I Learned Everything I Needed to Know About Love When My Family Bought a Health Club

"'Love is when you look at someone and stars come out of your eyes.' Just, gag."
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Lisa Kirchner
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"'Love is when you look at someone and stars come out of your eyes.' Just, gag."

In 1979, shortly after we moved to Pittsburgh, the Steel Curtain claimed victory in Super Bowl XIII, I turned 13, and my father ditched his career as a metallurgical engineer to buy a health club. I had no idea how significant this all would become in my search for love.

I never would've guessed my parents would become rabid Steelers fans that day we shellacked a cypress tree slice we’d picked up down in Florida, but that table still bears the bubbles of our jubilation, trapped inside the layer of epoxy we forgot while celebrating. That my teen years would be rocky may’ve been foreshadowed by the fact that I’d already begun sneaking drinks from my parents’ liquor cabinet. But the idea that the gym would tie our family to Pittsburgh never crossed my mind. Prior to this, we’d moved almost every year of my life, riding the rust-belt around its declining suburbs. “Hell,” as Mom described it. “Without the amenity of sidewalks.”

And while sure, it may seem now my dad was visionary to get into fitness, there were people in that era who did not don sweatbands, specifically the people in my family. I can still picture Mom, her elbows propped on the gym’s glass counter over high-priced racquetball racquets and kidskin gloves. “Your father knew I didn’t like to exercise when he met me,” she’d say, before taking a deep drag on her Kent king.

Their fights were private but not unknown to us. “Heat this for dinner,” became a common Mom refrain. “I have to go to The Club because your father can’t figure out payroll. Again.”

“Why don’t you just leave him?” I started asking in my teens, I couldn’t imagine being trapped like that. In my youth I didn’t factor in love.

“I spotted your mother across the dance hall,” Dad would muse when I asked how he knew she was The Right One. “And I was a goner.”

It’s true they were a handsome couple — Dad, was the classic six foot two, eyes of blue, but Mom — with her thick shock of dark hair and cheekbones that wouldn’t melt butter — was a world unto herself. She wasn’t like other moms. “I wish I never had children,” she occasionally let slip.

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If marriage was about finding the one person you’d learn to hate more than anyone, and staying anyway, it wasn’t for me. I’d forge my own kind of love.

When I started dating, however, it quickly became clear any wisdom I thought I’d learned was useless. Like, “love means never having to say you're sorry.” Please. I couldn’t get through a day without guilt and remorse let alone an entire relationship. Or, “make him wait for it.” God forbid I didn’t want to sleep with him right away, or worse, that it wasn’t any good. And obviously this one was out, “love is when you look at someone and stars come out of your eyes.” Just, gag.

So I focused on making my life dependence-proof. I racked up a career, a house, and enough good friends to feel I’d succeeded when I met the man who would become my husband — a journalist with a love of travel. Our taste in books and music and all things arty was in sync. Best of all, even when we disagreed we didn’t fight. So when my other half expressed a vague interest in reporting from the Muslim world, I didn’t so much want to go, but I did see the possibilities for his career. This was nothing like my mother traipsing after my father, I found the job that got us to Qatar.

Nonetheless, I did get stuck — albeit in a different way. It took me a year to escape after my beloved blindsided me by ending our marriage over the phone. From another country. For a time I moved back to my parents’ basement, still in that suburb of Pittsburgh. “Mary,” I heard my dad yell in frustration one morning, demanding she help him find something before he went to that health club. Maybe there was something in the idea of learning to hate, or at least argue.

Then life, like love, showed us its way of marching on without regard for collateral damage. Shortly after I returned from the Persian Gulf but long since she’d quit smoking, Mom was diagnosed with end-stage cancer. Dad, who previously couldn't find a spoon in his own kitchen, started waiting on Mom like a baby bird. Once I tried to hand her a cup of tea he’d prepared, only to watch him march a wide circle around me to hand it over himself. I resolved to call her every day until the end.

I couldn’t help but notice, Mom seemed to like the attention that came with the diagnosis. Am in ER again. Love, Mom. Went her first text, a long-form affair with numbers for letters on a flip phone. At 66, she got on social media. She lived another seven years.

During that time we did speak most days, and I was even able to approach her occasionally as a woman at the end of her life instead of Mom, the very thing she’d tried to show me all along. Love was the magic of fingertips whispering, yes, but also the alchemy of forgiving a partner who fails to learn their payroll system, or who may be happy as an alt-newsweekly journalist. Expectations were the trap.

Finally it was just the two of us, me and mom alone in a room. The moment came and she looked right at me. And stars came out of her eyes.