AN INTRODUCTION BY ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN
As a connoisseur of the weird, I encounter a great many stories told by weird characters, or set in weird places, or driven by weird happenings — so it’s always a thrill to encounter a piece of literature that’s weird in a new way, “Weirdly Weird,” so to speak. The “Weirdly Weird” is a category that a work can belong to only when it’s an outlier. Difficult to categorize and even more difficult to explain, it’s not clearly part of a school or trend or ideology. It’s a lone leaf at the end of a lonely, weird twig. Membership in this category is ephemeral, transient, and determined not just by the properties of the work itself, but by the work’s legibility in the surrounding world — for as more works take inspiration from the first pioneering Weirdo, that particular variety of weirdness becomes commonplace, comprehensible, customary.
Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the Japanese writer’s first collection of short stories to be translated and published in America, is a glorious example of the Weirdly Weird thriving in its natural element. Yes, the stories have odd and absurd elements — like the one where the wife notices that her husband’s features are beginning to shift to resemble her own, or the one about the saleslady whose customer won’t come out of the changing room and also, incidentally, may not be human — that remind me of the magicality of Aimee Bender or surreality of Judy Budnitz. They have the subterranean psychological allure of fairy tale. But what’s oddest about these stories is the way they seem to insist on their own reasonable nature: unflaggingly sober and charmingly restrained, they are Kafkaesque fables fed through the sturdy heart of a Raymond Carver narrator.
It is this last point, the way in which these strange stories nevertheless manage to feel oddly cozy, oddly domestic, that points toward what is truly startling about Motoya’s work: against a background of abnormal happenings, what begins to feel Weirdest is the “normal” feeling the narrator brings to these situations, the same “normal” feeling we have as we go about our work, our chores, our relationships. Isn’t “normal” a strange way to feel about anything — particularly the shifting, absurd, hilarious precarity of our lives?
With this in mind, I’m excited that all of you reading this brief introduction are going to have the chance to read the title story from Motoya’s new collection, a story about a woman who decides for a very good reason that she should become a bodybuilder. This is a story in which nothing impossible happens, and yet the possible occurs in the most improbably, interesting ways. I hope that you find it as fascinatingly, weirdly enjoyable as I do.
author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman recommends “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” by Yukiko Motoya
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“The Lonesome Bodybuilder”
by Yukiko Motoya, Translated by Asa Yoneda
When I got home from the supermarket, my husband was watching a boxing match on TV.
“I didn’t know you watched this kind of thing. I never would have guessed,” I said, putting down the bags of groceries on the living room table.
He made a noncommittal noise from the sofa. He seemed to be really engrossed.
“Who’s winning? The big one or the little one?”
I sat on the sofa next to him and took off my scarf. I’d planned on starting dinner right away, but the gears on my bicycle hadn’t been working, and I was a little tired. Just a short break. Fifteen minutes.
Eyes still glued to the TV, my husband explained that the little one was looking stronger so far. They seemed to have reached the end of a round, and the gong was clanging loudly. Both fighters were covered in blood, I guessed from getting cuts on their faces from their opponent’s punches, and as soon as they sat down on the chairs in their corners, their seconds threw water over their heads.
“It’s like animals bathing. So wild.”
I’d tried to make sure the “wild” didn’t sound too reproachful, but my husband picked up on it.
“That’s the kind of man you really want, isn’t it?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend. I know. I know you secretly want a brute to have his way with you.”
“You know I prefer intellectual men. I don’t want an insensitive jock.”
He put the remote he’d been clutching back on the table, then pulled up his sweater sleeve and wrapped his fingers around his wrist, as if taking his own pulse. His wrist was far thinner than the boxers’, it was true.
“It’s like you might be some kind of artist,” I teased. He hated being pitied more than anything, so I was careful to make it sound like a joke.
“Are you saying you wouldn’t go along with it, if a guy like that came on to you?”
Say something, anything, to build his confidence back up, I thought, but my attention had been stolen again by the men on the TV. My blood pumped, and I could feel my body getting hot. “Of course I wouldn’t go along with it! Anyway, it’s not like that would ever happen.” Fighters are so beautiful. Incredible bodies, both of them. Taut bone and flesh, nothing wasted.
My husband spoke again. “What do you think of my body?”
