Clay’s Burdens


A story that I’ve been planning to write for a long time, about someone I met in Manila. Thanks to a little free time, was able to complete it 🙂

Clay was not designed for the word ‘normal’.

Normal men spent their Saturday afternoons in the beautiful couch that they purchased from market-market on their 13th month payday, while sipping san mig beer, playing around with their fingers in the home-cooked sisig, watching Pacquiao trounce any unfortunate guy who was gearing up to challenge him. Or watching some bloke discussing in length about Pacquao trouncing any unfortunate guy who was gearing up to challenge him. Or simply watching trailers about Pacquiao very soon trouncing any unfortunate guy who was gearing up to challenge him. All this while their hands caressed the bare thighs of their latest girlfriend/mistress/wife/fuck buddy.

To me, in the Philippines, this was normal. Clay – he just wasn’t.

I met Clay first in the military gym in Fort Bonifacio. Come to think of it, I would only meet him there, ever after.

Being an expat in Manila, even if the term ‘expat’ came with an SVEG visa (now, that’s the coveted Special Visa for Employment Generation, in case you didn’t know), going to a military gym has always been a taboo for me. The obvious reasons, and some not so obvious ones. For one, I always had this idea that dudes in the army tend to be bullies. And rightly so, even if me, at 6ft plus, still stood higher than them. They still had to dominate and bully you to let you know who’s the daddy. And for two, is it true that unknown guys get gang-raped in the gym shower?

And moreover, the fact that I was in the Philippines, was another disadvantage. Make no mistake about this, I love the Philippines, but here I was, contemplating about walking into a military gym, where all I would hear was Ano, meron, pero, kasi, na lang, ikaw, blah, blah, blah. I mean, for god’s sake, I am so pathetic with the language that I  once ended up thanking a nice lady on facebook, ‘salamat sa yong          saputa’, altogether forgetting the forbidden ‘r’, and in effect, telling her: “I want to thank you for your support in Tagalog, but since my tag-tongue sucks, I’d rather tell you Thank you, bitch!

But sitting around in an office all week, and sometimes even weekend, only to come back home and then set up a VPN connection, and again continue sitting, has only led to one big achievement. Girth was all I could see when I looked down. I mean, not even those vital organs of mine, which I would have like to take a look now and then to ensure that it is there. And the next closest gym was like 20 minutes away in a jeepney ride. With my height, the military was better any day than the jeepney.

So, me, with all these linguistics follies, was now in a military gym, which seemed to echo tagalog 1.1 lessons across the walls. What if I screwed up with my language here? Dude, these are guys who have baluts in place of biceps, all they had to do was get into a half-nelson and you ended up with a blue line across your neck. Even the fact that you are taller than them does not help.

Well, I could resort to speaking English only. Just so that I stayed out of any kind of trouble. There is a downside though. They would instantly know that I am foreigner. Oh, have I told you? They say I look too pinoy to be found out, unless I open my mouth. For one, my teeth are crooked, and for two, my language is phoren. As long as I am around girls, I can manage with the impeccable English accent, acquired from call-centre midwifery, and the occasional ‘sobrang cheesy, pare’. That works. But with these guys, they would know the very first instance that I was more penoy than pinoy. Egg-head that is.

But there was barely anybody in the gym for my first day there. Technically, first afternoon. The thing is, a military gym is open to civilians only certain days of the week. Here it was Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. And they were open either 8 to 11 in the morning, or from 2 to 8 in the evening. The former is out of the question for me, since that is when I get back from work. Nocturnal, am I not? You’ve seen excel spreadsheets and lotus notes layouts for 10 hours, and the last thing that you want to see after that is a weight stone. And it doesn’t help that the color is a bright red or yellow.

So, afternoon was my preferred time. But I must be an exception, because it seemed to be no one else’s preference. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that I walk into the gym at 2 in the afternoon on a Saturday, and find it so empty that even the trainer has not yet arrived? Regardless, I just get my gym-towel, the Gatorade (oh yes, Gatorade! Whether I lose weight or not, gymming has to be done stylishly) and the gloves out of my kit and just proceed to lift, pull, push or tug at whatever I can find, without any order or structure whatsoever.

It took me a while to notice that there was one person apart from me in the gym, who stayed at the far corner of the gym. Later, I came to call that corner ‘the Tyson corner’, because all the heavyweights were always stationed there. The minimum weight that you could see there was 10 kilo. They did their bench presses, walking around in slit vests, showing off their man-boobs, and looking belligerent to the T.

