I was huffing and puffing on the Stairmaster at the gym a few weeks ago when I noticed a woman staring at me. In her early forties, she was fit, pretty, and wearing a tight workout garment that accentuated her shapely physique.
Since I don’t suffer from the delusion that all women find me attractive, my first thought was that was that I’d suffered some kind of wardrobe malfunction or had toilet paper stuck to the bottom my sneakers. A quick glance downward showed my shorts were still on and my workout shoes free of bathroom debris. When I looked back the woman was giving me the up from under look, which she had to because I was five feet above her. Our eyes locked for moment and then she turned away, fiddling with the weight stack on the outer thigh machine she was using.
I figured she was scoping me out to make sure I wasn’t a perv. When a woman is on one of those machines it’s not polite to stare. Trying to avoid the “creepy gym guy” appellation, I practiced chastity of the eyes and stared at the monitor displaying my heart rate. One hundred and thirty beats per minute. Right where I wanted it. Then, after what I thought was an appropriate amount of time, I looked back up. Having dismounted from her apparatus, she was chugging water when her eyes slid over me again. This time I smiled the harmless smile I’ve practiced for years. Just another middle aged guy trying to avoid a heart attack. Nothing to see here. Then I went back to staring at my monitor. But, when I glanced back up, I caught her looking again. This time she turned her head like she’d been caught doing something wrong.
My next thought was this women has seen me on television when I’d been promoting my books. But my fifteen minutes of fame was years ago and I can count of the fingers of one hand when someone has recognized me on the street. Then again, I’ve encountered a lot of people working in psych. Maybe she was patient from long ago. Once when I was in the mall a young man pointed me out to his friends and said, “That guy tied me up at the hospital!” Talk about awkward. Luckily those moments have been rare but, while I’ve forgotten the vast majority of those endless faces, I’m sure quite a few of them remember me. But asking this lady if I’d ever thrown her into a straightjacket probably wouldn’t go over very well.
Then the woman started doing calisthenics and stretches in front of me. I have to admit myself control faltered a bit and I snuck a peek. Not bad at all. Then I wondered why was she doing this little dance in front of me. There were more spacious areas where she could have performed this routine. If she thought I was creepy she would’ve moved over there. Then again, maybe she thought I was harmless and didn’t care. For a moment I uncharitably wondered if she was screwing with my head – a look what you can’t have kind of thing. But this woman was at an age where she was probably beyond such stuff. Then it hit me. I don’t suffer from the delusion that no women find attractive either. Maybe this lady thought I was desirable and was flirting with me. If she was, she was out of practice. A recent divorcee? Then again, with my grey beard, I may have reminded her of her grandfather. I was never good at interpreting these signals. It was all academic in any case. I’m married to a beautiful woman and, while I’m not dead, I’m not on the market either.
The woman finished her exercises and disappeared. I kept plugging along until the calories expended counter hit five hundred and then went to retrieve my daughter from the gym’s daycare. “Did you have fun exercising, Daddy?” she said.
“Yes,” I lied. “It was very nice.”
“Will you buy me a smoothie? I was a good girl.”
We walked over to the gym’s little café and Natalie hopped on a stool in front of the counter. I ordered a strawberry smoothie and, knowing it was too much for her, asked the worker to split it in two. While we waited my daughter looked at a huge guy doing bench presses. “Daddy, are you the strongest man in the world?” she said.
“Yes, you are.”
“There are men and women who are stronger than Daddy, sweetheart.”
“One day I’ll be stronger than you?”
I smiled. When Natalie is twenty I’ll be sixty-five. “I think you can bet on it,” I said.
Our smoothies arrived and, as I sat slurping next to Natalie, we talked about kindergarten, Frozen characters, where she wanted to have her birthday party and the people she wanted to invite. Turns out she likes a boy named Billy – and Connor and Matthew and Caleb. She’s not sure about David. “He’s mean sometimes. But sometimes he’s nice.” Man, this stuff starts early.
“You can invite the whole class,” I said, patting her on the head. “Don’t worry about it.”
Smoothies finished, I paid up, tossed a dollar in the tip bucket and then knelt next to Natalie, trying to zip up her winter coat. That’s when I saw that woman again. She was sitting on a lat pulldown machine and looking straight at me. But this time a look of sadness was on her face. Pretending not to notice, I got Natalie zipped up, took her by the hand and walked towards the door. Another pretty woman walking in looked at me and smiled. But this time I knew why – I was a daddy with his little girl. “She’s so cute,” the woman purred, as she passed by.
“She looks like her mother, thank God,” I said. That elicited a laugh.
On the car ride home, I thought about the woman who’d been looking at me. If she was indeed checking me out, I’d be flattered. Nice to know I’ve still got it. Then I thought about the sad look on her face. Was that because seeing I had a child marked me as unavailable and she was disappointed? Or sadness because that she had wanted children but didn’t have any? Perhaps she did but didn’t see them much because of custody thing. Maybe she couldn’t find the right guy or was just looking for fun. Maybe she was widow or had lost a child. Maybe it was all in my head; a projection of my wish to still be considered desirable. There was no way to know. Thousands of faces have flown past me through life – whipping by like glowing embers driven by the firestorm of time. Avid its rush, that reeling blaze! Those sparks can illuminate or burn us, frighten or inspire us, and, every once in a while, set our hearts afire. But, for the most part, they just fade into the darkness of memory. Human faces are glimpses into a mystery we’ll never truly know.
Looking at Natalie in the rearview mirror, I thought of all the faces she will see. Like me, would she be frustrated as they flashed and flared but slipped from her grasp? My daughter loves looking at people and asking questions about them. Natalie’s teacher’s told me my daughter’s a natural storyteller and loves to draw, assembling her doodles into little books telling stories only she understands. Even now, she’s trying to catch those embers as each minute bursts in the burning room. One day Natalie will be indeed be stronger than me. If she’s the chip of the old block I think she is, eventually she’ll surpass me. Maybe she’ll wrestle all those ephemeral sparks onto paper and weave them into stories better than her old man ever could – restoring again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day. Like Prometheus, she will steal fire from the gods.
Walking into my house, I kissed my wife and then went upstairs to take a shower. When I was done I looked at myself in the mirror and sighed. Time was indeed consuming me. My hair is greying, my skin is sagging in places, an age spot appeared on my forehead and tomorrow my muscles would be sore. I don’t bounce back like I used to. Despite losing weight, feeling better and toning up, I knew I was starting to cool down. One day I’ll fade into darkness – but not yet. They say youth burns brightest, but the most luminous objects in the heavens are stars in their death throes – saving their greatest fire for the end. Maybe that’s how it’ll go with me. Thinking of that woman’s gaze, I smiled at myself.
Maybe, to some people, I’m still a hot number.