“Not to Be Reproduced” (1937) by René Magritte

short story #50

There’s no denying it now. He stood half-naked in front of the bathroom mirror, turning his torso at different angles, squinting his eyes, catching the light from different points, tucking his belly in and out, out and in. With his thumb and forefinger he grabbed a soft, loose fold of flesh from the side and wiggled it grimly. He could not fool even himself.

Through gritted teeth he muttered, “Fat fuck.”

He did not shave nor shower. Instead, still half-naked, he went downstairs to the dining room.

His wife had left breakfast for him, the lone plate sitting at the corner of the dining table. He was not surprised by this. She had been doing it for some days now; on the first few days he had insisted to her that there was no need, that he could do it himself; now he had gotten accustomed, even forgetting that it was his wife who had prepared it for him, as he sat and chewed and ate slowly, thoughtlessly, leaving the dirty plate and utensils in the kitchen sink, forgetting about them at the instant, as though that plate of warm food that appeared every morning was self-renewing, self-sustaining like the rising of the sun or the flush of a toilet bowl.

But this time he stopped. This time he looked at the breakfast plate —that pair of pancakes with some sweet sausages — with a bitter tinge of guilt: the shame of a self-conscious but helpless animal’s necessity; blind impulse of a sorry beast.

He decided he did not want pancakes and sweet sausages this morning.

He went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. He took an egg. He brought out the frying pan and placed it on the stove and he turned up the flame. He cracked the egg on the rim of the pan and poured it out on the surface and threw the two cracked shell halves into the bin. The egg began to sizzle. He smiled to himself: nice and simple and easy; he knew he could do it. He opened the drawers under the kitchen counter until he found the spatula. He took it out and, waiting for the egg to fry to an opaque white, slipped the spatula under the edges.

But the egg would not give. Instead the white edge crumpled and compressed against the spatula’s movement; wrinkled it stayed when he removed the spatula. He decided he must wait some more.

After a few minutes he tried again. He found that the underside of the egg was burnt now — a crisp dark brown. Maintaining his calm, he slipped the spatula in and out of the egg, moving clockwise. The egg started to rip from the edge to middle. When he slipped in the spatula again, the rip ran up to the yolk and the thick yellow liquid slowly poured out onto the pan. It coagulated as soon as it spread out on the surface, viscous, a dulling yellow. He turned off the heat and, working quickly, moved the spatula around the egg to remove it from the pan.

It was no longer a sunny-side-up egg; it was a marbled hash of yellow, white, brown, and black.

He set this on a plate; he let it mellow. He thought that while it cooled perhaps he could prepare one egg more; this time he would do it even better. He took another egg out of the fridge and this time he decided to put it into the microwave. He set the time to 1:30 and pressed START; on his reflection on the microwave door he smiled at himself, at his own cleverness. As he held his face on the screen, watching, it exploded, a loud pop. He jumped back. It sounded like a bomb. His heart beat fast.

He unplugged the microwave. He saw the translucent whites — not quite solid, no longer liquid — sprayed all over the screen of the microwave door. When he opened it, hot white smoke rushed out. The chamber of the microwave was bespattered with pieces of shell, bubbling egg white, egg yolk. He had to clean this out with a wet rag, lest anyone find it out later when they got home. He thought that one egg would do for breakfast; that that in itself was a goal accomplished; take it one step at a time.

He sat on the kitchen table and ate his egg with a sense of self-accomplishment (somewhat dampened by the thought that the next time he must not forget to put a little salt).

The egg finished faster than he’d expected. He looked across to the plate of pancakes and sausages his wife had prepared for him; he convinced himself he did not want them, but what a waste it would be to throw these away. He would at least do his wife the thoughtful service of finishing them.

He wolfed them down; he felt quite fat now, bloated, heavy.

He went to the living room and slouched on the couch, his belly hanging loose, and turned on the television. The live midmorning news was on — the leisurely trivial droning of seated men — paid just to smile and engage in banal nothings — well-aware that no self-respecting sector of the working populace watched programs at this time of the day.

Not that any of this mattered to him. He was not listening. His eyes were fixed on the men’s crisp suits and ties custom-fit to their trim figures, their shining slicked-back hair, their hand gestures of confidence, charisma. The overpowering trance cast by superior airs.

He turned off the television. He climbed up to his room.

He opened his closet and opened his drawers and started to dig deep into his mess of old clothes, many of which years untouched, untried. At last he found what he’d been looking for: the pair of gym shorts he had worn so many times back in the team in the university; his favorite gym shirt he had so proudly worn during trainings for its flattering, muscular fit on his once lean youthful figure, that same figure that never failed to attract the glances and whispers of popular girls and cheerleaders, so much like the sharp sweet chirping of conspiring birds.

