Running is like getting fucked by an ugly guy. At first you do it because you know you haven’t gotten laid in a while and it’s time to accept you need a good fucking, even if it’s a less than optimal choice. Then, after a while when you stop thinking about it so goddam much and you focus on your own body instead of the ugly surface underneath you, you begin to enjoy it.
That’s what my wife always said anyway. I hated running. That’s probably why she left me. No, I don’t know why she left me. She was just gone one day, and when she didn’t show up for dinner I called the cops. They found her a few days later shacked up in a mansion with a guy named ‘Paulie’. Not Paul. Paulie.
When I talked to her on the phone she sounded out of breath and annoyed, as if she had just taken a run and didn’t want to be bothered with anything other than a cool glass of water.
“I’ve been telling you for the past month Rick,” she said.
“I thought you were just joking around, like usual.”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
“Look, can’t we work this out?”
She wasn’t angry, just distracted. “What?”
“Can’t we work this out?”
She huffed and said, “No.”
I thanked the cops, took their coffee mugs, and told them they could leave. They looked at me with a mixture of pity and faint distaste. Here was a man who couldn’t keep his wife happy enough to stay. Here was a failure.
I woke up the next day and realized I had no friends. All of my friends had been Joanie’s friends first. When we split up I got the 1/2 acre house, the temper-pedic, and a hyperactive schnauzer; she got our friends.
I dug out a pair of running shoes Joanie had gotten me for our fifth anniversary and started running that same day. In retrospect a gift like this should have sent warning bells ringing. A sure sign she thought I was becoming a fat-ass. Which, truth be told, I was. However, I’d been so proud of my gift to her (a lovely pair of antique silver earrings that dangled down towards her neck) that I barely glanced at them.
It felt good to pound the pavement. Felt good to pound the shoes into submission and make them my own. If Joanie saw me she would’ve thought she was hallucinating. A rotund six foot tall mass of blue and gold (my high school’s colors; I somehow still fit into my old football swag) sweating down side streets and swerving around trim suburban lawns. It’s a sight to behold, I’m sure.
I began to make routes in my head. This yard had a scary dog that barked at me as I ran past. Best to avoid it if possible. An old lady sat on her porch and drank sweet tea all afternoon on this street. Better wave and say hello. There were lilac bushes that smelled just like Joanie’s perfume at the end of this cul-de-sac. Sometimes, I ran down there just to prove to myself I could. That the smell of her didn’t bother me, that it meant nothing. Sometimes, I went so I could remember our second anniversary, when we snuck into the Sheraton’s hot tub late at night, then got kicked out. She modeled lingerie for me later, and we had sex, stinking of chlorine and lilac.
The longer the routes were the better I felt. After a few weeks I went onto Google Maps and saw that I’d run a 5k the Saturday before. I’d always heard about 5k’s. They had them for breast cancer, AIDS, breweries, and sometimes just because. I wondered if they had any for men unwillingly separated from soon to be ex-wive’s that no longer loved them. Probably.
If so, I should probably sign up. I sat down at my desktop (another gift from Joanie) and typed ‘local 5k’s’ into Google. After a few minutes I realized how amazing it was that I hadn’t even typed in my town’s name, only ‘local’, and Google had responded appropriately. Stuff like that never used to astound me. Maybe running also lowers your threshold for amazement.
There were a few happening a month away in May. I picked one at random entitled ‘Vince’s Run’. I wondered who Vince was, but not enough to continue reading the childish, bright green background-ed website. The race had obviously been thrown together after the death of some poor working class bloke by his loving widow. I didn’t want to be anymore depressed than I already was. I hadn’t cried this much since I lost in the state championship tennis game senior year of high school.
I played club tennis in college too. I was good enough to play D3 college. But, I decided to focus on my studies rather than athletics. That’s what I told myself. Really, I was lazy. Now I was a 30 year old schmobo schlecking through his 9-5 days until he could reheat casserole the neighbors had been nice enough to deliver and dump on his door step. Joanie got our real friends, but I got the neighbors and their casseroles. When the blond matron from two doors down came over I hadn’t even had the decency to invite her in for a cup of tea. She’d seemed to understand though.
There were mornings I’d start up, exhausted, then fall back into my sopping wet pillow, wondering how the rain had slanted into the room over night. Then, I’d realize I’d just been crying in my sleep, like usual. Every sweat and tear drenched cotton pillowcase was a fresh blow. I guess I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake.
In the lead up to my race I began a training regime, but, having already ran a 5k without realizing it, I didn’t take it seriously. Over the course of the month I drank more beer than I should have, I ate more ice cream than I thought possible, and I gained ten more pounds. I slacked off.
