She didn’t really look like she belonged there. She wasn’t some energetic little gym bunny, although maybe she fit the type. She was kind of short and, he guessed, probably slim. Though it was hard to tell as she wore the gym’s promotional T-shirt, in too many sizes too large. It went down almost to her knees, and the gym’s tagline ‘Power’, in its bold typeface, folded around her waist. It all looked so misplaced on her; too big and too shouty, and all wrong against the Austen book she kept just out of sight, below the counter. He liked her from the minute they met, and liked to believe she was just like him; up for the idea of the gym, but not really belonging there.
Although, this was all based on presumption, Sam didn’t really know anything about Leila at all, except her name. She would always smile at him, she would remember things about which lessons he booked or which days he came in. Which should have given him an opening, but Sam felt keenly the fact that she remembered him, and it would make him nervous. In the beginning he would buoy himself with the idea that they would talk properly, at some point. And he would harbour little fantasies about them having a moment together. He would be injured and she would rush in with the first aid kit, or her computer would go down and he would step in to sort it out. It was a knight in shining armour kind of tale, and Sam didn’t mind who saved who.
Then time had gone on and Sam started to doubt himself. It seemed almost every guy in the changing room liked Leila, more than that some had even asked her out. He watched one such exchange one day as he was leaving. The guy had leaned on the counter, bicep bulging. He reeked of unearned confidence, with just the faintest whiff of misogyny. His question of them ‘hanging out’, as though it were to Leila’s benefit, left the air uncomfortable and a bit creepy. There were no excuses, just a straight to the point ‘no, thank you’ from Leila. But the guy hadn’t let up. He’d tried again, and again. Then he nagged, when nagging didn’t work he resorted to negging and eventually to a downright dismissal of Leila.
Leila faced all this with a steady, silent face. In the end enough people had gathered around the reception desk to make the guy storm out in exasperation and embarrassment. From what he heard later on, Leila got this all the time. And Sam decided he couldn’t be one of these guys, none of them had the right. Leila was nice to them because she was nice, and this was her job, nothing more to it. Even so, as Sam began to hate the gym, he continued to go, just to see Leila. What fools misguided crushes make us. Although Sam’s foolishness was yet to fully fledge.
It was a Thursday and Sam had walked into the gym reception. Seeing Leila busy with a new customer he pretended to fuss over his bag, like he’d forgotten something. He sat down and retied a lace, buying time, just so he could say hello to her before he went in. She was her usual self, though now her curly hair was tied back, and a huge hoodie pulled on against the autumn cool breaking in through the automatic doors. He watched her for a second, just a small second. Because you can tell yourself you can’t have someone but it bloody well doesn’t stop you from being attracted to them I can tell you. The newbie was passed over to a personal trainer and some regulars passed by on their way out.
It was here that Sam saw his opportunity unfold. ‘Hey guys, I couldn’t get you to try these new energy bars could I?’ Leila ventured. The two men stopped politely and Sam listened it. ‘It’s got dark chocolate, and cherry and a bunch of other things. They taste pretty great.’ The two men feigned jokey disgust and, making their excuses, made their way out. Which just left Sam, and Leila. ‘Sam!’ Leila cried, delightedly, ‘you couldn’t help me out could you?’ Leila leaned against the counter, energy bar in hand. ‘I have to get some people to try these to see if they’re worth stocking,’ her expression strained ‘you wouldn’t try one would you? For freebies of course.’
Sam had yet to speak. Leila was talking, of course he couldn’t speak. All he could think was that Leila needed him for something. Even for something as trivial as this, it made him feel special. ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ Sam had said, a bit too enthusiastically. ‘You’re a star!’ Leila cried out. ‘Okay, so they’re called Renegade bars. Which I know sounds daft and uber gym male, but I really like them. Actually I’m gonna give you two,’ she leaned behind her to a box on the counter. ‘That way you can try one before your session, and one after,’ she gestured extravagantly, holding the bars by her fingertips, the plastic wrappers crackling. ‘Just let me know what you think,’ she smiled as she handed the bars over.