And that was also the noisiest section in the entire gym. You could hear, throughout the time that you are at the gym, some loud, constipated guy shouting out, grunting to glory, and clenching his teeth so hard that they almost broke off. And I was often tempted to just tell them, ‘go ahead. Just release the cracken.’ But my sensibility was more dominant than my sense of humor, so I never did.

So there was this guy (who, by the way, is the protagonist of the story. So, I will be dedicating a paragraph, read the next paragraph, to describe him a little bit) who was doing dead lifts with two mats placed side by side. I now understand why they call it dead lifts, because that is all I would be if I ever tried lifting those weights. From far, I could see, there was a 25, a 20, and a 15. All on one side alone. And that added upto a total of 120 kilos that he seemed to lift so effortlessly. He must have released the cracken lately.

He had the regular gym vest. When I say gym vest, I really don’t know what they are called. These are those vests which were cut like a ‘V’, allowing for the man’s chest to pop out on both the sides, and shaped tighter towards the waist. And the vest, at the back, had a huge logo saying ‘NA’. North America? Not Applicable? No Answer? And for shorts he just wore jeans that were cut mid-way. No gloves. But by body structure, I guess we had a little bit of something in common. I mean, his arms were almost the same size as my thighs. That is common, isn’t it?

Clay turned out to be the largest guy that I would ever meet at the gym. Yes he was short, about 5`3. But in that short frame, he packed twice my body mass. And no, it was not the flabby body mass that I have come to loathe so bad, but rather the ripped, muscled core of it which I am not sure if it exists any more in my body.

I continue to play around with the dumbbells, while Clay moved to the bench-press. And I could notice through one corner of my eye as he lined up the same weights again, a 25, a 20 and a 15 on the bar-bell. And what’s more, he added another 10. I didn’t look after that.

The next 1 minute or two, I wished I had an IPod. Or any mp3 player. It’s hard enough lifting dumbbells that are already too heavy for you and you make it appear that you are doing it effortlessly. What makes it even harder is the accompanying sounds that a hardcore lifter can make in the background. It was, truly, a one-man orgy. I still can’t differentiate between sounds of orgasm and pain, and they seemed the same to me. First there was the ‘uh’, the shwa sound that you would have heard in accent neutralization classes. It went on for about 4 lifts. Then came the ‘uhhh’, the gym equivalent of a blow-job that has just begun to get warm. It went on for about 3 lifts. Then came the ‘AAARGGHHHH’ which went on for 5 long, tiring lifts, resonating across the gym hall. He must be ready to shoot his load.

And then it fell silent. For a good 10 seconds.

And then a final ‘AAARGGHHHH’, which echoed across the hall, almost shaking the windows in the process, and ushering hell into my ears.

It fell silent again. And then, I heard an unexpected sound.

It went something like an ‘eeeeyyyy’. Actually more like a squirrel’s squeak. Not sure if they had squirrels in the Philippines, but definitely not in the gym. I wouldn’t have looked in his direction if he had not repeated the sound again, and this time it was a little clearer. ‘heeeelppppp’.

I turned to look at him and my first thought was surprisingly sadistic. There was this guy on the bench, who had a larger, better, more shapely body than mine, who was stuck with the weight against his chest. I mean he could not lift it up to keep it back on the rest. And he was stuck, since he could not even drop it. What do you think my thought went like? Well, something on the lines of, ‘there’s no one around in the gym anyway. Why not leave this sucker to suffer, and pass out. Hehe, would be a sight worth seeing.’

I thought a little too fast, but my common sense took over faster. I mean, the guy already saw me looking at him during his pain. Let’s say he survived. Let’s say someone else came into the gym and helped him out. What would he do first if he got out of this mess, if I didn’t help him out? My thighs, the same size as his arms, trembled a little bit. And I found myself racing to help him.

I cursed all the weights that he had put on the bar-bell as I tried lifting it. Even during my efforts, I could realize that while I was contributing about one-fourth of the lift through my pull, he was contributing about three-fourth of it through his push. And in a very cleverly collaborated effort (him collaborating a little more than me), we were able to keep the bar-bell back on the rest.

And he sat up, gasping. Such a big boy, scared to death? Now that was a sight worth seeing.

