By Maggie May Ethridge
I always hated running. Running gave me rabbit ears, pink and tender, and set an ache roaring through my temples that eventually drilled deep into my ear drum, where I could then hear it beating a protest. Running made my thighs break out in large, itchy patches that I tore into, leaving long red scratch marks. Running gave me a side stitch and shin splints, a gash, a rash and purple bumps- yes, I understood Shel Silverstein’s little Peggy Ann McKay perfectly. I would and did dance for hours, lift weights, climb the Stairmaster, do yoga, pilates and hike- but I would not run.
I had birthed my last and fourth child three years ago. I was heartbroken inside my marriage and on the other side of the worst two years of parenting I’d ever experienced. I felt lost inside the needs of my large family. My weight had crept up. I wasn’t weighing myself- with two daughters, I have mostly avoided that dangerous pursuit- but I felt bloated, anchored and exhausted. In the afternoon or evening I would put on a workout DVD and give twenty or thirty minutes to movement. I still had the Kathy Ireland workout VHS from my twenties and a FIRM butt routine, and I enjoyed the ridiculousness of existence while squatting and thrusting in my living room.
One day I sat in my living room and looked at my tennis shoes and suddenly the total simplicity of running was as desirable as dark chocolate cake, orgasm, reading. I can pull on some shoes, step out of my house, and go wherever I want, I thought. Running requires nothing other than a place to run, and the will to do so. In that moment, I had both.
I felt the phrase ‘slipped out the door’ come through me as I left, and a gentle thrill pressed me into the evening. Before I hit the street, I had been converted. I ran for twenty minutes and came home to announce that on the dirt path up street, there was a giant dead rat. I had almost lay flat his head in my exuberance. ‘So,’ my husband said, ‘you liked running?’ I nodded yes. I liked running.
I let myself be slow. I let myself be slower than the grey haired, ropy muscled man who skimmed down the other side of the road, outpacing me with his thinning bones. If I felt awful, I let myself rest. As I walked, I thought about how my life had gone from being constantly in pursuit of relaxation- a depressed, neurotic and physically sloth-like teenager who flunked PE twice- and avoidance of all obvious effort, to a life dictated by effort, often self-flagellation, personal, physical and emotional growth where signs of rest were signals of failure, to eventually realize that without rest, without the allowance for stillness, that if growth was the body, it was also the cancer.
I have endometriosis and hypothyroidism. I am running with a 3cm endometrioma on my ovary, a fibroid, and tangled bramble of adhesions running thick ropes around and over my organs. I am running with a C-section scar, with a headache, with too little sleep, with emotion or without. I am not a ‘good’ runner. Some days I run physically miserable, with body aches and pain related to my illness. I went from 20 minute runs, to 30, to 40, 50 minutes. I am slow, and I will take three walk breaks during a four mile run. Other days I run four miles like the sleek machine I love to imagine my body. I am not running because I am a force of nature. I am running because I will myself to be in the forces of nature. I am running because it is both an escape and a homecoming.
Each time I leave my house and all that it includes, I leave my house and all that it includes. The first block or two, it stays with me, trailing off of me into the darkness, tumbling from my mind like clods of dirt. The persistence of running, the sense of going somewhere and nowhere, of moving on the planet with purpose of physicality but without ticking clocks and expectant outcomes, allows me to create my own expectations of myself while observing the world without being seen. My little town ( it’s not little, really, but it feels that way to me after 27 years ) in San Diego, California, is sheltered snugly inside small mountain ranges that rise above the view of houses, so at night it is sky, dark mountain, trees and houses. The streets I run are barely lit if lit at all, and I run inside a pleasant blur, looking up at the sky over and over again. I know my family is safe. I have taken care of my day and duties. I have been the woman I am meant to be, the mother and wife and daughter and friend. Running is for myself.
I began running at night. This was borne from convenience, hot weather and also a desire to be hidden and to hide. As simple as the nouns in a sentence: marriage, motherhood, neuroses, anxiety, writer, or that word that sounds like food chewed in an open mouth, chores. I left the house and fell into a fast walk. The trails I run are sparsely lit, I have terrible eyesight, so the world swims in pleasant strangeness, as if I am stoned. Because I am in the suburbs and not the city, the sky still appears enormous and slightly arch, blinking with stars. Blink: who do you think you are? A grown woman? The sky: a billion trillion years old. Myself: thirty-nine. A giddy laughter shoots out of me and I trip on a bulbous tree root and land in a thump, scraping my arms, knees and shoving some dirt- surely finely milled with horse shit ( I run a horse/jog trail ) up my nose. I sit up but do not stand. For a moment I imagine if I never went home: I feel nothing. A perfect, internal stillness. I move inside the stillness and break it open- the process of observation changes that which is observed. I am filled with the heartbreak and agony that would be the truth of never go home.
