Twice a week, I find myself driving twenty minutes across town. I drop off a child. One hour later, I pick him up again. It’s not worth the gas to go home, and the place is pretty remote so there is nothing else within miles for me entertain myself with, except for a connected gym and a trampoline park which are both wildly overpriced.
When these appointments started, I would sit in the foyer on a squeaky plastic chair next to a fake plant and a table littered with board books, old issues of Highlights Magazine, and pamphlets about how to talk my kid out of doing drugs. I mostly chatted with the security guard or played solitaire on my phone, since I couldn’t ever seem to remember to grab a book, but if I was really on it, I would bring headphones and take French quizzes to win fake internet money with which I could buy little outfits for my avatar, a green cartoon owl named Duo.
It was low-grade terrible but could have been a lot worse. I could live with it.
Then, while spying on the security guard, I realized that of all the surveillance cameras he monitored—the halls of all three floors, the elevators, all doors in and out, several views of the parking lot—none of them were watching the stairwell. So with his blessing, I went to check it out.
Concrete steps with metal and rubber grills on the edges. Painted metal handlebars. Three dusty buckets of mysterious construction materials stuffed under the bottom flight. You know this stairwell, I’m sure. You probably have one at work, or your apartment building, or your doctor’s office. These are actually all the same stairwell, dimensionally connected across all space and time no matter where you enter or exit, from the florescent lights at the top to the patterned carpet at the bottom, covered with dust and the powdered remains of ten-year-old leaves, with maybe a skittle or two and a crumpled plastic juice bottle to liven up the scenery. You’ve been here before, but maybe you didn’t stay long because it looks like the kind of place that a homeless vampire from the 1700s might skulk while he tries to figure out where it all went wrong and what the heck ‘yeet’ is supposed to mean anyway.
Inspection thus passed, I sat thoughtfully in the foyer again the next visit. “You know,” I said to the security guy. “I should probably go walk stairs or something instead of just sitting here.”
“Do it.” He was probably tired of me hanging around making small talk while thumbing curiously through wall racks full of pamphlets about AIDS or safe sleeping positions for babies or how to make friends when you feel like nobody understands you. “You won’t be able to get back through the doors at the top of the stairs, but if you come back up before the elevator shuts down at five, it’s not a problem.”
Now, this building is literally connected to a gym. But as I have mentioned once or twice (or a thousand times), I am the cheapest of skates. I compare the price-per-ounce of every grocery I buy, every single week, just in case they went and changed it on me. I will always choose to languish sick at home an extra week than spend the ten dollars to see a doctor at my husband’s work’s health clinic. Every time. So why would I go to the gym when I have this perfectly serviceable creepy stairwell at my disposal?
It started out small. I clomped up and down the steps in my oversized winter boots for a quarter hour before coming back up to wait for the boy. But why stop there? If you have three flights of stairs, some buckets, and a pile of floppy plastic wall trim, you’re only limited by your imagination.
Things got more complicated. I started timing exercise sets on my phone—squats, stair sprints, planks, crunches, and so on. I wore tights and sports bras under my street clothes. I ditched the boots under the stairs. Then most of the outer layers of clothing as well. The workouts stretched in duration and intensity. But as that happened, I started to look more and more like a crazy person—especially considering that there was a fully equipped gym three feet away on the other side of the wall. I started to get self-conscious. Then, on the rare occasion that someone else was actually using the stairs to go up and down floors (who does that?), I started hiding. With the squeak and slam of a panic bar, someone else would come in the stairwell and I had moments to assess if they were above or below me, going up or going down, and then, drenched in sweat and wearing crazy tight pants and stripey socks, I dove beneath the stairs to squat pressed against the wall like a startled Gollum in a cave (except his hair is better than mine).
Then things started to get really weird. I mean, time is hard to come by and I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I would do French quizzes while getting sick glutes on the stairs. I texted ladies from church about their ministering assignments and upcoming enrichment activities as I did wacky belly-dancing core workouts. I brought my laptop if I was behind on my word count for NaNo, and did this awful plank-while-sprinting thing where I had to get so many words before I could stop (which really just made for bad words and bad exercise form). I would max out the volume on my phone and listen to scriptures, running up three flights of stairs at a dead sprint while blasting the commandments of God handed down from Mount Sinai in this weird stairwell that I was making waaaay weirder by the day. I would do all these things in the same workout session, waiting for my kid to finish his appointment and never quite having enough time to finish everything I started. I was multitasking on a whole new level. And if that squeak-bang door announcement ever sounded, and it did at least once a session, I would instantly kill the volume and flee to the bottom of the stairs, squeezing down into a sticky ball of social anxiety wedged between a bucket of paint and a half-used box of powdered wall spackling, just add water.
I was being so incredibly weird, and I loved it. Man, it would have been miserable and mortifying if someone caught me at it, but good golly, it felt like I was getting away with a crime every time someone went through that stairwell and didn’t spot me. Just earlier today (no, this hasn’t stopped, and it’s not about to), I didn’t turn off my French quiz quite fast enough and the last echoes of “Avez-vous apporté-” were still sounding in the stairwell when someone came in. They paused, silent, then came uncertainly down the stairs. They paused again at the bottom of the flight, standing just before the door to leave.
Maybe they heard the labored breathing I couldn’t quite stifle. Maybe they could smell the scents of fresh sweat and discount-bin Lärabars. And then maybe they decided I was that 1700s vampire and it was best not to investigate. They left, leaving me feeling like I had just reached a whole new level of got-away-with-it rapture.
You know that NaNo Badge you can earn for writing where you probably shouldn’t? Oh yeah. Badge unlocked.