| 36 |
I run, in open sun, down the gravel road toward home. My face feels almost unbearably red and hot in this North Carolina summer. My heart thumps bass in my temples. But I have less than a mile to go.
Johnny, my neighbor, drives toward me in his silver Chevy pickup and slows on the approach. Rolling down his window, he waves me over.
I pull the buds from my ears, thinking he is slowing to warn me about a skunk or a snake in the road. He is a good guy.
“I’m getting tired just from watching you!” he says and laughs.
“Try being me,” I answer and I laugh, too.
One time, Johnny saw me standing on the side of the road, in the rain, with a flat tire. He stopped to help me. He pushed his knee down into the mud to brace himself as he loosened the lug nuts, one by one. When he stood to roll the flat tire away, the mud left a round stain in his jeans that I knew he would carry for the rest of the afternoon because Johnny is single and wears a lot of Carhartt clothing.
Still, I was cautious when he walked toward me with the tire iron in his hand. You just never really know, do you?
He installed my spare tire and I drove away safely. I berated myself for doubting him so I baked him cookies as a thank you. It’s my special recipe: secret apology chocolate chip.
“Have a good one,” he says with a goofy grin and drives away. His truck kicks up dust that I swallow. I start running again but it is harder now. Imagine I am an incandescent light bulb. My filament is fragile and it takes way more energy to switch me on and off than to just leave me on.
He was just saying hello, I reason.
When I get home, I tell my husband that I am an incandescent light bulb and he says, “What’s the big deal? He was just saying hi. Besides, leaving a light bulb on uses way more energy than turning it on and off. Old-school light bulbs don’t have capacitors . . .”
“Oh, shut up,” I say and walk away.
| 13 |
“On the left,” I call out, warning slower runners and walkers to move to the right. It is the cross-training portion of practice for the middle school girls’ track team. Underperformers are pack animals in lanes two and three. Most days, the walking girls are my herd.
But not today.
Just behind me, running tight against the infield are the two fastest distance runners on my team. They are legend, these tall leggy girls. At meets, they have an odd little habit. Each race, 400, 800, 1600 meters and relay, they cross the finish line before anyone else and crumple with exhaustion. Legs give out heroically. Our coach waits at the finish line to catch them.
It is theater and it is a good show.
Today, I am in front of them with no signs of slowing down. But on our tenth lap, the junior high girls’ coach blows his whistle and yells my name. “No,” one of the girls wheezes. “Keep going.”
The moment I stop, the walls of my thigh muscles start to crumble. The other two girls run on without me and I feel like I’ve let them down. The air around them slips away from me like silk sliding over silk.
“What are you doing?” my coach asks. I stare at his red polyester high-waisted shorts.
“I’m running,” I say, stupidly.
“You’ve never run like that before,” he says. It isn’t an accusation but it’s close. “Why don’t you run like that every practice? Why don’t I see that at meets?”
“I want to see more hustle out of you,” he says. “Now that I know you’re capable of it.”
Later, as I leave the stadium, one of the girls follows me out. “Hey!” she yells. “Sorry, don’t know your name.”
I mumble it, I think. Or, I don’t. I don’t bother.
“You kicked ass today,” she says. As she walks back to the locker room, I smile. Maybe we are supposed to catch each other, us girls. Maybe we collapse for each other.
| 17 |
I run at night, after work. I am leaving for college in two months and I need the money so I work all day, double shifts when I can. It is after eleven at night but I have energy to burn. I bring my dog, Molly, a German shepherd-collie mix.
This town is not unknown to us. It is dark, yes, but I live here. I pass the Dairy Queen and cut down the side alley. My sister’s best friend used to live in the blue house at the end of the block. I know the boys who live in the brown house two doors down. My best friend goes to Sacred Heart, the church at the end of the block.
“Baby, what are you doing?”
Two men step out from behind a garage that butts the alleyway. They move as one, a unit designed to pull me up short.
I drop Molly’s leash in surprise. Her tail is long and bushy but it’s wagging as the men come up behind us. I do not slow down. I keep running.
