It’s early afternoon on Canada Day and I am doing nothing. I’ve been reading and staring at the internet and drinking water flavoured with blueberries and cucumbers. I’ve been thinking constantly about going for a run, because I’ve been sore every day for the last week and I don’t want it to stop, but it is hot and humid out (heat index is 35C / 95F) and a thunderstorm’s on its way. I’ve been trying to visualize the misery of the treadmill, to prepare myself for what may be inevitable. I’ll be miserable outside, too, but at least I can’t get hit by lightning. But I’ll put a bottle of Gatorade in the freezer, just in case the storm is over before it gets dark.
On Sunday I spent an hour with a teammate tossing a disc and doing drills at Bayfront Park. Afterward I sat in the shade, finishing off my bottle of warm water, thinking about how much I would regret not going for a run if I just went home like I really wanted to. So I ate an energy gel and got a refill of barely-cool water at the drinking fountain and ran a painful 6k. Painful not so much in my legs or my feet or my lungs, but painful because I was drenched with sweat, burning in the sun, and fantasizing about a bathtub full of ice. Painful because less than halfway through it rained for about a minute, a delicious bucket of cool rain for which I pulled off my hat and sunglasses and stood there with my face up to the sky, but then the clouds passed over and the sun returned and the air was more sweltering than it had been, waves of heat coming off the asphalt. What seemed like a fast pace that afternoon was a slow pace on any other day. I staggered through the rest of the run and walked home from the park.
On Saturday I ran 7k, mostly on a shaded trail but without water, and that was brutal too. On Friday I ran 2.5k home from work. On Wednesday I ran 6k after dinner at a pace that would have been easy in May and had to walk home very slowly so that I wouldn’t throw up. Between the heat, the humidity, and the pitiful 43k run in June (compared to 80k in May), I am in sad shape. My heart rate and breathing are fine, but I’ve lost a lot of mental endurance and leg strength. But it will get better.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Budapest for three days, for work, and I had a great time. I never adjusted to the time difference, which meant I never got enough sleep and spent the mornings with heavy eyelids, but it also meant that it felt good to come home. Budapest was beautiful and the weather was perfect and everything work-related went well. I haven’t travelled much for work — Rome, Singapore, Philadelphia twice, Washington DC, Boston, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Toronto many times, all over about 10 years — but being the kind of person who is ever anxious about the unfamiliar, it’s not something I get excited about, and travelling for work usually means there isn’t time for anything beyond the airport, the hotel, and the rides between them, but this trip was different. The flights were less painful than I expected, my travel papers were in perfect order, and I met many very lovely Europeans. We spent a lot of time on the hotel’s patio looking at the Danube and its bridges and the National Gallery (which we all just called “the palace”) and other beautiful buildings on the Buda side. I went for a run one afternoon across and along and back across the river, getting pleasantly lost in a busy pedestrian shopping area (certainly not intended for runners) along the way. I wanted to go for another run the next afternoon, but the hotel patio seemed more attractive in the moment. The conference area had windows everywhere looking out onto the river. I had breakfast every morning looking out on the river. In my room at night I sat on the windowsill and looked out at the river.
The promised thunderstorm has held off so far and it’s slowly getting cooler. The sun keeps appearing and disappearing. The air conditioning seems louder than it did earlier and the tree branches outside our windows are bending and swaying uneasily. Pizza dough is rising in a bowl on the table next to me. I finished my afternoon cup of coffee a few minutes ago. There will be fireworks at Bayfront Park tonight.
Our first two-day ultimate frisbee tournament came very close to being an unbridled and unmitigated and unbelievable success, but we lost the championship (in our division, not in the whole tournament) at universe point. We play to 15 points or time and need to win by 2 points unless time is up; universe point is when you’re tied and time is up, so the next team to score wins. We made a poor handling choice, and the other team gained possession and scored.
But we won all our other games (four on Saturday and one semi-final on Sunday before the final), I think without ever falling out of the lead, although it came close a few times. It was much different than our previous tournaments, where we were mostly playing teams a lot better than us; in Toronto we were in the low intermediate division which meant we were playing teams at or below our level. The team we played in the final, especially, was a really good match for us, so it was a satisfying game for us that way, but frustrating that we let that final point happen when we had started out playing really well. We have a lot to work on, but we’ve come a long way from last year.
I wore bandages and sports tape on my feet again, and kinesiology tape on my hip in a Vonnegutesque asterisk, and they continued to prove their quality. I ate a package of oven roasted turkey slices over the weekend, which were delicious. I ran out of pretzels but really enjoyed my frozen green grapes. I broke the nail of my first finger well into the nail bed (in spite of or perhaps because of keeping my nails ultra short) but amazingly it hasn’t bothered me much. I only got a little sun on my face in the late afternoon when we were finishing up our last game on Saturday and my hat wasn’t as protective as it had been earlier in the day, but I was otherwise diligent about sunscreen. I had a pint of Steam Whistle and pulled pork & bacon poutine after the finals on Sunday before heading back home to Hamilton. I commuted with a teammate both days and never felt awkward.
After doing a lot of research, I bought football cleats last week — big bad-ass ones, mid-tops, with a strap over the ankle. I only got to wear them in one game before the tournament, so they weren’t even close to broken in. I wore them for the first two games on Saturday and played the second two in my usual soccer cleats. Transitioning between the two types of cleats was crazy — the football cleats are heavy and stiff, with huge detachable studs, and they were wearing at the backs of my heels and my ankles, but overall gave my foot a lot more support and let me move a lot more quickly, especially on hard cuts. Right after putting on the soccer cleats again, I tried to make a hard cut and felt like the shoe was about to fall apart, because it could not hold my foot in place. I adapted after a while but I was sold on the football cleats and wore them in both games on Sunday, and they’ve been great as long as I wear the sports tape correctly (i.e. not too tight). The only improvements I need now are to break them in further and to get replacement cleats that are a bit shorter than the huge 3/4” ones I have now so that I can play on the inevitable hot dry summer grass fields without murdering my spine.
Tonight I played my eighth game in four days: after the six tournament games, we had league on Monday and I subbed on a Tuesday league game tonight. I feel a lot better than I expected to. Although I am stiff and sore when walking around (especially first thing in the morning and after sitting for long periods), I still felt good when actually running around on the field, and even tonight the exhaustion I was expecting has not set in. On Monday, two of the girls defending me from the opposite team had a hard time keeping up with me and said so (I always have an advantage because of my height, but one girl chasing me said I made her feel old, although she was only 20. I didn’t tell her I’m almost 30 and played all weekend). My feet ache and my knees ache and my hips ache and my neck aches, but none of it is unlike the ache after running 12k or more, the kind that goes away in one day now instead of two or three. I almost want to find a team somewhere who needs a Wednesday night sub so I can continue this streak, but a rest day is definitely in order. Unless I feel like going for a run.
