Venice Against Itself

Words :

Krystal Lau

Illustrations :

Tania Zaidi

Every night at the gym, I used to see the same guy. Bulky in-your-face muscles, screwed-up face, hair sticking up like needles into his scalp. He’s a bit older, middle-aged, but he moves like a teenager, all gangly limbs and big feet—as if every time he takes a step, he’s surprised by how much body there is. We had passed more than a dozen times before. It was that sort of familiarity that comes from recognition, but nothing more. He’d nod at me, acknowledge my presence, then go back to his routine. Gym dynamics are strange that way. But then he breaks it.

“Do you mind if I work in between your sets?” he asks on a Tuesday.

I let him switch machines, but that isn’t the end of our brief interlude. Turns out he has quite a mouth on him. “Come here often?”

“Just as much as you do,” I reply.

He has a grunting sort of laugh, caught between pain and relief.

“We’ve gotta be dedicated to come this late. Half of America’s on the couch watching TV.” He thumps his chest for good measure, radiating pride. “We’re not quitters.”

A not-so-sly way to compliment himself. I smile politely. I think he likes that response; it gives him room to go on.

“Me, I have to be here every night. If I’m not, I don’t feel right. Not at all. Need the gym like I need air.” He smirks like this is a good thing.

“Everyone needs a break sometimes,” I shrug.

He hoots, a full-belly laugh. “No, I don’t catch a break until I reach my goal. I have a goal, you see. Set in stone.”

“Good for you.”

He leans in with a conspiratorial air. “You look at me now, you see this flabby guy, right? Most end up like this forever. But me? I’m not like the rest of them. I’m going to change.”

“That’s great,” I say, and I mean it.

He flexes. “Well, better get back to it. Best of luck.”

From then on, it’s more than just a nod or two. Frank goes out of his way to greet me, and I make sure to wave or smile or offer some form of acknowledgement. I see what he needs: recognition. Appreciation for his efforts. He wants applause. He wants an audience. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the gym is pretty empty at night. All he has is me.

And not even that. I skip the gym the next few months, caught up in the holiday craze. Still, life evens out in spring. I return to the gym like a pilgrim coming home, and sure enough, I see him there again, pounding out the treadmill with the vigor of a baker kneading dough. Each of his steps are the beat of a war drum.

“What’s up, Frank,” I call out.

He jabs at the decelerator and slows, a huge Cheshire grin spreading across his face. “How you doing?” he yells over the whirling fan.

By the looks of him, nothing has changed. He still has the gut that won’t go away. He tugs at it every once in awhile, a nervous habit of his. Frank has a good six feet on him, but his bulk drowns out his figure.

He slaps his gut just then, his thoughts heading in the same direction. “This little guy here just won’t seem to go away. It’s not like I deserve it. I work out every day, don’t eat nothing.”

“You don’t eat?” I ask, slightly concerned.

Frank opens his mouth, then closes it. He sucks in his cheeks; his eyes grow beady like a bird’s. “Well,” he begins, in that characteristic drawl of his. “Just not dinner.”

“Why not?”

He lets out a wry little chuckle and shrugs, the picture of nonchalance. With that, he wanders off, leaving a semicolon hanging in the air.

Summer comes around after that, and the gym empties like water down a drain. At eleven in the evening, it’s practically a ghost town.

Tonight, it feels like one too. The eerie drip drip of a broken pipe, the soft laughter of a late-night anchorman, talking to himself in the corner TV. The squeak of rusty machines, the groan of tired treadmills anchoring themselves back into resting position. It’s like the world has been turning, on and on, and now it’s finally coming to a standstill, waiting to see where we’ll take it.

A light drizzle starts shortly after I get in. By the time I’m finished, it’s pouring outside—ground-shaking, howling summer rain, enough to make you want to heave out your ark and prepare for a flood. The trees bend like dancing shadows, and the streetlight pools and flickers against the cement, sending schisms across the puddles. With dread, I towel off and head towards the exit.

Frank catches up to me just as I’m on my way out. I notice him by the concierge desk, his garish red shirt like a stop sign. I slow down.

“Hey, Frank.”

“Reckon you could give me a lift?” he asks, his lips curling hopefully at the corners.

The gym’s empty as a morgue, and the weather outside means Frank would have to swim rather than walk home. “Why not,” I say. Then I look him over.  

Frank barely has anything on him: hand towel, wallet, key-switch.  

