Monday, November 15, 2010

The Bench

My friend Chris is a nurse. He works long shifts at inconvenient times. He misses dinners and parties and concerts. While other people are out drinking and fornicating like animals, he's cleaning up body fluid and pushing needles through skin. When other people are watching football and dancing to pop music, he's changing bandages and watching people die.

I don't know how he does it. He says smoking helps. But there has to be more to it than that.

A few months ago while on a run I stopped by his apartment to see if he was around. His roommate answered the door and told me Chris was in his room. I found Chris on the floor in front of his mirror in his underwear. He was on his knees, his left hand resting on his lower back and his right hand stretched out in front of him, his palm facing the floor. It looked like a yoga position. He saw me in the mirror and gave me a nod.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked.

"Trying to figure out what sex position I look best in, what the hell does it look like I'm doing?"

This is the kind of person Chris is.

Last summer Chris attempted to kill himself. He swallowed a bottle of pain killers. It would have worked, but Chris had to be dramatic and chase it with half a bottle of whiskey. It ended with him waking up at four in the afternoon the next day in a puddle of vomit, feeling like a dumb ass. He doesn't even like whiskey, and a week later he regretted getting rid all the porn he didn't want his family to find after he was dead. Thankfully I'm a good friend and copied some of mine onto his computer. In return he gave me half a bottle of whiskey.

This is the kind of person Chris is.

I don't see Chris very often. Our schedules conflict and we have different groups of friends. We used to share a mutual group of friends that bordered on family, but after an unfortunate death and some lesbian infidelity the group sort of fell apart, with the few gatherings we have being tense and unsatisfying, an almost forced ritual of togetherness, the way families are supposed to be I guess. But Chris and I try to get together occasionally to grab a few beers or get dinner or work out.

The other week we were lifting at the gym, which has always been intimidating to me because of the massive behemoths that roam the floor. But going with Chris made me comfortable, because he's confident and strong and has that similar tinge of craziness that I have.

There's something about the environment of the gym, about the way it leaves me insecure and neurotic, that makes me more open to talking, especially with Chris. We shared our insecurities about our educations and our jobs and our friends and families. Somehow exposing these other aspects of myself makes me forget about the beautiful girls on treadmills and muscled giants on weight benches.

Chris and I were closing our workout with the bench press, which is always the piece of equipment that I find the most intimidating. People don't ask how much you can lift with your biceps, how much weight you can pull with a triceps curl. They ask how much you can bench. Being on my back, legs separated, padding beneath me and a heavy weight above me, my exhausted body covered in sweat, it makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. It's practically sex... well, sex without the alcohol and performance anxiety.

"I hate the bench," I told Chris as I stretched myself across the black padding. I glanced over to see how much weight Chris was putting on the bar and he gently slapped my cheek to move my line of vision.

"Don't look," he said. I heard the smooth slide and clink of him putting the weight on the bar as I stared straight at the ceiling far above me. Slide, clink. Slide, clink. Slide, clink.

"Let's do it," Chris said, helping me lift the bar over the rack before letting go, "I've got you covered, don't worry."

Of course I still worried. I expected the bar the crush me, but it was surprisingly comfortable. It was heavy and challenging, but I wasn't concerned about it falling onto my neck and choking me to death and being on the news as that scrawny dumb ass who died at the gym.

"Breathe," Chris would say when he noticed me struggling, "Relax. You're fine."

As I finished my fourth set, Chris steadying the bar on my last lift as I placed it back on the rack, he patted me on the shoulder.

"You're up thirty pounds this week," he said.

"What?" I asked, contorting my face to show my obvious disbelief.

"You can do more when you don't worry so fucking much about it."

I haven't told Chris how much that single statement has seeped into other aspects of my life, how it's changed my feelings about my education and work, how it's made me realize that I've been handling everything fine and carrying the full weight of my life to damn near the best of my potential, that it's made me see that despite being crazy and prone to ludicrous behavior, I'm still doing much better than the majority of my peers, but I'll get around to saying something.

Because there's plenty of time, and for once, I don't have to worry about it.

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