I could list a few people who I believed could outrun Gina any day: stick-thin Amy who I had never seen leave the reception area, Madeleine in a pair of six-inch stilettos and even Leopold who never went beyond a jog when using a treadmill. But that assumption didn’t deter me from my mission. After fifteen minutes of brisk walking, I pressed the most important button on the treadmill Gina was using. I pressed it five times.
“It’s moving too fast!” Gina wobbled, taken by surprise with the sudden increase of the treadmill’s speed.
“This is the real workout right here. This is the real deal,” I said, running on the treadmill next to her.
“Ack!” she squealed.
“You want to lose weight for the wedding?” I imitated one of the gung-ho trainers in Gym Olympia who always sounded like an over-caffeinated cheerleader.
“You want your fiancé to be surprised when he returns?”
“You want to look better in your wedding dress?”
“Then run, Gina. Run! Do it for the wedding! Do it for your wedding!”
Gina kept running despite the obvious difficulty displayed on her face and looked at me as if she wanted to ask when the treadmill would stop. But it wouldn’t stop. It would keep moving, rolling and humming until I got what I came for at the gym that day.
And I did. One misstep caused Gina’s leg to buckle under, her marshmallow body slamming against the moving belt. The next whir of the treadmill sent her rolling to the floor like a wheelbarrow. The people around us gasped. I hopped off my treadmill and hurried to help her to her feet.
“Gina! I’m sorry,” I said.
Of course I’m not.
“I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.” She stood.
“Do you still want to continue?” I imagined my face looking as sincere as possible.
Gina looked at the people watching us, their faces filled with mixed expressions of amusement and disgust. She squeezed my forearms and huffed. “Yes, let’s continue.”
I failed to elicit laughter from Francis when I told him this story over the phone the following day.
“And you did continue?” His voice carried a hint of uneasiness.
“We did. Yeah.” I laughed.
“She didn’t get mad?”
“That was bad. I don’t understand why you’re laughing.”
“Dude, she laughed it off.”
“We both laughed it off.” Indeed, we did, for different reasons, Gina to stave off public humiliation and I because I got exactly what I wanted.
“Are you still going to help her lose weight?”
“She said nothing about calling it off. We’ll meet again tomorrow.”
“That’s great! I’m happy to see the hatchet between the two of you buried. Old lovers can become friends, after all.”
I thought of bringing up Madeleine to Francis. They were old lovers but not friends. Maybe they should bury the hatchet between them, too. I chose to say nothing.
“I hope there’ll be no falling off the treadmill in your next session,” said Francis.
“Of course. I’ll not let it happen again.”
I have a different plan in mind.
I waited for Gina outside Gym Olympia again on Saturday. She wore a yellow shirt brighter than the cab she stepped out from. Orange jogging pants paired with her top, making her look like a California maki topped with a tall whip of creamy cheese. I turned away from her for a few seconds and snickered.
Few people went to the gym on Saturday. With little audience, a goal of public humiliation for Gina would be unsatisfactory. Instead, I wanted her to feel physical pain.
I led Gina to the dumbbell rack and handed her a pair of five-pound dumbbells. “You can’t just rely on cardio for a good weight loss program. You have to lift weights. We’ll start with your lower body.”
“Okay.” There was a tiny apprehension with the way she spoke.
I demonstrated a dumbbell squat to Gina. “Ten reps per set.”
Gina got into position and started the exercise. She struggled halfway through but managed to finish an entire set. I made her rest for fifteen seconds before telling her to do another set. By the third set, she couldn’t make it past five reps. I turned away to let loose a covert laugh after she collapsed gasping on the floor.
I made Gina do two more leg and three shoulder exercises, after each I indulged myself with a veiled celebration of chuckles. She ought to know the hard work and pain I went through to attain my body, unlike the carelessness and neglect she chose for hers.
When Gina could no longer lift the dumbbells, we retreated to our respective locker rooms. I changed into a set of fresh new clothes seconds before Leopold appeared.
“Is she your coworker?” he asked.
“No.” I grabbed my bag out of the locker and walked to the door.
“About that help I mentioned the other day—”
I left, pretending not to hear Leopold. Gina was already waiting for me at the reception area wearing a set of new clothes, too. She, along with Amy, watched me descend from the stairs. The smell of cinnamon filled my nose when I reached Gina.
“This is the first time I saw you work out on a Saturday, Herbert,” said Amy.
