As a single man in my late thirties, I am aware that my belly should not protrude farther than my penis.
At this point it’s a tie.
I’ve been paying my 24 Hour Fitness membership and going regularly at least once a month for about three years. That’s thirty-six times. I know that I need to go more often than that. But I can’t seem to break the once a month habit. A while ago, I figured I’d ask around and see what other men are doing to maintain their vim, their vigor.
My lover Jared said, Absolutely nothing and neither should you. I like big bellies. He reached over and rubbed mine. Somehow, this bothered me and after he said that I went twice in one week, an inspired anomaly.
Bob, who bartends at the divey lounge around the corner from my apartment, immediately asked when I told him I needed to start working out, What do you do when you go to the gym?
I said, Some light weights and then I spin on a stationary bike.
Bob the Bartender stopped wiping the counter and looked at me serious and asked, Do you wear spandex?
I said, I do but -
I knew it, he interrupted, You totally wear spandex. You do.
I just nodded and said, Yes. Yes, I do.
He walked away glowing like I'd made his night.
Sitting with me at the bar Jason, with his pockmarked face, soil under his fingernails, and fine, greasy hair, said, That’s why I don’t have a car. It makes me have to bike everywhere. Look at these.
He proceeded to roll the black, denim shorts he wore up above his shockingly hairless and muscular legs. He left them that way for the rest of the evening bragging to the Thursday night regulars and various customers about his self-described biker thighs.
Walking home one night with Mr. Delbert who had to be pushing seventy, I asked him about staying healthy. He said, I ain’t ever worked out in my life except for chasing my kids around the house. But now I just walk Mr. Dog.
I imagined his small frame, his slow and delicate footsteps, walking Mr. Dog, his eighty-pound Rottweiler.
That’s gotta be some exercise. He’s huge, I said.
I wouldn’t get no small ass dog, Mr. Delbert said. What’s the point? A small dog doesn’t scare anybody and it just irritates the shit out of you. Plus, you don’t even need to walk a little dog. With Mr. Dog, he keeps me honest. I have to walk him every damn morning.
I said, Mr. Dog scares my daughter all the time. She’s nicknamed him Monster.
Mr. Delbert smiled and said, I like that. But to be honest, Mr. Dog is just a big ol’ sweetheart. You’d be surprised how many monsters really just nothing but little babies on the inside.
Mr. Delbert opened the gate to his house. Mr. Dog was barking at me and pacing back and forth waiting for him to come in. He then grabbed Mr. Dog’s jowls, tugging hard from the left to the right and back and forth whispering to the dog, Are you a monster, Are you a monster.
It was my daughter who broke the workout morass I found myself in.
In her senior biology class, her assignment was to measure different human bodies and figure out body weight/mass index comparable across gender and age lines.
Dad, she said, I need to measure your body for my class. Absolutely not, I said adjusting my posture a bit.
Dad, she said, Seriously, I need to do this. I need to get an A. Don’t you want to support my education?
Her hand on her hip. Her face crumpled in reproach. Her long hair pulled up in a bun that punctuated the top of her head. She said it like her acceptance to college depended on my participation. She said it like I’ve failed her for most of her life.
Wrapping the yellow measuring tape across my forehead, she measured my skull.
Big huh, I said.
Average, she responded.
She measured my chest.
She said, Breathe in and out.
I did again and again and again. Like I would never stop.
Next, my armspan. She gripped the tip of my finger on my left hand and asked me to hold the end of the tape measure and stepped to the other side of me.
I felt infinite. She continued to measure. The distance between my armpit and waist. The distance between my hip and foot. She had a look on her face. Intense. Driven. Beautiful. I felt myself expand.
I asked, Do you remember when I used to ask you if you knew how much I loved you and you’d say this much and measure a few inches with your fingers and then I’d say, even more and you’d measure maybe a foot with your hands and I’d say nope, it’s even more than that and you’d measure out farther and farther and until you couldn’t possibly stretch out any more.
Hold still dad, she said.
I couldn’t hold still. I dropped my arms. I needed her to hear me. I needed to know she remembered.
Do you, I asked.
She lowered her measuring tape and looked at me and said, Of course I do, and then she hugged me and put her head to my chest. She said, I hear your heart like it’s speaking to me.
When she got to the circumference of my belly, she actually laughed out loud.
What, I asked. Nothing, she said.
What, I demanded raising my voice like I meant business.