“What are you even doing out here?” one of the men sings. He pushes into me, hard. I trip over a concrete parking block but I don’t go down. I stumble forward and scrape my bare shoulder on the brick wall of the building.
“I don’t have anything,” I say. I have a single dollar bill in the bottom of my left shoe. For emergencies.
The other man grabs Molly’s tail and she whips around. One moment, her tongue is panting over her speckled lip and the next her teeth are embedded in the man’s calf muscle and she’s yanking.
She moved so fast.
They came up behind me so fast. They touched me so fast.
I cannot process the moment so I run. I don’t stop running until I see my front porch. I start crying but I still haven’t caught up to the moment. I can’t run that fast.
I just left her behind, I realize, sitting on my front porch steps. I could have gone to someone’s house or even to the police station two blocks away from the church. But I didn’t. I ran over a mile home without my dog.
My mother finds me and we are loading into the car to go find Molly when she comes trotting up, blood on her muzzle. She’s followed me home, proud of herself. When she sees me, her butt drops to the grass and it moves back and forth like she can’t control her body. I bury my face into her thick fur and hold on tight because I can’t control my body, either. She smells like wet fur and copper.
“You were careless,” the police officer tells me. The overhead lights are bright in the lobby of the police station. “Girls like you have no business running down dark alleys. Don’t you watch television?”
I don’t bother telling him I know this alley. I know this town because it is mine. I live here, too.
“If those men end up in the ER and report a dog bite, what do you think will happen?” he asks. “It’s your word against theirs.”
My word against theirs—there is no benefit for me in the doubt he’s suggesting.
“Okay, enough,” my mother says. “You’ll check it out?”
They went to high school together. The police officer nods. He’ll go or he won’t. He’ll find the men or he won’t. The second we step out of the police station, the matter is done.
“He’s right, you know,” my mother says as she pulls into our driveway. “If those guys go to the hospital, animal control could take Molly. She’ll probably be destroyed.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ll put her to sleep. If she’s dangerous, she’ll be destroyed.” She gets out of the car but leans back down. “Not to mention what could have happened to you,” she adds, not unkindly. “What were you thinking?” She slams the car door and goes inside.
I lean my head against the window of the passenger door. Inside the trapped air of the car, I smell my own skin. It isn’t a gross smell. It is just my body and cooled sweat. It is evidence of movement, of how quickly my body can overheat with effort and then cool itself down. The smell is just efficiency.
It is just my body and I am ashamed of it.
| 26 |
I run around Bass Lake. Someone has newly mulched the trail so the ground is hot on the soles of my feet and the air smells extra woodsy. On my left, the water. On my right, forest. It is a Tuesday, the middle of the day.
I spot a man standing alone, off the trail just inside the tree line. I see him because the sunlight shifts in the trees. He is wearing all black in the summer. Long sleeves, long dark pants. Black ball cap. I can’t tell his age or even see clearly what he is doing. I cannot imagine a reason he could have to be there.
“Not today,” I mutter and head back toward the parking lot. I see a woman coming my way. She’s in a dress so I guess she’s out for a walk on her lunch break.
“Creep in the woods just ahead,” I say as I run past her.
“Thanks,” she says, and turns around, too.
Some days, boys, we just don’t have the energy.
| 35 |
I run up the long steep hill on a lonely country road. A silver late-model Honda zooms past me up the hill.
He goes to the farmhouse at the top of the hill and rings the doorbell. No one answers so a moment later, he returns to his car and drives back toward me. He stops on the double yellow and calls out to me from the passenger-side window.
“Virginia wanted to start running,” he says. He is a silver-haired man in a straw NHRA hat. “Or walking. I don’t know. Something like that.”
“I’m sorry?” I ask, slowing to a jog. I know the rules of Stranger Danger. I grew up in the ’80s: Do not engage, run for help, do not take candy, avoid white vans. Still, I pull my headphones off and stop running. “What was that?”
“Virginia,” he says. “She said she wants to start running but she had herself an accident.” He says the word accident with a dropped lip and a head bob. His tone sounds more sympathetic than sinister.
