We’re in Saudi Arabia. My mother and her friends fast-forward the contraband VHS tape that someone has brought back from Seattle. At her feet lies the discarded box, splayed open and rebranded for Customs as: Kermit’s Swamp Years. She forwards over Jane’s disclaimer, past the posing students in the magnolia room, past the leg warmers, past Fonda herself, the whirr of the tape gathering pace till everyone is moving at strangled pace.
In the West Jane Fonda’s Workout is soft porn, in Saudi it is poison.
The woman bent over the video machine, presses pause. We quiet for Jane, wearing a leotard the yellow of a Hersheys Mr Goodbar, hair blow dried into a stiff mane. Her eyes meet mine.
‘Stand hip width distance apart,’ she orders. ‘Let’s feel the burn.’
And so it goes, the same frozen enthusiasm each time, the same awful music, me twice the size of anyone in the on-screen-magnolia-room. In this Recreation-Centre-blue-curtained-space, everyone else is pushing forty, and when we step beyond the compound we must wear full-length kaftans, our hair buried beneath scarves. I am shifting heavily, one foot to another amongst women who are hungry to take back their bodies and hungry for something to do.
None of these wives and mothers is allowed to drive, or to work. Which only leaves leg warmers, a frazzled VHS tape of exhausting, saccharine self-improvement, and though I don’t yet know it, Dad.
I watch Mum’s friends, as they watch the screen. Instead of seeing what is clearly evident, I am busy with the problem of leg warmers. For it has not taken me long to come to the conclusion that attaching a massive amount of wool to my ankles only emphasises how elephantine my legs look. Tree trunks is what the boys sing when, back at school, I walk the length of the pool. Tree trunks.
So I have stopped swimming altogether. Not here in the Saudi Rec Centre pool, or at the beach. Confidence robbed Mum has taken it upon herself to introduce me to her new friend Jane Fonda, just so as to loot my psyche further. Because the exercise classes are not working, either for her, or for me. Lumbering out of time at the back we are about as enticing as a fart.
‘No pain,’ Jane smiles. ‘No gain.’
Watching the mirror’s reflection of my teenage self floundering in the back row, I wonder whether getting out of my stained tracksuit bottoms might help. If Mum might be in a better mood once Jane finishes. Without realising that here in this blue curtained room Mum has caged herself in amongst women who occasionally, sometimes, and often fuck Dad. Worse Fonda is working out for them so much better. Or is it fucking Dad, because since the last time I saw them at Christmas, they do look rejuvenated.
With the gratitude of someone who is longing to lie down, I stoop to roll out a floor mat. Mum, now puffing and sweaty falls onto her side with a grunt. Ordered here each Tuesday and Thursday, I’m thinking this is just more evidence of my not being the daughter that she wants. Without seeing that my turning out like her is what she most fears.