“I feel like I’m suddenly living in a body of an athlete,” I texted to a comrade the other day: Someone who has witnessed my coming into my own from the last miserable stretch of my 20s into the chiller version of me, in my early 30s: cooler, confident, more comfortable in my skin.
“You are,” my comrade responded. “You are an athlete. You are a pugilist (pounding out pages) and a hurdler (watch her leap over unworthy douche bags in a single bound).”
(They are like that: My people. They are eloquent, empathetic and overall — on point. And how they adore me! How they worship!)
I’ve always been a runner. Blame it on the nomadic predisposition inherited from a long-time-ago gypsy, but when struck by anxiety or edgy uncertainty, I prefer to pound my feet on whatever ground I’m calling “home,” at the time. And I never need to go far: I just peel on my running shoes — and I get going, zipping past the unknowing, the unaware or the undisciplined. And when life has caused me some serious grief, I’ve been known to run for kilometers, as if running for my life.
It started back in my childhood — in my perpetually disheveled but always somehow magnificent Motha Russia that makes for one fascinating terrane to cover with one’s feet. In the beginning of a school year, we once showed up to an early morning phys ed class only to find our gymnasium with a collapsed rooftop (so typical for my perpetually disheveled Motha Russia). For that day — and for half a year to follow — we would be locked out of the facilities; until the bureaucracy of the city’s administration and the innate laziness of the building contractors would delay the repair no longer.
Our instructor — an aging Don Juan in the younger Jean Claude Van Damme physique (and that same buzz cut) — was not prepared for such a shift of circumstances that morning. For the hormonal dry-humping of ropes and poles by my male classmates and the whining by the pretty girls who would flirt with him to sit out the class due to “that time of the month” (chronic, for some) — Don Juan was prepared for that. But for thirty pairs of eyes, with dilated pupils from all the excitement in an anticipation of a cancelled class — nyet-nyet, for that he was not ready.
He lingered, that morning:
“Nooh…” he said. (Russian for “Fuck me!” — depending on how you say it.) He took off his hat, did the roll call, then lingered again. Breathlessly, we waited for the verdict.
“Tell you what: Today, we are running — OUTSIDE!”
He did his best to up-sell it to us, but the only way to stop the moaning and the complaining by the girls; and the sighing, and the spitting, and the swearing by the ballsier of boys — was to let us have it. Which he did: Don Juan barked, in the manner of someone with enough Army training to cover up his insecurities for the rest of his life. He was the boss around here, no matter how ridiculous most of us found him to be.
“SHUT UP! OUTSIDE!” — and he led the way to the school stadium that sat in the middle of a forest. (Back in my perpetually disheveled Motha Russia, we’ve got plenty of those forests-thingies. So, no one is particularly shocked when they find themselves in the midst of some mutilated ground, torn-through, ravaged, utterly misused — and typically disheveled.)
The morning was cold and wet, which caused more moaning, and more sighing, and swearing. At the sound of Don Juan’s whistle, the boys tore to the front of the line-up and started running for their lives. I? I paced it. Somehow, I knew better. Not paired up with anyone, I calmly passed the group of daintily jogging popular girls who would eventually start walking, after the first 100 meters; then, flirt with Don Juan to sit the whole thing out. I then caught up with the teenage beauties that took the exercise slightly more seriously — and passed them as well.
The shortest boy in my class was running alone, along the outer edge of the track, in his school uniform and his father’s rain boots. Being from the country side didn’t make him popular; but being humiliatingly poor — had made him into a leper, among us. The only dyke of my group kept me company for a while, and although we didn’t exchange any words, I felt we were definitely on the same page; or the same pace, at least.
I would catch up to the boys soon enough, and they wouldn’t as much as tease or patronize me, as my skinny ass squeezed in between. A late bloomer, I had nothing on my body to entice them with; so, they would let me be, for a loop or two.
But they did get their feathers ruffled when I continued to pass them — 200 meters on top of another 200, and another! And when most had left the course while faking sudden ailments to save face, I still found myself running. Perhaps, I was running for my life; because that year, it had already struck me with the first serving of anxiety. And Don Juan would have to holler to summon me and the only dyke of my group; and with a pride of someone who’d known it all along, he made examples of us, that day.
For the entire year, my late bloomer’s body would keep me running, on my own and in regional competitions. And when finally, I started trying on the features of my own womanhood — it would take a slight adjustment in gravity, but I would continue to pound the ground I called “home,” at the time.
And when at the end of my second decade, I took off for a whole different continent — away from my perpetually disheveled Motha Russia — landing in a balmy Southern state I had only seen in American movies: Every morning, I would peel on my running shoes — and I would get going. Because in my mind, I was indeed running for my life — for a better one! Oh, it would be an upgrade, fo’ sure — a choice that to this day, makes my father take off his hat to me and linger: