The Fast One
She runs behind and slightly to his left, watching the quick, short puffs of his breath in the crisp winter air. He runs like water flows over rocks, elbows tucked against his body, feet hitting the asphalt in a smooth, soothing beat. She understands the mechanics of running downhill – lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest – but rarely embraces them. She lacks his grace, his impossible beauty. But she wants to keep up with him, mechanics be damned. She tilts forward and feels her speed increase, her feet stumbling to catch her. She wonders how fast she is going. She is exhilarated.
Together they duck under the park gates and bound through the grass median on Vermont Avenue. When they burst onto the sidewalk at Los Feliz Boulevard he turns left and she follows, startling unsteady packs of revelers weaving their way home. “Happy New Year!” she calls. They respond by clutching one another’s shoulders and heaving boozy, heartfelt good wishes into the air. A giggly young couple whoops and sways under a streetlight. “Fuck yeah!” someone shouts from a car, while a near-middle-aged woman hangs out the backseat window with a noisemaker at her lips, delivering an absurd trumpet solo to the neighborhood.
Bleary-eyed bar employees sweep confetti from their path as they dart on and off the sidewalk. She plucks a party hat from an open windowsill and slides it over her beanie. He doesn’t notice until he slows to a trot on her street. “Look at you,” he says, and snaps a photo. “Green eyes.” Her face, already flushed from exertion, warms further.
Inside her apartment they exchange damp running clothes for old sweatshirts. He stretches across her couch to kiss her. “Are you happy?” he asks.
“Yes,” she murmurs. “Very.”
“Happy New Year,” he says. “The world didn’t end.”
“Nope,” she responds with a grin. “Not yet, anyway.”
They met in the fall. He was standing in a gaggle of people doling out stories and jokes but left them abruptly to stride toward her. “Green eyes,” he noted by way of hello. On December 30 he asked her to describe her ideal New Year’s Eve. “I want to be running,” she said. “I don’t want to be schmoozing with a bunch of people I barely know. I want to be in Griffith, on my favorite road, so if the world ends at midnight I am doing something that brings me joy.”
He tilted his head to the side. “That sounds fun.”
“You think so?”
“I do. Too bad the park’s closed.”
“Yeah. And too bad I didn’t think of this earlier, so I could berate friends into going with me.”
“You don’t think they would?”
“They have plans.”
“True.” He paused. “Too bad.”
Two hours later her phone rang. “T, what’s up?” he said in his bright, sing-song way. “My party fell through and I have this neat idea for New Year’s…”
He arrives at her apartment at 10:30 and they start running at 11. She has a tiny flashlight zipped in her pocket; he jokes about mace. They practically tip-toe past the stately mansions outside the park, as if running at night were a crime. Once they hop around the gate at the park entrance they ease into quicker strides, slowing every now and then again to take in the view, or to whisper to one another how fucking cool it is to be doing this. When they are well past the Greek Theater she switches on her flashlight and is startled by the eyes of coyotes staring out at her. Two dart across her path, but the rest watch and blink.
Outside the Observatory they crouch behind restrooms, dismayed by the security guard driving in circles near the entrance. “Champagne,” she whispers. “If we give him some champagne he’ll let us stay.”
“Champagne from a water bottle?”
“Worth a shot.” She takes three steps and the guard switches on his high beams. “Shit!” She darts back and they take off, giddy and giggling. Ten minutes later they stand at a break in the brush a quarter-mile downhill from the Observatory and look down at the city. “What time is it?” she asks.
He shakes his head. “I didn’t bring a watch. Did you?”
“We could ask the security guard.”
“Maybe we – “ She stops. Something is rumbling against the bottom of her feet.
A half-second of panic splits through her body; her first instinct is that it’s an earthquake. Then a silver light flashes above downtown and she realizes, holy shit, it’s the city, it’s the millions and millions of people below starting to bellow and hug and cheer in the near-freezing air, their voices crashing into car horns and drums, fireworks, pots and pans, clashing together into a roaaaaaaar that jumbles and stumbles and rises and grows and grows, gathering speed, sweeping over the beaches, across the west and south and east edges of Los Angeles and over downtown, rising higher and higher with each scream and shout until it washes over them sending coyotes scattering to the hills and she realizes this is it, she is in love with him, this is what it is to be finally, completely sure, to know that he is the one for her, that together they are invincible and therefore meant to be.
As the roar recedes he turns to start back down the hill she launches after him, gasping and stumbling and gleeful in the darkness.
Months and months later, on the cusp of June, she sits across from him at a table in Thai Town and stares at a half-eaten egg roll. The pain in her left calf is unrelenting and her mouth is dry. She’d never noticed how his impatience radiated from his skin, how he couldn’t stop looking at his cell phone, how he called the waitresses “sweetheart.”
“Just tell me,” she stammers. “Tell me why you did it. Why you pursued me. You knew me, you knew how I felt about you. You knew that if I knew you were with someone else I would never – I would never have…”
He folds his arms across his body and stares at her. “I was attracted to you.”
They exchange stiff farewells in the parking lot and she turns alone onto Hollywood to walk home. When she steps onto a crosswalk the strain in her calf brings tears to her eyes. Nice, she thinks bitterly. And you thought yourself a runner. The headlights of his car come up behind her and she tries to adjust her gait, determined not to limp as he passes. A sullen man on a bike approaches on the sidewalk.
I was attracted to you. As if explaining why he’d ordered chicken instead of beef.
