Written by IllaRouge
The steam filled the locker room of Emina's favorite gym. While she wasn't against using the gym at the Mayors' facility, tending to use it when there were home games in session, Paula's in downtown Huntsville brought something of a sense of anonymity to her workouts. Her teammates were fine, mostly, even if she felt an antagonism at times. At Paula's Gym, she blended in with the other bodybuilders, the gym specializing in sculpting rather than casual or weight-loss-oriented exercising. A few knew of her place on the basketball court, but no one bothered her with it. She felt content.
She didn't tell her teammates about this place. This was, in a way, her gym. This was her shower, her touch of alone time.
Despite the differing opinions on what temperature a shower after a hard workout should be, she needed the piping hot to set the peace she found in working her body. The sting was refreshing to her, distracted from her disquieted mind.
A few other women filtered into the locker room. Emina busied herself with washing. What drove her to Paula's was her minor attempt at sociability. She went out with the team after wins and attended events with more regularity than she used to, but she still fancied herself a wallflower. Her drive for more social situations came from a curiosity more than a pressure to conform, to seem more comfortable in public than she usually found herself capable of. She turned to see some of the women entering the shower. She offered a smile, and they smiled back.
Emina exited with the other women around the same time. Most of them paired off and continued their conversations. Emina stepped up to her locker, content with a bout of silence.
"Saw you deadlifting today." The cross fox glanced to her side. An opossum woman stood with her shoulder against the cold painted metal. Emina grinned. "Not your usual workout."
"Trying some new things."
The opossum was new to the gym, scraggly compared to the other members, clearly pretty early in her journey of bodybuilding. She picked up her own towel and dried off. "Usually favor arm stuff, don't you?"
Emina became conscious of her own body, but in a way she felt proud of. "Can't get like this if you skip leg day." The two shared a chuckle. "Ariel, right?"
"Maybe if I dyed my hair red." Her slick, wet hair, usually wiry and wild when dry, started at the roots with a mint green and slid to a hot pink by the tips. "Abigail."
"Emina," she offered in turn.
"Hard not to know who you are." Emina shifted consciousness to one that made her feel more anxious. "But don't worry, won't hold it against you."
The joke lifted the fox out of her momentary stupor. "I deadlift every so often," to get back to the conversation, "just maybe not as much as I should."
Abigail hopped onto the bench to better reach the top shelf of her locker. She barely came to Emina's shoulder. She pulled out some deodorant and put it on.
"What were you working on today?" Emina said.
"More endurance, some leg stuff. Still getting my bearings, you know?"
Emina nodded. "It's tough to start, but it's rewarding to continue."
"Seems so." She looked the fox up and down. Emina didn't seem to notice. "How long'd it take you to get like that?"
Emina observed herself. She had come a long way in sculpting her body. She flexed her shoulder a bit. "I started when I was fifteen, so it's been about twenty years, I'd say."
The opossum's eyes went wide. "You're thirty-five? Holy shit." She laughed, and that got Emina to smile more. "Sorry, not making fun of you, just kind of a shock. I thought you were more my age."
The two continued dressing in their street clothes. Emina sat down to tie her shoes. "I get that a lot."
"Just figured you were huge, you know?"
They finished dressing, both in gray tank tops with the gym's nickname, The Warehouse, emblazoned on the fabric and yoga pants, and slammed their lockers in tandem. Emina took up her bag, as did Abigail. They walked out onto the floor and headed for the door. "Hey," the opossum offered, halting Emina's movement. "Wanna do something?"
The fox took a moment to take on the words. She'd heard propositions like this before. She felt ready to fall back on her usual response, polite decline and requisite thanking, but an urge rose up that came to her only occasionally. She rode it for a moment. "Like what?"
Thrown for a loop, albeit an internal one, Abigail kept in verbal step: "Just whatever. Something fun and less sweaty."
"Sure." Again, the abruptness blindsided Abigail, but it equally did so with Emina. "As long as it's nothing fancy. I'm not really dressed up or anything."
Abigail guffawed. "Do I look like the fancy type to you?"
