I’m taking up running, I tell my husband at breakfast.
My husband smiles though his juice. Adam is always running and he is always smiling an electric mouthful of fenced whites. He wears spandex shorts and neon shirts of breathable fabric. His man smell rises off of him, benign, like a tea: sweet grassy armpit. Pulp clings to the sides of his glass, translucent half-moons. Lately, I swear, he’s been bouncing.
For real? Adam kind of half-sings. It is easy to make fun of my life choices, but if you stick around long enough you’ll find everyone is good at something. Mine just happens to be inertia. I make couch potatoes look spry. Despite this, he is careful to say: Do what you want. Choice, it is his answer to everything. Why make the bed when it just gets messed up anyway? Adam tousles my hair. I feel like a puppy. There is a twinkle in his eye. Go nuts, he says, get wild and crazy, and walks out of the room.
My first time out I dress wrong. Sweatpants and a turquoise fleece headband—I look like an Eighties tween—but it’s hard to know how many layers I need. The weather is raw. It is not quite spring. My nose drips. The light dulls, flat on the track, but the path itself is scenic, an even five miles rimmed in trees, hedges, a bubbling brook, man-dug lake, blue plastic paddle boats abandoned and overturned. I hunch and kind of waddle, as if there is a fresh load diapered between my legs. Coffee bitters up in my throat. Runners whoosh past. From their pinched, determined brows you’d never think they realize they are going nowhere, that it’s all just one big circle. Running will not bring them closer. Cattails flop over the edge of the road, spent. My feet thunk the asphalt. I huff and puff and punk out before I cross the first mile.
Back home I am red in the face, my heart throbbing through my skull. It hurts to breathe so I fold in half, drop my head to my knees. I try not to hurl.
We can’t all be, Adam says, like that’s supposed to make me feel better. He has a shelf in the family room for his trophies and medals. Hardware, he calls them. He buffs and shines. Adjust your expectations. You’re not about to become a different person overnight.
Who said anything about a different person? I wheeze.
He says, Maybe yoga is more your speed.
My husband is trying to be helpful. He rubs my back in circles as if to burp me; as if to coax a blue-bodied genie out of me, as if I have wishes left to give.
Run with me? I almost beg, blinking away the sting of salt tears.
A fortune cookie on New Year’s Eve: Don’t stop when you hit a rough patch. My son added, In bed, and cracked up. The kid’s eleven. Speaking of bed, I said. But Benji insisted on the Times Square broadcast. We watched Katy Perry in a rubber dress. My five-year-old shook her hips. After the ball dropped and we climbed the stairs, Kylie and Benji in their rooms, I dropped the slip into a jar of resolutions, shut the lid.
Adam comes along but ditches me before I settle on a playlist. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m feeling. Today’s hits or British trance? We’ve gone maybe three hundred feet. Can’t help you! He waves over his shoulder. I watch him peel off. Calves popping, puddle-jumping stride, he runs upright, such posture, as if a cattle prod is pushing him along, branding his backside. He passes on the right. Slow pokes stay to the left. Dog walkers spread out on the peripheral lanes. No one waves or nods; there isn’t any kind of eye contact. Occasionally, a runner swerves onto a side path. There must be a half dozen of these offshoots, capillary trails leading God knows where. I stay on the course and watch him. My feet move, my arms crank like a rusty wind-up toy. I watch him among the long distance runners, the running-obsessed (winged feet tattooed on their ankles), the formerly fat boys with jingly breasts, the female runners in pony-tailed packs, the light-footed prancing in spongy sneaker gloves. I watch him blend in and think how nice it must feel to be a part of something. Eventually, he fades from view.
My speed is fifteen minutes per mile. I scroll through an activity app. My active heart rate is one hundred eighty. My distance is one-point-three miles. My phone cheers: Way to go! It posts my results on the Internet where strangers can “like me.” I microwave a frozen Indian burrito; scrape off the moist towel I’d wrapped around it. Little bits of paper stick to the dough, which I do my best to ignore. The chunks of potato are still cold in the middle, the curry mustardy and mealy, but I finish it off in three hungry bites.
