“Look at that fat fuck,” my employee Deborah said with a laugh.
I turned towards the front of the gym I owned, and at the counter sat one of the fattest women I have ever seen. I had, of course, seen her around town and was disgusted by her. She was infamous at the local fast food joints, places I rarely ventured into, but when I did I usually saw her sitting alone at a booth, devouring several large burgers and fries, washed down by several large sodas.
I marveled for a moment, wondering why she had wandered into my gym. Maybe she was lost. I doubted she had come in to join. She was not just fat, she was morbidly obese. The kind of woman you saw at the store riding one of the electric carts, the motor straining to move her enormous mass. She had a greasy, unkempt look to her, and I involuntarily crinkled my nose as if I could smell her from across the room.
“Shit, this is going to be a cluster fuck,” one of my trainers, Todd, guffawed as he joined us. “What the hell does she think she’s doing here?”
“Looks like she’s signing up,” I say quietly, unable to process the sight before me.
“I bet she doesn’t last a week,” Todd laughed.
“We won’t see her after today,” Deborah insisted.
“Deal,” Deborah agreed.
“That’s enough,” I said. “If she’s a member, treat her as such. I don’t care how large she is.”
“She’s not going to fit in any of the equipment,” quipped Todd.
“Not another word,” I said with a finality I rarely invoked.
“Whatever you say, boss,” he smirked before walking away.
Deborah left soon after, having a class to teach in one of the side rooms. I stayed and watched as the woman heaved her bulk out of the chair, wheezing as she did so, and labored to follow one of the receptionists as she took our newest member on a tour of the gym.
It would take at least twice as long to show her everything we had to offer, so I took the opportunity to walk to the counter to see who the client was. I looked at the paperwork and read her name, Melba Gomez. The name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I was taken aback at the fact that she signed up for our top package, though she declined signing up for a personal trainer. Most did. Trainers weren’t cheap.
I kept track of Melba as she struggled to keep up, and I have to hand it to my receptionist, she was patient and kind, merrily waving away every apology Melba uttered. The more she walked, the more she was aware of the stares she was attracting. Everyone was focused on her, some openly mocking the fat chick who was obviously out of place. It was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen, but she tried to ignore the hostility thrown her way. In spite of myself, I was left amazed at her tenacity.
After over an hour, my receptionist left Melba at the exercise bikes, who then struggled to get on a bike, and somehow managed to get one. How she did it, I don’t know, but she did. By this point she was already in some distress, the stress of walking the gym must have gotten to her. I had never seen her off her motorized scooter before, but she was making every effort to walk, even if she had to stop often, but yet she was determined to get on a bike and exercise. I was afraid she would have a heart attack and die of the spot.
She lasted less than three minutes on the bike. She was sweating profusely and her breathing was labored. Melba looked faint, and I think the attention she had attracted was starting to get to her. Some of my own employees looked as though they were openly joking with some of my other clients after her.
Defeated, Melba got off the exercise bike, stumbled a bit, but somehow managed to stay upright. Then, with great difficulty, she walked towards the front door, and I caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes. She got back on her scooter, which she had left by the door, and she left my gym.
As soon as the door had closed, I heard a massive roar of laughter from several of people in the gym. It seemed everyone had found the sight amusing, all except for the receptionist who had shown her around, She look distressed about the situation and looked at me with tears in her own eyes.
“I know,” I told her. “I know. Keep an eye on things, okay?”
“Sure,” she croaked.
I hurried after Melba, who was sitting on the curb, probably waiting for the bus.
“Hey,” I said, “thanks for stopping by.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I won’t be back.”
“I don’t understand,” I replied, confused. “Didn’t you signed up for a full year?”
“I have a month to cancel, at least that’s what the receptionist told me.”
“That’s true, but why quit now?”
“Are you kidding me?” She said, her voice hollow, “I’m a laughingstock. I heard them all muttering under their breath. I heard the place bust out in laughter the moment the door closed behind me. I mean, the neighborhood fatty out of her element. Who am I kidding? I don’t belong.”
“Don’t say that,” I pleaded earnestly, wondering why I even cared. I usually didn’t. People came and went all the time. Not everyone was meant to be physically fit. Most didn’t have the determination to be in shape, and that was fine by me. “You came in, you signed up. That means you are a member, Melba. That is your name, right? That’s what you put on the application.”
“Oh my God, you don’t remember me, do you?” She asked before turning away and mumbling to herself, “why would you remember me?”
“Do I know you?”
“I guess not, but we went to school together. Sat in front of you for a full year in English class, and you used to torment me, the class fatty, you called me. You made my life a living hell.”
“Chicken wing?” I gasped as the memories came flooding back. “Is that you?”
“Please don’t call me that,” she said as her eyes glistened with renewed tears, “but yes.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” I apologized lamely. “I was a total bitch. I shouldn’t have, I mean I – I was a very unhappy, I – I’m sorry.”
“Unhappy? You were the most popular girl in school! You were beautiful and funny, and smart. All the guys loved you. You were athletic and a cheerleader. All I was was a punching bag for you to make fun of. You and everyone else.”
