New York, New York

Benchley Athletic

Ruts can happen to anyone, even 23-year-olds, and the best response is a brand-new gym membership—and a new girlfriend?

I am a healthy young man, at least I think so (I can’t afford a doctor’s opinion). But I’ve been drinking a lot, and maybe smoking too much, cadging cigarettes here and there from my puffing friends. After my birthday I was hungover for most of three days. And then, one morning, the elevator at work was slow and the door to the stairs was open. I thought, why not? After seven flights, I saw lights dancing in my eyes.

Gary: I can’t climb the stairs.
Scott: You should go to the gym.
Gary: [sighing] That’s not a bad idea.

It turns out that, while I don’t get health insurance, Brandsolve gives me a good discount at City Athletics, which is about four blocks from the office (Scott doesn’t work out there; he goes to Equinox, a gym for fancy people). I walked over one evening after work, imagining what it would be like to get in shape.

Montage: “Benchley at the Gym”
Music: Johnny Marr, “Down on the Corner”

Gary enters City Athletic, looking lost and confused. CUT TO: Flashbulb goes off as he gets his membership card. CUT TO: Benchley lifting weights, exhausted, puffing. CUT TO: Benchley falling off elliptical training machine. CUT TO: Benchley masturbating furiously looking at pictures of rats. CUT TO: Benchley on the treadmill, eyes focused. CUT TO: Benchley lifting weights, pushing hard, succeeding. CUT TO: Benchley on the treadmill. He’s flagging. His head is down. Suddenly—eye of the tiger—he tosses back his head, and his shaggy, almost-black hair, which has heretofore been covering his dashing blue eyes, flies back. SLOW MOTION, HIGH CONTRAST: Benchley looks left, then right, sweat fleeing away from him. His six-foot frame comes uncoiled, releasing some deep source of pure energy. CUT TO: end of the New York City marathon, where Benchley breaks the ribbon, arms out, smiling, trailing Kenyans.

That night, my freshly minted membership card in hand, I got my little towel from the towel handler and hopped on the treadmill for a 30-minute jog. After 30 seconds, the hurt started, and four minutes later I was wondering if my legs could actually explode. Then a tiny woman of mixed Chinese-American heritage climbed on the treadmill next to mine and jogged 19 miles in six minutes while listening to Belle and Sebastian on her iPod and reading a typescript manuscript from her job at Elle. I gasped like a drowning smoker, counting the seconds until it was over, ending my jog at 2.3 mph. New York sometimes makes it really clear that amateurs aren’t welcome.

But I went back, and it gets easier. And I’m able to catch up on my CNN, although after you’ve seen one enormous rocket smash into some vaguely outlined mosque, you don’t really need to see it again. So I find myself looking at the different people. There are the fatties, and they’re interesting in a this-could-happen-to-you way. There are the gay men, working hard and with total seriousness. There are the men in their late 40s who don’t want to lose their 28-year-old girlfriends. And the trainers, some with Vietnam stares, watching, observing, shouting at their charges. “Five more! Four more! Breathe!”

And then there are the women, who outnumber the men three to one. The sweat pours through their sports bras while they punch their iPods; they bend their backs over giant inflatable balls and stretch their legs. Some of them do it cheerfully, with apple cheeks, and others seem to hate every moment. I watch them, moving my legs and arms on the cross trainer, going through the motions.

With spending time at the gym, with preparations for the next show, with picking up more hours at work, I saw less of Para. But I was somehow seeing more of Katherine.

It happened like this: she was complaining, after practice one day, about having to carry a number of boxes from the basement to the street by herself, since no one in the arts cooperative would help, her arts peers being self-interested bastards, &c. Scott and Jacob just smiled and left. Then:

Gary: I can help you with the boxes.
Katherine: No, you don’t have to help me.
Gary: I’d rather help than listen to you whine.
Katherine: Well…that seems OK.

So I helped with the boxes, climbing the stairs behind Katherine and enjoying the view. She is not conventionally pretty, and maybe she doesn’t have the smallest nose. Her hair was long when we first met, but now it’s about two inches off her head and goes in every direction. And her fingernails aren’t clean. But she is definitely a cool-looking girl. She has a huge spiral-pattern tattoo on her right shoulder.

