Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to. Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings. Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move. – Rumi
Nicole Harkin didn’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions.
Like most people, she would break them due to boredom or a lack of discipline within a few weeks. On New Year’s morning 2015, she woke with a head pounding hangover and a sour taste in her mouth, a cocktail of bile, wine, and pepperoni pizza. She knew she had to change.
While nursing her headache and nibbling crackers, her two children snuggled against her and seeking comfort, as though they, too, had hangovers.
“Will you guys get off of me?” she pleaded.
“We just want you to feel better,” the older of the two said.
“If you want me to feel better, go to your rooms and play a game.”
“Let’s play Scrabble,” the older said.
“I hate that game,” she said. “You always win.”
“Well, you always get your way,” the older retorted.
“Stop it,” Nicole said.
“Go upstairs and figure something out.”
While she considered her menu choices on how to change her life, which she increasingly hated, the younger daughter and then the older rejoined her. She sighed.
How could she ever carve any space or time? Between working and chauffeuring the kids her days were filled.
She hated committing to a gym, which she failed miserably in the odd years of 2003, 2005, and 2007. She liked swimming, but the only pool available was on the other side of town, which would add another forty minutes to any workout. She didn’t have the luxury of time.
She decided to run and winced painfully, knowing what lay ahead. It was over a decade since she stopped because she was having difficulty getting pregnant. That was no longer a concern. After her second child, she had a tubal ligation.
The alarm’s music weaved itself into her dreams. Nicole stood alone on a beach and stared towards the horizon’s empty blue expanse. The rhythmic waves tickled her toes before she plunged into the icy ocean and swam towards the music. The dark water and music washed over her until it swallowed her breath. She woke in a panic and gasped for air.
The pre-dawn darkness disoriented her. She couldn’t remember the last time she woke so early since she considered herself a night person. Most of the time she slept as late as she could since she would spend the previous night finishing work and chores she could not complete while everyone was awake.
Her husband made the girls breakfast and made coffee before he left for work. The children woke her at eight, so she could drive them to school.
Before leaving her warm bed, she thought of leaning over to her husband and kissing him, to remind him she was leaving. She thought better of it. He would wake with fire-alarm urgency, mistaking her chaste kiss for sexual interest.
She watched him sleep. There was only the slightest rise and fall of his breath despite the alarm and her movements. On his back, he slept slack-jawed. A dried salty rivulet of saliva followed the line of his chin and gathered in the crease of his second one. She studied his face and followed the blankets’ contours that shrouded him.
His large stomach protruded against the blankets and hid his morning erection. The only body that repulsed her more was her own. It had softened after two children and all their school activities that focused on baked goods. A decade later her once athletic body still hadn’t recovered, it was hidden beneath a layer of fat that rolled and dimpled. The thought of all of that bouncing flesh during sex disgusted her.
It was such a contrast from the white-hot lust that left them breathless and exhausted when they first met. The glistening beauty of their young bodies moved harmoniously and spoke to their perceived compatibility, which they sealed by sneaking away to Las Vegas and eloping after dating for only two months.
She spun her body to the bed’s edge. Her feet curled on the chilly floor. The night before she placed her running shoes, socks, underwear, and leggings at the foot of the bed. She grabbed them in a bundle on her way to the bathroom.
As Nicole brushed her teeth, she didn’t dare study her face, which she knew was bloated, wrinkled, and tired from sleep. Instead, she distracted herself by searching for a washcloth to shock her face awake. The minty fresh toothpaste could not entirely remove the sourness from her mouth.
Outside, the cold morning air shocked her. She wanted to call this her first step and a victory. Her breath emitted plumes of smoke as though she was a fire-breathing dragon, and she laughed thinking her husband and kids would surely agree. She wanted to return to her comfortable living room and lie on the couch. She wondered if you could call it a nap if you fell back asleep at 5:30 in the morning.
Walking to the edge of the driveway, Nicole inhaled deeply and took her first step, which was followed by the next. The impact reverberated throughout her body as if she were a tuning fork. Her body undulated despite the Spandex to keep her body compressed. With each step, the force of her weight pressed down and slammed against the pavement, as though she were running barefoot. She had to buy new running shoes.
