Two weeks before the pool party, Wyler began a strength training regimen. For fifteen minutes every other day, he did twenty-five stomach crunches and two reps of ten push-ups with the intent of adding more crunches and reps once he built up his muscle. After the first week, his shoulders burned incessantly, but he thought he could feel real muscle beginning to form. Every night before climbing into bed, Wyler would take off his shirt and look at himself in the mirror.
Wyler knew a six-pack was too much to ask for in two weeks, but three days before the party he pushed himself to do seventy-five crunches to see if the faintest trace of abdominal muscle might show through. He placed great faith in the power of the stomach crunch. In sixth grade, he had read an article in a magazine about an athlete who built massive muscles doing push-ups and stomach crunches alone. Muscle was a matter of discipline, the athlete had said, not equipment.
The pool party was at the home of Tina Newman, the stake president’s daughter. She was two months younger than Wyler and the subject of most of his fantasies. Last summer, on a youth conference trip to Nauvoo, he had sat next to her on a bus for four hours. During two of those hours, Tina had placed her head on his shoulder and slept while her iPod played the same song over and over. She had not spoken to him since, but Wyler remained patient. He thought often about the way her hair smelled like kiwi-scented shampoo.
In Wyler’s favorite fantasy, he was a Civil War soldier who had returned home with an arm wound and a laudanum addiction. Tina was his long-suffering fiancée. She would nurse him whenever his wound grew too painful. “No, no,” she would say, coaxing the laudanum bottle from his convulsing hands. “Let me help you, love” Sometimes, it would work and the fantasy would end in marriage. Other times, Wyler’s addiction took over, driving him to suicide and Tina to despair. The pathos of it would bring him to tears.
Wyler kept his fantasies clean whenever Tina was involved. When he’d see her at dances or firesides, she always looked so modest and pure that he never wanted to taint his image of her with filthy thoughts. She made him want to be pure himself to be more worthy of her. He liked to think that he had full control of his mind. Instead of singing hymns whenever bad thoughts came to him, he would think about how Tina had looked as she read her scriptures on the hill in front of the Nauvoo temple. He never imagined her wearing anything revealing.
On the day of the pool party, Wyler did fifty stomach crunches and three reps of ten push-ups. He wanted to look good for Tina. Earlier that summer, Laura, a girl in his ward, had told him that Tina only liked guys with muscles. “She goes for jocks,” she explained. “And I don’t think she remembers you.” She and Tina had roomed together in EFY. She knew all about Tina.
Wyler was not a jock. He stood two inches over six feet and weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds. The guys in his priest quorum called him “Ribs” because he was so skinny. He sucked at basketball and couldn’t catch a football. If asked what his favorite sport was, he’d lie and say canoeing.
Driving to the pool party, Laura reminded Wyler how fortunate he was to have her as a friend. “You wouldn’t be going to this thing without me,” she said.
“I owe you one,” Wyler said.
“Yeah, you do,” she said. “Your girlfriend hardly knows our ward exists.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Good for you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look,” Laura said, taking her eyes off the road, “Tina’s kind of fake. Like, TV fake.”
“There’s more to her than you think,” Wyler said.
“Are you guys even Facebook friends?”
“I’ve seen the way she acts,” he said quietly. “She’s…” He scrambled for adjectives worthy of her.
“She’s a brat,” Laura said.
Wyler kept silent for the rest of car ride. Out his window, the tree-lined road opened up to a large subdivision of massive cream-colored homes clustered around an elegant blue pond. Stone accents and gleaming brass fixtures were everywhere. When Laura parked her car, Wyler felt his lungs constrict. He had never seen such a neighborhood. “She lives here?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Laura said, getting out of the car. “Super-humble about it, too.”
As he stepped onto the sidewalk leading to Tina’s house, Wyler felt the pain of his weekly regimen in his shoulders. The pristine neighborhood made him feel very small and unimportant. Until then, he had not considered that Tina’s life might be different from his own. He had always imagined her in a one-story ranch house with blue shutters and a car port.
Ahead of him, Laura walked with her cellphone to her ear. She wore capris and a t-shirt. At the base of her neck he could see the thin straps of her swimsuit poking up from her collar. For the first time, it occurred to him that he would see Tina in a swimsuit that afternoon. He stumbled on the sidewalk.
“Hey Laura,” he said cautiously, “Tina wouldn’t wear a bikini, would she?”
“Probably,” she said. “She is the type.”
“I don’t believe it.”
For a moment, the image of Tina in a green bikini flashed on Wyler’s mind. She was sipping lemonade, mincing about like an actress in a soap opera. Around her, hosts of stripling warriors with real muscles and real strength-training regimens tossed footballs and showed off. Tina watched them with a smile on her face.
Wyler turned away. In a moment he was running, wishing he could disappear into the woods beyond the subdivision. Laura called out his name, but he knew he could not go back.
Scott Hales does not follow a work-out regimen, but he always takes the stairs and tries to eat healthy foods. He has a BA in English from Brigham Young University and an MA in English from the University of Cincinnati. He is currently completing a PhD in English at the University of Cincinnati and writing a dissertation on the Mormon novel. He blogs regularly about Mormon literature at The Low-Tech World, A Motley Vision, Dawning of a Brighter Day, and Modern Mormon Men. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Fairfield, Ohio.
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