Gary: That really wasn’t bad. [low, smarmy voice] Of course, I’ve been working out.
Katherine: [rolling eyes] I can tell. I’m going to get some food with Spider. You want some?
Gary: I’m a big food fan, come to think of it. But I should go.
Katherine: Why? Is there someone you like better?

So we went out, and I was regaled with Burning Man stories, and tales of that glorious land beyond the mountains, San Francisco, where both Spider and Katherine had spent their early 20s, riding out the very tail end of the internet revolution.

Gary: Wait. You were making $80,000 a year?
Katherine: I know, right? Plus I was 23. I was the total web whore. I almost got an ampersand tattoo.
Gary: Why did you quit?
Katherine: Um…everything sort of quit. Not just me.
Spider: But also, it suckled.
Katherine: It suckled pig teat.
Spider: I worked straight through my birthday without noticing.
Katherine: Yep.

I went home and my cell phone rang.

Para: I miss you! Where is my boyfriend?
Gary: Once this show is over, I’ll be right there. I just need to keep my head down.
Para: I’m coming, you know. I won’t miss it.
Gary: Excellent.

Except it didn’t feel excellent; I’d go over there, and help Para make something, like risotto stuffed into bell peppers, and we’d watch TV. At Katherine’s it was burnt grilled cheese and tomato soup, and that seemed more appropriate, somehow.

Scott: So I notice you stay after practice a lot.
Gary: Um, yeah.
Scott: You and Katherine are getting to be friends.
Gary: We’re just hanging out.
Scott: Hanging out, like, hanging out, or hanging out, like, I put my penis inside her vagina?
Gary: The former.
Scott: It’s not my business. I just want to prepare for total catastrophe if the singer in my band who’s dating my co-worker starts fucking the band’s drummer on the side.
Gary: I can understand your concern, definitely. But we’re chaste like Mormons.

It wasn’t as though I never saw Para. I would go over to her place twice a week, and we would watch The Daily Show, and talk about work. The elections were coming up, and she was reading every newspaper she could, and she’d brief me on the news. But even as electoral frenzy swirled around me, I felt pretty detached from it all. I just kept humming the songs we’d written, hoping I could hit the high notes. And I still really liked Para’s cat, Butter. He was a loveable scamp.

One Saturday morning, a week before our second show, Katherine called. “Benchley,” she said, “would you like to come with me to visit my brother in New Paltz and pick up electronic devices?”

I was exhausted from the week, and I’d planned on sitting around the house in my underwear, but going somewhere outside of New York, in a car, sounded exciting. “OK,” I said.

An hour later, she pulled up in a huge brown truck, which belongs to the Monotreme Institute. Her brother, who was some sort of multi-media artist electronics guy, had a huge pile of electronic geegaws that he didn’t want. He was giving them to Katherine so that people at Monotreme could use them in their art.

It felt fantastic to see all of those trees. I am still upstate at heart, I think. As we drove, we talked about Katherine’s work: part-time jobs on about a dozen different projects. For the most part she builds or finds things for movie sets.

Katherine: Um, I built a desk for Zoolander.
Gary: That’s awesome.
Katherine: And I helped them find the kitchen table for Elf.
Gary: No shit! Do you feel totally famous?
Katherine: Sometimes, a little, when I see my stuff in the movies. I did this huge decorative wallhanging for Catch Me if You Can, but it got cut.
Gary: Were you bummed?
Katherine: I was totally bummed.

We talked about her younger brother, and about my brother, who had just called me out of the blue. He and I hadn’t spoken in months. He filled me in on his life, his girlfriend. He was trying to decide whether to re-enlist (he called it “re-upping” and I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about at first). Apparently the pressure to stay in the Navy is pretty huge right now.

Gary: Anyway, I told him about Schizopolis playing out in Brooklyn, and he thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever heard. I thought he’d rag me. I almost didn’t tell him.
Katherine: See, it’s that older-sibling thing. Like, the approval just means a huge amount, right?
Gary: It shouldn’t, but it does. That’s my older brother.
Katherine: I know. I should remember that when I’m talking to Danny. But there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want him to get too far ahead, you know? Not really, but it’s still there.
Gary: Well, you know, that probably just makes him try harder.
Katherine: I know, right? So it’s good for him.

