Emma was in Boston the last time she’d ventured out for a jog. It had rained that morning and the puddles lay like landmines along her sidewalk-to-pond-and-back circuit. The mud splashed up to her ankles and had caked thickly on the laces of her running shoes. Now, in the living room of her parents’ Pennsylvanian home, barely visible clouds of dust rose in puffs as she cinched and knotted the ratty trainers to her feet. A cloud moved across the sky, unmasking sunlight and allowing it through the bay window, the dust flashing as it began to settle. She watched the dirty dust clouds settling as a film upon her fingers just like the chalk would coat them when she was illustrating some confounding tenet of narratology on the boards in her classroom, doing her best to reverse her students’ attitudes toward literature from a seemingly preprogrammed nonplussed they started every term with to one more fanatic, or at least more appreciative.
Blowing the dirt away, she counted back the days since that swampy run. Had it really been more than a week? For over two years, she had averaged at least four runs a week. While frustrating, it didn’t quite surprise her that taking on twice as many sections this semester had scooped a drastic amount of her personal time to be dissolved into the educational ether. The clustering hours filling the days between the New England and Mid-Atlantic lace-up had been consumed with two lectures on a Hawthorne story about a young man who takes a midnight saunter through the Salem woods, a solid day and a half spent curbing the fear of discovering plagiarism while reading, rereading, and attempting to not feel arbitrary in her attachment of a letter to each student essay she had collected on the previous Monday. Add in a three lunch dates with colleagues, aptly replied to emails which would likely wait unread in her students’ inboxes for days, and one train malfunction that led to a later-than-intended arrival home to do some last minute cleaning before she packed her suitcase and in the early hours of that morning and hailed a cab for Logan. That those tasks interfered with her routine jogging was necessary, but now that she had arrived safely in her hometown the time had finally arrived to become reconnected with the comfort of sole-to-sole contact with two of her closest friends. “My besties are my beater running shoes,” she thought, “and it’s sad how happy makes me.” Yet, it was true. Acquainting them with this ground meant even more than all distance they’d covered together in Boston. A reunion lay in wait on the back roads of her youth; passing the stone and mortar foundations of the old barn that meant she’d done three miles, embedded in her mind from when she was freshly pubescent and training with the cross country team. The smell of damp, broken corn stalks, the seemingly never-ending ascent to the top of Red Elk Road and the paradoxical way the decline down always proved more grueling than the climb.
On the way out of the front door, Emma shouted up the stairs to her mother’s quilting-turned-study that she was leaving and would be back in time to shower before dinner. She wondered if her mother was actually getting any work done up there or if the aging baby boomer was ticking away the seconds of her newest telecommuting job was filling in the squares of another one of her crossword puzzle books. Emma worried her being home just today and already going out for a solitary run was somehow negating the welcoming emotion her mother had expressed earlier this morning. Mom had the arranged a full list of homey activities—baking cinnamon raisin buns, fetching the decades-old Easter decorations from the attic, finally sorting and scrapbooking the shoeboxes of old photographs—all the sort of activities she had intended to do when her daughter came to visit. She went along with the early afternoon of errands, but in the car on the way home from a soup and salad lunch out by the mall, Emma cut her mother off mid-sentence as she explained how desperately she had wanted to break out the jigsaw puzzle Emma had purchased online and shipped directly to her five Christmases ago.
“Tonight,” she told her mother, “let’s start it after dinner. I need to get out and clear my head. It’s like the sole reason I run.”
“Of course, sweetie, of course,” her mother replied from the driver’s seat. “I have a million things I need to get off my desk and really should be productive the rest of the day. It is the end of the quarter, you know. It’s my busy time.”
Mom granted her leave in the way of a quick “have a good run, dear,” followed with a snarky “try not to get lost.” From the upstairs office, she heard the swivel of the matriarch’s desk chair throne squeal and matched the noise with the rusted spring atop the screen door as she pushed it open. That same benediction had been voiced myriad times from the upper room, but in this moment it was the opening of a portal, a traveling through time to the years Emma lived under this roof and went softly out from this door to tramp the winding roads of her little town.