On the porch I sit and wait for Adam, smelling like cumin. An hour later my husband leaps up the block. Lost? I venture but he’s too fired up to hear me. Hot damn! He howls. He punches the air. That was a good, hard, long one. He points to himself reflected in the front bay window, the cleft of his chin a glistening river, and says: You the man.
I take myself shopping. Adam wants me to be happy. Who hasn’t bought into an idea of happiness? $80 for jogging pants, another $50 for the matching top, bright purple with a built-in shelf bra that flattens me out like a dosa. The girls in the store look alike, I don’t know who’s a customer and who’s a clerk but everyone says to trust them. Our technology is revolutionary, they say. This outfit will change your life. I slap my credit card on the counter.
At the custom shoe store I mount a treadmill at the behest of a flannel-shirted professional. I’m more of an outdoor terrain type, I say, but he insists on evaluating my style. What style? He reassures me, We provide this service to even our most seasoned runners, scratching his beard and sticking nodes on my chest. No other retailer specializes in biomechanics. Sounds serious, I say. Run, he commands, the machine at a pie-sized incline. I worry I’m going to fall off. Pay attention, he says. You’ll break a bone. We want to keep you intact. Do you know if you are an overpronator or underpronator? I tell him I don’t know what I am. Two hundred dollars later, he’s figured me out.
At home, we swap news headlines from the papers.
Adam says: Can you believe they still haven’t found the plane?
One out of every three couples cheat, I read aloud, according to a new study published by some dating company for the unfaithfully married. Sounds like that preppy dress designer. Get this—it’s publicly traded and everything.
Has to be foul play, he says. His glasses slip off his nose. I smack the paper with the back of my palm: a photo of a woman, faceless, a hushed finger to her full, pink lips. Adam looks up at me and here comes his smile: flashity flash flash. When he isn’t running or at the office he pads around in plaid pajamas, flannel robe and suede moccasin slippers stuffed with vegan shearling—gifts accumulated since the dawn of fatherhood. It seems to comprise the male uniform of a certain age, background, economic bracket. As seen on syndicated sitcoms. Adam loves that term, economic bracket, piles on the garb regardless of the seasons.
Some use fake names, others fix up their own spouses, or join in together, kumbaya. But it’s not just shits and giggles. I read. The site also doubles as an underground fertility clinic for sperm donors and surrogates, for couples struggling to conceive.
We’ll never know the full story, he says, folding newsprint. He gets up. The table wobbles on its tapered legs. He throws his robe on a chair, twists his body toward the sky—I’m going for a run.
While he’s gone I model my new clothes. I clip the tags. In the full length I study my butt, the pudge sucked in and sculpted into two balls like the kind Adam keeps on his desk for stress relief. My stomach bulges over the elastic waistband, but there is no way around certain inches once you’ve had kids. I stand back as if that might bring my reflection into focus. I step close. I press my chin to the glass until I go cross-eyed.
Adam always says: If you want something, go after it. I suit up. Before Adam wakes in the morning I dart out to the track. Years ago it was dubbed Runner’s Paradise and I am lucky, the five-mile trail is conveniently right in my neighborhood. People drive from miles and park in the adjacent lot. I run alone. In the beginning the exercise feels futile, like chasing my own tail. By the second week, I start to understand—the purpose lies in the pursuit. I set goals, draft a schedule. I tell myself: Reach. Each day, I go a little farther. Each day, running becomes a little less awful. My lungs are no longer shredded balloons; I can almost feel them pinkening up. I manage to hit two miles, two-point-five. Classic rock pounds in my ears, only now it’s coming through the Oldies station. That’s what happens to time when no one is paying attention. I squint out the edges of my lids. How many of these joggers have I once known, seen at the mall, shot-gunned beers with during brassy outdoor concerts? It’s not a big town and I’ve never left. Still here, I say, panting, purple, until it becomes a mantra. Like I’m cheating death. Still here, I count the miles: three, four, the sweat blotting my shirt. I feel better already. Still here, I grunt at the gravel and the squirrels, the nests of pine needles, until I am back where I started. Here. A full lap around.
My husband fogs up the shower. He shaves his chest, his legs. This makes him aerodynamic. Faster than a speeding bullet! Kylie lisps. Adam has trained her in taglines. I drop the kids at school then duck into a nail salon where little fish nip away the dead skin and calluses hardening my heels. A mechanical fist kneads out the twists in my back.