“I like it. Your skin’s so fair, and soft.” Why had I never watched this kind of thing before? Boxing, pro wrestling, mixed martial arts — I’d assumed they weren’t for me. How wrong I was. I always do that. I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities. I’ve been like that since middle school. The time I went to the amusement park with my friends and decided that a quiet girl like me wouldn’t like roller coasters, I was the only one who didn’t get on the ride. Someone like me would obviously sign up for one of the cultural activities at school. Would feel at home in the crafts club. Would find a job locally. But what really would have happened if I’d gotten on the roller coaster that day? I have the feeling I would have met a version of myself I don’t know now. Lived a completely different life.
The gong sounded, and the men stood up. I’d assumed that throwing out punches was all there was to it, but the boxers guarded against every blow, observing each other’s movements with eagle eyes. That must be what they call dynamic vision. If only I had some dynamic vision too, I might not have missed out on so many things. The match was over, and they sounded the biggest gong yet.
The very next day, I started training to become a bodybuilder. I thought at first that I could aim to be a pro boxer, but I realized that I didn’t have a trace of fighting spirit in me. No desire to beat anyone up. It was the bodies of the two boxers I’d seen on TV the previous night that seemed to be seared into my brain, even while I was at my job, working the register at a natural health and beauty shop.
They turned in all directions, showing off their bodies to me. Even while I described various products to customers. This is a moisturizing cream with pomegranate traditionally used in herbal medicine. How do firm limbs feel? This hair oil is made from rare organic concentrated plant extracts. What is it like when a strong body throbs?
Was I looking for an affair? Of course not. I loved my husband. He could be bumbling and juvenile, but he was just working too hard, that was all. I only needed to hang on until he was done with this busy period, and then he’d start initiating again. It wasn’t that I wanted to touch any other man. I just wanted to luxuriate in some taut muscle. I hadn’t felt so giddy in a long time. I’d swing by the pharmacy on my way home from work and get some protein powder.
I liked the taste of the protein powder when I tried it, and decided to join a gym. I felt a little worried about fitting it into the household budget, but I found a small, independent fitness club two train stops away, whose website advertised “100 Free Sessions Until You See the Results You Want!” Having never done any serious exercise before, I had no idea what kind of progress I’d be able to make in a hundred sessions.
On the first day of my private sessions, I confided to the trainer — a boy in his early twenties — that I wanted to become a bodybuilder. He stopped writing on his clipboard and looked at me with surprise.
“Bodybuilding? Not weight loss.”
“Yes. Your website said you have a training program.”
“We do, but this is pretty unusual. Women in their thirties usually come looking to lose weight, so I assumed . . .”
“Is it very difficult?”
“Not really. But with bodybuilding, you won’t get anywhere with weight training alone. Nutrition is key. Could you handle consuming, say, four thousand calories a day? That’s double the daily amount for an average adult male.”
“I can spread it out over the day.” “What about protein powder?” “I’ve already started.”
“Do you have a specific goal in mind? Do you want to compete?”
“No. I don’t need to show anyone. Just some muscles for myself.”
“That’s pretty unusual,” said the polo-shirted youngster again, and then tapped the tip of his ballpoint pen on his clipboard a few times. I started to worry that he would turn me down, but then he surprised me by saying, “Okay. Let’s see about coming up with a training program for you.”
I found out that he’d been an athlete since childhood. He’d played rugby at university, and seriously considered becoming a dolphin trainer, but thanks to some connections he had, he ended up joining this gym as an instructor. He was a cute kid, with a boyish face. A snaggletooth. Twelve years younger than I was. He probably dressed a little dorkily when he wasn’t in sportswear. That’s the impression I got from his haircut. Makes sense, if he’d spent all his time playing rugby. He looked like he’d be into young women around his own age. My husband and I were the same age. We’d met in college.
The trainer, in his bright red polo shirt, looked at me soberly as these frivolous thoughts ran through my head. He said, “You need to be aware that public acceptance for bodybuilding is extremely limited. Be prepared. Also, you’ll definitely need your family members to be on board.”
In spite of this advice, I never did tell my husband. We’d been married seven years, and this was the first time I’d kept a big secret from him. Lately, though, he’d been spending all his time at home either buried in his work files or on his computer, and only ever talked to me when he needed me to reinflate his confidence. Marital affection was pretty much nonexistent.
I explained the change in my eating habits by saying I’d started a protein powder diet on the recommendation of one of the customers at the store. I’d tried out a lot of fad diets before, so my husband seemed not to find anything amiss. I religiously followed the training plan that I’d developed with my young coach. Hidden from my husband, who’d be holed up in the study, I did push-ups, sit-ups, squats. My basic strength began to improve, so I started to go to the gym four times a week, where I did pull-ups, dumbbell presses, narrow-grip bench presses. Reverse crunches, to add muscle definition. Ball crunches. T-bar rows. Rack pulls. Plus protein powder every few hours, and double the daily calorie intake of the average adult male.
