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“Hi!” Nik echoed her. “Does this time still work?”

Natalie nodded and waved her inside.

“Yes, sure, of course. Close the door so we can talk. I told Jamila I’ll be busy for the next hour and to only interrupt if it’s an emergency.”

“Great.” Nik sat down, took out her phone and recorder, and flicked them both to record. She always had a duplicate now, just in case. “Before we start, I want to make sure that it’s okay that I record our conversation so that I can make sure to be accurate when I write about this.”

Natalie glanced down at the recording devices and swallowed hard.

“Sure, yes, of course.”

Nik took her notebook out of her bag but didn’t open it yet.

“You know, Natalie,” she said, “you don’t know me that well. So it makes sense that you wouldn’t really trust me yet.” Natalie tried to cut in, but she kept talking. “It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt my feelings that you don’t trust me. A lot of people have reasons not to trust writers or strangers or anyone at all. I can tell that you’re nervous about this interview. Lots of people don’t like being interviewed—it’s normal to be anxious. But please know I’m not trying to trick you or do some gotcha piece about your gym or anything like that. I’m not that kind of person, and I’m not that kind of writer.”

Natalie looked straight at Nik the whole time she was talking. When she stopped, Natalie slowly lowered her hands onto the table.

“I know,” she said. “I mean, I knew all of that, about you. Mostly because of Dana, but it still helps to have you say it.”

“Good.” Nik smiled back at her. “Speaking of Dana, if there’s anything you say to me today that you want to be off the record, please know that I wouldn’t tell her about it.”

Natalie’s smile was faint, but it was there.

“Thank you for saying that.”

Nik opened her notebook to her list of questions.

“Why don’t we get started? I stumbled upon your gym kind of accidentally—I was searching for a self-defense class to take with my girlfriends, and your Punch Like a Girl series happened to start just a few days later, so I booked it on an impulse. I’d never even heard of your gym before, but it already has a very loyal clientele. Where did you get the idea to start this gym? How long have you been around?”

Natalie’s smile was stronger now.

“Just over a year. I know it’s pretty young for a gym, but I feel like I managed to tap into a need that was out there—a place for women of all kinds to feel supported and comfortable within their own skin, but more than just that, a place that could make all of us feel stronger, both inside and outside, and allow us to face our fears. A lot of people are afraid of the gym, and I hate that. I wanted this to be a place that people would look forward to going to, where people could be excited about working out and exercising, without the fear and shame and ridicule.”

She’d gotten more animated and comfortable as she talked, and Nik hoped she stayed like that.

“Well, at least from my point of view, as someone who has always hated gyms, you’ve succeeded,” Nik said. “Why don’t we back up a little—how long had you wanted to open a gym? Have you worked at gyms in the past?”

“Oh God, I feel like I’ve spent my life in gyms,” Natalie said. “I was a cheerleader in college, which meant I worked out a ton.”

Nik laughed.

“Of course you were a cheerleader in college. I should have known.” She paused. “That’s a compliment of your teaching style, by the way. I’ve never had someone cheer me on so well for anything.”

Natalie’s cheeks got bright red, but she looked pleased. She was more relaxed now. Maybe it had been just nerves about being interviewed.

“That’s so good to hear. Thank you. And then I graduated from college during a time when it was impossible to find a job. I was a math major.” Nik managed to keep her face from looking surprised, but barely. And then she wanted to smack herself. Why was she still underestimating this woman, just because of what she looked like? “And I was looking for jobs in business or consulting or even teaching, and there was nothing. So to pay my rent, I got a job working at the front desk of the gym near me. After a while, I got curious about what the personal trainers did, so I started asking one of them a bunch of questions about her job: how she got it, what the certification was like, all that stuff. And eventually, I took the plunge.”

As Natalie told her all about her personal training certification she seemed to be getting more relaxed.

“I was one of the top trainers by the time I left. My parents kept asking me if I was going to get a different job, go corporate, maybe go to business school. But I really loved my job. And I was good at it.”

Nik nodded.

“I bet you were. I’ve had trainers before, and none of them were even half as good as one of your classes.” It helped to flatter sources during interviews, but this had the benefit of being true. “Why did you leave the gym?”

Natalie turned to her glass of green juice again, but not before Nik saw that her eyes had filled with tears.

“I got married. One of my clients.” She shrugged. She still looked down at her juice. “Such a cliché, I know.”

Nik shrugged along with her.

“Clichés wouldn’t be clichés if they didn’t happen all the time.” Of course the whole problem was the husband. “So . . . why did you leave the gym after getting married? Did you decide to go to grad school after all?”

She shook her head. She still had tears in her eyes, but she was looking straight ahead now.

“No. My husband didn’t think it was appropriate for me to keep working as a trainer after we were married. He said there would be too much touching other people; he knew I was bi, and he said he didn’t have a problem with it, but it meant that working with women was a problem for him, too. So I quit.” Nik raised her eyebrows but didn’t ask a question. Natalie answered it anyway. “I know what you’re going to say. Before I met him, I would have said the same thing. I didn’t . . . by the time we were married, he’d convinced me of a lot of things. He said my job now was to take care of our house and him and that he’d take care of supporting me. I thought that was so sweet.”

Sweet was one word for that.

“When did you stop thinking it was sweet?” she asked.

Natalie put her hand over her eyes for a second. She put it down and sat up straighter.

“I’m sorry. I don’t usually talk about this.”

Nik reached across the table and touched her hand.

“No need to apologize. You’re doing great, so great.”

Natalie smiled faintly.

“You sound like me when you say that.”

Nik squeezed her hand, then let go.

“What can I say? I learned from the best.”

Natalie’s smile got a little bigger and then faded.

“What did you ask? When did I stop thinking it was sweet? It took a while.” She shook her head. “That’s not true. I don’t think I ever thought it was sweet. But somehow I’d stopped trusting myself and my feelings.”

Nik let out a deep breath. That sounded all too familiar.

“When I told him I missed the gym, he yelled at me for being ungrateful, and I thought he was right. But I really hated not having my own money. We had a joint bank account, and whenever I bought anything, he asked me a million questions about it, so eventually I just stopped buying things other than groceries. Sometimes I would get cash back and hide the cash.”

Natalie picked up a piece of paper from her desk, crumpled it into a ball, and straightened it out.

“But I thought all of that was normal and showed how much he loved me. There are all of those commercials and things in women’s magazines about hiding things you buy from your husband. They always make it seem like a thing all women do, that it’s a joke we’re all in together. So I didn’t think having to sneak around to buy new sports bras was a big deal.”

She sighed and took a deep breath. Nik thought about all of the articles and ads she’d seen that had made that exact joke. Good God, sometimes it felt like all of society was complicit in trying to make life harder for women.

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