A week later it happens: A touch, a tap. At first I do nothing, believing it to be accidental, a runner underestimating distance between moving things, perhaps lacking depth perception. But then I feel it again—on my shoulder, a meaningful orange squeeze. I look left, right. Runners whiz by me, their ear buds blocking out the outside world.
Pssst. The sputter of sound, cartoonish. I check again and now behind me there’s a runner, maybe fifty-five, nose wide and flat, staring straight ahead. He shoots a thick coil of electrolyte goo into his mouth, tosses the packet into a rusted bin by the curb.
When he pulls out in front, I follow. He ducks down a side path. I’ve never deviated from the course before, but I guess there’s a first for everything. We wind through the woods, up a hill, down a ravine, light winking through the branches, a canopy of century-old trees, and when we come out of the shadows into a clearing—shazam, the entire natural world is fucking.
It’s like that Bosch triptych Adam and I saw on our Madrid honeymoon. Muscle tops and jumpsuits, marathon insignia stuck to wet T-shirts, compression sleeves shriveled in the grass like used condoms. There are bodies and more bodies, men with men, women with women, men and women, a vision of skin. The field pulses with a unified rumble: low, rhythmic, ritualistic, as if there is a tacit understanding. The lifelong runners are breaking in the new, the spastic, the flabby. I’m not even halfway into my run, I am barely flushed, but as I begin to unlace my shoes I feel a hand in the damp of my shorts, cupped and calm and unsurprising, as if to say, this is why runners don’t wear underwear. His scent is pickled cabbage. He steers me toward a tree. I have been married seventeen years. No stranger has so much as sprung for a latte. I try to wrap my arms around the trunk as his body opens into me, a distant pressure, not unwelcomed, like a medical instrument. I tilt my hips and arch, until I’ve carved a shallow bowl in my back. The sky is a piercing blue. I look straight ahead. My hands slip, my cheek chuffs the bark like sticks coming together in the cold.
The sneaker salesman was right. Be patient, he’d said. Run through the pain and you will get past it, to the pleasure on the other side. Sure enough, here I am. I drink raw green juice. I stop sneaking cigarettes out the window. I do flamingo stretches while flipping chicken breasts in a pan. I can’t stop thinking of that morning, the birds cawing bright and alive, that dappled sky streaked with the thinnest clouds, errant strands torn at the root.
My weekly mile count rises: seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-five. What’s gotten into you? Adam says. I say nothing but kiss him, buoyant, light. My feet round each curve with increased confidence, settle into the sweet spots along the dirt path, ankles steady, as if to say: I know you. How do you do, where are we headed, my dear old friend.
During lunch I watch instructional videos on YouTube: How to run like a runner. I hold my shoulders at right angles and lift my knees in my chair. I breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, rhythmic as a life support machine. A co-worker peers over my cubicle; I clear lettuce from my lip. Then I blow off an open house for Paradise a second time in a day.
When I get home Adam asks: Did you make it happen? Have we finally struck it rich?
The school year comes to a close. The kids have their plays: Peter Pan, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. We catch their performances on our phones then congratulate them with cone-shaped bouquets cellophane-wrapped from the green grocer. Benji is embarrassed. Kylie asks if the flowers are real. We say: how about some hot fudge sundaes? They say, how about screen time instead?
Part of it’s the times we live in. A broker circulates an email. It’s from Dr. Ruth and it’s gone viral. The eighty-five-year-old has issued a public service announcement—runners make better lovers. Of course, people get paid to say anything. But it’s eerie, how life can be built from a string of lazy coincidences. Patterns take shape, linger. Ruth’s voice on the recording sounds like my grandmother so now I am suddenly crying when I should be laughing.
The other part is habit. I consider forwarding it to Adam but sex is not where we are weak. Sex is where we are strong, our bodies so broken into each other by now that it takes next to nothing; no mouths or hands, without even touching; our bodies stumble toward heat. We come together and fit. Like Velcro. Like plugs to sockets, like Lego pieces in a licensed kit. In this way we make each other whole. And hum. This is what we have.
Mostly it is a summer like any other.