He took a while to steady his breathing, and then blurted out. “This has never happened before”.

There are times when you think twice, or thrice, what expression you need to show on your face? Sympathy? No. It was obvious this guy lifted weights of such proportions before and today is probably just a tough day for him. He might have missed his protein shake, or mixed it with water instead of milk. Humor? No. Not yet. Going by the size, not sure if this guy even understands humor. Compassion? Hell, no. Mother Teresa never looked down on Mike Tyson with compassion. Never.

I just kept a blank face and said, “It’s ok”.

Clay was thankful. Or let me put it this way, he was full of thanks. I mean, if you end up doing one good deed to him, he will fill the next one hour, or day, or week, with thanks. And so he went, over the next 2 hours at the gym, constantly thanking me every 5 minutes or so for saving his life. It was almost like he had an internal alarm system that would go off every 5 minutes to thank me, ala the snooze option on my nokia phone. The time is 3.30. Time to thank him. It got so irritating at a point that I even jokingly remarked that I wish I had not.

But over the course of the next 2 hours, I got to know him a little better. His name was Clay. (Mike Tyson was a bad euphemism earlier on in the story. Should have called him Cassius Clay.) He was not from the military and was a civilian like me who just came to the gym on the civilian days. All the way from Pasay. That was like 40 minutes by jeepney. When asked about the distance that he travels, he remarked; “The gym is like my temple. Have you ever wondered about the distance when you really wanted to go to a temple?” I was tempted to ask him why he wouldn’t remove his shoes in his temple. But I didn’t.

We bonded quickly. It was not really difficult to bond, since I noticed he never talked to anyone else in the gym. And I was too nervous to talk to anyone else in the gym. Clay was a talker. He talked about keeping your torso straight while doing lateral pulls. He talked about how many reps to do when doing a dead lift, and when doing an inclined lift. He talked about what protein shakes to drink weekly, and what protein shakes to drink daily. He talked about everything in the gym, everything about body-building, everything about lifting weights. Just listening to him, gave me a muscle expansion.

At least 2 hours before every afternoon session, he would text me. Advise what protein shake to drink, what part of the body to work out, and when to come in so that the weight-mongers (read as ‘army guys who just kept all the weights to themselves’) were gone. And although I wasn’t in his league by a long shot, I could see my body shape doing better after every session. My shoulder was well-shaped now, my abs didn’t hurt after swimming or sex, and I had a melon of a bulge in my arms. I was beginning to thank his presence in the gym, since it kept me going there for a couple of months.

It was one of those days, and I was busy lifting the dumbbells – Oh, I forgot to tell you that I graduated from the 10 k to the 15 k now – while clay was busy doing a dead lift on the mats again. With his back turned against me. I looked up, and saw the same NA written on it. As mentioned earlier in this story, the NA has been puzzling me for a long time, and it was time I got it out of my head.

“Yo Clay, I see you always wearing this vest which says NA. What does it mean?”

The talkative person he was, his response was actually baffling. He responded with silence, while continuing his dead lifts.

“Going by your silence, I guess it must be No Answer.. hehe”, I laughed. But he didn’t, and continue to lift his weights.

He completed a full twenty reps on the stack that he had built. And then, dropped the weight down on the two mats, echoing a loud thud across the gym.

He took a good 5 seconds to look down at the weights, composed himself, and then responded. But, it was not the response that I would have ever expected. (Pardon his English, but I didn’t want to shakespearize a common Clay)

“Why you do work-out?”

In my case, it was only for the chicks. I mean, the only thing that chicks favour more than a six-pack abs, is a six-inch something. Have both, and you scored like the gunners. This was my philosophy.

“I dunno. I guess just to keep in shape, man”

“Have you worked out ever to keep alive?”

I can’t think of a joke to type now, because he was dead-serious when he said that. There was sweat dripping down his eyebrows, and something inside me said that it was not from the lifting. The veins on his neck were ready to burst, and he just continued to stare at me. But before I could think of any half-sensed reply to give, he continued.

“I work out to be alive”

What I have seen of Manila is the endless chains of starbucks, jollybee and Mcdonalds. What I have heard of Manila is the acquired Caucasian accent of call center stooges, who job-hopped every 3 months, given the abundance of options for them in the BPO industry. What I had smelt here, was the piquant sisig, the colorful Kare-Kare, and the exotic balot. What I had sensed was a generation lost between cultures, but embracing all other cultures with a sense of warmth, unrelenting love, and touch of naïve lust. And what I had felt was my acceptance into this melting pot of cultures. But every city had a dark underbelly. And Manila had its.

