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Chapter 1: 85bpm
The palm tree leaves quivered dryly two stories above the promenade. A couple young girls rolled past in pink and red, skin yellowish in the humid air. Not a glimmer of sweat. They wore headphones, but managed to maintain a conversation. This was too predictable, Rich thought, as he stood on the sidewalk. Los Angeles could look like this in a music video, but surely not in reality. He took a daring step past where the girls had been only moments ago, and stared across the road towards an avenue of trees and rolling, rainbow-coloured Americans. The lights above the traffic, synchronized into blots of green. He’d always admired himself as the type of person who could cross roads without thinking. He remembered crossing on orange back in London and having his foot snatched by burning rubber, swung round like a dancer. His 5p carrier bag flew open and headphones were broken, scattered in two parts on the tarmac. Only when he reached the park and lifted a stained trouser leg could he see how his ankle was bleeding. A dizzy wave washed over, not quick enough for the phobia of automobiles to stain itself on his subconscious.
There was something he despised about the vanity of youth. Perhaps it was what eventually gave him a good reason to escape the country he was born in. Perhaps because he knew it in himself. It came with an attuned level of self-awareness that went deeper than mere superficiality. It ran deep in the veins of insecurity, seemingly beyond relief. A humility impossible to rescue save by a Zen master. Maybe the whole world felt this way. Europeans were different. He had lived in Portugal and France for a few years, and always admired the gentle vanity, which never went beyond looks or admiration for the shape of one’s own face. Selfies were abundant on the internet, lost in an ocean of data, relevant for their respective brief moments in time.
He made it across the road to safety. Tick. The palm trees made a rustling sound above him that reminded him he was in a good place, for the first time in his life. He was one of the lucky ones. Back home, his dad had hated American television. He insisted on watching Seventies British sitcoms and films all day long, forever stuck in this desaturated decade. They had to fit another television into the house just so he could peacefully watch this new wave of American programming.
Now he meandered through the crowds, surrounded by the upbeat hum of American voices. Voices he had heard so many times before, in every country he had lived. There was something secure about this accent, which made him feel both protected and optimistic at once. He took it in for a few beats, before the next image struck his eyes. There, on the beach, stretched both long and wide, was the highlight of the day. The sight was hard to miss, jutting from the sand like specks of green candy, hundreds of feet long at least. Candy was the right word. Then, as though the sound was already ingrained in his ears when the flight landed, he recognised the dance track blaring from the speakers. Four corners. 140 beats per minute. He could make out a faint sound of wheels turning, rubber on feet and the friction of sneakers. He scanned the sea of green before his eyes, trying to appreciate it but aware now of a slender figure approaching him to ruin this moment. Green top, flyer in hand, she stopped in front of him. His hand reached for the flyer, rejecting but accepting it at the same time. “Welcome to Beach Gym,” said the soft voice. Those four words. They would never leave his head.
“How much – ”
“Ten dollars a month, added benefits including a free towel, you can charge your phone – ”
The words came out of her like those on a chaotic ice cream menu.
“How does it – ”
Her blue eyes shone at him, smiling to themselves as though he wasn’t there. He didn’t mind the facade and waited for her next interruption. Interrupting must be written in the contract, he thought.
“The treadmills keep the music going so the party doesn’t stop. You work hard so you can party – ”
“What happens at night – ”
He had unexpectedly interrupted her. Was this how people assimilated into society? His thoughts now seemed to be pulled along by a string that could not be stopped. He and the girl were drawn into a game where the conversation became faster, rushing towards some impending disaster or act of love.
“At night we party.”
“How do you keep the music – ”
“You’ll have to find – ”
“Can I pay by card?”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a green towel. A clean towel. He took the thing in his hands. A couple of flecks of sand already made it second-hand, but this imperfection and the heat only made the sound of turning treadmills more exciting. Then he saw them, below the towel, down, down, another foot to the floor – oversized sandals. Instinctive horror set in. Pushing against the sandals were a pair of faded black socks, which he had not taken off since the flight. He looked at the girl now holding a credit card machine. It was too late. He entered four digits and, like a hawk, turned his head down the beach expectantly. He could not decide whether the drops of sweat now forming on his brow were from embarrassment or the sun.
“I have to go back to the – ”
She was gone, supermarket shopping for the next clumsy imbecile. He looked at a flimsy paper in his hand. Mr Richard Green. He smiled at the thought of sharing his name with the secondary colour of the machines. His new life had begun.
