Table of Contents
Jan finished a phone call, put down her cellphone, and unconsciously began to nibble on her nails. I’d better get back to the gym, she thought.
She had been talking to her mother’s assistant, Joshua, about her dress for the dinner party. Joshua — a flamingly gay man who idealized not Barbara Streisand but Betty Crocker — had phoned her to double-check that she was still a size eight before arranging a time to drop off her gown later in the week. Jan panicked and assured him that she was still an eight because she didn’t want him to think she had gotten fat.
The last time Jan had been invited to one of her mother’s formal events was in high school, before she had discovered beer. Jan had been an eight then. She now considered herself to be a size 9½, protesting vehemently that a size ten practically fell off her, yet a size nine just didn’t feel right. Deep down, Jan knew she was a size ten (and that she wasn’t fat), but couldn’t face being double digits when Nichole boasted she was a size six and even Lisa, who wore a size eight, could easily fit into a six if she weren’t so athletic.
So there Jan was, back at the country club and walking on a five percent incline at 3.4 miles per hour on a treadmill from hell. She was sweating profusely and hating every second of it —
all 316 of them so far. She looked down at her screen and considered raising the speed to increase her calories-burned-per-hour ratio, thereby getting her out of there faster. She then considered lowering her speed to increase her comfort level. She glanced up and to her right to find Bob, the same fitness center attendant from her première visit two weeks ago, watching her intently. She decided to raise the incline instead as that seemed a more dramatic move.
Bob smiled approvingly as the front of the treadmill lifted up like a draw bridge, then got up from his desk and walked toward her. Jan’s reciprocal smile changed to a scowl. She wished suddenly that she’d brought a magazine to cover up the display so he couldn’t see how slow she was walking, or even her iPod to discourage him from coming over to speak to her. As usual, Jan hadn’t thought ahead.
“Hey,” Bob said leaning onto the side of her treadmill and peering up into Jan’s bright red face. “Anything I can help you with today? Would you like some water perhaps?” he asked with just the right mix of friendliness and helpfulness that Jan hated because it sounded so insincere in its perfection.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she replied dismissively, hoping he would assume from her tone that she wanted to concentrate on her workout and not that she was too out of breath to say anything more.
“Great, it’s so nice to see you here again. I was concerned when you didn’t come in for your fitness assessment that you might not come back, but here you are.”
Jan nodded absentmindedly. She tuned Bob out almost the moment he had started talking again. She didn’t hear anything until, “Mike will be here any minute. I hope you two have fun.” Bob finished and turned to walk back to his desk.
Jan froze, the name of her ex-boyfriend, and the word “here” momentarily causing her heart to stop along with the rest of her body. The treadmill kept going and Jan’s feet were swept out from under her mid-step. She stumbled clumsily and clutched at the handles to regain her balance.
“Wait a second,” she cried after Bob and leaped from the machine, darting glances left and right, expecting to see her ex-boyfriend lurking behind a weight machine.
“What do you mean?” she asked frantically, visions of her ex-boyfriend, post-steroids, coming to evaluate her.
“Mike, our head personal trainer, said he’d be back from lunch at two for a fitness assessment. When you showed up, I just assumed you were who he was meeting.”
“No, I’m not,” she said firmly and spun around to escape just as a gorgeous older man in a uniform identical to Bob’s strode through the fitness center door and stopped her with a smile. Jan was in love. He was perfect. Perfectly toned, perfectly tanned, and perfectly placed right in front of her where she didn’t have to look too hard to find him.
“Good afternoon, Mike,” Bob called from his desk in his best imitation of a receptionist. “This is Jan.”
Jan smiled with her entire body. Mike reached to shake her hand and politely gripped it firmly, but not too hard. Jan felt sparks fly when their fingers touched.
“I thought she was your two o’clock,” continued Bob. Jan was barely listening as she gazed adoringly at Mike, thinking how glad she was that he was not her ex-boyfriend. “I guess they aren’t here yet.”
