PART ONE: Chapter 1
30th of August 2013
The tap on my shoulder nags for attention but I ignore it, determined to win the number of this beautiful blonde. She wears purple yoga tights and a low v-neck singlet, one that exposes cleavage accentuated by a delightful florescent sports-bra. She may as well have a welcome mat on her breasts, I think out loud. She laughs as if I am spouting poetry, and I pick at my teeth to disguise my triumphant smile. This is just too easy.
The tapping persists but I do not draw my eyes away from the brown-eyed beauty. I simply cannot pass up any girl who is both sexy and desperate. That irresistible pair could slip through my fingers, which play with her florescent strap, and I have enough clients anyway.
I sigh dramatically for the tapper’s benefit.
“We’ll speak later, babe,” I say to the blonde, irritated yet resigned to the interruption. The blonde pouts her greasy pink lips but skips away obediently. I stare regretfully at her retreating shelf of an ass, but force myself to turn and acknowledge the persistent tapper. I am working, after all.
When I do turn my irritation doubles in intensity. A high school girl in a frumpy maroon uniform is staring back at me. There is something exquisite about her face, something exotic, but whatever it is hides behind cheeks too round and full. A slight crease indents the middle of her lower lip, which may have played havoc with my testosterone levels had it not been for her gluttony. I instantly mourn the beauty she could be had she not been a big ball of fat. What a waste.
She smiles up at me with genuine bashfulness and I resist the urge to roll my eyes at the futility of that gesture – does she really think she stands a chance?
“Sorry to interrupt,” tubby says politely. Her double chin jiggles as she swallows, the sound marking her attraction to me. Regardless of her weight, she certainly responds like a normal female.
“Yes?” I enquire with impatience. Ignoring my tone she thrusts a chubby hand towards me. My eyes travel up the length of her meaty arm and down her generous figure. She is a car accident made flesh, I think, and I’m unable to look away. I take her hand unwillingly.
“I’m Ayah. I asked the receptionist who is the best personal trainer and she pointed to you – or it may have been that trainer behind you,” Ayah says and points to Noah. I frown at that. “Anyway, I’m going overseas in a few weeks for a very important occasion and would really like to get in shape before then. Sounds impossible, I know, but can you help me get started?”
She bats her thick black eyelashes slowly as she waits for me to respond. I hadn’t really paid attention to her while she was talking; too distracted I am by her unwavering gaze. Even though she’s not anyone worth glancing at twice, she does have the most striking eyes. I’ve never met someone with two different coloured irises before. I switch focus from ocean-blue eye to her forest-green one.
“Sorry. I can’t help you,” I say and take a step backward in retreat. Pretty eyes or no, I cannot believe that I missed out on getting the blonde’s number for this.
“Oh.” Ayah looks disappointed but smiles sweetly. “Well, can I ask why? If you’re worried about funds I’m okay in that department. And I’m not one to complain when pushed if that’s the problem. Well, maybe a little cussing but I can keep it to a minimum if that kind of thing bothers you. I just really need some direction before I leave and the receptionist said–”
“I don’t want to hear your life story,” I say, interrupting her. “I just don’t want to train you.”
Her dark eyebrows draw together, confused. “I’m sorry but have I offended you in some way?” she asks, her sweet demeanour dwindling.
I sense another rant bubbling on the tip of her tongue and to save myself from wasted time I say, “I don’t train lost causes.”
And that is that.
I don’t feel guilt when her broad shoulders droop and hunch self-consciously. I am the best and the best only trains the best, my dad always says. I am my father’s son. “Sorry,” I say insincerely.
She looks over my shoulder at something and looks back at me sweetly again. She is quick to recover, I’ll give her that.
“This was all just a misunderstanding!” she blurts whilst slapping a meaty palm to her forehead, as if remembering a forgotten item from her grocery list.
“What do you mean?” I ask reluctantly. Did I not spell it out for her? Can she be more desperate?
“I’m so sorry,” she says gravely. “The receptionist must’ve pointed to the other trainer. Since you only train the skinny bitches there’s no way you can be the best. And to think, if I’d known, you could’ve been suffocating in that bimbo’s tits by now! My mistake.”
She puts a condescending hand on my shoulder and I am too shocked to draw away. “Don’t worry – keep working hard and one day you just might be the trainer the receptionist points to. Maybe.” She offers one last pat for good measure and gracefully brushes past me.
