You were 16 when you died. A single day older than I was. I suppose I caught up to you in the dizzy mayhem your death left behind and in the 15 years that have passed since.
Your death colored my entire existence. You jumped, all those years ago, without me. Newspapers the next day, unaware of your adolescence, declared you a man, saying you’d jumped, headfirst it seemed, after trying to drive your 1987 Honda Civic off that overpass.
I fucking hate Honda Civics. Still.
It didn’t stop me, at your funeral, from picking up bits of that car from the street. We were a hoard of teenagers, crossing that street, draped in black, pierced and broken, bits of neon sparkling from our wrists, ears and fingernails.
What I remember most about finding out about you is the floor tile I stared at, trying – at 16 – to comprehend what you had done. It’s the tissue box they sent me home with, the kind I still see at hospitals and on tv, the kind that still feels like some fucked up security blanket I clung to in the aftermath of your death. I remember tiny details about that night, the way the carpet felt on my legs in my room when I collapsed in tears, the hug the girls wrapped me up in later when “Jumper” came on mid-cleaning frenzy. I remember the weather at your funeral. The way your jacket smelled.
There’s a burden to being the last person to see you alive. I know you didn’t mean it. I know you’d take it back if you could. But I’ve tattooed your memory on my back, and you have to know that I carry you with me always, that what happened to you has shaped me.
I can’t stop the blame. I’ve tried for 15 years to let it go, for almost half my life, I’ve tried. I remember you, that afternoon, literal minutes before your death, asking if I wanted a ride the next morning and I said no, more than once, that I’d take the bus. I remember that last cigarette, bummed from my ex-boyfriend’s older brother as we walked to your car and still, I kick myself for having smoked too much of it.
I know you’d made up your mind. I know that. But I can’t help but drag myself though the what ifs, can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes to that ride, if you’d smoked more of that cigarette, if we’d made plans to get together next week, next month, next whatever. I wonder if it would have kept you here, among the living.
Maybe it was an inevitable eventuality, your death. Maybe I could have stopped it, could have helped save you. I don’t know. I’ll never know.
I just miss you, 15 years later and all. I still miss you.
Midnight. Jan. 1. Richmond, Virginia.
There’s a hobo fire. We’re all around it when the clock hits midnight, when 2014 rolls itself out in Virginia. I’m solo this year, watching the other couples kiss, returning a squeeze around the waist received from a friend. She knows I don’t know where my husband is, don’t know what he’s doing, who he’s with. Knows that the only thing I know is that he’s not where he said he’d be. There’s a magnified silence in my brain – there’s so much to say in that minute, that first, fresh minute of the new year but no good place to start. I grasp at words – different, okay, change, go, leave – but they’re incoherent and out of step and so I just stop, smile, lie.
I’m ok. I’m good. Really.
Dinner. Feb. 14. Holbrook, Arizona.
It’s our third night on the road and we’ve already made it Arizona. We’re spending the night in a concrete wigwam, me and her and the dog, a Route 66 holdover, perfectly kitschy despite the showerhead that’s positioned at nose level. We try the diner up the street, but it’s closed, so we cross the street and head to a Mexican place, realizing we wanted tacos anyway. Maybe it’s the altitude, the beers or a cross-country road trip-induced madness, but we can’t stop giggling. The man at a table across from us – to be played by Willie Nelson in the movie about our trip – engages us intermittently, stands to leave, tells us to go to Winslow, that there’s a park where you can stand on the corner. We’re polite – smile, nod – he repeats himself, says it’s only about 25 miles up the road and in the direction we’re heading and then I burst into song, belting out The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” in a tiny Mexican restaurant in Holbrook, Arizona, giving absolutely zero fucks.
We download the song on the two-minute ride back to our wigwam, singing it loudly and probably off-key and it’s the happiest I remember feeling in months. Back in our wigwam, I stick the iPhone in the sink to amplify the song, and we sign it over and over again. We turn off the lights, turn the music off, but still, we spend our bedtime hours throwing lyrics back and forth across the room at each other.
