Straight back. Knees slightly bent. Abdomen tight. I strain, lifting the iron plates off the floor for the last time. Warm red tension floods my hamstrings, starting at my heels and climbing my back. A short "hup!" involuntarily sneaks out between my teeth. Pause. Lower. The plates ring. I sit.
“Nice lifts eh? Take it easy,” says Pedro.
I’ve seen Pedro several times a week for nearly 10 years. I don’t know his last name. I don’t know what he does for a living, his taste in music, whether he has a wife, children, or a full time job. I know he benches 225 (which isn’t bad for a guy who must weigh 160 pounds soaking wet). I know he has unbelievable abs, but can’t squat his own weight.
“See you Friday,” he concludes. He raises his hand: a casual, shy wave.
Inexplicably, I raise my hand.
From this position -- two men, with hands raised -- there are only two alternatives. Either one of us swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or we must, by law, continue with the forward motion and give each other a high five.
And so, it happens. An accidental high five. Even worse, this foreign high five descends into a thumb-locked faux-bro handshake.
“Uh, yeah, see ya,” I say.
Awkward silence. We do not make eye contact. He says nothing more. He heads towards the door, pulls on his red, wool balaclava, and leaves.
Sitting on the frayed black vinyl of the weight bench, squirming with awkwardness, I replay the event like security camera footage, trying to decipher where this breakdown in boundaries occurred — what path of social retrograde has allowed me to deliver the accidental high five, followed by the faux-bro handshake. Why is the exchange so awkward? Or perhaps more importantly, why did it seem so natural for me to engender that high-five, where it clearly broke some unspoken rule.
I blame “Woot!”
The phrase “Woot!” burrowed itself into my common lexicon in the course of my deep, deep Counter-Strike addiction. Woot. The first time someone typed “\/\/00t!" in team chat, I didn’t need an explanation. I understood instinctively that this was a virtual post-touchdown high-five, given after the complete domination of another clan in an organized, best of 5 maps marathon.
Since those days — almost a decade ago — the cult-of-woot has extended into every game I’ve ever played online. Every level I make in World of Warcraft, whether it’s level 10, or level 50, has been greeted by a quickly typed “Grats” from guild members I have never, and will never meet in person. Every online game of Settlers of Catan where I have managed to eek out a screw-my-neighbor victory has garnered a “well played sir” or a “you slimy bastard” — high praise when coming from a friend. Even in games where I am cripplingly bad, forever trapped in the back of the bus with Elliot-the-fat-kid-with-glasses-who-eats-paste, there are rare moments when I float gently off the bottom of the scoreboard, and I can crow to my teammates “I’m not last!” They will casually support me, whispering "good going Rabbit" in my ear.
Playing games gives me something all too absent from my day-to-day life: a sense of acknowledged accomplishment. When I do play a game online, and I am, against all odds, successful, there is a culture of communal praise which is addictive. With the expanded community of the internet, where the discussion, reveling, and dissection of alternate worlds has become as natural as breathing, even single player games become stories told to sympathetic ears. Journeys through nuclear wastelands and underwater cities and ASCII fortresses become war-tales to be swapped across glasses of scotch on podcasts and forums. Phosphorous-fives fly high, without awkward looks, remorse or regret.
As I sit there on the weight bench, head bowed in shame, staring at the frayed black vinyl and my sweaty palms, with no small amount of sadness, I understand. I have come to take for granted the ethereal support of fellow warriors, travelers, companions and opponents. I have come to rely on the social rituals of gaming so much that I have lost my instinctive understanding of shared-but-solitary gym language, where acknowledgment is limited to a knowing nod, or mediated through the ritual of asking for a spot.
As Pedro walked by, my instinct was honed by online interactions, not physical ones. I have come to expect the constant, empty praise which serves as small talk. But there is no room in the physical world to reward every well executed Romanian dead lift with “woot.”
Instead, I am stuck with the sharp awkwardness of the accidental high five.