This essay is adapted from The In-Betweens: A Lyrical Memoir, by Davon Loeb. It is used with permission from West Virginia University Press.
I think it all started with cartoons. Saturday morning at 10, I sat cross-legged in front of the television. I was always on time for X-Men: The Animated Series. Mom would have pancakes or a bowl of cereal ready and a kiss in exchange for breakfast. I ate sitting on the living room floor with the food on a tray, humming the theme song with a full mouth. I don’t know how I never missed my mouth, because I never took my eyes from the screen, passing fork from plate or spoon from bowl mechanically. This was my Saturday routine, like how my father would drink coffee and read the newspaper or how my mom phoned her sisters. Those 30 minutes were precious.
At the end of the episode, if she wasn’t on the phone, I’d ask my mom: What mutant powers would you want? This was important. Maybe the most important question in my life. Would you want to control the weather, Mom, like Storm, or be like Rogue and absorb powers? Mom typically picked Storm because she liked her white hair. And impatiently, I waited for her to ask me who I wanted to be like. It was a toss-up, but the power I wanted most was super strength.
Girls played with dolls, played house, drove Barbie around in her Barbie car; I flew the X-Men on my model Blackbird in my bedroom. Barbie is known for her unrealistic proportions, from her tiny waist to her feet perfectly molded to fit into a pair of high heels. (“You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented,” spits a young girl in Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster sendup of the doll.) But the X-Men that I discussed obsessively with my friends at school—they had carefully sculpted figures too. It wasn’t just their superpowers I wanted—I wanted to be built the same. All of the X-Men were strong, their muscles etched from deltoid to abdomen to quadriceps. Even the women had the same physiques: muscles on top of muscles in spandex uniforms. That’s how we thought superheroes should look. Wolverine had abs like knuckles. His pecs were boulders. His biceps were rocks. I could wear the same yellow-and-brown mask, but I would never really look like him—not as skinny as I was.
Every time my parents took me to the store, our local Walmart, I begged them to buy me yet another action figure. They avoided the toy section, but somehow, we’d end up there. I think I was addicted—collecting more characters, more bodies—addicted to the anticipation when reading the description on the back of the package or the satisfaction when ripping open the plastic covering. But I think I was more addicted to storytelling, to creating worlds and backstories and plots and actions.
This was a quintessential experience in becoming creative, of being someone else, making stories. When not watching the shows or reading my Marvel comics, I put on my own episodes, taking on the heroes’ voices, their demeanors, their attitudes, their superpowers.
The action figures were three-dimensional re-creations of the cartoon or the comic. It was as if the characters were really there with me, in my world. I’d face Spider-Man against the Incredible Hulk, yelling, Hulk smash! Bam! Ka-pow! Wumpth! in my best onomatopoeic voice and throwing Spidey to the other side of the room. During an intermission, I’d run for a peanut butter sandwich snack with a big glass of milk. I’d sneak it into my bedroom and offer a bite to Hulk. We’d pretend, and then he’d say, Drinking milk makes strong bones, makes Hulk strong. Be strong like Hulk. So, I always drank my milk, hoping it would transform my spaghetti arms into the giant bulging biceps on the Incredible Hulk figurine. I often compared myself to these superheroes—feeling their plastic muscles with my fingers, tracing the striation, the definition—and then doing the same thing on my body: my concave chest, my ribs that I thought were obliques, my ruler-like clavicle, the way my legs were pencils and my arms were lead. And I’d look in the mirror, flexing, wishing I were one of them.
By the time I was 13 I was too old for action figures, so instead, I’d watch Dragon Ball Z and draw the characters: starting with their boxy heads, spiky hair, thick necks, shoulders that almost connected to their ears, triangular torsos with big chests and a small waist and an eight-pack, and then attaching the lower body, splitting the four leg muscles, shading the definitions between them, curving the calves by drawing semicircles. I could draw these people, either man or woman, in seconds, without looking, because they were running in my imagination like a filmstrip. And when finished, I taped my drawings to my bedroom walls, as a constant reminder of my goal.
