Push-ups – a short story

Katrina and her school-friends talked in awed voices about one armed push-ups. Their interest was spurred by the American action film GI Jane, released on August 22nd 1997. The movie stared Demi Moore as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil and told the fictional story of O’Neil as the first woman to undergo the rigorous training as an equal to the male recruits in U.S. Navy Special Welfare Group (equivalent to the Navy SEALS). Along the way O’Neil faced sexism, and intense physical challenges on top of demeaning political conniving by U.S. Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) who selected her for the experimental program. 

GI Jane was a box office success and grossed $11,094,241 its opening weekend, when it playing at a total of 1,945 theaters. Katrina, an incoming High School sophomore, saw it with her friends that opening weekend. They immediately identified with Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil. After all, they rationalized, wasn’t Mrs. Riley their drill team sergeant bit like the enigmatic Command Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen)? They thought of their past year’s rigorous training sessions when Mrs. Riley had attempted to advance them from “girl” push-ups (push-ups from the knees) to “boy” push-ups (push-ups from the feet.) Some, including Katina, had painfully made the transition. But now they were agog with admiration as they watched Demi Moore perform multiple one armed “boy” push-ups, Extraordinary, they thought, and yet Demi, with whom they identified as being as female as themselves, seemed to perform the feat with ease. Katrina, a type ‘A’ high-performer, was especially fascinated. She thought that if Demi Moore could do it then she could also do it. When she shut her eyes she could see herself rising on one arm, and convinced  herself that all she needed was a little training.

Performance in real life proved much more difficult. Katina went into her bedroom and got down on her white Berber tuft carpet. She did a few “girl” push-ups to warm up then advanced to “boy” push-ups. All is well, she thought. She felt good and strong, so she tried on one arm. A disaster, she couldn’t even lift herself off the carpet. She felt as weak as a baby trying to sit up and gave an almost inaudible wail of anguish. She rested prostrate on the floor. She felt alone and disappointed. Her cat, Peanut, stalked up to her and nestled her nose into Katrina’s face. Katrina sneezed and then sat up to pet the cat. The cat crept into her lap and purred soothingly.

“If it is possible I will do it,” she whispered into Peanut’s ear, “I will, I will.” Then Peanut leapt off her lap onto her bed. Katrina took this show of feline agility as an affirmation that the cat agreed and understood.

Katrina was intrigued and first wanted to make sure that the push-ups weren’t a result of trick photography, to verify that it was a realistic goal for her to undertake. She invited her parents to go with her to see the film a second time. After this second viewing she walked out of the cinema convinced that the feat was real. Now she was convinced that it was within her grasp.

When she got home from the movies she retired to her bed-room again and stood on her head. The pose calmed her as it always had for standing on her head was not new to Katrina. She had learnt to do so when she was in Kindergarten. The summer before Kindergarten she had seen her Uncle do it and had imitated him practicing in secret until she had it mastered. First she would find a soft spot to use then she would kneel down and position her head with her hands on the ground on either side. Then she would slowly unfold her body into an upside down erect position. First her back and torso and then she would unfold her legs into their straight position feet skyward. The experience had shown her that she liked to stand on her head. She had spent so much time on her head in Kindergarten class that her teacher wrote a poignant note on her report card to the effect that in class she saw more of Katrina’s rear end than her face. This state of affairs might have been disturbing except that Katrina was also exceedingly smart and out-classed her classmates academically. Some even speculated that perhaps the upside-down pose gave more blood to the brain and accounted for her intelligence. Perhaps it did, for Katrina developed her plan of attack that day as she stood, alone on her head in her room.

The plan of attack was simple; push-ups, and then more push-ups. Katrina set herself a schedule five sets of ten (that’s 50) push-ups every morning before school, another five sets after she got home, from Drill Team practice, in the evening and a final five sets before bed. Initially the push-ups varied between “boy push-ups and the easier “girl push-ups but soon she was able to dispense with the easier variation. She was glad when Mrs. Riley called for push-ups in class because she could then get feedback on technique, “Back straight, butt tucked in, body like a board!”

All Fall Katrina maintained her regimen. Occasionally she attempted a one arm without success. By the time that her arms had buffed up so much that none of her shirts fitted she was becoming desperate. She needed outside help. One day, right after Thanksgiving, she managed to catch a private moment with Mrs. Riley.