At the end of the street, her breathing strained, and she leaned against the cold metal pole of the stop sign. Her stomach convulsed as though she would vomit. She rested her hands on her knees and waited for her stomach to settle.
She jogged halfway down the next street and quickly detoured towards the arbor vitae. She hurled all the nastiness her body harbored.
“Happy fucking New Year,” she moaned.
She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and walked the rest of the two-mile route she planned. Twice more she stopped and vomited.
On Friday Family night the family would sit and watch a movie. Her husband made popcorn for everyone. The kids would put on their pajamas and together they would watch some non-threatening family movie, usually about a princess.
Bored, she flipped through one of the runner’s magazines she now voraciously consumed, believing she belonged in that world of world class athletes. She hoped by reading about runners it would keep her motivated, which she found waning.
The kids’ winter schedule, now in full gear, exhausted her and made it difficult to answer the 5 AM alarm. Her body still ached, although less each week. The weight hadn’t exactly melted away as she imagined it would by burning the extra calories.
The article on partner workouts caught her attention. It said running with a partner enhanced motivation and commitment. She leaned over to her husband, who was now on his third beer.
“Would you like to start running with me?” she asked.
“This article says it would help with motivation to have a partner to stay on task.”
He swigged the beer and playfully belched. The girls turned from the television and looked at their father with disgust.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“This is hard-earned.”
He rubbed his stomach.
“Looks like you’re on your own.”
Nicole now ran two miles without stopping.
To occupy her mind, she replayed the biopic of her life. She recalled all the grand plans, and how they all crumbled.
Today she remembered the fall of her senior year. She ran cross-country in high school and running ten miles was easy. Today’s two-mile run, which constituted her physical capacity, was once a warm-up. She recalled winning two meets her senior year. It was not the satisfaction of winning that stirred her imagination but the lightness in her stride throughout the meet. When she crossed the finish line ahead of two-dozen other runners, she wanted to keep running.
Now, she saw her house one hundred yards away. She sprinted towards the end. She pumped her arms and leaden legs. Everything burned, so she stopped.
She exhaled heavily, caught her breath, and jogged slowly home. She spotted two German Shepherds racing from the neighbor’s front porch towards her. Their barking engulfed the quiet Saturday morning. They startled her, and her inclination was to turn and run away.
She jogged tentatively and extended her arm as though she might push the dogs away should they attack. Continuing ahead, she watched the dogs with her peripheral vision. Growling, they chased her the length of the house’s frontage but stopped feet before the sidewalk.
Nicole paused to survey the neighborhood before going inside. The neatly groomed street had the feeling of a Hopper painting. The barking subsided and added another layer of quiet to the morning, as though the noise served as a reminder what lay on the other side of silence.
Before she could turn the doorknob, Nicole heard her girls fighting.
When she confronted them, they were wrestling over the remote control.
“I was watching first,” the oldest one said.
“But you promised we could watch what I wanted,” the youngest said, pleading with her mother.
“Mommy, you promised me last night.”
She scrolled through the evening and nodded.
“See!” the younger one said.
“But I was watching first,” the oldest said.
“This isn’t fair.”
She rose from the couch and took one large, banging step towards the stairs.
Nicole’s husband unleashed a shrill whistle, and everyone stopped. He was in his underwear, even though Nicole begged him to wear clothes around the house.
“What the hell?” he said.
“You guys woke me up with your fighting.”
“She won’t let . . .” the youngest started again.
“Enough!” he yelled.
He yanked the remote from his oldest daughter’s hand.
“Go read a book or something.”
“And you,” he said, looking at Nicole.
“Don’t you have more control of them?”
He walked up the stairs back to the bedroom while scratching his ass. Nicole and the kids sat stiffly on the sofa.
“I’m sorry,” one of them whispered.
Nicole petted both of them. Ten minutes later her husband plodded down the stairs. He was dressed.
“I’m going to work,” he said.
He kissed her so lightly on the lips they barely touched. He didn’t return until after dinner with the smell of beer on his breath.
The birdsong woke her before the alarm sounded on this July morning. Her husband, naked and blanket-less, was splayed on more than his half of the bed. His once muscular body appeared bloated, and his overgrown stomach made his limbs look like sickly sticks.
