A day or two ago I got an inspiration for a story I started years ago. I let it slide because it seemed too difficult, but I come back to it every so often and this morning it took hold in an opening scene. Thought I would share it. It’s pretty rough and uncut, but any thoughts are welcome.
Chapter One – The Race
The man to the right was reciting a yoga chant while he flexed the muscles in his arms. The woman to the left already had ear buds in and was singing something about the eye of a tiger in a tuneless voice. The starting line was packed so full of people that Kevin folded his limbs over his body to avoid embracing Headphones Woman, which meant he was at constant risk of toppling onto Yoga Man.
He closed his eyes. Lord, have mercy on me. Please don’t let it hurt too much.
The gun fired. Kevin’s contorted limbs leaped into the air while everyone else sprinted forward. He was compelled ahead for a split second by some unseen runner behind him, and then he was bolting into the fray, his footsteps hampered on every side. Now it was a matter of adjusting his stride until the crowd of runners thinned out. He could no longer see Yoga man, but Earphones Woman was several strides ahead.
The runners turned onto Fulsom Street – half a dozen roads had been blocked from traffic for the 5K race – and Kevin turned with them, settling into a stride that was just a little too fast for comfort. His next task was to find something to think about; something that would take his mind off the complaints of his thigh muscles and the gasp in his lungs. It didn’t always work to think about the same thing. Some ideas grew threadbare in time and no longer distracted him. Today he cast his mind on Jennifer. And it worked.
They were going uphill now and his legs churned steadily beneath him. But in his mind, he was saying goodbye to Jennifer again. She had worn a white dress, and her was hair down, and he realized now how intimidating she was, when she was wasn’t in her t-shirt and sweatpants anymore. They had worked out together for two years, and for two years Kevin had loved her. She was his cheerleader, his encourager, his confidante. They talked about everything, didn’t they? At least he did. She always listened so patiently. She sang in the choir and ran like a cheetah and never doubted him or said a single unkind thing to him.
“Even though I’m moving away, I thought maybe we could still talk, you know?”
“Sure,” she said. “Call me anytime.”
“Maybe you could come out and visit. Or I could come visit you.”
“I would always be glad to see you.” She grew busy with something then. Something in her hands? Was she writing? Yes, he thought so. They were on the downhill stretch now. He always fell behind on the downhill. Runners flew by him in reckless haste. He screwed himself up for the long flat that stretched ahead of him. His calves were singing with quiet pain.
He pictured her face, passive and calm, with her neatly turned nose – he loved her nose – and her white blond hair against her pale cheek. A dull sorrow cut through him, and he forced his legs to move faster.
The road was beginning to clear. Runners had found their pace, and he had a stretch of road to himself. A man in lemon-colored shorts was up ahead of him. He could hear tramping feet somewhere behind, but he wouldn’t waste effort looking back. They were entering a narrow street he couldn’t remember the name of. A knot of people with signs stood cheering at the corner. He didn’t know any of them, but they gave him a loud yell just the same, and he waved in gratitude. No one else was watching this race for his sake.
“I don’t really have to go,” he had said to her. “Sometimes I think I should stay.”
“Why?” She looked at him then, her blue eyes puzzled. He had hoped that she would look intrigued,or relieved, or maybe even happy! But she wasn’t. “It’s a good move for your career. Why wouldn’t you go?”
Lemon-colored shorts turned round a corner. Kevin did the same, but his mind was anywhere but the road. He was only pumping feet, swinging stride, and an ache that ran deeper than the pain his chest.
“I thought there might be something – between us. I was thinking about marriage, and – ”
She didn’t say I’m sorry. She didn’t even look sad. She went back to writing. “You’re just so weird, sometimes, Kevin.”
Three more strides, his eyes blinded by memory. He didn’t see her until it was too late. He caught a glimpse of her brown eyes looking frightened, just before he brought her down. Something wet and terrifically cold sprayed him. She yelled in his ear and he scrambled away from her. A dark stain of ice water covered her red shirt. He fumbled to his feet – and then he recognized her face.
“Missy! What are you doing in the middle of a race course!”
“Race course? Are you racing?”
“Well, yeah…” He looked around him. No orange cones. No pink tape lining the road. No runners anywhere. “Ah…I must have…left the course.”
She wrinkled her eyebrows at him. She had dark eyebrows that stood out in her face. They struck him as expressive. She was communicating frustration, confusion and condescension just through those eyebrows. “I can’t believe you ran straight into me.” She tugged on the drenched fabric of her shirt. “And you were looking right at me.”
“I’m so sorry. I was thinking about something else.” Great way to leave a good impression on the college staff. Tackle a fellow professor. An awkward silence fell.
“If you’re racing, you should probably go,” she said.
“Right. Ah, sorry about that.”
“I think I’ll live.”
“I owe you one.”
She didn’t answer. She smirked. Why did women have to be so shallow? He turned without another word and jogged back to the way he came. He saw the gap in the line where he had left the race course. He started running again, but his pace was half of what it was before. He looked dully at the road ahead and fixed his mind on it. Ashamed of his memories of Jennifer, ashamed of his encounter with Missy – what little heart he had for the race was already gone.
He crossed the finish line with a last, halfhearted sprint, wiped the sweat from his face with the collar of his shirt, and went silently to the car. Well, he had run his 5K for the year. Check that off the list. He thought about driving to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. To make it worse, he imagined a large shake. Ice cold strawberry. He could already feel the cup in his hand, the cool moisture dripping on his hand.
Instead, he took his bag from the passenger seat and started eating his cold turkey and mustard sandwich. He gulped down a bottle of water, leaned back against the seat, and for ten minutes, drifted into a lovely oblivion of sleep. Somewhere in that oblivion, he met Missy Hannigan again, her arms thrown round him, but she wasn’t frowning this time. He woke up smiling.
Think only on what is pure. He reminded himself, and put Missy’s full figure out of his mind.
“Glad that’s over,” he thought, and drove home with a rising feeling of contentment. He had another whole year before he would make himself do that again. Maybe next time he ran a race, he would have something better to think about.