The day of the race came and I woke up earlier than I had in a month, groggy and bloated. The website for Vince’s Run had looked casual enough. In real time the race day preparations made it look more official than its website by a mile (or 3.2).
A moderately busy intersection had been blocked off by the police. I had on an old tennis shirt, some bright red basket ball shorts, and a pair of aviator sunglasses. I had never run with sunglasses before, but it was an unusually bright day. I’d seen sunglasses for sale on the running websites I’d visited sporadically. So, I brought my own to my first ever run.
I was worried I might run into Joanie here. I’m pretty sure she had run 5k’s when we were together. I couldn’t exactly remember. Sometimes, she had come home from a run with a race bib, hadn’t she? No need to fret, she wasn’t there. The hundred odd assembly was packed with geriatrics and father/son pairs. I saw a few out of shape wads like myself, but they were decked out in running gear so expensive looking that for the same price they probably could have financed a car.
I imagined their epiphanies.
Perhaps, a few months ago, the bald headed fuck with the bright red sneakers over yonder had had a heart attack. Afterwards, hooked up to bright red machines that produced florescent green lines his doctor had said ‘Sir, if you want to make it to 40, you need to change some habits.’ So, here he was. He had stopped buying a six pack every night and used the proceeds to buy the fit-bit stretched tautly around his fat wrist. You have to be really fat to have fat wrists. I have fat wrists.
What about the other balding waste of space? He had on bright yellow shoes. Maybe his wife left him.
It was time to toe the starting line. My gut protruded uncomfortably over my shorts. I’d never run in a crowd. My morning jogs had been a party of one. Now I could feel their hot bodies twitching and jiggling next to mine. A former beach bum blond stretched beside me, her massive tits (obviously fake even within the bright pink sports bra) extending like a shelf off her chest. Someone, somewhere said something. Every runner stopped what they were doing. There was a brief second of repose as even the wind took a second to gather itself.
I didn’t here anything over the sound of my own heart, but the other runners started running. So, I did too.
A few (the beach bum blond with the tits included) quickly outpaced everyone else and were lost around the first corner. The rest of us thinned out into a ragged pack of wheezing idiots, with me near the end. The extra ten pounds I had gained bounced with every step. There seemed to be a gremlin tightening his grip on my bladder. After the first five minutes I was left in third to last place ahead of a plodding grandma in an 80s style sweatsuit and the yellow shoed fattie.
The scenery started to look familiar and soon we were passing the old lady who always drank sweet tea on her porch. For the race she had drawn a poster that said ‘Free Lemonade for All Runners’ and taped it to the railing. There were rows upon rows of little dixie cups set up on her porch, and one of the old men had his foot upon her first step. He held a recently drained cup loosely in his hand. The old lady laughed and covered her mouth demurely, a product of a different generation. I realized he was flirting with her.
I passed her house, too scared to stop and rest lest I never start again. The gremlin had a death grip on my bladder by this point though. Around the next corner I edged my way into the shrubbery between two houses and pissed. I could feel the sweat start to collect and cool on my lower back and on my cheeks. The yellow shoed guy passed me. I had a stitch in my side and I could smell barbecue from the back lawn of the house I was pissing next too. There was a party. Men reclined on patio furniture while women lounged in the pool. A small child was racing around hitting everyone with a wiffle ball bat. There was beer. I just wanted to hop out of the shrubbery, swipe a six pack, and run off into the street like a madman.
I turned around and ran some more. I ran more because that’s what you do when you run. Even when you finish a run you know there are more miles to be ran the next day or the next week or the next year. Whenever it is that you begin again, but you never really stop. Every mile is connected to every other.
I can’t really remember the last half of the race. I ran it in pain, exhausted, without hope. But, I finished. I didn’t nab first place, but I wasn’t last either.
When I got home I took a hot shower. I dried myself off. I opened the freezer and realized there was nothing remotely real about any of the food I had. The only green I saw was painted on plastic. I was too wiped to go out and buy something healthy, so I didn’t eat anything at all. I laid naked on my bed and folded my hands on top of my belly. There was too much of it. My legs felt like jelly and my room stank of sweaty mouldering underwear from my laundry basket. It wasn’t even noon, and all I felt like doing was napping. But when I tried to fall asleep all I could think about was Joanie.
She is, was, had been, the sixth woman I’d ever slept with. A nice round number. Joanie was a nice round woman. No matter how much she worked out or ran she always had hips and tits. An hourglass figure. Of course, there were other reasons I liked her. She had grace. I always felt like a golem next to her at dinner parties. She used to wear bright red lipstick and when she went to the bathroom at parties she never said ‘I’m going to the bathroom’, she always said ‘I’m going to the powder room’.