“How disappointing,” Mike flirted and leaned toward her. “I do hope you will be taking advantage of my services in the near future.”
Jan nearly swooned at his innuendo but fought to keep control of herself, at least as long as Bob was around. I’m not interested in dating him, she told herself, but I never said I was joining a convent.
“Maybe my two o’clock won’t show up and then I can take you now,” Mike offered playfully.
Jan gulped. “I guess, if you get stood up, I might be persuaded to step in,” she replied coquettishly.
Mike laughed. He had a deep, manly laugh that sent chills up Jan’s spine.
Bob coughed. It was the worst excuse-me-but-I’m-still-in-the-room cough Jan had ever heard, but she was grateful nevertheless. She suddenly realized where she was and who she was flirting with. Mike was clearly older than her — too old, most likely, judging by the laugh lines around his eyes. More importantly though, he worked at a place that her dad frequented. That in and of itself was enough to turn Jan off.
As it turned out, Mike wasn’t at all interested in her anyway. This became painfully clear after his appointment failed to show up and he’d convinced Jan to take their place — as his next torture victim. For exactly fifty-five minutes, Mike took Jan through a roller coaster ride of emotional and physical anguish. He weighed Jan, took her measurements, and discovered her body fat percentage (twenty-six percent, well above average for her age and gender).
He also put her through a three-minute step test to analyze the effectiveness of her cardiorespiratory system. He told her that her recovery heart rate was 133 beats per minute in the same tone he’d deliver the message that she was unable to bear children. He then made her do as many push-ups and sit-ups as she could without stopping and compared her numbers (zero and nineteen) to a chart that listed norms for her age. He determined that her muscular endurance, like her cardiovascular endurance, was below average.
The last trial he put her through was a sit-and-reach test. Jan relaxed when he announced this, as she was fairly confident that she was capable of both sitting and reaching. But when Mike got out the measuring tape, Jan knew it wouldn’t be as simple as she hoped. Three times in a row, Jan strained to reach as far as she could, her palms barely brushing her knees, and Mike recorded how far she got. Even after taking her best score, he informed her that she was the least flexible person he had ever tested. It was a sad performance all around.
Then again, Jan was used to scoring badly on tests. She’d failed the IQ and aptitude tests her mother had forced upon her when she was four years old. Although Jan discovered years later that those tests, like the ones Mike had just put her through, could not actually be failed per se, her mother had certainly acted like she believed it.
Mike interrupted her thoughts. “That simply means there is a lot of room to improve,” he said enthusiastically. “And with the right guidance from one of our excellent certified personal trainers, you can become stronger, thinner, and healthier — quickly and safely.”
And that was it. Jan was hooked by the promise of redemption. She bought 30 sessions (barely blinking at the $2,000 cost) and handed over her dad’s credit card. She then promised to report for her first session the next day promptly at 11 AM, which was early enough to ensure Jan wouldn’t be late to class. She gave herself a mental pat on the back for breaking her go-nowhere-before-noon rule and promised herself a piece of Starbucks coffee cake as a reward.
But when Mike handed her the business card of one Shauna Collins and Jan realized her personal trainer would be a woman — presumably a fitter, skinnier and prettier one than herself --
her smile turned upside down. It was one thing to feel physically inferior standing next to a meathead like Mike; it was quite another to be compared side-by-side with a female version. Jan was sure she would hate her.
Surprise, surprise, Jan was wrong. She adored Shauna instantly.
At five feet eleven inches, with spiky brown hair and eyes like fire, Shauna was the kind of woman that could make others listen without raising her voice, could inspire a couch potato to run a marathon, and could even get Jan up before 10 AM (something her mother hadn’t been able to do since Jan’s eighteenth birthday). She radiated self-control and charm. Jan wanted to be just like her.
During their first session that Wednesday, Shauna had taken one look at Mike’s less-than-satisfactory assessment and ripped it apart. Jan felt like cheering as Shauna sprinkled the pieces into the recycling bin.