“Mrs. Riley, what is the secret to one arm push-ups? You know the push-ups that Demi Moore did as GI Jane?” Mrs. Riley was happy to explain that once the arms and body was strong enough it was a question of balance. “You need to make a slight shift and twist of the body to place its center-of-gravity closer to or over the arm which is to act as support.” Katrina went home and tried and sure enough by the beginning of December she did her first one armed push-up

Katrina’s body sang in secret pleasure as she spent the rest of December perfecting her technique. When school restarted after the Christmas holiday she thought of herself as a one arm push-up pro as good as GI Jane. Katrina was accustomed to acing everything which she did, and so she didn’t brag or tell anyone of her new accomplishment – only she and Peanut shared the secret. But at their first Drill Team session of the New Year Mrs. Riley screamed at the team in frustration – everyone seemed lethargic after their Christmas recess.

“How are we ever going to look good on the football field?” She yelled, “Push-ups, I want twenty push-ups!”

The team groaned and got down on the floor. Some could only manage ignominious “girl” push-ups, some, along with Katrina, did “boy” push-ups. Katrina worked with ease. Anna-Marie on the floor next to her suddenly blurted out in a loud voice to be heard by all, her voice charged with derogatory bitter sarcasm,

“Go on Karina, do them on one arm!”

“OK,” came the happy response.

© Copyright, August 2914, Jane Stansfeld

The Exercise Bicycle – a short story

Fourteen months ago, when I went for my annual physical, the doctor’s office insisted, even though I have been a patient with them for years, that I fill out a new patient profile so that they could enter it into their new on-line electronic records system. I was annoyed that they had asked, since they already have all my medical records, and became quite irate as I filled out the same information multiple times. My anger turned to pain as I completed the page about the health of my parents and siblings. I came to a complete standstill when I wrote in ‘Stephen, brother, five, drowned.’ I was aroused from my moody reverie when a nurse emerged from a side door and called my name.

I suppose that the physical went as well as could be expected, although, looking back, I deem it to have been a total waste of time, as I came out with the instructions that I already knew, ‘Loose fifteen pounds and to start an exercise program.’ The doctor’s little pep talk, about life expectancy and so on, made, at least, a temporary impression on me. I thought about it overnight and, the next day, went to Craig’s list to look for a stationary exercise bicycle. As I had expected there were several to choose from. I selected the one whose seller was located closest to my house.

An elderly lady answered the door and quickly took me to her garage to see the bicycle. I mounted it and began to pedal. As I rode and tested the gears I looked around. The garage was a veritable workshop of bicycle parts and strange-looking machines. The old lady saw my questioning glance and spoke, “This workshop was my late husband’s. He liked to tinker. He always said that the one that you are sitting on was his masterpiece.”

After this comment I decided to pay her full asking-price and soon had the thing loaded into my station-wagon. As I pulled out of the drive she came bustling out carrying a helmet and goggles. “I almost forgot,” she said, “these go with the bicycle. There are some instructions about the electronics tucked inside the helmet.” When I got home I set the bicycle up in my spare bedroom and began my exercise routine. The helmet and so called ‘instructions’ were thrust into a corner of the room unused. After all who needs a helmet on a stationary bicycle? As for instructions, I handle these poorly at the best of times, and now I decided that I didn’t need to be told the obvious; how to plug-in the machine, how to mount it, or how to pedal.

At first things went well enough but after a couple of months my enthusiasm and dedication began to wane. Soon I was able to rationalize about the doctor’s instructions and, kindly told myself that I was not a hamster, and that I was wasting good intellectual time sitting on a stationary bicycle. Twenty minutes a day deteriorated into every other day and then twice a week. If anything I gained some more weight which always seems to happen when I attempt to lose. Then one day the tip of my flip-flop got caught in the pedals and I began to pedal backwards. Immediately the monitor between the handlebars changed color. ‘WARNING,’ it said, in bright red flashing letters, ‘FOR PROPER OPERATION IN THIS MODE, PLUG-IN AND WEAR THE HELMET AND GLASSES.’ The message sparked my curiosity and so I dismounted and took up the helmet.

The ‘instructions’ fell onto the floor and so I picked them up and, begrudgingly, began to read. They described an extraordinary operation which implied that if the helmet and goggles were worn and properly plugged into the machine then the reverse pedaling mode would take the rider back in time to any place which could be conjured up by his or her memory. It went on to describe the new monitor set-up. In the right-hand corner was a date which promised to give the time that the reverse pedaling had reached. Along the bottom were the new designations for the gears: Y, M, W, D, H, M, and S. These translated into: Years, Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. In the center was an estimate of speed and time lapsed, both in “real-time’ and ‘memory-time.’