We may lose and we may win, though we will never be here again
Morning. March 16. Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Mile 9 of the 13.1 I intend to run. I caught up to the 1:52 pacers and I’ve been with them for miles now. I’m tired. This is fast, faster than I intended on running, faster than I knew I could run, and there’s this screaming bit inside of me that just wants to slow the fuck down and enjoy the view, but I can’t. I just fucking can’t. I’m a week into 30 and three weeks into knowing a truth I fought for nearly a year to deny and at mile 9 I’m fueled almost entirely by the darkest, most angry parts of myself, the scariest bits, the violent bits. It’s hate that moves me forward, past the pacers at mile 10, as fast and as hard as I can manage. For once, I let it go, let the anger take over every part of me, let the violence overcome me and I push, hard, against the constraints of my body, all the way to the end. To 13.1.
Morning. April 18. Occoneechee State Park, Virginia.
I have to pee. But it’s cozy in the tent and I don’t feel like moving. I’m at a campsite two hours from home, alone, cell service is nonexistent and I’ve managed, for a few hours, to escape everything. It rained all fucking night but it doesn’t matter. I’m dry. The tent – that I set up myself – kept me that way. The fire I built – the first fire I’ve ever built alone – kept me warm late into the night as I read The Mists of Avalon and lit marshmallows on fire. This is a success, this solo camping endeavor. I settled into the silence, leaned back into the comfort of solitude and I’m fine.
It’s the last time I wear my wedding ring. It’s the end of it. I wear it as a precautionary measure, so I can say that my husband is on his way should I find myself afraid, as if the invocation of a man will save me from whatever trouble causes me to invoke his nonexistence.
Late Night. May 17. Richmond, Virginia.
I’m a mess. I want to stop. I don’t want to play anymore, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to breath, I don’t want to do any of it. Fuck this life, fuck 30, fuck him, fuck me, fuck the whole fucking world. This is what the bottom feels like, crushed against my dining room wall, drunk of all the beers in my fridge, the rest of that bottle of bourbon, plus the remnants of some rum leftover from last year’s Halloween party. I’ve got my iPhone clutched in my hand, playing the saddest songs I can find on repeat, alternating between screaming the lyrics and singing them, throwing in some sobs here and there for effect. This is the bottom, kids. This is what it looks like when you reach the end of the rope, when you’re subsisting on booze, hate and heartbreak, the occasional pound of cheese, eaten out of spite more than hunger.
And here’s the scary thing about reaching the bottom: You’ve got a choice. Up or out.
10am. June 7. Nearing Charlottesville, Virginia.
My feet are kicked out in front of me and I’m comfortable in the back of a helicopter. There’s those mountains, my mountains, the mountains I was born in and I can’t help but smile when I see them. I feel good, but it’s been a busy week. A concert with Megan, the Head and the Heart, on her last night in Richmond. We sat in my car until past midnight, pouring ourselves out for one another, eating cheddar popcorn and me smoking cigarettes with the windows down. I went out with a man I’m wildly and terrifyingly attracted to. We wandered around a park, saved a toad from a walkway, brushed our hands across carvings left by lovers. And then there’s work. The 70th Anniversary of D-Day and today, an exercise with civilian partners, helicopters and me in the back, catching a ride to and from Charlottesville. Things feel different. Maybe it’s the time with Megan, a man’s attention, sleepless nights or a work schedule that won’t give me time to breathe, but I suddenly don’t feel like crying anymore.
It’s enough to sit and just be.
Noon. July 12. Richmond, Virginia.
I’m getting ready in his downstairs bathroom, door open, yelling obscenities at the other groomsmen and him – the groom – stopping in between curling chucks of my hair to take pictures of them posing with weaponry, buttoning shirts, pulling on socks, helping each other tie ties. There’s donuts and pizza and I declare, hair half-curled, that being a groomsman – or a groomslady in my case – is the best role I’ve ever played in a wedding. Fuck being a bride. Food, booze and guns is the groomsman’s game.
2pm. Aug. 11. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Sometimes you just have to put yourself inside the mouth of a dinosaur. There’s no good reason not to, really. I’m in Tulsa, for work. There’s a zoo, which I visit since I’ve got time and really, when alone at a zoo, you can do whatever you want. I spend 25 minutes next to the bears, scowling at children who bang on the glass, imagining Harry Potter skills that put those bears on this side of the glass, gobbling up snot-nosed, over-sized brats in Dora shirts, maybe growling under my breath, being that batshit single lady at the zoo and reveling in every minute of it. I curse at some penguins, catch a bit of the seal show, stick my head inside the mouth of a dinosaur, hide from some geese, eat some fries and ride a camel named Ella.
