“PLANK AND HOLD!” the trainer screams.

I make my way to the ground, prop myself up on my elbows, stretch my legs out and get in a plank position.

During the one minute “active break,” my sweat starts to race down my forehead and lands in big droplets on the ground. I can see my reflection in them. As I struggle to “keep my butt down,” my elbows slide on the foam mat.

I’m trying to keep my core tight. I look down, a loose shirt covers my hanging belly.

Once the painful and long minute is over, I bring my knees to my chest and stand on my feet. My muscles ache and my joints crunch.

The main trainer, a young, energetic, potentially psychotic man, comes up to me.

“I want to get some video of you today on the pads.”

Translation: He wants someone to video me sparring with him using boxing gloves.

I have been going to this particular kickboxing gym for years. In fact, I even received a free pair of boxing gloves from the corporate office after registering 500 workouts. So it didn’t surprise me that he asked for the video, but it didn’t excite me either.

“You couldn’t have done the video before I was drenched in sweat and my face was beet red?” I ask.

“You look fine; c’mon let’s go.”

This particular trainer doesn’t put up with my self-deprecation and he doesn’t treat me differently than any other person in the gym.

I’ve been the person who gains weight and the person that loses weight, but for the past few years, I’ve hovered around the same pleasantly plump number. I’ve spent years trying to be OK with that and while I still have bad moments, I have mostly stopped berating myself for being overweight.

I’m healthy. Almost every day, I go to the gym and for around 40 minutes, I kick, punch, run and push my body to the limits. I also eat nutritious food most of the time. I have an affinity for french-fries, cheese and alcohol, but I keep that type of consumption to once, maybe twice, a week.

At this point, in my mid-30s, it is very difficult to lose weight because of my aging metabolism and my refusal to starve myself.

Because you can’t see the sharpness of my rib cage or collar bone without a shirt on and because my belly, hips and thighs are doughy, I sometimes receive weird treatment in a gym environment. Sometimes, without warning, even though I’ve been doing high-intensity workouts for years, a new trainer will give me a modified exercise move even though she’s given nobody else in the gym this alternative. Or a person will stop me when I’m jogging to congratulate me for “getting out there” or being “brave enough” to run outside, like chubby folks like me need only exercise in a dark, enclosed space.

When my trainer asks to take a video of me, I agree to do it. Even though I still sometimes cringe at my image on camera, kickboxing empowers me and makes me feel strong. If someone who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of someone who is “fit” sees the video and gets inspired to go to the gym, then maybe I will have done some good. It’s not always easy to go to the gym when feelings of unworthiness overwhelm.

Once I tell the trainer I will do the video, he goes up to the only other person working out in the gym and asks her if she would shoot the video with his phone. This woman wears her blonde hair in a high ponytail, her face full of makeup and a purple sports bra with matching pants. Her abs are tan and her arms are cut.

It is clear that she thinks the trainer wants me to film her and not the other way around because she starts to collect her boxing gloves; her hair swishes to the side as she turns around.

“No, I want you to do the filming,” my trainer says.

The woman turns back around, looking dumbstruck.

She looks at me, then at the trainer and then back at me. Her eyes travel up and down my body.

Her?” she asks.

“Yes, I want you to film her boxing with me. Is that OK?” My trainer is receptive to the bitchiness of her question but is trying to downplay the awkwardness.

“Oh, sure!” The woman says this with a sugary pop. She goes from shock after understanding he wants to film me to giddiness like she is about to put on a charity ball.

In these types of situations, I generally experience a burning in my stomach that travels to my throat, up into my cheeks and right into my tear ducts. Sure, the comments makes me angry, but mostly, they deeply hurt my feelings. In one little flick of a word or phrase, these kinds of comments shatter years of work I have done to stop self-hatred. Mostly, I get mad at myself for letting the words get to me. I think of the first time I stepped on a scale at Weight Watchers. I think about how losing over 100 pounds still didn’t make me love myself.

The clueless, blonde ponytailed woman more than likely thought it was a harmless question: “Her?”

What she may not know is that whenever I go to the gym now, I look at the ground and avert my eyes from anyone trying to speak to me because I can hear that question, unspoken. Anytime I take a bite of a burger or a sip of a beer or something “bad,” I hear the question. Anytime I get in a bathing suit in front of my friends, there it is again.

