With Life so Ordinary Anna Walsh Pure Gym
PureGym, Shawlands, 2022

When Andrew first started in PureGym (over 250 visits ago, the app reminds him), he did not move fluidly. Now in full command of his form, he weaves through the machines, the people stretching and chatting to their PTs, then takes his favourite bike along the wall of the cycle studio. He goes to spin three to four times a week, depending on other classes, if he is socially or sexually busy, or feeling the wide empty space of being at odds with everyone he knows. Class is almost always full, and he takes pleasure in newbies, knowing they expect an easy hour, something to magically do away with how horrible they feel, the incessant self-scrutiny. Only once has he seen a conquest here, and it was so awkward that now he tries to date only in the West End, avoiding all the polycules and strangely joyless sexual hierarchies of Glasgow’s South Side. Andrew is undiscerning in his sexual preference yet tends towards the kind of intimidating hard bodies he can’t take seriously. To say he feels sorry for himself is unacceptable, too close to an admission of care.

She watches Andrew take his usual bike close to the wall, looking around the room as though expecting someone to notice him. She is bothered by her attraction to him; teaching for so long means she should feel nothing but professional appreciation, but Andrew continues to burrow into her consciousness. Something about the shine of sweat on his neck, how grimly captivated he is by his own progress, his capacity to go faster and faster. There is something compelling about it, something that makes it clear he is not a peaceful person. She smiles as the others flow in, adjusting their seats and handles, spraying antibacterial over everything. Andrew is not the star student he thinks he is, but Denise does feel partly responsible for his obviously thriving body. As he pumps away, confidently limber, she permits a moment, imagining him in her bedroom, surprising her with his desire, his mouth, the sudden leap from hard to soft.

Silly old bitch, Andrew thinks to himself, feeling her gaze on him again. Unable to tell how old she is, he has taken to calling her this in his mind, whenever in class. He doesn’t resent her or really think she’s old—they’re probably around the same age, but he finds it hard to take her appreciative looks, to let her settle on him in such a warm way. A few years ago, his therapist encouraged him to sit with himself for thirty minutes, to envelop himself in forgiveness, in self-acceptance and love, and it had physically pained him until he punched himself over and over again in the stomach.

Denise Masterson taught the best spin class in Shawlands and it was her class that had punched him out of his self-pity, pushed him to get over himself and move his legs until the feelings and speed took over and he was somewhere else, somewhere in darkness, pounding rhythm, with other people all intensely involved with themselves and themselves alone. It is good to be here and not anywhere else—a twenty-two-year-old had invited him out for drinks, but he’s relieved to have turned them down. Too much, offered with too expectant an air. He cannot take the thought right now, tightening the knotty straps over his runners. As he warms up, he likes the look of his legs in his shorts, a big chunk of thigh muscle cutting up through the flesh like a boat over the horizon.

The music begins and Denise hears herself shout at the class to strap in. Usually her playlist is straightforward pop and EDM, but recently she’s changed the focus, chopping up the longer sprints, she’s gone for silky nineties R&B, drum and bass, spacey house music. Songs she listens to when she’s feeling like herself, her true self, unchanged since she was seventeen and did nothing but go to raves and be happy. Insisting to herself that it’s just for class, a small embarrassing part of her, located in the lower back, in the throat, knows it is in part to feel like she did back then: yelling at all these people facing her in the strobe light blackness when really inside she’s tiny, full of secrets, idiotic desires to feel in tune with the universe and be on a similar journey. The music plays and she walks around the room thinking of nothing recognisable, celestial movement maybe, or disco lights from when she was fourteen.

Violent force erupts and blooms in his legs, his arms rocket straight and back like a rod. Andrew pushes himself up and down on the handles, his arms burning, mouth full of spit. Denise’s face is slick, pinkish across her nose and cheeks. Next to him, someone flails a little and Denise slips in front of the two bikes, gesturing at his neighbour to tighten up, to increase the resistance. Andrew thinks of everything and nothing—what to have for dinner, who to see tomorrow after work, what was going to happen when his mother died. Denise shouts at the class to start doing jumps on the count of five and they all push up and down in homogeneous movement, a wave of torsos sprinting up towards the ceiling for four seconds. The few moments back in the seat faintly depress Andrew, almost imperceptibly, like a baby, everything is so intense and effortful that he is forced to forget immediately and move onto the next thing. It’s something he is growing more aware of in his life—that he’s lucky to have a place for all these feelings, somewhere they can be choked out and fought and then, upwards with the extinguished sweat of the others, become nothing more than a blip, a simple by-product of human endeavour.

As class goes on, people inhale and exhale. Some are unhappy, angry, a few euphoric but mostly tired. One or two are at a loose end, ambivalent about how to spend their night after this. Denise has made plans with someone who was a few years behind her at school. This person is cooking her dinner and they plan to get drunk, dance around, probably fuck if they don’t go into town. Andrew will go home and menace himself, thinking and looking at everything he owns until he finally ups and goes cruising in Queen’s Park. One of them might briefly, for their own unyielding reasons, think of the other, then of someone else, someone else, someone else.

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Anna Walsh is an Irish writer based in Glasgow. Their poetry and prose has been published by The Stinging Fly, Extra Teeth, Cipher Press and others. They are currently finishing several books. They are on Twitter at @annaw999, for their sins.