Sculpting beautiful bundles of muscle took a lot more commitment than I’d thought. You had to reach what felt like your absolute limit, and then keep going — another two, three steps. Alone, I might have given up, but I had my coach for a hundred free sessions. Bodybuilding workouts required a partner: if you overreached on lifting a dumbbell and dropped it on your neck, you could end up dead. Coach was always by my side, making sure that didn’t happen. “One last rep! You’re doing great. Yes!”
By the end of a workout, I was always foaming at the mouth from breathing hard through clenched jaws. But even that felt like an exciting new discovery. When I had first gotten married, I had a hard time managing the housekeeping accounts. My husband, who brought work home even on Sundays, saw the way I let receipts pile up without dealing with them, and said, “You just have no willpower.” He often berated me: “Have you ever in your life actually accomplished anything?”
The thickness of my neck was unmistakable. At the store, we demonstrate the moisturizing soaps to customers by lathering up a sample onto the backs of our hands, like whipped cream. But now all the customers were riveted by how my wrist was double the size of theirs, with well-defined tendons and veins. They pretended to pay attention to my description of jojoba oil while they looked at my neck, which was nearly as wide as my face. I could see in their eyes that they were trying to picture what they would find under my apron. It was like being stark naked.
Eventually, I got summoned by the owner of the store. “You seem a little different lately,” she said. “Is something going on, dear?”
“I mean, haven’t you gotten bigger, a lot bigger, than you used to be? At first I thought you might be pregnant, but . . . perhaps you’re taking some kind of medication that doesn’t agree with you? Something for the menopause. Are you experiencing side effects?”
“But it’s clear your hormones are completely out of kilter!”
I confided in the owner about my training. At first she only nodded, looking doubtful, but when I told her that I’d never felt this committed to anything before, she looked at me and said she could see it in my eyes. She was a very self-assured woman who’d raised three children on her own and managed a chain of stores. She became wholeheartedly supportive, and — knowing the old, unremarkable, unassertive me — said she much preferred the way I was now.
My coworkers at the store said that they’d help me with my fresh start too. The next day, someone brought in a yoga mat they didn’t use anymore so that I could train as much as I liked behind the hair care products shelf while there were no customers around. No one batted an eyelid at me drinking raw eggs from a beer glass during breaks. Occasionally some kids would graffiti things like WARNING smiling muscle woman will strangle you to death on the wall of the parking lot, but almost all the customers responded positively, once they got used to it. A lot of single mothers, and women busy with careers or raising children, said they felt encouraged by my progress. I made sure I never let my smile slip, no matter how hard things got, because as a bodybuilder, I was cultivating muscle in pursuit of an ideal of beauty.
Only my husband seemed not to notice anything, even though my chest felt so solid it was as though there was a metal plate under my skin, my arms looked huge enough to snap a log in half, my waist sported a six-pack, and from a distance I looked like a big inverted triangle on legs. When I asked my coworkers for advice, they commiserated: “That’s just what men are like,” and “Mine doesn’t even notice when I get my hair cut.”
My hair was the one thing I hadn’t touched, because my husband preferred it long. I tanned as dark as I could and got my teeth whitened inexpensively by a dentist a customer had introduced me to, but my hair was the same as it had been before I became a bodybuilder.
Around the time that we’d completed eighty of my four-a-week sessions, my coach encouraged me to start doing some posing. “I know it feels good to be getting bigger, but you should compete and get some people to see you. It’ll be something to aim for,” he said.
The first few times he suggested it, I politely refused, saying big occasions like that weren’t my style, but my coach kept at it. “I really think we need to do something about your deep-seated lack of self-belief.”
“Lack of self-belief? Mine?”
“Yes. Maybe you don’t see it, but you’re always mumbling ‘anyway’ after everything you say, or talking about ‘the kind of person you are.’ I don’t know where that comes from, but I think you need to get your confidence back.”
I knew the reason. Living with my perfectionist husband had made me think that I was a person with no redeeming qualities. It hadn’t been like that before we were married, but gradually, as I constantly tried to compensate for his lack of confidence by listing all my own faults, I’d acquired the habit of dismissing myself.
