by Jackson Arn
To ease the days’ constipation, I tried exercise. At first I jogged, but jogging was less interesting than the park I was supposed to jog through. I did pushups. These also proved less interesting than I had hoped. Sit-ups were an okay compromise between ignoring my phone and giving it my full attention, but after a while, say fifteen minutes, giving would take revenge on ignoring and the days would be re-constipate themselves and my apartment would feel smaller than ever.
I was smart enough to recognize that the problem was me. When I was in middle school, the object of my earliest non-nocturnal boner inspired me to get my dad’s barbells out of the basement. This went on for maybe three days. Apart from that, I’d never exercised on purpose. My powers of concentration are too weak. They’re the kind that inspire long articles about why America is doomed and there’s nothing we can do. My mom used to play me jazz and opera. Neither took. So it followed that I couldn’t exercise until I had become a different kind of person, and since that seemed unlikely it also followed that I was unlikely to exercise much. I concluded this in between refreshing my Bitcoin page. If civilization goes boom I won’t be able to outrun my neighbors but at least I’ll be a billionaire.
A few days later, I realized there might be a loophole. I was checking my Bitcoins at the time, and the rectangle of my laptop filled with an almost-as-big rectangle. It was a pop-up for a workout class. The face of the class was a man called Dave, or a “man” called Dave, or a man called “Dave,” or a “man” “called” “Dave.” Dave, as I’ll call him, resembled a hard worker, but he never sweated. Whenever I got a look at his whole body it had that post-greenroom glibness, like it moved because some offstage somebody said so and not because Dave’s muscles clenched.
I didn’t go for the class since all my savings were tied up in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but the basic idea of the ad seemed correct to me. My concentration was weak, but even I could stand in my apartment and imitate someone else’s exercise, even if they weren’t really in my apartment.
I found a woman named Jordan who charged nothing and wore almost nothing. Her almost-nothing was usually green or hemorrhage-purple. Her classes were always exactly 40 minutes. Her smile never darkened from heavy breathing, but she’d end each workout with a quick, jerked thumb up as if she was too exhausted to do more celebrating than that. For a while I succeeded in not disappointing Jordan. The hardness of her body inspired me to harden myself, which is what it was supposed to do. The sameness of her smile and her tights made me want to be the same for her.
Then my laptop died mid-class, and the spell was broken. There was a fuzzy silence as the workout tune marched on in my head. My heart and lungs hadn’t gotten the message, either. But when they did they couldn’t forget it, and by the time I’d revived Jordan they were immune to her commands.
The problem was still me, but the problem with Jordan was she was up there by herself, no more or less numerous than I was. I know that sounds simplistic, but simplistic is what human beings are. The reptile brain, the prefrontal cortex, instinct—whatever term you prefer, you’re describing most of yourself. Reading and science are nature’s afterthought, a consolation prize for being slightly too smart to coast through life and slightly too dumb to understand everything. So the smartest thing is accept your mostly dumb-ness and treat yourself like a mouse in a glass box.
The best thing for my reptile brain was a crowd. The more numerous the faces on the screen, the more obediently my reptile brain would respond and the harder my body would get. The bandwagon effect is well attested-to in psychological literature, so well that knowing about it makes very little difference—luckily, logic is no defense. The only workout videos with crowds I could find cost money, but I found free videos starring a couple. Two wasn’t much of a crowd, but at least it was more than one, and anyway the bandwagon effect was strong enough to triumph over such a puny setback.
The couple’s names were Caty and Justin. It could have been Katie or Katy, the comments were unreliable, but she looked like a Caty, unfashionably round without being plump. Justin could only be Justin. His face had the faint staleness of something that had recently been cool, and his cheeks had started to consider jowliness.
His accent was the same kind of Southern as Caty’s. I imagined the two of them growing up in the same little town years before there was an Internet. They weren’t like me, but they were closer to me than to Jordan, and every day at the same time I exercised with them.