What just happened?
I watch the back of her legs wobble with every step she takes closer to Noah. Unlike me, Noah is never busy so engages her straight away. Even from this distance I can tell that his immediate attention relieves her, and I am uncertain why I feel jealousy. It’s not like her words are true – it’s not like I should care what that fat bitch thinks.
“Good luck,” I say under my breath to Noah. They make their way towards the computer room to set up her new account. Noah laughs suddenly and I wonder how she managed to make him throw his head back like that, so quickly into the conversation. Even I need a few minutes to butter the opposite sex up. But I suppose, given how quickly she made me feel like the one who’d been rejected, she must be confident. And smart.
I shake my head, unsure why her comment makes me feel insecure.
Tubby is wrong: I am the best, I chant to myself over and over to calm my cresting anger. Every echo of the phrase resonates more surely than the last, chasing away that unwelcome cousin that is Doubt. I barrel through the last of it with stone-hard facts: I get every attractive woman into the gym with my looks and charm. I work them into the ground until they are more attractive, and that is the bait I dangle in front of males clients. I make the gym enough money to afford my own Mercedes. I have girls – even clients – throwing themselves at me every weekend out in the city. I have friends. A healthy clubbing life. A great body and an even better face. I have everything I need, even the things that I don’t.
I am the best. And what Tubby has to say about it means nothing.
Now where did that blonde go?
What a prick, I think as I walk away from that despicable trainer. Who was stupid enough to let a guy like that to work with people trying to better themselves – people like me?
But I don’t let him get under my skin. Calling me a lost cause is not the worst thing I’ve been called in my life. I relish each label that miscalculates me that way: those assumptions act like a whip driving me forward with pain as my fuel, but nonetheless I am moving.
And right now I am steering towards another trainer, another opportunity. This one stands alone looking at his clip board, his frown similar to the expression I gift algebraic formulas. His dark eyebrows are puckered and it is as if he is not surrounded by the sounds of grunting men and thrumming machines. I wonder if he is concentrating so hard because he cares about his work and what it offers his clients.
I turn around and stare at that cocky trainer. He has found the blonde again and the tanned, muscled trail of his arm is wrapped around her ribcage. His hand slides down to her rear and I turn my back to them with a snort. Hopefully the new guy has a bit more finesse.
Unlike his peer, the new trainer acknowledges me straight away, sparing me the indignity of having to tap his shoulder like an infant interrupting its parents. When he smiles and offers me his hand, I like him already.
“Hello,” he says. His voice is husky like a Blues singer. “I’m Noah. You must be new since I haven’t seen your face around here before.”
“Nor have you heard me swearing every curse under the sun – which means you’re right.” My joke is all too serious and I can’t help but look around the crowded gym with trepidation. I hated exercise almost as much as exercise hated me, especially when it involved machines. As a full-blooded purist, anything electrical of any kind – except my computer – always senses my fear.
Noah tips his head back and laughs loudly, startling me. I didn’t particularly think my joke was funny but he has a look about him that says he finds anything and everything amusing. Small butterflies blossom in my stomach when he stops laughing and looks at me with chocolate twinkles in his eyes. I notice his attractiveness for the first time.
“Most people start out all excited and get bored eventually – but you already hate it, which means you know what you’re getting into,” he says while still chuckling. “I’ll bet you a free training session that you’re going to fall madly-crazy-need-a-stray-jacket in-love with this place when I’m through with you.”
I laugh, enjoying his whit immensely. Boys that look like him never usually talk the way his does, if at all. I sense a goof-ball under all that pretty packaging. It’s intriguing. “I don’t know if it’s your muscles or the temptation of a free training session but I’m convinced.” And I am. “Where do I sign?”
He laughs again, taking my compliment in stride. It is impossible to know if he’s genuine, if I’m that funny or if he’s that good of a sales man. I don’t care enough to find out which.
“Great! Follow me,” he says, leading me to a private room. He notices my hesitancy around the treadmills and chuckles under his breath. “I’m going to enjoy training you.”
“Why? Because it’ll be an obvious contrast?” I ask, unable to jacket all my bitterness under the joke. Even though I am happy with who I am as a person, I have trouble accepting the fabric of my skin. All my friends say that I’m being stupid – that the extra weight isn’t so bad and shouldn’t affect me so much – but they are wrong. It eats at me, makes me hesitant and second guessing. I can’t go overseas dangling my emotions in front of hundreds of critiquing readers until I can hug myself with vigour. That is one of the reasons why I decided to join a gym.
