The Age-Defying Benefits of Exercise

From No Fixed Destination: Eleven Stories of Life, Love, Travel | Townsend 11

The Age-Defying Benefits of Exercise
by Jacqueline Yau

Damn. I forgot my mom’s gym membership card at home. Of course, this occurs to me right after I cross the threshold of the YMCA in Palo Alto. New person at the front desk—a tough-looking, square Eastern European woman in a track suit. I name her “Olga.” Should I jog back home for the card? I turn and peek outside through the double glass doors. The descending rain clouds have already snuffed out the last rays of the setting sun. A brunette soccer mom in sweats with a bouncy son in tow approaches the entrance from the outside and pulls open the glass door. A rush of cold and damp air blasts me back. I step sideways into the still warm and dry area of the gym. No contest. I’m staying.

cover_VOL1_smWhile I debate what to do, a tall, buff African-American man, wearing a YMCA tracksuit, probably a trainer, joins Olga at the reception desk. He turns his back to her and concentrates on paperwork. How hard can this get? Light impersonation at most. I’d once passed as my Iranian-American friend at her parents’ swim club in Virginia and I didn’t even know her family’s last name. Compared to that, this will be a cinch. I’ll just give my mom’s address and after they verify her membership, in I’ll go. Easy. Right. My heart hammers against my ribs. I wipe my suddenly moist palms down my running tights. My conscience makes an unwelcome appearance reminding me that had I taken the straight and narrow path and driven to my own gym, only ten minutes farther away, I wouldn’t have to run the front desk gauntlet now.

But the demon in me thumbs its nose at my conscience. I straighten my shoulders, tuck away my stray hairs under my wick-away ball cap and walk with purpose up to the L-shaped desk.

“Hi. I forgot my membership card today. Can I just give you my address? I’ve done that before.”

After a pause, Olga agrees in a heavy Russian accent and types my address into the computer database as I rattle it off. Not wanting to linger any longer than necessary, I turn to enter the gym and make my escape. “Wait,” she barks out, “How old are you?”

My heart starts pistoning like a racecar. Who needs a Stairmaster? What does she see on the monitor? I gave my mom’s name and address correctly. I stammer, “40…45?” My tongue trips on the last word. I try to keep a straight face but I know I’m toast. The game’s up. The YMCA gym bouncers are going to storm out any time at the call of this squat, tough, Russian grandma and throw me out of the gym. She squints her eyes and looks suspiciously at me. I don’t blame her as I look young even for my age at 35, let alone a decade older than my age.

“When’s your birthday?” Olga demands.

I can’t believe she hasn’t yet called me out for being a liar. At the same time how can she ask me, a woman, my age? I blurt out the only thing ricocheting in my brain, “November 22, 1947,” my mom’s birthday.

I can’t help the involuntary widening of my eyes as I speak. Even I don’t believe me. There’s a pause. Olga leans in for a closer look and I will myself to stand still. I hold my breath. Even the heavily muscled, African-American trainer stops his admin work with my statement. He glances over and I tense up. He and the Russian terrier are about to rip me apart. I can see it in their eyes.

“You look fabulous!” he gushes. “You really look fantastic for your age! You look amaaaaazing for 57.” He stuns both Olga and me into silence. I know better than to stick around. I mumble my thanks, grab a sweat towel, and walk away quickly as he continues to heap compliments on my gene pool and smooth and unwrinkled skin.

I practically run down the hallway and into the exercise machine area. I shove my stuff into a cubbyhole and jump onto the nearest Stairmaster. I’m determined to make the most of my workout and hope to outlast Olga’s shift at the front desk. I don’t want to confront her twice in one night.

Midway into my workout, the black trainer enters the workout area. He spots me and smiles and waves. He saunters over to the trainers’ corner and talks to a trainer who looks like an All-American with white gleaming teeth, athletic build, and square jaw. Through my peripheral vision, I see my new admirer pointing at me. Ah, oh. Trouble. I’m doomed. No opportunity to slink away unnoticed. I finish my hill workout quickly and leave, avoiding all eye contact.

A couple of weeks later I decide I can chance making a return visit to my mom’s gym. This time, I remember the membership card. I go on a Saturday morning, a different time and day of the week than the previous visit. Strategic, I think. I run through my workout, finish up on the mat, stretching and working my non-six-pack abs. I rise up, mid-crunch when I notice a shadow cast on my stomach.

“I just want to tell you that you look really incredible for your age.” I look up and sink back down. Just my luck. Mr. All-American trainer, probably corn-fed blondie.

I reply mid-crunch, expelling my air, “I’m lucky. Thanks.”

“What’s your secret?” he continues and kneels down next to me.

“Good genetics and consistent exercise,” I gasp, my breath getting shorter by the minute, panic beginning to race through my veins.

“You should be the poster child for the Y.”

I thank him again but immediately hop up and shake his hand. Time to cut short the rest of my workout and I hustle out of there in a 50-yard dash. My days of wandering into the Y incognito have officially ended.

When I arrive home, my mom is there. As much as I want to avoid it, I need to brief her on the situation: that I have been using her card and that I escaped trouble, barely.

“What? Why did you have to check in?” My super square mom is advocating breaking the rules? My mom’s a stickler for honesty and integrity and once made me go back to a store to pay and apologize to the store manager for stealing a packet of cartoon stickers when I was six. She doesn’t even “borrow” post-it notes for personal use.

I finally mumble, “Couldn’t do that. They were guarding the front desk. They would have seen me.”

“You could have just waited around until they looked elsewhere and then wandered through the entrance or just walked with purpose through the entrance.”

“Mom, they would have caught me.” I barely avoid a childish whine. I’ve gone from 57 to five.

“No, they wouldn’t. I do it all the time when I forget my card. No one has ever stopped me.” The image seems incongruous to me: my law-abiding mom committing an underhanded act. This somehow appears more egregious than my posing as her.

She continues, “Now, I can’t even go to the Y with my card. They might take my privileges away.” A bit melodramatic. We just need to brainstorm and come up with a solution.

“Mom, don’t worry. All you need to do is use the Y guest cards for a few weeks until this blows over. They know who I am…I mean who you are. So, if you want to go, just use a guest card. But, you can’t use your name. Write my name in the guest name area. And you can be my mom. See how convenient that is? You really are my mom so that’s not being dishonest.” I smile, feeling smug.

My mom’s mouth drops open. Then shuts abruptly. “I’m not doing it.”

“Why not?” I ask, truly perplexed. “You are my mom. It’s perfect. But, you’ll have to say you’re in your seventies.”

“What? I don’t want to be in my seventies.”

“Mom, this is great. People at the Y will think you look fantastic and the trainers can brag to their customers about how you’re visible proof of the benefits of exercise.

“I don’t care to act older than my age. I’m already getting old without adding a few decades.”

I lean back to get a better look at my mom. She still looks youthful but she makes an especially fine-looking septuagenarian.

Neither my mom nor I go back to the YMCA for quite some time. I accompany her on a guest pass years after the incident and scan the gym but don’t spot Olga or my two admirers. I feel a twinge of disappointment. Too bad. I want to show them how good I look for 59!