Snow is general all over New York City. Here is very short story number thirty-one in a weekly series of fifty-two. Thank you for reading.
Olivia had just gotten a coffee and was trudging to work. She hated her job and dreaded going to it each morning. She looked up and saw an old bent-over woman with white hair walking toward her. The old woman was staring at Olivia and looked deranged. Olivia looked away and tried to hurry past but the woman said, “Where are you going?” “Excuse me?” “Where are you going?” “To my job.” “Where do you work?” “Fit Woman! magazine.” “Oh, I love that magazine!” said the bent and limping crone who looked as if five minutes of the kind of exercise prescribed in Fit Woman! would kill her. “It’s awful,” Olivia said. “Why?” the woman asked. “Well, aside from the murderous office politics, there’re the cover models, mostly anorexic women whose faces have been digitally altered to look as if they’ve received skin grafts from the asses of newborn babies held under tanning lamps for twelve hours each. And what the manically perky ‘Ladies, you can do it!’ copy in the magazine is really telling you is that unless you exercise for two hours a day and eat only kale and have two percent body fat and a five-minute orgasm every night produced by your boyfriend or husband’s dexterous fingers and larger-than-average cock, you’re not really living. All in all it makes me wish I was a man.” The old woman looked at her gravely. “My dear, you must come with me.” Her bony hand clamped down so hard on Olivia’s fingers that she thought they were sprained. She led Olivia down the stairs of the nearest subway station, walked her to the end of the platform, helped her down a ladder onto the track, and guided her for some time through the foul-smelling darkness of the subway tunnel. The old woman opened a door in the wall of the tunnel that led to several flights of metal stairs, at the bottom of which there was another door. She pushed it open onto an enormous, high-ceilinged, softly lit room that smelled of lavender. There were hundreds of women in the room of varying ages, body types, and ethnicities. They were exercising, cooking, baking, knitting, sewing, building furniture, giving and receiving medical exams, reading and writing. Positioned throughout the room were numerous rotating magazine display racks filled top to bottom with issues of Fit Woman! spanning its entire history. “What is going on here?” Olivia asked. “Some years ago,” the old woman said, “I and a group of my friends discovered to our surprise that each of us loved to read Fit Woman!, and that we had all been doing so secretly and with embarrassment. We decided to be embarrassed no longer, and to join together to follow the exercise regimens and execute the recipes and take the medical and sexual advice and create the crafts written about in this excellent magazine, and to do so collectively rather than singly, because in collectivity there is power. Thus was born The Fit Woman! Underground!” “And what in God’s name is the point?” “The point is to follow the precepts put down in each issue of the magazine for a richer, happier, more meaningful life.” “But what about the impossibly skinny, toned, beautiful, wrinkle-free models in wildly expensive workout clothes who populate the magazine’s pages?” Olivia asked the woman, in whose face time had made one deep crease for every year she’d been alive. “They are our gods.” “What?!” “Do Christians feel oppressed by the goodness of Jesus? Do Buddhists or Muslims feel hopelessly inadequate in comparison to the Buddha and Muhammad? No, they understand them to be aspirational figures.” “But I’m telling you, these models have eating disorders and smoke cigarettes and their so-called physical flaws are digitally eliminated before the magazine goes to press.” “Just so. If you read all the accounts of Jesus that were edited out of the finalized version of the New Testament, you find a complicated, contradictory, and sometimes quite mean-spirited man. But that is not the one believers choose to worship.” “So this is a religion?” “No, I speak of Jesus and the others only by way of analogy.” “Why did you bring me here?” “We’ve been following your work since you arrived at the magazine a year and a half ago. We think it’s been superb. The articles you commission, your re-writes of them, the captions you produce for the photos, your sidebars and headlines, all have been very important to a great many women. You work so hard, the pay is low, your family doesn’t respect what you do, your love life has atrophied, and your doubt about the value of your work causes you real suffering, so we thought it was time to intervene, to give you the love and support you fully deserve, to make your life better.” “You’ve made it worse!” Olivia said. “I feel like tearing my hair out!” “But you won’t, since you yourself assigned and edited the article on the perils of hair tearing,” the old woman said, and winked at Olivia. “Go,” she added. “Go to your office. I’ve already made you late and you mustn’t lose your job. Come back on the weekend, we’re always here. You’ll be treated like a queen, and after a day with us you’ll feel great.” “After thirty minutes with you I feel frightened and sick to my stomach. I’m never coming back here.” “As you wish,” said the old woman, and smiled warmly at her. Olivia turned and pushed open the door she’d entered by. When it closed behind her she was surrounded by darkness. She felt her way to the stairs and began to climb them, clenching the muscles of her buttocks with each upward step, just as a fitness instructor in an article for the magazine had exhorted all women to do.