When I was a little girl, I had an imaginary horse based off of the horse in the The Black Stallion books. He ran next to me as I sat, snub nosed, freckled and full of self loathing in the back of my parents car as we drove to the grocery, movies, my best friend’s house, school. The black stallion ran in the shallow canyons that line San Diego’s freeways, at speeds no one could believe. He was free from cars, houses, family, self loathing. I would push my hands out the window imagine I was on his back, could feel the enormous strength and energy taking me nowhere, into life.
Picking myself up from the dirt, I run stronger. I have fused with my childhood imaginary horse– I am both the observer (my mind) and the observed (my physical self), I am the dreamer and the dream, I am now dirty, exhausted, and real. Not until I feel the tips of my fingers and toes vibrate do I turn and trot home. ‘Wake up’, I murmur to myself as I pass house after house. ‘Stay awake.’ I pass a garage door open, lights blazing. The garage is filled with everything and nothing: tools, boxes, trash, furniture. Possums, racoons, mice, I think. A scream comes from the house. A toddler about two years old. I stop and listen, he screams again. It is 9pm, and he is sob-shouting himself to sleep. I have an overwhelming desire to run into the house and pick this little boy up, carry him in my arms past his wild eyed, frightened parents and take off running, saving him from the enemy of family. I am startled by a movement from behind boxes in the garage, and a man in a baseball hat with a cell phone pressed to his ear stands as he cleans a tool with a red workshop rag. ‘ Yeah man, thanks for returning my call, ‘ he says. After a moment, he shrugs to the person on the phone. ‘ Oh yeah, that’s my son. I don’t know what the fuck. He’s going to bed, yeah. ‘ He continues his conversation, back turned toward me, as if I am invisible, cloaked in the darkness.
The last mile home, I move my legs faster, turn my elbows to sharp points behind me and moved my feet as if powerful combine engines roared secretly in their curved bones. I felt my skin begin to slip off and the dark damp night slide into me and I was opened like a spirit from the body only more connected to my body than ever, and an involuntary image of my husband’s mouth on my breast and his cigar thick, workman’s hands on my hipbones and my nipples hardened and my body flew apart in pleasure. When I arrived home, wet and flushed, I pressed into my husband. ‘ Good run? ‘ he asked, with a sly look in his eye that I love. I nodded yes, smiling back.
For a few weeks of the summer my family and I live in La Jolla. La Jolla is a wealthy beachfront community, and we are two blocks up from the beach. We are staying with family until our new rental is ready. The neighborhoods are gorgeous- like living on the set of Father of the Bride– but what turns me over to the place are the imperfections. I set off running into the salt filled air, and pass a home with an improbable rusted staircase winding up the side like a fire escape. Another home has large cracks in the concrete running up to the door, large volcanic eruptions growing grass in the middle, where the dirt is cupped as if in a hand. One place has two dented cars parked headfirst into a tree, as if they had crashed there and were simply left. Like a LA woman with plastic surgery, no matter the state of the home, they are worth a minimum of a million dollars. I wonder about the decrepit homes tucked in between the rest- who lives there? One woman, my sister in law tells me, is a photographer who travels the world, and while she is gone she lets her house go. This particular house sits on the corner, choked with weeds grown waist high.
I run alongside the ocean, on the sidewalk butting against the shore, and I am lulled like a sailor to the sea. Everywhere here, people are running, surfing, skateboarding, roller skating, embracing life past the setting sun. This is so different than the silence of my dark suburbia. I am invigorated by the insistence of human beings on involvement and purpose. Mostly, I keep my face toward the unfurled hand of ocean, the uterine heartbeat that envelops the sound of my feet on the pavement. I am completely at peace. This is the best running I have done so far. I move from street to street with boundless energy, soaking in August sweat immediately soothed by damp breezes.
