The Wrong Shoes

Kate Howard

© Copyright 2018 by Kate Howard

Photo of Kate's shoes.

Three days in the life of a gym membership. After many years of a sedentary lifestyle (and several hundred bottles of wine) I decide to go to the gym and lose some weight. But it’s a lost cause from the outset. 

I realise I have been saying this for years, but this time I really am going to do it! I am starting at the gym tomorrow, without fail.


It’s six o’clock and I am up early for my first day, ready for it. Not that I am sure what “it” is, although I have the feeling that losing weight and getting fit can’t be that difficult. Can it? I have smoked salmon and fresh fruit for breakfast instead of my usual sugary tea and far more chocolate biscuits than could possibly be healthy. Cleaning my teeth, I wonder if the salmon was such a great idea…it’s full of fat, isn’t it? And why did I eat the salmon first and then the fruit…aren’t you supposed to eat fruit first? I feel like giving up already and have a piece of chocolate just to cheer myself up.

The gym is only five minutes’ walk from home. No point in taking a taxi, then. Unfortunately. I ring the doorbell labelled “gimnasio” and, when the buzzer sounds, push wildly on the left of the glass door. It doesn’t budge. Maybe this alone is a test of strength? I ring the bell again and wait for the buzzer. They seem to be taking their time to open the door. Perhaps they are staring, amused, into the video camera and wondering if someone who can’t read is really a suitable customer. I stand back and discover that a white card stuck to the door clearly says, “Push on the right hand side”. Once in, I can see a young girl leaning over the bannisters …about four floors up. She is sorry, apparently, that the lift isn’t working.

I am half way up the stairs when her head appears again, maybe wondering if I have given up. “You OK?” she says brightly. I can’t speak but nod and wave cheerily, wondering if I’ll need an ambulance. After a pause at each landing, to catch my breath, I arrive at the reception desk and collapse into the first chair I see. The girl introduces herself as Alicia, the receptionist. Looks like she could run up and down the stairs ten times and not even notice it. She is slim but muscular with sparkly eyes and long blonde hair. Her beautiful skin is tanned with just a sprinkling of freckles. “Morning!” I hear. This turns out to be Jordi, the trainer. He’s about twice Alicia’s age but still much younger than me, and clearly has his eye on her. Something about the way he stares at her and winks as she is asking me to fill in the forms. I have no idea what awaits me but, having narrowly cheated death on the stairs, decide to sign up for the first month.

Jordi coughs loudly and lights another cigarette. What am I planning to wear, he asks. I hold up a pair of shorts and a golf shirt. He shakes his head. The shorts aren’t right. You’ll need leggings, he says. Luckily, they just happen to be selling these. I also need a long, loose T-shirt. How handy that they have one of those, too! Looks like the workout has started already, for my credit card that is. My shoes, of course, won’t do at all. Now I really look at them, I can see why. They are old plimsolls that might have been white once upon a time. I tell Jordi I’ll wash them, but can see that he would prefer I bought the shiny new ones that are on show behind the desk. Can I come back, he asks, for the first exercise class? It starts in an hour.

I get home and give the shoes a quick scrub. This makes them worse than ever. I promise them a turn in the washing machine in time for the next day and leave them in front of the machine as a reminder. I have another pair somewhere. Ah! There they are, in a tasteful leopard-skin print that will almost certainly be found unsuitable. I wonder what to do for twenty minutes before I have to set out again. The struggle to climb the stairs at the gym has used up my meagre reserves of calories; or that’s how I explain it to myself as I make a ham sandwich. You don’t expect me to throw the ham out, do you? Or the chocolate bar for that matter…

I’m back at the gym and (this time) push on the right-hand side of the door. I take the stairs very slowly, stopping at each landing and taking a bite of cheese. Can’t be too careful, I tell myself. I’ll need plenty of energy for the exercise class. After a few minutes sitting in the changing room (trying and failing to work up some form of enthusiasm), I put on the leggings, T-shirt, and shoes. As I go out, I catch sight of myself in the mirror next to the door. My spirits sink. What on earth do I look like?

Alicia points me in the direction of the classroom. There’s Jordi at the front, smoking and choking at the same time. He points me to a rubber mat on the floor and tells me to sit for a moment. Wonder why there’s so much pointing all of a sudden? Have they decided I won’t be able to communicate in Spanish? Perhaps Jordi wants to see if I can, actually, manage to get down to the floor but can’t say so without laughing. There are only five other people in my group, mainly older ladies and none of them very talkative. I explain to one of them that I have signed up because want to lose weight. She suggests eating less. The other ladies are listening in, and they suggest liposuction. No one seems to think exercise will have any direct effect. Great.

Jordi is admiring his own reflection in the window. He remakes his ponytail, lights another cigarette, and tells me to join in with the exercises. I manage to do this (with a lamentable lack of co-ordination) for about fifteen minutes, until a sudden flash of pain leaves me gasping on the floor: I have wrenched something in my leg. After a rest, although still in pain, I am ready to join in again but Jordi, who doesn’t seem in the least surprised, says: “Come at 9.30 tomorrow”. I’ll create an easy exercise programme specially for you.”

I get home, shower, and work for a while. My legs ache and my stomach sounds as if I have swallowed a motorbike. Opening the fridge I am amazed at how everything, even leftover pizza, looks so enticing. After the pizza, I graze on a chicken salad, and devour a chocolate mousse. Oh dear.


