By David Winner
Flat on her back on the gym mat, Catherine grabs the enormous plastic ball with her feet, pulls it up into the air with her legs, and takes it with her hands in the excruciating manner recommended by her trainer. While resting her aching limbs, she sees the bald man for the first time.
On the opposite side of the room between the intimidating upper-body building equipment and the benches on which tortuous sit-ups can be attempted, he begins to perform. This is more or less the dinner hour, so no one else is around.
He needs no props. From a prone position, he gradually lifts his powerful legs so that they rise above his thighs, his groin, his shoulders, until all of his weight rests on his head. The hard mat squishes his shaved skull, his face contorting at a gargoyle place along the pain/pleasure continuum, his musculature straining at every imaginable pressure point.
Almost three minutes pass on Catherine’s digital watch before he brings his feet down. His head remains indented while he catches his breath.
She returns to the plastic ball and is almost done with it when an unusual sound comes from the bald man’s direction. Fully recovered from his headstand, he crouches on his thighs, waves his arms like a bird and makes high-pitched whooping sounds that remind her of the red Indians on old western TV shows. No longer interested in her own workout, Catherine stares blatantly at him.
Gruffly, but not dismissively, he acknowledges her, a half smile though his tight Van Dyke, before launching into the next daring routine. When, after moving to the side of the room where there’s more space, he walks for several feet on his hands, it’s strictly for her.
The bald man is not really Catherine’s type. Since her romantic life was belatedly initiated in college over a decade before, her bedroom has been populated by a series of nerdy but vaguely attractive guys. Sean, the tall not-unhandsome redhead she almost married, was not an exception.
Professionally, Catherine, presently single, has shifted focus from painting large, mostly male and strangely affecting nudes in the Freudian (Lucian) mode to helping others explore their troubles therapeutically on canvas. In art and love, she favors softer bodies and finer features as she’s always been offended by the rough and tumble effeteness of machismo. While she’s certainly pretty enough (in the Jewish/Italian manner) and never even slightly overweight, she goes for men more likely to admire her to be wish to be admired. She would have left Sean sooner were it not for his predilection for declaring her beautiful, as in “Oh God, you’re so beautiful.”
The next day, a Friday, Catherine has no social plans. Breaking her strictly Thursday/Sunday gym routine, she returns that evening at almost exactly the same time of day. A surprisingly empty feeling overtakes her when she doesn’t find the bald man.
Vigorously, she loses herself in the elliptical machine, the treadmill, the complex series of core muscle exercises shown to her by her trainer. She’s reaching the end of her routine, when he finally arrives, this time in the company of a dumpy older fellow with an unattractively hairy physique. Together the two men perform a series of bizarre but challenging maneuvers, one counting off for the other as they stretch, bend and pull. They do the old chestnut, the wild Indian whooping, but only the bald man can stand on his head or walk on his hands, his companion standing reverently off to the side.
On Friday evenings, respectable people go out to restaurants and movies. They should not be seen pausing dubiously outside of health clubs not sure what to do with themselves.
“Cup of coffee?” asks the bald man on his way out, curt but not unkind.
Given the obvious attention she’s paid him, it would be hypocritical to refuse.
The time at the café, however, ends up being the most awkward part of the several-week experiment. Their job-interview-like question and answer session goes something like this.
Catherine: Not to be trite, but what do you do?
Bald Man: Programmer, you?
Catherine: Art therapy, but you probably haven’t heard of that.
The bald man has heard of it, but it doesn’t particularly interest him.
He’s introduced Catherine to what she supposes is a secret masculine discourse. Conversation is functional, no prettying around the edges of your words.
Despite having what, by all accounts, would be considered a failed date, they don’t take leave of each other outside the café.
In his Spartan studio apartment two blocks away, he reveals a modern version of the classic male physique: hard compact muscles, hair covering only the appropriate areas of leg, chest and groin.
Barely pausing to take in a body that (since her gym excursions began several months before) Catherine has begun to take some pride in, he quickly condoms. Firm and insistent, he moves inside her more efficiently (in some obscure technical sense that she doesn’t quite grasp) than anyone has ever moved inside her before. The orgasm gradually (almost systematically) overcomes her, and she yelps in what doesn’t quite feel like delight.
The weekend that follows is filled with enough distraction (a social engagement, housecleaning) to allow Catherine to put the whole thing out of her mind. She and the bald man have made no plans to reconvene, but the possibility lurks in their common recreational venue. That he goes there nearly every day is clear from his physique, that he goes at the same time every day is clear from his obviously methodical nature.
How shall we describe Catherine’s motivation for returning Monday evening at exactly the right, wrong time? Boredom? Loneliness? Both. Since her life is fairly empty, there is no reason not to let the bald man fill it. She also likes the idea of playing a hand that was better off folded, putting her feet in another woman’s shoes, the kind of woman the bald man has in mind when he builds his body and performs his routines.
From her treadmill perch, she sees him and his friend playing old favorites (the Indian whoop, the hand walking) and other newer even more avante garde numbers.
Outside in the cold after her workout, Catherine experiences two distinct and contradictory moments of relief: the first when she does not see the bald man and believes he has left without her, and the second when he appears out of nowhere, coming around the block.
We won’t exaggerate the exclusively sexual nature of their interaction. They do actually talk on the way over to his apartment. She learns that the “Indian whoop” is indeed somehow obscurely Native American and that he goes to the gym every day except Sundays, which are reserved for his recently widowed mother out in Long Island.
Each of the next five times they meet, it takes him longer to make her come, which had not been such a problem for the men in her past, however sexually inefficient. The sixth time, after minutes of fruitless fucking, she has to fake it along porno movie lines, “Oh God, Oh God ”etc. Her previous more honest strategy when “it just wasn’t working” had been to tell her partner not to worry about it, thereby licensing him to concentrate on himself. The bald man’s obvious prowess compels Catherine to clench her hips and go through the motions.
During their seventh date, her heart slips down towards her stomach when he removes his clothes, a depressed vacant feeling she doesn’t associate with desire.
“You know I’m just not up for it,” she says.
Annoyances shivers briefly down the naked bald man. He pauses, unsure how to proceed, before sitting himself authoritatively down on the mangy yellow armchair across from his bed.
“Okay,” he says to no one in particular.
The bald man begins by massaging his knees. After tilting forward to get a better view, she watches his studied, languorous motions. His hands move down towards his shins and up to his thighs staying carefully from his penis, which, nevertheless, slowly expands.
The far back of Catherine’s throat, somewhere around her kidneys, too, itch with yearning.
Stretching out his long body, he strokes himself, his muscles coiling and recoiling.
The feeling seeps through all the predictable places in Catherine’s body while her face burns with embarrassment from observing something so private. The bald man knows better than to ruin it by acknowledging her presence.
We will not go into more of the explicit particulars. Suffice it to say, that her excitement exceeds by no small measure anything she experienced while actually fucking him. Her moment arrives soon after his without her having to move a muscle to produce it.
She does not see the bald man again until she finds herself back at the gym at that right wrong time several weeks later. The headstand makes it appearance, as does the Native American whoop and some peculiarly intense version of the common American jumping back, but she senses distraction, a lack of interest in his audience.
About five years further into the future, Catherine meets a not unhandsome nerdy man.
At some point, they die or divorce, but that takes us too far ahead. What does Catherine do during those depressing but inevitable times in which she can only pretend to enjoy making love with her husband? She almost always conjures the same image. In this way, the bald man is memorialized.