The Gift of Nothing
I am searching online forums for techniques on how to work out better—how to become a machine—when I stumble across the quote, "That which you work against will always work against you." When I look it up I find it's from "Iron", an essay about weightlifting published in Details magazine by Henry Rollins, the lead singer of the hardcore punk band Black Flag. During shows Rollins is known for confidently prowling the stage without a shirt while sweat rivulets over his chiseled chest. Rollins purposefully flexes his bulging bicep when he curls the microphone to his screaming mouth. I would never have thought that Rollins had considered himself a loser and a spaz as a kid. In his essay, Rollins says a gym teacher turned him on to working out. He reinvented himself by building a shell of muscles around his weak body.
Rollins admits to listening to ballads while working out. It's like he's in love with the "the Iron", as he calls it. Rollins says that the gift of the Iron is that it is not easy to lift it off the mat. Rollins reflects that you can build yourself up as much as you want, "But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds." You can change, but the way you measure yourself always stays the same. To me, a mile is still a mile. Four years ago, I started running to shrink away from being the fat kid.
I am a boy getting a breast exam. My mom is concerned. She says "concerned" the same way she does when we go shopping and she asks where the husky section is. Mom lets me pick out my clothes, because even though she's overweight too, she can only eyeball how big I am.
In the doctor's office, my thick naked thighs squeeze on top of the examining table. I'm sweating and my skin glues to the butcher paper. I wish I could just cut away my fat.
The doctor feels me up. His hands squeeze my droopy chest. He's searching for something wedging between my chestplate and pectoral muscles like an extra layer of meat on a sandwich. He is slow, and thorough.
Mom sits in a chair in the corner watching me like TV. I stare at her the whole time. I shouldn't have told her I was embarrassed to dress out in front of the other middle school boys in the locker room. Do you need a bra? they say and point to me as I dress out. Man Boobs, they say and try to pinch me before I can pull my T-shirt down.
The doctor doesn't have much to say. He's fat, fatter than me. I've always liked him because he feels bad recommending weight loss to me. He clutches his love handles and tucks them into the waist of his pants.
The doctor looks over at Mom. He shakes his head. Mom shrugs her shoulders and says that she was concerned that it might be something more. I hoped the doctor would find growths to scoop out, tumors to do chemo on, a thyroid problem I could swallow a pill for; anything other than me just being fat.
I am a full-time college student, I have a part-time office job at the university, and I work out at least 10 hours every week. But working out is my real job. Clock in, clock out. Even if I skip class or I sneak up the back stairs of my office building when I'm late, I only feel guilty when I don't work out. I do sets of 20 pushups as easy as I used to eat a serving size (17) of potato chips.
When I first started running, I could hardly do 10 pushups without plummeting my knee to the ground after a set. I was soft. I would let myself skip working out if I ran 3 miles in under 25 minutes. I would blow out the final stretch back home and check my time on the kitchen's microwave. Recently, I've clocked a 17 minute 12 second 3-miler. I could run another mile and still pass the fat kid trying to run fast enough not to have to work out.
Now, I do at least 150 pushups a week. I don't just do the pushup where you have your palms parallel to your shoulders as you lower your arms to a 90-degree angle then press up. No. I inhale as I let the tension clinch my lower body from my ankles through the stones of my calves and along my hamstrings that are as flat as slate.
My biceps ache supporting the fat kid's belly. I take a moment to hate this feeling, hate him. The fat kid's chest heaves as it hangs with gravity. He wants me to give up. I do not let myself buckle under the fat kid's weight. I gush out my breath I press up and away from sinking.
I have not had a good workout unless afterward my fingertips numb so I can't hold a pen, my arms inflate so much that I can't scratch my back, and my knees shake so much I don't know if I can stand. Edging my body to collapse—instead of listening to the fat kid begging me to skip a set—and shuddering as I get up feels better than the afterglow of sex.