The shoes I washed are, of course, not dry this morning and make squelching noises when I walk so I take the ones I wore yesterday again. Alicia tells me Jordi hasn’t arrived yet but has left instructions for me to start on the exercise bike. She sets the speed to that of an arthritic snail. That’s when I realise that my shoes are too thickly padded and won’t fit into the pedal stays. I spend twenty minutes trying to peddle with the tips of my shoes before I discover that the stays on the pedals are made of Velcro and can be adjusted. I am hoping no one has seen this… but when I turn round, there’s Jordi standing at the back of the room, stifling a guffaw. Why does no one ever tell me anything?

Jordi explains the special programme he is assigning me. Can’t be that difficult, surely? This is a fine example of Famous Last Words. He sets several exercises for me, all of which are complicated in the extreme and a challenge to the memory. He scrawls them, in Catalan, on a card and tells me to get going. He then walks off with the card. Almost immediately, I can't remember how all the different exercises go and the way to do them to best effect. Was it fifteen lifts with fifteen kilos or twenty-five lifts with twenty-five kilos? Naturally, I choose the former.

After ten minutes on the boring bike, I move on to the rowing rack. Must remember to bring music tomorrow! Next is the five-kilo bar. You have to lift it forty, yes, forty times. It’s heavier than you would ever think possible and gets heavier with each lift. Then it’s forty lifts with a ten-kilo bar, with the added fun of keeping your neck straight. You think that’s bad? What about the next twenty-five lifts with a fifteen-kilo bar then, after resting for two minutes (I really need two hours) another twenty-five lifts? Think you’re finished? Not a chance. Next, it’s ten sit-ups on the floor mat… oh, and then another 40. You get to rest, at last…. hanging upside down like a bat on the parallel bars. This may be great for the spine, but is probably not so good for the skull if the worst happens.

As I leave for home, I notice a prominent sign at the desk requesting that clean white shoes be worn in the gymnasium at all times. Have they, I wonder, put up the notice that very day, especially for me? Jordi puts my card in the file box on the front desk and says I can follow the programme as often as I like until further notice. I might even, he says, be able to join a beginners’ exercise class in September. It’s now June…

I arrive home exhausted and get into a very cool shower, then put on a robe and wrap my hair in a white towel. The result is comical; the mirror shows a face the colour of ripe strawberries and the towel looks like a layer of whipped cream on the top. I can’t even laugh at myself but, actually, feel like crying. I snack on walnuts and raisins and just one little chocolate bar... this is so much better than my usual performance that I forgive myself.


It's chocolate cereal and a banana for breakfast. After all, you need to eat a lot to have plenty of energy for the gym, don’t you? (Perhaps not quite as much as I seem to be eating, however.) I walk over to the gym, get changed, and take my exercise card from the box. There are quite a few of the exercises I still don’t understand but, determined to try my best, I tackle the first one on the list. The excuse, "at least I'm trying" doesn't seem to work here. Jordi watches me for a while, stubs out his cigarette with a sigh, then frowns and asks me if I realise it is better not to exercise at all than to do it all wrong? I can’t tell him it’s because I can’t read his handwriting on the card; that would be insulting. So I tell him that it would help me to have the instructions written in Spanish rather than Catalan. Probably a red-hot nationalist and in favour of independence for Catalonia, he looks both amazed and affronted at once. Perhaps the handwriting excuse would have been better.

There are just two other people here this morning, a lady of about forty, and an older gent. Ten minutes later, a very fit sixty-year old man comes in, settles on the floor and shows us how the exercises should really be done. In despair, I decide to give up on the floor exercises and start on the exercise bike again. I have brought along a portable CD player and headphones to relieve the boredom. I put the player on the floor, plug in my earphones, climb into the saddle, and start to peddle. In next to no time, I am almost strangled; the earphone cables wound around the pedals like an electronic cat’s cradle. I manage to save my own life and get untangled, hoping that no one has seen it all but I am sure I hear a snort and a hoot of laughter from the next room…probably Jordi and Alicia. Secretly, I am considering buying a skipping rope and a mat so I can exercise at home instead of paying good money to go through this purgatory. Maybe gyms make most of their money from people who give up in the first month?

I have only been home a few minutes when the phone rings. It's Alicia.

Tienes una alpargata?” she says.

She is asking if I have a shoe. What? Then, I realise, what she is really asking is if I have taken someone else’s shoe with me by mistake.

I don't think so, I say. “What sort of idiot would do that?” I ask, under my breath.

I am upstairs and tempted not to go downstairs, find my bag and have a look... but I do go in the end. To my horror, I find a shoe that's not mine! I have no idea how it got there. I apologise profusely and say I'll be at the gym in five minutes. When I get there, the barefoot lady in the reception is not amused, and Alicia is more puzzled than ever.

And the other one? they say in chorus.

I don't believe it! To me, "una alpargata" sounds like "one shoe". I should have realised that they meant a pair of shoes. I run back home and find the other shoe at the bottom of my bag, hidden under my T-shirt, and race back to the gym again. I have run past the delicatessen on the corner twice now, carrying just one shoe each time. Mr. Moses, the owner, looks confused. It’s as if he can't quite work out whether I am lost … or if I habitually carry a shoe when I am out for a run.

I decide that going to the gym is very similar to being on a diet. The best day is the third day. You’ve given up by then. Now where did I put the chocolate fudge cake?

Kate is a Brit who went to live in Barcelona in 1979. She taught English at a school for a couple of years then, having learned enough Spanish to survive, set up on her own. She had intended to stay for one or two years but is still there, 38 years later, loving every moment of life in this beautiful, vibrant city.  Photo of Kate.

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