Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves

 

 

            I turn the last corner and begin my kick--150 yards of vicious wind sprint. With my blood pounding in my ears I can hear my breathing begin to go. "Push it, push it, marathon, marathon..." The last bit is always like this--the more it hurts, the harder one has to push. With two squares of sidewalk to go I wing my arms and break the imaginary tape a second later with my chest.

 

            Ann smiles, standing on the porch, and lifts a glass of iced tea towards me. I'm too blown to answer, but I wave a hand of thanks at her and hold out two fingers. She understands; I've got to walk down for two minutes.

 

            As I head around the block making the sorts of faces runners always make afterwards, I think a bit about Ann. We've been sharing this house for two years now. Long ago our landlord bought it and restored it with some innovation. Basically, now it's a two-story house, with a separate apartment on each floor. Together, we share the kitchen. Odd? Yes, perhaps, but Ann and I are much alike, and the arrangement has worked out better than I had expected.

 

            Of course, things are a bit more difficult now. When I moved in, I was steadily dating a woman named Amber. I never could picture her parents standing in front of the observation window in the maternity ward and saying, "Let's call her 'Amber'." but that was her name.

 

            And Ann was already there and living with a man named Steve--a weight lifter. I've never been able to picture a lifter named Steve, either. But, within the last few months, both of us have lost those relationships.

 

            Amber died in a car accident ten months ago. Remembering almost makes me slip into pace again, but I force myself to maintain the walk. There is a huge wisteria bush here by the sidewalk--it's quite lovely this time of year, and I breathe its fragrance deeply.

 

            She and two girlfriends had gone out that night--"to pick up some cute guys" she had laughingly told me on the phone--and decided to drive to Skeeter's, a bar about five miles outside of town with a nice dance floor. They did a few bong hits before leaving town, or so I assume from the police report. I'll never know. All three were DOA, and there was no indication of what made the car leave the road and end up shattered against a storm drain. I spent a whole day sitting in front of that huge cement tube. It's tough to forget.

 

            And Steve, he met this woman weight lifter at a meet, and they just sort of hit it off. It sounds sort of funny, but the reality was pretty messy. Steve just started blowing Ann off, and when she got desperate they'd fight for hours. He finally just pulled up stakes and took off. Ann came down and cried in my living room all night. She threatened that she was going to take sleeping pills, but we both knew that she didn't mean it. I listened to her mourn until she fell asleep on my couch, and then covered her with a spare blanket and went to sleep. The next day, when I awoke, there were some freshly picked marigolds in a glass on my table and a note that said, "Thanks." We've never talked about it since--it's her way of recovering.

 

            "You know, you're seriously crazy to run on a day like today--it's got to be ninety in the shade. Why do you do it?"

 

            I smile and take a long swallow of iced tea--lemon, no sugar, just the way I like it. The beads of water mingle with the sweat on my palm and form a cool rivulet running down my forearm. I wipe the side of the glass across my forehead and both cheeks savoring the sting of its cold.

 

            "For the endorphins, man, I'm an addict." I say, with a loopy smile.

 

            She grins and shakes her head, sitting down on the porch swing we also share. As she looks out over the lawn I gaze at her appreciatively. Ann is not merely pretty, Ann is beautiful. Imagine the archetypal California blond, and it's Ann. Whenever I have a male friend over and he meets her for the first time, he tends to stumble over his greeting. Ann is always at pains to try to ignore my smiles.

 

            "What's up for tonight?" I ask her.

 

            "I've got a date." she replies, yawning in the heat.

 

            I drain the last of my iced tea and scrupulously avoid eating one of the ice cubes. "I'm off for the showers, woman, have a good one."

 

            She smiles, then yawns again.

 

*****

 

            "So, you're a runner." she says.

 

            We are standing in the center of my living room, kissing hungrily. I have one hand caught in her hair, the other in the small of her back. Her hands are on my shoulder blades. Our bodies touch at lips, breasts, and hips, and she smells of Spanish perfume.

 

            "Yes." I murmur, while exploring the delicate curves of her throat.