First ultimate frisbee tournament of the season last Saturday in Waterloo. Another this weekend in Toronto, Saturday and Sunday. I’ve only played a week of regular league games, in addition to a few practices before that, so my body is still adjusting to the particularities of ultimate frisbee, but my legs, my lungs, and my heart are in good shape.
My feet are something else, though. Cutting and turning has become brutally painful this year in the soccer cleats that were totally fine last year. Maybe because I’m so much faster and stronger than last year and my feet can’t keep up with the shearing forces of my awesomeness? Wouldn’t I like to think so.
My feet had barely enough skin left for running in a straight line, much less playing ultimate frisbee, so in preparation for Saturday, I applied second skin to the open blisters, another bandage on top of that, then several layers of sports tape, then an access of body glide, and finally two pairs of socks. And then recited some choice passages from scripture and sprinkled drops of extra virgin olive oil on my socks. Between most games I changed socks and applied an extra layer or two of sports tape. By the end of the day I didn’t have any new blisters and hadn’t made the existing blisters much worse, so I consider these methods a success.
I was worried about my hip as well, because although it hasn’t bothered me lately while running, during ultimate I can tell it isn’t fully back to normal. So I tried kinesiology tape, a few strips applied to my hip the night before, and although I’m not sure it actually made a difference, my hip feels a lot better than I expected it to. I stretched it a lot during the day and it mostly didn’t bother me or slow me down, at least a lot less than my feet did.
In the few tournaments I played years ago in my teens and early twenties, my rule was not to eat anything during the day — I only drank water and Gatorade. I’m smarter than that now, and with last summer’s experience I have a very specific menu: coffee with a meal replacement shake (chocolate) with extra carbs for breakfast, then between games, 2-3 more meal replacement shakes, 1-2 pre-workout energy bars (also chocolate), 2-3 bananas, a small bag of pretzels, 2-3 small boxes of orange juice, and 1-1.5L each of water and orange Gatorade. I always bring a twelve-grain bagel with me too but never actually eat it. This worked well for a one-day tournament for a sunny but not really hot day, but for two days I think I will need more protein — meat and cheese slices I think, and replace the carb-heavy shakes with protein-heavy ones. I could probably do with some grapes too. I’ve been thinking about trying some of those crazy pre-workout supplements, but I’m not sure how well that would work over an 8- or 9-hour day. All I really know is that most energy bars don’t agree with me on tournament day, and Clif bars especially I will never eat again while playing ultimate, unless I’m ready to collapse and there’s nothing else to eat.
On Saturday the weather was perfect although a little windy — not a cloud in the sky and right around room temperature. However I didn’t reapply sunscreen enough during the day and ended up with a bit of a burn on my shoulders and legs (I wore knee-high socks most of the day, to help protect from the sun and from the layouts I didn’t actually do, because I’m still scratched up from laying out on turf a week ago). I wore a hat all day which saved my face from sunburn, but only because someone stepped on my sunglasses during the first game.
The games themselves were fun. Our team is still getting to know each other so our first game was a warm-up and we only started to get it together the second game. We played our third and fourth games against the same team, an all-women’s team, who were amazing, but we beat them both times (it was their first time playing together as a team, so props to them for playing a co-ed tournament). We also played our first and fifth games against the same team, and did a little better against them the second time (I actually scored a couple of points).
Another women’s team — ranked third in Ontario, I heard — were playing a co-ed team the next field over after we finished our last game, and they were utterly phenomenal. Girls way shorter than I am, evenly matched against guys way bigger than me. What have I been doing with the last fourteen years of my life? I’ve been playing ultimate every summer since I was fifteen, and the coolest things I can do are throw a decent hammer, throw a reliable flick, catch with my left hand, play a strong wedge or cup when I have enough energy and no blisters, lay out when the stakes are high enough, and occasionally run faster than people expect me to. But my throws are not as accurate as they could be, my catches are not as reliable as I like to think they are, and my sense of positioning on offensive plays needs some work.
Some of the team went for a short cool-down jog and spent 20 minutes stretching after the game, like real athletes. I felt really good after that and didn’t start to feel exhausted until a few hours later, probably just as much from the constant sun as from the physical exertion. I took a two-hour nap before dinner, slept in about two hours later than usual the next day, and then had a two hour nap on Sunday afternoon. I’ll take all the recovery I can get before the weekend.
Today I ran 22k, which is just over half marathon distance. Running has been sporadic for the last month after I injured my right hip running 16k with a skewed heel insert and then a week later made it worse playing ultimate frisbee and doing drills for three hours in pain. I limped for two days after that practice. Deep tissue self-massage helped a bit. Two weeks ago I found a stretch that helped a lot (cross right ankle just above left knee and squat; press right knee down if there’s no pain; oh god it felt so good), but the problem didn’t go away. I fixed the heel insert but bought a new pair of shoes anyway (I’d accumulated probably 500k just in those shoes). A two-day ultimate tournament was cancelled, which was both disappointing and relieving, because I had a presentation to work on that weekend and a hip to heal before going to Boston and dammit I was going to run in Boston.
I skipped running for a week — not to heal exactly, but because there weren’t enough hours in the day — and finally ran again on Saturday morning, through Boston Common and Public Garden in the rain. The parks were beautiful — spring was a week or two ahead of us in Hamilton, buds and flowers galore — but my hip twinged reminders that I wasn’t fully healed. We walked for hours on Saturday and then I ran again on Sunday when it was sunny, even though we were flying out later that day (have you ever thought through the logistics of running in the morning when you have to check out of the hotel at noon? I mean as long as you’re the type of runner who sweats a lot). I sprinted down the rare empty pathways and charged both up and down the hills. Boston is the first American city where I felt I could get used to living there. The public transit buses look just like the buses here. I finished my run, crossed my right ankle over my left knee and stretched, washed my clothes, hung them to dry, devoured a large breakfast at an Irish pub, and then we went out to walk some more.
I kept my runs on Saturday and Sunday to Boston Common and Public Garden because they were near our hotel and I was sure not to get lost. I looped both several times, since they really aren’t that large. On Sunday late in the morning we walked again through the parks (they were much more crowded by then with cameras and ducklings) and found the bridge over to the Charles River Esplanade and walked along the river and drank exorbitantly-priced hand-pressed lemonade. I watched the hundreds, thousands of runners there wistfully, regretful that I didn’t go beyond the parks.
After Boston, I was motivated to find the time to run better than I had been doing. Post-work runs were unlikely so morning runs were the next step. This past week I ran twice before work, Wednesday and Friday, just 5k or so with a bit of pain at the end. The first morning I didn’t drink coffee and was sore most of the day; the second morning I did drink coffee beforehand and ran my third fastest 5k ever without breaking a sweat. Okay, that’s a lie; I did sweat a lot, but it didn’t feel like my third fastest 5k ever — it just felt like a great run on a cool morning with no waiting at stoplights.
