That was my thought as I entered the gym last week, ready to pay my penance in the company of those who’d kept the faith in my absence. I had my moves planned: enter quickly, cut left and directly into the weight room, bypassing the front desk and the gym’s owner — a possible “confessional” situation.
But of course I couldn’t be that lucky.
“Hey there, Ned!”
I stopped in mid-stride; so close to the pivot that would’ve carried me to freedom. “Hey, Jim,” I said, smiling meekly. Apologetically.
Jim leaned forward on the desk, dressed in his usual sweatpants and T-shirt lightly stained with perspiration after a 50-minute aerobics workout that trimmed his ballooning body fat from .08 down to .05. He looked at me and folded his hands together on the desktop, as if ready to pray for me. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”
My stomach growled, more out of nervousness than hunger, but I played it off in my favor. “Gosh, I’ve just been so busy lately. I didn’t even have time to eat (my second Egg McMuffin) this morning.”
“Well, that’s not good. You definitely need to eat,” he said, eyeing me.
I turned toward him, eliminating the view of my profile. “I know, but I’ll make up for it at lunch. Ha ha!”
I regretted saying that before the “ch” in “lunch” left my mouth; it was like telling your priest that you were going to stop admiring your neighbor’s wife by subscribing to Playboy.
Mercifully, he overlooked my remark, satisfied with the fact that one of his flock had returned. “Well, it’s just good to see you back.”
“Thanks,” I said, and stood there a moment.
Jim smiled, then sat down and reached for the phone.
That was it?
No harangue? No guilt trip? No “Looks like you made it back just in time?”
This was going to be easier than I thought!
Removing my jacket, I hung it on the rack and stretched a bit before climbing onto the butterfly machine: a torture device that, coincidentally, can also develop your pectorals.
I set the weight at what I’d been using eight weeks ago.
How much muscle could’ve been lost in a mere couple of months?
Well, enough that I needed to lighten the load by 10 pounds, it seemed, so I made the adjustment — and a discovery.
Eyes darting, I quickly unhitched another 10 pounds, covering the move with a stretch and a yawn.
Twenty reps should about do it, I thought, bringing my arms together and sending my chest muscles into quivering shock.
The fifth rep caused me to re-evaluate my lofty goal and settle on 15; then on a nice, round number.
No sense in overdoing it my first day back.
Just then, a fitness instructor entered with a small entourage of the newly baptized.
“This is for strengthening and shaping your thighs,” he said, pointing to the first in a row of machines that led to me. As he approached, I could almost hear him say “…and this is where out-of-shape people sit and rest while pretending to work out.”
While he explained the chin-up machine next to me, I slipped the weight up another 20 pounds and heaved my arms together, teeth clenched tightly and the glare of my reddened face reflecting amber off the cream-colored walls. My hope was that they’d move on quickly, allowing me to keep my dignity with the illusion of my obvious devotion to fitness.
Instead, the group hovered there as the instructor explained what I was doing—the intricacies of pectoral development, its importance in relation to posture, the difference between shaping muscle and toning it, why you shouldn’t bang the weights, and how often they change out the cables and grease the pulleys.
Around rep 14, they began to look uncomfortable, as if they feared being in the direct path of my exploding head.
The instructor ushered them to the next machine, glancing over his shoulder at me, a look of concern on his face as he began explaining the benefit of sit-ups. I brought the weights down with a light “clang” and collapsed.
So this was my penance, I thought as I stumbled from the machine and pulled my jacket from the rack, sleeve-first.
However, my real penance didn’t come until the next morning — when I reached for the alarm and woke the family with my screaming.
(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation and a member of the writing team at Long Awkward Pause. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)