I. Pulled to the Pavement
A disaster looks ridiculous in retrospect. Who the hell was he to wake up that day, eyes stupid and bright, and pull on running shoes? Such obstinate nonchalance, willful oblivion, as he stepped out under the sun. Perhaps if he’d listened, he’d have heard the wind whispering a warning. Surely the birds, perched on electrical wiring overhead, surely they braced in the watching.
He’d led a watchful life, all things considered. In the abstract, he knew the world was an unpredictable place, but he’d found that good things came to those who listened, learned, took off with confidence. If nothing else, running gave him this insight. The ridiculous courage of that first mile, discovering those walls to be of his own making. A lesson from the pavement, and he carried it with him to work, to life, to love –– he took that inch and stretch it for miles and miles.
He ran beneath awnings and blue skies. People on the sidewalk unwittingly cast shadow mosaics underfoot, and his danced among them. His mind perused his history, scanned the faces for inspiration, swells of feeling to pull him forward. There had been storms, but love had always been the quiet drizzle that rinsed everything new again. He thought of his mother, the way she smiled when his father brought her vanilla ice cream in a yellow bowl, how she’d taught him to notice small, joyful things. He brushed his mind over stories, his own and those of all the humans he loved, his role in their pages, the fascinating interplay.
In a matter of minutes, his mind would abandon the activity altogether, concerned instead with the complex mechanics of the human body. The bones of our legs and feet, absorbing the impact of our bodies against the earth again and again. Ligaments and muscles working in tandem, a dutiful game of give and take, burning with gratitude but working all the while. The miracle of all this makes itself much more apparent as our bodies grow older. All this when running, yes, but also when walking for a morning bagel or standing in an ugly sweater photo or jogging down the steps to a Brooklyn-bound train.
It happens. A jolt rocks the rhythm, his right ankle rolls, breath catches. The music cuts, headphones pulled free, his phone now skitters across the pavement. His gloved palms catch most of the impact, one tearing. A splintering pain stretches its way up his leg. Slow motion or fast forward, he isn’t sure, he grabs the phone, stands, and limps to the sidewalk. ‘Please don’t be broken,’ he begs aloud, audible to anybody nearby. ‘Please don’t be broken, please don’t be broken, please don’t be broken.’
Already, he’s begun bargaining. No need for a long healing process, world, his mind begs, I’ve learned the lesson. I’ll watch next time. What time is there for healing, anyway? Who left buffer time for breaking apart? There’s life to be lived, miles to be run, and none of it leaves a paragraph for broken limbs or bed rest.
Why did he leave? She’s never written the words down, but she finds them scribbled, again and again, among the margins. In the morning, before she’s fully lifted out of the fog of sleep, they etch themselves across her forehead. She lifts her pillow to headboard, sits up with a heavy exhale, and tries to ignore the way the question repeats itself, again and again, on every surface of her bedroom: photo strips pulled loose from her vanity, cell phone giving her the time without his good mornings, flat crumpled blanket in the place of his late-slumbering shoulders.
The words follow her into the shower, keep her from singing, as though joy might just drown her altogether. She carries them, slung heavy across her shoulder, as she steps out under the sun, pauses in momentary disgust at the way everything keeps on moving all the while. Birds and delivery trucks and songs on the radio, apathetic to the fact that he’s left and taken the sun with him. She eats them for lunch, taking bites to survive, forgetting what it is to hunger for flavor. They’re written across her face, she notices in the way everybody’s gentle with her, and she wishes they’d stop. By nightfall, they’ll have swollen unmanageable, sucking out all the air in the room and squishing her into the fetal position.
Why did he leave? She stands in front of the mirror, counts a million reasons why: She asked for too much, she’s not pretty or smart or interesting enough, she said the wrong things, she’d made the mistake of showing her cards, letting him know he was enough for her, she talked too much on car rides and it drove him crazy, or there was someone prettier or smarter or more interesting. Or maybe it was him, maybe he was weak or cowardly or scared, and maybe he’d been hoping she’d chase after him, maybe he was hoping she’d call, or maybe he just needed time, a few days or weeks to see the world without her and realized it lost all its best edges, or…
These are her days, rise to restlessness, for months. Her heart is a house on fire, and the flames are the questions he left in his wake. Parts of her burn, sear bright yellow, flake away, and she tries to exhale without everyone seeing smoke. Until one day, rising to look outside and catching her reflection, she stops asking why did he.
Why did I? Her breath catches, eyes widen with realization. New questions stretch themselves across her like vines: Why did I let myself believe he took the sun with him? Why did I let his leaving become my story? Why did I believe the worst things he told me? Why did I miss the sunset, watching the other way for his return? Why did I mistake him for brave? Why did I accept his half-assed everything? Why did I call any of it love? Why did I let the absence of him become greater than the presence of me? Why did I drown in my own waters? Why did I crumble? Why did I survive?
The new questions surrounding her blossom, flower petals in place of the scars she’d been stubbornly hiding away. They bear fruit, some of which burst, aloe spreading itself across her limbs. At night, they recoil to rest alongside her, and they rise with her to greet the morning. A glance in the mirror, and she cannot believe what she sees: Eve, regal in the Garden of Eden, adorned in petals and thorns alike, unencumbered by the language of apologizing for the curves of her creation.
Fsk! Red-edged plastic slices a wound into the sand. Eyebrow furrowed, the child grunts and pulls the shovel inward, magnificent clump of sand lifting with it. Arm wobbling, the child drops the clod into a bucket, tamping it down, flat, promising. The child stands, lifts the bucket clumsily, hobbles over to a sandcastle in the making. Kneels down, turns it over with careful hands. No more than five years old, already versed in breaking.
Overhead, a seagull cries, dives its way into an ocean wave. The sky, blue and clear only moments earlier, has begun bundling up grays. In the distance, a foreboding line stretches its way across the horizon, the quiet rumble of a faraway roar.
But the child presses on, palms concerning themselves with the sand, mind stubbornly fixed on the castle imagined. Sometimes, the child knows, rumbles give way to fizzles, light streaks its way back on the horizon; sometimes, also, come storms. But no palace was ever built with tentative hands, and no storm has ever managed to wash hope away from the shore.