LEAH RANADA - NATURAL GRACE
It's the love of stories that propels Leah Ranada to write. She moved to Vancouver from Manila in 2006 and graduated from The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University. Her stories have appeared in Room Magazine (2nd Place Winner, 2014 Short Fiction Contest) eastlit.com and emerge anthology. She is working on her first novel.
The workstation is tiny. There is hardly any space between the L-shaped counter and the wall, making Krista feel like she‘s in a rigid embrace with the desk, wide screen monitor, and swivel chair. Clint is somehow able to squeeze into the huddle, having pulled another chair beside her to show her the SuperFit members database. He is so close that Krista can see that the freckles sprinkled on his cheeks are pinkish-brown, not red. His muscles have started to soften in a few places, but only to an extent that makes him look less coarse. Princely.
With their heads practically conjoined and their bodies concealed by the booth, it may look as if, to the girl who has just walked in and waiting across the counter, that Krista and Clint are fooling around. During work hours.
He’s your boss! Krista sternly reminds herself.
The girl looks Filipina; Krista wonders if she speaks Tagalog. Her expression is of calm tolerance, confident that she will be assisted soon. Krista grins, gestures with a limp forefinger, pleading patience.
The girl bestows a thrifty smile.
“New Client sign-on.” Clint clicks on a bright, rectangular button on the screen, unravelling a window peppered with smaller buttons and grey fields. “This is where you create a new account.” The cursor slides out a menu: Monthly, 10-Day, Annual. “Once you select the plan, it will activate the rest of the form where you’ll enter the new member’s info. Name, phone number, stuff like that. Very straightforward, right?” His instructions resound with a deep, masculine urgency, as if he is a giving pep talk during a crucial junction of a gold medal game. “If you scroll down you’ll see the billing section for credit card details. Everything about the member is on one page so it’s pretty handy. Got it?”
“Got it,” Krista nods.
“The other window is for reports.” The empty form shrinks out of sight as Clint pulls up a section listing commands: Search Profiles, Print Passes, Generate Contracts. “Here’s where you retrieve existing accounts. When you have some free time, play around with it.” He notices the girl for the first time. “Two minutes, she’ll be right with you.”
Her smile to Clint is brighter. Krista turns to the screen. She will not roll her eyes over this.
Then Clint plants a delightfully heavy hand on her back and leans closer. Krista senses something she has not felt for some time. Kilig, that pleasant unease, that shiver of delight. For a moment, she is convinced that he is going to kiss her.
But instead, he whispers, “We told you about the 15 percent commission, right? That’s for every new member you sign up.” He tilts his head to one side, completing an enabling look. “You are helping them by encouraging a healthy lifestyle.”
“Right.” Krista lifts her eyebrows to convey that she is up to the task. It hasn’t been her dream to be an assistant at the downtown Vancouver’s newest fitness club, but the place makes her feel found. Salvaged. The past year has been rough, like she has been sailing on rough seas towards a hazy suggestion of a terrain until the winds finally sent her to the shores of a sanctuary.
Last week, when she came in for the interview, the machines, the weights, and the huge mirrors glistened like they sweat with accomplishments. Co-owners Clint and Marius practically hired her on the spot. On Monday, she put up photos of SuperFit’s premises on Facebook with the caption, First day at work. A fresh and healthy start. It has gotten 92 Likes, many congratulatory comments.
Clint starts to pull away his chair. “Is that your boy?” He nods to a framed photograph of Beau at the corner of the desk.
“He’s fourteen months.” A warm surge floods Krista’s chest, remembering her son’s milky scent. She has brought the photograph to work even though she shares the workstation with another assistant working the opening shift.
“Kumusta?” Krista smiles at the girl as she sidles out of the cubicle with a springing step. “Sorry for the wait, ha. Would you like to take a tour?”
* * *
She loves to dance. It has been her ticket out of homesickness and social isolation. Krista’s first friends in Canada were from the high school dance troupe.
The audition for the college’s dance program was held in a room with stark lighting and blank whiteboards giving off the phantom smell of dry-erase markers. After her routine, the jurors agreed that her repertoire was limited, her pointe work could be improved, but she possessed something extraordinary. It was beyond natural grace.
