Working Out by Zoë Green

The gymnastic rings oscillate lazily in the breeze and the scent of hot pine sharpens the air. The pond below the calisthenics spot glistens, and so too do the globules of resin popping from the trees’ bark. The metal pull-up bars burn to the touch.

The sunlight shining through the leaves’ interstices makes her lipstick glisten too. Her lipstick is the nacreous pink of doughnut icing. Sitting on her log – and without breaking eye contact – she sweeps her tongue slowly over the taut pillows of her lips. 

He wants to be the beating blood beneath her skin, he thinks, as he drops his new gym bag next to her canvas backpack. The skin of our lips is a hundred times more sensitive than our fingertips; he wonders if she knows this. She must be knowledgeable since she’s always reading. White veins have developed on the buckled corners of her War and Peace, which, he sees, is sitting ready by her neat white trainers. So far this year, she’s consumed Anna Karenina, The Magic Mountain and Middlemarch – and that’s just since May, when they first saw each other, each alone on their respective logs at the calisthenics spot, and neither working out.

Hitching up his black work trousers, Daniel settles his arse on his own log, which welcomes his spread thighs. Thighs that his wife, Alessia, believes are too substantial, hence why he has been sent here with the sling trainer to work out. A breeze blows through the leaves; the sensation of the sweat evaporating off his face and neck is wonderful. 

She is a breath of fresh air. Ella. They’ve never actually spoken, but he knows her name from the flyleaf of one of her books. ‘Ella’ suits her: solid and purposeful and sweet all at once.

Ella delves into her canvas backpack and extracts a bakery bag. She coaxes out a doughnut and he realizes it is icing on her lips, and not makeup. She scoops the goop off the top with her fingers and sucks them. Her wedding ring glints in the sunlight.

He turfs Complete Guide to TRX Suspension Training; the best exercises and most effective workouts onto the ground, where it sprawls, pages crumpled in surprise. The slice of quiche he removes from his Tupperware box quivers as he raises it to his mouth.

He imagines her thighs quivering as she–

He takes a bite, feels her eyes fixed hungrily on his mouth, which waits wetly amid his copper-red beard. He chews. 

Her own mouth is parted. She leans forward, the string securing her drawstring blouse loosening so that he catches a glimpse of–

Breast – chicken breast – and cherry tomato, sweet and tart. 

He always brings something egg-based. Either these hardboiled painted eggs that the Co-op sells, or muscular slabs of quiche. Sometimes, if he can procure them from the café, those vanilla-flavoured Portuguese egg tarts: Pastéis de Nata. On other days, slices of tortilla or triangular egg sandwiches stitched with cress. 

Egg is home. Egg is childhood. Egg is the beach on Arran, a tartan rug, sand blowing into the egg salad, giving it that crunch. Egg is his grandmother and the knowledge that after the cold shock of the sea comes the warmth of the towelled robe and promise of tea-time.

His wife, who is a self-taught authority on nutrition, says egg is the single worst thing you can eat. ‘Think about it, Daniel: think about what it actually is.’ 

Thinking about it makes his stomach gurn.

With his right hand, he extends the Tupperware box across the strip of dry grass where he should be doing sit-ups right now. Ella matches him, extending her doughnut hand and, with the grace of two prima ballerinas, they swap. Her mouth, with its fine white teeth, closes on the flank of his quiche. Her throat undulates as she swallows. He closes his lips around the doughnut’s soft belly, ejaculating saliva. When they’re finished, they brush the crumbs from their clothes and suck the final notes of flavour from their fingers. She pulls out War and Peace; he gets back to the TRX manual. The sling trainer itself lies coiled in its net bag beside him, like a venomous snake with its mouth stitched up.

“Good time?” Alessia calls from the bathroom as he arrives home.

“Hard work, but I think I made progress. It’s all about technique.”

Poking his head around the bathroom door, he sees only the back of her white-blonde head as she crouches behind the jacuzzi, sorting laundry. He notices that she holds his boxers between the pincers of her thumb and first finger. “Good. That TRX was flipping expensive.’ She’s the kind of person who always tells you how much a gift cost.

She glances over her shoulder. “Why aren’t you in your workout gear?” When she stands, he sees that she herself is sucked into black and pink Lycra. What was it this evening? Pilates? HIIT? Yoga?

“I changed; I feel self-conscious in them.”

“You won’t when you lose some weight.”