Nicole heard her younger daughter stir. Nicole braced herself. She loved them, but they were now at an age where she only liked them about half of the time. In eight years they would both be on their own, and she would be free.
“Mommy,” she said.
“Do you want to color?”
“Honey,” she said.
“I’m going out for a run.”
“I know but I just want to color, and no one ever wants to color with me.”
“Daddy will be up pretty soon.”
“He never wants to do anything,” she said as she sat in the hallway and laid her coloring book on the floor.
She laid her body flat and rested her torso on her elbows.
“What color should I draw the princess’s dress?”
Nicole sighed. She couldn’t resist and gave her daughter ten minutes. Hastily finishing a page, she kissed her on the forehead and said,
“I have to go.”
She stretched lightly but not as thoroughly as she should. The pressure of time pushed against her and a deep guilty sadness filled her heart. Looking at her watch, she considered shortening her route but calculated she could finish her planned route and still have everyone ready on time.
She placed her hands on hips and felt the firm resistance of bone. She smiled. Over the last six months, she lost twenty pounds. There was still some to go, but she loved her athletic leanness. She enjoyed seeing her leg muscles dance with each step. Her abdominal muscles pulled towards her spine as though a magnet pulled them tight.
It would be unbearably hot soon, and she appreciated the coolness the early morning offered. Following the path through the woods, she imagined herself running towards freedom, not towards a lover but the ocean where she would dissolve into the waves.
Her sweaty body gilded with a shimmering layer of perspiration. A whiff of pine filled her lungs. Her legs and arms churned, and she was unsure if she was a wild animal or machine in her efficiency and grace.
The farther she ran from home, the more liberated she became.
With each advancing step, she shed the burdens that pressed down upon her. The unreliable husband who was more interested in fantasy sports than her and who constantly belittled her for not being able to balance everyone’s needs, which was code for his needs. The children who would never seem to grow up fast enough. Her parents whose confining hyper-religious rules and gross expectations, still passively-aggressively judged her and her conscious never seemed to escape. Their needs and her failure to appease them cut her as if they stabbed her with dull knives, leaving her wounded and pained.
Pushing forward, she continued her pursuit of unattainable perfection.
She spat violently trying to rid herself of her constant need for approval and to hold it all together. While more than half her friends were on their second or some even on their third marriages, she hung tough with her own miserable first. There were nights when she hoped her husband’s appetites would choke his arteries or he would just leave.
Her parents, who were deteriorating from aged to feeble, now spent their time consuming the world through television and focused their worries on how Nicole and her siblings (let alone grandchildren) would navigate such a terrifying place.
Her side cramped, and she considered stopping. She recalled her first run, and how easily she surrendered. She rubbed her oblique muscles as she slowed her pace. Nicole refused to fail according to the standards set by authority.
She had never fully realized who she was, only what people wanted her to be. Had she allowed herself to gain all the weight for the convenient reason, “because of the children” actually give her freedom she never experienced?
Her freedom felt completely selfish, even more than running. She could not help anyone here except herself. There was nothing to do but focus on breath and the single step. Lightness and a small glimmer of joy filled her heart. It must be the endorphins, she considered. She witnessed her body fill with well-being as though she did not truly possess either her body or joy.
Glancing at her watch, she had to turn around and keep a decent pace to be on time for the responsibilities that awaited her: she had to walk the dog; shower and get ready for work, and the kids needed to be at camp. Adrenaline coursed through her body, and she increased her speed, which her body readily accepted.
She had to be punctual. Last week her boss summoned her and challenged her chronic tardiness. The kids’ camp director politely but forcibly explained that if the children were more than fifteen minutes late again, the camp would turn them away.
Despite thinking of all these stressors, her breathing remained relaxed and rhythmic, as though her body were a separate machine from her thoughts. Her gait was light and easy, as though running had been a calling, just as she remembered it.
Two men ran towards her. She smiled politely and thought one of them winked at her. Pangs of desire and longing surprised her since both were long buried to minimize her own disappointment.
On the front porch, she sat and savored her well-being, as if it were a glass of wine. The morning light caressed her, and the warm air dried her dewy skin.
