You are a city of bronze temples. Isolate. Flex. Pose. Welcome the Jacksonville Civic Center to your golden domes of pectoralis major. Usher the audience and judges through the hall of abdominals, down your thigh’s oiled sartorius, and when you arrive at the Mount of Gastrocnemius, flex the calf you’ve labored hour after hour to perfect. The sequins on your bikini shine prolifically. The diamonds in your earrings are worth their cost. Tonight you are unforgettable.
The New Literature
You bought the new bodybuilding books and the pages were filled with what everybody already knows. But you, you want answers, don’t you? Listen: the oracle has not been silenced. Your answers have arrived at last.
The Old Literature
Your grandfather was Adonis Kontopoulos. Nights your parents’ shifts overlapped, you were sent to his house. The homework you finished smelled of him – Barbasol and sardines. He read you Homer in the room where you slept. The posters on the walls showed beaches from around the world. The carpet was bald in the places he stood to peer out the windows at Pittsburgh. When your nightmares invaded, they were led by a woman, her face teeming with ships. Men dripped like black blood from the belly of a giant horse. You woke and listened for sirens. In the room next door, your grandfather snored.
In the Jacksonville waiting room, you and your fellow builders await the judges’ decision. Check your phone. The screen is blank; the belt around your heart loosens one notch. Reapply your lipstick. Pluck the strings on your bikini and hear them slap your skin. You are an instrument, an entire orchestra, tuned to a single note: win. Sit, wait. Stare at a blow dryer hanging from the wall. That princess voice inside you pleads with the judges. She gets down on her cut knees and wrings her hands. Crush that voice. Go and talk to your credible opponents. Ask about their regimens and share yours. There’s no need to lie. Your veins are so visible because you take nitric oxide pre-workout and then superset your reps. The best tanning products are tyrosine-based foams. Once a month you drive from your apartment in Sacramento to a warehouse in San Diego to get your supplements from a man named Bart. Your credible opponents want to know if Bart has a last name. You don’t know. You do know his products are worth the drive. See: your tan is even, beautiful, and dark. Plus there’s no risk of retinopathy. Yellow eyes, you all agree, laughing, are harder to hide than you think.
Your Body, Your Self
Everything in this life comes with side effects. Besides, your period has only ever been a nuisance. Your voice has never commanded attention. Your balding is normal so treat it calmly. In the morning, apply mint extract to the exposed scalp and enjoy the refreshing whiffs you get all day long. In the evening, heat a spoonful of olive oil in a microwave-safe dish, maybe the one with ducklings swimming around the rim, the one you bought at that garage sale with the boy who kept shouting into the faces of his parents that they had no fucking right to sell his football cleats, kept shouting until his mother rose from her lawn chair and slapped him. Heat the oil for thirty-five seconds. While the oil warms, wet your right middle and index fingers under the tap then sprinkle them with cayenne. Massage the pepper into your scalp. Retrieve the oil. Use the same fingers to dab and rub the oil where your hair has stopped growing. The heat on your skin remains like a kiss. Of course there are other solutions. But funds are limited, aren’t they? You have more pressing needs.
Make a list. Mortgage. Student loans. Credit card(s). Rent, electric, cable, gas (cooking). Phone. Car insurance, gas (car). Co-pays. Food, drink. Entertainment. Clothes (work/play/competition). Gym, supplements, equipment. Travel (hotel/car). Rabbit food, rabbitsitter. Money you’ve borrowed from your younger sister. From your older brother. From Bart. Funds come, funds go. The math is relentless.
