“So, you’re alive.”
Shaun, my old mountain-climbing friend, the guy who had a heart attack way back when, is standing over me as I try to do sit-ups at the gym.
“Barely – ” I make a feeble attempt at a welcoming smile, taking the interruption to stop my exercise in futility.
I sit up, grab the white towel next to me, and wipe my face, though I am not sweating.
“I was wondering what happened to you,“ Shaun says. He is sporting a gray goatee; he has on an old pair of gym shorts, a worn t-shirt, and his hands are tucked into the pockets of a faded hoodie. He must have been walking the indoor track where he spotted me in the corner, crunched up on an exercise pad behind the stairmaster machines.
I was hoping for a little anonymity.
It’s been two months since we talked and the holidays have come and gone. I have gained more than ten pounds in the interim and am suffering from a mind-bogging headache, a debilitating depression based on my burgeoning weight.
Shaun is the last person I want to see.
Shaun is five or so years younger than me. Back in our thirties we ran trails together and were fairly evenly matched. In our forties I stopped running, but he went on to climb mountains in Europe. Now, after his heart attack and my decision to lose fifty pounds, we find we are members of the same gym. I hate that, in spite of his medical condition, he is in better shape than me; I hate that, somehow, his heart attack has given him the right to advise me on my running and exercise routines; I hate that, as a result of what he has gone through, he is waiting for me to catch up and keel over any minute.
Fucking Doomsday Shaun.
“Took some time off,” I say.
“Thought you might have died.”
“Thought you might be dead.”
“You look alive.”
I resist the urge to point to my stomach as proof I am very much alive, thinking of all the wine I drank and the desserts I ate over the holidays…oh, and the Christmas snacks and the chocolate santas and the second helpings and late night binging… In truth, I should be dead.
“No heart attacks?”
Shaun, I realize, is in no hurry to get back to the track. He keeps staring down at me, now fingering his goatee. My plan to revive myself is falling apart. So much for my goal of fifty sit ups, one hundred squats, and twenty push ups.
Oh, fuck this.
“Heart attack? Me? Not yet, but I’m working on it.”
I struggle to stand. Too heavy and too out of shape to get up gracefully, I grab a bar on one of the stairmaster machines and pull myself up. Now situated on my feet, I look around, hoping others too are suffering from the same torture of being back in the gym and carrying too much extra weight.
Shaun watches me, hands back in his hoodie.
“You look like shit. No stroke or brain aneurism?”
Clearly Shaun is going through a checklist. Next he’ll be asking about venereal diseases.
“I am in the middle of an aneurism right now,” I say to stop the countdown and, perhaps, explain my feebleness in getting up from the floor. I wipe my forehead with my towel and put it around my neck. I feel my wrist to see if my pulse is elevated. It’s not. This must be a sign for something.
“Christmas nearly killed me.”
This is my excuse. I stick a finger against a vein on my neck. I am wearing black shorts and a white t-shirt that is way too tight. The towel doesn’t extend to my waist, and Shaun can see that the pudge is back and pushing hard against my shirt. I detect no pulse in my neck. This too must be a sign.
I will myself to be dead. I am dead. I am dead.
“And the marathon?”
“Oh that – that definitely killed me.”
Fucking New York City Marathon.
“It was on television, but I didn’t watch.”
“You didn’t miss anything. Just a bunch of crazy people. Besides they never show anyone in the back.”
“But you finished.”
“Yeah, just barely.” I sigh, then take a deep breath and exhale slowly. “At one point or another, the entire country of Kenya passed me.”
“Kenyans always win these races.”
I nod at that.
“Saw that tennis star ran. What’s her name – she ran it.”
“Yeah, I saw on the news. Caroline somebody. She won the U.S. Open. She too beat me by a good forty-five minutes.”
“It could have been worse,” Shaun says. “I read she barely trained and went to a Halloween party before the race Sunday.”
“That’s what I read. She’s pretty cool.”
“I guess.” How would I know?
Fucking Caroline somebody.