The news of her acceptance weeks later was met with bleak looks by her parents. It frustrated Krista that they had uprooted from an impoverished country only to carry with them the third world notion that one should choose a career out of practicality.
In college, she didn’t care much for the fancy terms and the punishing meal plans religiously followed by her friends. Her devotion was to the floor, whether onstage or in the studio, even if it rewarded her with searing floor burns and toe splits. Most of her classmates had years of rigorous dance training before attending the program. Girls with perfect turnouts. Guys who made confident ballroom leads. Krista rolled her shoulders and splayed her limbs, settling into deep stretches. Assured that she belonged.
The program, to her disappointment, didn’t have many good-looking men. The few ones she liked were already taken. Those who had asked her out were all too timid, hopelessly underwhelming.
But not Marco Regala.
At the beginning of her second year, the music and dance students hosted a fundraising social for the Philippine disaster relief fund. Krista and her friends elbowed each other, whispering about the handsome voice instructor who serenaded the attendees with a medley of Tagalog ballads. (It would only hit Krista later that they had been sitting too far from the stage to see Marco’s face—they had been magnetized by a figure hunched over a guitar, with a baritone that could fill an abyss.) As the singer left the stage, Krista decided to introduce herself.
“Galing mo.” She accompanied her compliment with a light tap on his forearm.
“What you were doing up there was more impressive,” he responded quickly.
“Really?” Krista belonged to group which had presented a sampler of folk dances, dressed like greying spinsters headed for the Sunday mass. She then remembered that Marco was the only faculty member who contributed a performance for the event. “Thank you for sharing your talent tonight.”
“I’m happy whenever I could sing. You probably feel the same when you dance.”
She found it hard to return to her friends after Marco offered a seat at his table. People passing by paid him compliments, but he redirected their attention to Krista. “Here with me is a beautiful dancer.” Krista grew giddy with his praises. A night full of kilig.
“Isn’t it great to be able to contribute to such a great cause?” She remarked in a rich voice.
Marco huffed. “Don’t kid yourself. A lot of the money will be pocketed by corrupt politicians.”
“Yes, of course. It’s so bad.”
She disguised her embarrassment by asking one frank question after another. This was how she learned that Marco had come to Vancouver to become a singer, leaving behind in Winnipeg a low-grade bank job, a wife who was more married to her career as a nurse, and two grown daughters.
When he explained that they had been too busy for the marriage, and now too busy to get divorced, Krista nodded with genuine sympathy. It was a sad sight: a man with a beautiful voice losing faith in the warm promises of home and family.
“But I’m here now.” Marco gestured toward the stage. “To live the life I want.”
Krista fell in love. The men she knew didn’t have that combination of drive and dreaminess. Marco was almost thirty years older, but he brimmed with the vitality of her classmates. When the course he taught, his main source of income, closed in the spring, he found private voice coaching and wedding singer gigs. She met his roommates, young men who revered him as a father figure. Marco would later confess during a tender moment that his age embarrassed him. But he was quick to shake this useless sentiment off. He needed to stay focussed.
When Beau was born, Marco was visibly stressed. Krista understood. Registration for his voice class had been slow and the term would open in less than a month. When he kicked the corner of his bed after the department failed to confirm his teaching load, a sense of triumph billowed within Krista. She had awakened in him a will to start anew as a family man. She glimpsed this will, flapping determinedly, as he handed her cash and the occasional groceries. These transactions happened in the campus; Marco had claimed he would be evicted if his landlady found out about the baby, while Krista’s parents had sworn they would claw Marco’s eyes out if he ever set foot at their home.
“Diapers next time, they run out quickly,” she told Marco once.
He gave her a look as if she spoke in tongues. It took him two weeks to bring her a box of diapers. Krista wanted to ask Marco for more—money and food, clothes and toys—anything that would sustain their son and redeem him in the eyes of her parents. It was becoming difficult to get him on the phone. She hit Redial many times while waiting at the music department. Her calls went unanswered. After days of stalking the hallways, a student told Krista that the Voice course had been cancelled—Marco had never set foot in the building that fall.