Under the shade of yellowing leaves from the two large maple trees that boarded each side of the driveway, it crossed her mind that her circuitous nature of these runs meant that every time she departed, she was crossing the mirrored threshold of her destination. She thought on it for the first half-minute of the journey before deciding she would write it down, craft it in language more elegant, and post it as a Facebook status. Or maybe she would draft up an essay built around the concept and toe the genre line that borders academic and creative. She’d invoke Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, draw connections between the classic hero and the modern runner and in doing so bridge the tenets of myth making with this timeless yet trendy form of exercise. She could open with a retelling of the Myth of Marathon and how rare it is for modern athletes to run a linear route, as did Pheidippides. Then she’d outline the thought process of a runner as they set out on their journey, how from an external perspective it appears Sisyphean to run in these big circles, not getting from point A to point B, but how the subject internalizes individual growth on these Campbellian journeys. A brief delusion of grandeur published her article in a journal she didn’t know existed, one whose audience is as hip to world lit. as they are calculating splits. She padded away from the driveway, leaving Joseph Campbell and Ancient Greece to swirl in the bulbous bottom-of-the-bag that was the end of her parents’ cul-de-sac.
Within a dozen strides, she had glanced up three neighbors’ drives and thought on who might live there now. Was it still that spooky elderly couple and the German Shepherd who had scared the candy basket out of her hand and onto the grass the Halloween she and her brother approached the dimly-lit house? The fourth driveway marked the place they were not allowed to pass when they rode their bikes in the summertime. You were not allowed to cross the third to last driveway until your age was well into double-digits. Don’t even think about asking different, no matter what Betty Knox’s mother across the street says. She breezed past those childhood boundaries and neared the main road, remembering how she’d felt when she was turned 10 and was allowed to bike beyond the road. As she reached the main road’s shoulder, that free fall of being 16 rippled from her feet with each smack on the pavement. The glorious first time she turned off left onto behind the wheel of her car, double-checking that her dad wasn’t sitting in the passenger seat to keep an eye on the speedometer before she cranked that stereo dial and flicked opened the windows with one deft movement of all four fingers.
In what had become her normalcy, back in the city, Emma would have strapped on the little armband that carried her smartphone behind a slim cover of plastic, popped in an old beater pair of earbuds, and used the illustrious technology of current age to listen to her best running playlist, tracking her distance and speed via the pre-wired global positioning system of the gadget strapped to her bicep. This evening, she had neither need nor want for music or measurements. City life had made her a cyborg; Donna Haraway would have a field day with that Silicon Valley exercise-tracking application. Her thoughts, she admitted to herself, were influenced by a grad school lit. theory seminar. Are we at the point where privileged humanity cannot exercise without a machine guiding their progress? Growing up, Emma had not known soundtracks for running, no robots chimed her distance and time in her ear. Years ago, she gauged the distance of this route on her brother’s odometer when he drove her to school and back again. She had come to know these roads and their distances. They became intuition. This evening, she needed only the sounds of the country to invade her ears in a welcoming rush of memory. She did not return home after all these years to bring the blockades city life had built around her in tow. This was a revisiting long overdue.
