Two days in a row. Look at me. I feel like my old self again. I’ve been working on this in class. It’s a fiction piece that takes place upstate. It’s still a work in progress and will be workshopped soon so maybe I’ll post again with further revisions. But for now, enjoy!
“There are no words to describe the immediate pain of blowing out my knee. The visual aspect is even worse, when you see your leg dangling in a direction you know it’s not supposed to be in. My mind couldn’t process the enormity of the injury. I had to black out in order to not go into shock.
“But that wasn’t the end. Soon after the adrenaline kicked in, I began seeing things from my fucked up past. The physical pain turned to metal anguish, and I couldn’t tell you what was worse. I had a front row seat to all my fuck ups. And all I could think was Why now? My mother, my biggest influence, seemed to be there to help, but as it turned out, it was a reminder of the fact that all the hard work I put into getting myself back on the right track has led to nothing.
“Watching her die was like watching myself die. I know I am going to end up going down that same road with Danielle. I can’t handle the pain on my own. How will I work unless I take the painkillers? We all know what those do, and what they lead to.
“Do I know what Danielle’s up to? I hate myself for not doing anything about her own issues. I made them my own. I didn’t realize it was a trap. It makes sense that I kept going back to when we first met while I was in the hospital. It makes sense that she’s waiting at home for me, in my most vulnerable state. She knows no one’s around to take care of me, no one is there to tell me I love you. But what am I going to do? Who’s going to get me up and down the stairs? The signs kept telling me to run. I felt like I was finally in control, when I told that guy to fuck off. None of my friends believed me when I first told them the story. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I knew the diagnosis before the doctor turned around. I had time to prepare, but I wasted it. I need help. I have an addictive personality. Addicted to trouble. Addicted to addictions. I already lost any momentum I had from all the running over the summer. How do I get it back when I can’t even get up without the fear of my leg giving out again? I can still feel it shifting around in there. What do I distract myself with? There are too many questions and I’m just too tired.”
The dog-day-of-summer sun beats down while I run through the rail trail. Last night, I went to sleep convinced I’d beat my personal record of ten and a half miles. Today, all I notice are the yellowing leaves falling from the trees all around me. It hasn’t rained in weeks although it feels like I’m swimming through the path rather than running. With every step I take, I convince myself that five miles is more than enough, that running a half marathon is a process, that there will be good days and bad, and that today, is a bad day. I know as long as I’m trying, I’ll reach my goal. I should have known it would be one of the worst days to run. Now I have to convince myself that failure is okay. If I checked the weather this morning, I would have seen how humid it was. If I had been paying attention all summer, it would have been clear that starting my run at eleven would be a bad idea.
As I go down the path, I pass by the usual exasperated faces that make the same mistake that I’ve made. Still, after an entire year of consistent running, I feel embarrassed about how sweaty I get. It’s not a normal amount by any means. I soak through sweat-resistant shirts like they’re cotton. Nothing helps. My shorts too. When I’m done, I look as if I’ve jumped in a pool.
I know it’s crazy to think that other people are judging me by how I look. I’ve yet to run past someone that’s stopped or said anything negative about my appearance. But I started running because I used to weigh a lot more than I do now. Walking down the block or up and down the stairs in my house left me struggling for a breath. I let myself go during a very stressful time of my life. I stopped caring about how I looked, what I ate, who I hung out with, what I put in my body, how I performed at my job, and gave up on my prospects of going back to school. At first, I would stay home with a bottle of the cheapest liquor close to me at all times—I still have an empty bottle on top of my bookshelf as a reminder. I smoked tons of pot with all my old friends from high school too. Every day. I used to call them in the morning and they’d be over by twelve. We’d be high until three, eating garbage the entire time, passing the bottle back and forth between each other. Stumbling home by three in the morning.
Everyone had their own problems to deal with. Family, school, girlfriends, work, the lack thereof. It felt good letting myself go. I’ve always had so much pent up energy and no outlet for it. When I smoked, I lost all sight of who I was. That stress and anxiety turned into something beautiful, something to laugh at, something to bring all of us closer together. Now that I’ve picked up running, I realized that none of that was true. We were all in the same room, but further apart than ever before. Hard to believe when we’ve known each other for almost twenty years and we’re all in our mid-twenties.