Krista braved a trip to his apartment where she learned that Marco had moved out weeks ago. The roommate, who knew her from the nights she spent there, had looked so sorry that it took every bit of Krista’s strength to draw up her shoulders, utter thanks and goodbye. A few days later Marco’s phone number was no longer in use.
* * *
The girl is tight-lipped but replies and nods enough to not come across as rude. As they saunter past a mirror, Krista makes a quick comparison of their bodies. The girl appears fit. She scans their midsections and Krista notes proudly that her own waist is smaller. Even after having Beau!
It was her idea to memorize SuperFit’s amenities to impress prospective members with an informative tour. The cardio room, Krista tells the girl, is equipped with eight treadmills, six elliptical machines, four StairMasters, and four stationary bikes. The weight room on the second floor has a spacious mat area where members can do their core workouts and stretching routines. Seeing Marius guide a lanky teenager with a barbell, Krista mentions that their personal training rates are the most reasonable downtown. There are shower and change rooms on each floor. By the time they reach the studio downstairs, where everything from Zumba to yoga classes are held, Krista has learned that the girl has just moved to the city to attend university. Her name is Mary Jane.
“I want to sign up for a trial period,” she tells Krista.
At the front counter, Krista prepares a waiver for Mary Jane to sign. When the form is completed, she asks for a credit card.
Mary Jane frowns. “But isn’t it a free trial?”
“Oh, it’s just in case you decide to sign up after two weeks.” Krista allows a sisterly smile.
“Okay.” She pulls out her card with a reluctant shrug that irks Krista a little. Without Clint beside her, the system looks complicated. She moves the mouse slowly. For Membership Type, she selects Two-Week Trial and notices that the billing portion of the form stays grey, unfillable. Heat gathers in her cheeks. The credit card is not needed after all. She turns to the completed waiver.
Mary Jane Regala
Her look leaps to the girl across the counter. The resemblance is so stark that Krista can’t believe she has only noticed it now.
Mary Jane Regala
Marco’s two daughters both have names starting with M to take after him. A sorry compensation for a son that never came.
Mary Jane Regala’s eyes have now wandered to the machines humming with activity behind her workstation. On the desk, her student Visa card glimmers with newness—it reminded Krista of friends in college whose parents took care of every expense, from cafeteria lattes to designer dancewear.
For many days after Marco left, it felt impossible to get out of bed. She sank into murky depths as the days drummed on above the surface. Grief wrecked her from the inside, like a wild sea creature worming its way through the decaying quarters of a sunken ship.
A storm is bristling in her chest. Krista steadies herself by gripping the mouse. As she clicks on Monthly, it becomes easier to breathe. Her fingers clatter on the keyboard, completing the form. It’s as simple as Clint explained. Just enter the required information. The billing information brightens, welcoming. Krista copies the numbers on Mary Jane’s credit card.
* * *
Her shift begins at two when the club is almost empty. Krista busies herself with sanitizing the machines. She collects the used towels from the change rooms. Class schedules and announcements go on the corkboards, with Krista making sure every bill is even and straight.
The place is at its busiest in the early evening when the nine-to-fivers arrive. The fresh sanitizer scent gives way to sour, fleshy odours. Krista leads more tours, watching out for those who look intimidated by the machines. She stops to explain the features, adjust the contraptions. Many of the members are friendly. By the following week, she knows some of them by name.
She doesn’t talk to Mary Jane, but Krista watches her from time to time, those solid shoulders and arms, the emerging contours of her shins as she trudges on the elevated deck of the treadmill. Once, Krista sees her using the shoulder press. As Mary Jane lowers the handle to her chest level, she catches herself thinking of Marco’s strong embrace. Krista averts her eyes, horrified at herself.
When they started going out, Krista kept Marco’s family in a box. His wife and daughters were faceless characters from another place and time. His life with Krista was becoming richer as his old life thinned into a sad history. Their relationship was the robust bud of a rare flower, precious and promising.
A few times she mustered the courage to ask about his family. Marco would turn mournful at the mention of his daughters. “I have a lot to make up for.”
