Lived Through This

Contemplating My Bisexuality While Gettin’ Swole

My internal struggle as men at the gym keep trying to adopt me

Illustration of a really buff blue-skinned athletic person against a black background with red squiggles.
Illustration of a really buff blue-skinned athletic person against a black background with red squiggles.
Illustration: Nikita Klimov

I fit in at the gym about as well as a Disney Princess in a BDSM studio. I don’t get the culture: running, lifting, grunting, groaning, flexing. I’ve never understood the axioms of “power through” or “feel the burn” or “do three more.” The only times that “power through,” “do three more,” or “feel the burn” apply to my life is over a plate of chicken wings. I don’t feel a need to get stronger or run faster. Who do I have to run from? Who is trying to hurt me? I asked my friend this one time, a gym nut since we were 15, and he said, “Everyone.”

Despite this, gym culture has always been a part of my life. My mother was an aerobics instructor in the ’90s, and then a Body Pump instructor into the 2000s. I spent my days at the SIM’s Club, our hometown rec center, first in the daycare center and later, roaming through the treadmills in a secondhand suit coat, drunk on a cocktail of horny anxiety, marveling at all of the beautiful people. This was before beauty was on the inside, so I asked my mother, “Exactly how much would I have to work out to look like that?” She looked at me, folded up in my angst, and decided to let her personal trainer friend, Jared, break the news.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Jared said. He pinched my belly with a metal tool and told me I was 36% fat. He looked like he was made of meatballs. His shoulders, chest, and arms all bulged out. Even his fingers looked like three meatballs on a stick. He was always sweating just a little bit — always hot and slightly sticky. I wanted to play that game with him that kids play where they wrap themselves around an adult’s leg to ride them from room to room. This was before I’d had sex, and long before I’d considered the possibility of men as people I could have sex with. I puttered along from machine to machine as he told me, “No, like this!” and “Come on! Do three more!” I lasted a week before Jared said, “Maybe this isn’t for you,” and I kept my virginal chub well into my late teens.

When I started going to the gym many years later, I went because, by luck of the draw, I’d grown tall and thin and so the work to look good had met my laziness somewhere in the middle. Every year or two, I’d get it into my head that it was time, always inspired by some beautiful person or another. See, unlike the men who watch a James Bond movie and think, “Damn, I want to do that,” I’d watch the same movie and think, “Damn, I want to look like that.”

Most recently, I decided to go back to the gym after watching Chris Hemsworth’s arms in Extraction.

I work an unconventional schedule, living in Seoul, South Korea, so I had to ask around before finding a gym that fit my schedule. I walked in a little past midnight in sweatpants and a heavy jacket with headphones blaring Ace of Base through my thick winter hat. It was clean, bright, and nearly empty. They favored red for the highlights and there were orange towels scattered around. The machines were new and plentiful, looking out through floor-to-ceiling windows at the building across the way. A large Korean man approached me. He said something I couldn’t hear through my music but from the look on his face, I imagine it might have been: “Are you lost, little birdie?”

For men like me, Gym Daddies can be a blessing or a curse.

I tugged off my headphones and hat to tell him, “No, I am looking to sign up for a membership.” He held up a finger, turned, and said something to a man deadlifting what looked to be my bodyweight. The man grunted, dropped his weight, and turned to me. His muscles were so pressed against the inside of his skin, it looked like a tight layer of that candied rice paper. He was about to become my new Gym Daddy.

I’d had Gym Daddies before. The average gym-goers might not notice them. But for men like me, Gym Daddies can be a blessing or a curse. They are men who live at the gym, and who, after building houses onto their own bodies, seek out fragrant little flower petals like me to adopt, to “show us how it’s done,” “push us to our limits,” “get us swole,” and so on. I had one in America who insisted that we work out our legs even though I swore up and down that I wear jeans even in the summertime. Another, when I was living in Russia, who my brother called Big-Dicked Ivan for reasons you can imagine, adopted the pair of us by following us around the gym and yelling “NO!” when we failed to do exercises properly.

The problem with Gym Daddies is that you can’t escape them. They are always at the gym and once they adopt you, there is no polite way to say, “Thank you, giant man, but I’d like to stay a sunflower if it’s all the same to you.”

Three weeks after signing up, I stepped through the doors of my new gym around midnight in my blue, pineapple-patterned tank top and tuned into my hella workout playlist: Ladies of the ’80s. I looked at the “beginner’s workout” I’d copied and pasted into my phone notes, deleted “Leg Presses” and headed off toward the chest machine. That’s when I bumped into my Gym Daddy. He’d only just arrived and was in the process of slipping out of his sweatshirt. We exchanged pleasantries; he saw me sit down at the chest press before saying, “Hey, do you want to join me for my workout?” This is the moment where a more confident person would have said, “No,” so I said, “Sure.”

“Good,” he said. “Come on, we are doing double supersets.”

It turned out that a superset is when you alternate exercises without resting between them. This meant that a double superset was four exercises back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I was not prepared. As we went along, I learned that my Gym Daddy was a model who’d been in the special forces in the army. When he decided to adopt me, I imagine he felt the same way I do when I stop traffic to help a family of ducklings cross the street. He was kind and patient, but, as always, he was a true Gym Daddy.

“Do this.”

“No, not like that.”

“Do you need help?”

