I smell the urine of an asshole with bad aim. I smell the cesspool of unwashed bodies squeezed into compression shirts. I smell the dirt dragged in from the world outside, then pummelled into an upright, outstanding citizen.
I once was that dirt. But from the moment I walked into Pan Am Boxing Club, I became a finer example of a human life-form. So, whenever my brain is racked with general, unimportant tests of stress, I know where to go and what I’ll get every single time: a reminder that the world isn’t a bad place after all. It’s just trying to throw a couple jabs at your liver on the rocks and your doughboy, snack-pack belly. Stress is just the world challenging you.
This story starts like every cliché break-up story you’ve heard. Only I’m a profanity-obsessed, bald-headed shit-kicker and not Nicholas Sparks with puffy, tear-soaked cheeks. Proceed with caution.
Once upon a time, I found myself on the losing end of a relationship’s end, left a pariah: fat, hairless, and pretending to be someone I’m not. The proverbial lost young man. Frustrated at life, confused at female anatomy, awkward at night clubs. I could either go backpacking around Nicaragua to try and “find myself” or I could make some serious, concrete changes in my life. It’s a good thing I don’t like long walks.
Realizing I’d never again grasp even the notion of a “girlfriend” with the body I was currently in, I turned to fat cat, corporate gyms. Their ad campaigns spoke to my vulnerable ears, telling me about “starting your new life now” and “being all you can be”. I bit like a greenback. But I could never figure out why, after the first 5-pound loss, I bailed, both mentally and physically. These places, with their weight machines humped by beefcake gorilla’s in bralettes, and their front desks commanded by white strip abusing hyper-freaks, had nothing to compel me and motivate me to come back. They felt Orwellian. Like some factory for people who entered as broken toys on a conveyor belt but left as shiny Frankenstein humans with twitching eyes and puckered lips. So, every time I got stressed out about some crap, I had no outlet that would enable me to conquer it.
From my first sixty-minute torturous training session, I knew Pan Am Boxing was my opportunity to change everything. I looked around and saw investment managers sweating on tattoo artists, elementary school teachers punching retired construction workers, opera singers motivating weekend rappers. This blender of beaten down, but determined human lifeforms was exactly what I needed. We all came from some deformed root of stress and need, and we found ourselves together in a stinky, dented basement, projecting our suffering into body shots and pushups.
After five years, my life has become an equation. If I leave out my routine workout out at 5:30 after work, I am simply a worsened version of myself. The initial thought of stress becomes a mountain of evil, covering any sunlight the atmosphere tries to send my way. I start to look in the mirror and see that lost, pudgy, young man again.
To me, this place is past the point of being a “de-stresser”, it is a necessity of my existence, just as much as breathing, or coffee, or writing weekly essays late on a Friday night while my pretty little redhead girlfriend snores like an Appalachian coal miner in the bedroom down the hall.
And the endorphin rush is as spontaneous and strong as the day I first felt it. I say hi and toss jokes to the people there with a crooked, cartoon smile but my internal monologue says thank you; thank you for stumbling on the same place I did and sharing this intense form of rehabilitation with me. Thank you for showing me that I can change. Thank you for giving me a temple of inner-peace.
Thank you for showing me how to fight back.
I’m leaving Winnipeg, this land of brown slush and milk-water skies, and I’m heading west.
Don’t worry, I’m not driving all the way to Alaska like some sort of movie scene set to good music, though sometimes it can feel that way.
With a trunk full of dirty laundry and a mind twirling with to-do lists, I am heading home. I set off in a worn out hoodie and the same jeans I had on yesterday to leave these looming buildings behind me, passing strip malls, sushi spots, and Cindy’s Burgers on the way.
Don’t get me wrong, my apartment in the city is a home thanks to the dusty baseboards and blue bath towels I get to call my own. From the white, cotton curtains I hung in the kitchen to the stack of coffee filters on the counter, I love it here, but it’s not the place where I spent the first 18 years of my life.
Once I leave the Co-op gas station with a full tank and an empty bladder, there’s only one thing left on my to-do list – drive. The speed limit jumps from 70 to 110, and I feel my shoulders relax as I press my foot to the gas. I put on Everybody’s Gotta Live by Love and set both my car and cranium to cruise control.
I de-stress during this three-hour drive. My windshield acts as a canvas for the sunset, and I sit back analyzing ever colour and cloud. With a view like this and the right song coming out of the speakers, creativity leads the conversation in my brain instead of anxieties and arguments from the past.
I’m not one for aroma therapy, but if it’s June, July, or August, my windows are down as soon as I hit city limits. Like a wall, the sweet smell of summer hits hard and I begin to wonder why I would ever live anywhere other than the country. Soil and sloughs mixed with leaf-cutter bees and Brown-Eyed Susans – you won’t find a wick like this at Bath & Body Works.
After decompressing from Elie to Portage, I turn onto highway 16 and start daydreaming like a kid in science class. From Gladstone to Neepawa, I ask myself, where do I want to live one day? What kind of business should I own? Would my kids work there? Could I be a stand-up comic? Where should I travel this year? What was that girl’s name I met in Amsterdam?
I know this highway. I know all of its little bridges and Eat Beef signs. I know every Petro Canada and its broken bathroom stall doors. In a life that’s constantly changing, this road stays the same and always has a place for me on it. It connects me from one home to another.
I see the clouds of the ethanol plant and descend into the valley. Only a few more left turns before I’m winding down our lane and being welcomed by the yellow glow of the windows on our house.
As happy as I am to see that black and white cat on the front steps, I can’t deny there isn’t a little sadness knowing the drive is over. Like a rib crushing hug after a shitty day or a phone call from your best friend, you realize just how much you needed it. I mean, if I were a monk, this car would be my monastery and this drive would be my meditation.
Unless you’re driving through a blizzard. That’s a different essay.