But in that moment, I pretend like that exchange hadn’t happened. This clueless woman films me as I spar with my trainer. Jab. Cross. Uppercut. Uppercut. Hook. Each strike more powerful than the last. Each strike landing on her figurative fucking face.



The classroom had a basket filled with peanut butter crackers and oatmeal cream pies. A coffeemaker held luke-cold coffee. The water basin was bright orange and only had water sometimes. The square room could have had desks for a standard classroom or, like that summer evening, be cleared out to create a giant space for the blue exercise mats laid all over the floor. I was there with my mother; a woman at her work had taken the self-defense class with her daughter and my mom, always looking for a way to spend time with me, suggested we do it.

There were four classes total and each one was taught by officers of the local police department.  Each class was three hours long, once a week. The first class was strictly instructional; we watched cheesy and dated safety videos complete with women in teased bangs and shoulder pads screaming “No!” as any man approached them. I also got to see first-hand just how much my fellow Alabama residents love their guns. I mean, I already knew they did but I had no idea just how much. When the officer asked who in the room owned a gun, only 4 of the 20 participants didn’t raise their hands. Many of them had the guns in their purses. At the end of the course, there was an option for a gun range, but I skipped that day because my goal was to learn practical self-defense moves if I were ever to be attacked by a predator.

The class progressed slowly, beginning with standing moves—kicks and punches. The last two class periods, though they don’t say it explicitly, are clearly intended to help defend against sexual assault or rape. The moves on those days were optional, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try them. I watched woman after woman go to the mat, lay on their back while a stranger (a male cop) straddled them and taught them how to get out of certain situations. I am not a modest person, or shy, but even I had to admit that the straddling would feel uncomfortable. Once I saw my mother take the mat to practice the moves, I decided I might as well make the most of it and give it a shot.

Having lain on my back, flat against the plastic-y, cushioned mat, I stared up at the ceiling. I listened to the instructions without looking at anyone. I agreed to learn a particular move when suddenly, a man with strong arms and dark hair tightened his thighs around my head. I looked right at him as he stared down at my face and gently put his hands around my neck.

What I saw then, instead of the fluorescent lights of the regional airport where the self-defense classes were taking place, was Steve’s room from over three years ago. It was dark, but there was a dull glow from a lamp on the bedside table that gave the room a maroon, seedy nightclub ambiance. Steve was above me; his hands were wrapped around my neck.

I had been sleeping and his violent grip jolted me awake. I went from scared to confused to scared again as he alternated between choking me and pushing my underwear down my legs. Once he was successful, he again put both hands around my neck, just tight enough so I couldn’t resist but not too tight that he risked cutting off my airway. He tried to force himself inside me. Without lube or my desire to have sex with him, his penis wasn’t going in, no matter how many times he tried.

He stared right into my eyes. It didn’t look like there were feelings in his. They looked dead. I tried to see myself in them. I wanted to know what I looked like, but I also tried to focus on anything other than what was happening. I felt pathetic. After the initial shock wore off, I had let it happen. I mean, I’d gone to bed with him earlier and had sex with him then. I guess he thought he had constant permission, so I just let him do what he wanted to do.

After only a few minutes, he gave up. It wasn’t working. He huffed and violently ripped himself off of me, grumbled some kind of comment my way to imply blame and then went to sleep.

I pulled my panties up and turned over on my side to face the wall. One tear streamed out of the corner of my eye to the bridge of my nose and just puddled there like the penultimate dramatic scene of a goddam, bad movie. Even though I thought about leaving, I didn’t. I was as still as I possibly could be but inadvertently let out a small sniffle a few minutes later.

He asked what the fuck was wrong with me, and I said nothing.  The parameters of my relationship with Steve had been made clear by him from the beginning—nothing but sex.

Still, I pined for him. I envisioned a future with him. I’d faced a number of rejections and hated my body most of the time. All I had was hope that someone, even someone like him, would love me. He once asked if I liked it rough; he told me he had rape fantasies. One night we had sex on the floor and he balled up his fist and punched me in the vagina. He called me a whore once because I was wearing mascara.

He was the one that ended the relationship. When I remember that time, I feel more anger at myself than him, but I rarely let it enter my mind. I didn’t do everything I could to stop him, so I made myself forget that night.  