“Oh — you need help.”

“You good? Did you hurt yourself, ducky?”

“No? Good. Do three more.”

Around my fifth pull up on our second set, he called, “You can do three more!” I tried but couldn’t manage it, so he placed his hand on my back and pushed me up. One-handed, he lifted me three times while I held the bars, mostly for psychological support. When he finally let me down, I said:

“Man, I wasn’t even doing anything there; you were just lifting me, ha-ha.”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha,” he said.

“He-he-he-he,” I told him.

“He-he-he,” he responded.

And I thought, Are we going to make out? But the moment was lost when he waved me to follow him over to do more shoulder lifts.

“Up, like this?” I asked.

“No.” He came and stood behind me, placed his hands gently under my arms, and said: “Like this, back straight, shoulders down, good.” Beside us, an exceptionally bulky man was deadlifting to the tune of “UH! UH! UH! UH! UHHHH!”

When I had had enough, we shook hands and he said, “You’ll be back tomorrow?” and I coyly said, “Maybe.” Then I left, shaky-legged, with my ears ringing, and with his number in my pocket.

He texted me the next day to ask if I’d be going that night. I again said, “Maybe.” But I did go back and as soon as I was finished on the treadmill, I turned to find my Gym Daddy peeling his jacket off of his massive arms. I was startled by a childhood memory from when I used to climb trees: I’d make my way up higher and higher, gently stepping from thin branch to thinner branch, and then finding, amongst the twigs, a safe, thick, sturdy branch to rest on for a while, high above the ground where I felt secure and yet sweetly tantalized by the danger of falling.

“Hey,” he said.


“You want to work out together again?”

“Sure, sure.”


“Not supersets?”

“Ha-ha, no.” He touched my shoulder with his finger. “Shoulders.”

“Cool,” I said, “… cool.”

While my Gym Daddy did his set, I looked around at all of the meaty men in tight black shirts, slim pants, Nike shoes — then to myself in the mirror: paint-stained gym shorts I’ve had for nearly a decade and ripped sneakers holding up skin on pipe cleaners. They were playing “Talk Dirty To Me” over the surround-sound speakers. The man who slaps everyone a high-five when they walk in was helping load weights onto a leg press, while another man performed bodybuilder poses in the mirror. The whole place smelled of salt and Windex and I thought, I could probably suck a dick.

I’m into men the same way someone who is into sushi only actually likes the shrimp tempura rolls.

Not any dick. It’d have to be the right dick. Preferably attached to a French man who reads me poetry and calls me his mon chou. But there is a severe lack of French dick at Korean gyms, so I turned, looked at my Gym Daddy and thought, Could I suck his dick?

He sat at the shoulder press, pumped it up and down, up and down, up and down, and then told me to sit, placing his hand on my back to straighten it, then gently pressing beneath my arms as I lifted and said, “You can do it. Four, five, six, seven, three more!” and when I stood up and he gave my shoulder a nudge, I realized: Yeah, he could talk me into it.

It’s not like I haven’t experimented, but that was at parties, in college, late nights with clubs and drugs. “I tripped and he fell” sort of situations. To meet at the gym, be wooed, flirted with, to be picked up… Would that be gayer than I am? I’ve always found some men attractive, but I’m picky. I’m into men the same way someone who is into sushi only actually likes the shrimp tempura rolls.

As I debated this in my head, I watched my Gym Daddy push through another set — he pushed himself so hard, abusing himself like he hated some part of who he was, a part I wanted to get to know, to get close to, to feel. He stood up, turned to me. I slipped him a smile and he frowned.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

I cleared my throat — enough to be manly, but not enough for people to think I might be sick, and said: “Yeah — just, cool that we met — y’know.”

And he said: “Sure.”

I leaned against the assisted-pull-up machine with one arm and smiled. My Gym Daddy looked at me, my arm, my pose, my smile, and he said, “I think I’m about done.” And something in the way he said it had the same feeling as biting into chicken you thought was done only to find it cold and raw on the inside. I was exposed — he’d glimpsed my curiosity and that was enough. It didn’t feel like he was judging me, but more like he was disappointed in me — the way a parent might say, “This isn’t the time or the place for that sort of thing.”

As he started gathering up his stuff, I started to feel a little ashamed. Then, I looked around the gym at all the paired off men in tight tees and tank tops. Two were on the bench press, while one benched, the other stood behind, his balls so close to the top of the man’s head, there was no way he couldn’t smell them. Across the room, another man was making sensual poses in the mirror, flexing, turning his hips, giving himself a smolder beside two men doing squats, one with his hands gently resting on the other’s hips as he said, “Yeah — you got this!” while the other moaned, squeezing out one more push.

Everywhere I turned there was a writhing, flexing, flaunting buffet of man meat all sweating on each other, rubbing, poking, prodding, posing, pressing against each other in all sorts of erotic ways as the air filled with grunts, groans, and moans.

I walked out of that pheromone sauna wondering about why men touching made me feel the way it did. Maybe Jared was right, I decided. Maybe gyms aren’t for me. Maybe if the noises were a little less sexual, the touches a little less sensual. If, like me, gym culture could make up its mind so that the next time I meet a Gym Daddy and he grabs my wrists to help me with shoulder presses, I will be able to think something other than, “Oh, Daddy, a little bit harder.”

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time.

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