Slapping a twenty down on the counter, Abigail grinned up at the twenty-something owl running the register. "What size?"
"Six, my dude."
He looked at Emina. "And you?"
"Fourteen, if you've got them."
The avian, listless, turned to the wall of bowling shoes and searched for their sizes. The local bowling alley was moderately populated, with families and leagues bowlers, with hopeless gutter-throwers and unrecognized savants of the sport. For Emina, it was a foreign zone, almost a culture shock.
"Ever been bowling?"
Emina shook her head. "My dad always tried to get me to go. I just never did."
The owl placed their shoes on the counter, and Abigail took hers. "Gotta start some time." The opossum put her personal shoes on the counter. Emina took a moment to undo hers before exchanging her shoes as well. They headed for Lane 7, the lights for it clicking on and the old CRTs blinking to life. While the cross fox worked to tie her shoes at the table in front of the alley, Abigail sat in the pullout chair to input their names. "Mind if I go first?"
"Not at all." Emina propped her foot up on the table rather than sitting down. She tied the flimsy laces. She briefly surveyed the chairs and wondered if they'd hold her. She figured standing was good enough.
Having finished putting their names in, Abigail set to looking for a bowling ball. Emina chose the first one she found that fit her fingers.
"Sixteen pounds. Kinda like nothing for you, huh?"
Emina laughed. "Kind of."
Abigail picked up a twelve-pounder. "Good enough for me." They set their balls down on the ball return. She turned to Emina. "So you've really never been bowling?"
"Good thing I'm going first." She picked up her ball and lined up on one of the dots. Emina watched as she thrust her butt out just a little and bent her knees. In a fluid motion, she let her arm swing back, took slow steps to the fault line, then swung back forward and let go of the ball, taking a heavy spin down the lane as it skirted the right gutter before curving back to the center. The pins fell with that satisfying clatter. The opossum spun around with a wide, sharp-toothed grin.
Emina played up a stunned expression, though she was impressed to a similar degree. "Well, can't imagine how this won't end well."
Abigail clutched Emina by the wrist and guided the muscle-bound fox to the ball return as her own purple, marbled ball rolled back and against Emina's ball. "It ends well because we have fun." She stepped aside to give Emina room. "We're not in a competition."
"Right." Emina picked up her own ball, a solid black. She held it up similarly to how she viewed Abigail do it. The opossum put her hand on Emina's arm.
"I'll make you a deal. You don't compare your score to mine, or your experience to mine, and I won't compare how much weight either of us can lift against each other. Deal?"
It took Emina a moment to register the comment, and she responded with a chuckle. "Okay, I get it." She thought about how Abigail positioned herself. She did something similar, before she heard a small clicking coming from her compatriot.
"Don't worry about technique first, okay? The only thing to keep in mind is to land on the leg opposite to the hand you hold the ball."
Emina held up her left hand, holding the ball. "Why that?"
Abigail picked up her ball and held it to her knee. "So you don't force yourself to miss a leg day, or a game for that matter. Plus, I don't mind paying for bowling, but a trip to the hospital is a bit outside my budget."
The cross fox found herself laughing a lot this evening. She nodded at the advice and repositioned herself. She didn't stress as much about mimicking the other's moves. She took fewer steps to the line, releasing the ball and watching it sail in a straight line down the lane. The ebony ball struck the ten pin before crashing against the back panel.
"Hey, your first roll, and you actually hit something." Abigail clapped slowly. She smiled and leaned against the ball return. "Keep working on your legs for now. Don't worry about points. Do what feels natural."
The two traded turns on the lane for a few frames. After a few tries, Abigail gave Emina a few more pointers, from straightening her arm to letting her back leg swing to act as a counterbalance. Emina's score steadily improved, while Abigail proved to be somewhat seasoned in the ways of bowling.
After their first game, the pair sat down at the table in front of their lane. Abigail waved over one of the workers and ordered a pitcher of Blue Shrew-n.
"You have cheat days?" Abigail asked.
"Very few, but I can make exceptions sometimes."
