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Gym Jungle

I’ve been going to the gym.

If ever six words had ominous connotations, those are they. The phrase “George W. Bush is the president” comes in a distant second on the horror scale.

So, yes, I’ve been going to the gym. Three times a week (in theory), I don my exercise costume and try not to wince too badly at the idea that I’m rolling around in other people’s dried sweat. I am someone who won’t touch a bathroom doorknob without using a paper towel, so this monumental act of will makes the actual lifting of weights seem like a walk in the park.

In the New York Sports Club, the men’s locker room was a place where you had sex in the sauna, showered, dressed, and left. In and out. Here in my new gym, there is an uncomfortable amount of lollygagging. There seems to be a requirement that older, hairy, fat men may not enter or leave without sitting around naked reading the newspaper for at least thirty minutes. Furthermore, a large television has been tuned to “The Tony Danza Show” every time I’ve ventured in, and the same African-American man has been sitting there watching it, spellbound.

I don’t understand these activities. I don’t understand anything at the gym, actually. It’s like entering a foreign land where I know the vocabulary but not the grammar. This past week, a guy I used to know came over and said I have nice biceps. When I looked at him incredulously, he said, “Yeah, they’re little, but they’re nice.” I think he meant it, but my biceps are not nice. If I’m actually lifting something, a close observer might discern that I actually do have in my arms the muscle known as a bicep, or at least, there is something with the consistency of al dente pasta occupying the space where a bicep ought to be. But it was a pleasant moment.

Unlike George W. Bush, the gym isn’t all torture.

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Acela

I own the journey between Baltimore and Manhattan, the space and the time of it. From the train, I gaze into secret spaces: bedroom windows, crumbling factories, tree-lined creeks. It is all mine. I nibble a cookie and watch the orange moon rise. It casts no light but reflects on black water.

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How Stella Got Her Boston Terrier Back

This weekend, dozens of young middle-class nonconformists, all nonconforming in precisely the same manner, stuffed their identically oversized canvases into a parade of indistinguishable SUVs and called it a semester. Yes, Baltimore, we’ve blipped over spring and arrived at summer: the art school students are moving out of their dorms.

One of them turned up at my door on Sunday, clutching a Boston terrier. “Is this your dog?” she asked. “One of your neighbors said it might be yours. I found it wandering down the street.”

It was half again as big as Goblin Foo and a boy to boot: definitely not ours, but I brought him inside anyway because I thought I recognized him as Joe, the affable creature from up the street, and I needed to retrieve my keys before taking him home.

The look on Rob’s face was priceless when I said, “Look, honey, it’s our new dog!”

Goblin was not amused.

Luckily, the dog’s owner passed by. “Did you unhook his leash from the fence?” she accused everyone in the vicinity.

“Uh, no, he was just walking down the street,” muttered the student, slinking away to load her parents’ SUV.

“I was just getting my keys so I could bring him home,” I explained as I turned the dog over to his owner. Maybe it was the relief of having the situation resolve itself before I even put on my shoes, but I don’t recall hearing a thank you. If I had stupidly left Goblin tied to a fence and had her disappear, only to turn up in the home of a breathtakingly handsome neighbor, I think I would have been a little bit more grateful that everything turned out all right.

For one shining moment, I had two Boston terriers. I imagined them playing together in the house as they grew up, then one day becoming surly, ironically bastardizing fashions from the early 1980s, and going off to art school, where every semester, I’d arrive in my hybrid SUV to pick them up. All the way home, they would tell me how my conformity stifled their freedom of expression, and I would just laugh and point out that they are wearing identical pantsuits.

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Sizzle Sizzle Sizzle

May seventh? Good lord, just yesterday it was May sixth. Where does the time go? As I type this, my body is screaming with the back-to-back workouts I did last night and this morning, and Rob is downstairs in the kitchen sizzling up some bacon.

It’s been a zany week. Three days ago, I hit the highest high of all the highs-no, I haven’t been smoking that you-know-what again, I was high on life, I tell you, LIFE! That was when a little diary entry I wrote, based upon a little idea I had while walking Goblin Foo, made it to the number-one slot of the Daily Kos Recommended list and stayed in the top eight for the entire day.

Three days before that I was taken to the cleaners by an expensive charlatan with a tragic sense of fashion and a harebrained obsession with guardian angels. I may tell you about this one day when my eyes stop rolling around in my skull like the spinners in a slot machine.

And then yesterday: the gym. It was the first time I’d been in years, and luckily it was mostly empty. One of the only other people there was my personal trainer from six years go. I don’t know if he recognized me, but I noticed while watching his vigorous routine that his body looked precisely the same. Mine does, too, of course, a result I owe to a regimen of intense laziness, but what’s his excuse? Thousands of hours spent sweating and straining, only to have his progress frozen in a corporal holding pattern.

At least I have nowhere to go but up.