Logistically, auditory alertness was key in staying safe on these winding back roads. Adam Larkin, a boy a few years ahead of her in school was struck while conditioning for the approaching soccer season. Shortly after passing a blind curve, his best friend’s older sister, who was zipping along at the speed most everyone their age drove on these roads, clipped him from the side. He was dead before she even noticed his presence. Adam had been a junior in high school and Emma had just entered middle school. For the first time in her life, Emma had considered the mortality of youths. We are touchable, temporary, she remembered thinking upon the announcement of the news and a moment of silence requested over the school’s public address. This one road claimed so many young lives, Emma thought, at least one from each graduating class while she was in school—all on the same stretch of road. How many had it taken since she’d moved away? She remembered telling a friend’s mother about the road at a Christmas party when she was a sophomore. The mother’s response made her feel dull, for she said that every town around here has the same story to tell when it comes to motorist fatalities. Each school loses their students to the roads, to the deer, to the drunks, and to their own carelessness. Emma wanted to tell her it wasn’t the same with other towns, that this was an anomaly. One road. Within a mile of this one road, at least half a dozen children had been taken. Surely the neighboring towns could not make this claim. Her friend’s mother had scoffed and turned away, not wanting to give her evening to teenage morbidity. As she went on, her ears surrendered to nature and Emma’s eagerness to feel her temples pound and her pores seep a week’s worth of toxins overpowered any other desire. She would hear whatever was coming behind her. She would know how to stay safe.
The route she took this evening was first learned from family bike rides. Her father used to call it “Ribbon Candy Circuit,” inspired by the curving waves of the double yellow lines as they wound through stretches of wooded roads and the Christmas tree farm that bordered a nearly two miles of the route. Bearing right at the fork in the road that marked two miles, Emma’s mind flashed to where she would have been on her usual Boston route. She became aware of a dryness in her mouth as she saw herself buzzing past the boathouse on Jamaica Pond, stopping by the water fountain on the to compensate for the hydration she lost under the summer sun. Geese appeared in her mind’s eye, their green excrement most likely still caked in the soles of the shoes that now tread through this rural Pennsylvanian town. Heat emanated from the bands of muscle composing her calves and thighs and she looked down at her feet as to focus on each step, making sure not to lose her pace to the incline she was staring to ascend.
She plateaued at the top of the small hill. She was ultrasensitive to the gradients of the roads. In the city, her routes were relatively flat. Emma looked up from her shoes and saw a house that hadn’t been there the last time she was in town. Until now, everything was just as she left it, negating the perception that she had been gone for more than a few months. The overgrown hedges bordering the front of the house and the rusting edges of the siding made the seven years since Emma had been home all the more real. She used to know every name of every resident in this town. The town had evolved. She knew this farm was struggling when she left. Land developers had wafted the scent of new money under the nose of the farm’s patriarch in an attempt to turn a profit on new housing developments. By the looks of it, this was the only one of four new houses to go up, so unlike the developments of townhouses that popped up down by the bank and post office she had passed when her father drove her back from the airport earlier that day, most of the land was still dedicated to agriculture. As she jogged past the house, she noticed a mother and daughter playing on the front porch. At first glance she thought she went to school with the girl, but as she nears she realizes the dark shade of the skin she wears and immediately the thought is corrected. How odd that it had taken so long for the town to become diverse, if only on this small a scale. She thought of the city, how her paleness made her a minority in the neighborhoods where she lived when she first moved there. Walking past the blocks populated by Asian families, sitting on the train that first week being hyperaware of the stops on the train where blacks got on or off. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, racial diversity was now as normal for Emma as breathing. Here, she couldn’t help but watching the girl and her child as she trotted, wondering at what reactionary grumbling the family’s presence has stirred in the town. It is well over a decade into the new millennium, she reminded herself. When the girl on the porch became aware of her, Emma waved. She knew that though they have never seen each other before, the gesture might help make up for the sideways glances the girl has been the target of from the native townspeople.