“I’m helping out a friend. And it’s good to break out of the routine every now and then,” I said.
“If you say so.” Amy looked between the two of us.
“The best marketing is a good referral.”
“We appreciate that. Thank you.”
I waved goodbye to Amy on my way out. Gina followed suit.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Gina as we stepped out in the dark canvas of the city. The Saturday night workout was her choice. I preferred the morning since it was the weekend anyway. But sometimes, a small trade-off didn’t hurt. I gave her the liberty of picking the time. I picked the punishment. I came out as the victor in the end.
“It was challenging,” she answered.
I wanted to hear other words from her, like hard, sucked and killer, none of which she uttered.
“Sometimes you have to make some sacrifices to get what you want. I should not complain,” she added.
“That’s true.” I nodded and failed to find my next words.
“It makes me feel a little bit adventurous.”
“Is it because you haven’t been to a gym before?”
Gina scanned the street and hailed a cab. One halted in front of her with its headlight blazing like a lone lighthouse on a foggy beach. She opened the door and squeezed her way in. “Herbert, are you adventurous?”
I didn’t want to say yes. The question was too general. I didn’t want to say no either. I’d look like a pussy fool. Thus, I answered the question with the answer only a real man would. I said, “Yes.”
“Then what are you standing there for?” asked Gina. “Get in the cab and don’t make our driver wait.”
I stepped inside the cab, thanks to the volatile compound of endorphins, machismo and pride. Gina told the driver her destination. The moment he stepped on the gas, doubt began to erode my confidence in my spontaneous decision. Gym Olympia disappeared from my view through the window, replaced by dancing lines of red, blue, white and gold against a blurry moving black backdrop.
The smell of cinnamon mixed with the air conditioning. Then I realized, for the first time in more than a decade, Gina and I occupied the same seat. I wondered if her parents still had that swing in their garden. Did they keep or sell it? Gina watched the city zoom by. The rest of the trip unfolded with silence in the backseat.
After five minutes, we reached our destination. Gina paid the driver, after pushing my offered money away, and we got out of the cab. In front of us stood a small restaurant. The white oval sign was bordered by green, leafy vegetables and blue, cursive letters blinked the name Myrna’s Garden.
“Have you been here before?” Gina asked as we walked to the entrance.
I shook my head. “This is new to me.”
“I need to eat properly after exercising, right?”
“That’s why I picked this. I saw their Facebook page online and learned they’re a restaurant made for the health buffs. I figured you might like this.”
Gina pushed the door open and we entered. Half of the tables were taken. Half of the customers looked like gym goers who attended dance classes. The rest seemed to be corporate types, those who spent more than eight hours in front of a computer, doing no type of exercise except walking to the water cooler and back to their desk.
“There.” She pointed to a table for two at the far end of the room. I followed her along the green and white checkered floor tiles as if there was a pathway only she could see leading to her chosen table.
A waitress approached and handed us the menu. Gina ordered a salad, I a veggie sandwich on wheat bread.
“I have a confession to make,” Gina said after the waitress left.
I felt a thud in my chest. “What?”
“The last time I ate salad was back in my parents’ home,” Gina said without batting an eyelash.
Gina’s father was a personal trainer and built like a rock. Her mother was a yoga instructor and sort of a celebrity chef of healthy food back then. Mrs. Watson did serve salad the many times I visited their home.
“Really? Not even once?”
“Yeah.” Gina smiled. “Never. I had enough eating salad so when I found my freedom, I decided never to touch any salad again.”
I faked a laugh. “What makes you change your decision now?”
“Memories. Nostalgia. A wish to reconnect with the things from the past.” Gina’s cheeks flushed, reminding me of the roses in her mother’s garden.
Herbert Novelli lives an ordinary life. Breakfast. Work. Lunch. Work. Gym. Dinner. Sleep. Plus the occasional get together with his long-time friends who entered adulthood together with him in Cinnabar City.
An unannounced visit to his apartment one ordinary night brings his ex-girlfriend Gina Watson. After leaving him with a vague letter and a broken heart in their old home town Verona, Gina’s unexpected appearance is the last thing Herbert expects to happen.
Gina hands Herbert an invitation to her wedding with another man as a strange peace offering. Herbert accepts it, a show of his willingness to bury the hatchet.
But Death has a funny way of doing his job in the city. Sometimes he makes a grand fanfare of his arrival. Other times, he comes unannounced with a wedding invitation on hand.