In high school, I am 195 lbs—an almost two-hundred-pound blob of fat wearing XL T-shirts whose necks tighten like a noose and the armholes squeeze my arms like a sausage casing and a 38-inch waist that is so tight the paunch of my belly folds over my belt. I want to blame someone, something: snack food companies, videogames, Mom, genetics, the too-hot weather, high sodium counts, portion sizes, Happy Meal toys, free refills, husky sections, anything other than me—the fat kid.
I am in my room with my friend John, a wrestling jock. He points to the bass guitar leaning against my wall and asks me if I can play something for him. I say sure, adding that I can even do a few songs with my eyes closed. I love the thump, thump of the bass in any song by the punk band Rancid.
"Alright man, rock on," John says, raising devil horns.
So I sling the guitar strap over my neck. I hate how it makes my chest part into two distinct mounds. I switch on the amp and the speaker buzzes. Then I plug in the cord from my bass to the input, sizzling like steak on a grill.
Once, John said how he wished he had a more built chest like mine, but not as fat. I felt the backhand compliment was like someone patting my shoulder a little too hard. I don't know why John and I are friends. We don't have much in common.
It's wrestling season and as I tune up John tells me about running "stadiums" in sweatpants and a hoodie, taking suppositories squatted over the toilet, and sticking his finger in his mouth to touch his uvula like a magic button at the back of his throat; all to drop weight for his matches.
Ready, I set my thumb on the pickup, and close my eyes. My wrist slides up and down the guitar's neck, it's all muscle memory, and I play the song "Bloodclot". I hum the lyrics, "I can see 360. I can see all around me." When I am in my room alone and playing this song, I spin around and get dizzy watching the cord lash like a string of licorice.
I near the bass solo and my chest is brushed by something. With my eyes still closed, I shrug my shoulder, trying to adjust the guitar strap. And then it comes again as gently as the fuzz of lint. I miss a note, but keep playing.
The touch keeps occurring and I feel my nipple hardening. I think I am nervous, since I don't play for other people often. As I let the last note ring, I squint through my eyelashes and see John's hand reaching for my chest. I jump back against the wall of my bedroom.
"What are you doing?" I say, crossing one arm over my chest.
"Oh man, your nips got like diamonds," John says. He bites his fist, trying not to laugh.
I hold the neck of the bass in my other hand, defending myself. John thinks this is funny, like it's all a joke. I think about how guitars are called axes. I want to chop John into pieces of meat.
When I read the Rollins essay, I know I need to add resistance. It is not enough to do pushups anymore. On the U.S. military's physical training website I find how to incorporate weights.
I take two 15-pound free-weights and set them on the ground, parallel with my body hovering in pushup position. My thumbs rest on the bars. If I were to curl my arm all the way back then I would look like a hitchhiker.
I press up, puffing out my breath as I straighten my arms and lock my elbows. I adjust to balance on one arm, and then pull the other arm with the free-weight up next to my kidney. I hold the free-weight like a boxing glove. I punch the 15 pounds back to the floor, beating up the fat kid.
As I do my final set of these free-weight pushups, I think of myself as John Henry—the folk hero who slung 20-pound sledgehammers in each hand to beat a steam engine in a race to open a hole through a mountain. Then I feel the tissue in my bicep stretch like Silly Putty pulled too far—snapping. Looking at my bicep, I remember that John Henry won against the steam engine, but his heart wore out. It was not enough to be a man. A bruised knot rises like a speed bump in my vein. I need to make myself into a machine. I massage the popped blood vessel, smothering it back into my hungry body.
At my annual physical, the doctor shines a light in my eyes and checks my ears and has me take deep breaths while he puts his stethoscope on my chest. For my physical the year before, when I began putting in 20 miles of running a week, I was in the same examining room. I noticed the doctor had me breathe longer than usual. "It's probably nothing," the doctor said. "But I'd like to do an EKG."
The EKG would test the strength of my heart. The doctor wanted to see if my heart was weak. I knew my grandmother (my mom's side) had died after surgery on an aneurism. Nodes were placed on my chest like a constellation and electrical cords connected-the-dots.