They put up some more frames before the beer arrived. They both had several plastic cups full of the lager. They spent some time leisurely taking their next few frames, choosing instead to talk with each other, light conversation, little snippets of their experiences with exercising and keeping in shape. Abigail was new to the whole idea, but she loved the idea of being strong, of being disciplined; she liked the challenge.
"I'm not there to get skinny. I can do skinny. But building muscles? That's tough work."
"It really is. It's more disciplined than a lot of workout routines. It's an actual lifestyle."
Abigail nodded along as Emina described some of her own philosophy on the subject. She gave hints to her own reasoning for doing it, but the opossum boiled it down to Emina's own need to feel agential and empowered. "So you don't feel weak if you're not working out."
"No. That's never really been the case." Emina chuckled. "In some ways, it would be too easy to describe it like that. I've got my issues, and I've needed to find a way to give myself that independence. I'm not hiding my mental problems, and I'm not just coping. I'm trying to find a way to live with them."
"Give them moments to come out?"
"Yeah, exactly." She realized the slight irony to her being out with someone she didn't know. "If I need to take time for me and be asocial, that's what I'll do. If I need to workout to help get me through a tough day, that's what I'll do."
Abigail smiled. "I like that." She poured herself another cup of beer and squeezed her orange slice into it. After a sip, she sighed. "It's not a weakness, it's just a part of your life."
"What about you? Why do you want to bodybuild?"
The marsupial took a moment to think about it. She smiled softly, as if silently acknowledging a hard truth. "Something similar. But I might need some more time to make it not seem like I'm covering up a weakness in myself."
Emina nodded. "That part takes time. It helps to remind yourself why you feel you need to do this. Part of that is recognizing if a thought is unhealthy."
"I'm bad at that."
"Me too." They shared a little happiness in that connection.
There was about half-a-cup's worth of beer left, which spurred them on to finish their second game. They finished off their frames and agreed they'd bowled enough for the evening.
"You sure you're okay to pay?" Emina asked.
"Hell yeah, or I wouldn't have asked you out." They unlaced and re-exchanged their shoes. "You can pick a place for dinner, if that helps your conscience."
The canid dwelled on a few of Abigail's words for a moment, but the threat she sometimes felt when in similar situations felt muted. She felt pulled along by a feeling. She went with it.
"Okay. I have just the place."
Emina pulled into the parking lot of an apartment complex. She parked her SUV in a numbered spot, the engine idling before switching off. Emina stepped out, still managing to make her car look small compared to her.
"Didn't peg you for an SUV person," Abigail said.
"Kind of need the space for my legs." They shut the doors. Emina rounded the back and opened the hatch. She took out her gym bag and locked the doors after she shut it.
Abigail looked up at the complex. It was a simple two-story set-up, with four apartments, two on each floor. The façade was flat, with plastic false shutters and siding that needed updating. The lines in the parking lot hadn't been painted in years. The landscaping, what little there was, had been designed with a different decade in mind, maybe a different century.
"So, don't get me wrong, and I don't mean to pry, but you're a millionaire, right?"
This brought out the loudest laugh that Emina had uttered in a while. She tried to quiet herself by laughing through her teeth, but her chest heaved with joviality. "Well, yes, but I don't need a big house for myself." She led them to the front-facing stairs outside of the building. Once up, she turned to apartment C and produced her keys from her pants pocket. The door swung open, and Emina stooped a little to get in; Abigail had no such a problem. Inside, the apartment was modestly decorated. The walls had pictures that suggested they came with the apartment--flowers, kitchen utensils in the kitchen, a scenic shot here and there. The living room comprised of an L-shaped couch and a coffee table, no television. The kitchen was the most populated space with cooking tools, machines, and organized spice racks arranged on the counter, a set of stools facing a breakfast bar.
Abigail looked into the living room. "You're a dangerous woman, Emina."
The cross fox paused before joining in Abigail's viewing. "Oh, the TV?"
"Or lack of it."
"Just means that what few guests I have need to talk to each other." She hung up her bag on a rung near the door. "I'm quiet, but I like conversation."