I don’t talk to them anymore. That day I struggled up the steps, I had a flashback to my father struggling to get out of bed during his last days. He used to be the strongest person I knew, ever since my mother received her diagnosis, the thought of going about life without her was too much of a burden for him. He drank and spent most of his days at the bar. He’d come home drunk, either stumbling through the door or escorted by the policeman he went to college with. I was too young to understand the effect it was having on his body, but his friend’s face told me that what he was doing was wrong. When I felt bad, I didn’t know how to keep it under control. I tried writing, but there was too much anger pouring out of me. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a good thing, I only felt weak and embarrassed. As far as I was concerned, following in my dad’s footsteps was the only way out, until I woke up on that cold January morning and my father didn’t.
I thought my father was the strongest man in the world, but that morning everything changed. My mother, who’s still here, quickly became my biggest source of inspiration. Not even her cancer diagnosis could break her spirit. She was heartbroken when she received her diagnosis. For months, I’d see her wincing as she grabbed her breast at the dinner table. She never said anything was wrong, but like the police officer’s, her eyes told me everything I needed to know.
When the doctor told her she only had a year left, prolonged by intense chemotherapy sessions and daily pill regimens, coming in all shapes and sizes for every day of the week, she decided to do something about it. She saw how her husband handled stressful situations and was sorry for not doing enough to hide the pain from me. But she ended up not being much better than he was. She focused entirely on making her body as strong and healthy as possible. She always bragged about her college track and field days. When I was little, I remember her going out every day for her five mile run up and down the hills of New Paltz. “Before I go, I will get to the top of that mountain,” she’d tell me.
As I turn the corner and run over a little wooden bridge where each board creaks as if it might collapse, my mind begins to race and I lose track of my breathing. I look down and see that there’s no water left in my bottle. Now, all of a sudden, I feel how hot the sun is. Sweat pours out from everywhere. I feel how damp my shorts are and know that my legs will be on fire later.
My mother gave herself a deadline to get up the mountain—by the end of summer. It was hot and for a week straight, she pushed herself harder than she needed to. The doctors, already impressed by her determination to beat cancer, were hesitant to remind her that running in the long term won’t help, and in fact, will be a detriment to her health if she continued to train at the pace she was at. Her heart wouldn’t be able to keep up. “I’d rather die from running than from cancer,” she’d tell her doctor. He could only say so much. He didn’t realize she wasn’t running to stay healthy—she was running from her past, trying to forget the pain her husband put her through. It didn’t make sense that he passed before she did. “Idiot,” she always thought as she continued to push forward.
That day was the hottest of the season. None of the neighbors who were usually out watching their kids chase each other across the lawns could be found. I remember going to bed sweaty, waking up worse, taking a shower and still not feeling good, and then finally putting on clothes only to feel like I needed to take another shower. My mother was out for about an hour already. I figured she’d be home in about twenty, thirty minutes. Sometimes she got tired and had to walk a part of the way back. I didn’t think anything could go wrong. She didn’t either.
Judging by where they found her, she must have been feeling really good that day. At the top of the mountain, many people go to the state park and get married overlooking the lake and the Mohonk Mountain House. On the way up is a narrow hairpin turn with a steep incline where limousines always bottom out. I’ve seen it happen once. Every time I drive up the mountain now, I picture what the bride and groom’s reactions must have been. The driver of the limousine said he saw her jogging very slowly and gave her a light beep to give her a heads up. She stopped and saw the opportunity to take a quick break and bent over as the limousine was about to make the turn. The driver, having done this multiple times in the past, knew he had to stay close to the shoulder.
Three hours passed and I began to worry. I tried calling but no answer. It was interesting though because her phone didn’t go right to voicemail. Someone stopped the call. And I remember thinking someone because my mother never ignores my calls, even on her runs. As soon as the thought passed my mind, the doorbell rang. The neighbors were outside now, drawn to the flashing lights. The same officer that used to drop my father off told me my mother had been in a serious accident up in the mountains.