He put them on… tight — but no longer on his biceps, his chest, his hams, as they had once been; no, but rather, uncomfortably, embarrassingly tight, on his breasts and paunch and rears. When he bent down to put on his sneakers — these, too, long untouched — he could feel his shirt stretch and reach up, his shorts reach down, his crack so slightly exposed.

He went out to the garage; his wife had taken the car. He didn’t need the car. He could run; it would take but a ten-minute jog. He opened the gate and went out and started to tread — heavily, huffing… soon warm and wet. After a few feet he stopped, panting, bent down, his hands on his knees. He decided he would walk it instead. There was no rush; besides there was no use tiring himself out before he got there.

He arrived at their small town’s newest building, glamorous and modern, a newly opened gym, Universal Fitness. He stepped through the heavily tinted glass doors. The air-conditioning was at full blast; he heard the vibrant nose-itching beats of saccharine pop, the metallic clanging of heavy steel, the heavy grunts of exertion. He walked up to the front desk where there sat the attendant. Her t-shirt — fitting closely on her athletic, sinewy figure — was purple with letters printed in bold white: Being fit is for EVERYONE. WE will help YOU!

On seeing him as he approached, she did not smile so much as smirk.

“Can I help you?” she said.

“Please, I would like to use the gym.”

“Would you like to start a membership?”

“Yes. Why — ”

She brought out a form from a drawer and slapped it onto the counter in front of him. She pointed with her finger, indicating where to write. She spoke with her voice dull, nonchalant; she did not even need to look; she had done this many times before: “Write your full name here your home address here your phone number here your bank account number here leave a space — ”

“Bank account, ma’am?”

“To pay for the monthly fee.”

“Don’t you take cash, ma’am?”

“Wait. You don’t have a bank account?”

“It is… I had… It’s been cancelled, ma’am.”

The attendant stared at him, frowning, her lean jaw still, as if wondering what faraway planet this burly man had come from. “No bank account?” she said.

“No, ma’am.”

“Then … where do you get your money from?”

“My wife.”

She continued to stare, frowning, bewildered. She shrugged. “I suppose you can pay with cash,” she said. She brought out a styrofoam signboard with the gym tariffs printed out on it. Pointing with her finger she read out, “It will be 2,490 pesos if you want to pay for the month and 6,990 pesos if you want to pay for three months and…”

“Wait ma’am,” he said. He brought a worn-out coin purse from his pocket and brought out and carefully unfolded a wrinkled 50-peso bill. “I was thinking if I could just pay for one session first.”

She stared at him.

He tapped a few more coins from the purse onto his palm. “Don’t worry ma’am I have some more loose change here if this bill isn’t enough,” he said, moving through the coins with his finger.

“We don’t accept fees for single sessions. At least not in Universal Fitness.”

“Ma’am?”

“We believe that fitness is not the result of a moment, but a lifetime of progress,” she said, her strong chin raised, her barbell-calloused index fingers revolving in tiny circles around each other. “The fruit of patience and the slow careful nurturing of time. For this very reason we at Universal Fitness reinforce with utmost care and responsibility our clients’ commitment.”

“Ma’am?” he said.

He looked very confused and very embarrassed, his upturned palm still held out, unmoving, rigid with the crinkled bill and the scant loose coins.

She sighed and shrugged. “Listen,” she said. “We have on offer a free trial session for each customer, just to make sure our facilities live up to standards.”

“Oh,” he said, still holding out the cash in his palm, rigidly, inertly, even aggressively, quite unaware of it now, as though it were no longer an offering but a nullified, harmless threat.

“As long as you can give your word that you’ll sign-up for at least a month-long session if you’re happy with the facilities.”

“Ma’am?”

She sighed. “Just go in,” she said.

He pushed the gate. But it would not budge. “Ma’am?” he said.

“Wait for the beep, please,” she said.

It beeped. The gate opened. He went right in.

A lively jungle of machines: the clink-clank-clonk of pounding metal, gears, chains. The smell of sweat rank and warm: not the dour hefty scent of manual labor, of desperate muscle, but the dainty whiff of leisure and artifice, affected macho. Muscled men, with boulders as shoulders, focused, huffing as they push and pull on cables and bars — their arms’ slick striations gleaming wetly on myriad reflections on the mirrors that surround them; lean women, sticklike women, bare chiseled bellies exposed in pomp, toned torsos twisted and frozen on purple yoga mats in poses insect-like and inane. The men glanced and grinned at him, as though he were some lost puny mortal beggar who had somehow stumbled upon the mountain-peak of Olympus. The women did not glance at him at all. He saw himself reflected three-fold under the strong gym lights on a triptych of wall mirrors and at once he looked away. He did not like what he saw.

“First time in a gym?” the clerk asked behind him.

He turned around. “No,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“It’s just not like how I remembered it.”

“Sure,” she said.

“Where do they keep the squat rack?”

