Feeling It Out

Posted by on April 26, 2014 
Filed under Fiction

My body feels different today. As I run, it feels stronger, more in tune with my pace, but it also feels weaker. Not like I can’t continue, or that my running regimen stresses my body too much. No, it feels weaker because I’m rigorously conditioned, aware of an invincible feeling inside. I’m terrified of losing it.

My thighs feel like stone, my feet electricity. The woods pass by as if frozen, each feature still, brilliantly detailed. Large trees, their leaves shiny in the sunlight, stand as statues, silent in the still afternoon. Birds chirp in the distance, the occasional squirrel bounding about rustles the dense population of ferns covering the forest floor. The trail beneath my feet feels soft under my shoes, the smooth dirt only occasionally interrupted by baseball-sized rocks. I feel free, without worry. I notice every detail of the forest with the time and intricacy of a photograph.

I think about Mike. He runs behind me, somewhere. He knows me well. I think we run for the same reasons, meditation, relief, escape.

“You close?”

“Yep, just a little back from you.”

“You want me to slow it up a bit?”

“No, this is fine. I’m good.”

“How’s Laurie?”

“Still pretty broken up man. Neither of us expected this. We both miss him.”

Buckley died a few days ago. Mike’s strong, but anyone’s going to miss their dog, be sad, feel cheated. Death seeps into the spring of life like a cold thick bog. It lingers, still, dense, and wet.

Mike moves up beside me. We’re the same age, 34, our birthdays are a mere seven days apart. We share a strong kinship, understand each other, feel we are brothers. We used to drink hard, a nightly twelve pack, or the equivalent in liquor, along with a steady dose of cigarettes and pot; we weren’t the healthiest men in the world, but we always had fun, at least until morning came. We roomed together in college, but remained hard partiers well after. I moved away after school. We always stayed close and visited each other often.

When my sister Sarah died, I threw away my chemically-choked lifestyle. I chose running as a new and healthy outlet. A lot of people close to me couldn’t understand my change. They wanted me to continue with them, keep quickly scratching years off my life. They didn’t understand my mission, maybe because I never told them. I choose to live a better life in the wake of Sarah’s death, to live healthier in her honor, transcend the grip of vice, a grip she from which she could never break free.

Sarah and I only partied together in minor ways, drinking and smoking pot. I never knew she used heroin until two years before her death. She was four years younger than me, so I broke off my partying with her when I found out about her addiction. We grew apart, mostly because I chose to lecture her on the importance of getting clean whenever I saw her. She didn’t want to understand why she should be good to herself, much like later, when no one close to me wanted to understand why I chose running as the new focus of my life. No one understood, except Mike.

“Do you think you’ll get another dog?”

“I don’t know. Laurie’s pretty upset right now. So am I.”

“I think you guys will. It was sudden though. Same thing happened to Rob’s dog. His stomach flipped, no one knew it happened , and he just died right in Rob’s arms. No warning, nothing.”

“That condition is crazy. I’d never even heard of it before. It seems like vets should always tell owners of large dogs to watch out for GDV.”

“I know, why wouldn’t they if it’s so common? Doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“It’s beautiful up here today,” I say.


Three Ridges’ trail, half shaded half sunlit, winds up the mountain at a forty-five degree angle, a steep climb. The sunlight toasts my skin when I’m in it. It feels wonderful, like heated silk cloaking my body. The breeze, slow and tempered, wisps my hair back as I climb, a little faster every step.

Mike supported me when I decided to become an obsessive runner. He listened intently when I spoke of my newfound passion. I think, as he became aware of how much happiness I found, he decided to take it up too. His choice drew us even closer. We traversed a major boundary together, began steadily building a new basis for our close relationship. Running became our shared priority, began to define us. We talked of our exploits, our increased mileage and varied training methods, our tools to achieving top spiritual and physical form. We formed a healthy bit of competition, not necessarily who was better than whom, but more like a, “See where I’m going with this? Want to follow? Or take the lead?” attitude.

“Are you ready to do this? I want to get up it fast,” I say as I continue to pull ahead of Mike.

“Yeah I’m ready, but I want to see the views a little. I don’t want to kill myself getting up here.”

“That’s cool man,” I said. “You stop when you want, but I’m going to move up this thing as fast as I can.”

“You’ve never been up it before. Don’t you want to see the views?”

“I will, but I’ve wanted to run Three Ridges for a while. I want to test my strength.”

“Alright man, but you know a lot of hiking isn’t about the exercise. It’s about talking to the people you’re with and relaxing in nature. If we just speed up this thing we’re not going to talk, we’re just going to work.”

“That’s what it’s about to me man. It’s the work that matters. I can talk to you on the ride back just like on the way here. This is what we came to do right?”

“Right, but I don’t think we need to be so strict about how we go up. We can relax a little.”

“Listen Mike, you go up it any way you want, but I’m going up quick. Let me do it how I want alright? You move the way you want and I’ll move the way I want.”