She was the only woman to ever make me cum from a blowjob. Other husbands whined about their wife’s lack of skills, but I always kept my mouth shut. I’m a dirty man, but I never spread dirt around. I never understood how they could talk about their wives like they were strangers, like they didn’t have to go back and see them in a few hours. Maybe I had some grace too. Maybe Joanie rubbed off on me a little.
I had a little cockatoo when I was a kid. I got it for my seventh birthday. I’d been begging and begging my parents for one because Jimmy from school had one. When we went to his house to play Nintendo64 it would always squawk along to the sounds.
Well, my parents finally got one for me and I loved George. For six months I cleaned his cage every three days. I fed him and kept him watered. I took him out and let him fly around my room. Sometimes I’d just lay in bed and watch him flap about. Then, it was summer and I was out of the house a lot more. Tennis camp. Capture the flag with Jimmy. The beach. I stopped paying attention to George as much.
I missed the first day of school after that summer. The day before first bell I went over to Jimmy’s and we played all day. It was boiling outside, so we stayed in his air conditioned basement and played video games and checkers with a rotating group of neighborhoods kids. Someone would show up, play a game or two, eat a PB&J and then head out, but I stayed. Finally my mom called Jimmy’s mom and said I had to come home because it was a school night. I hated that ‘school nights’ existed again. I trudged home through the cool evening and after a brief dinner I retreated to my room. It wasn’t until I was packing my bag in the morning that I noticed George was dead.
It’s hard to appreciate the good things when you have them.
In my dirty bedroom the afternoon sun was making me sweat all over again. The stench from my hamper was killing me. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and almost fell down when I got up. I started a load of laundry and made some ancient frozen vegetables from the freezer in a frying pan with butter.
I felt wrung out. There was a weasel in my stomach trying to claw its way out. The day wasn’t even half over and I felt useless. I’d put so much energy into thinking about, preparing, and then finally running the race that I’d never thought about afterwards. I didn’t have any of what people called runner’s high. I’d come almost dead last. I’d lost to a bunch of people twice my age (and I wasn’t exactly young either). I was a fool and a nobody eating limp tasteless green beans and corn in a fiber board kitchen.
I finished my veggies and went out to the concrete slab Joanie and I had called a patio. It was ringed with weeds and crab grass. The best I could say about the furniture was that it was serviceable. I sat down and looked at the fences. There were three different ones. The one directly across from me was new pine, the nails new and bright along the posts. To the left was a worn out looking pine fence, grey from years in the sun and rain. The last was pine too, somewhere in the middle in terms of wear. But it was two feet taller than the others for some reason.
It was like each of my neighbors had decided my yard was to ugly to stand. They’d built the fences to keep me out and so that they wouldn’t have to keep looking at my ugly patio furniture.
I heard the front door open. For a crazy second I wondered if someone was robbing my house. But on a Sunday in the middle of the day? No way. I got up and went inside. I heard Joanie’s voice in the front hallway.
“God it stinks in here. I told you he never cleans.”
A man grunted in response.
I was paralyzed. I tried to think what to do. Fuck. I don’t know what to do.
Joanie walked around the corner into the living room and almost ran into me. She gasped. She hadn’t expected me to be home. Paulie (I assumed it was the rich asshole) came around the corner after her and actually bumped Joanie from behind. She lurched into me and her hands grasped at my shirt and she clung there for a second before she regained her balance and stepped back.
She shook her head and said, “I, uh, didn’t see your car. Sorry.”
“In the shop.” This was true. It had been making weird noises for months, way before Joanie left me. She’d been on my case to get it fixed. I’d finally gotten around to it this weekend.
“Oh. Well, good.” She was happy I’d done it, but annoyed it’d taken me so long to get it done. It was like we were still together.
Paulie took this opportunity to introduce himself. I shook his hand because I was still too much of a fucking coward to spit in his face.
“I just wanted to get a few things.”
“That’s fine. You could have called.”
“Yeah, I just…” she trailed off.
“I just got back from a race.”
This jarred her enough to get an actual response. She smiled and said, “You raced! How long? That’s so wonderful.”
“Yeah. A 5k. I finished, and not in last place.”
She kept smiling until Paulie coughed beside her. I think he really had to cough, and that made me feel bad for him. I felt bad for hating him so much. Jill’s smile slid off and she said, “Well, I’ll just collect my things. Paulie, just wait here. Or go get coffee if you want. I don’t know.”
Joanie slipped past me into the house. I heard her rummaging through our things, separating them into piles of ‘her things’ and ‘my things’.