She had a few minutes before showering. She poured a glass of water from the kitchen tap. She took a long pull. The cold water, like liquid energy, raced through her body. Had she been outside she would have doused herself with it. She sighed deeply and wished she could play hooky.
Her husband, who was studying his i-Pad, cut his eyes towards her.
“Can you pour me a glass?”
She sighed and obeyed.
“Best time ever,” she said.
She extended the glass towards him, but he already shifted his attention back to whatever he was reading. She placed the water on the table.
“I’m going to run in the Thanksgiving race this year,” she announced.
“Good for you,” he said.
He swiped the screen with his index finger.
“It’s not too late,” she said.
“Maybe you could start running with me, and we could both enter.”
He lifted his eyes above the i-Pad and smirked.
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s already Thanksgiving weekend,” her husband said.
“I really wanted to get a few things done before winter. Since we’ll be away for a couple days, I guess they’ll have to wait until spring.”
Lying on the bed like a teen girl who wanted to gossip with a bestie, he scratched the bottom of his stomach which extended below the hem of his shirt. The skin showed stretch marks that reminded her of her stomach late in her pregnancy. He made no attempt to hide it.
She shrugged. There was too much on her mind to answer.
“I really wished I had at least painted the fence,” he said.
“I hope the wood doesn’t rot.”
She clenched her teeth and seethed. Having been married for nearly fifteen years, she was aware of his patterns. There was plenty of time for golf and bars, but there was never enough time to keep the house from peeling at the edges.
“Are you packed yet?” she asked.
“It’ll only take a minute.”
She ran through the to-do list. The kids’ bags needed to be packed with both clothes and diversions for their grandparents’ house. The dog needed to be taken outside one last time, and she needed to place a call to Wagging Tails, confirming that someone would take the dog out that night.
“Any fun for us?” he asked.
She jammed her shoes into a bag. She walked to his side of the bed and opened the drawer for her socks. She pawed through the drawer to find the most comfortable pair for the race. She felt the warmth of his pelvis pressed against her butt, and he wrapped his arms her waist.
“I’m really looking forward to some alone time this weekend,” he said.
“You’re so tiny now.”
He nuzzled his face into her neck and pushed into her. Nicole’s head nearly bumped against the dresser.
This act of aggression reminded Nicole of their quick weekend getaway to her niece’s wedding last summer. In a half-drunken proposition, as he undid his tie, he asked if he could use it to tie her to the headboard. She dismissed the overture as a drunken fantasy. When she dismissed him, he threw her to the bed. Holding her hands down he dry humped her to completion. She hadn’t forgiven him.
He pushed against her again. She could feel he was aroused. She turned and faced him. Their noses nearly touched. His hot breath smelled of coffee, sour and bitter. The distance would have been closer; only his stomach separated them.
“What’s wrong with you?” she scolded.
“I’m just trying to have a little fun, and you’re a bitch,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m a bitch.”
Before either one could say another word, they heard one of the girls bounding up the stairs. They separated. He adjusted himself and spat,
“I’ll be down in the basement. I’ll be ready whenever you are.”
“Mommy,” the older daughter said.
“I don’t have anything to wear.”
“C’mon,” Nicole pleaded.
Her daughter pointed to a mound of laundry as tall as the bed.
“Jesus,” she said.
“Daddy said he would do it when you asked him on Monday,” she said as she burst into tears.
“Well, he must have forgotten,” Nicole said but meant none of it.
“How about if I let you wear my favorite shirts?”
Her daughter’s eyes brightened since she had been angling to wear her mother’s clothes after they realized they were now the same size. Nicole touched her daughter’s cheek and wiped the moisture from it. Nicole distracted her daughter by asking her to grab her baseball hat. She emptied her suitcase.
By the time Nicole fixed her daughter’s clothes crisis, buttoned up the house, and drove the girls to his mother’s, they were two hours later than they agreed to leave.
Instead of a day together, perhaps with the fun her husband desired, they were now stuck in traffic, which caused the ride to be silent and not entirely comfortable. She turned away and watched the traffic build on the northbound side. Her husband drove and fiddled with the air conditioner while she quickly seized control of the trip’s soundtrack, fearing he would force to listen to sports talk radio.
