I like to stop and say hi to Ayisha when I check into the gym. She’s usually there, though I’m there more. I come six days a week, either 11 or 1:30. I used to get there at 2 but there’s a TV sports show I watch that comes on at 2, lasts an hour. If I want to watch that while I’m on a machine, I get another half hour of exercise without noticing it, almost cheating, if you see what I’m saying. Minimum I want is 60 minutes. I don’t know how I or anyone used to exercise before they had machines with cable TV. I’m not buying 1000 songs or 100 CDs. I can’t take radio stations anymore, and the music there, it’s impossible to find any that isn’t old and heard and heard and heard. I feel like a perv listening to the new top-40 station at my age. I go ahead and do that on the low alone in my car. In the gym, TV on the machines wins.
Once in a while Ayisha and I chit-chat. About nothing always. Usually I just take a pause in my step and hey hey, whadaya say?, tap the Formica, and I pass on by. She and I have disability in common is why the connection, nothing much else, though that’s also enough. I’m an old mother, used to it, but she’s too young not to be happy all the time. I get more self-conscious when she’s at the desk with Casillas. He’s a little dick. So many tats all over his arms and legs and back and even up his chest and neck, his skin color is blue. He thinks he’s badass. Accomplished somehow, skilled at whatever. I’m not that old. Can’t happen. I don’t for one second think he’s someone I can’t deal with. I don’t like that he takes away from my big brotherly feelings for Ayisha. That’s what he does, though.
I can’t do free weights now because I could hurt myself or someone else, so I go to the weight machines. I actually prefer them. They’re better than they were back in the day. I have a few I like—quads, calves, abs, deltoids, traps, biceps, triceps, pecs—but I can’t always do them all. I’m old. Puts me down for the next day if I’m not careful. I tell people I’ve decided not to do the next Olympics, so I go easy. I pick two to four. I like to lift. Since I was a baby, that’s the one that makes my body feel strong in the ya no weakness that comes with the last lift. I set the pin anywhere from 60 lbs. to 90 lbs., depending on whether I want to do more per three sets, my usual, or just burst my buttons doing fewer with more.
There are a lot of older folks here at the gym. Could be because of the time of day. Many older than me by years, even a decade or two. They’re all impressive for being here and in their routine. Women and men pretty close to equal numbers. There’s this one older guy who, whenever he sees me, stares into my eyes like he knows me, expecting me to…I don’t know. Say hi? If he knows me, I’m not sure why he don’t say so. It’s gotten so that I started thinking I knew him back. That he began to look familiar to me, too. He was, I saw at a distance, on the machine I liked most and went to first. I didn’t change my stride—my cane free limp, is better said. It happens, and I’d just move on to another, and I’d get it tomorrow. But as I got closer, that man stopped. He got up before I could pass by and then stared at me like he does, and I think offered a smile, or close, or it was just kindness. Like to a friend. He didn’t say anything but I did. I said hey, real nice, thank you, while he went off.
Not like he couldn’t know me. Lots of older men know older sports. I had my days. I was good. Star linebacker, fullback, and I could even play safety until I either got too big or they got way faster by my senior high school year. I played baseball—third base or outfield, I could hit—and roundball, though much as I liked it, I wasn’t tall enough or quick enough—I couldn’t be a guard—and too hot-headed. High school champion at Dominguez High, which was always terrible back in those days. We just about lost to any team, even the all-whiteboy ones. Except me. I’d win somehow in every story told. And I was a Mexican, so I made news everywhere. National. I might’ve been the first Mexican ever. Or it was that I was taking attention away from the Compton stars. I was recruited across the country. Football and baseball. Local LA schools like UCLA and USC (though not enough there), and Stanford and Cal. Arizona, Washington, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma. The teams I liked, that had baseball and football. I wasn’t the smartest about colleges. I didn’t know anyone who was.
My parents didn’t want me to leave town, even our neighborhood, because my dad was having health trouble and couldn’t work, and my mom could barely speak English. It was a tough decision. Really hard. I knew nothing but football, baseball, and eating. I loved my mom’s pollo en mole. I loved sirloin con una papa. I loved double cheeseburgers. I just took my high school coach’s advice, the offer from Oklahoma. My mom, looking up at me because she was such a chaparra, was always about to cry, but my dad had come around. My brother and sister were proud. I’d be back. I’d make money. They thought I’d eventually drive back up in a porcha, which is a Porsche to non-Mexicans.
Make it quick: It wasn’t even playing football, which I had just started doing there. Weeks. I was doing good, which is to say they liked me playing both sides of the ball still, and I liked it, and more newspapers were saying that too. National football news. I didn’t get a lot of time to read much, but I saw reporters, watching me mostly. I was in the hot gym, on the hot field, sweating, drinking and dousing water, eating a ton of anything that looked like food, and sleeping in what they told me was a dorm room but to me was just a bed. I had barely gone to classes, they were a blur, and I never did buy books. I didn’t know what or where but, always hungry, of course I said hell yeah I wanted a giant steak, and the young assistant coach driving turned left in front of a pickup going maybe 50 on a sunny blue Oklahoma street and its front grill came through the door to where I was sitting with no seatbelt on. I didn’t die but I was a long time in the first hospital and then came another and then another in a wheelchair and then the wheelchair in no hospital. Like that. Years. It took a while to have no wheelchair. I might not walk too good, but I walk.