“That’s all you have?”

“I run usually,” he explains. “Home and back, it’s not far from here.”

I whistle, impressed. By the end of my workout, I’m ready to collapse in my heated car, close my eyes and listen to classical music. Meanwhile, Frank is racing home every night, beating through the weariness and the dark.

“I didn’t think it would rain,” he offers. Weather’s a good topic, safe. As we cross through the gym door, we need it. It’s strange territory, where we are. I’ve never seen him outside the confines of those sterile whitewashed walls. He looks almost outlandish out here, a stranger against the waving trees and starless sky.

I drive to the grocery store first to pick up milk and eggs. Frank loiters in the front, so I leave him behind. I figure I’ll meet him when I check out.

Sure enough, I do. He pays the same time I do, so I get a good look at what he’s buying. I bite my tongue to hide my surprise: big juicy burger, fries, and an extra-large milkshake, pink and innocent as a bowtie, frothy whipped cream spilling over the top.

My eyes rove down the checkout lane. Multiply that by three, and that’s what he’s getting. I try to meet his gaze, but he doesn’t see me.

“Do you want your receipt?” The cashier pulls me back. I shake my head– both to the cashier and to myself. It’s not my business. Frank is a grown man; he does what he wants. I grab my groceries, then catch Frank’s eye.

He smiles at me, balancing his assortment of food in between his hands. As we head out of the store, the rain lessens. I get into the car, Frank right behind me.

The moment the doors slams shut, it’s like a switch turns inside him. He tears open the deli bag and begins to consume. Consume is the right word; the food disappears like magic. I don’t turn on my car, I’m that engrossed. I know it’s rude to stare, but honestly I can’t do anything else.

He doesn’t even pause to draw a breath. The food’s gone within minutes, seconds, maybe; time feels immaterial.

Outside, the clouds part to reveal a crescent moon, thin as paper. Frank lets out a long belch, and the spell breaks. “Sorry,” he croaks, stifling another burp. “I saw the food and couldn’t resist.”

“No need to apologize,” I hurriedly say. “You must be hungry. I could never work out without food in my system.”

“Dinner’s my only meal alone in the day. And once I start… I can’t stop.” He chuckles, but there’s no humor in his eyes. “It’s like there’s an alien inside me, you know? And once it gets control of my mind, I’m possessed. I can’t think. I can’t stop.”

A desperate urgency creeps into his voice, a change so gradual I don’t notice it until it’s fully formed, choking his lungs like a fist around his throat. “Afterwards, after all the food is gone; I wake up. I open my eyes, and I see the devastation around me. And I just can’t figure it out: what happened? I just don’t understand.”

“It’s okay, Frank.”

“It’s an alien, it really is,” Frank mutters, so soft the words are almost lost in the rain. “I’m telling you, this alien won’t leave me.” He lets his eyes fall shut, his fists clenched like a child’s. For a moment, I wonder if he ever grew up.

“Sometimes, I can hear it speaking to me,” Frank admits. He stares out the window, pensive and forlorn. “I’m not crazy, I know it. But I can hear its little voice. It lives inside me, see, and it has this power over me.”


“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” He peeks at me out of the corner of his eye, and I can tell he’s not angry, only afraid.

“No,” I say. “Just struggling—like the rest of us.”  

“Ah.” He likes this answer, I can tell. Makes him feel a part of things, connected. Makes him feel set apart, superior. “The truth is, everyone else struggles. But I overcome. You’ll see: one day, I’ll reach my goal. I’m almost there.”

“Good for you, Frank,” I say, but I’m tired. It’s close to midnight, and the rain is making me sleepy. I stifle a yawn as I key the ignition.

“Yeah, I’m going to reach my goal. And when I do, I’ll be a new person. Not a soul will recognize me. I’ll shed my old self like a snake skin.” He cocks his head. “Anyone who was around to remember—I’ll leave them behind too. I won’t let them recognize me and bring me back to this old way. I won’t leave a trail—no breadcrumbs. It’ll be a new me, completely. That way, the alien won’t be able to follow; it won’t find me.”

I have no idea what to say to this. I figure shedding that snake skin includes me.  Mercifully, Frank is quiet for the remainder of the ride. He’s in a thinking mood, only speaking to offer the barest of directions. When I pull up to the curb, taking in his squat, beige one-story, he barely realizes we’ve arrived.