Music initially brought them together. Their third date started at a concert by an obscure indie band, which eventually became a popular one hit wonder, and ended with her staying the night with him and never leaving. As her time for music decreased, she noticed his interest drifted over towards country music, which was the only genre she truly despised.
Nicole hoped for a nice evening out, even though she would forgo a glass of wine (or two) at dinner. The late start and subsequent traffic made a relaxing evening impossible. She wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
“Why don’t we exit and get something to eat,” he asked.
She shrugged. He veered the car quickly to the exit and drove into McDonald’s.
“I don’t need anything fancy,” he said.
“But I’m hungry.”
“Whatever,” she said.
“I’ll have a salad.”
At the hotel, he didn’t bother to unpack and tossed his gym bag on the dresser floor. He then flopped on the bed. The lingering scent of French fries wafted from him.
“Want to have a drink?” he asked.
“Oh, the race,” he said.
“I forgot. What are you planning to win?”
“It’s not the point,” she said.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
He sighed and turned on the television. College football. In bed, his finger traced the curve of her hip. This was his move, and she acquiesced. She gave herself to him so he wouldn’t pout throughout the weekend.
Finished, they were lying on their backs. She fingered his hair above his left ear that was slightly damp with sweat. He curled towards her. His warm breath rhythmically bounced off her shoulder. She could not look at him. The silence was soon interrupted by the quiet growl of his snoring.
Nicole looked at her phone for the time. She would be exhausted for the race. She could not blame her husband entirely for that. She was excited, although she wished she came alone.
Nicole spent a fitful night of repose seesawing between excitement and resentment. As she reached a dream state, the alarm sounded. Her husband, whose back was towards her, didn’t stir. She showered quickly, removing any smell of sex and jolting her awake.
Dressed, she looked in the mirror and tucked her bra strap closer to her neck. She smiled. The lines along her eyes were like small fans. She didn’t mind the tautness of her middle-aged skin. All of her excess marriage and baby weight was gone. She weighed just a tad more when she ran cross-country.
She double-checked to make sure she had her identification and paperwork. Nicole went to his side of the bed and leaned over to kiss him. His eye opened.
“I’m going,” she whispered as she kissed him on the cheek.
He reached towards her, like a blind man, and patted her on the behind.
Walking to the race’s registration, she passed a stop sign and giggled. A few steps in front of her was a young woman who frequently paused to text or take pictures with her phone. Nicole slowed as the other woman framed a photo. The woman was younger than Nicole, although just about all women seemed younger than Nicole now. From a few feet away Nicole smelled soap and lavender. The young woman’s hair hung in damp tendrils.
They walked together.
“Have you ever run this before?” Nicole asked.
“No,” the young woman said.
“This is my first time. What about you?”
“Me, too,” Nicole said.
“Where are you from?”
“Boston,” she said.
“I’d love to do the Boston Marathon some day,” Nicole said.
“That distance scares me.”
“I did it two years ago,” she said.
“Yes,” she said, choking out the words.
“Up until that point, it was a great experience.”
The young woman paused. Nicole rested her hand on her shoulder. The young woman wiped a tear from her face. Nicole’s throat tightened.
“It’s just all luck; you know whether it was someone else or me.”
“It’s amazing that you keep going,” Nicole said.
“What choice did I have?”
They neared the registration where a kaleidoscope of bright colored Lycra shifted and bent against the morning light. The runners coalesced into an amorphous pack with the professional runners in front. The body heat and energy excited Nicole. She shuddered nervously it was like being on a first date.
The gun snapped, and a large roar of unleashed joy rose from the non-competitive runners and spectators. The pack moved forward slowly as she inched closer to the starting line. She looked into the throng on both sides of the street for her husband. Wouldn’t he wave the way his parents did at the kids’ recitals when they were on stage and blinded by the spotlight? Hadn’t he at least learned that much from them?
When she reached the starting line, Nicole pinched her watch and shrugged. Like a traffic jam, it eventually loosened after the first quarter mile and allowed everyone to run comfortably. She paid careful attention to her breath so she would not run too quickly and expend all of her energy in the first mile.
Unmitigated joy overwhelmed her in her solitude and firmly in the company of others, like her, who trained.
