Why I Wasn't Fit to Work as a Trainer at Bally Total Fitness

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After weeks of unsuccessfully hounding gym members and shadowing trainers, I finally landed some clientele. Taylor assigned me a young married couple who'd just joined. Reg and Karen Miller stood huddled in the corner of the lobby, each clutching a beach towel. They were both tall and voluminous. Karen in particular looked as though she'd been poured into her sweatpants by an unsteady hand, with extra droplets of body splashing out everywhere.

I took it as my sacred duty to mold these two in my own image.

"This is our first time here with a personal trainer," Reg announced redundantly.

I began backpedaling, but it was useless to try to un-say something by using more words.

"Well, you made it -- that's the hard part," I said. "Working out is easy."

It wasn't entirely true, but it sounded authoritative. The hard part for me, I soon discovered, was maintaining the same heightened aura of excitement continuously, while Taylor lurked around the gym like an enemy in the bush. I soon became an over-caffeinated radio host, narrating my every movement and explaining its utility. By the time we finished our hour together, I felt more exhausted from talking than Reg and Karen looked from their workout. I was sick of my own voice, and it seemed impossible that they could feel any differently. But they did. Wiping his flushed face with a beach towel, Reg asked, point blank, how much my services would cost.

I couldn't believe it. Somebody had willingly requested to hear my closing spiel. It was the moment I'd been waiting for and also dreading. After all, whenever anyone tried to close me, I felt the urge to strike them with a blunt object -- and the gym was nothing if not a buffet of blunt objects.

I'd learned never to start talking numbers right away, so instead I dwelled on the neutral topic of summer plans. Karen stretched her arms in a trapezoidal shape above her head and told me about their upcoming vacation in the Bahamas.

"Oh, perfect," I said. "By July, you'll definitely be ready for swimsuit season."

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could stuff them back in. It was too late, though.

"I happen to think I look just fine in a bathing suit," Karen said, hugging her arms across her midsection. "We just wanted to tone up a little."

I began backpedaling, but it was useless to try to un-say something by using more words. Karen walked off in a huff and Reg lingered only a moment longer to shake my hand before joining her. I never heard from them again.

As soon as I realized I was no longer going to be a personal trainer, I nearly suffocated in a plastic sumo suit. My friend Jamie and I were at the bar inside Club Firestone when the DJ sought out volunteers for a sumo wrestling contest. The two of us looked at each other and there was no question about it: we were in.

"The last time I saw you, you wouldn't have needed one of these suits," Jamie said ten minutes later, as we pulled on inflated plastic bodies that mimicked sumo wrestlers' rotund physiques. Jamie was on leave from the Marine Corps, and he had a Marine's requisite crew-cut and gaunt, sunken eyes. We hadn't seen each other since before he'd enlisted the previous year, and he had no idea that I'd lost so much weight.

I pulled my suit up by the mock-loincloth. The stiff, coarse material had the same stubby texture as the skin of a hot-air balloon. With my shoulders stuffed inside, the referee strapped a waxy hair-helmet to my head. I'd just gotten used to breathing inside the humid, claustrophobic getup when an announcer introduced us and rang the bell.

I lunged at Jamie, wobbly on my feet, and connected hard, flinging him against the rope of the boxing ring. The elasticity sent him barreling right back at me and we bumped our big fake bellies like rams locking horns. After much scrambling and grappling, I was eventually declared the winner.

I could not wait to take off my plastic albatross. It was heavy and it itched, but there was something else about it that made me uncomfortable. At first, the sitcom-irony of wearing an obesity suit made me feel definitively svelte in contrast. It had been a while since I felt that way. Then the moment passed and it seemed ridiculous to let a costume convince me that I had become who I wanted to be. My personal trainer's outfit, I realized, formed another such costume, and suddenly I felt ridiculous inside of it too.

Was I only in shape compared to my former self? I wanted to be in shape, period -- with no context needed to qualify it. I wanted the weight to be lost, not merely hidden from view. I wanted no difference between how old friends and new acquaintances viewed me. The only problem was that if I ever got my wish, there would be no way for me to know it. I would never see myself through anyone else's eyes.

I was tired and I had to work the next day, even though it was clear I had no business working at Bally any longer. After we shed our sumo suits and got dressed again, I said goodbye to Jamie.

"It was great seeing you," he said, nursing a slightly bruised eyebrow with the watery ice cubes in his glass. "I can't believe you lost so much weight."

"Thanks," I said.

"Good luck losing the rest of it."

Images: 1. REUTERS/Rick Wilking; 2. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger.

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Joe Berkowitz is a book editor and freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the Awl, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Salon, and McSweeney's. Read his blog.

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