You watch as the three judges find their seats at a table down in front of the stage. One of them thanks the audience for attending this year’s America’s Next Body. Another judge reminds the audience no decision is ever easy. But rules are rules, he says, twisting a ring on his pinky. To the victor goes the $10,000. The third judge wheezes into his microphone. He loves each and every incredible human specimen up there before him. Loves their obvious dedication. Loves it, loves them. He pauses to wheeze. You think: he loves me and of course he does not love me. He weighs no less than 350 pounds, this pathetic human specimen in his shining yellow golf shirt. He will die very soon. His neighbor will find him in the shower, the water still running, his skin hanging from him in shriveled sheets. When he is dead, no one will find you worthy of love. You think: don’t die, you fucker. Your smile is starting to hurt your cheeks. The judge recovers his breath. He asks the audience to give it up one more time for all the beautiful ladies on stage. They cheer and cheer. Their adoration closes your throat.
What is on the left must be on the right. Nature does it, so you can too. Nonetheless, know where you are misshapen. Your nose hooks to the right. Your ears are uneven on your skull. Your right bicep has three heads; your left has two. There is nothing to be done except to learn to hold yourself hidden. Bend the light around you and make them see your best beauty.
The Office Job
Yours can be found in the Department of Insurance, Producer Licensing Bureau, Sacramento, California. You occupy the beige cubicle down the hall, the one decorated with a cactus and a framed photograph of you, bikini-clad, adorned with the 1st Place wreath in Reno. When they look – and they always look – remind your coworkers they’re welcome to try the whey protein you’ve reserved a shelf for in the kitchen.
Fifth place is announced. Miss Mindy Tuttle, local weakling, steps from the contestant line and waves to the hollering crowd. Her delts are prepubescent. Oil drips from her nervous heels and collects in the stage’s divots. Fourth place is announced. Someone dares nudge you. She insists your name was called, which is impossible, because you need this or Bart will send his men and they will unpack their batting gloves and baseball bats. Or he will appear in your doorway. He will remove his flip-flops. He will show you his dimples before he breaks you open with a hammer. Your name is called again. Go now, instruct the judges. Stand at the stage’s edge and inform them you did not finish fourth. Shatter their eardrums with the sound of your righteousness.
Display your trophies on your shelves, your medals on hooks above the loveseat. Plaques are arranged chronologically down the hall. Ribbons go in the shoebox next to the shoebox with the family photos and Grandpa’s purple heart. Polish your awards every three months. Wear good cotton gloves and use a lint-free cloth. Do not linger. Move on to the next, and the next, and the next.
They enjoy autographed photos and Jolly Ranchers. The dumb ones demand you pick things up. A barrel of rocks in a Kansas City parking lot. A napping grandma in a Durham hotel lobby. You say no to all but the parents’ requests to lift their children. They deposit their children in your arms. You help the little boys and girls find their balance in the palms of your hands. They steady themselves with a hand on your head. They say nothing. Their knees shake then lock. They are reverent. Their parents take pictures. Sometimes, the children are smiling too.
If the judges will not be persuaded, and if the stage’s height can easily be dropped, and if the distance between the stage and the judges’ table is ten feet or less, and if that distance is empty except for cables and brochures advertising Okefenokee Swamp Tours, then fill the space and funnel the air in front of you like storm clouds breaking. See the judges’ faces as that air whipping with your oils and spit lashes their tans and rattles the gold right off their watches. The fat judge moves the fastest. He scatters scorecards, pistachios, toothpicks. The chairs – feeble and Chinese-built – are light enough for you to hurl one after another.
Men require nicknames for their muscles. Thunder and Lightning. Shock and Awe. Rape and Pillage. They tell the same jokes about the gun show, about escaped pythons. Do not play their children’s games. Study anatomy online. Practice your pronunciation. Tensor fascia lata. Serratus anterior. Stand in front of your mirror with a ruler. Point, name, measure.
The cashiers stare. The mommies fumble inside their purses, cough into their fists, and tell their children to be nice. Why? Because you are the reminder. They are feeble and larded with helplessness. One day, they will die. Everyone will die. (You will die.) But alive, you keep the butchers bloody with your orders.
