Every gym has its colorful characters and mine here in Sydney is no exception. However, I didn't know it was a gay gym until the subject came up with one of Mickey's colleagues. "Oh, you go to City Gym?" he asked. "Sissy Gym. Everyone calls it 'Sissy Gym' because that's where all the gay guys work out." That would explain why the characters here spanned the color spectrum from royal purple to spray-tan orange.
Like most gym members, I don't have the nerve to strike up a conversation with my fellow patrons. But that doesn't mean that I don't know anyone there because I feel like I do. The same faces appear in my Body Attack and Step classes week after week and I've imagined stories for many of them. I always smile when this one small, early forties Asian lady shows up to my Monday night class. She's not as strong as her 6'2, 185 lbs of muscle gay friends, but that doesn't stop her from playfully slapping them on the back and shouting words of encouragement.
At the end of a work day, going to the gym is the last thing I want to do, so every bit of motivation counts. Also at my Monday night class (it's called 'Body Attack', but it's mostly just running and jumping to the music) are a group of gay guys who egg each other on throughout the torturous 55 minutes. They try to see who can kick one's leg highest and teasingly jump into each other's space. These friendly Monday night contests are small celebrations of gay pride. The men of City Gym probably spent younger years feeling out of place during masculine displays of power on the rugby pitch. Now their time has come to strut confidently in front of their compadres, exerting testosterone generated strength and energy to house beats in an aerobics class.
Again, I don't know these guys but watching them inspires me to push myself a little harder. One night I was so thankful that I high fived a total stranger. It's a wonder that such a sense of camaraderie is created without exchanging words and simply knowing that we're all feeling the same aches. And perhaps this feeling of camaraderie and encouragement instead of self consciousness is the best part of belonging to a gay gym. As a single girl and especially now that I'm married, I try not to worry about people evaluating my body at the gym, but still there's something liberating about knowing that the men of City Gym are checking out each other's biceps, not my cellulite and stretch marks.
There's one City Gym regular who neither inspires me nor makes me smile. In fact, he kind of creeps me out. He's always wearing a sweaty, stained white T-shirt and itty bitty black shorts. The whole point of athletic gear is to be comfortable and allow movement, but I can't imagine pulling, adjusting and tucking in his sports wear is comfortable for Mr. Gross. If attending one of the group exercise classes, he wants to be seen going above and beyond what everyone else is doing. His step has six risers instead of two, he works out before as well as during class and he adds an initial 'puh' sound to his exhales. You can hear him 'puh... puh... puh-ing' through the abdominal set and it drives me crazy. Then other times I feel sorry for Mr. Gross and angry at myself for detesting him. Maybe he's totally nice and uses working out to relieve the stress associated with a tough job or breakup. Who knows?
My favorite City Gym character is one of the most distinguishable; he usually rollerblades into my Thursday night Step class wearing a black unitard and a goofy grin. He's hard to miss before the music starts, but after it's blaring you can't take your eyes off him. The choreography at my Step class is extremely advanced, but Paul doesn't miss a beat. The first time I saw him I was sure he must be a retired alum of the Sydney Dance Company. He even adds his own moves, replacing a boring step march with a reverse mambo cha cha and extra turns.
About six weeks ago I noticed three large pictures of Paul on City Gym's message board. There were hand written notes in the border that said things like, 'we are praying for you, Paul,' or 'we love you, Paulie.' This is how I found out his name was Paul. I just stared at the happy photos until a City Gym employee walked by. "What happened to this man?" I asked. He explained to me that Paul had been hit by a car while rollerblading. He wasn't wearing a helmet and had already had multiple surgeries on his head. "He's okay," he said, "but it's not good." I picked up news about Paul's condition by listening to his friends from our Step class as the weeks went by.
Three weeks later I found myself at St. Vincent's hospital visiting our friend Jess whose tumble down some stairs escalated from a broken foot to dangerous blood clots. She was a great fighter, though and managed to get released early, twenty minutes before I showed up to surprise her with an assorted box of cookies. While waiting for the elevator to go back outside who do I see at the end of the hall?
"You're the guy from my gym!" I blurted out before thinking. Paul didn't recognize me (he had had four head surgeries) and we had never formally met so we introduced ourselves in the hospital corridor. I asked him about his recovery and he complained about a plastic helmet that the doctors and nurses required him to wear. "They're going to put a steel version of this in my skull next week," he said while holding it up. I couldn't imagine the pain and discomfort associated with multiple surgeries and weeks at the hospital, but after getting hit by not one but two cars, I guess he was lucky to be alive at all. He said he'd like to sneak out of the hospital to go to Step class and I did my best to encourage him to stay put and get well. I don't know the result of his most recent surgery, but I hope to see him stepping and smiling again soon.
It's ironic that a place filled with some of the fittest and strongest guys I've ever seen is called 'Sissy Gym.' However, I have a feeling that this negative term is embraced and recycled by the gym's gay patrons. They're proud to flex at Sissy Gym and so am I.