Clay grew up in the mean streets of Pasay, in the heart of Manila. Life was rough, you had to hustle for dough (It’s not a coincidence that apl-de-ap used the same lines about his life in the Philippines). It was truly survival of the fittest. But then, that wasn’t why Clay started working out.

Growing up in those mean streets, it was impossible for a teenager not to be involved in petty crime. It started with some isolated jumping episodes (the targets were foreigners, I am told), and some snatching. And before he knew it, he was trading drugs. First it was the local shabu, a sniffing substance which sold cheap, and was potent enough to start a string of crimes in the city. Then, it was marijuana smuggled from the Mountain Provinces of the Philippines, from the Ifugao country. And occasionally, there was grade A cocaine that got in through unknown channels, all for the rich and spoilt.

Have you ever seen a skinny chef? If a man traded in stones, he was bound to build a house soon. Similarly, even before he knew it, he was using all of the above generously. When trading drugs, you had to show your customers that the stuff was good, so you take a hit. You get back to your place, and take another hit, because the previous one didn’t even scratch your balls. And then, you need to top up the high, so you took another large one. And this vicious cycle would continue again, multiple times. Before he knew it, Clay was in rehab. He did 3 months, and went through hell and came back. I was told his waist shrunk to 24 inches at that time.

After the treatment at rehab, he was back in the streets again, trying to live a normal life. He searched jobs that didn’t require an edukasyon, but neither did he have the physical strength to do manual jobs, nor were they paying as good as his previous lifestyle. Before he knew it, he was back in hell, trading and doing drugs again.

3 months of rehab again. Times when he wished he didn’t want to be alive anymore. At one point, he even attempted to cut his wrist, but found his hands so shivering that they could not even hold the knife tightly. And he resolved during those 3 months that he must never touch the devil again. Not a hit, not a bump, not a teeny-weeny scratch. Lay it off completely.

It was during rehab that Clay went to the gym for the first time. Being thin and scrawny then, he had to find a way to let some other pain into his body. A pain different from the one that he was going through, which was ready to shred his life to bits. And weight-lifting gave him that pain. Lifting unreasonable, impossible weights for his build, gave him that pain. And for the first time in a long while, he found out that sometimes, the only remedy for some pains, is pain itself.

Having finished his story, he looked at me. Clay was not dramatic, and his English was pathetic, but I skipped many a heartbeat during his story. He was a man who has been religiously – yes, that’s why the gym was his temple – visiting the gym, and working out with weights that would make a grown man crap in his pants. He was a man who denied drugs, because he felt there were sweeter pains in the world. He was an icon. And he was now, my hero.

“And the NA? What does that have to do?”

He laughed. “I thought you the intelligent one, reading all time, working BPO. And you not know? For people like me, who do drugs, they put in NA. To clear bad memories, stop habits, and lead life new. NA. Narcotics Anonymous”

He kept laughing, with the naivety of a care-free toddler, who just saw his new toys. And with that same naivety, he started to arrange his benchpress stack. He put up the bar, and started adding weights one by one. First he put a couple of 25 Ks on each side, and then put a 20 k. That was the most that I have ever seen him do. He looked up, smiled at me, as he put on another 10 k.

“Pare, you nice man. So, I ask you. If anyone ask you about me, say I am only doing gym. If they say me addict, say me addict to weights. This is good life now. All pain, all gain.”, he laughed, amused at his own joke.

I was uneasy at the whole conversation. I bid a soft good-bye to Clay and proceeded to pick up my gym bag and leave. As I reached the door, I turned around to take a final look at Clay. He was adding 2 more 10 ks on each side, and laying down to do the benchpress. The same position that I had first met him, and saved his life. This was a weight that he has never done before, but he looked relaxed and calm as he lay down on the bench. He turned his face a little at me to the side, and smiled.

“You my best friend in the gym. You save my life, and I get free friend also”. His crooked teeth were all seen now, as he had a big grin on his face. As I turned to leave, he was gripping the bar already, with nobody around in the gym, doing a benchpress on a weight that he has never done before. I took a final look, smiled at him, and then walked out, closing the door behind me.

And inside, I could hear the familiar screaming of a man who had finally let go of his burdens.

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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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