“I can’t promise that I’ll compete,” I said, striking a pose for the first time in my life in front of the gym’s mirror. This was what being a bodybuilder was all about. Nervously I brought my arms up beside my face and held myself at the angle that made them look the most impressive.
“Make it look easy!” said my coach, so I lifted up the corners of my mouth and kept trying my best to flaunt my muscles.
My smile was still a little unsure. I dropped the pose without having been able to look my mirror self in the eye.
“There’s no rush. We’ll work on it together,” my coach said, and draped a towel over my shoulders.
One day, while I was giving out samples of jojoba oil near the store entrance, a fight broke out just outside between two of our customers’ dogs. The Yorkie’s collar broke off from its leash, and the little dog approached the much bigger dog, yapping loudly, which made the big dog pick him up by the neck. The big dog was a timid dog, the kind that would normally look around at a loss rather than get angry when another dog approached it sniffing and growling. The Yorkie’s owner tried to rescue her pet and, in desperation, hit the big dog with the Yorkie’s leash, which made the big dog even more confused and agitated, and it shook its head from side to side, still holding the little dog in its jaws. The York- ie’s yapping got quieter and quieter, and by the time the big dog opened its jaws and unhooked its fangs, the unfortunate puppy had already breathed its last breath.
No one said a thing, but I knew what they were thinking: Why hadn’t I — who’d been the nearest to the scene — pulled the two dogs apart, using my log-like arms? Why should they continue to lend support to muscles that were useless when they were really needed?
A bodybuilder’s muscles are different from an athlete’s. They exist purely for aesthetic value. A proud bodybuilder never puts their power to practical use. Because I’d bought into these beliefs, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to stop the dogs from fighting. None of this needed to have happened if I’d stepped in and broken them up. The Yorkie had been a friendly, energetic puppy, popular at the store, and I’d held him in my arms a few times too.
“I’ll stop training at the store from now on.” I told the owner this before I headed home for the day, and she nodded, saying maybe that was for the best. In the staff room, no one spoke to me. The atmosphere was strained. I said, “See you tomorrow,” and everyone replied, “Take care,” but as I passed the back of the store, I saw the yoga mat thrown out in the trash.
After dinner, just as my husband was about to go back to the study, I said to him, “There was an incident at work today.” Witnessing the death of that Yorkie had shaken me more than I’d realized. I told him my worries, wondering whether I’d be able to keep working at the store, but he responded as usual with “Hmm” and “Right,” and then stood up to go.
I noticed myself feeling incredibly angry. Picking the bread- crumbs off the table and gathering the dishes, I said, “I went to the salon today.” Before I knew it, I was holding up a strand of hair and saying, “I got it cut pretty short.” I hadn’t been to the salon in months.
My husband paused in the middle of pushing his chair back to the table, and looked me over. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at me like that. He had a few more wrinkles on his face, but other than that, he’d hardly changed since college. Just the same as when we met at nineteen. After a moment, he said, “Looks good.”
“Really? I thought you liked my hair long.”
“This isn’t bad either.”
“How much do you think I got cut?”
“Hmm. Around eight inches?” He scratched the side of his nose. Then, perhaps noticing my strained expression, he smiled, as though to placate me. This was the smile I’d once found so appealing that I’d given in to his earnest invitations to go out with him, despite having been interested in someone else at the time. Surprised at the tears that fell one after the other down my cheeks, my husband said, “What’s wrong?”
I went to wipe my eyes, but because of the tanning oil I’d slathered on earlier, the tears traveled smoothly down my arm.
“But you’re crying. Did you have a bad day at work?”
He’d completely forgotten that I’d been telling him all about it until just a minute ago. When I shook my head, he moved around the table to my side and awkwardly stroked my shoulder. But my deltoid muscles were beautifully filled in from doing rack pulls, and it felt less like him comforting me and more like me letting him touch my physique. No. I couldn’t do this anymore.
I took his little hand and said, “You only care about yourself. The longer I’m with you, the more unsure I become of myself. Am I really that uninteresting?”
My husband didn’t seem to understand why I was so upset. I pursed my lips to stop the flow of tears, and took off my knit top and skirt, right in front of his eyes. Seeing the micro bikini I’d worn for practicing my posing, my husband said tentatively, “What’s that? Lingerie?”
I left the house. There was still time before the gym closed.
Coach. Coach, Coach!
Even though I arrived breathless and in my bikini, Coach let me into the gym with a smile.
“I want to train.”
“But overtraining has real risks. You’ve got to rest up on your rest days.”
