As awkward social situations go, there are some that bypass the realm of vaguely uncomfortable and meander towards the nightmarish. Casually badmouthing an acquaintance to someone you later discover is their spouse/sister/best friend. Coming across your ex on Tinder (did he right swipe me? will he know if I don’t right swipe him? WHAT is the etiquette here?). Accidentally sending messages to the person you are thinking of, rather than the person you are actually intending to contact (unlimited possibilities for embarrassment there).
Not that any of these things has ever happened to me. But speaking theoretically.
Well two days ago I claimed the dubious credit of being able to add another of these scenarios to my realm of experience.
It all started as I was on my way to the gym. Perhaps the fact that I was on my way to the gym should have been sufficient indication that things were going to go awry. My relationship with the gym is tumultuous, to say the least.
Anyway, it was a weekend and I was ready to work out – a state that for me requires quite considerable psychological preparation. My gym is in a hotel five minutes away from where I live. I had just persuaded myself that the coffee I was aching to drink should be a post-workout reward as opposed to a pre-workout pick me up, when a voice floated towards me from the ether.
“Excuse me, don’t I know you from salsa? You’re Lucy”.
The voice seemed uncannily aware of my identity and habits. I assented, and tried to look composed. Obviously I get recognised on the street on a daily basis by random voices, and the people to whom they belong.
In the burning heat of a Cairo afternoon, we held a sweaty conversation. It turned out that the voice belonged to a Colombian man who I had met at a salsa night some years ago, who works some 120 miles north of the city. He visits Cairo infrequently and happened to be staying at the hotel my gym is located in. All well and good. New people are nice, and I understand the curious loneliness you can feel returning to a city that often serves as a thoroughfare for people seeking a more permanent location to settle in.
We agreed to catch up at a later point. Then he saw that I too was entering the hotel, and learned that I was planning to go to the gym. Eager-eyed, he told me that he would come and have a look around.
Here I must issue some disclaimers. Firstly, it was clear that Friendly Colombian Guy was genuinely a likable person. Secondly, I am also a nice person. Really I am. I like people, and generally get on well in social situations. You could even call me sociable.
But if there is one place where I absolutely do not want to interact with anyone, where I have a dislike for human contact bordering on the pathological, it is the gym.
To fully understand this, you probably have to explore a range of issues related to self-image and identity that I don’t want to bore you with here. But let’s just say that it all runs deep enough to provoke the odd minor existential crisis. Nothing too troublesome, unless you happen to be caught in the middle of it.
You see, I have never been what you might call “sporty”. You know the type. Long-limbed, flowing haired. At the school I went to most sporty girls were lacrosse players, meaning they enjoyed having what was basically a cricket ball thrown at their faces on a blustery winter afternoon when their hands were essentially cracked red, raw and frozen from the cold. Which I think says it all, really.
Until I discovered salsa, at university, I was always the girl who never quite made it to netball and tennis teams. A proud reserve, for many years. Even at uni, I would half-heartedly attempt to go running with friends who had decided to take up rowing in their spare time. I did admire these friends who had the kind of stamina that suited a 7am run; I really did. I just knew, as I finished grumpy, bedraggled and fifteen minutes later than everyone else, that this did not suit me.
Salsa transformed exercise, which previously had felt like a chore, into pure joy. Going to a club and dancing for five hours straight never felt like work, never required half the psyching up needed for half an hour’s so-called gentle jogging.
But even running itself, it turned out – given the right context – could be bearable. Several years ago, someone I love very much was facing an illness, something I could do very little about. I signed up to do a 10K run because somehow the psychological effort it took me to train for and complete this horrible task felt like part of me tackling my own set of demons. And in doing so I felt as though it helped this person in his own fight.
So I experience a perverse sense of satisfaction when I run. It is a subjugation of the needs of the body (oxygen) and, to some extent, the spirit (dignity, a sense of pride) to, well, sheer bloody grit (stubbornness). And lactic acid.
But make no mistake about it – when I “run” I look precisely like the female version of Simon Pegg in Run Fatboy Run. Except my hair is more auburn than carrot. And my face a little more like a tomato.
It is not a pretty picture.
So you can imagine my reaction when, ten minutes after my arrival at the gym, Friendly Colombian Guy appears, all smiles. And starts jogging, on the treadmill beside me. And tries to start up a conversation. I don’t mean a “isn’t it hot today”, let’s-make-small-talk conversation. I mean a full-on “what do you do for a living”, let’s-gaze-at-you-intently-even-though-we-are-both-running-on-treadmills kind of conversation.
Who does this? Honestly, who goes to the gym to engage in this kind of conversation?
I gestured helplessly to my ipod in a movement meant to signify that this situation was entirely out of my control. The ipod was in charge here, and the ipod was saying don’t talk.
He kept talking.
Flashbacks to terrible sports situations of my past. Fear of imminent heart attack from attempting to sustain a running pace that would push me to my limits and continue a conversation. Thighs on fire.
And here is the thing with existential crises. They are unpleasant, deeply so. But one way or another, they do force you to confront who you are.
I recognised, in this crucial moment, that I would never be the woman who wakes up with a smile at 6am to go running. Or, indeed, the kind of chipper soul who can simultaneously run and have a friendly chat.
If I’m lucky, I will be the woman who drags herself out of bed at 8am, goes to the gym with a grimace and is semi-human after a coffee by 10am. The idea of running will probably always make me shudder inside.
But luckily, after quite a lot of work, I have learned to also be the woman who is capable of setting certain boundaries. Meaning that, when it became clear that I had to choose between perceived impoliteness and asphyxiation/utter discomfort and misery, I chose the former. Telling Friendly Colombian Guy the truth, that without rigid mental fixation on my goal I would almost certainly collapse in a heap on the treadmill, I eluded forced conversation.
And saved my lung power for breathing. Slash gasping. Slash battling for air.
Shame the same could not be said for my dignity, but there you go.
As I have learned, you can’t have it all.
But what I lacked in pride, I made up for in breathing space. And thankfully, in that moment, that was good enough for me.