With our news feeds now being bombarded with hatred, war and violence, I thought I'd post my short story, "Women's Only Hour," as my little nod to the possibilities of different people coming together and getting along. A slightly different version of the story was first published in 2005 on the now defunct site, Artistry of Life, and then in my 2007 PressOn! chapbook Barbies, Breasts and Bathing Suits.
WOMEN’S ONLY HOUR (THE BLUE NUN)
“Gentlemen, please clear the training centre,” the attendant announces. “It’s time for women’s only hour.”
After the last man reluctantly leaves the University of Toronto’s weight room, I watch her perform her customary ritual. Carefully, she removes her head scarf and long navy robe to reveal the modest track suit underneath. I don’t know what she calls the vestments now hanging over the handles of a stationary bike... burqua... chador... abayah... hijab.... We have never spoken. I don’t know her name. In my mind I dub her the Blue Nun, after the wine I drank a long time ago.
I frequent the women’s only hour because the room is quiet and there is plenty of space to move. There are no beefy jocks smirking while I lift my five pound weights. But, for the Blue Nun, this must be the only time of day she can exercise. Such restrictions seem like a waste of a gym membership, unless she also uses the pool. There’s an aquatic women’s only hour, too.
Perhaps she does swim. I wouldn’t know; I don’t venture near pools anymore. Years ago, I was a lifeguard at the Women’s Y in Montreal. Women like the Blue Nun were under my supervision then. I hated guarding the lap lanes because of the skirmishes between slow and speedy swimmers, but I was grateful for the harmony of the whirlpool. Whether they followed Torahs, Testaments, Korans or Upanishads, women happily sat together in that hot, cramped basin. I used to think we’d achieve global peace if the wives of world leaders could gather in one giant tub of whirling water.
The peace of the Y’s whirlpool was sometimes interrupted, not by conflicts or quarrels, but by the arrival of men. No matter how many times they were warned, janitors showed up unannounced to test the water or check the pipes. Muslims and Hasidic Jews ran for the cover of towels, hiding their heads and bodies as quickly as they could. I’d blow my whistle and yell “don’t run”, but it never made any difference. The dictates of theology came first.
The other lifeguards often complained about the Hasidic women. In addition to breaking the “no running” rule, they had trouble complying with other pool regulations. “It’s an hour of freedom,” I explained to my colleagues. “They have to follow rules every other hour of the day.”
I liked the wig-wearing Hasidic ladies myself. One of them was a queen-sized goddess of a grandmother named Malka. She called me shaineh maidel. She brought me honey cake and deemed me thin. No one else said that about my then generous curves.
Malka was in the whirlpool one afternoon when it was filled to capacity with matrons who spoke Yiddish, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. They frequently broke into cackles, telling jokes in a broken English I could barely understand. My shift was nearly over when a maintenance man waltzed onto the pool deck. In a flash, all of the women scurried away. All of them except for Malka. “Aren’t you supposed to get out, too?” I asked her.
“Too old for dis nonsense,” she replied with a wink. Then she stretched out her ample figure and luxuriated in the empty tub.
“It’ll be our secret,” I said, smiling.
I smile now watching the Blue Nun. She reminds me of Malka, although she is no more than twenty. I wonder why she is committed to her exercises. The purpose of my devotion to sweaty contortions is, of course, to pound my body into submission. I do everything I can to stay slim and encourage admiring looks from men. But if I were the Blue Nun, I would slacken and fatten up under those blue robes. Why bother with the training if no one can see the results?
Five minutes before the end of the hour, the Blue Nun returns to the stationary bicycle and begins putting on her scarf and robe. I wander over to her. “Did you have a good workout?”
“I did,” she says sweetly. “I like to feel my heart pumping. It makes me feel truly alive.”
“Yes… yes,” I say, hopping on a bike. For once, my body feels comfortable on it.
It’s the end of the hour. The Blue Nun waves goodbye and walks away. I wish I knew her name.