She steps to the side to make room and vomits onto a fence post. An unsteady figure hoots from outside a liquor store. “Shit, baby, shiiiit!” he calls. “That’s no way to start your summer.”
It is a long time before she is able to cross the street, the Observatory winking above her.
* * * *
The Still One
They sit on a bench on a mild summer night and she notes to herself that she never thought she’d fall for someone so quiet. In the short time she has known him she has been struck by the care with which he chooses his words, as if each were a precious marble he examines against his palm before sending it out in the world. In more playful and inspired moments he would take aim and send one hurtling her way, knocking her into a giggle fit or making her skin hum with the timbre of sunset. Tonight’s, however, are made of more fragile glass. He offers each politely, one by one, and she holds them to her chest, determined to keep any from falling and rolling away. They are nearing the end of August, and he will be leaving soon.
They wandered here side by side, walking along Franklin Avenue and up and down side streets to the top of Barnsdall Park, where they shared stories of a city oddly lovely from above. Finally they settled on this bench on a quiet street. They have been trying to determine why, exactly, they met when they did, at an inconvenient moment when they could do little more than pass through each other’s lives. It is getting late. She tucks her knees against her chest and he puts his head in his hands. She tries not to cry.
“What do you think some wise soul would tell us to do,” she says, “if they knew about this situation?”
“I don’t know,” he replies, his voice low. He pauses. “Actually. I do know. They would ask us, ‘Are you in love?’ Because if we are, then none of the rest matters.”
The word “love” lands like a hysterical toddler sprawled on the floor of her lungs. I don’t know! it wails. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! I don’t know because I don’t know how to know, and maybe I never will, but now I want to know you, and this knowing thing may be bullshit or it may be true, but let me sit here in this stillness and this not knowing with you.
Neither of them moves. The question bobs politely in the air for a moment before giving up and floating away – toward the Observatory, perhaps, where a less inconvenienced pair might make use of it.
A few days later, as a ripe, uncomfortable humidity descends on the city, she sits to write what she does know. This, she thinks, can be a parting gift, an homage to vague ideals like Transparency and Gratitude. The first draft is an inkblot of false starts, scribbles, and do-overs. The second is hastily copied onto fresh paper in a coffee shop. When she pauses to stretch out her fingers, a well-coiffed barista looks over her shoulder. “Hand-written,” he says approvingly. “Old school. I like that. Safe. You can’t google that shit.”
She is encouraged but when she squashes the envelope in her back pocket a fragment of bone and muscle trembles against her bottom rib. In deciding to write she had underestimated how difficult it would be to know that tangible evidence of her feelings existed in the world. It was one thing to express these things in person. It was another to write them down, and quite another to hand them over, relinquishing the power to rewrite, edit, or destroy.
She knows their goodbye will be stunted and chaotic, but as she stands before him, reaching into her pocket, she is startled by a craaack! in her side. He takes the envelope from her hand and she realizes with horror that he is taking a small chunk of flesh and bone with it.
“Thank you,” he says, apology, exhaustion, and hesitation curling the edges of his voice. “I have to… I gotta go.”
She feels the ground fall away. Oh god, what I wrote… It will bleed all over your hands…! Helplessly she watches as he drops it into the plastic bag he is holding, far outside of her reach. She tries to calm herself as she speeds home, clenching/unclenching/reclenching her steering wheel. Maybe in the bustle of uprooting his life he will forget about it. Maybe, as August mellows to fall, it will sit in that plastic bag, bleeding away. Maybe he will find it months or years from now, mixed in with his belongings, and sputter “Fuck!” in dismay when he realizes it has spilled all over his favorite shirt, as she does when she opens luggage to find a shampoo bottle has exploded inside.
Maybe she will never know.
Maybe knowing is overrated.
Maybe quiet stillness between two confused people is more akin to love than the feverish clamor of those who feel certain.
On the first day of September she jogs through the muggy twilight of Griffith Park, wincing at the pain in her legs. A car passes and the driver, a woman, glowers disapprovingly. It’s getting dark. You shouldn’t be running out here at night.
Her breath ragged, she shifts to a walk, giving each leg a brief shake in a futile attempt to dislodge cement from her muscles. She stares down at the city. The salt of her sweat is beginning to crust along her arms. The bottom of her right foot feels tender and her hip is cramping. She remembers a day before injury, when running was exhilarating. She ran carefree only to spiral into gloom when some inevitable, idiotic adventure would leave her sidelined with a fracture or pulled Achilles. She isn’t afraid of pain. Sometimes she relishes it. Whatever this is, however, is a little more complicated.
She looks around. She needs to determine her route home. Ahead of her the road slopes up and to the right. She is about a half mile from the Observatory, maybe less. She could sprint the hill toward it, collapse in a patch of grass at the top. Or she could turn and run back down the way she came.
The mechanics of running uphill are strangely similar to the mechanics of running down: lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest. A key difference, of course, is the level of discomfort. Downhill is full of abandon and glee. Uphill requires patience to pace properly, acceptance of vulnerability, and faith that the body will recover at the top.
Below her Los Angeles shuffles and snorts. She looks up toward the Observatory and begins to run again.
Talia Gibas is known to her artsy friends as “that crazy triathlete” and to her triathlete friends as “that Shakespeare girl.” She manages arts education programs at the LA County Arts Commission and is Associate Editor of Createquity. She ponders, volunteers, nerds, and merrily verbs words in Los Angeles. She would like to put on a play.