People pass the reclined bikes and treadmills and ellipticals and step machines always. It’s what you see when your eyes aren’t on the TV. What I never see is Casillas’s eyes on me. They happen to be looking away, seeing something else, someone else, anything else. They’re busy, they’re doing something, it’s nothing personal, he’s hurrying even when he’s not really hurrying. It just happens that way, you know. Even off the machine when I am walking by, he can’t see me while he’s looking down, or gee, what just happened over there? as he’s getting close or passing me.
That older man seems to be at the gym the same hours I am, and he’s at machines a few away and sometimes even right next to me. Casillas sees him all the time.
“Hey, Coach,” he’ll say. “You doin’ good?”
I never really hear what the old guy says.
“You’re lookin’ good,” Casillas says. “Good to see ya.”
I just think Casillas is a dick. I don’t see how anyone can blame me for this opinion. I don’t know why he sucks up to this older man, but there’s a reason and it’s not a good one. He should at least call him “sir.”
I’m not sure exactly what caused whatever it is about Casillas and me. It don’t make a lot of sense to me. There’s not a lot of us at this gym, and it’d seem like we’d have a connection in that way. Not that it’s an expensive gym, exclusive. Not like Austin is racist or segregated, although it does seem to be a very Anglo town. I live here with my sister and her generous husband Mike Loya—in a remodeled garage, like a one-bedroom apartment, near the river. He’s a captain on the fire department and he’s Mexican—from El Paso—and so are their kids, even though I wouldn’t say any of them think about it a lot, or that their neighborhood is or ever was Mexican like where we grew up in LA or where Mike grew up in El Paso. That’s kind of good, right? In fact here in Austin, they like things Mexican. Besides cops and firemen—wait, at least one Mexican woman there too, I met her—they like blankets and dinnerware and the food and the decor, and going to Mexico on trips and even Spanish as a language. The gym just isn’t very much Mexican, and it seems like me and Casillas and every once in a while an older lady on her cell while she’s on the bike—no talking on the phone in the gym is the rule—gossiping with a sister in Monterrey. Equally irritating if she were chattering in English.
My best guess is that it began at the desk. I was talking to Ayisha and we got to laughing. It couldn’t have been about a lot. I’ve strained to remember that whole time because it’s all I could come up with and, really, it couldn’t have been much. I’m old and she’s not. I was talking to her because of her trouble, not to make any. Nothing else in my head, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that anything could bounce back. But I do remember that Casillas was on the other side of the desk too. At the laser reader, checking people in, ahead of where I was talking to Ayisha. And though I wasn’t paying much attention then, my memory recorded more.
He was frowning, pissed off. At the time I thought it had nothing to do with anybody but himself. We all can get like that. He’d said he needed her to be doing this, what he was doing, not him. She and I hadn’t been talking that long I don’t think, but it was long enough for a problem. I mean, we did start laughing like we were outside on a nice weekend day. She was at work. I wasn’t. Nothing but time and it was like we weren’t talking about what happened to our bodies. We were talking about our lives. She jerked herself out of a relaxed mode when he said what he did. He scowled going away when she took his stool. She blipped me in. I just figured it was about being at work and went on through.
It was after that came his attitude. Seemed to grow by the day. That badass man strut got wider. Like those tats were muscles. That others weren’t him. That I was almost nothing, and that don’t work with me. I know I’m not what I was, what I could’ve been. I know most don’t know that. A few do. They can still see it in a broken me. People who remember, remember me. Ones who know sports and sports stories. Who aren’t dumb culos like Casillas who don’t know shit. Who thinks the world is only what he thinks and knows about. That he’s some kind of mero chingón at a gym where he’s a personal trainer to a few or whatever? Who sees me and goes, there’s some old crippled nothing. But I can still take this punk how I am right now.
I did weight machines and I’m on a reclined bike, the TV on. I’ll go to my 60 mins and maybe I’ll do more if I’m not sick of sitting here, peddling. I don’t know why I like all this still so much, but I do. I’ve loved gyms since I was young and they were always good to me. The old man who knows me, who I think I maybe know back, is a few bikes over. People are coming and going in front of us and one is Ayisha. I don’t see her in this area much. She has trouble walking the way she wants, and she’s showing it today. She smiles at me as she comes and I say hey there, young woman! and I am smiling big, happy for both of us. She stops by me. It is for me some and I pretend it’s only that, but I know it’s not. She’s hurting, a bad body day. She needs to walk more maybe, or maybe just not any today. Some days aren’t as good as others.
I offer her my seat. I say it’s the comfortable one, making a face to say it’s not at all. She laughs. She asks me what I’m watching. I’m about to play with that subject when suddenly Casillas is on the other side of my bike.
“They’re waiting on you,” he tells her. “You forgot?”
