.”
Last spring, when I joined the club, the woman of whom I’m speaking had a routine. She alternated between the cold plunge and the sauna throughout the hours of afternoon. At first I found it curious. What an odd way to spend the afternoon, I thought, and to what purpose? Over time her presence became oppressive. When I arrived, she was there and when I departed, she was there, just there, always there. It didn’t matter if I came at 12 or at 5. I never saw her anywhere else in the health club—it was as if she was delivered on the blue and white tiles and stayed. I never saw her getting out of her vehicle in the parking lot and walking through the revolving door of the entrance. Needless to say, I never saw her depart. I never even saw her dressed. I have no idea what kind of clothes she wore though I suspect extra-large grey sweat pants that dwarfed her body. It was impossible to imagine her joining up with a partner at the end of the day in amiable companionship and heading home. She struck me as irrevocably unaccompanied.
She occupied the communal space as if no one else existed. We, her co-inhabitants, were forced to move around her, to accommodate her, while she never acknowledged us with a single flicker of her eyes. She didn’t care or notice that a line of naked women stood behind her at the drinking fountain while she methodically filled her three water bottles. After the bottles were full, she’d bend over and place her lips as close to the spigot as she could and then drink and drink, with the water dribbling down her chin where she would wipe it away roughly. Then she grabbed the three bottles to her chest and carried them to the sauna where she would line them up just so on the top bench in the farthest corner which she claimed as hers.
She hunched in that corner of darkness, sitting on her bed of wet white towels like an impassive Buddha, staring down between her knees to the floor. At an appointed time she’d ease off the bench and out of the corner, clumping in her rubber sandals across the wood planks of the small sauna, throwing open the door, and making a bee-line to the cold plunge pool. The cold plunge was her river and hers alone, no one else could share it. She’d get a clenched look as she heaped glacial water on her face, almost angrily. Her motions were wild and violent as if she was trying to rouse herself. Then she shook her head like a dog that had just been given an unwanted bath. At that moment she didn’t look quite human. Staggering up the steps, she’d grab a towel brusquely, wrap it about her waist and head back to the sauna like an old woman closing the door on her last unwanted visitor. Back and forth she’d go between the hot and the cold, between the thaw and the freeze. The in-between was as brief as she could make it.
I wanted to lean forward from the sauna’s shadows and ask her why she did what she did. What was her routine about—how had it come into being and what was she hoping to achieve? But my talking to her would be more than an unwanted intrusion; it would be a violation of her privacy. I never saw her make eye contact with any of the women that moved in and out of her space, and she never looked at me. I would have noticed. She made no sound, not even an involuntary sigh or grunt escaped from her lips. Almost everyone exhaled in the sauna—that’s why we were there, to let the heat take us. Not her. She never put her legs up or stretched out on her back as the rest of us did. Her head hung over her knees with the three water bottles evenly lined up to her right.
I was not alone in being uncomfortable in her presence. Instead of blending into the other women’s bodies, she rearranged the chemicals in the small room with a negative charge. She refused to give into the hot house bloom. With each minute that passed, the sauna became more prison house than pleasure center until one by one each of us picked up our towel and left her. Her mood was indecipherable to me. Was it blankness or melancholia?
I swim laps and I bring my troubles into the water with me. For the first twenty minutes I swim furiously, slapping the water hard, flipping at the wall with more force than is necessary. I keep going, lap after lap, until I’ve drained myself. By the time I’m at the end of my mile I’m no longer thinking anything and that’s what I come for. I come to rid myself of the emotional toxins that build up in my body. I come to the club to escape, not confront, the human, to draw a curtain on the world. And she made escape impossible. She was making me think and I didn’t want to think. I was thinking about her–wondering what her toxins were. There was something she was trying to do, day after day, that I knew. But I wasn’t sure it was working. I feared she was replacing one kind of ache for another. Something had gone quite cold deep inside her and she required extreme measures to instigate a thaw. Round and round it went—our sharing of the heat, until I resolved that she would always be there and moved to the second women’s locker room on the other side of the building and switched pools.
When I was merely curious, I thought she might be fighting an illness and the intense cleansing was a homeopathic remedy. I told a doctor friend about her obsessive practice and she thought the woman’s rituals were part of a weight loss program. She’s not overweight, I had countered. She’s fit. My friend said it didn’t matter. Her body was blank, unreadable: her evenly pale skin was without fat or wrinkles or pockets of flesh, no stretch marks or scars or sagging breasts or varicose veins that would tell me something of where she had been or who she was.