You could tell Justin was the leader from the way he spoke first, most, last. Anything Caty said she trimmed to fit the pauses between her husband’s sentences (I assumed they were married and worked out ringless to avoid swelling). She’d had lots of practice. “I actually really like this,” she’d say, or “Half-way!”, or “This’ll leave such a good burn,” and her asides made Justin’s orders sound sweeter and more reasonable. I thought of a dancer helping her partner shine, and I thought of whatever little Southern town Caty and Justin called home, with its frightening superstitions. If these two could exercise, so could I. The bandwagon effect, or whatever other thing this was, was proving effective.
By the time the algorithm wafted me to their landing page, Caty and Justin had made 39 exercise videos. More videos fell to the top of page every other day, burying their ancestors.
Mid-meal or bath I’d skim the videos, starting with the oldest, and watch the small-town Southern couple grow more and more like themselves and wonder if I was growing more like myself, as well. The paired knobs of muscle on my abdomen were new to me. In bed or the bath, I’d pet them two-fingered and wonder if they were here to stay, like a tumor, or if they might soften and disappear one day, like warts. When this made me anxious, I’d wonder about Justin and Caty instead.
Their Wednesday/Thursday workouts were always the most tautly paced, which is why their whispering stuck out. They had just finished warm-ups and were about to move on to traditional ab-rolls, a tradition I hadn’t been able to partake in when I started out but now was hard-bellied enough to enjoy. Justin mumbled something to Caty (he was always slightly closer to the camera than she was) and grunted at her mumble. Then a pause, probably a second or a second and a half, but it felt longer. They almost never paused when there was exercise or banter to perform.
“Not sure why we were whispering” was how Justin ended the silence. This was normal enough, but the fake chuckle he added (by then I knew how he laughed) was not. The timer beeped. Caty and I began to exercise. Justin fake-chuckled for another split-second before he joined us.
Four videos later, there was a ring on Caty’s finger. She waited almost a minute to mention this, by which time I’d already noticed the stone’s pale twinkle (there was a single harsh light somewhere behind the camera, you could tell by the way the shadows hit the mats). “Same workout today, but, uh, maybe you notice something a little … different,” and then she aimed her left hand at me and suggested I share my thoughts in the comments. This seemed like a normal enough way to announce an engagement via workout video. The commenters who offered CONGRATULATIONS (my mom taught me you’re supposed to say best wishes) found it normal. None of them noticed—or, if they did notice, mentioned—the fake chuckle Justin gave as Caty held up her hand.
He was faking it. When I was done exercising I replayed and re-replayed the moment until I’d stopped panting, and each replay brought me closer to certainty. He was faking. Was he faking? He was faking. He was faking it! I wanted to add my question to the comments—WHAT WERE YOU WHISPERING ABOUT? But it would have drowned in all the wrongly phrased well-wishes.
When Caty’s ring disappeared two workouts later, I expected a reaction in the comments. Distress, probably, or wonky conspiracy-theorizing, maybe not right away but definitely in time for the next Wednesday/Thursday video. As it turned out there were no distressed or wonky comments, because there were no comments of any kind, because the comments had been disabled. Justin had nothing to say about the missing ring. Neither did Caty.
I have heard “gaslighting” used in many contexts, but I can’t remember feeling the truth of the word deep in my belly until the Wednesday evening when I was preparing to exercise with Caty and Justin and I saw there were no more comments allowed. Gaslighting is a real trip, I’ve found. First comes the mental stagger of reaching out into the real world and finding nothing to hold onto. Then the fall when everything is weightless and nothing fits (if one plus one doesn’t equal two then how can the sun be expected to set at night?). Finally, the crash, which in spite of the way I’m running this analogy is the least painful of the trio, because you remember that at least you exist and weigh something, and nobody can take that away from you.
Step three is no way to go through a 40-minute workout, so I didn’t work out with my small-town Southern couple that day or the next. It was a suitable time, the right time, to go through the first 39 videos, which I’d skimmed but never studied, but even if it hadn’t been the right or suitable time I would have studied them anyway. Wednesday became Thursday without my knowledge. I was too busy studying the fingers of Caty’s left hand pressing moistly into her mat or drying in the light’s heat. But the first twelve videos’ seven hundred twenty minutes brought me no sign of a tan or a callus or any mark where a ring would one day (videos 57 and 58) rest.