Yesterday, Saturday, I ran just under 8k and no hip pain whatsoever. It felt like a miracle. It was a cool and cloudy afternoon so the trail was mostly deserted. I ran backwards for a bit, sprinted for a bit, sang along to my music out loud for a bit (when no one was around). By the time I was heading home it was warmer and sunnier and more people were out.
Today was the perfect day for running, although I’d find it too cool normally: partly sunny, around 15C, cool strong wind with no briskness in it. I didn’t wear my usual baseball cap because it tends to make my head ache and tries to take off in a gust, so the wind was always in my face, and for once I enjoyed it. No pain specific to my right hip; just general hip and thigh pain starting around the 13k mark. I did a lot of walking of course, but when I did run my pace stayed around 6:00/km-ish without me thinking about it, which is about 30 seconds faster than my default thoughtless pace in the winter (can’t really compare winter and spring paces though, obviously, even on the same terrain).
I was aiming to run 18k today but then somewhere around the 16k mark (my previous longest distance), I figured that I might as well get to my end-of-May 22k goal now while I had most of the distance covered. I don’t think it was an entirely irrational decision; I have an ultimate frisbee tournament at the end of May so it wasn’t going to happen then, and all the long-weekend chores I had planned were already shot to shit with running 18k or whatever anyway so I would have to do them next weekend, so why not go all the way? My lungs were fine and only my legs were hurting which I could do nothing to prevent at that point, whether I kept running or walked home or called a cab. So I looped a lot of extra blocks downtown in order to get to 22k and finally hit it a block from home, muttered a “Fuck yes” since no one else was nearby, turned off RunKeeper, and limped the rest of the way home.
I stretched on the front steps of the building, enjoying the breeze that, if I were not running, I would call cold and grab a sweater and whine about when summer would get here, but, post-run, was absolutely refreshing. I fantasized about what I would drink and eat once I got inside. I listened to the last couple songs on my playlist, just mostly not moving and plucking up the courage to walk up the stairs, walk to the elevator, walk into our apartment, down a couple of glasses of very cold water and a quick protein shake, take off my clothes, take a cool shower, and try, as much as possible, for the rest of the day, not to use my legs at all, in apology.
One week to race day! I am ready, although I’ve run very little in the last two weeks because of a cold and lingering cough. I’m still a little worried about some of the logistics and what it’s going to be like running with 9,499 other people, but we drove most of the race course today (I was going to run it but there are no sidewalks for the last third and seriously Burlington Street is gross — I can’t believe they moved it there this year — trains, I know, but still, it’s going to be gross) and I am definitely prepared for 10k (maybe not for the overpass hills but it’ll be fine). I’m just worried, as usual, about everything except the run itself.
Today was my last long run — just over 9k — and I’ll do one or two short runs this week to keep from getting lazy. In theory I will do a lot of stretching too but that probably won’t happen. I did a race-ish pace run two Saturdays ago (10k in 1:02) and today I was able to maintain my usual pace (except the part where I ran up the York stairs, which seemed like a good idea at the time, hahaha) and I felt much better than when I tried to run last Wednesday while I was still sick (it was so sunny and I was able to leave work on time and I was starting to feel better but my legs had forgotten what running was and I was still congested and my lungs were not ready for the exertion and I got wobbly pretty quickly). I’m optimistic about doing a PB (runner slang for personal best but it just makes me want peanut butter), which will be anything under 1:00.
If you’re interested in wishing me well in monetary form, you can donate to the cause I’m running for — St. Joseph’s Healthcare.
O. was pacing the front hallway waiting for something — I didn’t know what — and I was sitting with my laptop thinking of what to write. We were out of each other’s sight, but I could hear the floorboards creaking under her impatient feet and she could probably hear that I was not typing.
Once I had written something about O. which I later realized was essentially a love letter. I posted it and, after ten seconds of horror, deleted it. I didn’t save the post anywhere else before deleting it, so it was gone, and in my horror I tried to wipe my memory of what it said. I was deeply embarrassed about having posted it, even only for a few seconds. I was afraid that O. had seen it and read it before her page reloaded, or somehow saved a copy or screenshot of it and read it. I couldn’t remember what I had written, only that I was gushing, breathless, awestruck, foolish. I was never that way — with her or anyone — but in a moment of weakness it came out of me.
There was no reason for me to think that she knew about that post, no indicators, but sometimes when she looked at me she seemed to know all the darkest secrets of my deepest soul, this being one of them, to torture me with her knowledge of it, and then to shrug and look away as though it was nothing. As though my deepest secrets were a speck of dust floating in a sunbeam. That was why, I think, I loved her so much. I felt safe with her. I thought there was nothing to worry about with her because she didn’t care enough to hold my faults against me.
O. left her place in the front hallway and stood at the threshold looking down at me. “If someone comes to the door, tell them I’m not around and won’t be for the rest of the day.” I nodded and she looked pointedly at my laptop for a moment, but I didn’t know what she was trying to say.
She turned around and went upstairs or downstairs, I couldn’t tell. I started typing when she was far enough away that she couldn’t hear the keys. At first I made a lot of mistakes and hit the backspace key more than anything else, but when the floors stopped creaking I had stopped shaking and finished the first paragraph. Then the doorbell rang.
O. yelled that she would answer it, and came running from where ever she had been — upstairs, I realized, from the sound of her feet pounding the staircase in the front hallway — and slid across the floor in her socks to the front door. She flung it open with a bang and screamed, “Otto!”
I placed my laptop on a nearby table, still open, and stood up to greet them. For a few moments I could hear that they were talking, but not what they said. O. was speaking quickly, excitedly, but in the same way she usually spoke to me — as though she were speaking to someone else; as though she invited no response. I felt foolish, more foolish than usual, standing there as though waiting to be formally introduced, but I stood my ground. When they came into the room, O. was still talking to Otto and ignored me. Otto pointed his chin in my direction.
"Uncle had his coffin made before he went on his first trip to Tunisia. He had a premonition he would die there. I’m pretty sure that’s why he keeps going back. Morbid. He wanted to make sure they got the measurements right, because he’s so tall. He’s also allergic to some types of wood, so he was very strict about what it was made from. I know, even though he’ll be dead! He’s so weird. I’m not sure what kind of wood they ended up using."
"I thought your uncle wants to be cremated," Otto said.
"Oh no, he wants to be buried in the garden, out back. He drew a map once where he wants to the burial plot to be, and how he wanted the headstone to look, but I’ve lost it now, and in any case that was before the gardener re-landscaped the whole thing. I’m going to get it. I have to try it out now that I’m thinking of it. Otto, you should see this."
"Need some help?" I asked. Otto shoved his hands into his pockets.
"No," she said, leaving the room.
Otto didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I thought at first he was her brother, but from the way she talked about her uncle to him, he couldn’t be. Then I had an idea who he might be, from the few emails where O. had mentioned her real-life friends, and that made me wary of him.