 

            Her name is Senna. It crosses my mind that I seem doomed to pick up women with strange names. I met her at Skeeter's tonight. Dan, an actor friend of mine, was there with a group of people, and invited me to join them.

 

            "Why?" she asks.

 

            I noticed Senna at once. I like women's eyes more than anything else, and Senna had the darkest brown eyes I had ever seen--sparkling. We danced several times, and then discovered a mutual addiction to video games and went off to indulge ourselves, giggling at our own childishness. When we can back, everyone had begun treating us as a couple. I kissed her two or three times in the bar and knew that it was right.

 

            "Why what?" I return.

 

            When the evening broke up, Dan's group started heading for their cars out in the gravel parking lot. It was a warm night, Orion was very low on the southern horizon, and Jupiter burned a bright violet-blue in the absence of any moon. They yelled to ask her if she were coming, and I held her hands and told her that I'd love to give her a ride home. On the ay the wind played in her hair and we sang along with Past Tense, a late night radio show that only plays songs from the fifties and sixties.

 

            "Why do you run?"

 

            I slide a hand between our hips and around to the front of her slacks. "Because it's sexy--like Al Pacino in Marathon Man."

 

            "That was Hoffman." she says, and slides my hand around to her back again.

 

            "Hmm?" I ask and begin running my other hand down the side of her face and onto her breast.

 

            "Dustin Hoffman starred in Marathon Man." she laughs, and bites my wrist as it goes by.

 

            "Quiet, wench!" I draw her to me tightly and kiss her hard.

 

            "Don't like being corrected?" she asks me sweetly afterwards.

 

            "Hate being interrupted." I growl, and carry her into the bedroom while she laughs.

 

            Much later than evening she says, "I'm an actress."

 

            "Oh?" I ask contentedly.

 

            "That's how I knew about Pacino and Hoffman."

 

            "You're delightful." I tell her, and we make love again.

 

            In the morning we flip for breakfast, and the spinning coin falls squarely on her lower stomach. "Tails, as it were." I grin. She throws a pillow at me and gets up to take the first shower, having lost the flip. We kiss, passing in the bathroom, and as the hot water runs down me it occurs to me that I am very happy. I think about it and begin whistling Something's Coming from West Side Story. When I get out, and turn off the water, I hear her sing,

 

            "...could be..." and I respond,

 

            "...who knows..."

 

            She runs to the bathroom and peeks in. "A very good actress." she smiles impishly and then runs back to the kitchen. I hear her fading "A much better actress than a cook!"

 

            The breakfast belies her words, and we both enjoy the early morning sun streaming on to the butcher block table.

 

            "Will you come to see me perform Friday night?" she asks over coffee.

 

            Count on it." I say.

 

            She leaves, deciding that the beauty of the morning and the proximity of my house to her apartment mandates that she walk. I kiss her goodbye and glance at my calendar. Six miles today. I pull on my running clothes, wash the dishes, and put on Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. By the time it's finished my stomach will be settled and ready to go.

 

*****

 

            Running is an odyssey, running is a dream. Like a good play, each act has a life of its own.

 

            The first mile, for instance, is always easy--the first mile is for light thoughts. Why do I run? Because I can. The morning sings around me, positively sings. My legs are light, my pace is fast, my breath is good. A man cutting his lawn waves as I pass by, and the mixed taste of newly mown grass and gasoline fills my mouth.

 

            Then, around the end of the second mile, I notice a slight tightness in the inside edge of my right calf. I know that until I finish nothing will stop me, but I make a mental note to stretch that leg when I walk down.

 

            It's at about three and a half miles that I start to sweat. One minute I feel dry, and the next I'm acutely aware of rolling drops on my forehead, chest, and sides. The hair on my chest and stomach, and in my armpits begins to become damp, as does the waistband of my shorts. Why do I run? I think of Sylvia Plath: Running//is an art, like everything else.//I do it exceptionally well.//I do it so it feels like hell. I smile at my bastardization and go on. It's at the fourth mile that it starts to hurt.