“Alright buddy, alright.”

I feel the front of my thighs burn as the terrain steadily rises, steeper and steeper. I stay on the balls of my feet and push harder up the trail, concentrating  on the pain as hard as I can. My mind becomes a liquid washed in silver light. My thoughts jump up and down like the bubbles in boiling water. I smile as a drop of sweat stings my eye.

Sarah died on July 2, 2011. Running tramples the pain of her loss into the ground. The solitude of long distance running gives me time to think about her, how things could’ve been different. A ballet dancer most of her twenty eight years, Sarah used her physical presence, her movement, to evoke emotion in audiences. Her fitness astounded her audiences. She seemed to glow onstage. Shimmering blond hair hung straight and thick to her waist. She flipped her mane around as much as she could, on the stage and off, with a wry wide smile over her shoulder. Onlookers stood paralyzed in front of her butane blue eyes which had the power to warm even the most frozen soul when light danced across them, their brilliance sparkling like sunlight on a thousand tiny-fingered sea waves. Her wide deep smile, combined with her grace and power on stage, warmed me whenever I watched her perform.  I always felt both nervous and excited for her. I wanted her to succeed so much, but I always doubted her just enough to believe that she could fall at any moment.

I move steadily faster, but quieter, lighter, concentrating on my breathing. I let my thoughts come and go freely. They often involve Sarah, how I’ll never see her again, how our family fractured after her overdose, how I anticipated her death for a year or more before it finally happened. Oftentimes, I find myself having conversations with her, “Why did you do it? What did you shoot that last shot?”

“I couldn’t help it Chris. I was on it so long. It became second nature.”

“You should’ve told me. I’d have tried to help you.”

“No one could help me but me.”

“I could’ve helped you. You crushed Mom you know?”

“I know. I know.”

“You know? I don’t think you do. She’s lost everything, starting with you. She’s not the same. None of us are.”

“We were always fighting anyway. What does it matter if one person isn’t around to do it?”

My thoughts become too sporadic to pin down. They feel like lead, dense, dark. A dirty film coats their surface. A strong wind blows in my face. It feels forceful, like it intends to keep me from fulfilling my promise to Sarah for the day. I need to run to improve my life; she needs to see me heal.

I concentrate on the surrounding forest. Thick oaks, pines, delicate maples glide by me as I push forward up the long incline. The ground crunches under foot, acorns and dry leaves lingering from last fall break down into tiny granules indistinguishable from the sandy brown dirt of the trail. Birds chirp and sing repetitive songs overhead which put me in a soft trance as I watch a light wind slip through the leaves.

I cruise at a five minute mile pace, joy energizing every cell in my body. I feel weightless, free, thirsty, acutely aware of my surroundings, but sweaty and swirly. The wind brushes me slightly sideways, knocking me off balance. Hot anger boils in the back of my eyes like a cinched vise.  I strain to reset my thoughts.

Once negative thoughts creep into a run, they poison it slowly. They intrude on a blank space like a scream interrupting silence. My body tenses. I feel hot, pulsing anger, not because I’m unhappy, but because I cannot control my emotions. Control is essential, especially when everything around me radiates a harsh static whine.

But the mountain’s scenery silences the whine. The thick summer air shoot sunbursts through my head. I’m calm. I can control the stress on my body. The world seems right somehow, maybe it’s the magnetic pull I feel for a strong finish. Maybe it’s the feeling I have that Sarah might be watching.

My body still feels different today. It reminds me of my first sexual experience, anxiety and triumph blended into one mechanical motion too complicated for me to break down into individual steps. Better to just go with it and hope it gets better, hope for the best. That’s what we all do in the end anyway right? Do our best, or what our mind perceives to be our best in a particular moment, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Sherri, she made me laugh. She was five years older, nineteen when I was fourteen. She knew I loved this about her. What teenage boy wouldn’t love an older woman hitting on him? We worked together at my first job ever. I was a busboy, she a server, at a colonial inn slash restaurant in the small town in Northern Virginia in which I grew up. Her blonde hair, slightly shiny like wheat fields caught my eye immediately. I’ve always been attracted to blondes, but her emerald eyes and the naughty way she smiled didn’t hurt either. She stood about 5’10’’ and, I realize now, carried herself like a runner, all hip swagger and carefully swaying shoulders. She took me back to her house after work one late winter night. She lived in an old beat up camper, moved around quite a bit, camping in whichever national forest she felt suited her seasonal needs. She took me to her trailer. The whole way there, riding in her beat up baby blue Ford pickup, I’m anticipating touching her tight stomach, moving her thin white panties aside if she’s game. She must have been anticipating some things herself because, after getting me in her camper, she switched on some tunes and she jumped me in one swift motion. All I could think about was how good she felt compared to how good I felt. She felt great to me. I wanted her to feel great too, and here lies my first memory of bodily disparity. My body felt great, but I knew I could lose that feeling at any moment. Nothing good lasts forever. If it did, it wouldn’t be better than normal, it would actually be normal because it would be constant.

