There's a woman who goes to the gym in my building around the same time I do, most every morning. She is young, tall, blond, and thin, with a pinched face, like she begrudges every calories that makes it through her pursed lips. Her arms are wet ropes that swim from the sleeves of her t-shirt. It is obvious that she did not spend the weekend, as I did, eating dim sum, cheese blintzes, and gummy sharks.
I am usually on the treadmill when she gets there, and I note the time as she steps on the next treadmill over. 8:16. I have six minutes on her. So, there. She keeps her head down, starts her machine, then looks up at Good Morning America, with its ersatz subtitling, her earbuds in her ears like everyone else's. She runs with her elbows close to her body, like she's suspicious.
I look at my thighs in the mirror. There is dimpled flesh, out where people can see it. My knees have little flab hats. I should wear pants, or leggings, but I get too hot.
Also, I am old, and short. And married.
The first time she clambered up on the treadmill next to me, I had to smile. We looked like the two island castaways on the old Bugs Bunny cartoon, the ones who'd been without food for so long that they started to fantasize about eating each other, and they turned into a hot dog and a hamburger running around in a circle. She was the long, lean, elegant hot dog, sprinting away, and I was the little round hamburger guy, running after her on my stubby legs with an ax.
When running alone or outdoors, I sing along to the music I'm listening to, maybe every other phrase ("I won't change my life...just fine..."). When others are present, I limit myself to mouthing the words. It's weird, but everyone is weird at the gym; it's such a weird, personal thing to be doing, exercising in public. So I sing along without sound, and when the thin blonde comes in and takes her grim place on the next treadmill, I smile.
I smile because if I don't, I will feel such horrible jealousy and self-loathing that I will come to an abrupt halt and fall directly under the treadmill and be ground up to death in a gory industrial accident. I will seriously look over at her and hate myself for the full duration of the run, if I do not smile while saying to myself over and over, "I am happier this way. I am happier this way. I am happier this way."
I don't know what I mean by this. I mean that I am happier not dieting, that much is true. I could have that body -- I had that body, shorter, but with better breasts -- but I'm no longer twenty-three. And I don't feel like being hungry and cranky and resentful of people who actually allow themselves to eat. So in that respect I am happier this way.
I am happier this way. HAPPIER THAN YOU BITCH. YOU MAY BE THINNER THAN ME BUT I AM HAPPIER THAN YOU. LOOK AT ME, I'M SMILING. I'M ENJOYING MY RUN. I DO IT BECAUSE I ENJOY IT, NOT BECAUSE I WANT TO LOOK LIKE YOU. OKAY?
She runs for forty-five minutes. I smile the entire time. She gets off and I keep going; I'll do an hour to her forty-five. She leaves the gym with her sour, downcast look, and I flatter myself that she noticed me smiling, that it peeved her somehow. I win. I am happier this way. I win.