It was an enviable life. From Monday to Friday I was top drone in a hive whose queen wore stripes of the pinned variety. Each day was just a stepping-stone to the weekend. The weekend, that glorious chunk of time when I could start checking things off my household “To Do” list. When, I pondered, did I trade the rush of primping for the best ever party for the pure exhilaration I felt when drawing a line through “vacuum car, especially trunk”?
I was in the middle of the second scintillating chore on my list – “kitchen drain…what died?” – when out the window I spied my neighbor and archrival in all things domestic, Beth. I was mesmerized as I watched her carefully place her Smith and Hawkins tulip bulb in the perfect six-inch deep hole, sprinkle it with Cayenne pepper and cover it with Himalayan dirt that promised spiritual enlightenment along with more vibrant reds. A few minutes later she snapped off her Lilly Pulitzer garden gloves, gathered her monogrammed LL Bean spade and flounced into her historically certified center-hall Colonial with the Espresso/Smoothie machine recessed into the kitchen wall. My stomach churned as I moved onto the third chore on my list. I bet Beth never had a bag of potatoes sprout tentacles and asphyxiate the dusty can of chickpeas in her pantry.
About an hour later, as I tried desperately to disinfect my bird feeder so as not to be responsible for avian flu spreading through our quaint, unusually healthy, little New Jersey town (sixth on the hit parade), Beth rang me up on my lipstick-encrusted phone (eighth). “Want to join me at Pontius Pilates for an exercise class? It’s a lot of fun,” she said challengingly. “Sure,” I said without blinking. It wasn’t on the list, but here was my chance. I couldn’t win the Phlox Face-off or the Battle of Béarnaise but maybe, just maybe, I could be the Matron of Motion. I had, after all, gotten a treadmill for Christmas and used it at least 3, maybe even 3 1/2, times since then. I’d also started taking B12 and cut out Krispy Kremes in any month that had an “e”. And I only smoked when I was without Krispy Kremes. I grew more confident by the minute. By the time I slipped into my Cool Max shirt, Nike shorts and Thor-Lo socks I was giddy. I could barely contain myself as I imagined the look on dear Beth’s face when I leapt into the air like Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing.”
We met at the fitness center. Beth had gotten there first and was wearing her new Nike sneakers, the ones with NASA’s solid-rocket-boosters on the sole. I was unphased as I hummed “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” quietly. We signed in with blondest, vimmest young man I’d ever seen. “Twelve o’clock Boot Camp,” Beth snapped. “Awesome!” he beamed. I beamed back, my headlights a little duller after all these years. Once out of Josh-Colin-Chad-Dunstan’s earshot I asked, “What kind of class is Boot Camp? Do we do push ups? Do we run laps chanting ‘I ate bread and it’s okay, Jesus loves me anyway’? Does the instructor get nose-to-nose with us and make fun of our name?” I thought I was hilarious. “Very funny,” Beth shot back. I knew she didn’t really mean it. “It’s an intense aerobic class with lots of different activities. It’s really tough, hence the name” (Beth had been substitute teaching in our high school’s English class and kept saying things like “hence,” “forego” and “unbeknownst” ever since). “Boot Camp, Schmoot Camp,” I said (I had been visiting my great Aunt Goldy recently and picked up a completely different vocabulary). “I can pace the floor, heart racing and breath shallow, for hours as my 17-year old cavorts past curfew,” I kvetched silently, “What’s a half hour of aerobics to me?”
Everyone grabbed a plastic step, a jump rope, some hand weights and a water bottle from a closet. I thought I saw a defibrillator in there too but I convinced myself that it was just a portable fan. Once back in the room of mirrors I looked around to size up the competition. I was somewhere in the upper 50% I thought. Most important, Beth didn’t look anymore like 20- year-old Jennifer Grey than I did. I was feeling pretty smug when the instructress walked in, clad in a fatigue-patterned leotard and sporting a regulation metal whistle. She was perfect. Petite yet powerful, without a ripple or a wrinkle. Her name was Shawna, or Ali, or Brie and she must have been the desk clerk’s twin. I wondered where I had put that coupon for Crest White Strips.