My older brother, Troy, like the many fictional men I idolized, was born of brawn and might. While the superhero characters were imaginative depictions of the ideal male’s physique, my brother was the real thing—a body carved with God’s chisel. I used to think that maybe my brother’s very chromosomes were better than mine. Since we didn’t share the same biological father, Troy seemed to be gifted with far superior DNA. When we were children, he ran faster and jumped higher than me. His body had the build of an athlete, his torso like an inverted triangle: broad shoulders and chest, a small waist, a wide back. Furthermore, everything athletic was easy for him; I swear I never saw anyone throw a football any farther. With perfect form—three fingers on the laces, thumb at the button, index finger at the tip, feet shoulder-width apart, 90 degrees at the elbow—like lighting the end of a cannon, he could throw that football across an entire street block. And at the receiving end, I’d wait nervously, my hands in front of my face in the shape of an oval, knowing I’d probably drop the ball.
Without even working out at the gym, Troy was naturally muscular—his workout was only pushups and situps. I’d watch him before bed and do the count. Like an untired robot moving its gears and cogs, he mechanically pumped his piston like arms until reaching 50 pushups. He’d say 100 pushups a day, 50 in the morning before school and 50 at night before bed. As if this were an instructional video titled “How to Be a Man, How to Grow Strong, How to Get the Perfect Body,” I listened, observed, and learned. Troy told me that when I could do 50 straight, we could work out together, just he and I. And I didn’t know what was more motivating, the promise of hanging with my brother, or the potential to actually become as strong as him.
Initially, my pushup form was terrible—my elbows turned out, my butt in the air—and I could barely do a consecutive 10 rep. So, I modified for some weeks—resting on my knees and then doing the proper form. My arms trembled, like branches of a small tree in a windstorm. At any moment, I thought, my little humeri might snap from taking the weight of my body. But I kept at it, and no major changes at first, but after a month or so, I was stronger. I could do 20 reps consecutively. I’d rest and do 20 more, and then 10, reaching 50. In those mornings and nights, the floorboards creaked rhythmically like a snare drum.
My body stayed the same: a whopping 5 foot 7, 120 pounds, still fitting my youth-sized underwear and T-shirts. I never managed the courage to step into the weight room after school. I’d walk by the entrance and hear the weights bang and the boys slap hands, hoorays, and then those guttural grunts my action figures used to make.
Eventually, I convinced my parents to buy an old home gym machine. They searched yard sales and bought one for cheap. It included a lat pull-down, chest press, leg extensions, and cable-curl bar. This would change everything. I’d do real workouts with real weights. Those Dragon Ball Z photos I had drawn and posted on the wall were taken down and replaced by my favorite athletes, the men I idolized—the ones I wanted to look like, the ones I wanted to become: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee, Ronnie Coleman. And in the basement where the all-in-one equipment was, I went to work.
Sometimes Dad ventured into the adolescent-scented space, often to tell me to be quiet. I worked out late into the night, thinking the more I obsessed, the more progress I’d gain. And Dad, most likely following Mom’s orders, told me to save it for another day—tomorrow I’d definitely be stronger. And though I knew the answer, I always asked Dad to exercise with me. While using whichever piece of equipment, I’d load the heaviest weight I could add. Using all my body weight in addition to some strength, I’d try to impress him. Dad, look! I jerked the EZ curl bar from my waist to my chest, exerting more lower back than bicep, while the veins in my neck bulged, and I grunted as if being punched in the belly. If I was lucky, Dad humored me and would say, Davon, I’ll show you. And then he would. Gripping the bar, he’d effortlessly curl whichever weight I’d used, doing at least 20 repetitions. And his biceps grew instantly, surging with blood, becoming the size of a fist-shaped rock. Dad, impressed with himself, would say, Davon, add more weight.
On many weekends, my best friend, Nicholas, slept over and lifted weights with me. He went to a nearby high school and was on the football team, so for him, working out was an everyday routine. Thus why I’d try to impress him, show him my max weight of whatever exercise. And then, nonthreateningly, he’d say, Let me try. He did, but doubled my number, lifting the weight easily. Then I’d try that weight and almost burst a blood vessel, fighting the bar down, using all my body weight, jerking and shaking. Realizing my frustrations, Nicholas was never cruel or boastful about being so much stronger than me. Sometimes he used the same weight but pretended to struggle, to make me feel better.
