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May 1, 2009 | Fiction

How I Run

Sean Lovelace

How I Run photo

I don't dream at all unless napping. I've probably had three naps in my lifetime. When I sit at my desk my legs snap in the breeze. They tingle and flicker. They want to do something. A metabolism thing, I suppose.

I was drinking white wine. Daniel was on my laptop, playing a video game. He said, "I shot a buck and a doe, mom. I want you to shoot the bear." He is frightened of the bear on the video game. I thought,If I drink one more glass I won't be able to run today. Outside the sleet scratching at the windows. Pacing the roof. But I own a treadmill, the serious type, made for health clubs, where the belts and rotors never do stop.

You need this: two shoes, an unraveling line. Now just fall forward.

I never wanted a second child, which was very, very clear. Directly stated, before the marriage. Then one day, in the fading light before sleep, my husband said, "Another baby, or divorce. I need this." I thought a moment, teetering on a sharpened edge, in the dark, my hands open and grasping. April is something. I keep staring at her—some otherworldly pull. Her favorite thing is to stand. She gazes all around, this new perspective. If she can stand, just stand there swaying, legs quivering, her tiny hand grasping a coffee table's edge, she's content.

I don't waste time in the room with the treadmill and the marathon medals and the posters of Prefontaine. Too many people run garbage miles. Not me. It's either a tempo run, speed work, fartlek (Swedish for "speed-play"), or my Mount Everest workout: 6% incline is base camp. 8% the ice flows. 10% Hillary's Step. 12% the summit. My desire is for pain, every time. Lungs to fold, unfold. The taste of copper in my throat. The mind flashing orange, with black licking coronas. I think of nothing, no way to, in that zone where pain becomes a presence, a roiling crackle, a flame gasping thin air.

April knocked over my cup of coffee. I was on my knees scrubbing the beige carpet. An ugly stain, a dark, bloody amoeba. "You're doing a half-ass job," my husband said. He just appeared there, above me, a forming cloud. He scooped up April and left the room. I felt some irrational thoughts, boiling up from my stomach. Heat fanning out along my limbs. I thought, He doesn't want April near me. I thought, My husband is my enemy in this house, not my friend. I really despise that term: half-ass. I feel it doesn't apply. "I just started cleaning," I said to the dog. The dog was chewing a toy spatula. "How can it be half-ass, when I just started?" Down the hallway a rustling of water through pipes.

Today I sat at the window and watched the birdfeeder. I saw a blue cardinal. But I know that's absurd.

I had this phase where I wanted to do several things at once. Listening to the radio while in the bathtub, naturally. But then drinking from the shower. The bizarre experience of eating my dinner, plate perched on my knees, as I sat on the toilet reading a book of thousand year old Chinese poetry. The thing it really affected was my driving. I started taking notes. Filling out to-do lists. Even marking up stories from my creative writing students. This all ended one morning. I never saw it, just heard a thump. I was writing a check for daycare on the steering wheel. I looked in the mirror, a black and white tumbling rag. I didn't tell anyone, not even my husband. I have this need to keep small secrets—somehow I feel it guards me, my true self. That evening an old man knocked on my door. He had a dented ball cap. He said, "A dead cat back there in the road. It's in my truck. A big black and white. Know who owns it?" I felt low, shrinking away. Like a creature that would dwell under a house, in the wiring, a scrambling thing. I told him no, I've never seen it, then shut the door, returned to the television, my family huddled around its blue glow, to tell some other lie.

Sleep on the couch with a Murakami novel and a bottle of wine. Wake with my face bloated. Step onto the treadmill. Rhythm, sweat, everything tightening. Glistening cheekbones. Who is this woman, running in place?

The dog kept shaking its head, like she was wet and trying to dry herself. But her head was perfectly dry. The tags on her leash shook and jangled. She kept shaking. I thought, My dog has broken her ear; and then: I wonder who will take her to the vet.

Daniel likes to crawl into the recliner, crouch there under the folds of his blanket, his head swiveling, watching. He studies the room; flinches as the central air kicks on. "What are you doing?" I ask him one evening. He gives me a look for disrupting his vigil, his silent alertness. He hisses, "I'm a deer. They're hunting me."

Cancelled class on a Tuesday, mostly due to a hangover. I suppose this is another thing I said I would never do. Hammered out a serious speed session on the treadmill. Fell right into a flow, fueled by self disgust, an edge of remorse, some type of penance. Alcohol, its after-effects, the dehydration—they haven't seemed to affect my training. I have no idea why. I remember one Saturday I won a road race with a nasty hangover. After the award ceremony, the usual younger runners approached, wanting to know the secret, the golden charm that makes one runner faster than the next. A kid said, "What's your diet?" And I shook my head. "No, no way," I told him.

