Lev Raphael

My Health Club Blues

As a long-term prognosis, it didn’t seem too bad.

“Next time you’re in Europe, think twice,” the surgeon predicted weeks before surgery on my right knee. “If you climb a bunch of stairs to check out some famous view from anywhere, you’ll be really miserable the next day, maybe more.”

“Even if I wear a brace?”

He nodded. “Just avoid stairs in general from now on, that’s my advice. Anywhere.”

Dr. S. was the ideal doctor: warm, good-humored, someone who listened carefully and answered questions clearly. He made the dull, generic office bright with life, so his warning didn’t sound dire.
And I wasn’t headed to Europe soon anyway—maybe things would change. Of course, when you end up with 80% of your meniscus removed, that doesn’t change, since it’s not as if you’re a starfish going to regenerate a limb. But I was hopeful.

Hopeful and not thinking clearly about day-to day life with my hidden disability once I was healed, no longer on pain medication, and more mobile.

My mid-century ranch house had just two steps at the front door and two down into the garage, so that wouldn’t be problematic, and I wasn’t on crutches for long. But I was a regular gymgoer and hadn’t thought ahead about what avoiding stairs could mean in my home away from home.

Growing up in northern Manhattan, I was a fiercely bookish and awkward kid, uninterested in sports, chunky as a teenager, and it wasn’t until I started jogging in my twenties that I started to loosen the grasp of discomfort about my body which matched my uneasiness about coming out. I preferred jogging alone at sunrise on a high school track near our apartment building when we moved to Queens. I didn’t care that I had to cross mammoth, eight-lane Queens Boulevard and all those stopped drivers could be watching me: I felt like someone in Star Trek: in my running clothes I felt my shields were up.

Ten years later, finding myself overweight thanks to bad knees, I joined a health club and kept at it. My goal was never to become cut or swole, a bruiser or beefcake. I wanted something both simple and terribly complex: to feel at one with the body I had, to move through time and space without feeling exposed. In a way, I just wanted to be ordinary. My husband and I worked with a trainer who was our age and not a maniac, and regular days at the gym (which is what we called it) became a kind of balm. As an extrovert, I enjoyed the casual conversations with other regulars—and yes, being called “Bro” and “Buddy” even by trainers. I seemed to fit in.

The mammoth health club had a bright airy entrance inviting you into a veritable health palace with two pools, a gigantic workout floor, another whole floor for cardio, studios for spin classes and yoga, and an indoor track. But to get to the locker rooms and that main workout floor, you had to go down a long staircase with two landings. There was an elevator, but it was inconveniently off in another part of the complex, added when the building was expanded.

We’d been members there for over twenty years, but suddenly I felt excluded. Because to get to the elevator, I’d have to sign in, go back out to the lobby and across into the other wing with doctor’s offices, then wait for the very slow elevator, go downstairs and be buzzed in via intercom. That seemed ridiculous.

But the other choice wasn’t better—or was it? If I parked in the back lot, there was that intercom and a grim narrow corridor, perfect for a serial killer movie, which led right to the men’s locker room I had always used. I could change there as usual and work out with weights and bands on the same floor, but the cardio I liked best—and could use with care after surgery—was one floor up from there. That meant slowly retracing my steps through two automatic doors to the intercom and taking the elevator up, passing through the cavernous outer lobby and down a better-looking corridor, then buzzing to be let in through what was clearly marked as an exit door.

If it sounds circuitous and tedious, it was. Especially when the door didn’t work—which happened a lot—or they were busy at the front desk and I was low priority, or someone new didn’t recognize my name. That last hassle got so frustrating that I finally had to get the manager to make a note in my file about my having had surgery. That way, when my name came up on a welcome desk clerk’s screen after I buzzed to be let in, they’d know I had permission to get into the main floor via the exit door and wasn’t trying to scam anyone. It happened: people did try to get free workouts and there were also occasional thefts, so I understood the need for security.

But the back and forth, the extra time it took to get where I wanted to be, was enervating and I seemed to be the only person making this limping pilgrimage.

I wanted my routine to stay the same: cardio first, then downstairs to do free weights or machines or some of both, but I was out of luck. My normal routine was disrupted and it often worked my last nerve.
There’s no music played over the loudspeakers in this club and the high ceilings tended to absorb sound, even from the Zumba classes. But the lonely corridor was often filled with noise: the radio in the club’s restaurant on one side; chatter, lectures, and PowerPoint presentations in various rooms on the right.

The very last door on that side opened to the back of the large open-plan office for a dozen trainers, most of whom were half my age or less.

Some weeks into my new route, one of them stood in that doorway looking puzzled as I contacted the front desk to ask to be let in. Like many of her colleagues, she was only in her twenties, very fit, and she said almost suspiciously, “Lev, what are you doing here?”

“I can’t take the stairs.”

She frowned. “Why not?”

“Because I had knee surgery and I’m disabled.”

Now she was seriously flummoxed. “But you’re in good shape—you don’t look disabled.”

Was that a compliment? Curiosity? Or ignorance on the part of someone who should have known better, given her field?

I passed it off with a joke: “Well, I’ve got lots of secrets.”

The heavy No Entrance door buzzed, I pushed open the ling metal bar and left the trainer behind. I don’t know if my situation gave her anything to ponder, but I realized something surprising:

After those long years of feeling disconnected and physically shy, after more years of slowly letting go of all of that, I was actually fine calling myself disabled. I felt no shame, but more like myself. I’d come out once before: this was not going to be as dramatic.

And I realized that a new door had opened for me as a writer.

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About the Author

Lev Raphael dreamed of being a writer in second grade and that dream has more than come true. Lev’s creative nonfiction and fiction are taught at universities across the United States, he has given hundreds of invited talks and readings on three continents, and a major university bought his literary papers for their Special Archives. Hailing from a family of teachers, Lev works as an editor, coach, and mentor with writers from around the world. He had an amazing mentor in college and it’s no cliché to say that “Pass it on” has been Lev’s mantra. You can visit him online at https://writewithoutborders.com/.