Late night. Sept. 19. Napa Valley-ish, California.
I couldn’t nap and that first leg was all uphill, but fuck it. Here I am on the second leg, a nearly 9-miler, fully immersed in a Ragnar-induced sort of crazy. Six girls in one van, nonstop togetherness and we’ve laughed so hard I can feel my abs ache with every footfall. I didn’t think I’d have the energy to drag myself to the exchange, but when the van rolls by, the girls screaming my name, I’m hauling ass down the multi-mile downhill that starts this leg and I feel like I’m being carried by magic. This is insane, I think. This is perfect.
I promise you, there’s nothing like finding yourself and some sort of god on the left shoulder of a road in Somewhere, California, hungry, tired and aching, with miles to run and drive and go until you get a shower or a bed.
Dinner. Oct. 7. Richmond, Virginia.
He doesn’t even like eating breakfast for dinner but poaching eggs is on my list so we’re making Eggs Benedict for dinner. He’s determined to help me cross things off, determined to make a memory out of each and every mark I make to the list. I poach the eggs while he hand whips the hollandaise and the feel of him beside me in the kitchen is almost more than I can handle – he’s like a dream, this guy, too perfect to be real, and if I could craft a man for me, it’d be exactly him. I’m stove-bound, poking at swirling eggs, and he’s across the kitchen, engrossed in hollandaise creation but I can’t stop looking at him, at those eyelashes, his concentration, the smile he’s got, the lines of him.
I wanted to be endlessly bitter. That was the plan. Then this guy shows up, this guy who coaxes me to egg poaching, who helps me make tortillas, endures the dog fur and the cat hisses. He’s ruined everything – my whole plan – this man who falls asleep with my hand in his.
Early morning. Nov. 10. Fort Meade, Maryland.
I’m in charge, which is fine. I’m figuring it out, learning as I go. We’ve got more than 3 miles to go until we can all stop walking. Nothing like a pre-dawn walk with a pack on your back to start off the day. I’m checking in with everyone, walking up and down, back and forth, driving them all crazy, I’m sure, asking if they’re ok, asking if they talked to their kids last night, how the wives and husbands are doing in their absence, asking if they finished the assignments due today. I’m in full Army mode at this point. I didn’t know if I’d be ready for this. It feels like a mask most of the time, the Army part of me, but when I get into it, when I’m here, leading a group of my peers on a five mile road march, it’s one of the safest, most comfortable places I’ve ever been.
I’m ready, I think later, post-ruck shower. It’s time.
Evening. Dec. 16. Richmond, Virginia.
I’ve told him over and over how much I hate Christmas, how I spent the last two, how much they hurt, how lonely they were, but he’s determined. Relentless, really. He wanted this year to be different, so we’re Christmas tree shopping. He keeps picking up trees, shaking them out, holding them out for my approval asking what sort of tree I prefer, and I don’t even know, can’t even really form thoughts because he’s amazing and gorgeous and brilliant and his sole focus right now is making me happy, giving me a different sort of Christmas memory that doesn’t involve crying alone on the couch, and it’s working. I can’t avoid getting caught up in it all with him, can’t avoid being happy when I’m next to him, can’t stop myself from falling for him a little more each and every minute I spend with him.
In the middle, I wanted to burn 2014 to the ground, bury myself in some self-constructed grave and ignore the whole damn thing. Fuck life, I thought, more than I’d like to admit. But it got better, it got way better.
So cheers to 2015, to whatever it brings, good and bad and in between. To love, to loss, to more miles ran, more photos taken, more words written and more books read.
Low-light, beers in hand, we’re off to the right, by the doors that lead out back. The band just started playing and you and me are fresh off a giggle fit. He had asked if we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I shook my head, smiled, said no, we’re getting a divorce.
In sociological terms, we call that a breach – we threw them off, they didn’t know how to proceed with that, there’s a look of confusion, a pause that lasts just a bit too long as you and me exchange glances back and forth, reveling in that awkward moment just a little.