There was a brief moment when I wanted to grab the lamp from off the side table and smash it over Paulie’s head. It passed and I offered him coffee. We went into the kitchen. The pot was half full. I thought about making a fresh one, but fuck it. He could drink my coffee, but I wasn’t going out of my way to please the guy. I microwaved two mugs and shoved one at him.
“Cream’s in the fridge. Sugar on the counter.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, I put my mug down and got up. He looked like he was about to follow me for a second, but I caught his eyes. I felt like a coward, but he must’ve seen some of my desperation. He un-tensed, sat back, and sipped his coffee, staring at a blank space on the wall opposite him.
I found Joanie in our old bedroom. It looked like I felt: gutted. Everything dirty, AKA everything that was mine, was laying in the wrong place. She had a pile of makeup and clothes near the door. Also, the lamp from her side of the bed. She’d bought it at a yard sale a few years back. It was in the shape of two tulips curving up and then back down. Where the two stamens should be (was it a stamen? I hadn’t taken biology since Freshman year of high school) were two lightbulbs.
“How goes it?” I asked.
She sat down on a corner of the bed and kicked a pair of boxers away from her feet. “Fine. You?”
She studied me for a second. Then, she patted a space on the bed beside her. “Sit down dummy.”
“What for?” we said at almost exactly the same time.
“I wasn’t being a very good husband. I let you slip through my fingers. I should’ve listened more.”
“I was mean. I pestered and nagged you for being yourself. I let the things I love about you become the things I hated about you. I wallowed in my displeasure and then took it out on you.”
“You left real sudden,” I said.
She got up. So did I. She pushed me out of the way and began to make the bed. After she was done and the dirty clothes were all in one pile she said, “I know, but I didn’t know how else to do it but all at once.”
It was like an electric shock. Here I was, taking her bullshit again. ‘All at once’ my ass. Then what about Paulie? What about moving in with another man all of a sudden?
“Bullshit. That smells worse than this fucking room right now. All of a sudden? What about Paulie?”
She looked so confused for a second. My anger didn’t have anything to latch onto, and slipped right past her. Then, she laughed.
It was so unexpected, and so normal to hear her laugh again. I deflated and shook my head.
“Oh babe. You look like a circus bear, all confused about what to do with its paws. Babe. Paulie’s gay.”
“He’s as gay as they come.”
“Well, what the fuck.”
“Did you think I left you for another man?” She seemed deeply wounded by this thought. “Oh my god. I’m such an ass. I’m so so sorry. I, I didn’t even think about that. God I can be so dumb sometimes.”
“What the fuck,” I said. We sat down on the bed again and I put my head in my hands. She began to rub my back, like when I was sick.
“Whaddya mean he’s gay?”
“If you talked to him for two minutes you’d know. I just, forgot you’d never met him,” she said. She stopped rubbing my back and when I looked back over at her I saw she was crying. “There’s just so much we don’t know about each other anymore.”
That was true.
We sat for a little while.
Then, for a little longer.
Paulie was stirring cream into his coffee in the kitchen.
She wiped her eyes.
I got up.
She got up too, and moved over to the door where here stuff was piled. “Paulie! Come help me with all this.”
Paulie came and helped and so did I. We didn’t talk because the conversation was over for now. She was moving her stuff out. And, it was amazing, as frustrated as I was with her I didn’t want her to leave yet. Now that she was here it felt odd to have her leave again.
She was walking out the door with the last of it. Paul was at the car. I grabbed her arm and swung her towards me, maybe a little too forcefully. “Sorry. Look, I know we’ve been bad for a little while. Well, maybe longer than that,” I said when she raised her eyebrows. “But, I just don’t want this to… Can we get coffee this week?”
I let my hand fall and she shook her head. “I don’t know…”
“Well, I’ll talk to you soon. I hope we can get together soon.”
“Yeah,” she said, and walked to the car.
As Paulie was driving away I noticed the front lawn needed a shave. The grass was almost knee high in places, and there were rough patches of dark weeds. It took me two hours of mowing and pulling to get the lawn back into order. My pops had always scoffed at nice lawns. Said they were useless and only rich bastards had the time to waste on them. Well, maybe I wanted to be a rich bastard. I liked a nice lawn and I didn’t care if that made me a prime time competitor in the rat race.
It was almost dinner time. I ate alone and for dessert I got a text from Joanie that said ‘See you at noon on Wednesday. The usual place.’
Before I went to bed I hopped on the computer and looked up some more races. There were a bunch of 5ks slated for next month and the one after too. I felt full, and also something approaching happiness, but not quite. I’d done laundry earlier and it smelled like fabric softener in my room. I’d even done the sheets. I looked again at all the race options. There were a few promising 5ks: near to me, not in the too distant future either. There were a few 10ks too.
Hey, maybe I’d sign up for one of those.