“Just three sets of bench presses. They make me feel relaxed.”
I kept pleading with him, so Coach said, “Very well,” and let me get on the bench.
As I lifted and lowered the barbell in the deserted gym, the tears spilled from my eyes. “He just doesn’t understand.”
“Yes. He doesn’t understand anything.”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
“I can’t. My husband’s not interested in me.”
“You still have to talk. Bodybuilding’s lonely at the best of times.”
Lonely. Coach’s word caught in my chest. “I don’t know how to get through to him.”
I let go of the barbell, covered my face with my hands, and let slip something that should never have been said. “I wish you were my partner, Coach.”
Coach took my comment in silence. I knew he valued me as a client, so I didn’t say anything more. But how many times had I thought, while training, that he was much more of a partner to me than my husband? He helped me achieve things beyond my own limits, and was even more passionate than I was about my progress.
After a while, Coach said, “Better now?”
Thanks to him tactfully implying I hadn’t really meant what I said, I was able to nod and take hold of the barbell again.
“Of all athletes, I most respect bodybuilders, because there’s no one more solitary. They hide their deep loneliness, and give everyone a smile. Showing their teeth, all the time, as if they have no other feelings. It’s an expression of how hard life is, and their determination to keep going anyway.”
“But,” I said, to Coach’s quiet words, “if you’re always smiling like that, don’t you lose sight of your true feelings? Is it right to smile when really you’re so lonely you could cry? I . . . I wish now I could have shown my husband all my different faces. There’s so much inside me he doesn’t know.”
I guess I won’t come here to train anymore, I thought. I’ll divorce my husband, go back to being an average, boring woman, and spend an eternity slowly dying while I wonder whether things would have been different if I’d gotten on that roller coaster when I was in middle school.
Thump thump thump. At the dull noise, Coach went toward the big glass window. I sat up on the bench too. My husband was on the other side of the glass, striking it desperately with his fists.
“Is that your husband?” Coach asked, and I said, “Yes,” in a slight daze.
How had he gotten here? He didn’t know about my gym. I’d never seen him so visibly upset before.
Coach said, “I’ll let him in by the back entrance,” and left the training room, and once he was gone I didn’t know what to do. My husband had caught me alone with my young personal trainer. He was so worked up. Was he going to shout at me? But part of me was ready for it. When I understood that this was the moment everything would finally become clear, the waiting seemed to take forever. My husband was still hitting the glass.
I stood up and went to the window, and nervously struck a pose at him. Both arms up and bent by my head, chest out, emphasizing my V-taper. My husband looked incredulous as I posed in my bikini. When I put my fists by my hips, striking another pose, he shook his head, looking pained, as if to say, Please, no more. I knew he’d never wanted to see his wife like this. But this was the real me. Still holding my pose, I showed him all the expressions I’d never shown him before. My lonely face, my sad face, my indifferent face. My face when I thought his technique was lacking. This is me, I tried to tell him. I’m not a boring housewife. I’m not the kind of wife her husband would ignore.
Coach must have called to him, because my husband went off toward the back door. My strength evaporated, and I sat down. I couldn’t think about anything until Coach knocked on the training room door.
“I’ve brought your husband. The two of you need to talk. You’re so much alike . . .”
As I wondered what Coach meant by that, my husband appeared from behind him. Instinctively, I was on my guard, but he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t crying either. He looked at me with a worried, uncertain expression and walked toward me until he was by my side.
“I didn’t notice, until I found your gym membership card . . . that you’d gotten so big.”
He held me tight and stroked my hair, over and over.
I still work out, and on sunny days I sometimes put on some tanning lotion and head to the park with my husband. We gaze at the dog park and eat chicken sandwiches, and even sometimes hold hands as we walk over fallen leaves. His hands are still as slender as an artist’s, and my arms are chunky like a wild beast’s, thanks to my training. Passersby always do a double take at the contrast between our physiques, but we don’t give it a second thought.
Coach says my posing has really improved. “I get the sense you’ve had some kind of breakthrough.”
The store owner has smoothed over my relationship with my coworkers too. They say I should enter a bodybuilding competition, but I don’t know yet whether I will or not. They say that if I do, they’ll form a fan club and get me a fancy banner. At lunch break today, someone said, “I guess we should take your wishes into account. What would you like for it to say?”
I said, “How about: You can now fling any roller coaster with your bare hands! ”
I want to increase my barbell lifts by another thirty pounds before spring. And I want to get a dog, an adorable Yorkie.