“Love your curves,” the poster reminds us in plump, curvy letters. At Curves, a gym for gym-resistant middle-aged women, we talk our way through a half-hour of interval training. The exercise machines are arranged in a circle, facing inward, and every 30 seconds, we switch machines. During our two laps around the circuit, we talk about everything from our children or pets to our wayward bodies to tomorrow’s weather to climate change.
“That methane gas from cows is the worst,” Rhonda says from the butt-buster. She shoots her leg backward like a mule kicking a bucket behind her, again and again. Rhonda’s been worrying about carbon emissions.
“Methane?” Judy asks from her trainer’s spot in the center of the circuit. All machines face her.
“From the farts,” I add helpfully from the stair stepper.
“Change stations now,” the woman’s recorded voice instructs through the speakers. We move to the left.
“Cow flatulence causes global warming?” Judy asks.
Judy and I have both “lost” our husbands. That’s how the women here put it; no one uses the word widow. Saying we “lost” our husbands suggests we’re wandering around looking for them—and yet we were both right there when they died and right there, again, when the remains of our respective husbands were put to rest, Tim underground, Rajiv in an incinerator. We know exactly where our husbands are. It’s our own bodies we’ve lost.
Judy took up her job as a Curves trainer a little more than a year after her 45-year-old husband stroked out on a treadmill stress test. In that year, she’d added a blanket of flesh over her core of hard muscle. I went in the other direction, letting my body eat itself up. I’m a year younger than Judy, but six years ahead of her in the grieving game, and am hoping to put some meat back on my bones.
A surprisingly high proportion of the women at Curves are widows. Maybe widows, not ready for the meat market, are more likely to work out at a women-only gym. Or maybe men just die off quicker.
Rhonda, post-mastectomy and post-chemo, is on the other side of cancer, which led to her new-found environmentalism. Her prosthetic breast wanders around her chest during her workout as she tells us about factory farms and Americans’ unsustainable diets, about the petroleum that goes into the fertilizer to produce the corn to feed the cows. About feedlot bloat from this unnatural diet. About the cows packed so tightly into stalls that they can’t turn around, that they stand knee-deep in their own manure. How behind each bit of beef we eat is an ungodly amount of suffering, and oil, and gas.
“We’re eating our way to flooded coastlines and lost islands and extinct species. Look at the polar bears.”
“What about the polar bears?” Judy asks. “I like polar bears.”
“The arctic ice caps are melting. Their habitat.”
Judy looks to me for confirmation. My knowledge of global warming is shaky despite Rajiv’s career as an environmental engineer. I wish I could ask him. Instead, I just nod.
“So my nightly McDonald’s drive-through is killing polar bears?”
“Nightly?” Rhonda frowns.
What I do is, I buy two Big Macs then take the buns off one and put the insides into the other. I eat in the car, so I don’t have to face the empty chair at the kitchen table. I know, I know: I’m eating my way back to Tim. If I stuff down enough burgers, maybe I can join him soon.”
She pauses while the voice tells us to change stations. We change. I’m now on the adductor, which mimics a gynecological exam to work my inner thighs.
“That’s a lot of beef,” Rhonda says.
“I know. When they do my autopsy, they’re going to find golden arches squeezing my heart in a hammer-hold. But I love my beef. It’s all I’ve got left.”
Talk of beef makes me salivate, but in a pre-nausea way. I haven’t eaten beef since Rajiv died seven years ago. Maybe I gave it up out of respect for his Hinduism and environmentalism. Maybe there was something else, too—something about the way the smell of singed fat made me think of incineration. Something about the way a slab of beef resembled a corpse. I swallow.
“New Year’s is coming up,” Rhonda says. “Time for resolutions.”
“But beef?” Judy asks. “My comfort food?”
“Have you ever seen a baby polar bear?” Rhonda asks.
Yes,” Judy sighs. “All flapping paws, tripping over themselves.” Judy can tear up instantaneously. She can laugh and cry at the same time. It sounds like a gurgle.
“Change stations now,” the voice demands. We change.
“I’ve gone seven days without beef,” Judy says from the center of the circle in early January.
“Good for you,” I say from the obliques machine. I’m working on my love handles.
“It’s for the polar bears,” Judy says. “If it were for myself, I’d keep eating my way to Tim.”
“What do polar bears have to do with beef?” Bev asks from the pec dec. Bev, a septuagenarian, chews gum throughout her workout. It’s the only way she can last for half an hour without a cigarette.