Caty kept quiet in the post-58 videos. Her gaze rarely left the lens. Her face rarely tightened into an expression, and in her silence the exercises slackened. For the first time since we’d met, I truly appreciated how much she brought to these videos, how gracefully her little comments pushed things forward, how inevitable they made Justin’s orders. How could I argue with him when she’d already given cheerful assent? And how couldn’t I when she’d already given up?
In video 71, there was no Justin. “Justin couldn’t be here today,” was all Caty had to say, and from then on she only talked about the workout. 40 minutes dripped by like water torture. I imagined the FREE JUSTIN!s and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIM???s that would have crowded the comments section if it hadn’t been disabled weeks ago.
Three workouts later, there was a different guy crouched next to Caty, whose pauses she eagerly filled. The house was different, or at least the room, but the exercises hadn’t budged. If any part of her was nostalgic for the days when she ran the show, it wasn’t one she showed me.
I was soft again. Softer than I’d been before I found my Southern couple, even. But I had a headful of knowledge I’d lacked a few months ago, so obscure I’d been unaware of lacking it. I knew every second of every exercise video from the Caty/Justin era, and not as an exerciser. Still, I reviewed. There was nothing else to do on the flight. Later it would occur to me that I’d finally learned to concentrate, but this wasn’t the time for self-reflection.
I reviewed #29, 8:03-12, in which Justin introduces the video’s first rigorous exercise and describes it as “rigorous.” To which Caty replied, “I picked this one.” Justin: “She picked this one.” Or maybe it was, “She picked this one,” or, “She picked this one.” Followed by the fingerprint-distinct fake chuckle. Usually, it sounded like, “She picked this one.” Here in the hum of the cabin, it sounded more like, “She picked this one.”
The Southern town where Justin lived had lost fifteen percent of its population in the last decade. It still wasn’t small enough to qualify as a town, I’d come to accept, but I went on calling it a town for old time’s sake. Strange to know a place so well without having gone. In my first half-hour in Justin’s neighborhood (I’d narrowed the house down to a few square blocks) I saw trees and buildings my screen had taught me, and shadows whose lengths I’d already calculated and cross-referenced with help from trigonometry and meteorology and other dusty high school subjects. Usually when something like this happens to me (when I see a movie star on the street or meet my e-date in the flesh), the shock is how different the real and e-versions are. In Justin’s neighborhood, I found reality and screen in perfect agreement. I’d done my homework—aced it, too.
Screen Justin and real Justin were in almost-perfect agreement when I found the latter two weeks later. He was standing in line at a café I hadn’t tried yet, lats a little blurry under paunch, but I recognized them anyway.
“Excuse me? Excuse me, aren’t you Justin?” My voice had a rasp that hadn’t been there the last time I’d used it, though I couldn’t quite remember when that had been. He gave that awful chuckle I knew like an in-law and conceded he was. I fed him a sliver of the truth—“I’ve seen all your workout videos”—and let him confuse it for the whole.
We waited and talked, and he told me he was building his own platform, not just videos this time but the whole deal, dieting videos, diet pills, one-on-one pow-wows, t-shirts and treadmills and dumbbells. I smiled and nodded, permitting myself the pleasure of believing we understood each other. When I asked him—casually, I think, but I could be wrong—why he and Caty had gone their separate ways and what was going on with Caty’s ring from videos 57 and 58 and could he remember did it have anything at all to do with when he whispered to Caty in video 53, there was a silence. I’ll admit I believed this silence was prologue to a straight answer. But then he was off, scrambling to the nearest exit and running down the block as fast as I’d always assumed he could run.
I considered chasing him since I already kind of was, but then I remembered I was out of shape. So I drank his coffee first, then mine, and tried to think of what to do. All I could think was: If things really go south I won’t be able to outrun him but at least I’ll be rich.