It wasn’t until that police officer in the self-defense class had his legs closed in around my face and his hands circled my neck that I was back in Steve’s room, in that moment, with that tremendous feeling of disgust and failure. Not a victim, but also not a willing participant in a scumbag’s fantasy.

I whispered no, used my hips to thrust the officer off me and hurried off the mat. A lesson learned.


Driving for Gopher

Oh, oh, Alabama.
Can I see you and take your hand?
Make friends down in Alabama.
I’m from a new land
I come to you and
see all this ruin.
What are you doing, Alabama?
—Neil Young


“Is this the way they do business in Alabama?” I grab the black plastic knob attached to the end of the lever, shift the transmission into gear and bounce the truck forward. I check the mirrors to confirm that my crippled vehicle follows. Finding myself behind the wheel of a large tow truck, I look over at its owner slumped against the passenger door, head tucked into the corner, already beginning to snore.

After exploring the small towns and back roads south of Montgomery this weekend, I had navigated to the nearest northbound interstate highway and pointed my black Pontiac Fiero toward my temporary home in Birmingham. I had never lived in the south before and weekend drives through the countryside helped get me oriented. This weekend, I got a closer look at one particular slice of Alabama.

Sometimes things are perceived but not comprehended. While driving on the Interstate, a dense gray cloud extends from the sky to the ground. I am intrigued but foolishly drive onward. As I approach, it becomes apparent. This is an isolated deluge of rain. Floodwater covers the road surface to a depth of an inch or more. I try to slow down in time but it is too late. When I hit the water, my wide rubber tires skim across the surface and lose all traction. “Help me, Jesus” escapes my lips as the car does a slow counterclockwise rotation while waterskiing at fifty miles an hour and bounces off the guardrail. When I roll to a stop with “a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track,” I face backwards pointing south. Fortunately, the northbound lanes are deserted. The rain cloud now moves to the east to dump on someone else.

I shift back into gear and nurse it to the outside shoulder while a hollow thumping sound vibrates from below. The steering wheel pulls hard to the right. My shoes soak up water as I retrieve a couple pieces of car body parts at the scene of initial impact. A brief inspection of the little sports car concludes that it is unfit for duty. The view to the south is nothing more than a narrowing line of asphalt that disappears into the horizon between the trees. Turning north, an overpass is visible through the twilight. I walk the half-mile to the exit and up the ramp. Across the bridge that spans the highway, a couple lights pierce the gathering darkness. The lit sign says “Auto Repair” and includes a critical word: “Wrecker.”

The evening light is all but gone. I gravitate toward an electric flood lamp that shines from a tall pole above a mobile home with a couple bright windows. Encouraged by this sign of life, my feet approach the door but hesitate, not knowing what to expect. I knock. The scent of fried food wafts out through the screen door that is soon shadowed by the figure of a thirty-something man with a five o’clock shadow and a wide smile set below concerned eyebrows. “Kin I hep ya?” he says, while hitching up his pants. The man sports a white tank-top undershirt with thin vertical lines woven into the fabric, and it wraps tightly around his protruding abdomen. His belly droops slightly over his belt that barely holds up his worn blue jeans.

“Your sign says you have a wrecker. I’ve had an accident and need to have my car towed to Birmingham.”

“I might could hep ya after we eat here. Come on in and we’ll talk ‘bout it over dinner. Ya hungered?” He invites me in without hesitation, as if we were familiar neighbors. “I’m Gopher, and this here’s my wife, Twink. She’s got food ready. Tain’t much, but you can join us.”

Twink is a thin young woman wearing gray sweat pants and a faded green top. Her stringy blonde hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail and she is only mildly embarrassed about not being prepared for a visitor. When she smiles, I see a gap where a tooth used to be. Twink offers me a fried hotdog and some pasta. I pass on the dog but accept a bowl of mac n’ cheese. Between bites, Gopher looks up at me and asks, “Where abouts ya from?”

“I’m from Colorado…,” and prepare to explain specifics. He interrupts with a chuckle and says, “I figgerd ya was from out west by the way ya talked.”