O. was still talking from the other room — the second pantry behind the kitchen, I thought — but we couldn’t hear what she was saying, and I was sure she didn’t care. We waited in silence, pretending to listen to her, until finally we heard something scraping across the floor in the next room.
Otto leaned towards me as O. dragged the coffin into the middle of the room and spoke under cover of the noise it made against the hardwood floor. “You know she’s lying, right?”
I wasn’t sure whether to trust him, so I shrugged. “Does it make a difference?”
He shot a lost look in O.’s direction, and then I knew I could trust him. “Yeah, I guess not. I guess it just pisses me off sometimes.”
"Don’t tell me you don’t invent some of your own realities." I knew what his look meant, and what it felt like.
"What?" O. said, straightening and looking from Otto to me and back again. We stared blankly at her and she bent down again to adjust the rug under the coffin.
"Fuck," he said quietly, tapping his fist against the floor in a gentle show of frustration. "Fuck." He looked over at my open laptop and gestured at it, like he wanted to punch it. "You met her online?" I nodded and he sighed deeply. "One of those." I couldn’t tell if he meant to offend me or scare me off. I wondered if O. had ever been in love with him. I imagined that she probably had been, a long time ago, and he believed it still held some power with her, while she knew it still held power with him.
He stood up, walking toward the front hallway. He knew she wouldn’t see him out. “Gotta go, O. See you Friday night?”
"Bye, Otto," she said as she stepped into the coffin, looking at the space around her body as though she wasn’t sure she’d fit.
Otto stuck his head back in the door and lifted an eyebrow at me as though asking a question, but I didn’t know how to answer him. He turned and a few seconds later the front door slammed. I stood up slowly, darkness swimming suddenly before my eyes. I hadn’t eaten since my breakfast alone late that morning. Outside the last of the twilight was fading. O. would soon be going to bed.
"What does the O. stand for?" I asked.
She laid down in the coffin and crossed her arms over her chest. “Nothing,” she said, closing her eyes.
We laid in the afternoon glow, bare arm to bare arm. I had just said something that I can’t recount, that I would never repeat. I wanted to take the words back but I held my breath and waited for O. to react. I expected her to jerk away from me, imagined that my thoughtless words transmitted themselves through my skin into her skin and sent a shock of revulsion through her. I waited for her to recoil, but she only continued to breathe into the light. Minutes passed and I thought she was punishing me. But then she said, “I’ve been thinking what to have for dinner. Would you help me make a stirfry?” I wanted to grab her and clasp her and grope her with gratitude. But I only said, “Sure.”
I was sick for most of last week, so by Saturday I hadn’t run in seven days and was behind on my training plan and was very ready to go out. The temperatures were well above freezing — a relief after the whole polar vortex thing. Unfortunately I didn’t stop to think what the sidewalks would be like. Last week, even the sidewalks that were normally well-cleared were mostly covered in ice — thick ice where salt didn’t make much difference.
Just before I left home on Saturday I saw someone mention on Facebook that Bayfront Park was too icy for a walk, but I headed in that direction anyway. I was running at a decent pace on the clear parts — because running is fun and I was excited to be out and I wasn’t cold even though I wasn’t warmed up yet — but then trying to navigate the uncleared parts I did mostly a kind of flat-footed hop. I don’t know how I managed not to fall.
I thought a lot about turning around to go home and run on the treadmill. I passed the way to the park because it looked scary and kept going north. I ran on the street in the quiet neighbourhoods where people were standing in their driveways, pounding at the ice. I was listening to an audiobook but not paying any attention to it. I thought about a street I had passed closer to home that looked promisingly ice-free and finally turned around. The sidewalk turned out to be very well cleared and it led to another clear sidewalk and then another, so I did joyful loops — no flat-footed hopping! — and finished off with some 20-second strides — without worrying about landing on my ass! — and then I was ready to go home.
I took a different way home, along Main Street, figuring that a street where there are regular bus stops would be clear. I was wrong. A certain lot owned by someone who wants to build another condo — practically next door to ours — was kind of a deathtrap, because the sidewalk’s on a slant toward the street which meant that if I slipped I was going to fall into oncoming traffic. Made it past that block alive but barely.
Today, Sunday, I was initially going to use the treadmill because I didn’t want to bother with sidewalks again, but everything was less wet than it was yesterday and the sun was out and some of the warmth was hanging on, so I found an ice-free route to the joyful loop from Saturday and did some speed work. Two minutes fast and two minutes slow for 30 minutes — eight loops. I listened to the same audiobook from yesterday but actually paid attention. There were puddles which I had no choice but to splash through. I chased my own fading wet footprints.
The training plan gives a range for the fast pace and I beat it seven out of eight times, mostly without getting a stitch in my side like I normally do when I push myself. I walked for parts of the slow intervals but that was partly because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and partly because it was hard to focus on maintaining a slow pace and I would run too fast. Finished with my best average pace ever for this distance. Only two workouts behind now on my training plan.
O. and I used separate bathrooms at her uncle’s house to get ready in the morning and at night before bed. I wasn’t exactly sure where hers was, because it was attached to her bedroom and it was one of the doors that was always closed. There was one set of double doors and two single doors, and I hadn’t spent enough time in her room to figure out which went where. I suspected one was a laundry room, the double doors probably the closet. My bedroom was just down the hall, either another room or a closet between our doors, and a lot of wall space covered with framed pictures I mostly found disturbing without looking closely at them.
I brought my own arsenal of toiletry items, but my bathroom came with a large variety of elegant sample-sized soaps, lotions, and perfumes. I only used my own things for the first few days, but on the third morning, confident and optimistic, I used one of the tiny individually wrapped soaps and a couple of squirts from one of the bottles of lotion, from the top of which I had to peel back a protective cover.
That morning in the kitchen, O. leaned close to me, in a sudden move that brought her nose to my neck, and my heart nearly stopped or at least sputtered. “Mmm, you smell different this morning,” she said, then pulled away to open the refrigerator. I didn’t trust myself to respond to any of her comments for the next half hour, but that was nothing new. I could only smile and nod and murmur noises of agreement or interest.
The next morning, I tried the same again, but O. gave me no reaction. The morning after that, I tried a different pair of soap and lotion, but still nothing. There were very few moments she came that close to me again during those two weeks we spent together. I went back to using my own products. I always wondered what products she used, what she would smell like if I touched my nose to her neck, but then I could not bring myself to come so close to her out of fear that she would pull away from me again as she did in the moments after we first met.
Instead I imagined her getting ready for the day in the morning and getting ready for bed at night. I could hear when O. was in her bathroom — the water in the pipes — and I was sure she could hear me as well. I imagined her in my own bathroom, since I couldn’t imagine her own with any accuracy. I imagined her bent over the sink, leaning close to the mirror, looking at herself, turning her head from one side to the other. The tap water running over her fingers and down her hands and up her arms, wetting the sleeves of her shirt. The water splashed in her face, the damp hair at her forehead and temples, the clarity of her eyes between wet eyelashes. I imagined her while looking at myself, trying to replace myself with her, trying to be, I think, her.