Near the second mile, Nicole faced her first hill. The runners packed tighter, some of those runners who sprinted past her at the start, were gassed and struggled with the steep grade. Wanting to increase her pace, she could not find enough open space to pass. The pack tightened. She was inadvertently tripped and flew forward face first. She managed to throw her forearms in front of her face to prevent her chin from cracking into the asphalt. She curled into a ball as runners hurdled over her until there was enough space to rise. The runner who kicked her stopped and asked if she was OK. She nodded and told her to go. Nicole limped to the sidewalk and examined her elbows and knees.
Red droplets oozed to the surface as if tiny needles had pricked her skin, and blood filled the wounds. She brushed a few pebbles embedded in her knees.
She craned her neck seeking her husband as if by some stroke of luck he might be nearby.
Nicole turned. A woman, not much older than she, offered her a napkin soaked with water. She extended it to Nicole, who gently padded the bloody road rash. Nicole kept looking, wanting his comfort. A hand rested on her shoulder, filling her with hope. She turned to find a paramedic. She wiped a few tears away.
“Would you like to sit down?” someone asked.
She declined. She extended one leg towards the paramedic and the next as he cleaned and wrapped her abrasions.
“I’m one twirl away from doing the Hokey-Pokey,” she said.
“You’re ready to go,” the paramedic said as he pulled his vinyl gloves into one another, so they formed a ball.
She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, which surprised them both. He smelled of stringent alcohol and Band-Aids. As if she were crossing the street, Nicole looked both ways before re-entering the race. Her body ached and her skin burned but not enough to quit.
There was never enough pain to quit.
Nicole ran steadily. Her attention drifted to the crowd, which was clearly having more fun than she was. She enjoyed the spectacle like a reverse parade. There were people drinking Bloody Mary’s and mimosas, cooking burgers on a grill, and there was a band playing dance music. Many spectators did nothing but applaud and exhort runners for a straight hour.
Nicole realized her real victory was the release from the mundane holiday habits that her family considered tradition. Over the last decade, Thanksgiving morning meant baking brownies and cookies while being with the kids. Her husband went to a high school football game to see his old cronies and then to the local bar until they went to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.
This was the start of a new tradition.
Her scrapes burned from the perspiration. Her breasts were sore from the weight of his body last night and now with her bra rubbing against them. She wished she remembered to apply Vaseline to reduce the friction.
She was grateful to confront the pain.
Eleven months ago she was heavy and tired. Now her body was taut and strong. Could she run a marathon? Imagine, the Boston Marathon?
Nicole passed some runners and others passed her. She knew by now the professional runners had finished.
Emotionally tapped, she pushed with only one more hill remaining. Her legs and butt burned. She struggled to regulate her breath, and her heart pounded furiously. She wondered if she were having a heart attack, but decided if she was going to die, this was where and how she wanted it to be. The hill crested. Although still a half mile away, she saw the finish line. With the downward slope the pain eased, and Nicole’s breath, while taxed, found a comfortable rhythm.
The crowd ‘s density increased near the finish line and grew louder, encouraging and urging, the runners. Nicole sprinted. The thought of being tripped again crossed her mind, but she didn’t care. Running in the middle of the street between the two yellow lines, she pumped her arms furiously. Two hundred feet from the finish she was at her fastest, and her heels tapped her butt. She pushed oxygen out of her mouth and exhaled deeply through her nose.
She slowed ten feet before crossing the finish line and turned to see all of those who would finish after her, even after falling and receiving first aid. She searched for her husband, as though the familiar face would distinguish itself from the mass of humanity. She crossed the line still searching.
She clicked her watch to register her time. Her legs ached with each pounding step, and her lungs burned. She leaned her head backward and triumphantly raised her arms. The bright morning sky pulsed and radiated on her face. There was no separation between her and the crowd, her fellow runners, the sky above, and the road below.
Nicole walked another hundred yards to catch her breath and was passed by other runners who were finishing. She randomly high-fived a few runners. She located her husband as he was leaving a coffee shop. He held a coffee in one hand, and a cookie wrapped in waxed paper pinched between his elbow and ribs.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“I thought you quit,” he said.
“I thought you’d finish faster than that.”
She nodded and jogged away. There were too many miles left to stand still.