Girls Who Run

southern-lit

words: Marla Cantrell

Sometimes a girl just has to run. Sometimes her feet take over. This is one of those times, early morning, early January. I’m at the Alma City Park, on the trail popular with the older crowd at this time of day, at least when the weather’s warmer. Today, I see two brave women, pushing seventy, in scarves and gloves and hooded coats, and they’re walking a tiny white dog that’s wearing pink booties and a jeweled collar.

 

A man, maybe half their age and approximately mine, walks a few yards behind them. He moves as if he’s nowhere else to be; strolling might be the word I’m looking for. Hands in his pockets, a striped scarf around his neck, the ends of which are fluttering behind him. He is the only one of us without his head covered, and his dark hair reaches all the way to his shoulders. When he smiles, there’s a small gap between his two front teeth. When he says hello, his voice sounds like a voiceover artist.

 

I circle him in a wide arc, trotting and then speeding up. The running shoes I’m wearing I got for Christmas. I got a book of inspiration quotes I’ve yet to crack open. I got a mixer that’s still in the box.

 

Only the shoes I love.

 

The path I take goes up a slight incline and across a bridge that crosses a stream. I make it around the quarter-mile trail three times, feeling the ground drop below me, my feet rising like clouds. It all comes back to me, the way I feel when I’m moving, the way my mind clears. On the next loop, though, the run catches up with me. My calves begin to burn. My lungs squall inside my chest. I slow to a trot.

 

The two old ladies have given up. They’re walking arm in arm to a forest-green Mazda sedan. The dog is off its leash, sniffing the ground.

 

Before the hospital, I ran five days a week.

 

The man with the scarf waves the next time I pass, and says, “Nice day for a run.”

 

I nod again. Keep going, but when I reach the next bench, set inside a small pavilion, I stop, hands on my knees, winded, and then sit down.

 

The squirrels are busy, hopping the trail, going to the water’s edge. The oak trees dropped so many acorns they didn’t have to prepare for winter. So now they look like kids on an Easter egg hunt, scampering here and there, their small dark eyes darting. I can imagine them with bunny ears, with tiny baskets, with shiny new shoes.

 

That’s another one of my problems, all this imagining.

 

Before the hospital, I could run straight up the levy that holds Alma Lake in place. I can see the levy from here, the angle of it like the side of a pyramid. I could never climb it now.

 

The guy is rounding the bend. When he reaches me, he stops. He bends down so that he’s sitting on his haunches. “I’ve seen you here before,” he says.

 

It sounds like a come-on. Like something I’d hear at CJ’s Watering Hole on a Saturday night.

 

I give him a look.

 

“I really have seen you run,” he says, rocking back on his heels. He shakes his head. “You don’t believe me.” He points to the disc golf course that sits at the tip-top of the park. “I watched you from up there,” he says. “I used to play a lot.”

 

“And you don’t now?”

 

“Not as much.” He shrugs. “The weather and all.”

 

“Why’d you watch me?”

 

“It was hard not to.” When he says this I wait, wondering if this is another move. But then he says, “There was so much trouble in the way you ran.”

 

“What do you know about trouble?” I ask.

 

The man stands up. He smoothes the fabric of his pants. “Plenty,” he says, defiant.

 

He shoves his hands in his pockets, and I can hear his keys clash against metal, against the nickels and dimes.

 

“Sorry,” I say, aware that I’m overreacting. At the hospital, they told me I was an HSP, a hyper-sensitive person, a little-known diagnosis. It means I’m not fit for this world. At the hospital, they gave me pills that made me tough like three-day-old bread.

 

“I’ve not been well lately,” I say. “It’s affected my attitude.” I look at new blue shoes. “It’s affected my running.”

 

“What made you so sick?”

 

I look past him to the swing sets. “I feel too much. I imagine too much.” I exhale. “You know how dogs are? How they can smell everything? They have, like, 300 million olfactory cells. We, on the other hand, only have five million.

 

“If I had my dog, Ethyl, with me now, she could sniff you once and know more about you than I could learn in a month.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Where you’ve been. Who you’ve been with. What you ate for breakfast. The kind of shampoo you use.”

