A little after six in the morning, while I was putting in my daily four miles on the elliptical machine at the New York Sports Club near my apartment, I smelled a fart that made me contemplate death and its inevitability.
As I’m sure the reader is aware, there are many different kinds of farts. There are loud baritones and there are brazen trumpets. Sometimes, there are squeaky ones. I didn’t hear this one at all; if it announced itself in any way, the sound was lost amidst the whirring and clattering of the cardio machines. But what the fart lacked in fanfare, it made up in foulness. It smelled like a dumpster behind a Chinatown fish market.
I put a hand against my face to mask the ass-stench with the stink of my own sweat, and I looked around for the culprit. I was on the elliptical at the end of the row. The machine next to me was vacant; it was broken, in fact. There was a woman two machines over. I wouldn’t say she was a big woman, exactly, but she wasn’t skinny either, and she was tall. Like, five-feet ten; a strapping specimen. Had she the capacity to unleash such an abomination? I wouldn’t put it past her.
I tried to gauge the expression on her face, to see if she seemed guilty, but I could only steal glances, because I didn’t want her to catch me looking at her. I always try to avoid looking at people at the gym. I don’t want anyone to think I am a pervert.
Behind the ellipticals, there was a row of treadmills. Most of them weren’t in use this early, but there was a guy on one, behind and to the left of me. He looked ethnic. I thought the fart smelled ethnic. I wondered if this was racist of me. I realized it probably was, since I had no empirical basis for my belief that farts had ethnicities.
Off to my right, a man was working with free weights. If you’re looking for somebody to blame a fart on, the guy lifting free weights is generally a pretty good suspect, since science has proven squatting against resistance has the same effect on the human colon that rolling up the bottom of the tube has on toothpaste. But the tall woman and the ethnic man were closer to me than the weightlifter. I wondered how far a fart could travel; it seemed like it would dissipate pretty quickly in an open, high-ceilinged health club.
In college, I read a book about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. People within a certain distance of the blast were instantly incinerated, while victims further away died slowly from radiation poisoning. This information was in no way applicable to my fart problem. I decided to let the whole matter slide, so I switched on my iPod and listened to Lady Gaga sing about Nebraska for a while.
But ten minutes later, somebody released a bigger, more bombastic, more pungent sequel; the “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” of farts.
The free-weight guy was gone, so I could cross him off the list. I looked back and forth between the tall woman and the ethnic guy. She caught me looking, and she scowled at me. He had a Forbes magazine draped over the console of his treadmill, and he was oblivious.
I leaned back on my elliptical, and tried to take a broader look around the room. Maybe there was some sort of ass-ventriloquist who had mastered the art of throwing farts across great distances. But I didn’t spot any such trickster. And then I realized there was a suspect I hadn’t considered.
If you’ve seen movies, you are probably familiar with this moment. This is the part where they realize the serial killer’s phone calls are coming from inside the house. This is the moment when Bruce Willis learns he’s already dead. This is the bit when Edward Norton figures out that he and Brad Pitt are actually the same guy. This is the plot twist. This is the part where the story about farts becomes a story about death.
Now for the expository flashback: four days before the events described herein, I had decided to try a three-day crash diet called a “juice cleanse.” The purveyors of this product argue that a super-low calorie diet of raw vegetable juice can cleanse the body of certain unspecified “toxins” and “rest” the digestive system.
Most doctors respond to these dubious claims about the same way one might respond to a fart in the gym. But people on the Internet claimed to have lost six pounds in seventy-two hours. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Amazon.com customer reviews for self-published books, it’s that I can always trust people on the Internet.
Also, the people claiming to have lost all the juice-weight seemed to mostly be marathon runners and yoga instructors, so if they could find six pounds to lose from their waifish, birdlike bodies, I could probably expect to drop even more from my own keg-shaped, fat-sheathed torso.
I ordered the juice. By lunchtime on the first day of the cleanse, my nose was running like a snot faucet. The website claims that this is a common result of the purging of toxins, but since toxins do not exist, it was probably an allergic reaction. Or else, the unpasteurized juice was full of bacteria. But it didn’t matter; the juice people already had my money, and, being both stubborn and stupid, I decided to see the thing out.
So, the morning of the gym fart, I had just eaten my first breakfast after completing the cleanse: a container of Greek yogurt and a couple of kiwifruit.
With this data taken into consideration, I had to put myself right on top of my list of potential fart culprits. And that was scary, because I was a reasonably healthy thirty-year old man, or at least I had been one, prior to my juice cleanse. If I farted, I was usually the first person to know about it. The idea that something so singularly noxious could make a frictionless escape from my bowel was one I found extremely disquieting. It meant that I’d done some serious damage to my body.
I had a great aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. She lived, during her last years, in the dementia ward of an assisted-living complex. I remember going to visit her, and sometimes seeing one of the other residents, a man who had suffered a stroke. He’d lost motor control over half of his body, so the lid of his left eye and the left side of his mouth always drooped, slack and loose.
Maybe that was what my asshole looked like after the juice cleanse.
I imagined myself lying face-down on a hospital bed. A doctor entered the room, trailing a group of medical students, like a mother duck with a string of ducklings.
“Mr. Friedman presents with some interesting symptoms,” he said. “Can anyone identify this?”
A young, attractive woman, a dead ringer for Katherine Heigl, jumped up and down on the balls of her Croc-shod feet and raised her hand: “He’s had a butt-stroke,” she shouted.
Still jogging on the elliptical, my heart rate had begun to speed up, even though my pace was steady. I was thinking that I should cut my workout short and go to the drugstore. What would I ask them for, though? Some kind of ointment? A hand mirror? Maybe I should go to the emergency room. I was three miles into my run, with only one to go, so I decided to finish. But I promised myself that, if I experienced any more farts I couldn’t feel, I’d find myself a gastroenterologist, or something.
I didn’t, though. My ass turned out to be undamaged, which means that I was not responsible for the gym farts, after all. The real culprit got away. I think it was the ethnic guy. All I did was spend a lot of time sniffing at a stranger’s butt-gas, and thinking about it.
So, yay for me.