I lay quietly on my bunk in the old maintenance room. The bunk is a springy affair. A metal framed monstrosity that looks like it belonged in some 1920 tuberculosis ward. The mattress doesn’t even reach the full length of the springs. Stopping about a foot short of the frame. I let my feet hang in space between the mattress and the frame.
The day had gone well. Or well enough. I was still secretly terrified of what everyone else thought of me. Squirming inside that they’d figure out the mystery. That they’d find out I was really quite terrible at this soldier thing. That I was fat and slow and didn’t deserve to be in but wasn’t allowed to leave.
It’s a terrible thing this fear. It paralyzes you and prevents you from taking the very steps needed to redeem yourself. This is why I lay on the bunk reading. Because I don’t want to risk someone seeing me working out. Then they’ll know I am not good enough. And so far today, no one has let on that they thought that. So far I am just another guy, here to do a job.
The book I’m reading isn’t very good. I disagree with a major premise and keep getting frustrated by the way the author speaks. I flip page after page until I can no longer pretend I am scanning it and throw the book on the floor in frustration. It makes an odd splatting sound on the cold floor as it does the paper version of a belly flop.
For a while I just lay on my belly and stared sideways at the room. Empty bunk after empty bunk. I can hear doors opening and closing occasionally in the hall but no one comes in. Which is good. I don’t want them to. I want to hear the hum of the lights and the creak of the walls. I want the silence of loneliness.
Lonely. I’m so lonely. I don’t really want company though. Not unless that company comes with some kind of soul enriching validation. I really want validation. Someone to say, “You! Yes you! You are really worth something you know. We need guys like you.” I make do with rubbing the soles of my feet on the bars of the bed. Then I kick the bars. They ring hollowly for a very short time.
I flounce over onto my back and let loose a world weary sigh. Then I flop back on my belly and sigh again. This doesn’t seem to help. I pull myself closer to the end of the bunk and methodically bang my head against the bars of the frame.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
It is all so stupid. I know what I need to do. I know what I should do. I just don’t want to do it. I make up some excuses. “Well, I can’t leave my stuff out or someone will take it. And putting it up takes too much work.” “I’m so tired. Sleeping would be better.” “Is it really my fault anyways? Maybe I lack the genetic disposition for this?”
They all sound hollow. The floor looks inviting. I roll over and let myself slump there staring at the ceiling. After a while I pull myself under the bed. The tight cramped space feels comforting and peaceful.
The feeling doesn’t last. I thump the mattress springs above my head. It just isn’t working.
I get up and do some pushups.
I am too weak. I felt like stopping after the first three. I made it to ten and then willed myself to fifteen. When I got up I was breathing hard.
I sit on the bunk thinking dour thoughts.
As soon as I catch my breath I do fifteen more. I curse at my weak arms. I imagine a world where I’m not trapped by my own stupid flesh. It sounds nice but unbelievable. I’m always going to be fat. I curse at myself for the thought. I can get better. I know I can. I did once before. If I can only remember how I did it.
I feel tired again. I debate eating. I could use the energy but inner voices laugh about a desire for fatty cakes. “Fatty want a cracker?” More curses. I run a hand over my belly rolls. The thought propels me back for more pushups. After ten I’m shaking. I just stay there. Propped up and feeling everything shake. I manage another and then burst out four more. My elbow hurts a little.
Barely forty-five. I remind myself it’s a long game. Not a get rich quick scheme. A long haul. The room feels shady and dark even though the lights are still on the same setting as before. My legs hurt with sympathy pains and anxiety.
I’m so nervous I’m making myself sick I think angrily. Why does the fear freeze me so? Why does worry cripple?
I punch myself hard in the leg. The pain hurts but I don’t feel any more energetic or fulfilled than before. Now my leg hurts. I curse at the world and pace the room.
The room gets boring. I give up and make my way out and down empty hallways. I catch sight of an officer leaving for the night at the end of one hallway but we’re too far apart for social niceties.
I eventually make my way to a darkened gym. I try a pull up and fail. I try again five more times. Each time I get about a third of the way up and then my muscles just quit. I glare hatefully at the bars and then turn. Staring around the room, while I try and catch my breath, I catch sight of a basketball. I meander over and pick it up. When I dribble the echoes bounce off the empty walls and back at me.
I try a few shots. All of them misses, and not anywhere close. I dribble lazily around the outside court taking shots. After a while I try picking up the pace. I run chase after the ball. I lose my breath almost instantly. Fat. Fat. Fat. I quit running and make my way to the free throw line. Here my luck is better. I don’t dare call it skill. It’s clear I don’t have any right now. But whatever you call it, here I’m able to make about every other shot. Then I miss a few in a row and get frustrated again.
I go to mid court and throw my frustration into a long shot. It bounces off the backboard. I trot to intercept the ball and try again. This one doesn’t even hit the backboard. Frustrated I run get the ball and put it away.
On my way to my jacket I see the pull bars again. I try two more times. Two more failures.
My vision is cloudy so I stop for a bit and make my way back to the bunkroom. I’m tired but the tiny workout has helped my mood tremendously. I think about pushups but the hard floor seems to scowl at my back, so I climb onto a top bunk and try some there.
These go slightly better. At least I’m able to do thirty in a row. My belly keeps getting in the way though. Slight pains behind the belly button, small aches in my thighs. But thirty. That’s better than fifteen.
I’m tired now and look at my watch. If I leave right now I might just make it to a bookstore. I can try a better book maybe. I make a deal with myself. Fifteen more pushups and I can go.
The deal works. My elbow hurts but I make it. I make it.
Small victories lead to big ones. If you aren’t dead then you can keep trying. I set another goal for when I get back.