Noah gives me a disgruntled look that reminds me too much of the cocky trainer. But he surprises me by saying, “Don’t let your body – or what other people might say or think – dictate how you feel about yourself. Act like a winner, you’ll be a winner. That’s another promise.”
His intense chocolate eyes study me to see if what he’s saying sinks in. My insecurity is at war with me, but it is a war I intend on winning. I stare back at him, needing this stranger as my weapon. I can’t tackle my diffidence alone.
“You make a lot of promises for something that’s no guarantee,” I say for something to say.
He smiles encouragingly and I get the impression that I’m not his first hesitant client. “There is always a guarantee if you are dedicated. You just have to want it. But if you do everything I say and still aren’t happy with the results then I’m always willing to hand out compensation.” Noah leans in and stage whispers, “Not to toot my own horn but I’ve never had to do that.”
“Like what?” I ask, curious as he pulls out two chairs for us. The trance music playing throughout the gym makes a soft sigh when he closes the door. I am alone in a room with a jaw that could cut diamonds and I feel like sighing too. Maybe he’s not the best trainer for me: too distracting.
“Like free sessions if we don’t reach a goal we set together or free coupons to our WitFit healthy eating seminars.” He sits down with one leg lazily resting on top of the other and raises his eyebrow in warning. “But there are consequences for you, too, if you get slack.”
“Like what?” I echo myself. I mustn’t sound so clever now. Pay attention.
“What’s your favourite treat?” He asks.
“Cadbury popcorn covered in chocolate,” I answer automatically, sounding dumber and fatter by the minute. He smiles kindly at me.
“Stay motivated, work hard, take what I teach you and apply it to your life, and you can keep all your favourite treats. But if you don’t hold up your end of the partnership then you’ll have to give them up. You can cheat and I’m sure I’ll never know – but you’ll be cheating yourself and your money,” he says seriously.
“I won’t cheat,” I say, resolute. Not because I’m all that afraid of not eating chocolate covered popcorn but because I’ve had enough of my gluttony in general. I can no longer use it as an excuse to distract me from the pains and aches in my life. I want to feel energised in the mornings. I want to shop in regular girly stores. I want to get an A in PE, and have the strength to climb the mountain a few blocks down from my house. I want to feel confident and sexy and take control of my life.
I want change.
“Good. Do everything we agree on today and the chocolate-covered-popcorn stays.”
We spend the next half hour making an exercise and eating plan, which he even makes me sign like a contract. I try not to be nervous about my decision to come here today. It’s just a gym, I tell myself. And he’s just a boy.
“What’s your favourite vice?” I ask out of the blue, needing something personal to humanise the guy taking over my life.
He looks surprised momentarily but eventually grins. “That’s my secret.”
“Hey! I told you mine. How am I supposed to trust you with my health nuisances if I can’t relate yours?” I ask with a poke of his hard bicep. He laughs and I’m surprised that the sound is not at all strained by my sad attempt to flirt – not the usual male reaction I’m used to.
“I’ve never thought of it like that,” he says, considering. “Okay. I like eucalyptus drops. I can finish a whole bag of them in one sitting. And I'm not just talking about the kid-sized packet, I'm talking about the monster one kilogram family pack that they sell for twenty dollars at Costco. I keep having to tell my mother that the half empty packet in my room is the same packet I bought back in May, when really it's, like, the fifteenth packet I've bought since the original. It's kind of an addiction, actually. Talking about it is making the top of my mouth itchy. You should feel bad about bringing it up.”
It is my turn to laugh and I do so loudly. The sound disrupts the quiet in the small space, like the sound of a packet of chips opening in a cinema. I should be embarrassed but his story is just too funny and, luckily, he is one of those rare people that can laugh at themselves, and he does so. He has the makings of a potential friend.
“Eucalyptus? That is your favourite vice? It’s the same as munching on Panadol.”
“Don’t attack eucalyptus or you’ll be cussing sooner than later,” he says with a smiling frown. I can tell he’s not entirely joking but this excites me. If I am cussing it means that I am working hard. If I’m working hard that means I’m eliciting change. I sit up straighter.
“Speaking of... when do we start?” I don't even bother to ask how much the personal sessions and membership will cost. My pride and joy – my latest manuscript – is in the throes of publication and distribution in three countries already. I can now afford Noah’s services, and then some.