Ideally Sam would have said thank you, casually, and moved away, again, quite casually. What he actually did was pull something that sounded like the word ‘thanks’ up from his nerve strained throat, before backing away, quickly and at speed. He smiled meekly, in a way that Leila would have best described as that face people use when they are afraid of her. Then he was gone, through the door, down the corridor and into the changing rooms. His hackles raised and his stomach tight from nerves, and lack of food, he wolfed down one bar. It did taste pretty good actually, and he ate the second one while changing.
Twenty minutes later Sam was working his way around the gym, his energy high on nerves, and the excitement at having an actual identifiable reason to talk to Leila on the way out. He felt pretty good, he felt stupid, but he could work on that. He could work on being more at ease when talking to Leila, this was just his opening. Or it should have been. Sam mounted an exercise bike and concentrated on warming up his legs. It was going well, until Sam felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. His brow furrowed, he took a deep breath and it dissipated. A couple of minutes later and the same pain again, he took another deep breath, sweat broke out on his brow. Sam was no stranger to a little ‘runner’s trots’, he would be fine. Just needed to breathe through the spasms, it would be over in a second.
A hyper energetic trainer by the name of Aki materialised in front of Sam. ‘Sam, hey buddy, what you doing? You can do better than this, come on. What do I tell you?’ Aki leaned on the handlebars of the static bike. ‘You’ve got to imagine it,’ Aki put a finger to his temple, ‘then you got to put in that power.’ Sam’s stomach cramped again and he grimaced. Then the gurgling came, the noise echoing around Sam’s lower body, but lost in the throb of the loud gym music. ‘And then comes the pain!’ Aki announced, most likely misunderstanding Sam’s grimace. ‘But then you got to power through that pain!’ Aki shouted triumphantly into Sam’s ear. With that Sam’s abdomen appeared to pop and drop. He pulled himself from the bike, his body doubled over, trying to keep in whatever was trying to escape from his body. Sam ran for the changing rooms, he ran to the toilets, into a cubicle, and slammed the door shut behind him.
As Sam breathed with relief that no one had seen him come in there, and there was no one to hear the noise, his body relaxed and pooed everything that Sam had to poo. It was an awful, loud, echoing of farts and plopping noises; one right after another, splashing toilet water violently back up at Sam’s now steadily relaxing bum. The whole thing only lasted a few seconds, but Sam’s body wasn’t done with him. Minutes crept by as his abdomen spasmed. Occasionally, without warning, he would hear an eerily quiet movement down into the barely echoing toilet bowl. But mostly, he would just sit, his body clenching every time someone entered the main toilet door. Eventually, though, the people stopped coming, and Sam sat in silence until every last ounce of pain and tension eased from his body. When he came to he found his head in his hands; he was ready to sleep.
It was cold and dark through the small toilet window. He checked his watch, it had been almost two hours since he’d first arrived. He had to go, even if to do nothing but drink some water and sleep, heavily. He made his way, gently, like a man with a hangover, into the changing rooms. Too addled by the pain and exhaustion he hadn’t even thought what he might say to Leila as he was leaving. He used all his energy to quietly change and pack his bag.
He crept out of the changing rooms; no one in sight, and walked up the corridor, to the exit, the reception desk, and Leila’s waiting smile. He would just say he was feeling ill, he would just do that and excuse himself, and go home. As he came closer to the doors he heard conversation on the other side. And through the small, circular glass window he saw Leila chatting with some of the women from the now ended yoga class. He watched Leila smile and coo over some baby photos on someone’s phone. He really did like her, and it was shame, he knew, that he couldn’t just say something.
Though even if he did say something, that doesn’t mean that there was anything to come of it. Leila was just nice to him, she was nice to everyone, and that’s all there was to it. As she turned her back Sam saw an easy escape route. Without thinking much at all, he moved quietly through the door and around the throng surrounding the reception desk. He stared straight ahead, through the people, toward the automatic doors and out on to the cold street. He walked quickly, not looking back, trying to put as much distance between him and the gym. Between him and Leila. Between him and his foolishness.
A three word story inspired by power, renegade & dark chocolate. Contributed by my friend Liam.