“I think I’m building muscle. It’ll take a while for any weight loss to show.”

“Right.” She flexes an eyebrow. Her eyebrows are very fine, but very expressive. His own face is doughy and lazy. It doesn’t say much, even to him. “Did you do the shopping?” she asks.

Fuck. “I forgot.”

“Well, what will we eat for dinner?” She drums her lacquered nails on the laundry basket.

“I’m not hungry.”

“You should get some protein. Have a smoothie – one out of the tin. There’s chocolate flavour.”

“It’s okay.” As far as he’s concerned, pets eat out of tins.

“You see: you’re learning. You eat because you’re bored at work. If I had your job, I’d boredom-eat. But when you work out, you’re not bored, so you don’t eat. Winning all round.” Alessia often speaks in slogans that he suspects she picks up from the gym. “Why are you smirking?”

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She picks up slogans like other people pick up verrucae. He has a theory that people who speak in quotations don’t read much. Alessia’s literary forays encompass nutrition labels and motivational memes. When he suggested they put up a bookshelf in the living room, she bemoaned that it would ‘just take up space’.

She doesn’t like things that take up space.

A new tube of depilation cream lies on the sink. She’s always removing bits of herself: filing off skin and nail, ripping out hair or melting or tweezing it. She even had a bit of her nose chopped off two years ago and, two years before that, chunks sliced off her thighs and stomach. Next year, she wants them to cut into the skin along her jawline and pull her face up in the places where disappointment in him has made it deflate like an old balloon. Her words, not his. The bits of herself she doesn’t remove, she upcycles (her word). The hair, for example, which she bleaches every four weeks and has styled into a severe pixie cut, hard with gel so as to resist stroking.

“I’m coming with you tomorrow,” she says. “To the parcours.”

“You don’t trust me?”

She looks genuinely surprised. “No. I just thought I’d come and try it out. You’re always saying how nice it us up there in the woods.”

They walk along the woodchip path that winds between the pines. Because the calisthenics spot is higher up in the valley than their house, the air feels cooler, fresher. “This is really lovely,” she says. “I might come here more often after work.”

“What about HIIT?” he says. “And kick-boxing?”

“True. I get a discount, but I’ve still paid for them.”

He watches the muscles in her tanned calves clench like fists as she strides ahead. Today her workout gear comprises black Lycra capris and a lemon-yellow t-shirt. She drinks hot water with lemon before breakfast every day ‘to detox’. He was naïve enough to ask one day if her kidneys didn’t do a good enough job. Alessia is not a woman to be questioned. 

There’s a bend in the path right before the workout spot, which lies a little up the hill ahead. It’s impossible to see if anyone is there until the last minute. So he’s not sure Ella’s in situ until he manages to overtake Alessia, powerwalking around the bend. There she is, sitting with her face turned up towards the sun, eyes closed. Her hair, neither blonde nor brown but something safe and strokable in between, washes down her back. Next to her, on her log, sits the reassuring shape of a Tupperware box. White trainers, unbesmirched by physical exertion. 

Hearing the crumbling of woodchips beneath their feet, Ella opens her eyes and meet his apologetic ones with a smile – but, in the next instant, her eyelashes flicker like a moth’s wings beating against a burning bulb as she takes in the vespid form of his wife. He makes a grunting noise low down in his throat – what the hell was that? – and turns his back on Ella, shaking the sling trainer from its net. Thank God he spent all these sessions reading the training manual, for at least he knows what he’s meant to do – though, vengeful after its neglect, the TRX is intent on an argument, its tight black bands resisting being untangled. Alessia’s already into a second set of burpees by the time he’s successfully attached himself to a bar to commence press ups, his feet noosed by the TRX. How the heck is she not getting splinters, his mind gripes, as he presses his body away from the forest floor, the sides of his abdomen clenched in a scream. By the time he’s finished, his palms are purple and scored with the pattern of woodchips; sweat sucks his heavy cotton t-shirt to the skin of his back. With his face composed into and ‘I’m gutted she’s here too’ expression, he glances at Ella, but she’s wading deep in War and Peace. Now Alessia is doing those press-ups where you clap between each press. She moves up and down just like a stapling device: ‘snap, snap, snap’. He knows she’s working out with vigour to shame him and the girl on the log.

They walk back along the woodchip path to the car. His lower back whines.

“Did you see that lump?” Alessia asks.

“What? Oh, back there.”