“Cow farts are melting the ice caps,” Judy explains. “The papa bears go out to forage, and then their ice floes break off, and they can’t return to their families. Everybody starves.” She looks to me again for support.
“More or less,” I mumble, making my love handles bulge and tauten, bulge and tauten. When Rajiv and I walked side by side, arms around each other’s waists, we would squeeze the other’s fleshy excess. Then cancer etched out his ribs and ate away his stomach till all that was left to hold onto was hipbone.
Bev looks unconvinced. “That doesn’t sound right.” She chews thoughtfully.
“It’s not right,” Judy says. “It’s just not right at all.” That liquid laugh again. “You know what else isn’t right? If I can give up my burgers for the polar bears, why couldn’t Tim give up his junk food for me?”
“May I ask what was the cause of your husband’s death?” Bev asks.
“Pepperoni pizzas,” Judy laughs again, wetly, grimly. “French fries. Cheese fucking Danish.” She turns to me. “I guess this is the anger stage, huh?”
“Change stations now,” the voice says. We change.
“I’ll tell you, though,” Judy turns back to me, “now that I’ve gone semi-vegetarian, I have some real flatulence issues myself. Did that happen to you? Your whole gut rebels? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?”
“I don’t think it’s just the farts producing all the greenhouse gases,” I say.
“No,” Judy agrees. “It’s also the belches.”
One thing you miss when your life-partner dies is having someone to buy presents for, even just the small gag gift that betokens the shared inside joke. So when I saw the polar bear bath toy, modeled after a rubber duckie, I had to get it for Judy. It gives a desperately gleeful squeak as, handing it to her, I press the rounded tummy. It is designed to float on its back, belly up.
Her eyes do their quick-fill when I offer it. You miss getting presents, too.
The polar bear’s polyurethane eyes bulge, dead black, under her squeeze. “It’s been 13 days,” Judy says. “Thirteen long, beefless days. For you, little guy.” She tickles the polar bear’s head with an index finger.
Rhonda’s here today. “You might just as well put the polar bear in the toilet rather than the bathtub,” she says, rising from the shoulder press and returning her errant breast to its proper spot. “The polar bears are doomed, no matter what you do. It’s only a matter of time. Do we give them 75 years, or only 50, before we melt all the ice caps?”
“But I’ve stopped eating beef!” Judy is trying to joke. This is Curves; keep it light.
“Even if everyone in the world stopped eating beef, even if we all went vegan and Amish, it’s still too late. You might as well just eat polar bear burgers directly.”
“That can’t be right,” Judy tries again. “There must be something we can do to save the polar bears. I’m going to research it.”
Rhonda shrugs. Judy squeezes the polar bear duckie so gently that its squeak becomes a long, cartoonish moan.
“I do miss my beef,” Judy says to the toy. “I miss my McDs. Every minute of every day.” Her laugh is as moist as her eyes. She pats her own belly, which, despite its burger deprivation, keeps growing, threatening to overtake her whole body.
“Change stations now,” says the voice from above.
“It’s true,” Judy says, the next time I enter the gym. “Papa bear is not coming home.”
“Rhonda’s right. The polar bears are doomed. I did a search. They’ve got maybe 50 years. Can you imagine? A whole majestic species gone, just like that, just so we can eat burgers. Did you know that newborn polar bears come out smaller than human infants? Then they grow to three or four times heavier than even me. But when they’re first born, they’re like cocker spaniel puppies.” I think she’s about to cry, without the usual accompanying laugh. A brief inconsolable sadness passes over her face. All I can do is hug her. Her flesh is layers and layers of soft, so different from the body of Rajiv that I hugged at the end, the body that my own still holds in muscle memory. “I know the nature of life is change,” she says, “but there’s got to be something more we can do.”
I ask Judy if she’s still going to eat beef now that it’s hopeless.
She shakes her head. “I know the polar bears are doomed. I accept that. But maybe we can give them a few seconds longer.”
“How long have you been beefless?” I ask.
“Thirty days. And 30 nights. But you’ve been beefless much longer.”
“It gets easier?”
I take my place on the circuit. Climbing into the ab/back machine, I suck in my stomach as if I’m about to be punched, and I bow into the abdominal crunch, my body embracing the slow burn of disappearance, until the woman’s voice commands us, once again, to change stations now.
[Some names and small, identifying details have been changed.]