Follow the fat judge into the crowd. The birthmark on the back of his bald head looks like a cupcake. You are so close. You need him to understand. To say your name again but get it right this time. Do not, however, forget that where there are judges there are security guards. And even if the guys beneath the black t-shirts and shades are guys you know from the circuit – and even if you recognize Derrick’s lustrous teeth because he once rushed you into a windowless room at the Hotel Jasmine to snort and fuck and cry and fuck – don’t underestimate the ferocity assumed by people just doing their jobs.
Back home in Pittsburgh, they’re having kids. You carefully choose which of the babies’ photos to Like. The spit-up stained Steelers jersey; the fat legs wrapped around a bottle of Yuengling; the requisite Labrador, its lip stretched wide by a tiny fist. Your friends in Sacramento aren’t interested in children. And really, are you? How would you care for one? How would you feed it? Your tits don’t make milk, remember? They are as hard and round as cannonballs, and you like them that way.
Familiarize yourself with your home’s internal structure. Know, for example, where to find the wall studs. If a wall deserves a hole, don’t break your fist making it. Additionally, consider the deep satisfaction hot on your forehead with every snapped cupboard in the kitchen, the bathroom, both rooms. Or wrap your fist in the silk skirt your mother sent for your birthday and stand in front of your bedroom window and stare again at the pink tricycle abandoned on the abandoned lawn across the street and make the skirt sparkle with the glass you shatter.
Even if Derrick and his friends escort you outside and shove you to the sidewalk, your mouth and ears bleeding, do not be deterred. You’ve bled before and you’ll bleed again. Bleed from holes in your skull if Bart isn’t paid the $8,247 you’ve come to owe him in the past year. Regroup. Prowl the parking lot’s perimeter. Your car is a rental, cramped and cheaply sanitized; don’t go there. Near the sole entrance and exit, lower yourself into the drainage. The judges, they won’t expect you to attack from there. Close your eyes. Lie on your back. You will tell Bart you won. You will tell Bart you need more time. You will tell Bart he can fuck you if that’ll help him forgive. Sink farther into the wetland. The grass is cool velour, the stones smooth and rough. Place a stone at the base of your throat and feel the striations, the hollows. The stone once belonged to a larger thing. It is still part of that larger thing. Will be, always. Breathe now. Stay down, unseen, gator-silent. Let the swamp reclaim your exhaustion. The weakness slips from your limbs and slithers between the tines of a tiara, a kazoo, nips of vodka and rum and something called Rustic Gentleman, someone else’s big day, and it enters the drain’s grates, and is gone. The heart left inside of you is ancient.
On occasion, you might find yourself with time on your hands. Visit malls; go to the food courts; kill hours in the cinnamon air. The best tables have unblocked views. Watch the families feed themselves. They brag, they open bags and hold up hideous sweaters bought for half the retail value. They return to their sickening meals. They reach through small labyrinths of dented cups and soiled wrappers, and they find each other’s hands to hold.
The morning was predawn. Cliff had agreed to let you into the gym early if you let him take pictures of you. He got his way, but so did you. The payoff: there you were, $400 richer and benching 275 no problem, when over the sound of blood in your ears and grunts in your throat you heard footfalls. You finished the rep and closed your eyes. When you opened them, standing above you, his hair a helmet haloed by the ceiling light, was the legend himself. Arnold slid another ninety pounds onto the barbell. “Do it,” he said, helping himself to your hands. He wrapped your fingers around the barbell’s grips. His eyes were gray, Athena-like. “Give me one more,” he said. And you did. You gave it to him.
If the judges have made you doubt yourself, wait. And remember: there are worse places to wait than a drainage in Jacksonville, Florida. The office, for instance, tomorrow morning. There you will have to wait while Sherry the Secretary asks her polite questions and empties lotion into her callusless palms. Or Bart’s soft hands as he claws your hips, his peppermint breath as he leans down with your panties to slick away the cum he has joyfully swung across your eyelids. Or you might have to wait in your kitchen for your parents to decide if they will loan you the money you swore an oath never to ask them for because they worked sixteen-hour days to feed, clothe, and educate their children, and now won’t you look at their big, strong daughter calling up to ask for money? Or should we call you our youngest son? What are you, anyway, besides ungrateful? So, yes, the glass is half full. You are lying in a ditch. You’re not dead (yet) and you’re lying in a ditch waiting for the judges of America’s Next Body. You inspect the nips in case one was thrown out full. You tilt back an empty in the name of certainty. You dig your hands into the wet grass and wish you really were a gator, so that you could disappear into the muck, and be swallowed by slime you miserable lonely freak.