One evening I am on a dirt trail that runs behind houses, and I hear a man’s voice. He is yelling, almost shouting, and the windows are wide open, bright light pouring out into the night along with his rant. I am only ten feet from their restless bodies. I stop and listen. ‘ What is your PROBLEM! ‘ the man shouts. I bend over and stretch for the benefit of any passerby’s. I hear a voice murmuring in reply. I have two older boys, 17 and 20, and I recognize the timbre of this youthful voice. The son’s response is quickly engulfed by the father’s, ‘ You do NOT get a point of view here. This is sick, son. What is wrong with you? Your mother and I talked to you about this- we talked to you about this! I don’t know what is wrong here, why are you doing this? Are you a grown adult? Are you paying rent, working? You don’t get to do this here in my house. These are not your computers. We bought these computers. ‘ His voice dips and then raises as anger reignites. ‘ We raised you better that this. What is wrong with you?! ‘ Again I hear the son’s voice, as mild as the foam on a wave, attempting to break.
‘ This is going to end here and now. I don’t know why you are doing this. ‘ I hear the mother’s voice behind the father’s, underneath the surface, calm. I wonder if the father has ever looked at porn. Of course he has. I wonder if the father has a porn addiction. Or has been converted to a religion, or is saving face for his wife, or is largely asexual, or has a completely non-addictive personality and cannot comprehend the pull of forbidden, easy pleasure. I wonder if he has spoken to his son about the nature of desire, of the vast land between pornography and sex. I wonder if the father believes that his son is a reflection of himself, and if his son is weak, immoral, lustful, then he is the seed.
I think of my sons and daughters. I think of how men that despise their own sexual desires as suspect, wrong, shameful will eventually despise the women who arouse those desires. How that anger churns in our neighborhoods, high schools, bars and late night parties, and how it often ends in vulgarity, aggression, rape or the shaming voice of a father spilling out of windows and into the evening.
The house is now quieter, and I am ashamed of my own desires: to eavesdrop, to absorb other lives as easily and deservedly as if I had plucked a novel off the shelf and paid for it. I take off running. Every night that I pass this house again, I slow down and listen. I hear only the television.
On one of our last nights in La Jolla, I go running later than usual. This time, I move upward into the neighborhoods instead of down toward the beach. I trot like a coyote through the streets, loping easily so that I can look at each house. A white Honda with steamed windows is parked on the curb. Leaning aside the Honda are a man and woman in their early twenties. The man has his hands on the woman’s breast and waist, and the woman’s face, pressed into his collar, does not register my prescence. I pass by them almost silently, so much so that I can hear the movement of her hand against the fabric of his shirt. I think of my marriage, the years passing by, the enormity of love and the sharp increments of loss.
As I round the corner back toward the house where we were staying, I see a rabbit sitting strangely close to the sidewalk. Instead of darting away at my approaching footsteps, he sits perfectly still, those liquid bunny eyes seeming to watch the space just next to me. I slow, and when he still does not move, I stop. I am a foot away from his dusty grey and white coat. His eye twitches. I murmur to him, motherly things I have murmured for twenty years. What’s wrong little fellow…are you OK…can I help you, no, I know, I cannot…it’s OK…it’s OK. The little bunny’s left paw leaps in a great spasm out from underneath him, twisting his torso and laying him sideways on the ground. Oh sweetie, I say. I am squatting, arms around my knees, keeping my eyes with his eyes. The little bunny’s ears bend and arch in unnatural posturing, and his body seizes. His eyes remain toward me. It’s OK, I tell him quietly. You are dying. It will be all right. He blinks hard, and when he opens his eyes, his mouth works open also, and between two large teeth shoots a stream of brown bile. He is not looking at me, but when I move forward an inch, he tries to rise and race away, but instead jerks and flops in the grass. I am so sorry, I tell him out loud. I should not have moved. This is your space. I won’t move again. He continues to seize and I stop talking. I sit with him for ten minutes, until I am almost sure he is dead, and then I run home to my husband, to tell him to come see, come see.
My husband brings a shovel. ‘ I might need to kill it, ‘ he says. ‘ If it’s suffering. ‘ He crouches down beside the bunny, one hand on his knee. I tell him what I saw, and he points to the culprit: a small black box full of rat poison that the nursing home on the corner attached to their building. The bunny fit inside the rat hole. My husband leans closer to the bunny’s open mouth, closed eyes. ‘ I’ll wait, ‘ he says. ‘ I’ll wait to make sure. ‘ He waves me off. ‘ I’ll sit here a few minutes, you go on, just in case, ‘ he says.