“Anyhow,” Shaun says, “a bunch of NBA stars ran it too. Did you see any NBA stars?“
What does a fucking NBA star look like?
“I guess so. Everybody passed me. Tall people. Short people. Anybody who was anybody: NBA, NFL, baseball, ballerinas, fucking ball boys, you name it. They all ran by me. I should have asked for autographs. If I hadn’t been dying, I would have.”
Shaun scratches his head. “It couldn’t have been that bad.”
“Disaster comes to mind. I’d say it was a disaster.”
“Yeah,” I sigh again. “Though fiasco works for me.”
Shaun pauses at that. “So what’s next? Are you going to run it again?”
Oh. What’s next…? I smile at him like I am crazy. Like I really am having a brain aneurism right here, right now, right beside him in this fucking gym.
“Boston,” I say. “I got into the Boston Marathon. I’m supposed to run Boston in April.”
Now he knows: I am suffering from delusions.
“April! That’s coming right up.”
Shaun can’t resist. He can see I am totally out of shape, but he asks the question everyone asks when he or she hear about the race:
“Are you training?”
Oh jeez, I can’t believe he asked me this with Boston just around the corner.
“So you’re running?” That’s the thing about Shaun – he can be persistent.
“What do you mean, exactly?”
I stare across the gym – some guy is on one of the treadmill machines; he’s running fast. The treadmill is whirling like it’s going to blow up. I’ve been on that machine. That guy should be me. Was me way back when.
Shaun frowns at my question. Like my response doesn’t makes sense. Like, let’s be real, there’s not too many ways to define running. You throw one leg out there and then follow it by throwing the other. You do this repeatedly and voila!
I know Shaun is thinking: are you voila-ing or not?
But isn’t life a marathon? Don’t we start running at birth and finish at death and don’t we suck down Gatorade at all sorts of stops along the way? Aren’t we all runners in the larger scheme of things?
Shaun interrupts my thoughts, my realization of man and how we all are Kenyans in the eyes of God.
“I mean, like… uhhh… are you running?” Like, duh, how hard is this to answer?
No, but didn’t you notice, I’m doing sit ups instead. No, but I walked my cul-de-sac two hundred times this past weekend. No, but I bought magic beans from a homeless man and he promises flames will shoot out of my butt come April. No, but I am looking forward to committing suicide the night before and don’t want to be all sweaty. No, but what the fuck? Isn’t life a fucking marathon? yadda, yadda, yadda…. I sigh.
“Of course, I’m running.” I lie. What do you take me for? An idiot?
I shake my head.
“With the marathon ten weeks away, wouldn’t it be insane not to be running?”
I have got to get my act together. I’ve got to be, once again, that guy on the treadmill. A treadmill machine. Me.
I can see Shaun is suspicious.
“Good,” he says. “I wouldn’t want you to have a heart attack.”
“What about kickboxing? That should help. Weren’t you hot and heavy about kickboxing?”
Ugh! I stopped kickboxing back when I tore my hamstring in the spring and then with the recovery and all, I decided to wait until after New York, until after the holidays.
“I don’t know.”
With my old trainer, Albert from Hell, lurking in the kickboxing gym, plotting to kill me if I show up, it would be so, so hard to face him with all the weight I have gained.
I could punch a fucking punching bag right now.
“I have to give it some thought.”
In truth, I’ve given up kickboxing for sit ups and that’s not going well either.
“Shaun, jeez. I am too old for this shit.”
When did I get so old?
Besides, it’s already too late. Boston is in ten weeks.
Shaun points to the track. “You want to walk?”
There was a time when I couldn’t get around this track; a time when running a 5K was extraordinary; a time when a 10K was considered a feat that few in the gym could master; a time when running a half-marathon was remarkable; a time when doing a marathon was a miracle, a miracle for everyone, everyone involved, everyone including me; a time when all of this was so wonderful, so awesome, so true.
“Let’s do a few laps and then, say, lift some weights.”
“You know,” I take a large breath, looking around the gym, “it’s all good.”
Shaun nods his head, like he understands.
Maybe a few bumps and bruises between us.
It will be good to walk the track.