Chapter 2: 150bpm
The early morning was disturbed only by the sound of red plastic cups tinkering on the sand. The sun was out, but not yet high enough to invade the fresh, cool air. Rich kicked one of the plastic cups along the floor. Yesterday, after the encounter, he didn’t dare venture back onto the beach. Besides, sleep had overcome him when the jet-lag caught up. Today was a better day, a new day, as they say. He followed his trainers as he made his way towards the green machines, littered all along the beach. The speakers were silent at this time of the morning, but a few elderly participants were already on the treadmills. The machines made gentle sounds, only barely drowned out by the distant waves. Rich sensed that they would leave by nine, when the sun would be in full swing. He tried to avoid letting sand into his trainers, but knew it was inevitable. The green towel was draped across his shoulder. He almost felt exclusive, like this was his morning, his beach. He reached some turnstiles and wondered how they managed to fit this extravaganza onto the beach, and if one day it might all be washed away. Did it matter? Rich pressed his hand onto a fingerprint recognition sensor and waited. A light shone red, instructing him to move his hand ever so slightly, in which direction he was not told. Unaccustomed to the new technology, and overcome with anticipation, Rich looked around and eagerly hopped over the gate. He looked to make sure that no one had seen him, and proceeded to pick out one of the green enigmas standing in front of him. Only now did he fully comprehend how many there were. He looked down the beach, his eyes scanning the mass cemetery of treadmills, and proceeded to choose one closer to the shoreline.
He dropped his towel into a compartment on the treadmill and got his phone out. He plugged this into a socket on top and reached for his headphones, which he slotted into a gap in front of him. Reassured by technology, Rich started to input his personal data. Username, password, date of birth, home country, email address, weight and age. By the time he had finished, the speakers erupted with a morning radio jingle, reminding him that he was in LA. He took a deep breath and pressed the ‘start’ button. The treadmill set off to a walking pace. Rich pushed the lever upwards, allowing the speed to increase slowly until it reached a point where he was comfortably jogging, just fast enough to make him appear athletic should anyone be watching. He looked around. There was no one nearby, save for an old man a few treadmills back, drowsily in his own world. Now his left headphone started slowly to slip out of his ear, as he turned to face the sea again, and quickly fell dangling back and forth by his hand. He instinctively caught it and placed it back in his ear. Then Rich noticed a missing commodity, piece of the puzzle he had forgotten to factor in. Water Bottle. All he had to do was buy one bottle before heading down onto the beach. The sun was starting to warm up. It was too late. The treadmill was running. Rich decided he must go on. He had not exercised in almost a year, so it was no use stopping now. He might as well see how far he could push himself.
A sudden faintness dropped his head forward, and he forced himself to blink, before resting his hands on the side of the treadmill. As he moved his hand, he noticed his left ear condensing, an imminent fall about to recur. He put all of this to the back of his mind, under the pressure of yet another wave of dizziness. Rich focused on the horizon ahead, not sure what to do. He felt, for a brief moment, that he was doing something he had never really wanted to do. He felt a pointlessness to this mild, First-World suffering, just before a wave flashed, this time in front of him, with a bright credit-card-like glimmer of golden sunlight. ‘We’re all stuck on the treadmill’. The left headphone fell, tangled up in his hand, immediately ripping the other earpiece irritatingly from his right ear. Rich threw the unnecessary wires onto the sand and reached for the lever in front of him, just in time, before a final wave hit him. Now two steps back, struggling to reach the front of the machine, he half-leaned, half-drooped forward, desperately holding the lever down so that the machine could reach a bearable speed. He let himself slide off it and fell back onto the sand.
A swell of headache awoke him. A figure approached. The green top, slender hips and blue eyes.
“Coming to the party tonight?”
Richard looked up, sweat falling from his head like a kettle. He had never felt this embarrassingly cliched since asking for tea with milk in France, and of course the incident yesterday. She offered her hand. He politely declined. She tried again, this time offering the delicacy of a water bottle.
“We see the readings…”
He looked up at her bright face, unable to talk after swallowing some water.
“Your heart rate.” She pulled out a small tablet device. “150. You should exercise more.”
Rich nodded, then laughed. This gave way for a pause in the conversation, and for a moment, the only rush was confined to traffic on the boulevard. The multitudes, individuals with shopping bags, contracts, flowers, sprites, money, music, madness and spirit, all racing home, to work, to friends, to wives.
She offered her hand again. “Amy.”