I was skeptical but, for some reason, I put on the helmet and glasses, mounted the bicycle and plugged in. I gently began to pedal backwards. I set the gears at ‘H,’ ‘Hours’ and happily watched the reverse counter in the upper right count down through the last thirty-six hours. Then I slowed it down to ‘M’ and finally ‘S’. At the ‘Seconds” setting I was still pedaling pretty fast but gradually I began to see myself sitting in the barber’s chair having the haircut that I’d had thirty-six hours earlier. It was fantastic! Over the next few weeks I perfected my timing and was able to go to any date that I wished. Here was my whole life in instant recall and perfect technicolor. I found that I could go back to times and dates that were no longer present in my consciousness but that the machine could find and then, in the ecstasy of recall, I remembered. I now had an entirely different approach to my exercise and fanatically looked forward to longer and longer periods on the bicycle. I lost weight and began to look like one of those ‘Tour de France” athletes.

The first time that I made it back fifty years to my childhood I was amazed at the clarity of my memories. It was a snowy January morning, my ninth birthday. The snow glistened white in the sun shine. It looked as though it were festooned with gems. I wondered if my nine-year-old self had noticed this beauty but there it was, so I assume that my subconscious must have recorded it. I watched myself and my younger two brothers playing in the snow; snowball fights and snowmen. The next time I went back I selected a few days later and enjoyed watching my brothers and I playing in the barn amongst the hay bales. We created an elaborate system of tunnels. They terminated in an inside chamber which we set up as our ‘den’. At one time I put my hand through a gap in the hay to the cat’s nest. Sitting on my bicycle I felt the tabby claw me. I yelled, and watched myself pull out a tiny kitten.

Another cold spring day I watched the siblings playing ‘travel’ in an abandoned car. It was cold outside but inside the car it was warm. The boys and I took turns sitting in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. Several days later I moved my voyeurism to summer and watched myself running bare-foot in the farmyard competing with a gaggle of geese their incessant honks to mingle with my war shouts, for I was an Indian with bow and arrow.

I always had fond memories of my youth, that is, up to the day of the accident. It was hard work going back fifty years but I was addicted and tried to do it at least every other day. At first I only selected dates which I knew would bring pleasure, always skirting around that black day when Stephen died even though I knew that I’d eventually have to go there. When, at last, I made it I was surprised that it was such a glorious early summer day. It had obviously been a wet spring and the crops were green and stock pond glimmered in the sun. Stephen was playing ball by himself while Mark and I kicked another ball back and forth. On the day of the accident I hadn’t realized that he had gone in to the stock pond following a ball, I’d assumed that he was practicing swimming as Mark and I had the previous summer. You walk in until it is too deep and then you dog-paddle to the shore. That’s how we learned to swim. That was the assumption that our parent’s made when his body was found. But, now, watching from my bicycle I saw him chasing a ball not wading.

I began to wonder whether there was any way that I could intervene. The ‘instructions’ which came tucked in the helmet were clear that the rider could not descend into his memory and that communication was impossible. The temptation to test the validity of this was overwhelming. I went back to the moment and tried calling to Stephen “No, Stevie, don’t go in the water,” but my voice was sucked into the air and, although he was quite close he obviously didn’t hear anything. I wondered whether a bell or a whistle giving a different audio might work but neither made any difference. I decided to see if I could insert something, like a life-saver, into my memory. At first I tried to do it mentally with no avail although I thought that I saw a shadow of one in my vision. Throwing one off the bicycle had no effect and when I returned to my room there it was lying on the floor.

I wondered if I could erase the memory and whether erasing the moment of the event from my memory would obliterate it from our lives. Try as I might I couldn’t come up with a way to selectively erase even the tiniest part of the memory. But then I came back to that shadow that I’d imagined or seen when I attempted to insert the life-saver. I began to experiment and found that if I concentrated very hard I could accomplish minor changes to the memory. Over the next month I painstakingly revisited the scene each time moving the trajectory of Stephen’s ball until one day I managed to prevent it from going into the stock pond sending it instead into the weeds on the perimeter. Now, obviously I didn’t actually see Stephen enter the water, and so it wasn’t part of my memory; for if I’d seen him I’d have saved him all those years ago. Thus I didn’t know if I had managed to change anything. I do recall that a few seconds later I had a most terrible headache and only just managed to return to the present before I was violently sick. When I removed the helmet it was smoking and I could see that the electronics were shot.