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And Let Us Not Forget: The Ugly

After a torturous and labyrinthine process that left me the gasping victim of passive aggression on one side and passivity on the other, our neighbors ended up cutting down the offending section of our tree last week. While I had never disputed their right to do so, I had frequently questioned the wisdom of slicing a tree in half merely to avoid the indignity of birds pooping in a certain location: if nothing else, the tree and the birds were there first. There is also the matter that the tree shaded our house in the summer, allowing us to keep our electrical bills amazingly low during those steamy months in Baltimore.

I suppose, if nothing else, bird poop is good for hardening hearts and deafening ears, because our neighbors started soliciting bids for the operation. Only when their plans hit a snag did I hear from them again, as the tree trimmers reported that the work could not be done from their yard, only from mine. Would I be so kind as to grant permission?

I was not.

Yes, they had the right to do what they were doing, but I didn’t feel any obligation to help them do it when they knew it was against my wishes.

After my refusal, which was kindly worded but firm, they tried to find a contractor who could do the job from their own back yard, but no one could. So they unveiled their secret weapon: my husband. Instead of submitting a second request to me, they contacted him in New York and had him intercede on their behalf.

Let’s just avoid conflict, Rob argued. I don’t want to start a feud.

And so it’s done. The tree is now bizarrely misshapen; instead of waking up to the sight of its branches against the sky, I can now see only the fresh gashes in its trunk. Sun floods into our house where it hasn’t before, heating one room eleven degrees warmer than it was just a day before and causing the second floor to be a blast furnace compared to the third (where there are smaller windows)—unheard of in our open floor plan, in a universe where heat rises.

These are the results of conflict avoidance. I get to suffer, my enjoyment of my home severely diminished forever, while my neighbors get exactly what they wanted, a paltry result in comparison to the harm it’s caused.

The first night after the destruction, Rob tossed and turned, unable to sleep . . . and, it should be noted, not from well-deserved guilt. “Was that streetlight always so bright?” he groused about the nuclear glare that turned night into day.

“Yes, but until today, there was a tree between it and you.”

Something tells me that conflict was not avoided so much as rearranged.

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Bad.

It’s time to pay the piper. The piper is dressed up as my new dentist, who sat me down to explain that all of the tests he gave me last week indicate that my entire jaw is twisted at an unnatural angle, which explains the blinding pain that has engulfed my head and neck for years. My options to prevent further deterioration are a minimally invasive but annoying and life-long palliative treatment or an intensive, years-long regimen of corrective actions followed by an annoying and life-long series of ritualistic maintenance. The first option will leave me with the pain but perhaps less of it; the second will ideally correct the underlying causes, leaving me pain-free, but there are obviously no guarantees.

The situation is further complicated by my disintegrating teeth, some of which have been ground into powder and some of which are corroding away to nothing for mysterious reasons. Eying my one hundred forty-pound form warily, the dentist explained that he usually sees this condition in bulimic girls; since the lengths I will go to avoid vomiting are legendary, there is obviously another explanation, but nothing as tantalizing. If my teeth are going to suffer anyway, I might as well have at least gotten some pleasure or benefit from the process. I could have been drinking Coke to beat the band or gotten down to a svelte one hundred twenty without benefit of the Fat Flush diet.

Regardless, whatever I do will necessarily be accompanied by the reconstruction of many teeth, as well as the removal of the mercury-laden filling that has been compromised by the tectonic forces in my mouth.

And, oh joy, there is a suspicious growth on the inside of my cheek that they want to biopsy.

Last but not least, I joined a new gym on Monday.

Honesty, my brain could not be implanted in a robot body fast enough for my taste.

At the very least, I want a cybernetic jaw, like that dog on “The Bionic Woman.”

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Good.

On Sunday, Rob, his sister Rindy (who flew in for a birthday surprise), and I went to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a building full of fish, sharks, manta rays, frogs, turtles, dolphins, eels, sea anemone, and golden tamarind monkeys that simultaneously evoke one particular Boston terrier. Even some kelp got in on the act. I’m not normally one to appreciate the sea because if I wanted to behold creatures swimming around in excrement, I can think of more convenient ways. But call that excrement an ecosystem, and the Meyerhoffs will donate a wing. Ha ha.

It was the perfect day.

What the aquarium reminded me of, besides Goblin Foo, was the first guy I dated when I moved back to Baltimore from Chicago. It was the divers that did it, the ones suiting up to feed the sharks and mantas. The guy I dated was not a diver, but he did have a fetish that he revealed on one of my visits by excusing himself and returning, unexpectedly, in a rubber suit. It was a diving costume, minus the tank and flippers, and the pants ended at his knees. As unflappable as a boulder, I continued the conversation where we had left off, and we interacted “normally” for several minutes until he excused himself again. I didn’t know if he was going to reenter as a fireman or a maharaja; instead, he brooded for a while before his sulky voice floated down the stairs: “Touching was permitted!”

Luckily he said something, because I’m never sure of the etiquette in those situations.