“Squat rack?”

“We in the team used it a lot back then.”

She guffawed, rather too pleasantly. “Welcome to the twenty-first century,” she said. She guffawed again. “In this gym we maintain machines of only the most up-to-date technology. Here at Universal Fitness, we dream that every Filipino who can afford it should have easy access to a healthy, active lifestyle. Hence the machines we purchase are only those of the most meticulous and foolproof design, latest in the science of ergonometry.”

He frowned at her; he was confused.

“That means that even the least intellectually-gifted human being, shall we say,” she winked, “would be capable of figuring out how to use the machines. No need for instruction manuals or trainers! Just get in, push, pull, press at whatever lever you see and work up a sweat! Before you know it, in months you’ll be lean and mean!”

She flexed her biceps and triceps subtly, she tightened her strong jawline. He did not know what to say.

“Anyway, I’ll be at the desk if you need anything,” she said. “But I doubt you will.” She laughed at her own joke.

He passed by three rows of treadmills: 5 treadmills to each row. On the rapid whirring belt the joggers worked running, running, sweating; unmoving, unprogressing — eternal racers trapped in perpetual stalemate. He figured if he wanted to run he need not have gone all the way to a gym from his house to do it. He went up to the zone with three identical cage-like contraptions, the only thing that even remotely looked to him like a squat rack: a horizontal bar, guided by springs and plastic contraptions, sliding smoothly through two parallel vertical bars. The machine possessed a stack of black metal bricks with numbers printed out on them, increasing gradations of ten starting from the bottom: 10KG, 20KG, 30KG…all the way to 250KG. One chose the weight by inserting a metal rod into a round slot on the desired brick. He placed the metal rod into the 10KG. He gave a sideways glance at the grunting elephant of a man in the rack beside his — bloated thighs rippling with thick blue veins — lifting 230KG. He decided he would place the metal rod into the 20KG. And just to warm up first.

He moved up to the rack and let the horizontal bar rest across the yoke of his back. He breathed rapidly but calmed as he felt the cold smooth metal on his back, his palms. After all these years the sensation was still familiar — the once constant motions of youth forever etched into the unthinking but remembering muscle. With a backward twist of his wrists he unlatched the clasps and let the weight rest on his shoulders. He inhaled deeply, his belly filling, expanding. He squatted down, slowly, carefully, bending at the knees, hinging at the hips. He reached bottom, paused a moment. He stood up. He smiled.

He still had it in him.

He was able to do nine more: smoother and smoother at each passing repetition. His heart beat fast now: not so much from the physical effort as the palpable rush and thrill of triumph he felt ride through his body. He twisted his wrists to latch and rerack the bar and he stepped back; he beamed at himself in the mirror. For so long he had not smiled at his own reflection.

He moved forward and placed the pin at 40KG. Pausing, thinking again, he pulled the pin out and raised it to 50KG.

He stepped back and placed his hands on the bar, wiggling them; he shuffled his feet, squinted his eyes; he breathed slowly, calmly. Grasping the bar he leaned back like a stretching cat and with a big puff of air he placed his shoulders under the bar and he twisted his wrists to unlatch the clasps and he felt the full force of the weight pressing down on his soft flesh. He felt his knees tremble. It was quite heavy now.

He was tempted to latch the bar back but he did not. He braced his belly and his cheeks and he descended slowly. His thighs quivered and he felt his right calf tighten up. But he went on. He reached bottom and he bounced right up and exhaled when he got to the top, knees locked. He smiled. For he knew there was plenty more left in him.

He did three more: four total repetitions. He racked the bar and — his blood rushing and his quadriceps throbbing — he felt the need to scream a scream of primal victory, of alpha-male dominance. He held it in; instead he looked at the mirror. He saw that he was already getting leaner; he could see some shadow under his cheekbones (he did not notice them there before); it even appeared to him that his hairline had lowered slightly but noticeably. And when he pulled up his shorts he could see his thighs were starting to grow some muscle. He could flex them now as he had once done many years before. He turned to the side and tucked his stomach in and passed his hand over it and suddenly he felt very good about himself. For once he could foresee the future, and the future looked good and agreeable.

“Excuse me.”

He turned around. A young woman, athletic and tall, an obvious gym rat, with sleeveless chiseled arms and lean, tight leggings approached him.

He tried to contain his smile, tried to put on an outward show of modesty.

“Hey,” he said.

“Can I ask?” she said.

“Of course. What can I help you with?”

“You have many sets to go, sir?”

His face went blank.

“Sets,” she repeated. She indicated the bar of the machine.

He still stared at her.

“How many more,” she said and as if to make sure he would surely understand this time she did some mock squats with an imaginary barbell on her back.

He blinked. “Oh,” he said. “Oooh. Sets. I understand.”

“Many more to go, sir?”

“No. Maybe two more sets to go.”