“Does it feel good?”

“Yes, yes.”

My god I hope it feels as good for you as it does for me. “You feel amazing.”

“So do you baby.”

“I almost can’t take it.”

“Me either. Try though, try. I want to come together.”

“Okay, okay, okay.”

Some people say it’s not worth it if it doesn’t feel good, but how can that be true? Those people have led too easy lives.  Never had their will tested and known themselves when their nerves were frayed like old yarn strands.

I push myself into a fatigued state, into pure exhaustion. Where is Mike? I want to enter the running dream, where the world moves by slowly and I catch every minute detail as my senses strain to grasp at anything resembling the velvet touch of rest. The mind blanks, yet doesn’t. A myriad of thoughts, ideas, still appear in the mind, but they are glossed over, coated in something sticky and sweet. The mind becomes a honey-comb, its thoughts saturated in rich nectar.

Whether through persistence or luck, I achieve the running dream today. My body still feels different, even under the dream’s influence. A snowflake slowly melts inside me as I run. The tiny drop of liquid left after the flake melts serves as my body’s last resort to quench its thirst. The tiny snowflake has always been there. I only realize its presence after it starts to melt. It carries my body weight, disperses it, frees it from gravity in the same way that a stone falls slower under water than in the air, gravity maintains its pull, but loosens its grip for a brief moment, enough to soften the concussion of the stone landing on the bed of whatever particular body of water it has been dropped. My body gradually becomes heavier because the weightless flake inside me disappears, transforms into boiling blood.

I keep moving through the mountain trail, my weight crunching forest scraps into dust. My feet are anvils, the melted snowflake disintegrates under them, but at least my feet feel like something. They are here. My body feels different, like a metal cable connects it to my mind.

The mind is a very powerful resource for me as a runner. It allows me to persevere, to traverse fifteen plus miles a day. My mind is my will, but it also has the power to destroy my progress, make me think I don’t have the strength to do what I do. I walk a tightrope made from metal cable, daily. The cable itself is me staying on course and completing my daily pilgrimage, along with everything else my life throws at me, but on either side of the cable lays a void, dark as water on a moonless midnight. In this dark void, defeat waits for me to acquiescence for a simpler day, a simpler life in which I don’t push my body and mind to the extreme places I need them to inhabit. I must continue on my path. My mind can trick me into inhabiting this void, usually while I am still on the cable. My mind constantly tries to trick me, make me think I’m too tired, overworked, that I need a little rest, that I need a little time to regroup. Accepting these excuses incepts doubt in my ability, the first step toward never running again. Once doubt sits comfortably in my head it may never leave. The cable must be springy enough to bounce on, if it’s too slack it bows and slips into the void. The rope feels tight.

I see Mike in my peripheral. “Hey, I’m sorry man. I get a little nuts about this stuff sometimes.”

“It’s alright man. You’re right, we should just do what comes natural. I’m just stressed out, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about Buckley man. I know you loved him, even if he was a spazz.”

“That’s one word for it. Yeah he was a good dog, goofy and dumb, but cute.”


We’re just guys going here, moving there, with no particular purpose to our journey, just to climb, each step faster than the one before.  We embrace pain, continue a relentless pace forward. Without pain, the pace becomes dull, tarnished, like a mind caught in addiction’s snare. Sarah, a girl who jumped into addiction instead of running toward the freedom I knew she attained as a ballet dancer. She worked hard, but in the end she worked hard at the wrong things and it compromised her life, and almost compromised mine as well. She brought me back. She brought Mike back too. So many people remember her, but what did they do to honor her? What did they do to honor her life?

Maybe everyone’s sense of honoring the dead varies. Actually, I’m sure does, but there have to be universalities. We’ve all made choices for our lives based on others’ deaths. We have to learn from the deceased’s mistakes, or we might as well be deceased ourselves. Practice strains both the mind and body, but becomes easier as it becomes routine. There is no routine to death. It happens once. We have no more choices afterward.

“Sarah, today is fine, thanks to you being there somewhere, smiling at me regardless of how many times I curse your choices. In the end you’re really all I’ve got to keep me grounded, to keep life from pushing me forward too fast, to keep me free. It’s slow right now and the scenery passes by in intricate detail, every tiny limbed tree, every small fluttering bird, every glint of sunshine on even the smallest of puddles radiates in full, and undeniably beautiful, focus. Thank you for talking to me in your own special way these past two years, for keeping me aware of the dark void lurking around every bend on the trail.”


One Response to “Feeling It Out”

  • Jay Chesslo on May 30th, 2014 4:46 PM    Reply

    Hello Matthew!

    Your writing is amazing and I couldn’t be prouder of you. Everyone’s life has a purpose and I think you’ve found yours. Keep up the excellent work (writing and running)and I wish you all the best.

    Aunt Mary and I need to make the time to pay a visit.

    Take care and drop us a quick note when you have the chance.

    Love you,

    Uncle Jay

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