Well, she said and she wrote something down in her notebook. Then as if proving a hypothesis she announced, You’re disproportionate.
How am I disproportionate, I asked.
Your head and your stomach. You better do something if you want to live a long healthy life. She turned and walked away, her hair bun bouncing with each step.
From that point on, I have changed my behavior. I’m doing something. Of course, I want to live a long, healthy life. For the last couple months, on my drinking Tuesdays and Thursdays, I buy bitters and soda for the first hour and then drink one shot of Bulleit over the second hour as I sit in the bar making small talk with Jason and Mr. Delbert, watching the basketball game.
I bike instead of drive to do my errands, smiling as I think of Jason’s thighs. When I slip on my black and neon orange spandex shorts which match my black and neon orange spandex top, I smirk thinking about what Bob the Bartender would say if he saw me.
But I haven’t stopped.
I feel good, but my belly refuses to retreat. I wonder if it’s genetic. I rub it and feel the muscles under the skin, the fat, the jollyjolly bounce and shake of it.
Today, as I finish a project revamping a restaurant’s website, I decide to go biking for exercise and pleasure. I shut my laptop and grab my bike. I fly out of my apartment and down my street over the speed bumps. I howl at Mr. Dog in the yard. For once the dog doesn’t rush the fence as I pass, but continues to sit at the front door of Mr. Delbert’s house.
I bike to the shoreline, bike past cars stuck on the freeway, bike past Golden Gate Fields. I hear the flap of my windbreaker. I blend in with so many of the other riders in matching outfits. I stare at the thighs of the men and women and appreciate the androgyny of it all. I imagine measuring each person, instructing them to move and bend, to stretch their bodies wider and wider.
It’s getting dark as I ride up my street but I’m not worried about time because my daughter’s with her mother and I have a salad waiting for me at home.
I see a fire truck and a white animal services vehicle with lights flashing.
I continue past my house because the emergency vehicles are in front of Mr. Delbert’s house. There’s a small crowd of neighbors.
Hey, I ask a lady in a uniform, where’s Mr. Delbert.
The person living at this house? They took him to the hospital, she says.
Is he alive?
How can I find out?
Check the hospital, she says.
One of the older neighbors shakes her head and says, It didn’t look good.
I feel my sweat starting to dry on my body in the cool night air. I watch the lights flash red and yellow on the houses. I hear a whimpering from the white truck.
I say, What are you going to do with the Mr. Dog?
Take him to the shelter because he’s a risk. He wouldn’t let the emergency workers get to the patient.
I walk to the animal control truck and look at the dog muzzled and slobbery.
I say, Can I take him?
The fire truck pulls away, and she’s now the only official left.
Please, I say.
Can you control him, she asks.
Of course, I lie.
She looks to see if anybody is watching. She says, Then take him quickly. I don’t want to have to do all the paperwork anyways.
I turn to the dog locked up in the kennel on the truck. I have never petted him before without Mr. Delbert standing right there. I usually just bark or howl or say hi when I rush by the house. Mr. Dog has only ever barked at me.
I think: even monsters are babies on the inside.
I say, Hello there Mr. Dog. You’re ok, you’re ok. I repeat it like a lullaby or a prayer. I reach in blindly, knowing it’s the dumbest thing I could possibly do. I take off the muzzle and grab the collar. I pull him out. He bounds out immediately and sits beside me like a wounded thing. I stare for a second at him, his big eyes and heavy breathing and slobbery lips looking back at me. I lead him and my bike back to my apartment and he heels like I’ve walked him every morning.
Later, I feed him some bacon, the only meat I have in the kitchen because I’m trying to not eat too much of it. I’m trying to stay healthy, to live long. I make him a place to sleep in my room with a few towels. Sometime in the middle of the night, Mr. Dog sneaks into my bed. I wake to see his looming figure blot the light from the streetlamp outside my window. I watch him try and get comfortable, circling and circling. Eventually, he simply falls onto me, heavy and warm. His head in the curve of my armpit.
I know I should shoo him off the bed but I pet him and he stretches out wide. I wonder how long he is. The distance between paw and chest, between head and tail. I wonder if he’s disproportionate as well. He doesn’t seem to mind the way my belly fits against his body. I wonder if he’s worried, if he feels loss, how much he might miss Mr. Delbert. I reach down and put my hand on his chest and feel his heart. It beats in steady, constant thumps like he’s answering me: this much, this much, this much.