“Alright,” she said, walking away. “Thank you, sir. Please be so kind as to let me know when you finish. I will just be at the cardio section. And please do not forget to wipe the bar. Thank you.”

He did two more sets but this time he lowered the weight back to 40KG and he did it quickly. He went up to the young woman who was now on a stationary bike, pedaling yet static, sweat-soaked, forward-looking, enrapt in a competitive concentration. He called to her; he would not dare touch her.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I am done.”

She continued pedaling.

“I am done,” he said louder, and she continued pedaling still. He looked around. No one minded him; everyone else was pedaling too. He did not know what to do. A sense of awkward inferiority filled him.

“Excuse me!” he said, louder, almost shouting. “I am done!”

She slowed the pedaling to a stop and she removed her wireless earpods. She finally noticed him. “Oh, you are done, sir?” she said. She got off the bike, sweating, breathing heavily. “Oh. Alright. Thank you, sir.” She walked to the squat machine.

He started saying, “You do not need to call me sir, my name is …” but it was no use anymore because she’d already put her earphones back on and she did not look back and she forgot about him. And when she got to the squat machine she removed the pin nonchalantly and raised the weight to 70KG and did multiple reps right off the bat. He looked away as soon as he realized he was staring.

He wanted to use the bench press machine next but all seven were occupied by grunting men with apelike chests. He went to exercise in other vacant machines whose names he did not even know. He was not really sure if he was doing it correctly. But no one went up and told him otherwise and he could feel at least some sort of burn in his muscles and he was working up a nice good sweat, his shirt darkening with bloom-like blotches on his armpits, under his breasts. He did less exercise than he’d initially wanted to but he already felt too tired to do anything else so he decided to call it a day. In the dressing room, as he sat and drank some water, he smiled a small smile to himself and he thought it was not bad for a first day after all.

One must start somewhere. One must not forget to celebrate the little victories.

On walking back home he suddenly felt a tight, sharp knot on his hamstring and he fell to the sidewalk, grasping his thigh. The knot was too tight, too painful, as if there was a bullet lodged in it and he could not move, let alone get up. He felt warm tears come out of his eyes.

“Let me help you, mister,” said a small boy who was coming home from school on his bike. He had stopped and held his hand out to the poor sweaty man writhing on the cement floor.

“Leave me,” he said. He looked away from the proffered hand, down at the dust.

“I’ll help you up, mister.”

“I do not need help. I said leave me.”

“Are you — ”

“Do not touch me! I said leave!”

It took him quite a while to get back home by himself; it was already getting dark; he’d crawled most of the way back and he had many small scratches on his shins and he was covered with soil and road dust. As he walked up the steps of the porch he could hear shouting: his wife’s shrill hysteric voice, unmistakable. He opened the door with much caution, his body already tense as if by foreseeing instinct.

“I told you never to leave him alone! Never, never, never!”

“I told you ma’am… He was still asleep. It was not yet his wake up time.”

“That’s no excuse! Anything can happen! That’s why we hired you, a professional, so-called! He’s capable of doing anything to himself.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? That’s all you can say? You didn’t even bother to call at once! What can we do now?”

“He might just have gone out, ma’am. He’ll be back”

When he came into the door he could feel all the eyes fixed on him: his wife’s — wide in outrage; the middle-aged caretaker’s — relieved and defensive; his two little children’s, who were peeping from their rooms — scared, confused, innocent; it was as if in this spectrum of emotions their gazes inflicted on him a concentrated, paralyzing force.

“Where have you been, sweetie?” said his wife. Her voice was trembling.

He did not answer, he just looked her in the face … and he could no longer find the beauty he had fallen in love with her for; instead he was filled, for the first time, with deep terror. He had never seen her eyes fixed at him in such a visage: it was neither hate nor anger; it was not even pity. It was a dark condescending hopelessness, much like how one would look at an idiot child, and he was afraid of her. He quickly ran to the nearest room — the visitor’s bathroom — before they could get at him and he locked it and he put down the toilet lid and he sat on the seat.

“Honey,” he heard his wife say as she slapped frantically at the door. “Honey open up. Honey?”

“Sir?” said the caretaker through the door.

“Get the keys,” he heard his wife say.

“I don’t know where…”

“Then look for them goddammit or at least call the police!”

She continued slapping the wood of the door. It was very loud and booming and he would not be surprised if the door would soon break. His elbows propped on his knees, he buried his face in his hands. He did not know what to do. He tried to pray to Jesus but he could no longer remember the words. He tried to cry. But even in this he found himself incapable.

I’m very happy to have written this story after a long period of dryness (almost a year) and some psychological problems. I’ve been seeing the doctor. I know the writing is sloppy but I am happy to have finally put something out. This idea for a story came to me while I was at the gym. Hopefully the gyms will open soon.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.