The New Literature: Part II
Everyone has one: a part of your body you decide is most beautiful. Even ugly people have a favorite. Especially ugly people. Yours are your triceps. You built them, inch by inch, with bench dips, bench presses, board presses, body-ups, and hour after hour of skull crushers. Now your sleeves wear out. Now women in the elevator reach for the flab swinging like hammocks from their arms and try to hide it from you. Poor things.
What they all want is for you to stay in the drainage. To disappear. But they aren’t the authors of your story. Know who is? Know who decides you’re better than fourth place, better than your debts and disgraces, better than a middle seat wedged between strangers with no snacks and water for three bucks on a flight to Dayton, Flagstaff, Bismarck, Houston? Of course you do. Rise and prove your worth.
It exists: a span of perfect time. No betrayals, no doubts. Love. Your first was in Spokane. You trailed after two rounds and then you shut down your mind and unleashed your body. You won $2,500. They presented you with an enormous check. The drive home, you lowered the passenger seat for your check like it was a tired friend. You covered it with the blanket you kept in the car because the heater has never worked. Remember that? You buckled its seat belt. You called it Denise. You and Denise sang Styx with the windows down like real friends, outlaws, like renegades who had it made, and you did, absolutely, as you sped along the road into the night.
Nothing from the Top 40. You are not a yapping teenage girl. You are a warrior, and your music is your battle cry. Invest in excellent headphones. Each night, as you fall asleep, listen to your song. Let your poses come to you, the sequences rising like underworld ghosts to instruct. Write down what you can before it’s gone. In the morning, wait to dress. Test each pose in front of your mirror. Don’t be surprised if, at first, you’re unsuccessful. Remember: even Odysseus failed to hug his dead mother.
The judges can’t leave because you won’t let them. Watch them emerge from the convention center. The night wind clutches their diminished hair. See what they are: old men, bitch tits swinging heavily. While they climb into their cars, you pound out thirty, forty, fifty push-ups. Your blood, moving again, swells your muscles. Go and block the exit. Loom. Out in the dark the swamp is groaning.
Three-inch, gold, reinforced rubber soles. A fresh pair every season. Ignore the neighbors’ complaints; they never realize nighttime is the only time for breaking in new heels.
The Acceptance Speech
Thank the judges. Thank the audience. Thank your gym. The flowers someone hands you smell like tires. The emptiness inside you only means you need to eat. You have raisins in your bag. There is an Applebee’s across from your motel. There is a Cracker Barrel across from your motel. There is a Wendy’s across from your motel. There is a Jack in the Box across from your motel. Stay on stage. Watch the judges shuffle towards the exit. Then, it’s your turn.
Around the corner, in his Cadillac, comes the fat judge. His headlights are aimed at you now. Words like stones break from your heart and you ready to hurl them: Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that woman skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, and on end, and on end, after she plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Pittsburgh. But what you really say is, “I have something to say.”
A diet of hay, spinach, tomato, and basil will ensure a long, happy life for your rabbit. Avoid feeding your rabbit too many bananas, as the fruit may cause digestive problems. Also, rabbits don’t like to sleep late. They do, however, enjoy warm covers. A rabbit’s softest part is between her toes.
The table is small, for now. You bought it at a church’s fire sale. You wish someone had carved something into the table. Initials, a cat’s head, a code for you to worry over night after night. But there is nothing. Be sure your chair is comfortable.
Did he hear you? Blind in the headlights, it’s impossible to say if the judge’s window is open. His door remains shut. Tell me: is he listening? Does he still love the battle-spoiled one?