He checks his watch and I swallow nervously when he peers under his lashes evilly and says, “Right now.”
For the past hour I have watched Noah training the Tubby, Ayah. They laugh sporadically and I want to punch Noah’s big nose every time I am interrupted by his pestering chuckle. How can he think everything she says is funny? No girl is that funny, if at all. A deceitful part of me wants to steal Ayah as a client just to prove that I am the better trainer – but I’m too lazy. All I want to know is who the better trainer is between us and there is another way of finding that out.
I walk over to the girl who governs the gym’s front desk as if she is the boss, but she is only the receptionist. “Hey Celine, you are looking so damn beautiful today. I could lick your teeth,” I say to her and lean over the barrier to better expose my muscled arms. Lines that ridiculous would get any other male slapped across the face, but of course I’m the exception. I always am when girls are involved.
“What do you want, Austin?” She asks in a bored voice.
I offer her a dazzling smile, the kind that drops panties faster than a bursting bladder. “That chubby girl over there,” I say while pointing to Ayah. “I saw you pointing.”
Her stone demeanour cracks a hairline – but not enough. I'd worry about losing my charm if I didn't see right through her indifference to the wound I inflicted two months ago when I told everyone in the gym how loose she was in bed. Try as she might, though, once tequila has a hold of her there's no stopping her from humping my leg, begging for more. I'd feel guilty for spreading rumours about her had it not been the truth. How desperate could she be?
“And?” she says, looking at Ayah pityingly. I look at Tubby too but that condescending pat she’d given me puts an end to any sympathy she may have once elicited. No girl has ever spoken to me in that way. No one makes Noah laugh like that.
I frown when Tubby makes Noah laugh – again. It’s a short-lived frown, one that is gone by the time I face Celine again. “Who were you pointing to?”
“Noah,” Celine says.
Something inside me simmers in rage, a rage I am more than familiar with but struggle to control every passing day. Celine notices and locks her teeth with an audible snap. She is wondering if I know the reason she pointed to him – not me. I burn to hurt Celine somehow, make her cry again, but I smile in feigned-ignorance instead.
“Oh, does she know him?” I ask, offering both of us a way out of acknowledging her colossal blunder. I don’t want Celine admitting that she finds Noah the better trainer. Not to me or anyone.
The colour in Celine’s cheeks recedes, her relief potent like home-made moonshine. She does not want me as an enemy and that cowardice alone is enough to make me regret ever sleeping with the horse-face.
“Yes. She-She-they’re friends,” she finishes lamely, digging the hole deeper. To calm myself, I touch my lucky pocket knife hidden in my shorts and eventually my rage simmers down. I can either appear stupid by believing her s-s-stuttering lie or be pitied for not being the better trainer in her eyes.
I choose the former: reputation matters more to me than intelligence.
“They look like they’re close. Definitely must be friends,” I say conversationally, all the while thinking about exposing the naked photo she let me take of her. But I’d never do anything as incriminating as that – my father taught me better.
It’s easier to stab someone in back if they think you’re giving them a hug.
An idea comes to me and I lean over the barrier dramatically, causing he lips to part in yearning. I curl my finger at her, beckoning her forward to hear my secret. She leans in desperately close and I don’t smile until my face is obscured in her rich chestnut hair.
“You know, I heard a rumour that he likes you. Noah, I mean. He wants to ask you out but he’s so shy, you know? I heard him saying to Josh that you’re the hottest girl in this gym,” I whisper dramatically.
“Really? But... what about Andrea? She’s definitely prettier and he’s so...”
She presses her hands to her cheeks to cool them and I wish I could boast about how clever I am. Even though I hate Noah, I’m not stupid enough to ignore how attractive girls find him. Since his ex left him he carries this wounded-puppy look, a look that calls for female attention just as seductively as confidence or money. I always hear the girls I work with talking about him and how they’d like to be the one to heal him. It hurts to admit it but they talk about him almost as much as they talk about me. But I plan on using that to my advantage.
I can already see the wheel of Celine’s mind turning, calculating how best to proposition Noah. Now Celine will probably make a move on him, end up embarrassing herself (and Noah), and hate me enough to quit cock-blocking me in the city. I just killed three birds with one stone.
“Trust me, Cilly. Who am I to stand in the way of true love?”