I couldn’t keep running. I lost my breath entirely. It happens every time. The point of the run is to clear my mind, but all they do is open it up to these thoughts. It’s as if there’s something left unsaid, a part of the accident that I haven’t looked at more closely. I slow down and rest on a tree off the path. The hairy vine my hand is on turns out to be poison ivy. I freak out and rub my hand in the dirt. I remember seeing my mother caked in dirt where the blood had trickled down. It was a horrible sight. The back of the limousine had a dent in it. According to the driver, she bent down at the same time he was making his turn. He felt the impact of her head against the car and slammed the breaks. The guardrail stopped her fall, but also snapped her neck.
I instinctually hold the back of my neck sitting on the dirt. Something smells off to my left. Someone, as usual, didn’t clean up after their dog. I check underneath me and everything is fine. The hot air grows thicker and my head starts spinning.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Do you need water?”
“No, thank you.”
“All right, watch your hand.”
“I will, thank you.”
I wonder what’s wrong with me as that woman shakes her head and continues on her run. She was pretty too. She looked like she’s been running for a long time. Her running clothes fit perfectly on her and I imagined myself holding her in my arms.
“Are you okay?” asks another runner.
“I am, thank you.”
“Watch your hand,” he says.
“I will, thank you.”
It’s amazing how similar they were, how humans naturally find the one who walks and talks and thinks just like themselves. My parents agreed on everything until the end. There was so much tension between them after my mother’s diagnosis. Neither found a way to express their fears. They thought they knew each other and how they felt and assumed that if they opened up to each other it would do nothing to make their situation any better. A fatal mistake for both of them. Now what do I do?
I drink like my father and run like my mother. Not just down the trails, but from any sort of responsibilities. I met someone a little while ago who went through the same kind of situation as I did. She looked like a mess, but I thought she was beautiful. Her cheeks were sunken in and her skin had no color. Her hair was a mess and she often wore the same thing multiple times a week before washing them. I never saw her apartment in the three years we dated. I caught her doing coke in my bathroom once, assumed it was baby powder until I caught her having a sneezing fit. Blood shot out of her nose and the bag fell to the floor. She looked like she wanted to run away, but all I did was hold her. I didn’t want her to go. I said I didn’t mind, and that I know everyone goes through these things, but she should try to quit.
“Fuck off,” I remember, before going back into the living room.
My legs are tired at this point. The same hills my mother tried to climb break me down. My shins are on fire and my left knee aches as if one wrong turn could pop it out of place. I press forward though. I don’t think about my job that requires me to be on my feet for ten hours a day. Vitale’s Construction was very understanding when I came to them asking for a job on the spot. I help unload the trucks and organize the materials that the other workers need throughout the day. Many of these weigh anywhere from fifty to a hundred pounds. At first I appreciated the workout, but now that I wear a knee brace and wrap both my wrists and rub the scar from my elbow surgery to pass the time, I look forward to going home the moment I clock in to work. These runs don’t help in any way, but I’ve found that it’s the only way to clear my mind. I can’t go back to who I was before, even if it means I can’t walk. With every hill I pass now, I smile knowing the way down is a little bit easier.
After that night, Danielle became more open about her drug use. I learned it wasn’t just coke. Pipes and needles were lying out in the open next to the stove. The more she did drugs, the more I became fascinated by them. I didn’t have anyone to tell me no. “Try it with me,” the words make time stand still in my mind. I couldn’t tell her no. I lost any leverage the night I went back into the living room. I never felt better. Everything made sense. I understood and appreciated what my parents had done for me. But I lost sight of what they took away.
The asphalt underneath my feet turns to dirt and rocks. I become more aware of my knee and focus entirely on where my feet should land. Just in time. My breathing becomes more frequent the more I think about it. The bridge is coming up and I think about jumping off. I erase the thought and go back to my feet. The beautiful trees and tall grasses with flowers interspersed between them blur in the background. Tunnel vision sets in. It reminds me of all the coke we used to do. I shake my head again, and press forward. I think of Danielle when we both tried to quit for the first time, when we both went down this same path and when we got to this same bridge. She asked if we should jump once. I laughed and told her to keep running. The concern in her eyes told me to take the smile off my face.
