(2011 Rock, Paper, Scissors)
We flew that night. Legs spinning, arms churning—boy, we moved!
It was our stock six-miler, and when we started out, we just wanted it done with. The air seethed with humidity, and the pork chops we ate for dinner still sat heavy in our guts. We had no expectations of speed, but then something changed. As we ran through the woods behind the brick library, past Cooper Junior High, up the hill where the Dobermans always snarled at us, it slowly dawned on us: We were flying.
We’d been speeding up as we went—first me, then Patti. Faster, still faster, probing for the breaking point. It didn’t come. Our breath never snagged in our throats, our legs never felt that telltale sting of lactic acid. We pushed each other, then pulled. I felt myself rise up and then return to my body, ecstatic and desperate. Even then, I could sense we were sharing a singular experience.
In my memory, the streets of downtown McLean are nearly empty. The air feels slack, altogether at odds with our speed. With a little over a mile to go, just past the broken clock tower at McLean Shopping Center, we pick up our pace one last time. That is when I finally marvel aloud over how easy this all feels, and Patti chortles back her assent.
“We’re cruising, aren’t we?” my little sister calls out, as much to herself as to me. “Can you freaking believe this?”
I glance over. Patti’s tan arms swing loosely from her body. Strands of sweat-slicked hair have escaped from her ponytail and tap against her ear. She stares straight ahead, lost inside herself, nostrils flaring. It’s amazing, really, how closely her loping gait mirrors mine. Without question, we are ungraceful runners. We lean too far back, and despite our gangly legs, our strides are choppy, inefficient. I’ve never believed that we look much alike. Patti’s nose is straighter than mine, her face wider, her grin toothier. But on this August night in 1982, as we fly down the darkened streets of McLean, training our bodies for the upcoming cross-country season (senior for me, sophomore for her), I believe we could easily be taken for twins.
We round the last turn, make a final, mad dash up Macon Street and throw our panting bodies onto the grass in front of our house. Our chests heave, but we are more exhilarated than exhausted. The birch tree near the front door looms down like a huge, black monster. A lawnmower hums a few houses down. I glance at my watch, and thrust it in Patti’s face. She whistles and shakes her head. Somehow, we have bettered our previous best time for this course by a full two minutes. We will never come close to matching it.
The sun rises. The sun sets. We’ll always get to run together.
Running was that one thing she and I could always do, just the two of us, that one thing we could fall back on. It was our medium—the air we breathed, the shared blur of trees and pavement. It was our safe haven from rivalry, our glue, however fleeting, that let us move forward as one. I felt whole when I ran with Patti, somehow more myself.
We first ran together in high school—first in blue-and-yellow Nike waffle trainers, then in Sauconys and Brooks and eventually back to Nikes again. We had a shorthand for our running routes, and the list grew longer each year, familiar and comfortable as our faded, floppy tank tops. There was the three-mile McLean Loop, a no-frills run that took us past our high school; our five-mile Rotary Run, named after our first road race; and the hellaciously hilly, six-mile Cooper Run. Looking back, they all blur together, an endless loop of changing fashions and seasons and hairstyles. Even so, a handful stand out. There was, of course, the night the lactic acid never kicked in, the magical night when we flew. There was the evening the summer before, when we ran ourselves frazzled and lost in St. Louis, where our grandparents lived. We pounded on doors in the dark, panic gripping our stomachs, before Papo, our grandfather, tracked us down beneath an overpass, opened the window of his powder-blue Cadillac and barked at us: Get in the goddamn car, you two!
There was the time I tried to save my sister from eternal damnation. I was a junior in high school and midway through my short-lived born-again phase. During a twilight run around our local track, Patti stared into the loamy darkness as I haltingly explained why she really should consider asking Jesus to forgive all her sins.
“It’s pretty simple,” I said, knowing this was probably the best shot I would have at her. “You turn your life over, and He’ll see to it that you’re taken care of … you know, saved. It’s the whole reason He shed his blood.”
My words sounded lame, mechanical, as if I wasn’t completely convinced of them myself. Patti continued to stare ahead.
“What about Nana and Papo?” she finally asked. “Are they going to Hell because they’re not saved?”
My stomach clinched. Nana and Papo were Jewish, which was why my mother forced me to hide my Bible under the bed when they visited. Mom, who had married a Methodist-turned-atheist, was terrified they would find out I was praying to Jesus and blame her. Were Nana and Papo doomed? I didn’t have an answer for Patti on that one.
We rounded the south side of the track, where the kilted McLean Highlander glared down from the scoreboard. I decided to try another tack. “When you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, God will always forgive you,” I told her, “no matter what you do wrong.”
“So what’s the incentive?” Patti shot back. “If He forgives me anyway, what’s the point of doing good?”
I sighed. Darkness closed in around us. Really, I should have known better. Patti had no reason to believe she needed a savior, and my words that night did nothing to sway her. We never talked about Jesus again, or about my clumsy attempt to save her soul. I don’t think she held it against me, though.
The sun rises. The sun sets. We’ll always get to run together.
Running was our constant when so much changed—jobs, boyfriends, addresses. We kept running even when I got faster and she slowed down, still finding a pace that suited us both, sweating hundreds of gallons together, confiding some of our deepest secrets as our nubby soles slip-slapped the concrete. There are times even now, running on a leaf-strewn trail or past our old high school, when I can feel her breathing beside me.
When Patti told me she wanted to live in Africa, to teach there, we were out on a run together. I told her through clenched teeth to go for it. Then we ran on opposite sides of the world—me on blacktop, she dodging cow piles. I missed her terribly, missed our runs together. Midway through her two-year commitment, she came home briefly, and we went running another half-dozen times, picking up like nothing had changed. We ran across Key Bridge. We ran along Canal Street. We ran past boxwoods in Charlottesville. One more time, under the sweltering Virginia sun, we ran past our old high school. Patti was different, but I didn’t see it then. It was so easy to see her as the sister she had always been.
Then she went back to Africa, back to dodging cow piles.
On a bone-chilling night in December, you get the early morning call, stumble to the phone, hear your father clear his throat, then deliver news that does not seem real. You sink to the floor, hug a pillow, rock. Whoosh. That’s your brain shutting down. Whoosh. The sound of thoughts draining away, leaving only words that hang in the air like incense: Sister. Coma. Africa. Come. Wait.
The sun rises. The sun sets.
There is nothing in your head, nothing at all, only your heart thumping fast, like footfalls. And the memory of a slack, windless night, when you weren’t supposed to fly but you did.