We leaned against the bed’s headboard in one of the three or four guestrooms we weren’t staying in. There were flat pillows in the smalls of our backs and books on our laps. We were reading there because that was where the late morning light was best, O. said, although we kept the blinds closed.
I was stifled with pleasure to be there, on a bed next to her, so casually, as if we were best friends or a married couple. I couldn’t focus on my book and hadn’t read a word. O. kept turning her pages as I stared at mine, and I was worried she would notice that I wasn’t actually reading. I didn’t want her to think that I wasn’t enjoying myself, sitting with her on a bed in the late morning of a weekday when normally I would be at work, stuck in my boring routine, like everyone else. I was so happy that I was afraid of doing or saying something wrong, so I kept as still as I could, nearly holding my breath, thinking about anything except how happy I was. I don’t remember what book she was reading or what book I wasn’t reading — only the quality of the light and the sound of her breath which at times seemed to overtake mine.
Eventually I couldn’t stay there any longer; I had to get away. “How about some tea?” I asked. O. made a noise of assent without looking up from her book.
I didn’t know whether her uncle had a kettle or what kind of tea there was or what kind of tea she wanted or how she took it. But I went downstairs to the kitchen and fumbled my way to a cupboard full of mugs and leaned against the counter in a state of bliss as I waited for the water to boil.
When I came upstairs again with mugs for both of us, having spilled some tea on the landing and possibly burned my hand, O. had finished reading and closed her book and opened the blinds and was looking out the window at her uncle’s garden. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said. I left the mugs of tea on a table in the hallway.
I sat on a rug with my back against the sofa, shivering in a cold draft from the fireplace. O. was standing on a chair, reaching up with a broom to clear cobwebs from the chandelier that hung in the middle of the room. Her first swipe showered flakes of dust in my direction, and I pretended to cough, hoping to make her laugh. She scrunched her eyebrows as though this made her unhappy with me, and I slouched further down against the sofa until I had a view of the dust bunnies beneath it.
“I can’t believe Uncle didn’t hire someone to keep this place clean,” she said. “How could he think the dust would just stop existing while he’s away?” Having cleared away most of the cobwebs from the chandelier, she let the broom clatter to the floor and hopped down from the chair. She reached up to neaten or mess up her hair, I couldn’t tell which, and stood with her hands on her head. She pushed out a loud breath at the sight of the new piles of dust on the rug and the coffee table and left the room.
I listened carefully but couldn’t tell where she went, because I wasn’t familiar enough yet with the house. Kitchen? Boot room? Upstairs? Everything creaked regardless of where one went. I tried to memorize the contents of each of the few rooms I had seen so far — the furniture, the windows, the doors, the plants, the hangings on the walls, and even the dust and dirt and general sag of things — so that I could remember it after I left. But I wasn’t sure of how the rooms connected yet, what the house as a whole was like. I couldn’t pull far enough away from each moment so far with O. in the room with me to place it in context, to understand each room’s place inside the house on a vast picturesque landscape by a river outside a shy little town, just one expensive flight and a three-hour drive away from where I lived.
O. hadn’t seemed to notice the dust yesterday, after I arrived and we laid on the rug together in the last of the day’s sunlight. She hadn’t seemed to notice anything except that we were finally together, breathing the same air, physically close to each other. We didn’t say very much, but we didn’t have to.
The feeling we shared yesterday dissipated this morning, and O. seemed to become impatient. I pretended not to notice, and eased away from her as she eased away from me. I didn’t let her see that I noticed any change. That was the way we had always been. When she didn’t answer my messages or respond to my emails for days or weeks or months at a time, I never asked her to explain or reproached her or brought it up later when she contacted me again. I hadn’t earned the privilege of feeling hurt or anger as a result of her actions. We had only been friends on the internet, and now that we had met, no matter how nice it was that first day, nothing had changed.
O. returned with a different shirt on, a handkerchief tied over her hair, faded pink rubber gloves, and an old-fashioned powerless vacuum sweeper, with which she began vigorously but ineffectively to get the dust out of the rug. I jumped up and gestured toward the thing to take it from her. Without looking up at me she shrugged and passed it over, handle first.
“No vacuum,” O. said, hands on her hips, watching me. “A house like this and I can’t find a vacuum cleaner, you know, with a plug?” Her body tilted with her half-angry expression of sarcasm. “How can we possibly stay here for two weeks without a vacuum cleaner? And all this dust?” I suggested that we could buy one, and she continued as though I hadn’t said anything. “No way am I investing in Uncle’s household. That nut. I can’t believe him. Well, at least he has plenty of rags and paper towels and things. I’m sure we can figure out something.” She marched out of the room, and I turned to watch her go. “Come and help me,” she called.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sweeping dust under the rugs and wiping down surfaces, leaving everywhere tiny piles of dirt that would not disappear no matter what we tried. O. would do a thorough job of one object or surface but then, fatigued, do a poor job of the next without seeming to notice. I resisted the urge to re-clean everything she touched and instead focused on my own objects and surfaces.
We stopped when O. was satisfied. We were filthy. O. handed me her rag, pulled the handkerchief off her head, and said, “I’m going to take a bath.”
It’s late on Dec 30th which means I still have a day’s reading left — and the holidays this year have proven especially fruitful in terms of reading; me and the couch, we never part for long — but to date I have read 73 books this year. Looking back on the titles, I remember something about most of them, which is more than I’ve been able to say in previous years. But what did I think of them all? An exhausting question, impossible to answer. All I can do is sigh deeply and give you more numbers. Seven of the 73 were audiobooks. Six were non-fiction. All were published in the 20th or 21st century. Nine were published in 2013. Three were by Barbara Pym; four were by Richard Stark. Four were about running; five I listened to while running. Nine additional books I started but did not finish (one at least I will take up again later). I’m currently reading four books, two of which are dippers/slow-burns and two of which I will probably finish before I go back to work on Thursday, if I put my mind to it. Next year, I think, I will read more.
This afternoon the sun was blazing again, warm enough for two layers instead of three. The snow was gone from the bay and the ice was melting, but even more people were out ice fishing on the little inlet off the boat launch. Tents and buckets set out among puddles on the ice. They seemed daring but of course knew better what they were doing than I did. The very cold temperatures recently must hold out well enough against a couple of days above freezing. And the deep freeze will return.
Today was the 10 mile (16k) Boxing Day race that I had considered registering for a month or two ago. I didn’t sign up because although I had mostly enough time to train for it, I was worried about pushing myself too hard and ending up injured. So instead today I watched the runners warm up along various nearby streets in the half hour before the race started, and then silently cheered them on from a window as they passed our building shortly after the race started.