“I can’t take it back,” I said, looking at myself for the first time through one of my victim’s eyes. I was a bully, and I tormented her. Was I responsible for her present state? Maybe not completely, as I never discount a person’s own responsibility, but maybe I played a part in her misery. Maybe I had helped push her to the years of self-abuse.
“No, you can’t.”
“No, but I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago. I changed.”
“So have I.”
“I can see that.”
“Why? Because I’m such a slob now, even more so than I was in school? Don’t you think I already know that? Lord, I can’t even look at myself anymore without being disgusted at what I’ve become, what I let myself turn into. I always knew I was fat, but why this?”
“Please, stop crying. You’re not doing yourself any favors by feeling bad about yourself. I did and became an alcoholic and took did some risky things. I know it’s not the same, but I opened up my eyes and realized I was going down the wrong path, just like you have. You came in to my gym for a reason. Why did you come in? You don’t owe me that, but I still want to know.”
She broke down in front of me. It was a noise beyond despair. It was inhumane, like the sound of a mortally wounded animal, but it came from the woman in front of me, a woman struggling to talk to me, the energy she spent just walking around the gym had completely drained her.
Finally after several minutes, she wiped her nose and dabbed her eyes, looking away from me, she answered. “My mom died last month. Her heart gave out. My dad died the week after I graduated high school from a massive heart attack. I’m almost the same age he was when he died. Both my parent’s are gone, both due to being so over weight that the stress on their heart was too much.”
“Oh my God,” I croaked, “I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
“I – I’m scared,” she intoned pleadingly, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to live either, but I don’t want to die like that. I don’t want to die alone. I have no brothers or sisters. My family is gone. I have a couple of cousins, but they’re disgusted by me. Haven’t seen them in years, so I’m it. No family, no friends, just pathetic old Melba, just like I was in school.”
“Don’t say that. You took a chance and made your first step. Don’t quit now. I won’t let you.”
“I can quit at any time. Says so in the contract, and I’m not paying.”
“I’m not asking you to,” I argued angrily, not caring that I was offering membership for free.
“What? You feeling guilty? This isn’t your fault. You’re not responsible for me.”
“I don’t care. You came in and damn it, you want to make a change, so for fuck sake make it.”
“Come on, everyone was laughing at me.”
“Let them laugh. Come back and we’ll be the one’s laughing at them. What do you say?”
“I’m scared,” she said with an apologetic laugh. “I can barely walk around the place, and everything’s so hard.”
“It’ll be tough, I’m not going to lie. It’s hard for me and I’ve been lucky genetically, and I’m already in shape. For you, it’s going to be some of the most demanding and strenuous months of your life, but if you see it through, it’ll get better and easier, and you will start to feel better, I promise you.
“You think so?”
“I believe it, and you should too. What do you say?”
“Okay, I’ll try, but why do you care?”
“Because, I saw a woman with more courage and determination today come in to my gym and worked so hard just to take the tour of the facility. I saw you struggle quietly to get on the bike, and then manage to walk back unassisted to your scooter.”
“But I was only on there for a couple of minutes,” Melba hung her head in shame.
“But you did it. Every other person takes that kind of mobility for granted, but not you. You worked for it. If you put in that kind of effort regularly, you’ll be amazed how much easier it’ll get for you. One thing, though, I want to know when you’re coming in so we can be ready for your sessions.”
“I’ll pay for my membership, but I can’t afford a trainer,” Melba protested.
“But I’m giving you one,” I offer. “I’ll be the one training you. I own the place, after all. I can spare an hour three times a week.”
“You don’t have to, you know.”
“I won’t be doing anything but guiding you. You’ll be doing all the work. I would suggest you get with a doctor before starting.”
“I already did last week,” she looked away again. Her voice was beyond despair. It broke my heart. “Said I was eating myself to death anyway, so exercise wouldn’t matter at this point.”
“Bastard,” I sneered. “We’re show him as well. I’m glad you came in. I promise you, we’ll be unstoppable.”
“Do you really think I can do it?”
I looked into her eyes, this woman I tormented decades before, a woman who saw her parents die due to their own unhealthy habits. I caught a glimpse in her eyes, a glimmer of hope beneath the tears and the despair, and I knew I could not let her down. This was literally a matter of life or death. “Alone, no, but you won’t be alone. I’ll be there, and so will my team. Every look, every laugh, every name you’ve ever been called will be your motivation. By this time next year, I promise you won’t recognize yourself.”
“Thank you,” she sniffed.
“No, thank you for letting me help.”
The bus arrived, and I stood there as the driver used the lift to load her onto the bus. She was embarrassed by it, but she hardened herself and smiled at me resolutely. Within two months she no longer used the scooter, six months she walked to and from the gym. After a year I recognized the girl I bullied in school.
She’ll never be thin like I am, but she didn’t need to be. She was beautiful and full of life. I caught a glimpse of the woman she was on the inside, beneath the layers of clothing, skin, and fat. I met the dreamer, the artist, the soul.
I met the woman I feel in love with. I met my joy.