Whenever we hung out with girls, they always liked Nicholas more. He looked like the guys on television, the heroes in movies, the centerfold in GQ magazine. And yet, he never became conceited. He deflected compliments he received by telling silly jokes. And if any one of those girls wanted to feel his arm, he’d fart on her, and whichever girl would scream and scramble. As naïve as he was to the girls’ attention, he was always conscious of me, always—of my feelings, my insecurities. So, after the girls left, like a crowd of fans, I’d thank him. For what, man? Then he’d punch me in the arm.
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We were thick as blood; we were brothers. Lifting weights was our thing, our bond. He took me to the YMCA and showed me how to bench-press. It was my first time in a real gym. And having him with me, I was less anxious about what other people thought. So what if I dropped the bar on my chest, which happened during the first set, and almost crushed my sternum? And then the time I got stuck in a squat under the heavy barbell, 135 pounds, my legs seemingly ready to break like a turkey’s wishbone. Or when doing a skull crusher, and I actually crushed my skull—the curl bar dropped on my forehead. It was all embarrassing, sure, but Nicholas helped me recover, every time, with no ridicule. Try again, bro, and I tried again, and again. And with each session, with each breakdown of my muscle, the fibers tearing and then repairing, I became stronger.
When we turned 17, I got my driver’s license. Instead of paying for a gym membership at the YMCA, we drove to McGuire Air Force Base, where my mom worked. Children of military parents could go to the gym for free. So, there we were, two boys in a pit of men—real men, military men, who epitomized strength. It was intimidating in every way. Those soldiers, hardening their bodies, like sharpening a sword. And while Nicholas and I wore Converse sneakers, they wore combat boots; we wore basketball shorts, and they wore fatigue pants. For them, this was an everyday routine, like brushing teeth: wake up, eat, run, train, clean rifle, be strong, “Army Strong—Be All You Can Be.” We idolized those men—mimicked their workouts, talked shop with them in the locker room, ordered the same protein shakes. And while they were preparing for some war, we trained for the attention of girls and fist bumps from our reveling peers.
Finally, in college, my flat chest morphed into something more muscular and rounded, and I even had stretch marks running through my skin to show the growth. My pencil-thin thighs thickened, as if a sapling sprouting into a tree. My back widened, and the lateral dorsal muscle broadened like wings. Nicholas and I attended the same college, and remained attached at the hip, transforming together. Our old shirts lost their sleeves, our language changed to speaking in roars and grunts rather than actual words; we evolved while devolving, like apes thumping our chests. I think I spent more time counting to 10 in the gym than I spent studying in the library.
After college, I became a certified personal trainer to make extra money. I thought it would legitimize my obsession of achieving some perfect body, a perfect me. Paying $700 for books, online lectures, and examinations hardly made me an expert, but it gave me the certification required for the job. I was convinced that this would finally advance me to the next level of fitness. If I knew everything about exercising, I would have to exercise better, a foolproof plan. And when I got a job in the gym, maybe my clients would even want to look like me, their idol—for I spent the majority of my life trying to look and become like other people, from my cartoons and action figures to my brother and my dad, Nicholas, and those military and college men who epitomized real-life strength.
When I landed a job, I took pride in being a personal trainer. It was all I talked about to clients, to friends, to family. If a conversation about exercising or eating healthy started at a gathering, sometimes without me remotely included, I chimed in, Have you tried? It validated me and my obsession, for I loved being the person who had an answer for weight loss, muscular pain management, and diet and nutrition.
And while my hubris grew, I tried to remain humble, kind, and empathetic to my clients, considering the goals I’d had all my life and the advice I sought in those men I admired. On the exterior, my body changed, and from a perspective other than my own, maybe I’d achieved the ideal physique; but internally, the war raged—the insecurities raged like Jupiter’s red storm. My calves were still too skinny, my abdominals were still underdeveloped, my V-shaped torso was more of a U. However much progress and improvement I made, my life still seemed minuscule, as if the clay were still oddly shaped, still unformed. And always during warmups before my boot-camp class started, I’d say to my clients what I could not to myself: Don’t compare yourself to the person next to you, just be your best self. Focus on your workout.
I feel no closer to my ideal body than I was as a child watching X-Men. I don’t exercise for the right reasons. I never skip a gym day; it comes first—before family, friends, and love. I am idolatrous, searching for false hope in the Gods of Perfect Bodies, the ones I’ve always wanted as my own, the bodies that I’ll never have. But then again, I keep telling myself, If I do just another rep.