Chapter 3: The Party
His eyes were open but he was still asleep. The sun was glazing the ceramic tiles of the hotel balcony. A paper-thin curtain rested uneasily on the bedside table, hung there by an indifferent humid draft. Rich knew that he was about to experience the full effects of post-afternoon nap sunburn. Moreover, the shape of the pillow had steadily imprinted creases onto the other half of his face. Two days left. He came here for three weeks and joined a gym. Rich remembered what it was like to wake up back in Britain, that desaturated place; experiencing the tingly sensation of post-nap with her. Now she was with someone else. It was just two months ago, but felt like a week. Move on. He anticipated some discomfort, before lifting his head. There was a tingly, itchy sensation spreading all over his face as he rose from the bed. His ears were still in another world, but sensitively picked up the distant sound of music. Rich went to the tap to slap some water over his face. Still tingly. Another splash, before leaning to clear his throat. He showered, dressed, and moved to the balcony to take his first look at the changed stretch of sand in the distance. People were gathered now, couples locked in embraces, kids unaware, watching the last orange peel sail across the horizon.
By the time he got there the sky was already an isolated blue. He made his way to the bar, which had appeared like an oasis in the middle of the sand. Where had the machines gone? Rich looked down at his feet and saw small plastic grids covering the sand. Between each plastic hollow square lay a dark world of grain and glass. The music beat in his ears as he made his way to the bar. 150bpm. Trance. A song about letting go. A long, neon, glass construction pulsating with light. People waiting for their drinks. Absurd. He found a gap in the queue and shouldered his way through. A girl screamed in his ear. She was in her early twenties, but knew herself better than he had known anyone before. How did he get here? He ordered his first two drinks and looked at her.
“Great party!” He blurted. “Haven’t been here before.”
“I just said it’s a great party.”
“I know! Are you from England?” He nodded. She raised her glass, smiled and flowed into the crowds.
A light show was taking place, one that lasted the duration of the night but not long enough. For a moment, at one o’clock in the morning, Rich appreciated everything for what it was. The people, the lights and the music. Then it all stopped. The crowds left. One last drink. It was over too soon. He had danced, met people he would never see again, and shared a revelry and single dream to enjoy the madness.
An older man was still standing at the bar. Rich was aware that a conversation would ensue. He looked into his wallet and enjoyed the adventure of counting his change. He lifted a few notes out and pressed them into a hand that was serving him. The man shook his head.
“Why are you here?”
Rich ignored the man as he conjured up an answer and took his drink. “Getting away from a sour event, finding myself, something…” He smiled at his own inability to construct a sentence. It didn’t seem to matter. The man laughed and nodded. He finished his bottle and looked around the beach.
“You know this won’t last forever. The machines will stop one day.”
“Are you a drinking prophet? You know the best prophets try not preaching to anyone? Isn’t that the beauty of this anyway? Celebrating now.”
“Sound like my kids.” Rich held back a smile at the thought of this. Here was the preacher judging him for leaving home, when he was out with a family at home. The man pressed on, however.
“Trust me, they’ll stop. You’ll wonder why they started.”
Rich looked blankly at his serious expression. Then, for a brief period, he lost his confidence and his way. Rich tried to laugh it off but it was too late.
Chapter 4: The Celebrity
The beach was lively today. Two days left in this place. Rich made it an obligation that day to explore the entire gym after lunch, with an hour to spare so that the food could be digested. The gym was divided into sections. Not by machinery but by the different types of people who circled it. Those who would say the place attracts a certain type of person were wrong. You came here to become a certain type of person. He wouldn’t go as far as saying there was any camaraderie between people, however. It was quite the opposite. There was instead an awareness of being part of a group – a healthy group, a lucky group. There were those who came to lose weight, those who wanted to attain a certain shape, and the ones who were there to meet attractively insecure members of the same community. Rich was not quite sure which of his simple categories he fit into, but he was surely being too kind on himself. He liked to think that he was there to lose a bit of weight and enjoy the feeling of a well-oxygenated brain after the treadmill. It was not getting any easier though.
There she was – Amy. She approached from the left and smiled again, a broad youthful smile. Rich nodded, looked around and lost his train of thought.
“How are you today?” Did she remember him or was she this friendly to everyone?
“Just browsing. I had no idea the place was so big.”
“That’s why we’re here!”
She brushed past and the hairs on their arms touched for a moment. What had she meant by that? In more ways than one, it was not the answer he was expecting to his statement about browsing, but in a way it was also the very reply he wanted. Why was anyone here? It dawned on him that perhaps the only time people paid to do work was when it benefited themselves or made them look good. All other pursuits were either for money or selfless, but that was rare in this place.
