The three little girls were standing in their wet swimsuits, giggling and covering their mouths. They were reading the large sign that had just been installed in the women's locker room: Sexual Behavior Is Inappropriate and Will Result in Immediate Loss of Membership.
I stood behind them, looking at the sign as well. This was no discreet warning -- no tiny print, no "thank you for your cooperation" -- and, located in the high traffic area between the girls' and the women's locker room, there was no way you could miss it. One girl wearing a neon purple suit cupped her hands around the first three words of the sign. The other two burst into high-pitched squeals, and they shrieked and pattered their way toward the showers.
I too felt like a little girl looking at that sign. It held such mystery. Why was it here? What happened? What have people been doing? Where? When? Who? A woman emerged from the fog of the steam room, a towel around her waist, and looked at it as well. We exchanged shrugs.
"What's the deal with those signs?" I heard one of my teammates ask a few weeks later. We were at a triathlon club dinner, and our coach Nina rolled her eyes heavenward.
"It happens," she said in her typically staccato style. "All the time. People complain. Had to put 'em up."
Thirty of us women turned our attention down to that end of the table. We'd taken over the entire restaurant and had been chattering away, devouring every piece of bread available, but suddenly the individual conversations paused and we were silent, listening. "Well, go on," Catherine prodded.
"Sex," Nina said. "Like the sign says."
We waited. "What kind of sex?" another one of the Catherines asked.
"Sex sex." Nina chewed on a piece of bread and looked at the 60 eyes turned to her. Seeing she wasn't going to be able to cut us off the way she could at the track if we complained about an interval session, she sat back in her chair. "OK, well, put it this way: We get a complaint at least once every two to three weeks about people having sex in the locker room. Then some member gets on the phone and screams. Happens a lot."
"Wow," one of the Jennifers said, fascinated. "What do they do?"
Nina looked at her. "Throw 'em out, what do you think?"
"No, not what does the gym do -- what are the people doing?"
"There was this man who came storming into the staff area," Nina said, obviously warming up to her subject, "dressed in full leather. Hat, boots, whole deal. 'I am a gay man!' he said. The staff all sat there, like, 'Well, OK.' He's like, 'I am a gay man! I love sex! And it is completely inappropriate what's happening in the sauna and steam room!'"
"So this is happening in the men's locker room," another Jennifer said.
"Only the men's locker room," Nina said. "Never the women's."
"Never?" I said.
Nina scratched her tightly pony-tailed head, bored now. "Not in the time since I've been there."
"Why do you have the sign in the women's locker room, then?" I asked.
She sighed. "Well, we can't be sexist, can we? We've already been accused of homophobia for putting those signs up. Now, does anyone need some Sport Slick? It doesn't help get your wet suit off but I have samples --"
We all shouted her down. "What else happens?" "What are they doing?" "Do they really get their membership taken away?"
"For God's sake, you guys," Nina said, exasperated. "It's not just our gym. It happens everywhere."
"Everywhere?" I said.
The next morning I made a few phone calls. "Never!" a rival gym spokesman exploded. "Never! Never! Never!"
"OK," I said. "Just asking."
"Never! Are you taping this?"
"No," I said. "I'm writing it down. So far I have 'Never times 5.'"
"We have a zero tolerance for behavior such as that," he said. "Membership is immediately canceled."
"Well, it has happened, then."
"We do not tolerate it," he said.
"I understand that."
I heard him close a door. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Of course men are having sex in the locker room. They're men. It's San Francisco. But they're not supposed to. Don't you dare say our gym's name. I'll deny it all anyway."
"I won't," I said cheerfully, as my call waiting beeped. "Goodbye and thank you." I clicked over.
"Hi, how's it going?" Q. said.
"Have you ever had sex in your gym locker room?" I asked.
He paused. "No. That's more of a gay thing."
"Didn't you used to work in a gym? Did you ever hear about it?"
"No. But it was Dublin and --"
"Say no more," I said. I was thinking about lying on the ledge in the steam room, surrounded by naked women in my tri club, all of us bitching and moaning about tight hamstrings and cold water swims and feeling tired all the time. The atmosphere could be described as many things, but sexy was not one of them.
"Oh, wait a minute," he said. "Actually, I have. After hours, when we were closed. It was in the steam room. Lots of baby oil, and all the steam -- yeah, it was nice actually. You can't do it in the sauna because the air is too dry. But this was a long time ago."
It did sound rather pleasant, the way he described it. "This has just never occurred to us women," I said. "It wasn't until the sign went up that most of us had ever thought about it at all." I paused, thinking. "Now, this experience you had in the steam room. Was that with a woman or a man?"
"Goodbye." Q. said this mildly but firmly. Obviously I'd crossed a line. "Why don't you call me later?"
"Why is everyone getting so huffy about this?" I said. "Is it because we're talking about gay sex? Actually, from the way you describe it, I'm surprised more women aren't having sex in the steam room. Isn't it funny that it's a guy thing? And if you saw these signs, they really get you thinking --"
But he'd already signed off.