I look around. I don’t know anyone named Virginia. I glance at his back seat—it is full of packages and clothes, papers and trash. Nowhere to fit a body. I consider the size of his trunk. He looks like he could be my father’s age, or close to it. His forearms are strong, stretched out so he can hold the steering wheel at ten and two. He has black wiry hair up to his elbows. Below his right wrist is a large bandage.
I catalog his details like I am already witnessing an active crime scene.
“Oh yeah?” I finally say, hoping to ease him on. He has stopped me at the worst point of the hill, where it stretches like taffy and gets steeper at the apex. I know nobody’s home at the farmhouse because I saw him stop there. To my left is a goat pasture—the goats like to follow me up the hill and I pretend they are cheering me on. But, really, I know they are just looking for food. I wonder if the barbed wire is electric. Could I clear it, if I had to? I’m not much of a jumper but I’m factoring in an adrenaline surge.
“She got bit by a bunch of fire ants.”
“What?” I blink.
“Yeah,” he says. “It got real ugly. We had to wipe the bites all down with ammonia. Then, I took a sterilized needle—I like to use a syringe, if I got one, but you can just use a sewing needle if you heat it up real hot.”
I cringe and he nods. A goat bleats behind us, angry at being ignored.
“I had to poke a hole right into each of those bites and man, she screamed. Virginia don’t like those needles. But you got to get the poison out. All that yellow, you know? That’s the poison and you got to get it out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say because I can’t think of anything else to say. I don’t know how to leave. It would be rude to run away.
He points to the bandage on his own arm. “Had to get a biopsy over at the hospital,” he says. “They think it might be cancer.”
After a moment, he calls out, “Well, you take it easy.”
| 37 |
Another car follows me, slow and quiet. I look back and see two young scruffy men. They creep alongside me. If I reached out, I could touch the hood of their car. When they drive off, I tell myself I’m overreacting but my legs are shaky.
In the near distance, I see them turn around and park on the berm.
I pull out my phone and try to call my husband who is at home with our napping daughter. The call drops because I live in a cellular wasteland. They edge toward me, slow and slinking. Three hundred yards, then two hundred. I hold my phone to my ear and pretend I’m talking to someone.
When they are one hundred yards away, I start to walk. At fifty yards, I wave into the distance like I see someone I know. Ten feet away, I flash my pepper spray.
Then, the car speeds off, tires squealing.
When my phone rings against my ear, I yelp. It is my husband, calling me back.
“I’ll come get you,” he says. He’ll wake up our daughter and come get me right this instant.
“No,” I say. “Just talk to me for a moment. Stay on the line.”
“You need to find a new hobby,” he says and I grind my molars.
“Maybe men need to find a new hobby.” He doesn’t agree or disagree because we both know the responsibility to be safe is mine.
Later, my husband says, “They probably had a reason to be out there. What if they were lost and needed directions? Why do you always assume men are out to get you?”
He bought me the pepper spray. The canister is pink and fits on my key ring. He reminds me to take it every time I step out onto the road. You can’t have it both ways, I want to scream.
But, of course, he can.
| 35 |
I cross paths with a thin woman with wildly curly hair and a Tasmanian Devil T-shirt. I can tell she is a new runner because she bounces with each step. She hasn’t learned to economize her movements yet. But she’s quicker than I am. Most runners are.
Virginia, I decide.
I almost say her name out loud, I am so relieved that she could be real.
As we pass each other, I wave. It is nonchalant—not too eager. I like to play it cool. I’d nod at her except I think that’s a little too cool. She smiles back at me and waves but we do not stop.
We know better than to interrupt each other. Women who run respect potential energy—both of us are switched on and moving. Girls like us are muscles, bones, and lungs. We’re concrete and hills. We are efficiency. We keep moving because we don’t want or need anything from the other.
We run in opposite directions, our paths bisecting and separated by the width of a country road. Her footfalls echo mine or mine echo hers. The goats cheer us both onward.
I imagine a rubber band binding us together. We run against it, pulling away from each other. We are exhausted but running. Strong but collapsible. If one collapses, the elastic band will slap us back together. So, we do not collapse. This is not theater. We catch ourselves and keep running.