Back at home during a heat wave I move my runs deeper into the night. The darkness is darker, the silence louder. One of my run paths takes me by a small house with a perfectly manicured lawn that bears a metal marker with words carved into it. The names of two teenage girls, best friends killed in a car accident fifteen years ago. Next to the house is a small tree with decorations hanging from it, wind chimes that tinkle to me as I pass. Underneath the tree is another marker with the girls names. I send silent prayers each time, imagining this is what the parent’s wanted when they set the gravestone there, against the sidewalk. This night I am running on a tightrope. My body is exhausted and my heart is stubbornly hurt. The slapping of my shoes against the pavement is satisfying. I picture my husband’s face during our argument and run faster until I can only see the swimming world in front of me and only hear the blood rushing through my ears.
The days at home continue to pull me in every direction, but these night runs are like gathering the pieces of myself that have dissembled and are buzzing with anxious, unorganized energy and through the channel of movement, they come back together. I imagine my body morphing like Mystique from Xmen, folding inward over and over again until I am suddenly sprung whole and formed from a time traveling hole- which running is- and placed panting, sweaty and entirely cohesive, at my family’s doorstep.
Soon I near a main road when a voice echoes from a loud speaker into the cooling air. ‘ I think we can give this one a run for his money! ‘ The man says, and his voice is enormous, like the voice of God, everywhere around me; improbably, an entire chorus roars back at him in affirmative. ‘ That’s riiiiight! ‘ The man yells in response. The voices keep at it, following me on my run. I cannot figure out where they are coming from or what might be going on by listening to the man and his chorus. I begin to feel as if I am being accompanied by ghosts.
Running has begun to be more competitive. I run against myself, pushing cautiously and slowly. Struggle, accomplishment, rest. I do not want to break my spirit. I had read running magazines huddled in my tiny bathroom, taking my ten minutes alone. They talk about breaking, walking in between miles. I did not know it was OK to rest and be a real runner. Now the ghost chorus is cheering me on with brute American enthusiasm. ‘ Gooooo! Yahhhhh!!!! ‘
I move down the main road and ahead there are enormous, bright lights where before was flat darkness interrupted with street lamps. The ghost chorus roars happily around me. I slow down and adjust my running shorts so that my ass is not hanging out, anticipating other human beings ahead. At the corner, there are groups of people in cowboy boots and hats, jeans and belts, smiles. Everyone is a couple. Arms all looped around waists, cowboy boots swinging in synchronicity. The ghost chorus is still invisible, blocks inward where I cannot see them, but now I know their origin- a Bronco riding competition. All these peoples and traffic police and murmured laughter and linked arms have pulled me Poltergeist like into the television, surrounded by ghosts and smiling couples. The night run has been punctured with florescent lights and the hot tips of cigarettes. I run as fast as I can away from them all, all the perfect couples and their perfect ease, and I cry because my marriage is so hard, and the wind takes my tears. I look up every few beats at the enormous sky for comfort. Running as prayer for an agnostic.
Finally the tears are done, and left is the sound and feel of my feet hitting the dirt, the sky, the blurred edges of the dark world. As I run home, there is are minutes cupped in darkness and silence, no cars or people passing by, and in these moments, something comes over me. I hear only the thud, thud of my feet hitting the sand after every kick, and my breath. I feel the unblinking presence of the universe, and myself inside, running as humbly as a red blood cell tumbling through the aorta. A sensual frisson rises through me and the movement of the run becomes hypnotic and enveloping. In this moment I know that I am whole. At home, I shower and feel the strength of my legs, the smooth muscles vibrating with heat.
After I become engrossed with reading books about the birth of the American West I cannot stop imagining myself as an Indian, a pioneer, a homesteader, running toward something- what? A water source. A medicine man. A hiding place. A sacred prayer spot, hidden in a mountain wall. My mind is full of visuals of the dirty, exhausting past life of our ancestors, and every footstep of mine and every purpling mountain ringed round my town and every glittering night sky consumes me in eternity. We all move through this same place. The dust I kick up underneath my purple Nikes, the trees that sway alongside my runs, the human beings that swell around me in their sleep and nighttime secrets and chanting ghost songs are all one small part of the larger. When I am exhausted and feel I can’t keep running, I often think of Rachel Parker Plummer, the 17 year old Comanche Indian captive, her journal detailing her walk through the mountains in wintertime with only thin moccasins on her feet and no buffalo hide to warm her. One foot in front of the other, I tell myself. That is all. In this way, I run all the way home in the dark.
Maggie May Ethridge is the author of the memoir Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage (Shebooks, 2015), a poetic remembering of her marriage as it was before and after her husband’s diagnosis of bipolar. MME has work in Guernica, The Rumpus, Marie Claire and many others. Her novel Agitate My Heart is in last edits. You can find her at Flux Capacitor.