“I don’t believe in assessments,” Shauna said firmly. “I expect you to work your ass off when you’re with me, not to advance yourself into some higher assessment category, but because looking and feeling better are their own rewards. Now that I’ve destroyed Mike’s notes, tell me what your real goals are.”
Jan stalled for time by drinking some water from the bottle she had in her hand. She wanted to think of something to impress her new idol.
“I’d like to tone up,” Jan began, unaware that she was already sounding like every other woman Shauna had trained. “And maybe lose ten pounds by Halloween. But I don’t want to get big.”
The disappointment in Shauna’s eyes made Jan want to cry. Shauna folded her perfectly sculpted arms across her chest and looked Jan right in the eye.
“Jan, I’ll be honest with you. First of all, you won’t be able to lose ten pounds of fat in twelve days, not in a healthy manner. Secondly, every woman that comes in here says they want to lose weight and firm up. Not once has a woman asked me to help her put on muscle. And why is that, do you think?”
“Because they don’t want to look like men?”
“Exactly.” Jan felt dizzy with pleasure at answering a question correctly.
“Which is complete bullshit!” said Shauna. Jan’s bubble exploded.
“Historically, women have been weaker than men, slower than men, and smaller than men, yet just as intelligent. And do you know what it’s gotten us?”
Jan was smart enough to keep her mouth closed this time.
“Inequality,” Shauna answered herself. “Women have been victimized, treated as slaves, and in some countries are still considered property.”
“If you don’t want to put in the time and work to become a body builder, then that’s fine by me. But don’t be afraid to get strong. So what if some guy makes a snide remark about your ‘guns’.”
Jan nodded, even though she had no idea what “guns” meant. “Do you think he’ll mess with you if he recognizes you’re as strong as he is?”
Jan shook her head.
“Right,” Shauna said and put her hand up for a high five. Jan tried to oblige but her aim sucked and she missed Shauna’s hand completely, almost losing her balance in the process.
“I guess we’ll start on hand-eye coordination and balance drills,” Shauna joked.
Jan laughed nervously. Drills? What have I gotten myself into?
The next morning, Jan was too sore to laugh, nervously or otherwise. She was too sore to bitch, too sore to move, and even too sore to cry. But not too sore to bite her nails. Nibble.
Jan had DOMS, delayed onset of muscle soreness. During her workout, she’d felt some burning and muscle fatigue, but she left feeling better than she started. Now her abs hurt worse than if she’d been hit by a cannonball, her pecs were so tight she couldn’t have pushed herself up off her bed to save her life, and her triceps refused to allow her to straighten her arms. Even after rolling herself off of her bed — her arms held firmly against her chest entwined like strands of DNA — and taking a hot shower (she had to turn it on with her elbows), Jan couldn’t relax. Her whole body throbbed in agony. She wondered if Lisa could get her a prescription for morphine.
Her next session that Friday was a little better, as was each subsequent workout thereafter. But the pain didn’t go away. Jan stretched, warmed up, and cooled down like she was supposed to, yet she was always sore the next day. Shauna told her that was a good thing. It meant her muscles were being pushed hard enough to make a difference. Not being sore after working out usually meant you had wasted your time, Shauna said. Jan had a hard time accepting that working out with the intention of being sore was a goal fit for a sane person.
Yet she kept going back for more. She was addicted to the high she got from working out and mastering exercises she would have never dreamed herself capable of. It was only after she had gotten home from a good workout and returned to her lonely apartment that her accomplishments were overshadowed by the dread of her mother’s party looming over her like a dark cloud, threatening to descend upon her at any moment and suffocate her.
When Halloween became less than seventy-two hours away, Jan realized that she had nothing left to chew on. Her fake fingernails were history and her real nails were bitten down to the cuticles. Her Tic Tacs were long gone. She kept staring at her nails, willing them to grow so she could resume biting them.
“I think it’s time to buy some Halloween candy,” Jan said happily. She grabbed her keys and rushed to the store.
