Life Aboard an Aircraft Carrier
Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

II. The Gym

There was a line to get in to the gym and there wasn't a lot of space once you got in. It wasn't just that the room was small – there was also the small matter of every person in it being the size of two people. Arms were as big as legs, necks the size of waists, and so on. Three guys were running marathons – on treadmills. The rest were inflating themselves with weights. They favored baggy shorts and T-shirts or singlets, to prove that however big they got there was always room for further expansion. Even the guys who didn't look that big were plenty big. The bald guys looked like their skulls were pumped. Inked and slinky, the mermaid on a bicep had become six months pregnant by the time a set of reps had been completed.

I've always been intimidated by gyms, have never been able to enjoy the towel-round-the-shoulder confidence of somebody who knows he can bench-press 150 pounds, or even knows what that means or how much 150 pounds actually weighs. I just know I don't like lifting heavy things, especially since I had this wrist injury which stopped me playing tennis and which means that I've gone from being fit and thin-looking to just a feeble streak of unshouldered manhood whose only saving grace is that he doesn't take up much space, who leaves plenty of room for others – especially now that I was several days into a quasi-hunger strike. I slunk in the corner like a whupped pup, wondering if a visible tat would have made me look more or less weak. The room was bursting with straining flesh and grimacing biceps. Breath came in fierce snorts. There was the clank of heavy metal being laid roughly to rest. I was conscious that I was staring at these Tom-of-Finland arms and chests with an intensity that might have been construed as homoerotic. (There were a couple of women jacked into to their iPods, working out, but it was overwhelmingly male in there.) Anthony Bang, the Fit Boss, was standing next to me, wearing a T-shirt and biceps. He had grown up in a military family but was actually a civilian, supervising the exercise program on ship. From what I could see his job resembled that of a bouncer, stopping people getting in. The gym was filled to capacity so he was operating the one-in-one-out policy that you get at overcrowded nightclubs. I didn't know what to say but, feeling I ought to ask a question, said,

"How big can a human arm become before it stops being a limb and morphs into something else?"

"Excuse me?" he said, and so I changed my tune and came up with a different question, still physical, but less meta.

"Are you the fittest person on the boat?" I said.

"Lot of people fitter than me."

"Lot of people fatter than me," I quipped back. Then, fearing the conversation was taking on a slightly unhinged quality, I asked him about the food, its compatibility or otherwise with fitness and well-being.

"Most people eat healthier on the ship than they do at home," he said. This seemed stodgily plausible. I nodded in a way I hoped would not seem tofu-snooty. We stood without speaking, arms folded – his massively, mine meagerly – like spectators at a muscular orgy.

"Well, better make room for somebody else," I said after a while, squeezing past him as though I'd just shattered the world bench press and reps record.

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