The results were negative. I just had a low at-rest heart rate because of the running. I asked a nurse what I could do about that. She said, they never suggested this, but I could add salt to my diet to spike my heart rate.
After my physical, I wanted to see how fast I could go. I clocked my best mile at 5 minutes and 20 seconds. I know that that's not that fast. In 2000, there were only 6 American men recorded who ran sub 4-minute miles. I have a 125,000 times better chance of getting struck by lightning than running faster than 15 miles per hour.
I can't run that fast more than a mile. In comparison, during the 2007 Olympic marathon trails, Ryan Shay, with a record of running a 5 minute 8 second pace for 26.2 miles, had to run 3 minutes faster than his best to qualify for the 2008 summer games. Trying to subtract time, Shay collapsed from a massive heart attack. The chambers that pumped his blood were too big, constricting too tightly that day; he was like a car topping out for too long and his heart was a little wet engine that blew. Shay died from running.
If I knew about Shay when I had my EKG, I might've stopped running for fear that my heart would slow, slow, slow, and then stop. But now, I know that I would rather risk dying than not being able to keep losing weight. This time, the doctor does another EKG and says that my heart is amazing. "I hate runners," the doctor says. I'm not sure if he's jealous or joking. Either way, I'm glad that I can keep trying to kill the fat kid without killing myself.
I've heard how some people tack up a pair of "fat clothes" to their wall. Some have a circus tent of a 3XL T-shirt, or a pair of 54-inch jeans (the biggest size made), or an extra-long tie to fit around their neck. I buy "goal clothes"—a size too small to shrink myself into. As soon as I fit, I throw away my husky clothes. I don't want anyone else to wear them.
I keep a workout journal. Looking through the previous four months I add up what I've gained: 280 miles running—from my home in Orlando, I could have run north past the state line of Florida. In my four years of running, I've gone more than 2,500 miles—the length of the Appalachian Trail and back. If my body were a car, I would need an oil change.
In an issue of Runner's World magazine, I idolize the marathoners who put in more weekly miles than they drive. They are taut stick figures with a stretch of lean muscles woven around elastic tendons. They look like they are dying to run. There's a hunger behind their eyes like they can't wait to come back from a run emptied and eat, eat, eat, because they earned it.
On the back cover is a North Face ad: There's a man, Tim Twietmeyer, with a salt and pepper, caterpillar-thick mustache and in his heavily callused hands is a plate of silver belt buckles that look like cheap, pewter souvenirs you could buy at any gift shop outside of a mine-turned-museum.
Each of those belt buckles is stamped with the words "Western States"—an ultramarathon held in the Rocky Mountains. The race was originally a horse race, until in 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh, a myth of a man, rode to the starting line on a horse that collapsed from exhaustion. Instead of getting a replacement steed, Gordy, a 200 lbs burly guy, said he would run the race on foot.
You have to imagine Gordy as a man with sinews of muscles that probably looked like roots and a set of coal black eyes set in his skull draped with vines of hair. This mountain-man not only ran and finished, but also crossed the finish line in less than 24 hours—the cutoff time for horses.
And the silver belt buckles aren't just participation medals for finishing. The race is 100 miles. Silver means running the race in less than 24 hours. The Western States is more mileage in one day than I run in a month. And there are more than 25 buckles on the plate. Tim's granite-face looks like he could run against the wind forever without being worn down.
In the corner of the ad is North Face's slogan: Never Stop Exploring. I have never asked myself: How far is far enough? Next to Tim, I don't really run that much.
When I run, I never walk. It's not just because I agree with one minor shoe company's ad that "If you ran without sacrifice, congratulations. You just jogged." I run without slowing because it is the only time I feel weightless. In the split seconds of my legs slicing the air like scissors, my feet hover above the ground, against gravity. I am a blur of a body, without mass.