This Boot Camp Barbie cranked up the CD player and hopped effortlessly onto a two-foot high stage (sounds easy, huh? Try it sometime). Out of this almost fragile young woman came a bass profundo order to hop onto the step beside us and hop off to the other side, then reverse. I was giggling with self-consciousness as I began hopping. After about five minutes I was still self-conscious but I wasn’t laughing anymore. It’s impossible to laugh when you can’t breathe. No one else seemed to be having this problem. Beth was even smiling as she gracefully vaulted over the pink polyurethane. I suddenly realized that she had stolen my fantasy and was about to take a mental leap right onto Patrick Swayze. I was devastated.
Finally, after what felt like from here to eternity, our drill sergeant ended that embarrassing display and moved onto the jump rope. I felt relief and a second wind wash over me, or maybe it was just sweat. Never mind, I was an ace jump roper as a child and I could even remember all the rhymes. So I jumped. And I jumped some more. I felt pretty good until Beth said, from behind her gritted teeth, “Could you move over? You’re sucking up all my air.” I silently prayed that Patrick Swayze’s knees would buckle as he caught her, sending them both crashing to the ground with moaning of the painful variety.
That pleasantry was short-lived as, all of a sudden, GI Joan was off the stage and walking around, strutting her perfection with the superiority that was mine just a short time ago. “Does she have a whip?” I thought in terror. I was relieved, momentarily, to see that it was just a small hand weight. Then I began wondering if a whip to the back of legs hurt more than a hand weight to the back of the head. I was burning more calories from panic than from movement now, as jumping deteriorated into skipping, which deteriorated into hobbling.
Mistress Shawna (her real name it turns out) scared me and she knew it. She stood in front of me, risking the sting of the nylon rope swinging wildly behind her, and barked, “‘Jump’ is the operative word here. Pick up those knees, soldier!” I wanted to knock her back into reality with that hand weight she was carrying but, instead, I just whimpered. She moved on. I knew that she and Beth were winning this battle but I wasn’t about to go down without a fight. I clutched my jump rope and started doing a pretty good imitation of Sugar Ray Leonard in training. Then I clutched my chest in mock distress and choked out the words,”Oh . . . no. . .. . .forgot. . . about. . .pacemaker.” I expected Shawna to grab the defibrillator while the others called 911. Apparently, I was as bad an actress as I was a recruit because no one seemed to notice. I coughed my way out of the room while dropping the dumbbells noisily to the floor. Still nothing. But within moments I was AWOL and it felt great. Besides, Patrick Swayze couldn’t fit into those tight, black jeans again if his life depended on it.
About twenty minutes later Beth emerged from Das Boot to find me consoling myself with vending machine Krimpets, the poor man’s Krispy Kremes. “Shall we go?” she smirked while staring pointedly at my now happy heart. “Oh, yes milady. Please have James bring the carriage ’round,” I quipped. She still didn’t think I was funny.
The next morning was even more humiliating than my fitness fiasco. I made my usual first stop to the bathroom and cried when I learned that simply sitting down was to be as excruciating as childbirth. I made a mental note to have a bar like Aunt Goldy’s installed as soon as possible and to have the commode raised about a foot and a half. My thighs were on fire, my knees were locked, and my little toe, the one that used to go “wee wee wee,” was saying something decidedly more severe. As I stood at the top of my stairs I wondered if Sir Edmund Hillary felt any more overwhelmed while looking down from Everest’s summit than I did at that moment. After taking each step singly and sideways I shuffled to the kitchen phone and called Beth, waking her from an erotic dream about Hurricane Schwartz (I don’t get it either). “I’m tying myself to a fire-ant hill for an hour. Care to join me? ” I chirped. Despite her best efforts, she burst out laughing and, for a fleeting moment, I was winning.