Originally published in Rock, Paper, Scissors (2010)
We call her Grits. She has frizzy blonde hair, an upstate New York accent and unparalleled durability. One of my junior-year housemates, she appears bound for running greatness. She possesses a long, lean frame and sinewy legs and earns her nickname by breaking through exhaustion with jaw-dropping regularity.
Swish, swish. Grits never stops, never lets up. She runs like an African oryx, fluid and high-kneed.
Yikes! she yells before practice one afternoon, a propos of nothing. We’re lying in a circle, knees to chest, the track’s nubby tread carving squiggles into our lower backs. She says the word again—Yi-hi-hi-kes!—teasing out the vowel like a whinnying horse.
Her nickname was bestowed by a Tennessean teammate. Her real name is Laurie, although nobody uses it. A transfer from a big school up North, she has a bright, self-conscious smile and a penchant for emitting one-word exclamations that we all pick up like a contagion.
I have an awkward, inefficient stride. But I work hard, keep up in practice and report faithfully for the morning workouts, so the coach says what the heck, I can run with the team.
Grits drinks green tea before anybody else has even heard of it. She says it boosts her metabolism. (Soon, we are all drinking it.) She gnaws cinnamon sticks from the jungles of Vietnam to lubricate her joints. She eats avocadoes for her heart, apples for her bones, rosemary and spinach for memory. She bakes blueberry oatmeal muffins with walnuts, eats one 75 minutes before every practice. She avoids Doritos, ranch dressing and anything from KFC. But not doughnuts. A few days after Thanksgiving break, she doles out a bag to the team after practice. They’re delicious and fluffy and still somehow warm. She tells us:
We call them Paul Bunyan donuts. When I was young, my brothers and I would save all our pennies and buy two or three. Yikes! We’d always feel sick afterwards.
Swish, swish. None of us works as hard as Grits.
She listens to Echo and the Bunnymen; they’re hooky, she says, gooey in a good way, she says, like melting molasses. (Soon, we are all listening to them.) Her warmup jacket matches her lipstick—bubble gum pink. Her running tights and racing flats are deep plum. Off the track, away from the wooded trails, she wears flouncy, knee-length skirts over fish-net stockings, a leopard-skin jacket, calfskin boots—a departure from the rest of us, who live in our team-issue sweats. One day at the campus vintage store, she finds a sparkly tiara in the clearance bin. She wears it all the way through our next workout: twelve 400s, with only a minute of rest in between.
Somehow, that crown stays on her head as she pounds out identical splits of a minute twelve, except for the final one, which she runs seven seconds faster. As she crosses the line, she flings her tiara high above her. It hangs in the air for a few seconds, its tiny glass diamonds refracting the late afternoon light, touching down on the beet-red track just as I haul myself over the finish.
Hey, Miss America, our coach says to Grits. You kicked butt out there.
She takes off running. Swish swish. The tiara stays behind, dazzling in the sun.
Grits never stops, never lets up. If Coach tells us to run five miles steady state along the winding hills of Camp Holiday Trails, she tacks a mile to each end for good measure. If we’re running repeats on the track, she keeps jogging while the rest of us conserve our energy. When everyone else collapses on the grass at the end in heaving heaps, there is Grits, taking off down the dirt road for another thirty minutes.
She’s a sight. Not for her speed, but for her flat-out staying power. The woman never lets up. During races, she shadows the lead pack for the first three thousand meters, floating above the track on those muscular legs as her blond pigtails goose-step off her shoulder blades. Swish swish. She clenches her jaw, swings her elbows wide, like a race walker’s. Slowly, surely, the other runners fall away, boom, boom, boom. It’s as if they’re all in slow motion, and she’s the only one left running at normal speed.
Grits won’t stop. As winter gives way to spring, she gets leaner. The veins in her neck start to bulge. The muscles of her legs grow taut and ropy, and now her knees jut out unnaturally from their sockets. All of this happens so slowly, it barely registers on any of us—but I see how she runs, see how her bubble-gum jacket hangs from her frame like a garish tent. All the while, she keeps grinding out the most god-awful, gut-punching workouts and then some. How on earth does she keep going?
You just do it, she tells me. You never let up.
Grits starts to smell funny. Like rancid cinnamon, like overripe avocadoes. The entire house begins to reek, and sometimes I think I hear muffled heaving on the other side of the wall. She stops baking muffins before practice; she’s sick of eating them, she tells us. Even on warm days, she wears cotton gloves with the fingers cut out. Her teeth have a yellowish cast. Her lips are cracked and pale. We all have our suspicions. But Grits is careful; we never catch her in the act. She continues to dwindle, and now her face protrudes from her neck like an oversized lollipop, and even though she never stops, never lets up, Coach tells her: No more races, Miss America, not until you put some meat back on your bones.
This brings Grits as close as we have seen her to tears. She comes to workouts and can only watch, ferociously tugging on her pigtails. One day, she brings us doughnuts, though I notice she doesn’t eat any herself. Then she stops showing up at all, saying it’s too hard. She keeps running on her own, away from watchful eyes. She can’t stop, she tells me, she doesn’t know how. At some point, it hits me: We’ve stopped saying Yikes! all the time, stopped listening to the Bunnymen. Then one spectacular spring day, just as the azaleas are set to explode, right before Grits drops out of school and out of sight, she shows up one more time and tells us:
Just stop calling me Grits.