Assignment:  You are a middle-aged man going to the gym for the first time.

He sneered as soon as he walked in. Treadmills were for wussies, he thought. He’d say fags, but he’d learned you couldn’t really do that these days. He never meant it as homophobic, just a holdover from high school is all. Ted had gay friends – who didn’t these days? – and in fact it was his gay friends that insisted he come to the gym. Devin had poked at his paunch, teasing, “What’s this, Mr. Outdoors?” Paunch! He’d never had paunch, had prided himself on staying fit well into his forties through a combination of kayaking, hiking and the occasional run through the redwood or on the beach before Skipper died. Man, he’d loved that dog. Black lab, a man’s dog, dopey but smart when it mattered. Ted could relate. He’d been through so many women, playing the fool, the cute guy with the six-pack, the one no one expected to stay overnight. It made leaving easy. Now, Ted thought, maybe easy hadn’t been the way to go.

Which is what brought him here, to this world of stationary bicycles and boot camp. Boot camp! As if these lazy pampered kids knew anything about boot camp. He’d served — four years in the Army, no action, but plenty of discipline. The payoff was a college education, one he’d taken in Northern California, way up north in Humboldt County, where the joke was the pot culture, the reality redwoods and rivers. Ted majored in field biology, ignored opportunities to move up, loving the outdoors as he’d did.

“Dude!” Jack had protested as Ted stripped down, the summer heat too hot to bear in the hills. “What?” Ted responded, broad shoulders bared, stomach ripped into squares any 25-year-old would envy, cock hanging loose and long. Surveying naked was commonplace in the high temps. Experienced field agents knew where to apply sunscreen and how much. “Nothing,” Jack said, averting his eyes. Awkward to have the boss counting Pacific tree frogs and marbled murrelets in the nude, but hey, he was the boss and by the end of the summer, they’d all be frolicking sans clothing. The heat was unbearable otherwise.

“Ted!” Devin hollered from where he was bench pressing, his spotter a well-muscled cohort with a ponytail. “Hey,” Ted called back, conscious of the non-looks of cardio enthusiasts in between.

He strode over, doing his best to appear heterosexual. “Hey, Devin,” Ted offered, his voice two levels deeper than usual.

“Hi, Ted!” Devin squealed. Okay, he didn’t squeal, Ted corrected in his mind. “I am totally comfortable working out with a gay man.”

Devin raised an eyebrow. “Um, good?” he suggested.

“Yes,” Ted answered. “I just want to be clear. I will work out with you, but I am here,” he paused, a smile entering his face, “to meet the ladies.”

Devin laughed. “Got it. And I knew just the ladies. But first, we have to work on those love handles, Ted. They might be called love handles, but no one really wants to grab onto that when bumping uglies.” He lifted a weight as if toasting. “From flabs, to abs!”

Ted winced. Then laughed. “Okay, Dev. Lead on.”

They worked out companionably, sometimes in silence, sometimes with the sort of ribbing that men do. Devin was careful to not say anything that could be construed as flirting. Ted showed caution in making what could be interpreted as homophobic remarks. After, they shook hands, walked out to the parking lot.

“Hey, Ted,” Devin said. “You’re a great guy. Guys like you, at your age, they’re hard to come by. You’ll meet the right lady.”

Ted laughed. Funny to get advice from a gay man 10 years your junior. He inhaled the night air, noting the ocean’s salt, the moon’s glow. “Thanks, Dev.” They went their separate ways.

Back home, Ted reminiscenced. There’d been Gloria – too needy. Jane, too distant. Madison, too ambitious – Ted knew she’d expect him to move up as well, when he was satisfied with the field, with counting frogs, quantifying birds. Lisa, so great in bed he’d been moved to reconsider his lack of desire to have children, but who, in a rare chain of events, had left him, right in the midst of his reconsidering.

He turned the key, let the engine roar to life. Maybe he’d still meet the right girl, he thought. Maybe have some kids after all. What he didn’t doubt were the days of roaming naked among the trees, along the river, counting the frogs, the birds, all the creatures that couldn’t care less about his nudity, his abs, his marital status, indeed, his very existence.