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Staring through the window at the gym, thinking: One day, but not yet

   Credit: Getty Images/Thianchai Sitthikongsak

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I walked past my old gym the other evening. It was 6 p.m., already deeply dark outside, but through the big window I could see the familiar bright room inside.

I stopped to stare.

Where once there would have been an after-work workout mob, now there were only a few people scattered among the machines and rows of weights. In the distance a woman in a mask was conquering the StairMaster with the determination of a climber on Mount Everest. Another masked woman was doing squats in front of the long mirror. Near the window a man in a mask and a backward ball cap crouched to lift a barbell. Before he picked it up, he spotted me staring at him. He waved.

I waved back, with the feeling you have when you float up from sleep, of something vividly remembered but out of reach. I could almost sense that room — the clanging, the whirring, the bad music, the sweat — even as the life on the other side of the transparent wall felt very far away.

Was this a dream? It felt that way, but if it was, which was the dream: that I used to go in that room several times a week, or that we now lived in a time when going into it was a risk?

In the multifaceted madness of the current world, missing the gym doesn’t rank high on the list of concerns. But one role the gym used to play for many of us was as a brief escape from the madness.

Before the pandemic made "alone together" a slogan for our times, the gym offered precisely that appeal, of being with other people while doing your own private thing.

In the gym, you could move your body around in ways that anywhere else would be considered weird, and you could do it free of judgment, or so you imagined.

In the gym, you could smile hello at people without the duty of further interaction. You could eavesdrop on the crazy conversations some gym-goers had with their personal trainers (many of whom should be paid psychotherapist rates). After you panted and sweated, you were rewarded with a shower and a towel. Almost always, you left feeling stronger than when you went in, more prepared to face whatever lunacy waited outside.

At least that’s how I remember it. One day in mid-March, as talk of some deadly new virus grew louder, I went to the gym. "Get out of here," a little voice in my brain said, so I did. A few days later, the pandemic was official. The gym closed, and even though it has reopened, it still feels, for me, too risky.

Sure, many of us work out at home now — I do — and some people prefer it to the gym. But the rest of us are waiting to get back.

And I would get back to the gym one day, I told myself as I stared through the window the other night. But not yet.

One day, but not yet.

It’s become a mantra for this pandemic age, when so much seems to be on the other side of a big window. Across the glass of memory, you can see the life you once had, but you can’t yet return to it.

You walk past a familiar restaurant, glance through the windows. The lights are off, the chairs empty, the tables lonely. A sign says closed. Temporarily or permanently. Or open only Thursday through Sunday evenings, and only for takeout.

Did you ever sit inside that place, you wonder, face to face with friends? Elbow to elbow with strangers? Eating and drinking and laughing and spewing droplets that carried god knows what? Will you ever do that again?

One day, you tell yourself, but not yet.

I feel that way when I see the "L" rumble by, or a bus pass, especially in the evenings when the windows are illuminated. Through the windows I see the occasional human form, almost always alone, and a little voice says, "Remember that? Remembering riding the ‘L’? Will you ever do that again?"

That’s the life we live now. Remembering. Waiting. Learning to adapt.

Telling ourselves in so many ways: One day. But not yet.

Mary Schmich wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.

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