That evening Stephen came over to accompany me to the gym. Apparently we go every other day which accounts for our fitness. I wonder whether the episode of the exercise bicycle was my imagination although one odd thing did happen. When I returned for my next physical the nurse asked me to review my records on line to make sure that they had transcribed everything correctly. “What’s this?” I said” You have got this all wrong. My brother, Stephen, didn’t drown when he was five, he is very much alive. He and I go to the gym together every other day.”

©Copyright, Jane Stansfeld 8/14/14

Stiletto Blues – a short story

This story is a change in pace for me as I don’t generally espouse to sci-fi. I put an alien into the story as a device which liberated me to question some the human activates which we may take for granted. I hope that it gets you thinking!

Note to diary – My observation and deduction test!

Dear diary, I write in a mixed dither of emotions. I’m happy because I am to go to the Blue for my graduation observation and deduction test. I’m apprehensive, because things are moving fast and I’m to leave in two waking periods. I admit to you, dear dairy, that I am scared. This is a good assignment, isn’t it? I’ve always been excited by the blue images of this remote third planet, but what if I mess up? The Blue is so far away – and why should that matter, you ask? I concede, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter that the Blue spins around a small insignificant sun. What is important to me is that it is beautiful; some say that it is the most gorgeous place in the universe. I look forward being able to make my own assessment on the validity of this claim.

The evaluation team have already given me my information zapper whose use is to be restricted I have latched it to my invisible bubble suit so that I won’t lose it. I know that I am not supposed to research or prepare for my trip but I already know that the Blue is blue because seventy-one percent of its surface is cradled by a mildly saline H2O liquid – a fortuitous stable union between hydrogen and oxygen. The liquid forms masses unequalled by any observed oceans its immediate celestial system, including those on the nearby mooons, Titan and Europa. I hope that I get to make my observations in the depths of that liquid. I read a report by a successful graduate who wrote about their observation of the giant mammalian fish in the seventy-one-percent water. Now that was an experience!

I recall a galactic class in which they told us about the dominant species on the Blue. It is a life form, self-named Homo Sapiens or wise genus. They are sixty percent H2O to match their planet. Some analysts label them successful as they are multiplying fast and overrunning the Blue. In the last fifty-two of their solar rotations they have multiplied from three billion to seven billion. Now that is fast. I seem to recall mention that they leave their indelible imprint all over the Blue and may even be destroying the beauty and the mildly saline H2O with their pollutants. This speculation challenges the successful adjective and the self-name ‘wise’.

Second note to diary – A power plant?

I’ve arrived and this is not what I expected. I can’t see any blue – it is all browns and greys. My laboratory is not in the seventy-one percent H2O, but among the dominant species. I am assigned to make my observations restricted to this large room full of equipment. The room is about 300 ft. by 200 ft. by 30 ft. It has a mezzanine over half of the volume. At first I think it to be a primitive generating plant. I speculate that the pieces of equipment are mini-generators. There are wises sitting, running, bouncing and causing motion on the equipment; but, no, when I zap the machines I got no indication that their output is being harnessed. Most of the wises don’t look happy, so I can’t deduce why this place and this equipment exists. I don’t know why they act as they do.

By the way, a curious side comment, I zap a couple of the wises. I didn’t know, dear diary, that their body envelopes contain a fluid which is ninety-two percent H2O. I notice that their internal pumps which move this fluid around pump much faster when they are on the machines it gives me the silliest thought that perhaps the whole point of the ridiculous inefficient machines is to accelerate their internal pumps – but that doesn’t make sense so I’m only able to share this idiocy with you, dear diary.

I am worried, if I don’t work this out I’m going to fail and no-one in our family has ever failed the test. I can imagine my father’s reaction. As it is, he is perpetually disappointed in me. His response, dear diary, it will not be pretty.

Third note to diary – An energy storage facility?

It’s me again and I think that I am getting the hang of this test. I realize that you shouldn’t jump to quick conclusions. Slow and steady is best. The equipment with continuous moving parts got my first attention, but then I notice that part of the room is occupied by other machines which involve lifting and lowering heavy discs. I assume that they are a form of energy storage battery which the wises are recharging. They grimace and groan as they lift, so it has to have something to do with improving their general good. I zap one of the discs before and after it is lifted. I see no indication of energy stored. So that hypothesis is blown.

I zap these wises; their pumps were racing, but not so much. I notice that these wises have higher ratios of muscle, which is seventy-five percent H2O. I vaguely wonder if this is significant – why do I always seem to wander off task? This is a hard test. I worry that I am going to fail, and I can already sense Father’s ire and ridicule.

Fourth note to diary – A correctional facility?