 

The man sniffs the cuff of his jacket. “What’s that got to do
with feelings?”

 

I’ve never been able to explain it right, but I try. “I was a crier as a kid. A big, epic, meltdown crier. My sisters made fun of me. My parents didn’t know what to do.

 

“A leaf would fall, and I’d mourn it. My dad would come home from work, lunch pail under his arm, and I could feel every humiliation he’d suffered at the hands of his boss. I’d read a newspaper article about a kid in China, and I felt like I was that kid, underfed, unwanted, doomed.”

 

“So, you feel the way a dog can smell. And that’s made life hard for you?”

 

“Not every day, but yes, it has. Running helped. It was like a re-start button, let me forget the state of the world for a while. But then my oldest friend got sick, and instead of helping her, I fell apart; I was suffering as much as she was. She said, ‘Lisa, you make everything about you.’ I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me.”

 

The park goes quiet for a moment. “Pitiful, isn’t it?”

 

The man sits down next to me and our thighs touch. “No,” he says. “It’s not pitiful. It’s sad, though.”

 

I wipe my eyes with my gloved hand, take a deep breath, try to push the tears back. The man hesitates, then wraps his arm around my shoulder. “What the hell,” he says. “My name’s Randy. Lean into me for a while.”

 

The mid-morning walkers have shown up, four young women who probably have a clutch of children in the nearby schools. When they spot me crying, the tallest woman frowns. “He’s not hurting you, is he?” she asks and points at Randy.

 

“Not at all,” I say. “I was just having a moment, and he stepped in.”

 

 

“Just making sure,” she says. She hesitates a beat. “You
never know.”

 

When they move on, Randy asks, “Where’s your friend now?”

 

“Florida. At her parents’ house.”

 

“Is she going to be all right?”

 

“Eventually.”

 

“You could write her a letter.”

 

“I could.”

 

“If it were me, I’d go see her.”

 

“That’s crazy.”

 

Randy laughs. “I drive a truck, Lisa. I go to Florida all the time. Going to Florida is nothing.”

 

“So I’d just show up?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe. I know I’d try again. Give it one last shot.”

 

“Have you ever done anything like that?”

 

“I have,” Randy says. “Driving the truck helps; it gives you an excuse. ‘I was just passing through, etcetera etcetera.’”

 

“What if she rejects me again?”

 

“If she does, at least you’d have gotten a trip to Florida.”

 

“Maybe I don’t deserve forgiveness. A better person would have held it together.”

 

“Who deserves forgiveness?” Randy asks. “That’s kind of the point of every religion on earth. We don’t deserve it, but we get it. This life,” he says, “what a messy business.”

 

“How’d you get so smart?” I ask, and Randy laughs. “I don’t know much of anything.”

 

“I was in the hospital for a month,” I say.

 

“I was in jail once,” Randy says. “Back when I was a kid. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

 

“Did you hurt somebody?”

 

“Not in any real way. I’d go into rich peoples’ houses, take a doo-dad of some kind. Just so they’d know I was there.”

 

“After you were caught, did you tell them you were sorry?”

 

“Sure. That was part of the plea deal.”

 

“Did they forgive you?”

 

“Some did.”

 

“What about the others?”

 

Randy loosens the scarf around his neck. The sun is just above us now, warming up the world. “Who knows. Maybe I helped reinforce their view of a certain kind of boy, brought up on the wrong side of town.

 

“Nothing I could do about that. I’d done what I could. So I got on with life. And little by little, I forgave myself. That’s the real secret. You have to be the one to say enough is enough. You have to treat yourself better than you think you deserve.”

 

I haven’t felt like I deserved anything for a long time. Even my dog Ethyl seems too good for me. Or maybe especially Ethyl. I start to say this, but before I can, the air changes, the weight of it shifting, and I feel the electricity of it, the shimmering movement of it that feels like comfort.

 

The feeling is like running, when your arms and legs seem to be moving without your brain doing any work at all. At those moments every kind thing seems possible, love, happiness, even forgiveness. I concentrate on the air that’s hovering around me, willing it to move, imagining it crossing one state line and then another, landing in Florida, ready to work another miracle.

 

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