The race course was to be closed by 3pm, so I left for my run then. The sun was in and out of the clouds and the temperature was hovering around freezing. The sidewalks were still mostly a mess, snowy and icy and slushy and clear by turns, but there weren’t any puddles I couldn’t avoid, and after finishing Born to Run this morning, I was thinking about ultrarunning on treacherous mountain trails and wasn’t about to let a little winter weather bother me.
When I got to Bayfront Park, the sun was out and blazing everything a bright blue yellow white. The bay was frozen and covered in snow, and on parts of the trail it was impossible to see where land ended and water began. My choice of Brian Eno’s Apollo was apt.
There was a family with father and child throwing snowballs at each other and mother taking photos of them. There were trucks and people hanging out at the public boat launch which for a few moments was inexplicable until I saw people ice-fishing. I ran north and watched the shadow on the bay stretch further across. After passing the farthest point I’d been along that trail, a man stopped walking to watch the geese fly overhead and settle in the pool where the canal flowed into the bay.
I crossed underneath the highway and ran alongside it for a time, and then the trail ended and my phone’s battery froze. Although I had the Garmin on, 12:00 short of my real time for slow GPS acquisition reasons, I stopped paying much attention to how far I was going or how far I had to go. At that point my legs were moving of their own accord because I was sick of negotiating when I could take a break because my mind wandered and I forgot to take the break I promised myself so I just kept going and going, numb and aching. I stopped thinking about anything and time was somehow passing without me noticing.
I was at a place in the city where I had often been by car but never on foot, and as I watched a couple of people come off a bus and waited to cross the street, I decided to keep going and take a longer route home, along a street I hadn’t taken since the fall. I crossed the highway again, this time on a bridge above it.
The last stretch was brainless. All I thought about was tapping the snow off my shoes while waiting for a light to change, jumping onto a snowbank to let a couple pass a narrow, poorly-shovelled sidewalk, glancing over my right shoulder before crossing an intersection.
I kept my pace steady for once — no sprints, no intervals, nothing; just an honest long slow distance run. The pace I can maintain without losing my breath is faster than it used to be — I wasn’t out of breath once today. I thought about my breathing to stop thinking about my legs — always concentrate on breathing out, all the way, with two or three strides before a quick breath in and then a strong, focused breath out — because quads, knees, and ankles were all aching and cold.
I ended up running more than 14k, less than 2k short of the Boxing Day race distance, and I ran most of the course. I have a goal set up in RunKeeper to complete a 15k run, and now the “94% completed” taunts me. But with this run I passed 300k run ever — since September 14th — and there are still a few runs left in me before the year ends.
Before today, I hadn’t run outdoors in almost two weeks because of the long snowstorm last weekend and the short days this time of year. Thirteen days isn’t really a long time, but it was too many runs in a row on the treadmill for me. I was itching to go out, so in spite of the rain and the just-above-freezing temperatures and the warnings for freezing rain, this morning I went out.
In the fall, if it rained when I wanted to run, I would wait anxiously for it to stop or use the treadmill instead. Now, I can’t believe I gave up perfectly adequate opportunities to run outside. Rain is nothing now. It’s not below freezing, the sidewalks are not piled with snow, there’s no blowing snow or wintry gales, there’s no freezing rain, so what am I worried about? I get soaked in sweat anyway — the rain at least is refreshing.
This morning, it was just above freezing with light showers. I couldn’t decide which of my three or four usual routes to take, because I didn’t know what the sidewalks would be like. The only thing I planned was that instead of my usual audiobook I would listen to Beyonce’s new album. (One’s first time listening to music with lyrics and a beat seems important, but one is not sure why.) I headed south, away from the Christmas shopping shenanigans downtown.
At first the sidewalks were well cleared, although there were soggy/icy banks of snow piled along either side, which made encountering another person difficult (especially one with a seeing-eye dog — I stopped and jumped into a snow puddle on someone’s front lawn to let them pass). I headed to a nearby park with an outdoor track, wondering, ridiculously, if it had been cleared. The sidewalks outside the park hadn’t even been shoveled, but I trudged my way in, leaping onto melting snowbanks (treacherous!) or splashing through puddles (eeep!). After the first few times I soaked one or both of my feet, I decided not to let it bother me anymore, and indeed my feet kept themselves warm enough.
The track was solid slush, but there was an nearby walkway that was mostly clear, for dog-walkers and their ilk, so I did some loops. More puddles, more leaping into snowbanks in attempts to avoid puddles, more trudging through slush. That got boring and proved to be soggier than the route to get there, so I decided to go home, only about 3k in. I looped around the recreation centre and headed down the next street with clear sidewalks.
By the time I got to the intersection where I should have turned to head home, I decided to keep going because the sidewalks seemed fine and, probably, I decided that I didn’t want to go home until I’d heard the rest of Beyonce’s album. Every run is filled with these constant negotiations, these initial plans and revised plans and contingency plans and totally ignored plans. So I headed north to another park on the waterfront, where I usually go at least once a week, hoping the trail would be clear but expecting to turn back as soon as I got there.
Fortunately, the city did good and the trail was the clearest part of the run. Most of the harbour was half-frozen but the geese were pecking at the snow and the ducks were paddling in deeper water and only a few other people were there, and, unusually, no other runners. I took an energy gel and did some sprints and felt amazing for a while. But then I realized I would end up doing 10k rather than the 8k I negotiated myself into after not heading home that first opportunity, and I thought about how cold and wet I was and about how strange it was to enjoy doing something that involved being cold and wet for more than an hour, no matter how soul-sucking the treadmill can be, and I began to look forward to getting inside.
The Beyonce album finished a few minutes out from home, so I listened to “Pretty Hurts” again and sprinted to beat the third to last light before home, which resulted in a wheezing jog the rest of the way. I didn’t sing along exactly, but I may have mouthed some of the words. I danced to “Grown Woman” in the elevator and finally at home peeled off my clothes and took a long hot shower. Afterward my arms and legs were still pink and numb but I was still sweating too.
Then I drank a lot of water and ate a huge sandwich and got a haircut and finished the last of the Christmas shopping, and now here I am drinking eggnog and listening to Christmas music and waiting for the freezing rain to ice me in.
Over time and under pressure, X started to believe that writing something down on her to-do list meant that it was done. Weeks ago, months, years maybe, she would write down what she needed to do on scrap paper which she kept on her desk within her field of vision. But the list grew so long that she couldn’t get everything done, so she avoided most of them and instead rewrote the same tasks again and again, slightly reworded, and thought again and again about actually getting them done, without actually accomplishing anything. And so one day when someone asked her about one task, in a moment of confusion, X said that it was done. That was the end of the conversation, and ever after X considered that task complete, because she had said so out loud and someone had believed her.
The same thing happened again, and then again. Tasks would be left so long undone that they would change shape into something that had done itself, or that someone else had done, or that she had done herself long ago. Eventually X learned not to differentiate between writing a task down and actually doing it. She would write it down, often in various places in various ways, and usually spend some time thinking about it, running through the steps in her mind — there was no question that she knew perfectly well what it was that needed to be done — and then consider that enough to have rendered the thing accomplished.