We arrived after two hours’ driving, and I realized that I was halfway back to Albany. Part of me wanted to keep going and see my Mom. But it was still good to be out of the city.

Katherine and Danny looked alike, and acted like best friends. I felt a little weird watching them. My siblings and I aren’t at all like that; we don’t do the same things, whereas Katherine and Danny were both into weird art. Danny made flexible geometrical structures embedded with LED lights, which apparently sold OK at local galleries.

Danny kept eyeing me, trying to figure out my place in Katherine’s life. There was no comfortable way to say “I’m not her boyfriend,” so I said nothing and looked appreciatively at his strange gallery: things that blooped, and machines made from tape recorders and baby doll arms painted silver, and tiny video screen embedded into varnished wood boxes. Some of it was pretty boring, but a lot of it was cool. I wanted to take all of his stuff apart and put it back together myself, like Legos.

Danny made us some lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on incredibly dense hippie bread, which he toasted. It was great, up there in his weird factory-space apartment, eating out of our hands, with the cold coming in through the chinks in the brick walls. We loaded up the truck with various rods and tubes, and white cardboard boxes that had numbers on the outside.

“Anything, uh, interesting?” Katherine asked.

“Nothing too interesting. All the interesting stuff is a lot harder to find.”

She nodded. They both were emphasizing the word “interesting” in a strange way.

“What defines interesting?” I asked.

“Interesting things tend to explode under some circumstances,” said Danny. “But the political climate means we’re way more careful about things like that than we used to be.”

Katherine and Danny talked about a jet bike, which had been set off at Monotreme Institute a few nights ago. It was a motorcycle frame with a simple, hand-hewn jet engine attached, and it ran on propane, the metal of the jet glowing bright red. It only went about two blocks, but it made an enormous, sonic-boom quality noise when operated. Twice it had brought out the Brooklyn fire department. Katherine wanted to bring the jet bike up to New Paltz and find a place where sonic booms weren’t such a big deal.

I left them to art chatter and went over to look through Danny’s books. I picked up an electronics manual written by someone named Forest C. Mims, published by Radio Shack.

“I’ve got the entire Radio Shack library,” he said.

“How about that,” I said.

The conversation shifted back to family matters, and before long it was time to go. I shook Danny’s hand, and I could feel him appraising me as possible sister’s-boyfriend material, but his face didn’t reveal any opinion. Katherine and I got back into the truck.

Katherine: He’s cool, right?
Gary: Yeah.
Katherine: Isn’t his art great? That’s my little brother.
Gary: Remarkable.

The conversation moved on to Para. We had barely talked about her before. Katherine was curious as to how serious the relationship was, whether I was going to get married or not. I told her how Para had a lot of sexual fantasies about being pregnant.

Gary: You’re going to meet her, so…
Katherine: No, I promise. Don’t worry. But she’s 30?
Gary: Thirty-one.
Katherine: Phew. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Gary: I know.
Katherine: And you?
Gary: I don’t even wear a watch.
Katherine: So what are you going to do?
Gary: I don’t know.

It was getting dark, and the truck rattled in a comforting way, the boxes in the back shifting, wind sneaking in through holes in the insulation around the windows. It felt wonderful to be in a pickup at night, driving back to New York, and I had a moment out of time, when I didn’t have to worry about my band or making rent, or going to the gym, and a huge wave of cool relief came over me. I hadn’t realized how stressed I’d been, lately.

Then we were stopped at a light, and I looked over at Katherine, and she was looking at me, and our eyes locked, and neither one looked away. The light changed, and she drove on. That was it. But I kept thinking about it. When we got back to Monotreme, I helped her unload the electronics, and drag them down to her basement, into storage bins. I followed her up to her room, where we’d rehearsed now dozens of times. She thanked me for helping.

“I should go,” I said.

“OK,” she said. “But if you want to have dinner.”

“No,” I said, “that’s OK. I need to go.”

“All right,” she said. I leaned down and hugged her, and the hug went on a few seconds too long. I thought of Para’s hugging regimen as the smell of Katherine’s hair—the gasoline smell of the truck, and some distant shampoo—rose up through my nose. When I pulled back from her, I could see the bed in the corner. She was smiling at me, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I walked out to the G train, trying to decide exactly what sort of person I was.