"No complaints here. I like talking." She had left her own bag in the car. She hopped up on one of the stools. She looked up at the top of Emina's cabinets, which were lined with bottles of booze. "For your guests?"
Emina walked around the bar into the kitchen. "Yeah, actually. Wendy comes over from time to time."
The opossum looked surprised. "I'll admit, I don't really follow basketball, but I kinda heard about you two." Emina took down a cast iron pan from one of the hooks on the wall, the others filled with other utensils and pans of various forms. She turned to the left enough for Abigail to see the glossy, raised flesh of Emina's newest scars from the previous years. "She give you that?"
Emina nodded. "Yeah, but we're okay now."
Abigail raised an eyebrow. "You can just forgive someone for something like that?" She chose her words carefully.
She nodded again. "I've forgiven worse, and I've been forgiven of a lot worse than that." She set the pan down on her gas range. The flame clicked into life. She opened her fridge and squatted down to search through its contents.
Resting her arms on the counter, Abigail smiled once more. "You keep finding ways to impress me, girl."
Emina set down some packaged chicken breasts and pulled another tool off the wall, a cutting board, at the same time. She took one of the knives from the holder with a sharpener. She angled the knife on the sharpener and alternated sides rhythmically. "I'm not much of a girl anymore." She cast an eye at Abigail. "I'm probably a decade older than you."
"A little less, actually." She chuckled. "I don't watch basketball, but I've read a little on you."
"Just a bit. I heard you were famous, got me curious." She thumbed the end of a banana sitting next to a bowl on the counter. "You don't interview much, huh?"
"I don't." From where Abigail sat, she could see a humored expression on Emina's face. "I like my privacy. It's the thing I have the most control of."
"Despite the fact that you're famous?"
"In tandem with it." She set down the sharpener. She picked up a towel and wiped the blade, then taking a tip and puncturing the plastic. She took up one of the breasts and set it on the cutting board. "People can perceive me. They can interact with me. They might even consume me, on TV, at the gym, in stories and rumors spread about me." She cut the chicken into small pieces, doing it again with another piece. With her clean hand, she turned on the water to wash her hands. "But I can think whatever I want and keep my history close. They can't pull that from me." Hands washed, she reached into one of her cabinets and pulled out a bottle of avocado oil. She poured it into the skillet, the chicken to follow. "Even if someone found out the details of my past, they can't take my experience. It's mine, and if I want to share it, that's my choice."
Abigail sat engrossed. She looked happy to have learned something that felt personal. She had been let in. "Wow, that's a smart way of looking at it."
The chicken sizzled in the oil. Emina added some spices with some more avocado oil and made a kind of sauce as the chicken cooked. "I read a lot, too."
"I think," Abigail said in a wavering confidence, "the world reads things onto us." Emina continued working, but she kept an eye on her new friend. "If they think you're a monster, it's hard not to be that, right? But, but, but," she stammered, resting her head in her hand; she took a few seconds before she tried to continue, slightly more composed, "but you don't have to be that. If you wanna be better, you should be allowed to be better, and you should work to be better." Emina thankfully found a lull in her preparations as she put some jasmine rice on the stove. She turned to Abigail to give her her full attention.
Abigail recognized she was in the spotlight, so she gave herself a moment to think about her words. "I love that you helped me think of working out as not being about weakness. I really can't thank you enough for that. But I still have that nagging feeling in the back of my head that that's what I'm doing this for, like even if I say I'm not doing this out of fear, maybe it secretly is."
They passed a wordless moment together. Emina slipped on an oven mitt and took the chicken off the heat. She shut off the burner, emanating ambient heat with the flame gone. She set the oven mitt aside with the tiniest of thuds on the counter. She walked up and rested her arms on the surface between them. Abigail looked up at Emina. The cross fox recognized the look intimately: Abigail was torn between running away and returning to something familiar, even if that familiarity was a violent one. Emina held out her hand. Abigail's eyes darted back and forth between the fox's face and her gesture of closeness. The opossum put her hand on top of Emina's, her fingers thin and boney, her veins pronounced against her taut skin. Emina closed her hand around Abigail's, giving it a light squeeze. Emina's own eyes showed a delving into her personal past, some of which she transferred in a look into Abigail's eyes. She loosened her grip and slid her arm up so that their forearms sat side by side.