Cresting a ridge that consisted mostly of young corn stalks, she glimpsed in the distance towers of lights from the football field in the town’s hub. Her memory skipped to meticulously-placed steps upon the carefully-groomed grass as a freshman, a silver flute held perpendicular to her rosy chin in the October air as she kept pace with the drum line. Looking back to her road, Emma was quickly pulled back to the present. She noticed tracks of caked dirt on the road leading to plots of land in the midst of excavation for cement foundations. The dark-brown mounds of newly unearthed ground immediately modified the notion she had a minute ago when she saw the newer house down the hill. More houses were going up. The farmer must have had to sell some tracts, and he must have done it recently. Four acres bordering the once houseless road had been partitioned for new buildings. Here, six plots had been divided up for development. Four already had houses on them, a half-summer’s worth of bluegrass roughage populated their fledgling yards. Approaching the road’s straightaway, she thought she heard a low whistle thrown her way from the row of half-excavated foundations. Peeling her gaze from the road ahead, she saw a small group of men standing near a swinging backhoe. The youngest sat in the open bed of a pickup truck, his feet dangling over the open tailgate. He was the whistler, a determination she made as soon as he picked up a white and red aluminum can and tilted it in her direction with a toothy smile. He looked like a Hartman or a Bachman—she couldn’t quite place the nose—but the chin was almost identical to kids of the same name who she’d known since kindergarten. This must have been one of the youngest of those clans. Too many years stood between her and the families she was close to in school to know boy’s older siblings. She waited until she was almost past him, but threw a smile and a backhanded wave in his direction to appease his brashness. She couldn’t help thinking how her backside looked to him and the others once it was all she had left to show. It could be worst. In Boston, it was impossible to evade construction sites and the ever gawking, yelling, hooting, and hollering of the blue-collar boys. It was not always unwelcome, this public display of chauvinism; even the most confident and independent girl can benefit from an ego boost, but it never failed to pluck a cord in her that vibrated into the hum of fear. Each whistle perked the pack versus prey instinct that made her run faster. In an effort to deescalate the inherent pangs of fear, Emma would narrate the scene to herself with a booming Australian accent, morphing the event into a harrowing scene from a nature documentary depicting her narrow chance at escape. Amazingly, this quirk of imagination worked like a charm. Even more amazingly, Emma thought as she dipped down the next fold in the hill, was the fact she didn’t play the mental gimmick with this group of contractors.
Fresh pine invaded her nostrils and she felt a drop in temperature on the sweat-covered arms and legs when she crossed the threshold of the Christmas tree farm. As she hit a straightaway, Emma agilely altered her steps to the needled bed lining the side of the road. The pickup ran on diesel, which amplified its engine’s roar and threw off a pungent exhaust signature in its wake. She reversed her in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth breathing method until the truck found itself around the next curve. The smell of pine temporarily disrupted, the shift in breathing causing lightheadedness, Emma heard the blood pumping against her temples as redundant sonic booms. As she had in the years she travelled this route routinely, she blinked sweat from her eyes as she cast them on the methodically measured rows of Douglas firs. She tried to imagine the past seven Christmases at her parents’ house. She tried to paint herself into those snowy afternoons as more than the voice on the phone both mother and father held as not to miss one word of her report from her hectic life. She wondered what had made her stay away, why she had held such distain for the dying little town she wanted so badly to leave behind. At what expense did the expulsion of her past come? Until she was back here on the back roads of her youth, she hadn’t understood why she thought of her running shoes as her most trusted friends. It came to her as loudly as the pounding pulse of blood into her brain. The distance and duration she had lived from her hometown and family served to erode at the bedrock of Emma’s identity. Her understanding of self had been incrementally altered over these past seven years. The once thick pat of butter on a short stack of flapjacks was now a thin layer of nondairy vegetable oil spread barely coating the stoneground whole-wheat slices of her life. So began the unraveling of what was once flawless logic. Emma had convinced herself the education, career, and one-bedroom unit where she lived alone in Jamaica Plain were all markers along the linear route of her life. For seven years, she had not stopped running long enough to take stock. Not of loneliness’s corrosion upon her psyche. Not of the ignorance of her past. Not of the trajectory of her life’s journey.
Amid the pine trees, she fastened her resolve to continue on and complete the circuit. Crossing the threshold of the end of the cul-de-sac would be to enter the reflection pool of contemplation, where she would wonder at the contrast lied between her destination and her departure.