A crowd had now gathered at the entrance to Beach Gym. Rich meandered over to the edge to see what the fuss was about. Suddenly, he had the feeling that he was standing out. In a minute fit of paranoia, Rich looked over at some of the other members next to him. An intense fear had washed over him, but was gone by the time he was amongst the crowd. He was quite aware of being drawn into something exciting now, but not quite sure what it was. In that moment, a man next to him started explaining the event to his girlfriend.
“It’s him. Is it really him?” She said.
“It’s him. Must be here for the gym.”
“He doesn’t need the gym. He’s here for the film. Why would he come to a gym like this? He goes private.”
The man everyone was gazing at was a celebrity, who had come to show his face among the masses. Perhaps for some marketing raid or promotion. They were all attracted like moths now. Restless, helpless people who could not get close enough yet had no idea how to, because of the fear that they might cause a commotion themselves. Stuck between these two worlds, Rich decided to leave and made his way home. There was no point in the treadmill that day.
Chapter 5: 0bpm
The rain pattered onto the balcony of the hotel, appropriately saved for the last day Rich would spend in L.A. He had been in bed for most of the morning, trying to remember and at the same time blocking out any memories from the previous night’s party. This was now a regular event, that would end tomorrow. The downpour soon petered out into sparse drops that dripped from the balcony above. Rich lifted his head up and peered out of the window. Somewhere within he knew that he would have to go to the gym. He retrieved his trainers from the corner of the room by his belongings, which poured out of his travel bag and waited to return home.
The gym was surprisingly busy now considering it had rained all morning. It was mid-week and the beach was teeming with fitness addicts. Rich looked out towards the waves. They were slower today, almost cautiously so. He wondered who kept the treadmills dry when it rained, and then realized he had arrived too late to find out. Rich walked past machine upon machine, passing the weights section and making his way to a lone running device. He had chosen a place at the back, with a good view of all who were there that day. He started the treadmill and placed his hands on the pulse-meter. 85bpm. Rich removed the small green towel from around his neck and placed it into a compartment in front. Not wanting to delay the inevitable, he pushed the lever forward so that the machine increased its speed. In thirty seconds he was already at a fair running pace, enough to draw him out of whatever alcohol-induced haze he had found himself in that morning. He ran with ease, his feet taking their turns to smack the rubber below. The other treadmills whirred gently all around.
Rich could make out Amy two rows ahead. She seemed to embody a certain level of energy that attracted attention wherever she went. Rich never thought of himself as someone who wanted attention. Yet he still wasn’t sure why he himself had joined the gym. The conflict this created in his head distracted him for a while. He quickly managed to put the thought aside, the way he usually did when he had a hangover, for fear that any glimmer could take over as a mental reality for the rest of the day.
Amy was crouching next to a boy and giving orders to him. He was doing sit-ups in the mat section, where no one ever made eye contact. Amy was doing her job but also enjoying it. Rich watched her talk, not noticing that his treadmill was slowly increasing its pace. The humming of the machines around him changed ever-so-slightly in frequency, and everyone was unknowingly at the whim of an inevitable First-World crisis. The speed of the treadmills became noticeable. Rich kept running amongst the chaos, as the speakers blared music slightly louder than before. Rich looked around. The prison-like order of everything and bright green colours were now sickening. Everyone was plugged into their world, trying to find some significance in fitness.
Amy stood up and looked around as well. She reached for a device, her walkie-talkie, and pressed the call button. Rich watched her talk into it, soon realising that he had to jump or he would become the main part in a slapstick comedy show that was about to take place. Next to him, a man tripped and fell, swiftly swooped back onto the sand. Rich looked in front, where he now noticed a struggling elderly couple on two treadmills. They tried to hold onto the hand-rails, but the machines were ever-increasing in speed.
Rich called out to Amy, but was drowned out by the music.
The couple were now thrust backwards by machines that no longer wanted them. They disappeared onto the sand. Rich jumped off his treadmill, struggling to regain his balance on the sand, before running towards where the couple had been only moments ago. He saw them helplessly strewn on the sand, the way that kids unwillingly immerse themselves on a beach trip. The way he used to sink his feet into the beach in Britain, sharing the experience and circling his finger to make an outline of two pairs. The old man was trying to lift up his wife’s head, but blood was now trickling into the sand. Rich’s eyes met Amy’s. She cautiously looked down at the scene, energy sapped and confidence lost. The machines stopped. Amy fainted.
The power cut lasted three days. Most of the West Coast had been hit. Rich was never able to figure out why the treadmills increased their speed. Perhaps they had to run on back-up power. At the airport, newspapers reported that a tree had fallen on a power line and ripped it like an artery somewhere outside of the city. A few speculated divine intervention. Rich remembered it as the day the treadmills stopped.