Daniel said, "Why did you go live in Michigan by yourself?" I said, "My job was there. I had to teach all the kids to read and write." He looked down at his bedtime book, one of the Christian ones my mother gave him. Every aspect of the world comes from God, except for all the awful stuff. I noticed Daniel held the book upside down, the pages backwards. He flung it to the floor. "I want you to tell me a story," he said.

The dog somehow repaired its broken ear.

Tu Fu writes that one glass of wine can make the forest leaves rustle, their colors more vivid. Then about how a person can only write poetry for the act itself. Of doing it, nothing more. That seemed fitting. One morning in the year 1200, Chu Shu Chen writes these words: "My face in the mirror disgusts me." She then notes that makeup is useless at her age. I don't know what to make of this. Thousands of years pass. A woman sits at a mirror, staring. How have we changed? What have we learned from one human to the next? Somehow all of this stirs me, but I can't pinpoint why.

The creek in the backyard is swollen. I can stand in the kitchen and feel it murmuring. Like a turbine humming beneath the earth.

Eight months down, seeped away. The Achilles is finally better. I injured it during an ultra-marathon in Kentucky. An eleven mile loop through the forest, three circuits, thirty-three miles, in unprecedented weather for March: first lap snow, second ice; and as the day warmed, a final slog through ankle deep mud. On mile 28 I stepped on a slick root. Medications, physical therapy, heel lifts, new shoes—nothing helped. For months, trapped in the cage of my hobbled body, softening with self pity, insomnia. Losing the angles of my body, the honed edges. An injury is a betrayal to a runner. A cold, stinging fog. "You should never inject into the Achilles," one doctor after another told me when I demanded cortisone. "It's way too risky." Then I found one who understood me.

The dog has wrapped her leash around the base of the birdfeeder pole. The more she struggles, the tighter the knot. She's strangling herself.

"This house is disgusting," my husband said. That's another word I don't care for: disgusting.

Impulsively I bought a car. I thought it would change me somehow. I once moved from state to state for the same illogic. I should know better. Driving home, I found myself stuck behind a pickup, sitting at a red light, its turn signal winking. "Turn," I yelled into the window glass. "This is America! Turn-right-on-red!" Then I saw he was staring at the car alongside, at a young woman. Has any couple ever met this way, fell together into love while idling in separate cars? Maybe it's biological, biochemistry. A pretty face probably kicks off some serotonin—a jolt to the brain. Finally the light changed. He turned, but I remained angry. Already losing the glow I had over owning a new car.

Months later, I had this thing where I would put the kids to bed, drink, call him, say one sentence, and hang up.

"You have the personality of a suitcase." Click.

"You should be ashamed of your Tuesdays." Click.

I have my problems, but sleep well. I crumple into the bed, sink beneath the covers, fall away, exhausted.

This is a big motorcycle town. You see them, zooming along, weaving amongst the cars, always a helmetless rider. A nursing friend of mine calls them "donor-cycles." It's mostly men. There's some gender thing going on with motorcycles. You'll see an occasional woman, but never, not once, with a man on the back.

The dog waits below April's high chair for the tumbling food. April crawls across the linoleum, eyes glittering for the dog dish. She once had four pieces stuffed into her cheek like a hamster. This look of radiant joy.

Envision a wheel, or the effortless glide of a leopard. The feet lightly touch—heel to toe—and then they're off, a circle, a flyover, gentle kiss of the asphalt. I love that moment in a tight race, when I'm on my opponent's shoulder, and I hear the steps, slap, slap, slap, the structure crumbling, the fatigue, and I think, Now I've got you. The perfect running form is silence.

I prefer to drink my white wine extremely cold, and from a coffee mug. To sit at windows and watch the birdfeeder, the glimmer of snow-covered grass. One morning a coyote loped along the back fence, a McDonald's bag dangling from its jaws.

"There are so many things I would change," he told me one morning. "It would all go another way. I wouldn't be thinking of the good years I wasted. I wouldn't be standing here right now."

The shoes are awaiting me. They are not in the kitchen. Not in the den. Not stacked in a silent, faithful pair alongside the treadmill. They are in the bathroom, on the cold floor. Unraveled laces. Tongues hanging. Below the laughing square of the mirror.

The dog snaps her leash and leaps into the creek.

image: Ryan Molloy


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