After dinner, I decline a bowl of ice cream and glance at my watch, fidgeting in my seat with my elbow on the edge of their Formica table, fingers in hair. Gopher releases a low rumbling belch as he gets up from the table and walks toward the back door pulling on a light jacket. “Give me a minute and I’ll be ready to go hep ya.” While Twink clears the table and moves dishes into the kitchen sink, I hear the crank and then the roar of a diesel engine vibrate in through the thin walls. I thank Twink for dinner and she says goodbye with a distant look in her eye.

Hoisting myself into the passenger seat of the wrecker, I inhale the background scent of fuel as we rumble out the driveway. Before we get to the highway, he says he has hardly slept in the last two days and is very tired. I say nothing, worried that he might change his mind. We head down the ramp onto southbound I-65. My gaze locks onto the black silhouette of the car in the northbound lane as we pass. He loops around at the next exit, and soon we approach the disabled Fiero.

I had bought this sports car after a few months on my first job after graduating from college. It was only a few months later that buyer’s remorse set in. That was 1983, nearly ten years ago, and I was determined to drive this car to its death just to get my money’s worth. Now it sits wounded and inoperable on the side of a highway in the southern part of Alabama.

Black grime rubs off the straps and onto my hands as I help Gopher sling them around the wheels. The electric winch whines as it pulls the front end of the car up onto his ramp. He adds a couple backup chains that hook onto parts of the suspension that probably wouldn’t hold. Pretending to inspect, I walk around the rig, but it is too dark to see much.

I climb into the passenger seat while Gopher opens the driver’s door and steps up onto the sideboard. He gives me a weird look, grabs the steering wheel and pulls himself up with a groan. He puts the transmission into gear and slowly accelerates. Before he gets into fourth gear, he again starts talking about how little sleep he has had. Was it three hours last night and two hours the night before, or the other way around? I can’t remember, but he seems pretty sleep deprived. He doesn’t explain why he hadn’t slept, and I never ask.

Amid frequent yawns, he repeats his saga of sleep deprivation. I do not hold a Commercial Drivers License, but I can take a hint… “Gopher, do you want me to drive so you can rest?”

“Well, sir, if you don’t mind, I’d be mighty obliged,” and immediately the engine decelerates as he veers toward the shoulder. I walk around the front as he scooches across the bench seat and collapses into the passenger door. I know the feeling. When the body needs it, there is nothing better than sleep.

Driving a tow truck, or any vehicle this large is a new experience. I am looking out the window on the second floor of a moving building, but after the first couple miles, I start to enjoy the feeling. The flashing roof lights reflect off the passing trees. Loud uneven snoring fills the cab. Interstate 65 passes Montgomery and as we rumble north toward Birmingham, my mind wanders. A month into my one-year contract job for the power company here, I have only begun to explore the Deep South where I encountered some shocking opinions about the relative value of races and colors of fellow human beings. Unusual characters have crossed my path, but Gopher and Twink stand out. This evening’s drive proves to be particularly memorable.

I had never approached the city from this angle, but with luck I take the right exit and begin to see familiar landmarks. Navigating this large, awkward rig through the city drips adrenalin into my arteries. I expect Gopher to jolt himself awake at any moment, especially when the truck jerks us away from a traffic light, but he is out cold. After turning into the parking lot of my apartment complex and maneuvering around the parked cars, I raise my voice, but he does not stir. After a significant prodding, he raises his head and gives me a dumbfounded, “Where-am-I-and-what-is-going-on-here?” look. He rouses himself, opens his door and nearly falls out onto the pavement. He has loaded and unloaded vehicles hundreds of times and can do this in his sleep. Soon enough, my car is nestled into a parking spot. I write him a check and point him back toward the highway.

Gopher rubs his eyes and asks, “Anywheresa guy can get a cupacoffee roundhere?”

While walking up the steps to my apartment, Gopher drives west on Valley Avenue and I think, what an odd individual—but I catch myself. How many times have I overextended myself until I was unable to do what needed to be done and trusted a complete stranger to fill the gap—even, perhaps, a couple hours ago? As his empty rattling tow truck disappears beyond the streetlights, I wonder in how many other ways we might be fellow pilgrims, very different yet very much alike, and maybe even kindred spirits in a strange sort of way. I also consider with how many other people, seemingly different, I might share some common pool of human experience.  


Top illustration by David B. Such.