X would sometimes feel a twinge as she crossed an item off her list, but she always ignored it. On rare occasions late at the office alone or in bed in the middle of the night, she would realize that one of the things she thought was done was not done, and she would have a small panic attack underneath her desk or in the bathroom. Afterward she would block any further thoughts of that unfinished business — they were so glaring and painful that it cost her no effort to retreat and search for another thought to replace it — and forget her realization.
Occasionally someone would ask how something was coming along, and she would widen her eyes in surprise and innocence and exclaim that she had done that already. When they would ask for more details or to see evidence of this thing that was done, she would get confused and sometimes visibly upset, as though she were being accused of lying or being held responsible for something that wasn’t hers. Out of fear, they would pursue the conversation no further.
When those working with X finally realized that she had rarely done anything she claimed to have done, it was too late, and the world was about to end.
Everyone would die — soon, now — and it was X’s fault. She knew this, but didn’t understand why, couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong, until in a flash she knew everything. Then the universe erupted into fragments of nothing and took all the pain away and brought it back many times worse. In the absence of nothing and the presence of everything, X knew she would never be forgiven for what she had done.
I run my first race tomorrow — a 5k. I am excited to find out my race pace — I have been running alone so much that it will be good to get a feel for how I place amongst others. I know it’s not about the numbers, but the numbers are the best way to show progress — and with several weeks of running behind me, some empirical proof of how far I’ve come will be nice.
But doing new things stresses me out, and the best method I have for dealing with that is learning as much as possible about what I’m getting into. I know the race course well, which helps immensely; I read about someone’s experiences running earlier races in the series and looked up the finish times for those earlier races; emailed the organizer to double-check something that wasn’t clear but pretty obvious; I got two coworkers to come and race with me so I could double-check all my uncertainties with them. So I’m ready to face it (I’m hardly even nervous now which is unusual), and more than ready to run the distance.
I ran 10k last Saturday. Every run is always hard — even the slow, easy ones, especially on the treadmill — but it’s the kind of hard where the pleasure of overcoming it far outweighs the discomfort. There are always flashes of ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ but then I realize that I’ve been running for ten minutes and I’m not even out of breath and I’m finally getting warm and my legs are stronger than they have ever been in my life. The mental work is as hard as the physical work. As I get into longer distances (I’m hoping to get to 20k by the end of the year), I expect my brain to undergo the most changes. I think I’m prepared for the rest of it — I have read up so much on long-distance running now that it feels inevitable to aim for a half marathon next year and for a marathon the year after. If you can run for an hour it seems only a matter of equipment and safe training to go longer, but it’s the patience and strength to withstand the constant inner voice of doubt and fear that I most look forward to learning.
It’s been more than a week since I Became A Runner which I’m going to take as license to write about it. Co-workers peer-pressured me into signing up to run 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) in a three-person relay race next March. I went for a jog once about nine years ago and have otherwise never gotten close to Being A Runner, so this is a big deal for me. Saturday before last I started what might, with a giggle-snort, pass for training.
Running — and in general physical activity other than playing ultimate — has been on my mind for a while now, so although I refused the race several times before I finally accepted, when I did I threw myself into it. Downloaded RunKeeper, researched training plans, thought out my routes, considered my shoe & clothing & gear needs. Did my first run the next day, which involved more walking than I was prepared to accept, but I planned to keep it easy to start anyway and after more research decided that I was allowed to walk. With ultimate frisbee I’m used to many short bursts of sprinting with minimal sustained running during the games with lots of breaks between points and for subs, so it will take me a while to build the endurance for longer runs.
I am surprised at the side of myself that suddenly emerged once I committed to the race. As usual as soon as something gets my interest I become obsessed with it — so let’s hope I don’t lose interest before March — but I wasn’t expecting to be looking forward to running, to actually wanting to get out of bed early on the weekends to go for a run. Predictably, I have an intense interest in tracking my numbers and working to make them look good. I was planning to run four times a week at first but right now the so-called rest days are making me impatient for improvement so I’m thinking five or six days now. I haven’t pushed myself to the same level of sore as after the first ultimate game back in the spring after doing nothing all fall and winter, but I don’t want any injuries and I have lots of time before the race so I need to be kind to myself.
This interest in taking fitness more seriously has come and gone over the last several years. The idea isn’t necessarily to lose weight or feel better about my body — the usual reasons people start exercising — but to push myself beyond the limits I’ve been happy staying within for so long. I joined an ultimate tournament team earlier this year for the same reason — this was my 13th summer playing ultimate, but I’ve been more or less the same kind of player for the majority of those years. I’ve become a smarter and better player in some ways, but essentially I’ve been playing the same game. Then I was invited to play tournaments with a new team and now I’m learning to apply concepts I know in theory and have seen in practice but never took seriously in my own game. I’m learning to be a handler! And a short cutter! That’s a big change for me because I was so comfortable playing the mid-deep and deep cut that I lost all confidence in doing anything else, especially handling the disc. But now I’m figuring out new things and learning to be a better, more flexible, more responsive player. Seeing my own progess in ultimate over this summer also encouraged me to have faith that I could progress in other ways too. I signed up for the race before even going on my first run, which sounds like the last thing in the world I would do, but it felt like exactly the commitment I needed to make to get serious about it.
Instead of listening to music on my runs, I’ve been listening to audiobooks. My first choice is a pretty simple novel (The Cocktail Waitress by James Cain) which means parts of the narrative can disappear beneath RunKeeper’s audio cues without leaving me in the dark story-wise. I’m halfway through and have a Parker novel lined up once I’m finished, but after that I’m not sure. A lot of books won’t work because being detail-oriented I’ll miss too many undoubtedly crucial details while listening breathlessly for my latest average pace and negotiating with myself when to take my next walk break. I’m taking recommendations.
“Work, paradoxically enough, is a comfort. One wakes up wanting to cut one’s throat; one goes to work, & in 15 minutes one wants to cut someone else’s — complete cure!”—Philip Larkin in a letter to Winifred Arnott, 16 November 1976
"Nothing could blacken my name in Maiden Eggsford. I’m much too much the popular pet ever since I sang ‘Every Nice Girl Loves a Sailor’ at the village concert last year. I had them rolling in the aisles. Three encores, and so many bows that I got a crick in the back."
"Spare me the tale of your excesses," I said distantly.
She sits with her back to the door and lately when someone knocks she turns around with a look of annoyance, of aggrievedness, of righteous anger, of cowering fear, of weary surrender. Her brow may be thunderous or pitiful but never smooth. In the act of turning she realizes what her face must look like and she does not care, but then she sees the faces of her visitors. Their reactions vary but regardless they induce guilt for the unattractive emotions she allowed herself to show, and as soon as she can but always too late she relaxes her expression. There is no reason to broadcast her unhealthy state of mind to the friendly people she works with and induce them to display concern, regret, fear, or defensiveness. She didn’t mean to cause them to have as little control over their own faces as she has, these days, over hers.
