Training Day

I play the phone message a second time to make sure it’s not a spoof. It’s from Erik Paul, my personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in Venice. The voice and ironic delivery are familiar, but the campy pride is new.

“I was named the first ever Gold’s Gym Employee of the Month unanimously decided by all the top brass.”

It’s high time. Erik with a K is much more than a trainer. Lithe and graceful, his physique is not the only thing that distinguishes him from the competitive body builders swaggering across the floor at Gold’s. Is this a gym or a foundry filled with tons of iron? The clanking is deafening and he shakes his head from the walkway above the straining musclemen and women as he waits for a client he will guide through an hour of personalized stretching, strengthening, and stretching. Gold’s often refers people with complicated injuries to Erik. A member of the jazz trio Apocalypse 5.0, the former model and sometime actor has a gift. An anti-trainer dressed in black who could be easily be mistaken for Daniel Day Lewis, Erik pivots on the balls of his feet at our next meeting, his blue eyes widening as he elaborates on the honor.

“It’s not just for trainers, you know. They could have chosen anybody on staff, even the custodians.”

Who wouldn’t be proud of such an award? And who doesn’t need a little recognition from time to time? I kneel to retie my New Balance. It is actually a very old Balance, but Erik tells me to hang on until the treads show more wear.

I haven’t slept well the night before, which must be why I’m feeling cranky. He directs me toward the mat for our warm-up and presses my knees from side to side. The spinal twist usually signals my body to awake and sing, but today it’s not working.

I wonder whether they will pull Erik’s current photograph from the gallery of trainers featured at Gold’s, which doesn’t really do him justice. Star status must mean the photo of the former captain of his high school basketball team will earn a top spot near the front door so that seasoned gym rats and novices alike get a load of him as they enter the “Mecca of Bodybuilding.” The stab of envy I experience is ridiculously visceral. It’s as if 1969 were crashing down around me all over again.

“You feeling okay?”

“Shoulder’s a little stiff.”

I could never reproduce what goes on for the hour I spend at Gold’s on Mondays and Fridays. Erik with a K manages my rotator cuff and knee injuries the same way he tinkers with his aging Volvo. It feels self-indulgent to ask a trainer to do what I should be able to do for myself, but he’s keeping more surgery and physical therapy at bay and for that I am grateful.

I bend my knees and swing my arms out to the side and over my head, then reverse the movement. If Erik had been my personal trainer for cheerleader tryouts in 1969, would he have led me to victory instead of crushing defeat? That wound healed practically overnight compared to the protracted pain of not being selected Girl of the Month for the longest senior year in the history of Memorial High School.

“Shoes off today, Linda.”

Photographs of the Girls and Boys of the Month hung side by side as they were voted in every month during my senior year. I barely glanced at the 8×10 glossies that diminished my chances of ever winning the closer we got to May. I am visibly dragging now, barely going through empty motions, and this does not go without notice.

“You look like you could use the Phillips Pep Step.”

Mention of the step that I recently invented only increases my despair. A spot at the back of my mouth fills with the taste that means either I have Reynolds Wrap in my teeth or that I’ve chipped an old filling. I was elected the Vice-President of the Pep Club that same terrible year. Pep Club officers were the worker bees that burst into action whenever there was a football game. We baked, we distributed ribbons, we chanted alongside the glamorous cheerleaders we were not and wore white jackets with crisp lapels.

“Come on. Let’s see it.”

I jog in place, shoulders hunched forward, arms dangling in front of me. Did I really invent the motion or merely refine it from something the Memorial High School Chargers used to do to warm up on the frozen Oklahoma football fields of my youth? Pep Club officers were occasionally plucked out of obscurity to become Girl of the Month and in a just world each of us would have had that honor. Life is not fair, as I blurt out to Erik. Am I 18 years old or 61?

“You should have gotten it.”

“Is there something you can do in your capacity as Russian mystic to take away the pain?”

Rasputin hat

Erik often cites the mad Russian monk believed to be a psychic and faith healer. A trainer who wears many hats, he will soon be sporting a trucker’s cap emblazoned with an image of Rasputin I’ve ordered for Christmas. He ponders the question and studies the equipment in the room, glancing at a sculpture he has created in one corner with dumbbells, workout steps that surely date from the Jane Fonda era, and a tiny silver dome that could fit neatly over my throbbing tooth. None of it will do.

“Your team was the Chargers, right?”

I nod and consider Rasputin and the hemophiliac child of Nicholas II he allegedly helped as Erik glides toward a yellow medicine ball that leaks sand when you throw it.

“San Diego Chargers. Memorial Chargers. I see a connection here.”

I am still doing the pep step when he throws the ball at me and commands me to throw it back.

“Harder this time.”

It’s no small matter to keep running in place and catch a heavy ball, let alone throw it. But one success gives rise to another and pretty soon I’ve got the hang of it, huffing and puffing, only losing my grip once as we throw the ball back and forth faster and faster.

“Get behind me, Chargers!”

The invectives get wilder and I make up a few of my own. I start to sweat, almost oblivious to increasing exhaustion. I’m moving like a champ and the pain in my shoulder is gone. The star trainer has done it again. I could stand a few more chants, more pep in my step, but Erik has his eyes on some interior clock and the exorcism is over. He knocks out a few moves he must have acquired along with his black belt.

“You’re cured.”

This stuff is deceptively simple. For a long moment I am feeling no pain, psychic or otherwise.

We go on to discuss the twin banalities of fame and fortune. What if we licensed the pep step along with a special mat to help eliminate pain? He pulls a special contraption he designed for abs out of his bag and hooks it over the door. Between sets we discuss an infomercial for our new product not unlike the one Ron Popeil used to make millions on his Veg-O-Matic. I wonder whether Erik will leave Gold’s when the serious money starts rolling in, but the notion is unseemly. Still basking in the glow of victory, he stands next to me as we both stretch, release, slap our thighs, and say hai in unison, which is Japanese for yes.