I’m concentrating on getting it together and have put the images of Father behind me so that I can concentrate better. Our pre-test instructors told us not to make quick assumptions, but to pause and assimilate. So, I’ve abandoned the quick gut-feel response and wait and watch. This time I begin to observe the individual wises. They all enter by the same door. I can see part of the Blue through the door. I can see the light of the Blue’s sun and admire the blue of the sky. I can almost smell the sweetness of the air. I am glad that I can get this tiny glimpse of the beauty of Blue. I wonder why I was assigned to this awful room.

I watch the wises entering and checking in at a computer. They are scantily clad. They quickly disperse to their activities. I notice that there are a group of black-clothed wises with white letters on their chests. They must be guards, for they latch onto some of the new entrants and chaperone them around. They give them assignments on the machines. While their victims, perform the black-uniformed guards stand and smile. My zapper tells me that this is an indication of pleasure. I watch these pairs of wises navigating around the room – the guards in font, the detainees meekly behind. I detect no discussion, no pleas for mercy; mere blind obedience.

I notice that some of the female wises who enter are wearing torture devices on their feet. These are archaic in the extreme and force the victim to balance on one square inch at the tip of their feet and a long spiked nail at the other end. The device forces the wearer to balance on an acute incline, making the formally flat foot into a triangle with the torture device. I zap one of the devices but come up with an error reading. It strikes me as odd that they are not required to wear the torture devices when they are on the machines. Now that is illogical, and we are warned about illogicalities so I begin to doubt my correctional facility idea. Perhaps if I devote attention to one pair I might find a clue. Time is running out and I fear failure.

Fifth note to diary – A mating ceremony?

In our training we were instructed to focus on individual interactions as these may reveal truths. There are few interactions in this space but I manage to observe a pair of wises.

They are a couple, standing and talking. I can see her face. When she came in she was wearing the torture devices. She is smiling. Her face is animated; the zapper records it as flirtatious and sexy. Her long dark hair is drawn up into a practical ponytail. I decide that she is a pretty girl. As she speaks she twirls the end of a plug-in radio earpiece around her fingers. The white wires with white ear plugs on the end whirl like old-fashioned motor blades. When it is completely wound around her hand, she reverses the direction and unwinds it, only to start again. She is using her right hand. Her left hand animates her conversation.

The black-clad guard who talks to her stands with his back to me. He leans against a machine and stands on one leg the other crossed in front with his foot turned toward me. His nonchalant poise seems to be in stark contrast to her animation. He is wearing foot gloves with individual protrusions for each toe. Toes, dear diary, are strange bumps on the feet and are of apparently little use to the wises.

The guard enjoys the exchange, although twice he tries to bring things to a close by raising his hand. Each time she responds, and their hands touch in the air. Then he changes his position and draws away, but something she says or does draws him back. The conversation revitalizes and he retraces his steps to take up his pose again. At last a final mid-air hand touch and they separate. She walks off toward one of the enigmatic machines and he off to the stairs to descend out of sight. I notice her wide hips and large bottom, and zap her to get her body-mass index. It is high. It is a bit unkind of me but I wonder if her time on the machine might eat up some calories and bring her index down.

Later, I watch her leave. I watch her walk past him in her torture devices. He is staring at her legs and instead of looking concerned about her discomfort, he looks happy. Actually my zapper records an increase in desire. A strange notion pops into my head. Could she be wearing those things voluntarily, specifically to arouse the opposite sex? If this is true, that she goes to this extreme, I can understand how they manage to multiply so fast. Ah-ha, perhaps I am on to something, something very odd!

Sixth note to diary – I cheat

Yes, I cheated, but not really, and I am sure that Father would have done likewise. I am going to keep this a secret from all except you, dear diary, and you shall always remain locked and hidden. It wasn’t a big cheat; I’d like to call it a white cheat. All I did was zap the writing on the wall. The dominant word is gym. The zapper tells me that this is a place where wises come to move and strengthen their bodies. This information is alien. Is that the heartbeat and muscles which I dismissed earlier? But, why do they choose to come into this dismal place when they have the Blue outside? Why don’t they strengthen their bodies in the light of that warming sun under that blue, blue sky or perhaps immersed in the mythical blue oceans which I won’t get to see.

My time is up and I am about to leave. This whole thing is a big disappointment. I am in half a mind to mention the heartbeat and muscles in my report. I might go overboard and mention the torturous sex stimulus footwear. I worry that these thoughts will be ridiculed and perhaps get back to Father, but I am feeling liberated and bold, for at least our society is beyond these primitive customs