One person's "run" is not another person's run. I believe "running" to be running 7-minute or less miles—the speed that would get you kicked off a high school men's cross country team if you ran any slower. When I run, I run. My stride spreads over sidewalk blocks, though I mostly run on the road's asphalt, facing traffic. I like to have the cars spotlight me.
Running is subtracting the fat kid. Each step pounds the fat kid on the anvil of the road. The more I hit him, the less he will be.
In high school, my brother and I watch Kevin James' standup comedy routine on TV. James makes a joke about how he used to be able to wolf down two Big Macs. He loved to eat. James says that now, he can only get halfway through one Big Mac without feeling like a bear that has been shot in the ass. He's tired of eating.
We laugh. My brother is skinny. He has a car and always buys fast food before we watch TV together. I don't ask him, he just buys it and feeds me. I feel like a farm animal always ready to eat.
Kevin James says his goal is to lose enough weight so his stomach doesn't jiggle as he brushes his teeth. My brother laughs, but he doesn't notice how James is wearing all black. I know it is the best slimming color. Instead of pointing that out, I laugh, too. Not because it is funny, but because laughing at James is like wearing black.
There's a note that is always on top of my desk: flex abs.
I lay on my back like a turtle on its shell. I am exposing my belly as I do crunches. I curl up, off one shoulder blade with my fingers at my ears, and I touch my right elbow to my left knee, and then mirror the modified sit-up. Each time I come up, I feel like a whale breaching as I puff out air and clench my belly button toward my chin, flattening my back. I'm waiting for my six-pack to surface.
I follow the modified sit-ups with a set of crunches where my back is flat against the ground while my legs are straight up in the air. My feet could walk on the ceiling. I am the letter L. Every time I lower my legs to the floor, I imagine myself as a lever on a slot machine pulled downward for the jackpot.
When I am done with my workout, I take off my T-shirt and walk through the hallway to the kitchen. I don't care about the sweet and sour stench of my drying sweat, because I want to see my skin's shine in the window across from the refrigerator. I parade back to my room like a glistening rooster. A cock. A jock.
Every night I brush my teeth without a shirt. Looking in the mirror, I think, How much more of the fat kid can I erase?
One day, I am running a paced 3-miles, when I see a kid, probably just beginning college, really hoofing it on the sidewalk down my street. He isn't wearing a shirt. I can see the curves of his toned muscles etched on his bare back. Instead of slowing down and coming to a stop, ending my run; I keep going and catch up with the kid.
"Hey," I say as I run next to the gutter, parallel with the kid on the sidewalk.
The kid slows down as he sizes up my running uniform: I am wearing my short-shorts with its swim trunk-like lining so I can easily slip them up and over the bricks of my thighs. My shoes have no laces, only a pull-string system. I have on a loose, long sleeve mesh shirt.
The kid lifts his chin to acknowledge me, and then goes back to his quick pace.
"You know," I say. "You should run in the road." I normally don't like to have a conversation while running, and I hardly ever run with other people because they always say I go too fast, but I feel like passing on some advice to this kid. "The cement will mess up your knees."
The kid comes down into the street, but speeds up. He listened to me, but I don't think he wants to hear any more.
I follow the kid and lengthen my stride, accelerating through a turn. I gain and run a half-step in front of him. Even though I speed up, I am breathing in and out only through my nose, while the kid begins to breathe in and out through his mouth to keep up. If he isn't going to hear more from me, I want to show him what running is. I let him pull ahead, only to pass him in a few strides. I am going to get him to empty himself out.
On a quarter-mile straightaway the kid takes off. He pounds his heels into the asphalt, kicking his knees back wildly. His arms flail like he is trying to grab a rope to pull himself ahead of me.
I smile. I like this kid's spunk. I lean my shoulders forward and lift onto my tiptoes, prancing. I know I am running at about 90% effort. I eat air like a buffet. In through my teeth and blown back out through my mouth. Efficient. I pass the kid.
I hear the kid stop. I turn around, running backward, with my arms open.
"Come on," I say.
The kid looks like he hates me as he sets his palms on his knees, hyperventilating. I know that feeling of giving your all. Your stomach's acid tickles your throat. You might throw up.
