By JoAnna Novak
When she returned the five-pound dumbbell to the weight rack, the blood blister bloomed on the back of her index finger. What surprised her most was how the blister grew before her eyes, swelling burgundy then black, the size of a pencil eraser. A smaller spot appeared next to it, darker due to concentration of blood.
She had spent most of December at the gym and, by Christmastime, found the place had endeared itself to her in odd ways. She liked the neon green bars on the displays, the thrum of the ridged treadmills versus the drone of the smooth. She liked the unspoken etiquette, made sure to use ellipticals flanked by unoccupied machines, kept her music low in her headphones, and wiped off equipment with paper towels from the dispensers mounted on pillars throughout the gym. Her cell phone sat in her purse in the locker room, silenced before entering the building. She returned weights to their places.
Free weights lined a two-tiered rack in front of a wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. There were three long racks, three complete sets of weights, and benches at a variety of angles, all separated from the rest of the gym. Floor-coverings marked the division: Rubberized tile by the benches and dumbbells; gray, industrial carpeting everywhere else, except for beneath the fountains, where there was granite stained with dark circles from the water.
Six miles every night and then she allowed herself to slow down, to lift weights and count. Standing weights, one five-pound dumbbell held with both hands and raised over her head to tone her triceps, until she couldn’t lift her arms anymore and she knew that brushing her hair would be a chore the next morning. Fifteen. Then, with her arms dangling straight, she bent at the waist, leaning fifty times, left and right. The goal: to reduce the sides of the stomach, obliterate the obliques.
After weights, she’d let herself drink water, but only a sip, and she had to spit some of it out. Then, hip abduction and adduction machines; before she sat down, she dropped the key to her locker to her right, below a lever that adjusted how far the legs could go, the obscene manipulation of pushing apart then clamping together. She considered if this would make her better for sex; she only saw girls on these machines. Two hundred repetitions, as slowly as she could, where she tried to feel the tendons and muscles, securing her thighs to her pelvis, wrench and strain. She focused on the weights rising and lowering when she started to get tired, the pin entering the hole in the same way over and over again, and squeezed her eyes and threw her head back and raised her chin. These machines were on carpet.
She’d discovered the elliptical machine at the beginning of the month and she liked it because it didn’t feel like thirty-five minutes of exercise. She’d get frantic if she had time, something new to focus on because she changed the direction she moved her legs when the screen told her to—-forward then backward then forward then backward, and she’d cool down, forward again even when the screen didn’t say anything—-and she could select a program that would focus on an area of her body. There were weights and times to enter and the program she chose was always the fifth one, Gluteal, because once her boyfriend had told her he liked her butt. The very existence of a butt to like horrified her. She’d started to write down the foods that she ate in a black and white composition book her mother bought her and, by the end of the summer, she’d filled it with lists of things not to put in her mouth. By the middle of December, she’d managed to subtract three and a half inches from her butt.
By New Year’s Eve, she wanted to weigh a certain number. By her birthday, in the spring, she wanted to weigh a certain number. She thought about these things all day at the ornament store where she worked, flicking snowflakes of Styrofoam off the black cardigan she wore over her polo, counting hours until night and she started going to the gym, longer and longer, because the gym was just about moving, making fractions out of miles and minutes.
Dropping the weight ruined everything, though.
She worried about it bursting. She’d never seen anything like it before. She felt nauseated. There was no food in her stomach, but she thought that she couldn’t keep her stomach down. She balanced against the mirrored wall She looked at the blisters and squeezed her eyes shut and tried to make her breaths slow but they came out fast and she went over to an information desk where two men in tight t-shirts were talking, one that she’d been looking at from odd angles in mirrors and out of the corner of her eye and another she’d never seen, but both with arms thick with ropey veins and stomachs visibly segmented. She tried not to waver but she giggled and coughed and cried and held out the finger and couldn’t say anything for a minute.
“Those happen all the time,” said the man she’d been watching. He usually wore a long sleeved gray shirt that zipped up the front and the sight of his arms, uncovered and bulging, made her even more light-headed. “I’ve gotten hundreds.” He half-smiled.
“It’s a big one, though,” the other man said to her. He picked up her hand and rotated it by the finger, as if it was a crank, and then she could speak.
"There's two.” She spoke in spurts. “I put the weight on my finger.” She tried to swallow but her throat was thick. “What do I do?” Her eyelashes felt dark and heavy because the tears kept coming whenever she looked at her finger, and she almost hiccupped as she tried to stop breathing and laughing and crying all at once. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do anything,” the first man said. He was wearing the black, nylon pants that he always wore. They snapped up the side. “It’ll…”
“You just pop it, with a pin. Or a needle,” the other man told her. He smiled and his teeth were too white. “Just poke it, real quick.” The man she’d been watching looked down. Her cheeks felt hot.
“Will it hurt?” she asked. The man put her hand down and it dangled at her side. She watched him grip the wood edge of the desk as he sat down on the top of it.
“You won’t feel it,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good but it doesn’t hurt, either.” The man she’d been watching was still standing and he kept his eyes on the floor.
She shook her head and looked at her hand and said “thank you” and apologized again before leaving.
On the drive home, she was careful to keep the blistered finger off the steering wheel.
Later that night, after her shower, she showed it her father. He sat behind his dark cherry desk in the den. It was past eleven and rockets were launching into space on the television. He looked up from his computer and examined her finger when she awkwardly placed it on a legal pad.
“Should I pop it?” she asked. She’d already called her boyfriend but was afraid to ask him about it directly. She’d asked him if he’d ever had a blood blister (“sure, all the time, from weight-lifting”) and then she asked what he did about them. He popped them.
“No. Leave it alone,” her father said. “Don’t pop it.” He glanced at the television. It was dark in space. “Maybe soak it in some warm water.”
“The guy at the gym said I should pop it.” She told him that her boyfriend had said the same thing, and she stared at the stacks of paper that surrounded him, on his desk and on the floor around it.
“Just leave it alone,” he told her.
Two days later, she showered after the gym and then sat on the pink tile floor of her bathroom. She placed her hand on a red step stool: Step up to be tall, step down to be small. Using a pin that she found near the sewing machine, she poked small holes in each blister, swaddled the fingertip in a wad of toilet paper, and let the blood out, her head tipped back against the wall.
JoAnna Novak is a junior at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Photo "Hand" courtesy of Jesper Noer, Copenhagen, Denmark.
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