A few months later, when I was forced to return to the locker room she had so memorably occupied, I revised my assessment. There was a purpose behind her behavior after all, and a conventional one at that. My doctor friend was right–she was trying to make herself smaller, thinner, to reduce herself—she was going to sweat herself down, even though there wasn’t much to shrink. How did a woman with a trim build come to believe she was over-weight enough to devote her afternoons to disappearing? What is it in so many women that eats them from the inside out? She was no young girl traumatized by the intense scrutiny that comes with puberty. She was a middle-aged woman.
She had achieved her reduction; still she continued to go through the motions as formerly even though there was no more she could wring from her body. She was walking more slowly than before and every step required great stores of strength. She had a child’s body now: her breasts were flat and little, her stomach caved in between her jutting hips. Was this what she wanted? The self before puberty, before the roundness of womanhood came upon her? All straight lines, she was, like the straight lines of the bottles arranged in a row on the slats of wood planks of the sauna.
And then she was gone. Each time I enter the sauna, I look into that shadowy corner to see if she has reappeared or if anyone else sits in her space. No one has claimed it. She haunts me, this woman, whose name I don’t know and who was never spoken to in my presence. Did she come to this place of wood planks and cold tile to starve the fat woman inside her, who could emerge with volcanic force at any moment?
Now on the verge of spring again, I emerge from the shower in my bathing suit, and take a few steps towards the spa and cold plunge area. That’s when I see a woman half submerged in the water on the right side of the large blue tiled hot tub and blurry at this range without my glasses. I can sense that her form is substantial. As I move closer, descend the steps and enter the water, she smiles at me and I smile back. Our friendliness is genuine and mutual.
In the year I’ve been coming to the athletic club, I’ve observed that most women slide into the hot tub without making eye contact and then stare off into space in deep contemplation for the duration of their time in the tub. Upon occasion I’ve encountered a woman who is talkative but she is rare. Striking up a conversation suggests she is comfortable in her own skin. Mostly silence reigns while we all pretend we’re strangers who will never see each other again. Today no verbal exchange follows our quiet acknowledgement of one another and I wade over to the center of the back rim and sink down. In that moment of quiet, I wonder if her weight makes her self-conscious and then immediately think what a stupid question that is. Of course her weight makes her self-conscious. I know more women than I want to count who will not be seen in a bathing suit. What did she have to overcome to make herself appear in a bathing suit at a public gym? Is she thinking about what others like me are thinking about her or does she avoid thinking about that as one might avoid looking into a full-length mirror or standing on a scale?
All sizes and shapes and ages use these facilities. Through the door, on the other side of the wall are two pools, a cold lap pool with strict lanes and a multi-use, warmer pool for classes. This second pool draws all sorts to the locker room—women with disabilities, arthritis, injuries in the process of healing, and women who are overweight and can’t swim laps. I’ve watched women with walkers and wheelchairs make their way into the spa, I’ve joined groups of overweight women in the hot jets, but I have never seen a woman this large. Her size and the room she takes up in the spa are dramatized when a small, bird-like woman joined us. We are framed by a frosted glass wall behind us and it appears as if we are demonstrating different sizes on a chart.
I am not heavy. But I am not thin either and I know what it is to carry more than I can bear. Sometimes when I swim laps I feel as if I’m towing a boat behind me. Sometimes it feels as if it’s taking hours to swim the routine I usually swim in 45 minutes. My body is a sack of beets, dark red fleshy mounds. My middle is composed of a hundred beets interwoven together and my legs and arms are the beet greens swirling out in front and behind me. It isn’t how I want to feel when I swim. I want to feel lean and strong, and cut through the water.
After my swim when I return to the changing area of the locker room, I see her again. This time she is sitting on a bench with her back to me. I’m across the room from her. She doesn’t know I’m looking at her for she’s facing the row of lockers and not looking out into the room behind her. She’s drying herself off and gathering herself for the next task of getting dressed. From this angle and seated, her flesh falls all the way from her neck down her back in folds, and I find her beautiful, exceedingly so. I am surprised because I count myself among those who have been trained to see a thin body as the beautiful body. Everything that escapes our training and mastering are considered not-beautiful– that which we don’t want for ourselves. I think of the woman who once occupied this locker room so powerfully, how I could count her ribs, feel her hips. Her body was a burden of a different kind, one she punished and tried to control. And here’s the thing, I sat in the company of them both, between them, the woman who refuses her own flesh and the woman sitting on the bench in her kimono of flesh, with its sleeves of abundance spilling over her earthly frame; I carry them both inside me. They are not foreign to me—they are me and I am them, and we are all dreaming the same dream of letting go.