“Come on, you couldn’t not. See her, that is. Stuffing her face. It’s perverse: eating while other people work out. What was she doing? You don’t go to a workout spot to have a picnic. That’s just weird. And she must have been, like, fourteen stone. She’s probably got a condition. I think she was laughing at us.” Alessia likes people to have conditions: it makes them easier to understand. She has diagnosed Daniel with depression. She reasons that, if he wasn’t clinically depressed, he’d take better care of himself. It wouldn’t occur to her that he might be content to sit on a log and keep things the way they are.

“Have you seen her before?” she asks with a brief flicker of unsettling intuition.

“Never.” Oh, you Judas! 

“Maybe you should start coming to the gym. I think you could do with a trainer. I don’t know if you have the motivation to keep this up.”

At the Mazda, she takes out the keys and jangles them but doesn’t open the doors. They face each other across the pollen-dusted roof of the car. A hairdresser’s car, one of his friends said when he bought it for her, but it was the one she wanted so it was the one she got. Hairdressers obviously earned more than he thought. Alessia knows exactly how much it cost, but not because he told her. Its body is navy blue and low with a mean look to it. “I’m thinking of getting IVF,” she says, frowning against the setting sun. “What do you think?”

He works late for the rest of the week. The auditors are coming next month, so he tells himself he has to double-check everything. When he does schlep up the to the workout spot on Friday evening, Ella’s log is naked without her, a yacht without its sail. His mushroom tortilla tastes dirty-flannel-dry. The bottle of rosé he bought, because it reminded him of the tone of her skin, got warm on the walk up and exudes a sharp smell like the shower gel his wife uses. He doesn’t even bother eating the slice of apricot flan, which has collapsed in its cardboard box and cowers, quivering, when he opens it. He waits until the sunset sets the trees aflame, until it grows cold and he can hear animals rustling in the undergrowth, then he gathers up his sports bag and picnic, and leaves.

When he returns home, Alessia is sitting at the dining table off the living room, her tangerine tank top rolled up. She’s usually in perpetual motion, so he doesn’t get to notice the shadows beneath her eyes. Little lines have sharpened between her nose and mouth. She’s right: the lighting is too harsh in here.

“I’m not doing this any more,” he says, dropping the sports bag on the floor. Clunk, goes the wine bottle.  

“Was that strange girl there? Did she put you off?”

“No. I’m just not going. This working-out shite’s not working out.”

She deliberately hunches so she can grab a little roll of belly, and stabs the needle in, thumb closing the plunger in a smooth, efficient motion. When she removes the needle, a blob of blood bubbles on her tanned skin. “You’re going to need to be fit,” she says, “for our baby.”

It’s almost Christmas. Even the paving slabs in Villars have a hard, pinched look in the cold. Daniel, neck muffled in a ruby red scarf, is standing outside a bookshop in the centre of town, squinting mistrustfully at a volume called Growing Vegans. Alessia says veganism is the best way to be thin. The baby, when it materialises – which it has so far failed to do, despite the best efforts of their fertility specialist – will eat a vegan diet to ensure it doesn’t wind up fat. No egg salad on the beach for it. None for him either. And she’s right: he’s actually lost a stone and a half, though that might be because he hasn’t been chowing down illicit dinners at the workout spot.

The shop sells both new and second-hand books. His gaze strays to the paperbacks in the display. Shock gets him like stepping through ice. There it is: War and Peace, buckled and veined at the edges. Inside the shop, he picks the book off its Perspex stand and riffles its pages with his thumb, looking for a sign: a piece of woodchip, a flake of Pastéis de Nata, a smear of lipstick. Then Daniel sees what he missed before, just in the inside cover: in a round, feminine font, Ella’s name and an email address.

He pays and clutches War and Peace tight under his arm as he hurries from the shop.

The assistant calls after him, waving the vegan book, “Hey, you forgot this!”

“Keep it,” Daniel says, turning away. “I’ve got what I need.”

About The Author

Zoë Green is a Scottish writer living in a small village in the Swiss Alps. She’s won the Harpers Orange Prize for Short Fiction, been shortlisted for Vogue New Young Writer, has published short stories and poetry in the London Magazine, Litro, Harpers and Queen, and Cutting Teeth. She’s also written for the Observer, Literary Review, the Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Scotsman. She read English at Oxford and did her MA in Creative Writing at UEA. In Switzerland, she teaches English to teenagers at an exclusive boarding school.

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