The day before Halloween was rather pleasant despite Jan’s anxiety. She had an early appointment with Shauna and then sped home to meet Joshua. He showed up at her door with an elegant backless dress. He also carried a picnic basket full of organic fruit, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and soy milk.
After coming in and air-kissing Jan hello, he begged her mercilessly to try on the dress for him. Despite her fear that even after her killer workouts with Shauna the dress might not fit, she agreed.
It fit, practically. She couldn’t zip it up all the way or breathe normally, but it was on. In Jan’s mind, that meant it fit.
As she twirled around like a princess for Joshua while “oohed” and “ahhed”, then politely suggested she try getting some sun before the party.
“Your back is whiter than my ex-boyfriend’s tightie whities,” Joshua joked. Jan stopped twirling. She wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Okay, sweetheart,” Joshua said. “I’d better go before your mom senses I’m having a good time and sues me.” That definitely brought a smile to Jan’s lips. She was baffled that her parents had hired assistants that were polar opposites of each other, and equally better suited for the other parent.
After Joshua left, Jan called Lisa over to see her Halloween “costume.”
“It’s beautiful,” Lisa cooed. “I’m so jealous. All I could think to be for Halloween was a Bush supporter.”
Jan forced herself to laugh even though she didn’t understand Lisa’s choice.
“It was the scariest thing I could think of,” Lisa said unapologetically. “Becki’s going as a Happy Cow.”
“What!” Jan choked. Her dress nearly split as she gasped.
“You know, from those Real Cheese commercials? Happy cows come from California?”
“Sure,” Jan lied. An image of Becki in a cow costume popped into her head and within moments Jan was holding her sore abs and whooping with laughter.
Lisa said she didn’t get what was so funny, but Jan could see the sparkle in her eyes.
Becki showed up a little while later. Jan modeled her dress for her and Becki echoed Joshua’s suggestion that she get some sun. The three decided to lie out on campus to tan.
A few minutes later, the girls were relaxing in the sun and gossiping about people they knew. They then gossiped about celebrities and finally moved on to characters on TV.
Lisa, who never had time to watch television, tried to change the subject. She began telling a story that she assured them would be hilarious. It involved her study group, a fake skeleton, and someone quoting Shakespeare during their anatomy review, but when Jan yawned and turned her head away, Lisa switched gears and brought up a topic sure to interest Jan: herself.
“So, are you taking anyone to your mother’s party tonight, or has she hired an escort for you?” Lisa asked with mock seriousness.
Becki giggled. Jan pushed herself into a sitting position and looked over Lisa to where Becki was lying on her back. Jan lifted her sunglasses onto her forehead and stared blankly at Becki for a few seconds as if to say, “What’s so funny?” Her cool-girl stare would have been more effective if Jan hadn’t balked when she noticed how thin Becki had gotten. Her pink bikini (is that Gucci?) showed off a much leaner and healthier body than Jan remembered, though she was happy to notice the lack of muscle tone. She relaxed back onto her towel, her sunglasses falling back into place in front of her eyes, and felt smug that soon she would have abs of steel whereas Becki would still have abs of tinfoil.
“I invited a friend from my massage class,” she answered, realizing that she was even luckier than she’d previously thought that Juan had offered to go with her. Otherwise, her mother probably would have hired an escort for her.
Anything for the sake of appearances.
Lisa’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“Ooh, who is this ‘friend’?” Becki asked. “Is he cute?”
“His name is Juan and he’s just a friend.” Jan felt her cheeks get warm and turned away. She could feel Lisa smiling at her and knew she had seen her blush. “It’s possible to be friends with boys, you know.”
“Not for you,” mumbled Lisa.
“Well, I bet whoever he is he’ll look hot in a tux,” Becki said dreamily.
“Oh shit.” Jan sat up quickly and began digging in her bag for her cellphone.
“What’s up?” Lisa asked.
“I never told him it was black tie. I doubt he regularly rents tuxedos for dinner parties just in case. I doubt he’s even been to a dinner party before.” Jan scrambled to uncover her recent calls list to find Juan’s phone number. She’d just bought her cellphone last week after her old one had dived of its own volition into her toilet. She didn’t know how the new one worked yet. Like the rest of the world, she preferred to endure numerous struggles trying to figure out how her phone worked instead of reading the manual and saving herself the trouble.