One day a visitor tells her that the very act of smiling, even without emotion — but with the appearance of sincerity, without that glint of desperation in her eye — will be enough to make herself think that she is happier than she really is. She thinks that this is ridiculous and that it is probably true. So she practices smiling alone at her computer monitor and, when she hears footsteps coming down the hallway or hears the dreaded knock on the door, she relaxes her face and brightens her eyes and draws her lips up at the corners, but she can’t tell what she feels.
When we visited with the family at my parents’ house today, I didn’t take a photo of my mom because I was too busy playing with the children. There are so many of them, and they are so adorable! So loveable! Their mothers, these women who gave birth (or not) and have devoted so much of their lives to their children, they are amazing. Having even one child must be as challenging as having six, like my mom did.
My mom is always the one to take photos at family gatherings and add them to her innumerable scrapbooks, and I am one of few she relies on to prove her own existence at these events, because I have the camera out almost as often as she does. Today I failed her. But I did bring her flowers — tulips that had not yet fully opened — although I’m not sure how that’s supposed to make up for it. Next time, Mom, next time. And thanks for making sure I turned into a decent human being.
I’ve been looking through some of the copious amounts of writing I did in the early 2000s and found the following in a pseudo-hidden diary entry from August 2001:
So, I’ve been thinking about writing a novel. It would be about a cup, a blue plastic cup who only ever sat on the computer desk beside the monitor because no one would put it away. The blue (please keep in mind that this is a light, slightly-darker-than-baby-blue kind of blue) plastic cup, however, managed to make a friend: the short pretty glass! The short pretty glass had also been left on the computer desk for an upsettingly long amount of time—the liquid in her bottom had already begun to harden!—and when they began to converse (silently, so the big scary curvy creature sitting at the computer desk [i.e., me] wouldn’t hear), they found that they had much more in common than just the dust they had collected during their really long stay on the desk. They did, eventually, fall in love. I would end the story by having them brought downstairs (not by me, however, no!) and being washed and then separated in their separate cupboards, separately. Or perhaps the short pretty glass will break somehow in the dishwater, while the blue plastic cup looks on in horror and despair, not being able to do anything to help her. The last paragraph could contain: the short pretty and broken glass, covered in suds and slippery water, is carried off and dumped unceremoniously into a garbage bag. The blue plastic cup contemplates suicide, but is horrified beyond all horror he has ever horrifyingly experienced at the realization that it’s not possible to kill himself.
I’m not sure whether, as a writer, I’ve changed much since then.
My little sister had her first baby last week. This is the sister I shared a room with for most of my childhood, the one I played Barbies with when I was too old, the one who didn’t kill me when I gave her dolls what I thought were very cool haircuts, the one I am still sometimes surprised to remember is no longer a fun, energetic teenager but is instead a fun, responsible adult with a partner, two step-kids, a gigantic dog, and a house. (Often when I think of my siblings — particularly younger siblings — I default to the time when I knew them best, before I moved out of my parents’ home, which is getting close to ten years ago now. Surely this must improve with age, not worsen.)
The baby is Callie, four weeks early, not even four pounds. People keep referring to her as a peanut, which is actually apt, so that I have come to think of her as a peanut too. One of her middle names is after our grandmother, Carol. Callie’s arrival was announced on Facebook, but I didn’t see the update until after my oldest sister called to share the news. There are new pictures of the peanut every day, and I am probably imagining that she is already getting bigger. All of my sisters have babies now. Everyone is so happy.
In the last week’s mornings at the bus stop I’ve noticed a woman who reads a book while walking down the street. I’m too far away to guess what it might be, but it’s a large book, hardcover. Not a textbook, I think — maybe a novel. At the corner she looks up to wait for the light to change, and she closes the book before she crosses the street, while she passes someone coming in the opposite direction. She wears shoes suited for spring, with skirts and bright colours, and her bag is yellow like mine. Something makes me think that she is calm and content and warm, and that something about the book makes her so.
I still wear a winter coat, scarf, and boots, because I wait for the bus in the shade and the spring wind is cold. There are others with bare legs and arms. I don’t read on the way to the bus stop — the sun is too bright when walking east, and I prefer to keep my hands in my pockets where I can hold my ticket and tighten my fists. But in the evening when it’s not too cold for bare hands, I can manage a few pages, slowly, a finger holding down each line. One moment, forgetting that I am still moving; another, looking ahead for obstacles.
It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11th. Silicon Alley is a ghost town, Web 1.0 is having adolescent angst, Google has yet to IPO, Microsoft is still considered the Evil Empire. There may not be quite as much money around as there was at the height of the tech bubble, but there’s no shortage of swindlers looking to grab a piece of what’s left.
Maxine Tarnow is running a nice little fraud investigation business on the Upper West Side, chasing down different kinds of small-scale con artists. She used to be legally certified but her license got pulled a while back, which has actually turned out to be a blessing because now she can follow her own code of ethics—carry a Beretta, do business with sleazebags, hack into people’s bank accounts—without having too much guilt about any of it. Otherwise, just your average working mom—two boys in elementary school, an off-and-on situation with her sort of semi-ex-husband Horst, life as normal as it ever gets in the neighborhood—till Maxine starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire geek CEO, whereupon things begin rapidly to jam onto the subway and head downtown. She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead. Foul play, of course.
With occasional excursions into the DeepWeb and out to Long Island, Thomas Pynchon, channeling his inner Jewish mother, brings us a historical romance of New York in the early days of the internet, not that distant in calendar time but galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed to since.
Will perpetrators be revealed, forget about brought to justice? Will Maxine have to take the handgun out of her purse? Will she and Horst get back together? Will Jerry Seinfeld make an unscheduled guest appearance? Will accounts secular and karmic be brought into balance?
We walked side by side each not knowing where the other was going. I veered to the right to give her room and she pushed onward that way, veering further and further right until we were on the other side of the street. She assumed that I was going that way, which I was not, and I in turn assumed that she was going that way, but she was not. We stood at the corner talking, and I waited for her to start to cross the street so that I could say that I was going in the other direction. When I said finally that I was going the other way, she said she was too and we apologized and walked on together.
At the next corner the same thing happened again as I watched the bus I wanted to take pass by. We talked on while the stoplight changed over and over again, but this time I leaned to the left where I was headed, where I knew she wasn’t headed, and this time I was faster to point in that direction when the stream of words let up for a moment and I could withdraw. We apologized again and said goodnight. I walked the ten steps down the sidewalk where I waited with aching shoulders for the bus.
The whole time we talked about the same thing, the same topic run over and over again, smoothing the creases and sanding the rough patches and aligning the edges. We stood at the corner waiting for each other without saying anything the other didn’t already know.