Awareness of my body is usually accompanied by dread. As with public speaking, confrontation, or anything else requiring antiperspirant, I tend to project my most maliciously judgmental thoughts, fears, and feelings about myself onto the collective conscious of my audience. Some of my most agonizing memories are of moments when I was most aware of my physical self. It’s as if my body is a drunk friend at a party, who everyone knows I invited, and is slurring in people’s faces, “Yess, weyare old pals. Weyare like thissss. W’go waybak.” And although we’re not the same, by association we are. There was the time my body knocked on the bathroom door and popped his head in while I was taking a bath with my younger brother. “Don’t you know you’re too old for this shit?” he said. “Has it seriously not occurred to you yet? What are you, six? Seven? Get outta the tub and take a shower like a man.” Or one summer when I was at the YMCA and saw that a lifeguard (and here I’m not so sure if my memory is accurate or if it’s a self-constructed myth in the narrative of my personal shame) had a chain linked between his pierced navel and nipple. All of the sudden I became aware that I had nipples, too—and they were exposed. “Everyone!” my body called out. “Look, he’s got nipples!” And then of course 2000 through 2004, the years in which puberty burned brightest. Even today, I take off my shirt at the pool or the beach with a feigned nonchalance that I am still crafting. It does seem sort of surprising then that I would find pleasure in something I once stuck a finger down my throat to avoid doing in gym class (without success)—running.
I usually run after work. I come home, change clothes, and sit on the floor to put on my Nikes. I bring my feet together, heel to heel, and draw them in as close as I can to my groin while keeping my knees to the floor. This is my favorite stretch. Something about the pull of the muscles of my inner thighs and the posture itself, one you might assume while meditating. Then I stand and, with one hand against the wall to support myself, pull back a leg with the other hand. I honestly have no idea what this exercise does. Some days I think I feel where it’s working, then others I’ll be surprised to feel it in another spot. I switch hands and pull back the other leg. I do this solely because it’s what I’ve seen on TV and in movies. Obviously I’m an amateur.
Outside of my apartment I stand backwards on the steps, letting my weight lower my heels over the edge and stretch out my calves one at a time. Part of me also loves this stretch because my neighbors can see me doing this one and, for once, my body is like, “Hey, look at this guy! He’s about to work out! He really takes care of himself, you know.” But despite establishing physical health among the tenants who witness this warm-up, I get in my car and drive to another neighborhood, because I would be too embarrassed for people I know to see me run.
“Stop talking with your hands,” a family member once told me. “It’s distracting.” Sometimes she would stop me in the middle of a sentence, grab my hands, and hold them tightly in hers. “Now talk to me.” Of course speaking with one’s hands can be distracting, but I knew then that this was not her primary concern. At some point during the Preteen Tribulation, I became very aware that my body (and my speech, too) gave cues to others that I was different. I used to wear a rubber band around my wrist, and if I caught myself speaking with my hands too much, I would pull it back and give myself a good pop.
“Why do you sit with your legs closed?” a girl friend of mine asked me once in seventh grade.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I don’t know. I just noticed it, and all the other guys sit with their legs open.”
I fixed that. I also attempted to compensate for any effeminate strides in my walk by eliminating superfluous movement. I practiced this stiff, boxy walk in the cafeteria or between classes or whenever among my peers, until someone stopped me in the hall and asked, “Why do you walk like that?” Years later a college friend would make the observation that “You walk differently when you know people are watching you.” By that time, however, I wasn’t aware I was still doing it. Even now that I know better than to worry so much about things that matter so little, than to try to hide the things that make me me, when two guys follow me in a confederate flag ordained pickup truck through a parking lot hollering, “You walk like a girl!” I can’t help but ask myself, How do men walk?
Of course, despite my very best efforts, gym class (which I blame for most of my unresolved anxiety) shot everything to hell and someone still wrote “fag” on my locker in black Sharpie. I didn’t throw, catch, or run like the other boys in my class. I eventually perfected “pretending to participate,” which basically meant that I moved around just enough to avoid being noticed without actually doing anything. Dodgeball was the best because at the beginning of each game, if I couldn’t manage to throw myself into the line of fire, there was so much chaos on the court that I could falsely declare defeat without opposition and take my spot on the bleachers. Even in middle school, I knew the honor system was a hetero-patriarchal construct from which I excused myself without guilt.
The neighborhood I park in isn’t very far away. In fact, I park my car across the street from a house I lived in for two years during college. It almost feels dishonest when I see the family that lives there now. As if they wouldn’t let me park here if they knew I could tell them where most of the stains on their carpet came from. They’re a large family, about five kids, and Hispanic. I feel a sense of shame for not being able to greet the mother in Spanish—the language of my father and his father. But I feel happy, too, when I see her hug one of her children or laugh loudly when the kids chase her around the front yard. I walk away from my car and the house, put my headphones in, and break into a jog at the end of the street.
Each run begins a little sloppily. Everything feels awkward. Maybe it’s the music choice on my iPhone, or maybe my car keys jostle in my pocket in a distracting way, or I have a difficult time simply getting into a rhythm. My legs feel funny, and I imagine they look wobbly the way a young calf’s do when taking its first steps. Are my feet hitting the ground right? Is my torso rotating in sync with each step, I wonder. And of course the breathing. Trying to get that to synchronize along with my movements. I inhale through my nose and then, almost like a second breath, I breathe it in deep to my belly before exhaling through my mouth. It reminds me of the way I used to inhale when smoking (just five months and two weeks smoke-free, I savor this every time I run) and of the breathing exercise Dr. Hochberg taught me to cope with my anxiety.