Adam works, I work, Adam runs, I make dinner. Kylie mails drawings to her brother at camp, heads toppling bodies. Not much to report. She decorates the envelope in stars that look satanic. Benji writes: There’s not enough bug spray on earth. I’m being eaten alive. The neighbors go on vacation. We water their plants. They die anyway. Adam replaces them and runs. The streets are muggy but quiet.
Mornings I am fucked in Runner’s Paradise. It is exhilarating. I can’t get enough. Old, young, inked, dreadlocked, butch, bare-chested, baggy shorts; details don’t matter when you are alive. I follow where I am led, maybe fifty spots in the woods, a lot of ground to cover. If the body wants what it does not know then each body is unknowable, caked in a paste of vapor and dust, each trip around the park surprising and new. I cycle through them all. Eventually, familiar smells return, wiseass T-shirts like SUCKA and I PASSED YOU, fuel belts unhinged, loaded with water bottles and bars and energy beans.
Adam cops my thigh. I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, he says. The late show we’ve grown up on has taken a dip in ratings. Has the world lost its funny bone? He says, clicking off the TV. I roll toward him on the bed. I am firmer all over, a plank of muscle, but he goes for my forehead instead.
I tell him I sold a property
He hops downstairs in his gym shorts and cracks open champagne. It’s been so long the flutes are cloudy with dust. We clink.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, I say. It’s only a starter home.
He raises his glass and toasts: To starts.
Then, just like that, it stops. I put on my fancy stretch top, my lucky pants. I lift my chin, do my Kegels; point my elbows in. I run and wait and run and wait but nothing. Could it be a one-off? I try to buck up. Adam slaps aftershave on his jaw. The man never quits. I keep at it. My toenails blacken, fall off. I’m shedding pounds, cheeks caving in, my hair thins to wisps. I buy a tube of glide because my nipples are bloody and chafed. I brush up against a newbie and he tells me to watch it, momma. Stay in your lane.
I retrace my steps in an effort to get back to Runner’s Paradise. I turn off the main trail. I turn onto dogs and owners, an oasis of man and beast. I hide behind a forsythia bush. Men are wearing leashes, neon orange slung at the hips. Dogs are running free. Dogs gather by the manmade lake like office workers around the water cooler. Dogs catch Frisbees with their teeth.
I crouch low and watch until my quads cramp. We have no pets at home.
Where have I gone wrong? I veer off, off, off. Children scramble around their strollers for a picnic. Sunbathers lounge on towels. Hippies shake tambourines. I run down the bends. A circle of wheelchairs festooned in flags of every color. This one’s deserted, a charred pit in the grass. Orange cones stacked like birthday hats on one side of the hole. The entire area is walled off in police tape, two, three times over, taut and strained, like ropes around a fight club’s ring.
By fall, I have chased down every possible path. Whatever once was is gone. Even if fantasies can’t outrun reality, it is hard to believe this is all there is: dirt, people, a row of ducks, three-wheeled scooter towing a kid. Uncle, I think. You win. My feet are leaden. My throat is scratched, like someone’s crushing it. I crawl to the couch. I call in sick. I stop leaving the house.
Adam comes home with a big shiny box wrapped in ribbon.
My children climb onto my lap. Open it, they say. Adam props me up. He draws the blinds. I say, another year already, and he says, thankfully. It’s either that or you’re dead.
Kylie sticks the bow on my unwashed cheek.
I blink and blink in the sudden bright light.
Leaves change color: fire reds, toasted orange, brown curls like chocolate shavings. Wind rattles the windows. I place my hand to the glass and feel the whirl in my blood, pricks in my legs. Never in a thousand years would I have thought—but I don’t think. The missing is a distant calling, a phantom organ. I lace up. I shut the door. Cold whips my ears, veins crack like clay, but I don’t mind. I am running.
Towards the home stretch, I see him: my husband. I sneak up on Adam. Without looking he follows, the swish of his nylon a comfort, the gentle brush of his feet on the loosely packed earth where autumn has fallen. Together we slink off the main path. Our bodies are timed, in sync. We run past the makeshift sandbox, the memorial garden of rare plants, the kite flyers and peace-loving drummers, young girls braiding each other’s hair. Without talking we lie down on a bed of rotting leaves, hold each other deep in the woods.
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press). She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) and her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, The Millions, Berfrois, DIAGRAM, Midnight Breakfast, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Find her @saralippmann.