 

            The pain is a surreal thing which consciousness doesn't really admit. The body has overwhelmed the mind and become a metronome, a pace which cannot be stopped or slowed. There are no thoughts, even noting landmarks becomes instinctive. Green Street, turn left. Turning is a difficult process now, for anything which changes the pace is a danger, a time during which the mind could slip in and stop the machine. A brief burst of will power is required to regain the pace, and then the monotonic beat of rubber against pavement is reestablished. The flex of knee and ankle, the roll of hip and shoulder. Inhale, exhale. Time ceases to exist. I've been running forever, I'll keep running forever. The mind chants to the cadence of the feet, "One mile, two miles, three miles, four miles, one mile, two miles, three miles, four miles..." And at last it is the last corner, and the pain, and the walk down.

 

            "Who was that singing in the kitchen this morning?" my beautiful blond housemate inquires mischievously when I return.

 

            "Why Ann," I reply, breathing deeply, "it's not like you to be out of bed before noon!"

 

            She chuckles. "Here, bum."

 

            I accept the water gratefully. "Her name's Senna, she's an actress." I pause a second or two. "Special."

 

            "I'm glad." Ann smiles.

 

            "Whose was the heavy tread on the stairs last night?"

 

            "Hmm, you obviously weren't as busy as I assumed."

 

            I grin. "No comment."

 

            "Not special." she replies.

 

            "I'm sorry."

 

            She shrugs her shoulders noncommittally. As she turns to go into the house, I notice a large bruise under the tan high on her leg, just below her shorts. "Ouch, how'd you pick that up?"

 

            She glances down, and looks. "I was coming out of the shower yesterday and slipped. Good thing I landed on something soft." she says and slaps herself on that cheek.

 

            "I'll say." I goose her lightly. For my trouble I earn the rest of the water in my face and her laughter as she runs down the hallway to the kitchen. I shake my head and begin stretching my right calf.

 

*****

 

            "Thank you for the flowers." she says.

 

            I went to the florist beforehand and got one red rose and one white carnation. Going down to the make-up rooms was an exercise in maze navigation, but all theaters are alike. The cast was milling around in and out of the rooms, generally half dressed and half made up. Someone in jeans and a plaid shirt walked out of the stage door and stuck her head in both rooms to yell, "The house is now open." As she returned, I stopped her and asked if she would give the flowers to Senna. She looked at me and smiled.

 

            "No problem."

 

*****

 

            "You were very good." I say.

 

            And she was. I hadn't seen Bus Stop in a long time. The production was run on a three-quarters thrust stage, and the intimacy of such an arrangement was used with great skill by the actors. There were times when the audience was so quiet you could hear gels cooling in recently dimmed Fresnels.

 

            "I like Bus Stop even more than Small Craft Warnings." I continue.

 

            "My, my! A connoisseur and approving critic." she says appreciatively. Then, leaning back and feigning great languor, "Take me to bed."

 

            I kiss her lightly. "You actresses are all alike."

 

            "That's not true." she says gravely. "Some of us are lesbians." She fails to hold back the giggle.

 

            "Horrors." I respond, and we adjourn to less intellectual pursuits.

 

            In the dawn light I ask her, "Are you Maria?"

 

            And she responds, "Are you Tony?"

 

            We kiss for a long time.

 

            "I--"

 

            She places her fingers against my lips and kisses me again. "Wait." she says.

 

*****

 

            "Why do you act?"

 

            "Why do you run?"

 

            "Because I can."

 

            "That's why I act."

 

            "Touché. No, seriously, I mean, acting is more... synthetic than running. Very many people simply can't do it. Maybe I'm asking the wrong question. Why are you a good actress?"

 

            "That is a better question."

 

            She pauses, cuts into her meal, chews thoughtfully, and then continues.

 

            "I find acting appealing because it gives me continuous chances to be someone else. If I don't like the way my life is going, I know that I can learn from a character. If I have trouble with a character, very often I can learn from my life. Acting is the refinement of the individual facets of self and their expansion into character. Further than this, analyzing characters is the key to understanding yourself and other people. Every good actor is also an excellent judge of people and their motivations. Even insanity is logical from the viewpoint of the actor. In a play, every movement has a motivation, every line has a reason--unless you've got a rotten author." she smiles. "I do it for the freedom of expression, for the experience of different lives, and for the thrill of performing." She attacks her meal again.