By the time I reach the cul-de-sac at the end of Chester Road, I’ve usually struck a harmony. My body angles with the curve of the street and, as I turn around, I shed a layer. I pace myself as I run on an incline, past houses boasting American flags from their banisters and past the man always washing his Jeep, scrubbing it clean, polishing it nice and shiny, like new. At the corner of Chester and Waverly I ease into a swift walk. My hands are on my hips and my chin is up. I breathe in through my nose and out of my mouth at the same pace as I do while running. My heart thumps inside my rising and falling chest.
When Chester and Lakeridge intersect, I pick my speed back up. I run by houses I used to drive by every day. So much has changed since I lived in this neighborhood, but the lawns are still the same—each striped evenly by attentive mowers. Property is divided by a slight elevation in one neighbor’s grass over the other’s, creeping up the feet of various lawn ornaments: a white iron bench set, a statuette of a red coated jockey holding a lantern, a rustic wheelbarrow overflowing with mums. The telephone lines hanging over the street pulsate, drawing in together to form a single line before breaking apart slowly as I pass under them. I turn onto Southland and then onto Calumet where the homes get bigger. Multistory brick colonials with white trim, occasionally ordained with a red door. I wonder who lives in these houses. How many children these families have. What each room is used for. Who cooks dinner.
Great big trees canopy over me, capped in gilded light from heights in which the birds weave in and out, above everything moving in the shade below. I turn around at the end of Calumet and consider slowing down before I face the steepest incline of my run, but I seem to have lost myself now and decide to keep going. My shadow is cast in front of me and, looking at my silhouette, I wonder, Is that me? I pace myself easily up the hill to Glenwood Drive, where the light cuts through the branches in a creamy dust. I raise my hand and, whether in victory over the hill or my body or something else, it stays there, suspended.
I think of a news article I read while breaking up the monotony of some task at work: “Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe’s Ancient Art.” Dated to be as old as the paintings in in France’s Chauvet Cave, “The fact that people in Indonesia were also painting cave walls way back then suggests ‘it is possible that rock art emerged independently at around the same time and at roughly both ends of the spatial distribution of early modern humans. . . .’” The article opens with a photo of a handprint on the cave wall. Red paint had been sprayed over the hand, leaving unpainted space underneath. I stared at the picture. The wrist and fingers were so narrow and long it looked almost inhuman. I held my hand up to the computer screen; I hold my hand up to the sky. There’s no unpainted space here. My flesh is there before me, surrounded by sunset light. It is fuller and so different from the hand that was once pressed against the cave wall. After centuries of triumph and defeat, through plague, war, and drought, I am here. I am running by an iron fence and three dogs come roaring from the back of the house. They run alongside me to the end of their plot, barking as I pass them. Glenwood curves and then goes downhill. There is so much sky ahead. The clouds are like cotton balls pulled apart and dyed in pinks and purples. I look at the moon.
At the end of the street some tall evergreens shoot straight up. I run toward them, fixated on the horizon radiating behind them, and I feel as though I could keep going and brush through them, pulling them apart like a curtain.
In 2012 plans for the first human settlement on Mars were announced by the Dutch organization Mars One. It is projected that in 2024, four colonists will depart for the red planet. A mission from which there is no expected return. There they will prepare a place for others to embark on a new frontier. They will bring life to a desert. In solitude they will leave footprints in the red soil. Will they feel more or less alive? One might look up and hold her hand to the sky. She may remember her hand pressed against a window, watching, as they propeled toward their new planet, our earth slipping away between her fingertips. Growing smaller and smaller until, when they’d been carried just far enough, it was all of the sudden, in the black they’d left behind, gone.
My route goes on for about another mile. I slow down to a walk at the end of Magnolia Road. My chest is heavy and rolls up and down like ocean waves. My legs feel light like an astronaut’s. My feet float before landing again, only to bounce up like a balloon. My hands rest on my waist, and I can feel the rotation in my hips with each step. I wipe the sweat from my temples, afraid that it will drip into my ears, be absorbed by my headphones, and electrocute my brain. I look back up at the moon.
I break back into a run, determined not to stop again until I get to my car. I pass a pedestrian and hold my hand out in a wave, but I don’t say hello. I am too busy concentrating on my breathing. Deep in through the nose, into the belly, out through the mouth. Some new energy blooms inside me as I turn onto the street where I parked, and I pick up my speed. I love this street. It’s more shaded than the others. It smells so rich—like fallen pine needles, fern, ground ivy, and cut grass. The smells tingle the rims of my nostrils. The air is fresh. The street in front of me is silvered by the shade and the dimming light. I approach my car. The family that was playing outside has gone in. Warm light spilling from windows invites the outside gaze. I can see someone in the kitchen. I can see where they watch TV. The street is quiet. My legs keep moving and I press on. I have run the distance I had set for myself, but I don’t stop. Not when the street smells so crisp and the air cools the back of my throat. I am bathed in sweat. I feel clean.
I don’t know how much farther I will run. To the end of this street and back? Onto North Elm? Onto the street beyond that? My heart beats like a war drum. I spit to my side, and wipe a string of drool from my upper lip. I go beyond the limits I’ve set for myself. Past the house I used to live in. Away from the houses filled with man, wife, and child. Past the mailboxes with cornstalks tied to them, welcoming fall, or balloons signifying that the birthday party is here. I run past a dad pushing a stroller. Past a golden lab barking from the confines of an invisible fence. Past illuminated windows. All of that slips farther and farther away, sweat cooling the crease of my back, as I move forward. •