The scars on Emina's muscled arm bulged out, created their own landscape, a topography with too much history. Across the gap, there sat smaller, pockmarked scars up Abigail's arm, scars filled with a comparable history, unique to the marsupial, the smallest of connections spreading out through her fingertips as she ran them over Emina's permanently welted flesh.
"You did things you regret," Emina said, almost at a whisper, both of them looking at each other's arms. "If you run, all of your past will catch up. It's kind of a paradox. You run, and it outpaces you until it tackles you, beats you to the ground." Her eyes went back to her own scars. "I ran for a very long time. I still have the urge to run. That doesn't go away." She turned her hand and ran her finger over one of Abigail's lumped but pitted scars. "But maybe, if you let that past walk with you, take it by the hand and make it a companion, it can't pick up enough momentum to hurt you. And you might just learn something about that part of you."
Abigail stifled a few exasperated gasps as she tried not to cry. She gripped Emina's forearm as if she were trying not to fall. She forced a smile to the surface. "I don't, I don't know if I'm ready to deal with all of that." She sniffed hard, her smile becoming more natural. "But I'm ready to better myself, and maybe that's enough for now."
Emina took a deep breath, smiling herself. She stood straight and rounded the counter. She kept her own hold of Abigail's arm and led the opossum into a firm but gentle hug. Abigail peeped at the sudden gesture, but she relaxed at the surprising tenderness she found the fox capable of. She barely came past Emina's pectorals. She closed her eyes and sunk into the feeling.
"That's more than enough, and you're strong for even trying."
They embraced for a while. Neither really thought about the time. Abigail chuckled after a moment. "I know I'm being anxious for nothing, but this doesn't violate your space?"
"A hug?" Emina found the concern humorous. "I'm asexual, not unfeeling. I'm not afraid of closeness."
"So, if I asked to stay the night, would that be weird?"
"Everything is weird, but you might be bored."
Abigail nuzzled Emina, and the fox didn't resist, perhaps to her own surprise. "No, I wouldn't do something like that." She slowed her movement, but she couldn't shake the comforting warmth she felt in the arms of this fox she barely knew. "But if I wanted to stay the night kinda like this, just hold you, be held, that kinda shit, maybe talk, maybe not, and if I wanted to do this maybe more than just tonight, maybe in public, maybe some other things that aren't sexual."
The sound of the rice pot boiling settled. Emina's ears perked, and she looked into the kitchen. She reached down and put her arm behind Abigail's legs. Abigail squeaked excitedly as she was picked up and carried; even if she was already light, she felt weightless in Emina's arms. The fox walked to the kitchen to remove the pot from the flame.
"So let me get this straight," using her free hand to arrange what was on the stove. "You're awkward asking an awkward person to keep doing what she already seems comfortable with?" Abigail blushed and tried to bury her head against Emina's chest. "And furthermore, you have the audacity to put consent at the forefront of any and all interaction, physical or otherwise, while also respecting her boundaries?"
Abigail's lips sputtered, unsuccessfully containing a laugh, before erupting in a series of short guffaws, as much as her sweet and pitched voice could manage. "But after one date? Come on. That doesn't happen, right?"
"Respect begets respect." She adjusted Abigail's weight. "The first yes should have given you a hint."
"All right, let me do this better, okay?" She dramatically cleared her throat, which only tickled out another laugh. "What would you say to making this a regular thing?"
Emina didn't say anything for a moment. Rather than debating what her answer might be, she took stock of the situation she found herself in. She didn't feel a sweeping sense of emotion, no chick-flick fantasies that knocked her off her metaphoric feet; she didn't feel capable of being swayed like that. Nor was there a sickening sweetness to anything, despite her holding another woman in her arms.
She could have been on the court. She could have been bodybuilding. She felt calm.
"I'd say yes."