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March 15, 2019 Fiction

The Runner

Noelle Rose

The Runner photo

In order to make my appointment on time, I need to pass the woman in the WATERBOARD HER t-shirt. You’d think she would have retired such a garment (if worthy of that title) after that November, but here it is—hot pink with white lettering, neckline aptly darkened with sweat, cap sleeves neatly tailored to cradle the owner’s deltoids. She leans against the concrete facade of the post office, pulls out her earbuds and taps off the stopwatch on her smartphone screen, tries to catch her breath as WATERBOARD pulses with the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The shirt has served its purpose and she’s taking it on runs now.

This woman can’t be much older than me. She is blonde with a ponytail and terrycloth headband that collects sweat from her forehead. She has muscular arms with hands that look like they could sucker punch the patriarchy. She wears yoga pants exploding with lime and purple fireworks. 

I could cross the street to the opposite side to avoid her, walk up a block, and loop back around to get to the office. I could approach her and say what an interesting shirt! I could casually suggest that she read a book from time to time. I could ask if she’s involved in some kind of dare. I could feign asking directions. I could walk by her like she doesn’t exist. 

I could ask about her running route, how often she runs, how fast and far she can go on her best day. I could ask if she runs by the lake when the sun is shining to watch the water. I could ask if she stops to tie her shoes, if she weaves through the threads of city folk walking and riding their bikes by the water. I could ask if she offers money when solicited by a person in tattered dirty clothes, if she keeps quarters in her fanny pack for this purpose, if it takes her a while to find the change among her house keys and credit cards and the tangle of her headphone wires. I could ask if she’s ever injured herself running, if she’s tripped or fallen or been pushed, if she’s broken a bone, if she has a scar that has a story. I could ask if she ever thinks about an old injury long enough that the pain comes flooding back.

I could ask if she’s skilled at keeping plants or if they die on her instantly. I could ask if she prefers to dip her French fries in mayo and if her friends make fun of her for it. I could ask if there’s a word she never spells right. I could ask if she adds the numbers on highway signs together when she passes them. I could ask if she can whistle or blow up balloons without effort. I could ask if she can drink coffee piping hot or needs to wait for it to cool. I could ask if her sponges smell. I could ask if she was able to swallow pills at a young age or if she just gagged them up until they turned to dust.

I could ask if she has children, if she wants them or doesn’t want them. I could ask if she’s ever been pregnant, if she’s ever terminated a pregnancy—I think I know the answer to this, and then I think I don’t. I could ask if she runs early enough to watch the children walk to school, hand in hand with their mothers, wearing their tiny backpacks. I could ask if she cries quietly as she watches the hands separate, the children stumbling onto the bus. I could ask if she has pets, if she hugs them, if she has a big Labrador named Wally or Peggy that she takes with her on runs, if she keeps up with them or vice versa. I could ask where her parents live, if she’s close with them, if she visits enough, if her mother nags, if her father yells, if her sister secretly smokes when home for the holidays, if her brother avoids everyone to watch football. I could ask her if she’s married, if she ever wants to get married, if she believes there’s someone else in a WATERBOARD HER t-shirt somewhere waiting to meet her.

I could ask if she’s ever run so far she’s forgotten how to get home. I could ask if she’s ever become nervous when someone walks too close behind her. I could ask if she’s sped up to distance herself from a stranger and become short of breath. I could ask if her shirt is a form of defense, a declaration of her own dangerous mind.

I could ask if she ever bullied someone as a kid, if she’s poured vinegar in another girl’s orange juice, if she’s thrown salt on a slug in the dumpster, if she’s walked down the hallway with her brother’s hair in between her fingers, banging his head against the walls with each step. I could ask if the pain she inflicted on others helped evaporate her own, if the daily pain experienced by those unlike herself makes her feel light.

I could ask what she got on her SATs, how she likes to eat her eggs. I could ask if she sets one alarm in the morning or sets one to sound every ten minutes an hour before she has to be up. I can ask what she watches on Youtube, Netflix, if she thinks it’s funny to see people fall down. 

I have coffee in my cup. I could toss the hot liquid on her and rush through the revolving door to my appointment, make her the slug. I could then walk calmly into my therapist’s office and ask his stone face why are we all so bad? But I fear that in doing this, I’ll never figure out exactly what she’s running from.


image: Noelle Rose