“Every father will feel that way.” Krista’s chest expanded with selflessness as she said this.
They were lying on his twin bed with wooden slats that pressed through the mattress, felt by their bodies. Voices of Marco’s roommates travelled through the thin walls, but in that room, Krista envisioned the vast, rhythmic world they would roam together.
These days, thinking of him gives Krista the urge to climb onto a stationary bike and pedal off until every pore on her body is sweating out his memory.
* * *
Mary Jane is on a treadmill that is facing a window. Her reflection is a warrior’s mask bouncing on the twilight-shadowed glass. She is pushing herself hard.
There are days when Krista feels bad for her ignorance. She imagines them sitting down for coffee, spending hours going over Marco’s failed promises, venting to one another their own sides of the same betrayal. Mary Jane would adore Beau; she would pick him up from the stroller, with Krista guiding her unmotherly arms.
A class has cancelled that evening so the downstair studio is empty. The immaculate expanse of hardwood makes Krista pause in her work, inspired. She turns on her phone’s video camera and places the device on a chair, propped against a wall. It starts filming the centre of the room where she takes position, nodding to the hip-hop music streaming from the cardio room. Her body sways to the rhythm, hips loosening into a slow, sensual motion. She snaps her fingers as the song breaks into a livelier beat. Then she straightens abruptly, her whole body stiff, except for her arms, which alternates between graceful undulations and robotic chops. She whirls into a pirouette that feels clumsy because she’s wearing the wrong shoes, but who’s watching?
Clint, that’s who. He is standing by the door. “That’s amazing! Where did you learn that?”
“That was garbage.” Krista scoffs, masking her embarrassment. “I studied Dance.”
His laugh has a chivalrous ring to it, as if he senses her unease. “ You’re a pro! Let’s post it on our FB page.”
“Are you serious?” Krista giggles. But Clint is already reaching for her phone.
Back in the cardio room, Mary Jane has slowed down the pace. Now coming from the opposite direction, Krista sees her own exhilarated face on the window. She marches towards her desk amid the energetic symphony of working machines.
* * *
She is off at ten-thirty but gets the closing tasks done around ten. Clint is impressed. “You Wonder Woman or something?” He shows her SuperFit’s Facebook page on which her video has gotten 244 Likes in three days. The glow stays with Krista during the bus ride home. Her sleepy gaze drinks in graffiti and murals, gas stations and noodle houses.
Beau has long been put to sleep by her mother by the time she gets home. Krista always rises at dawn so she is his first sight when he opens his eyes. They spend the mornings together. He is growing up fast. Krista marvels at how both of them have gone through tremendous changes in a short span of time. A mystical bond. Clint is wrong. She is not Wonder Woman. Beau is the force behind her. His photo on her desk is an amulet.
* * *
The sound of her name is metallic, teaspoon clinking against teacup. Krista looks up to see Mary Jane across the counter.
“Can you check my account. My credit card was charged.”
Her throat clenches from the inside. “What do you mean?”
“I’m on a free trial, but my card was charged 150 dollars.”
“Let’s see.” Krista says this to herself as much as to Mary Jane. The mouse turns to deadweight in her hand. It is not so much the discovery but the swiftness of it that stuns her. The plan has been to alter Mary Jane’s record, but Krista has not received her commission yet. It has only been a week since she opened her account.
The system loads slowly. Please Wait. Mary Jane rests an arm on the counter, peering shrewdly from behind the monitor. Somewhere beyond the workstation, Clint is talking to someone about whey protein.
Sandali lang.” Krista shrugs to indicate her computer needs a moment. She hopes she will draw Mary Jane into speaking Tagalog to keep the matter just between them.
“It’s okay, I’ll wait,” she says, curtly.
The panic swells and thumps against her chest, a cyclone trapped in a tent. If she is quick enough, she can change Mary Jane’s membership type. Delete the billing details. Databases catch bugs all the time. She wonders if the girl from the morning shift knows the system.
“Are you sure it was us? Our club, I mean?” Krista thinks it’s a fair question to ask. Surely, the credit card has been used in other places.