I slap my hand down on my tough thigh. I laugh like a bark, challenging the emptied kid. I am glad to give him this gift of being nothing.
I come home from running and find my mom eating at the table. When I look at her I lose my post-run appetite. Mom's T-shirts are as wide as long, she has elastic in her jeans' waist, and recently she's bought "house dresses" that I hope she won't wear in public. The style is called a muumuu and when Mom is eating ice cream before noon I can't help but think of the word "cow".
I try to bring up the fact that the spoon in her hand is the same as a needle in her arm. She's putting junk in her body. Mom says, "I never bugged you about your weight." I wish she had just told the fat kid to go run laps around the neighborhood. Instead, Mom signed herself up for the Weigh Down program with the mantra "Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full." She talked about a self-control exercise of having only one M&M from the bag and then putting the rest in her purse. Later, there was an empty wrapper in the garbage.
I go to the fridge to get some water. On the wall bordering the kitchen and Mom's study, there's a photo of Mom and her sisters when they're all in college. And Mom is skinny. Her short-shorts are cuffed. Mom's thighs are milky smooth with no hair, no dimples, no cellulite.
At the fridge, I fill up my cup from the water filter. I stopped drinking soda as soon as I wanted to make the fat kid thirst. I lost 10 lbs in a few months. I drink at least 64 ounces of water everyday. My piss is so clear I don't have to flush.
As I gulp water I watch Mom, still eating. She looks at me and says between mouthfuls, "You work so hard." I want to tell Mom I believe the quote from 5 foot, 6 inch and 105 lbs super model Kate Moss that "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels." Sometimes, I want to be skinny enough to not have to work out anymore. I know of some runners who have such a low body fat percentage that in summer they have to wear a jacket outside or else they will shiver in the sun.
In the office, I call an intern weak. I mean it jokingly from one guy to another. The intern takes its personally. I guess it's because he's pudgy. Before I know it, the intern says he bets he can do more pushups than me.
I lift one eyebrow and smile with my lips closed. I pull my shirtsleeve back and show him my baseball-bicep. My veins look like stitching through my skin.
The intern stands up, staring at me.
"Alright," I say. "Right here, right now." I point at the intern and then to the hallway.
The intern follows me out of the office door. He looks at the hallway's carpet where I'm still pointing. He claps his hands together. This is his last chance to give up. But he gets down on his palms and starts to puff out his pushups. I respect him for being a man about this, but I am going to show him what it takes to be a machine.
I get into position for perfect pushups: my hands at my shoulders, my butt tucked in, back straight, and elbows locked ready to bend down to 90 degrees and back up again. My hydraulic arms pump. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth like an exhaust pipe. I hold each pushup for one second, idling, and look at the intern struggle.
The intern does his 16th pushup with his arms shaking, just able to lock his elbow back up. His knees plummet into the carpet. I finish a set of 25 by leaping onto my feet and standing up, brushing off my hands on my pants.
The intern is gasping. He looks disappointed with himself. I look into the office. My boss and the other interns aren't watching. I don't know if they've seen any of this. I want to point to the ground and say, "Look at this," like something happened here that was important.
Now, I weigh 165lbs and am 6 feet in my running shoes. I wear medium-sized T-shirts that are loose over my chest and 33-inch waist jeans that I always have to wear with a belt. When I knock my knees together, my thighs do not touch until the cleft of my groin.
Depending on if I shit or just ate, my weight fluxes as low as 160 and as high as 170. I use the same scale, in the same grocery store, at the same time to weigh myself every week. It might seem like I'm obsessed. But I don't have a scale in my bathroom. If I did, I'd weigh myself everyday, and then I would be obsessed.
At the grocery store, I stand on the scale. I watch the needle soar up the numbers and stop. My eyebrows furrow and I look down at my feet, stomping the metal sensor.
The scale reads 156 lbs. I am not dyslexic. The needle points to the number that is too low.
