In the summer, running outside makes me feel like an ambling brick of melting cheese. The Midwest humidity instantly soaks my skin, even before I'm out of breath, and I fall out of breath quickly, pulling in the wet air in uncoordinated gulps.
But not in the fall. Maybe it's because I'm actually getting better at running, but I think it's mostly the weather. Today, I ran five miles, and they all felt smooth and graceful. I was running through the oldest parts of my city, remembering why I love it and imagining the history those streets had seen as my feet hit the tilting sidewalks. When I got to the riverbank, I felt invincible, and when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the windows of buildings, I saw myself as strong. This is why I run. This moment.
Walking back to my house, deeply engrossed in the audiobook version of Doctor Sleep that has been keeping me company on these runs, I passed a man painting a fence on the sidewalk. For a moment, I was distracted from the book by thoughts about how nice it was to see the old fence (in front of what looked like an abandoned building) being renewed to a shine. He said something to me. I pulled my headphones off one ear, "What?"
"You don't look like you need to exercise to me."
How does one respond to that? I kept walking, but I was still within his view, and it felt weird to say nothing. I'm running my response through my head. What he said wasn't menacing. It might have even been a compliment, though what the hell does that even mean? If I look fit (which--let's be honest--I really don't, especially if "fit" means "thin"), wouldn't you expect me to be running? I rambled off a response,
"Oh, I could still use a little exercise." Polite chuckle.
"I'll work it off you."
By then, I was four or five steps in front of where he was sitting on an overturned plastic bucket, hunched over the metal fence posts. I rolled my eyes, pulled my headphone back over my ear, and kept walking. But I didn't feel strong anymore. I could feel his eyes on me as I walked down the sidewalk. It felt like when you run through a spiderweb on a wooded path. You know it's not physically possible, but you can feel the web on you everywhere even after you pull it off, the stickiness making your skin crawl for several minutes.
Instinctively, I felt myself withdrawing, imagining myself smaller, trying to become invisible.
As I was running the exchange through my head, kicking myself for not having some kind of witty retort, a group of men called to me from a porch. They were up hill from me, the brick wall of the porch and a steep incline between us. Again, I pulled my headphones off my ears, "Huh?"
"Are you walking for cancer?"
The words didn't even make sense in my head. "Sorry? What?"
"For cancer? Is that why you're walking?"
"No. For me."
"Oh. I saw you when you headed that way earlier. Just wanted to tell you you're doing a great job."
"Thanks." I kept walking.
A great job at what? Walking? He didn't see me running because this part of the path had been both my warm-up and my cool down.
The second man hadn't said anything insulting. Sure, it's weird to congratulate someone on walking on the sidewalk, but it's not necessarily sinister, but his words came so close behind the others that they still felt dirty. I felt dirty.
And that, finally, is what I'm left wondering. What was that painter's aim?
Did he know that he deflated me? Did he know that my walk home was a victory lap for someone who had strengthened a body that couldn't even run a mile in the recent past? Did he know that I was lost in my own thoughts, enjoying a book and the company of my own footsteps? Did he know that moments before I had been running along a smooth sidewalk, catching glimpses of myself in windows and feeling powerful and (dare I say it) even a little sexy?
And did he know that after his words (I'll work it off you), all I felt was a deep desire to fold inside myself, to vanish into thin air, to get his eyes off of me?
Or did he not think about what his words meant to me at all?
And which is worse?
Photos: Eva the Weaver, Yash Gupta