How do you do that, they asked, and you, nearly sober, said something about love, about how you love me still, always have, always will, and I the same.
So love. That’s how we do it, that’s how I credit you as a best friend still, divorce proceedings be damned. It’s been there since we met in a Fort Belvoir motor pool, and it’ll be there until we’re both cold and dead, ashes spread under redwood trees.
Back by the door, it’s us. Beers mostly gone, trying to find the right moment to break away and grab another when that song comes on and I reach to squeeze your hand, because I don’t know what else to do. It’s my right and your left and we hold on for dear life, hands clenched like they used to be, but it’s different now. There’s a desperation in the grip, like if we let go we’d both fall apart or shatter on the ground.
So I hold your hand and you hold mine for the entirety of a song that hits us hard and we cling to one another, like we have for nearly a decade, because what else is there left to do?
The song ends, we shift, drop the hands, cough a little to rid ourselves of a strange moment neither one of us quite knows what to do with because we’re still figuring it out. We’ve got the love thing down, you and me – always have – but it’s different now. It’s twilight for our marriage, maybe, but you’re still my family. You’re still first on my call list to catch a show or grab a drink last minute, because you’re my friend. You always were.
You left to get more beers and the song, the one I didn’t know was our song, is playing when you come back. I feel you there, behind me and I know you can’t catch your breath either. I can feel it. I can’t even look at you, because my eyes will fill up and I don’t want to drop tears on the floor of a concert venue, not again. This is just too much, I think, it hits too close to home, it hits the heart and breaks all the strings, unwinding the careful dance we do around all that was and is, all the words we never got to say, the clean break we deserved because we broke ourselves and each other, all the words I wasted and the ones you kept for just you.
It bubbles up just then, with the music, you and me, whiskey drunk, singing in the dining room, riding across bridges screaming our favorite songs, traveling, adventuring, being, and there we go again, breaking our hearts all over again in the name of musical integrity.
We never did anything the right way, you and me, but maybe our way is our right way. We didn’t date right, didn’t marry right, didn’t plan our life right and and we’re not divorcing right either, but fuck it. I like our way better.
I’m out of patience. It’s been used up, wasted on the dumbest shit, on the most pointless lies ever uttered. It’s been depleted, my patience for cowardice, for the bullshit, for the lies.
It’s your world, your life. You own it. So fucking own it. You make a choice, admit it. Face it in the fucking mirror instead of cowering behind it, afraid to look anyone in the eye because you’ve wrecked yourself to the point of unknowning. You make a decision, it’s yours. You carry it, you nurture it, you love it, you breath life into it, throw kindling underneath it and let the fucker live. It’s done and there, so face it. Don’t come into my home and own a life you can’t face in the mirror, a life you can’t walk beside, because life’s too fucking short for silly shit like mistakes that eat the marrow of our bones and the ruins we’ve made of our hearts.
It’s true what they say. Honesty is the best policy.
It’s like the air in Alaska, fresh as fuck.
It’s sustainable, honesty. It doesn’t chew at anything, doesn’t decay the edges of us like the lies do. It won’t keep us up at night trying to keep the story straight, it doesn’t wreck us in our dreams, it hurts, sure, hurts like fuck, but at least I sleep at night.
It’ll sweep in tornado-style, the truth, taking the air from your lungs, then setting everything back down again, maybe a little fucked up, a little torn, but at least you know you’re living in reality.
He tells me, brushing the hair behind my ear, lips close enough to kiss, that I have a good heart. He can’t keep it straight sometimes, the rage that flashes up at another man’s transgressions, at the way I root for him anyway, defend a friendship that I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t keep it straight either. It’s hot and cold. It’s a mess of lightening-struck rage and deep-seated compassion.
He’s right about my heart though. Right when he says I have an incredible faith in the goodness of people, right when he says I always give them the benefit of the doubt.
He’s right. About me.
(For me too, maybe.)
There’s a point where the pain you’re being handed by a person you’ve loved is your own fault. The first time, sure, it’s them. It’s them hurting you, but after a while, once it happens again and again and again and you keep opening the door to let them piss all over the rug, it’s on you. It’s you. It’s me. I get to decide at this point if he hurts me or not, because that’s called adulthood. You can pick the toxicity you let into your life and the filth you choose to banish.