Once she finally found his number, called him to clarify the dress code, and apologized profusely for not saying anything before, Jan breathed a sigh of relief. Juan had reassured her that he had a big family and at least one of his uncles or cousins would have a tuxedo he could borrow for the event. He then quickly got off the phone, saying he was on his way to work, and that he would see her in class tomorrow before hanging up.
Jan was indignant. Her mother hung up on her, her father hung up on her, but she was the one who hung up on everyone else.
Before she could share her outrage with her friends, Becki asked what Jan was going to do with her hair for the party. Jan really wanted to answer with some brilliant, well-thought-out plan, but nothing came to her. She couldn’t wear a hat, her mother would shoot her. Another French braid like the one Lisa had done for her a few weeks before was out of the question. Not sophisticated enough.
Jan was wondering if her mother would have her arrested if she wore her hair down to a formal event when Lisa said worriedly, “Your mother will have a cow if you show up with that hair do.”
Cow. Jan busted up laughing.
Lisa glared as if she had read her mind. Jan stopped and rubbed her ever-sore abs.
“I’ll call Raven,” Jan said enthusiastically. One of the things she loved about her hairdresser was that even though Raven was always pushing her to experiment, she understood that sometimes society demanded that one appear ordinary.
Becki opened her mouth to say something, but Jan shushed her as the phone connected. It rang four times before Raven’s cheerful voicemail message said that she was vacationing in Salem for Halloween and to have “an amazing day”.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit!” she exclaimed and banged her hand on the ground. Jan considered suicide as the only remaining option that wouldn’t result in her mother killing her.
“I’ll do it,” said Becki cheerfully.
For a second, Jan thought she was offering to help her kill herself. The thought made her want to live, if only to piss Becki off.
“Do what?” Lisa asked.
Becki turned to Lisa. “Help Jan with her hair, duh,” she said matter-of-factly. Jan didn’t know anyone could say something as lame as “duh” seriously.
Lisa looked skeptical. “Do you know a lot about styling hair, Becki?”
“Please,” she said confidently. “I’m from the Valley. Of course I know how to style hair.”
That seemed to settle matters for Lisa, who beamed at Becki and gave her an awkward hug.
“Well, there you go,” Lisa said after turning her back to Becki and fixing Jan with a warning stare. “Becki will do your hair for you.”
Faced with the decision to either end her life or let Becki near her hair, and also owe her a favor, Jan was confused. Either possibility had pros and cons, but she eventually gave in to Becki and Lisa’s suggestion.
“All right,” Jan said and looked at Becki. “Let’s do a test run now and if it looks okay, you can try it again tomorrow.”
She could always off herself later.
Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to. Becki managed to corral every last piece of her wild hair into an elegant up-do that even Jan admitted was stunning. Becki had run home to pick up some kind of hair crack. When she spritzed it on Jan’s head, the result was a beautiful, healthy shine.
So, this is how models get that glossy shine. Amazing.
“Thanks,” Jan said to Becki’s reflection in the mirror. Jan turned her head and smiled warmly at Becki. “Really, Becki. I’m very impressed. My hair looks amazing.”
Becki clasped her hands together and jumped up and down.
“I... I know!” Becki said with pure Valley Girl intonation. She dragged out the “I” for several seconds, her voice raising almost an octave from beginning to end.
For once, Jan noticed that Becki’s screech didn’t sound like nails on a chalkboard. Her voice was still annoying but when Jan turned back to the mirror and was reminded how good she looked, she was too happy to care.
“I’ll come over tomorrow afternoon to fix your hair again. And I’ll do your makeup too.”
Jan barely heard Becki’s excited offer. She was too busy wondering if Juan would notice how nice she looked when he picked her up the next day.
Not that she cared what Juan thought about her appearance, she told herself.
But she knew she did.