I step off the scale, and then step back on. The scale reads 156 lbs, again.
I am wearing sneakers, jeans, and a T-shirt like I always do whenever I'm not running. I jump up and down on the scale, seeing if it wasn't registering all of me. Still, the scale reads 156 lbs.
I consider exchanging my basket for a cart to load up and pack on weight. But I walk the aisles with a basket, picking out items for a three-ingredient kitsch and get behind two women in the 10-items-or-fewer line. Two other women fill in behind me, so that I am sandwiched in-between them all.
The manager in a navy cardigan comes up to me and taps my shoulder.
"Sir, please follow me," she says.
I look left and right. I want to say I would never steal food. As I lift my arm to point my finger at myself and ask, "Me?" the manager smiles and shakes her head a little, cutting off my question.
"I'm just going to open up another lane for you," she says.
I wonder if she's hitting on me.
The two women behind form a cha-cha line. The manager ushers me forward, then notices the women linked to me and her hand cleaves the air.
"No," the manager says. "You can stay in this line." The way she smiles at them is so different from assuring me.
I had relatively the same amount of groceries as the women in line with me. I didn't act like I was in a hurry. I've been coming here for years and have never received special treatment. I don't ask why I was plucked from the one grocery line to another. The fat kid never would have been chosen.
In two days, I check my weight again. This time, the scale says 154 lbs. I am shaking as I leave the supermarket without buying groceries.
During the week, I come back and check my weight two more times: 157 lbs and then 155 lbs.
That afternoon, I call my doctor.
"Maybe you need to eat more," my doctor says.
I want to argue that that has never been the answer. But I realize I may have finally killed the fat kid, because I am being told I should not subtract anymore of him from me. I have to maintain instead of plummet. It's the difference between sprinting until I collapse and pacing to go the distance.
Soon after I am told I have to find balance, a beautiful, skinny college friend of mine who recovered from anorexia tells me a poem of hers, titled "she is a small, thin girl," is published online. I read it and love it. To other people it might be about numbers, but I know it is about how we look in the funhouse mirror of our mind. My friend captures the struggle with her lines:
so she forced herself to eat
(everyday for months, she would force herself
and it felt like lifting weights, training for a marathon)
When I get home from my classes at the university, I turn on the stove. I fill up a pot of water. My stomach croaks. I think of how you can put a frog in cold water, set it on a burner, turn on the heat, and it will allow itself to be boiled alive.
As the pasta churns, I realize I have been losing weight since entering college. If 195 lbs looks like a potato, then 150 lbs is a celery stick. I don't like the feeling of being full, because I feel like I'm gaining.
Instead of eating the pasta, I turn on my coffeemaker. This is a trick I learned: coffee satiates hunger and its caffeine propels any workout. I listen to the sputter of the percolation and stretch.
I drink a cup of coffee and decide to go running without my shirt on. I am not the fat kid anymore. I'm antsy. I want to show off the body I've built.
I don't normally run without my shirt. One summer, when I still had some flab from the fat kid, I ran without a shirt so I could tan at the same time. I remember passing a house and hearing someone whistle from their garage. I didn't know if they were mocking me. For the rest of the run, I wanted the security of a T-shirt covering my body.
In the present quiet of my afternoon run, I glance at parked car's windows or just feel old "problem areas" that invisibly jiggle and shift, now uncontained by a shirt. As I run, I think about the Buddhist idea of Nirvana: becoming nothing. I was a cup of water being poured into an ocean. But I want even less than that. I want to evaporate.
A breeze hits my bare chest and combs through my stomach hair. I didn't eat the pasta and I already absorbed the coffee's caffeine. My energy is draining. Soon I am going to be running on fumes. I know this is dangerous, but the gift of running is that you get to see how far you can go on empty.
I will not reach the horizon; still I keep my chin straight ahead. I don't glance at the windows of the parked cars. I am afraid of seeing the fat kid's reflection. There will always be pushups, crunches, curls, and mile after mile after mile. I go.