When people ask me how I got into running, how I became a runner, I tell them that I always wanted to be a runner, because really, that’s where it all started. It was a thing I wanted to be, before I ever signed up for a race, before I ever dropped $100 on a pair of running shoes, before I ever embarked on any non-Army mandated running adventure, before I ever set off down some random road in California, Texas or Oregon, running was just simply something I wanted.
And you’d think it would be easy, to know this about yourself, to know that you want to be this thing and then to set out and become that thing. It’s not like I wanted to be an astronaut or a natural blonde or a unicorn, I just wanted to be a runner and really, by definition, a runner is a person who runs, so it would seem logical that me, a person who wanted to be a runner, would just simply go and run and therefore become a runner, but no. That is not how it worked at all.
Instead, I spent years – actual fucking years – wishing I was a runner, but not actually running, mostly because I did not like running. It was hard. I was slow. It made me sweaty and gross and I did not look like the glorious lady warrior I wanted to when I ran, but rather a floppy faced basset hound. And running hurt. It hurt my knees and my shins and all my parts, really. Running was miserable.
I had this idea that if I was meant to be a runner, I simply would be, that running would one day not be this terrible experience, that I would go for a run – somewhere, somehow, someday – and would actually enjoy the running process. And I operated under this logic for a very long time, determined that maybe one day things would just change. I’d try running every now and then, mostly in the weeks leading up to an Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, but it always sucked. I always hated it. I was always slow. It was always miserable.
Until suddenly it wasn’t.
There was a build-up to it becoming a non-traumatic event, this running stuff – it involved several muddy obstacle races, a lot of miles logged on a treadmill and a commitment to stop being a lazy shit.
It was a slow shift. Running went from this thing I had to do in order to accomplish these fun things I wanted to do be doing on my weekends, to this thing I needed and wanted to do at 6am on a Tuesday morning.
And then I found myself at a glamp site in California on a perfect October morning, awake before 6am, with the Pacific Ocean less than a mile away, so I did the only logical thing I could think of in that moment and I went for a run. And for the first time ever, it felt like magic. It felt like I’d always wanted it to feel. It felt good, and better than that, I felt good.
That’s all it took, really, was that one good run. After that, things changed. I started setting goals related to running. I wanted to improve my 5k time. I started running regularly, outside and away from my treadmill, increasing my mileage just because I could. December came and I hit my 5k goal, came home and signed up for my first half marathon.
On Sunday, I ran my fourth half and just a few days before that I made a vague sort of commitment to run my first full marathon in the spring. On my white board at work, I’ve got a quote from Runner’s World, about mental toughness, and below it a list of my upcoming races. My most expensive shoes are my running shoes and I’ve got different pairs for different sorts of running. I don’t run to burn calories or to stay in shape. I run because I have to. Because it grounds me, because it keeps me sane, because when I’m running things matter less, the pain and the rage subsides and I can just be.
I’m a runner. Finally.
And the thing I’ve finally realized about running, is that it isn’t always pretty. Running isn’t always fun. In fact, sometimes running fucking sucks. This past half was the hardest I’ve ever run – it was hot and humid and everything hurt. I wanted to quit. I wanted to walk, to curl up in some air conditioned space and there were multiple miles where I wanted to be doing absolutely anything other than running. But I kept running. My feet went numb and my shoes got soaked from all the water hoses I ran under to cool my body down, but I kept running. One foot in front of the other, for 13.1 miles, because that’s what you do, that’s what you fucking do when you’re a runner.
So the truth about running, that I didn’t know before I became a runner, is that sometimes, even when you’re a runner, it still sucks. Sometimes you can’t find that perfect pace. Sometimes it’s just hard. Sometimes your slowest usual pace feels like an impossibility. Sometimes running just fucking sucks.
But sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s why I keep going, that’s why I’m still a runner, and that’s why I keep lacing up my shoes. You can’t judge a run on the first mile, or even the second and more times than not I don’t know what kind of run I’m going to have until I’m in the middle of it, hating or loving every minute. But the good moments, the moments when I exceed the pace I wanted to hit, when I set a personal record, when I run my heart out, when I walk through my front door post-run smiling so hard it hurts – that, all of that, is why I run.