"I wouldn't want to mess with her," says my husband, eyeing a particularly muscular woman at the poolside. This instinctive nightmarish vision of having to defend himself - bar brawl style or perhaps in a dark alley - against this unsuspecting stranger, feels peculiarly male to me. Later my son steals her sons' toy and we get chatting. "You are in great shape," I tell her. "I take it you work out?" I almost expect her to say, "Well, duh!?" But instead she says warmly, "Thank you. Yes I do, it's my release. If I didn't work out I'd have anxiety. I really enjoy it." She tells me she works out every day. I try and appear knowledgeable on the subject despite my soft body and the calorific cocktail I'm nursing in a plastic cup. The truth is I do know quite a bit about transforming one's body because my father used to weight train religiously when I was younger, and I got into it myself in a big way after university. Years of drinking and unhealthy eating had taken their toll, and it took almost a year of hard work and daily dedication to shed the massive 55 pounds I had accrued. Me: "So you alternate muscle groups and cardio versus weights?" She nods, evidently impressed, and says she does.
I reflect on my own current exercise regime which consists of doing the school run - a total of 6 walks a day - in a hilly party of London with one small child in tow and another in the pushchair I am breathlessly hoiking around. By the looks of her thighs and washboard stomach, and mine which resemble misshapen lumps of dough, what I am doing is evidently not enough.
I like a muscular build on a woman, I see it and I appreciate all the hard work and dedication that's gone in to it, because I know what it takes to achieve something like that. So many Mars bars denied, so many hours working out - the self discipline is enviable. But more so she looks strong, healthy, and able to defend herself, which is what really appeals to me. Maybe I too somehow envisage the bar brawl or being jumped in a dark alley, and the idea of being able to surprise any potential attacker with my strength and stealth truly appeals. All fantasy material naturally, as I'd most likely scream for help or make a run for it as much as the next person. But still, it would be cool.
On the subject of surprises, I decided to surprise a friend of mine and fly to DC for his 40th birthday party last week. We have known each other for about 20 years now and I thought it might be nice for him to have some friends, or at least a friend, from his pre American life, apart from his lovely wife that is. This involved flying from West Palm Beach in Miami to the Ronald Reagan airport in Washington, approximately a 2.5 hour flight.
Given the fact that I travel frequently I should be more used to it, and I guess I am, but I don't like flying. It's not so much that I worry the plane will fall out of the sky, but I struggle to wrap my head around how such an enormous piece of machinery, plus passengers, plus all their bursting at the seams suitcases, manages to actually get up there in the first place. Whenever I check in, I look around at all the luggage people are checking in themselves, and it makes me very nervous. 'All that stuff, all that stuff must weigh a ton!' I think to myself. I am most nervous on take off, which I'm told is realistic given that's also when the plane has a full tank of gas. Thanks very much to whoever told me that - probably my husband.
So ahead of this particular flight I am doing my usual pre flight withdrawal thing; I retreat into my book and don't want to talk or be gregarious. But my American co travellers are gregarious and in high spirits, chatting away in the waiting area, especially as the flight has been delayed by about 40 minutes and then a further 20 or so thanks to the toilet on the plane being broken. They are an upbeat bunch, but connections are at risk and people are beginning to get nervous, so the talking and joking is elevated. I'm all for the toilet getting fixed: whatever it is, fix it, I don't care how long it takes. I'd rather wait longer and know that everything is working as it should. That's the fear talking.
In the seated area next to the gate, the man next to me is frenziedly shovelling something into his mouth, his head bobbing back and forth. I look over to see he is eating trail mix (a mixture of nuts, seeds and raisins). The woman opposite is reading her Kindle and has removed one shoe and sock and is twirling her foot this way and that.
'God, if I find myself in a 'Lost' situation I really don't want these people to be on an island with me', I think to myself. I am nervous and therefore intolerant. And I hate seeing people's feet, especially in an out of context situation such as this. She could be naked - it's feels the same to me, just very, I don't know, uncomfortable. And the audibly masticating man next to me is just annoying.
Once we board, my seat is right at the back of the plane, and my travelling companion is a woman in her mid to late 60's wearing a surgical mask - the kind that Chinese tourists wear when they have a cold. I greet her and then add, "Do you have a cold, or are you afraid of germs?" trying, and probably failing, to sound as friendly and upbeat as my co travellers. "I have cancer," she answers plainly, "and my kids have told me I should wear this because the air on planes is circulated over and over and I could catch something that would be bad for my immune system."
Me: "I'm really sorry to hear that."
She puts on ear phones and I take that as my cue to shut up and read my book.
The flight is bumpy - so bumpy that for the entire flight the seatbelt signs are on. I manage to order a small bottle of red wine and drink it hurriedly lest is spill all over the place, and of course, in the vain hope it might calm my nerves. I try and write a piece about a recent fellatio master class I attended (I'm not kidding) but then think a woman who is battling cancer may not want to read about penis hygiene in such close confines. So I shut my laptop and go back to reading about extremists and people who believe in such things as a secret organisation that runs the world. As an aside Jon Ronson's 'Them' is excellent, should you want to read about conspiracy theories of this kind.
30 minutes before landing and the woman next to me is getting angsty, she removes her mask, and asks the flight attendant to please enquire about her connection and if she is going to be OK. Five minutes pass and it appears as if he's forgotten so she asks him again, and then adds: "I am burying my husband tomorrow in Buffalo and I cannot miss my flight."
Me: Your husband? What happened?
Her: He died and he is orthodox and he has to be buried with his people up there, even though we live in Miami. So I flew him over
Me: God I am so sorry. What did he die from?
Me: (Incredulous) So you both have cancer?
Her: Yes, I think I got mine worrying about him being sick. He fought it for five years but we weren't lucky
Me: (Swallowing), My goodness, I am very very sorry, you've been through so much
Her: Thank you, yes, I have. But I cannot miss my connection today. I should have flown out with him yesterday
I imagine this woman dealing with all this fear and tragedy and having to bury her husband in a strange place - certainly far away from her and her children, and I feel an enormous sense of loss and sadness. Irrespective of how upbeat and hopeful I like to be in order to cope and keep the shadows at bay, sometimes I have to concede that life can be a terribly unfair bitch.
Fast forward a few days and I am back at our resort, chatting to a grandmother at the pool, who is there to help look after her 8-month-old granddaughter while the father is at a conference at the hotel and the mother is back in Kansas heavily pregnant. Her and I chat about children and how taking your grandchildren on holiday is such a brilliant idea if you have to babysit for an extended period of time, and then something, or rather, someone, jolts our attention away.
A man looking exactly, and not just a bit, but exactly as though he has just stepped off of the cover of Men's Health magazine saunters into our vision and joins the aforementioned well toned muscular woman and her kids at the pool. Obviously if he was going to be anyone's husband, he was was going to be hers, and I realise the gym is evidently a shared passion of theirs. He starts talking on his mobile phone, ever so slightly turned at the waist, and every conceivable muscle in his body is bulging and shining in the afternoon sun. I pretend to read my book and then look over at he grandmother who is not pretending to do anything other than stare. And you do stare, because seeing someone so physically perfect is a rarity and it's, well, a thing of beauty and wonder. Another man, a father watching his kids in the pool, eyes the Men's Health guy and then instinctively crosses his arms across his chest. My husband, lying next to me, says: "I think I need to get back to exercising again." But this time there is no mention of messing with anyone.