 

            "You're very special." I tell her.

 

            There is a long pause as we both drink our wine. "And why do you run?"

 

            "Every action has a motivation--a good actress should be able to figure it out." I tease her.

 

*****

 

            It strikes me in the fifth mile today. It strikes me as the nerves in my ankles are going numb. It comes as an unexpected rational thought in the purity of exertion. It even falters the pace, although only briefly. In an abstract way, I realize that it is for just this purity, this intellectual and emotional blankness that I run. The need to achieve the single goal of completing the course suborns the entire being, abnegating love and pain and joy and hope. It is the meditation of swiftness, and absolute of control--a purification by fire. Running is the nihilism of the body practiced upon the mind. I file it away to think about later and return concentration to finishing the last two miles.

 

*****

 

            I dream, and feel Senna's warmth in my sleep.

 

            It is very dark when I hear the gunshot. Once--medium caliber--almost certainly a pistol. It's come from Ann's bedroom, directly above mine. Senna is wide-eyed as I pull on my running shorts and grab a hunting knife and a shuriken from off the wall. "Stay here." I hiss.

 

            I take the stairs three at a time and burst through her open bedroom door. There is a streetlight near the window and its light comes in horizontally, making shadows seem unreal and objects distorted. Four stars glint slightly in the light and each one prints upon my mind. On a dresser against the wall opposite the door is a pair of silver handcuffs, along with an assortment of darker items and two one hundred dollar bills. To my right is an overweight and naked man in his late thirties, standing with feet splayed and spittle gleaming on his chin. To my left is the soft glow of the blond hair on Ann's head and between her legs. And last is the sliver of light shining on the Smith and Wesson .38 caliber police special which she holds pointed at the man's stomach. From it, the smell of burned gunpowder weaves into the night like jasmine.

 

            "What the fuck, man!" he sees me and bursts out yelling, his words tumbling over each other as though he's got to talk to me. "I'm giving her what she wants, you know, some broads like it rough, when she just grabs my gun and goes crazy. I mean--"

 

            "Get out of here." I say softly.

 

            He pauses and licks his lips. "I want my gun and my money back first!" He affects bellicosity. "What are you, her pimp?"

 

            I bring my own star into the room, and it flickers across the space between us like a brightly lit train seen from afar in the night. The shuriken embeds itself into the wall between his legs, one inch below his genitals. I bring the knife up in my left hand and we now have a constellation of six bright points in the room. "Leave." I whisper almost lovingly.

 

            In the end, it is probably at least as much the fact that I am clothed and he is not as it is fear of the knife which cows him. While I circle, he sidles to the door and picks up his clothes on the way. I hear him muttering epithets under his breath as he pulls them on. "Go." I say, almost inaudibly, and he looks in my eyes and runs.

 

            "What the hell--" I begin, and Ann is upon me. A reality more bizarre than any of my fantasies breaks over me as her mouth slams onto mine, and her hands tear at my shorts. Like watching an old movie things happen with stroboscopic discontinuity and violence, and it is the violence which Ann craves. I don't know how many times I hit her, but I hear with terrific clarity the moans of pleasure and pain. Her submission is a drug moving in our blood, and when exhaustion finishes us, and I pull myself from her, I see Senna standing in the door.

 

            I have no words of explanation, but my mouth begins forming them anyway until she stops me.

 

            "Don't. I--I'm going to go home now."

 

            "Senna, wait!"

 

            She says nothing, turns, and leaves.

 

            Ann lies heavily asleep on the floor, almost glowing in the blue light. I lift her onto her bed and cover her, then run after Senna. I reach her as she is closing the front door.

 

            "I run to forget."

 

            She turns to look at me. "I know."

 

            I watch her walk away, remembering that today my calendar calls for fifteen miles.

 

            "To forget." I whisper.

 

                                                                        Christopher J. Cramer

                                                                        Distant past