We went on three more runs and I already found my new addiction. At least this one was healthy. For the first time, I felt like I was in control. Danielle felt it too. She knew she lost her hold on me. When she walked out the door, she wasn’t sad and she wasn’t happy either. She looked determined, experienced. I watched her stand at the bus stop across the street. I felt my parents looking down and smiling. I always told myself that when they passed, they realized that they were too hard on themselves, guiding me through all the struggles that life tends to throw you into without your permission. I heard the bus come down the street. Then she looked up. She didn’t see me staring. She boarded the bus and I put on my running shoes. When I get home, I’ll clean up the mess, I remember thinking.
I started running to clear my mind but every time I run these thoughts come back. I end up on the ground begging for mercy. Everyone sees through me. They know something’s wrong when they ask if I’m okay. I wish one would just tell me it’s going to be okay. I come up to the end of the path and realize that this is the farthest I’ve run. I’m also alone. No one has passed by from either direction in over five minutes. Up ahead, the trees give way to open soccer fields. I walk over to see all the kids running around. It’s just a practice though. No one is wearing their uniforms. A ball comes over to me and I think about how I’ve always hated soccer because I’ve never been able to run. Trying not to embarrass myself, making it seem like I can kick the ball back to them, I give myself a running start. What feels like a bullet going into my knee travels through my body straight to my head. Everything fades.
I feel something cool on my leg when I see the light again. Someone hovering over me is shaking me and asking me what my name is. I can tell I’m not giving them the answer they want. They ask if I know where I am and what I’m doing here, and if I live in the area. There are too many questions. I fade again.
My parents and Danielle are arguing with each other. They knew right away what kind of girl she was. My father holds a pipe in his hand while my mother goes in the kitchen to throw out the rest of the pot. It’s hard to hear what they’re actually saying. The glass coffee table shatters in the living room and a bong is thrown through one of the windows. They get right in Danielle’s face and tell her this is her fault, that I’m not capable of doing anything on my own, that she should be there to help me. A smile sneaks through and my father hits her across the face.
The ground shakes underneath me as doctors hover overhead telling me I’m going to be okay. The light gives me a headache and the rumbling makes me dizzy. My leg throbs, but I can’t feel it when I go to touch it. The doctors pull my hand away. “You don’t want to do that,” they say. “Don’t look down.” Darkness again.
I follow my mother up the mountain and watch her head hit the back of the limousine. My body freezes while my father collapses on the ground behind me. Cars float by while the ground begins to shake. I try to find something to grab but everything collapses underneath my feet. Not even light can escape.
“You’re going to be okay,” I hear again. “Bite down on this,” someone says as a rag is shoved in my mouth. I spit it out as my knee grinds back into place. An ear piercing scream escapes my body. I laugh at how bad it hurts. Confused looks from the doctor make it uncontrollable. Smiling is the only way out. The same rag is used to wipe the blood away from my mouth. “You’re going to need to see a dentist when we’re done.” I feel tiny bits of teeth in my mouth and wonder how much I’ve already swallowed. The thought makes me sick and I black out again.
She was at the end of the bar with a man much older than her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She couldn’t take hers off me—and neither could the man she was with. He noticed immediately and tried to get up to move, but she insisted on staying. Growing frustrated, he ordered another drink and downed it fast. I smiled to see how she’d respond. She smiled back, and the man became furious. He wanted to come over. Ten years ago, he would have said something. But he walked out. Didn’t say a word. They must have just met.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.
“Ben,” I said, as I buy us both beers.
I couldn’t hear her name over the crowd at Snugg’s. The light kept missing her face unless she leaned in closer. Shadows danced around her smile, her jaw very pronounced. I thought about picking her up and holding her against the wall of the bathroom. Instead, we went back to my place where it’s a little more private.
It was odd she didn’t want to leave. For the first time, someone enjoyed being in my presence. I noticed weird marks on her arms when she was on top of me. Mosquito bites, I assumed. Why else would she scratch them so often? She kept looking at her bag, which was also weird. What was in there? It didn’t matter because I was already hooked. I was in the middle of telling her during breakfast that I was into running because of my mother, going into excessive details about her struggle, when my old friends walked in. Her eyes lit up when she caught the scent that followed. She had the same look getting on that bus.
“You have to give up running,” I hear, as the light comes back, as the doctor walks away.