“Oh,” he exclaims. “Thanks for the ride.” Still, he glances back behind him, as if we’ve arrived at the wrong house.

“Is this it?” I ask uncertainly. Frank pulls on his sweat bands, as if preparing for another long trek. “I can drop you off somewhere else if you prefer.” It’s still pouring outside.

Frank waves this off like a pesky fly. “Thanks for the ride. Appreciate it. Really do.” As he gets out the car, I notice him glance over his shoulder again. He crouches to tighten his shoelaces.

I lean forward, my hands braced on the steering wheel. “Frank, are you going home?”

Pulling himself up to his full height, he prepares to argue, but then deflates, a sad soaked balloon in the rain. “Nah,” he confesses. “I reckon I’ll run back to the gym, do another workout, run back, then call it a night.”

“Frank, it’s late,” I protest. “You shouldn’t overwork yourself.”

“I’m going to beat this alien. You’ll see. I’m not going to let it win.”

“You can start tomorrow,” I argue. “It’s alright to eat unhealthy once in awhile.”

Frank shakes his head ardently. Raindrops bead in his hair like jewels, and he holds himself like a king. “That’s what they all say. Tomorrow, tomorrow. They never start. That’s why they never win. The thing about me is—I’m going to win.” And there it is, that cockiness, that toothy smile, that mad glint in his eye that shines through the night.

I drive away still thinking about him, imagining his wet sneakers and his wet socks and his wet toes pounding down the pavement. His drenched T-shirt, sticking to his flab, see-through against the streetlights. His dead-set eyes, hidden beneath craggy brows, a furrow in his forehead like a marked grave.

It’s not until the following summer that I return to my old hometown gym. As I walk through the beaten red doors, the paint chipping on the edges, I take in the familiar scent of dried sweat and half-hearted air freshener. I cough a little. The corner TV is still stumbling on; the local anchorman’s petering on and laughing at his own jokes; nothing’s changed. The sofas’ ripped upholstery poking through the leather. The outdated machines, creaky as a grandpa’s joints. In the distance, the plodding drip drip of the leaky drain.

I go through my routine, same as usual. As I run, I glance over my shoulder, keeping an eye out for a balding, heavy-set man. As I stretch, I peek in the mirror, watching to see if anyone passes. The faces are unfamiliar. The voices are soft, delicate. I don’t hear that belly-busting laugh, that sound that never seemed to blend in.

And then, just as I’m about to give up, I turn the corner and spot a man striding down the hall. He bears a lurid red shirt, much like the one Frank in all his color-blindness used to wear, and his hair sticks up pin-straight against his scalp. He easily clears six-feet, and his step is gangly, awkward. But something makes me slow, makes me stop from calling out.

There’s not a tinge of fat on him; he is raw sinew and muscle and bone. His back muscles ripple through the thin material of his shirt. His calves bulge with every step. As he swings his arms, I see the definition in his shoulders. I wonder, did Frank beat his little alien?

“Frank!” I call, hastening forward. The man turns, ever so slightly—or did I imagine that?—and then straightens. He heads down the corridor without another moment’s hesitation.

I hesitate, doubting myself. That didn’t seem like Frank. The Frank I knew would show off his gains like Olympic gold medals and boast like Zeus himself. I wonder if I’m getting nostalgic, reading signs that aren’t there.

I shake my head and hurry after him, but when I round the corner, there’s no one there. I spend the next few minutes searching the old gym up and down, but the man is gone. Disappeared. It’s like I imagined him.

With a sigh, I head out the front door. The glass is still oily with fingerprints; I wonder if anyone could spot my own mixed in with the crowd. A sign that I was here, that I existed, if but for a short while. I leave my fingerprints, and the gym, behind. I get in the car. I start the engine.

In my mind, I see that man again, his back muscles rippling, his frame tall and lean. Maybe that was him. Maybe Frank did it. Maybe he caught his alien, and nabbed him. Or maybe he ran as fast as he could, and lost that little voice.

I never see him again. Wherever Frank went, he was right; he doesn’t leave any trails.

Still, when I’m back home, I sometimes remember him. One image sticks in my mind. It’s Frank facing down the rain, preparing for the run back to the gym. I imagine him pounding down the pavement, the rain getting in his eyes, the cold soaking through his clothes, the weariness sinking into his bones. I imagine him shaking all of that off and going on, one foot in front of the other, determined to run from that little voice, that little alien, who in the end—was only ever himself. I wonder if he ever got away.