“She’ll just be a minute or two more, man,” I say. “You need to give her a little more room.” I’m not saying so, but mostly I’m talking about the joints in her hips that I know bothered her.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” he said to me. He didn’t actually say that to me because the words weren’t to my face, with his eyes.
“I think you shouldn’t talk to me that way,” I said.
Ayisha mumbled or so it seemed. I wasn’t hearing her well. I was getting off my reclining bike.
“It’s all right, Coach,” Casillas said to the old man near me. “Please don’t worry yourself.”
I stood near him. He acted like he wasn’t worried. Seemed like I was a foot taller, at least 50 pounds bulkier.
“Is something bothering you that we should deal with here?” I asked.
“Coach,” he said, waving his hand no, looking at him because the old guy was coming over to us, not looking at me.
“Did you hear what I just said?” I said.
I might have stepped closer. Because then Casillas shoved me away. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that, why it caught me so off guard. And I do have my own wobbly leg issues. I am not the most stable two-legged gym rat. I stumbled. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I think my foot caught the bike’s foot and I went backwards. I went down hard because of the foot tangle. On the ground I knew I couldn’t pop back up if I tried, I could tell. Always hard for this body to get off the ground even when it isn’t hurt. My head hit another machine and there was a cut on the side of my forehead. My back didn’t like what it hit, how.
People were around and worried about the cut on my head. I wouldn’t say anything about my twisted foot. I couldn’t get up easy because of it. It was all still there, not broken in my opinion, but it was going to hurt.
Seemed like I was stuck on the ground.
“Do you need help?” the old man asked me. He was the first there, squatting down to me. “Can you stand?”
“Should we call an ambulance?” someone asked. “What do you think, Coach?”
“I can’t believe that happened,” I tell the old guy. “I completely lost my stupid balance and then I lost it all.” I wanted him and everyone listening to understand.
“You need help?” he asks again.
“My pride,” I tell him privately. He did look awfully familiar.
“You gotta let that go so you can see what’s really hurting,” he says.
I laugh. “That sounds like some advice I should take.”
I was out for a few weeks. I wore the boot with the velcro straps to the gym that first day back to make sure I didn’t reinjure that ankle. I felt happy going back. I always felt like the gym made me feel better about everything. It was my one sure thing. I’d say that’s how it was for that old guy. I decided I wanted to meet him. Introduce myself and thank him for that day they took me to the hospital. He had my back.
Ayisha wasn’t at the desk. I was hoping she’d be happy to see me. Casillas wasn’t there either. Maybe he’d be unhappy to see me, maybe he’d want to smile. I had to force myself to not think about him. I walked straight to the bikes because I wanted to move my legs. I was even slower walking with the boot.
The lady next to me said hi and asked if the foot was all that still remained. She was here then, she told me. I recognized her, but it was the first time we’d talked.
“As dangerous as ever,” I said.
“It looked worse,” she told me.
“Stupid fall,” I said.
“The coach told me about you,” she said.
“From football,” she said.
“I don’t know him,” I admitted, “but I want to now. He’s a football coach here in Austin?”
She laughed. “You don’t know Coach Royal?”
“I assumed you’d played for him…The Longhorns’ football stadium is named after him, for goodness sake. You don’t know Texas’s greatest coach?”
“I’ve only lived in Austin a little over a year,” I said.
She didn’t even hear me say that. “You don’t know the news, either, do you?”
I didn’t have to say no.
“Just since…I haven’t been here?”
She nodded pedaling, and I pedaled too.
“That’s sad,” I told her. “I’m very sorry.”
She nodded. “He had a good life. We all loved him.”
I asked my cuñado about him, I asked my sister. They laughed at me. Of course they didn’t know him personally, but even they knew who he was by the stadium name and the news and Texas football everything all the time. We’d even been to two games together there. That is, I myself had been to Darrell K Royal stadium both those two times.
I couldn’t get it off my mind that I missed the chance to talk to him. That I didn’t know who he was, but he knew who I was, back when, that maybe he even wanted to know me the way I was now. It dizzied me. Seemed worse than dumb.
Back at the gym, I learned from Ayisha that Casillas had been let go because of the incident. She could barely speak to me without tears. She liked him, of course meaning more than that. I’d missed that, too. So if I saw her behind the desk, I only waved when I blipped in—she didn’t work that spot ever now. I was back in my routine, a little slower at the beginning until my foot seemed all good again. The weight machines first, a couple to a few, then aerobics, an hour, while I watched a sports talk show. Somewhere between 11 and 1:30. It wasn’t very much. I knew it. It didn’t matter. That was what I had left, what I wanted again.
I love the gym. It’s where I go. It was me before my football and baseball life. When I was stronger, bigger. Like I’m not now. The world really is more than dicks like Casillas. Who, like me, will miss too much that is right next to him. Some love the outdoors. I love to hear the loud silence of the gym. The plates of weight machines smacking down, the groans from pushing hard, whirs of ellipticals, bikes, fans. Once I was going to be a star, or even was a star, and now I’m here alone, working out with what I still got, and nobody knows me, or sees me, and that’s right where I began, and, like now, it was good then.