Mary Jane’s face hardens. “See for yourself.” A sheet of paper is brusquely passed across the counter. “My mom’s thinking of cancelling my card.”
It’s a printed web page of a Visa statement. In Krista’s head, the box she has placed Marco’s family in has collapsed, and a furious woman is stepping out, loudly announcing herself. She peruses the paper, the bright yellow streak highlighting the SuperFit charge corkscrewing into her gut.
“I told you I’m only signing up for the free trial.”
“Is everything okay here?” Clint has approached them, his voice reverberating with the due concern of a business owner. Behind him, two burly, tank-topped men crane their sweaty necks to their direction.
“She charged me your monthly fee for the trial period.” Mary Jane gestures to the statement, shaking in Krista’s hands.
“There must be some kind of misunderstanding,” Clint says as he takes the paper from Krista. Mary Jane's information has appeared on the screen. “When did she start?” He sees the date on the system. “How come we have her credit card?”
“She said she needed it.” Mary Jane glances at Krista.
“Did you sign a contract?” Clint sounds cautious. Krista wanted to grab his arm. No, please, no.
“I remembered signing a waiver, not a membership.” Mary Jane looks even more like Marco when she’s irate.
“Okay, okay,” Clint is saying, “let’s figure this out.” Krista quickly withdraws her hand as he reaches for the mouse. He sees Mary Jane is on a monthly membership. Then he scrolls down and quietly mouths the credit card number. It is identical with the one on the statement. Clint shakes his head. Krista wants to cry.
“I can see you were started on a monthly membership.” He throws Mary Jane a sympathetic look.
Clint rubs the back of his neck. “We’ll have to do a refund. Krista, can you hit the administrator link. No, not there. Top right corner.”
It is difficult for Krista to follow Clint’s instructions, her mind being preoccupied with reading his tone. Is the approval still there, the trust? She is driving the cursor around a new window now, a part of the system she hasn’t been trained on. “Search for her name,” she hears him say, and he directs her to a few more buttons to click. Are You Sure You Want to Submit Refund? Krista hits Yes before Clint says to do so.
“It will take some time,” Clint turns to Mary Jane. “A couple of weeks or so.”
“It’s so quick to charge but so slow to refund.” Mary Jane’s eyes are shining sardonically.
“It’s the best we can do. I’m really sorry,” The weariness in Clint’s voice makes Krista feel protective. Not that she can do anything. She has drifted away, watching everything from a distance.
* * *
She is grateful that the place is huge. For the rest of the evening, Krista slips in and out of the rooms with cleaning tools and used towels. She overhears Clint and Marius talking in low, serious tones. She decides to clean the bathrooms.
The showers are disgusting at that time of the day, but she takes the time to scrub the soap-stained surfaces, pick up coiled strands of hair from the tiles. By the time she finishes, there are only a few members in the club. There is still an hour before closing, enough time to polish all the mirrors. She is that efficient.
In the supplies closet, Krista finds a spray bottle of glass cleaner and a stepladder, which she unfolds in the studio hall. She works fast, swirling and wiping with circular motions. Harsh, industrial odour stings her nostrils. Her shoulders are throbbing by the time she reaches the other end of the mirror. But she proceeds to carry the ladder to the weights room—no one is there now. The mirror weeps bluish tears as she sprays. Through the haze, she notices Clint approaching from behind.
“You okay there?” He asks.
“I’m fine.” Her voice lilts. She turns away from their warped images to face him. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
His expression is grave. “It’s all good. Hope you were not too shaken back there.”
“I’m all right. Thanks for checking.” She wants him to leave her alone.
“Some people will give you a hard time,” Clint says. “You have to be ready for those. I know it was an honest mistake. I mean, you’re still learning things around here. Just be careful going forward.”
“Thanks for your help.” Her voice sounds tiny and far.
Clint starts to leave but says something about the mirrors being too big before stepping out. Krista nods him away with a tired smile.
She drags the stepladder across a partition and squirts large, misty puddles on her reflection. Her arms are tired and the smell clawed at the walls of her head. But Krista scrubs hard, removing every fleck and blurry patch, determined to make everything spotless.