Darkest Before Dawn Literary Review, 7/20/09

“The Loneliest Mile” By Joseph Grant

The drizzle was refreshing and felt good upon his sweaty skin as he sprinted, his running shoes pounding against the asphalt with more of a pronounced slap, than the dull thump they had been making only ten minutes before. Even though it had been almost unseasonably humid, no one had predicted rain. He found it amusing, as the newspapers and weather forecasters had all gotten it wrong and he smiled at man’s inconsistency with all his technological advances to still get the weather wrong.

Either way, he welcomed the mist as it gave him a chance to cool off but he knew that if it continued he could become sick from the fluctuation in temperatures and running in damp clothing didn’t help, either. He was just a few weeks out from getting over his bout with walking pneumonia, a result of training indoors while everyone around him was sick with the flu.

His chest felt good for the first time in weeks, he mused and he knew that he had benefitted from eating and training right, even if to the point of exhaustion.  It ultimately helped him get over his illness, he knew. It hadn’t always been the case.

As a child, Brad Conrad had been unhealthy, having been a preemie at birth. This was complicated by the fact that he was also born with hypoglycemia and bronchial asthma; his chances of making it to the finish line of being released from the hospital were slim to none. He was given the last rites of the Catholic faith three times before leaving Saint Barnabas’ Children’s Hospital in New York and all agreed it had been nothing short of a miracle he left the hospital alive at all.

This is not to say that life became easier for Conrad in the interim. Due to his low blood sugar, he went into hypoglycemic shock and into a coma at age three and in a rather messianic turn, it occurred on Good Friday and he did not rise from this near death experience until the same Easter Sunday two days later.

He remembered coming out of the coma and seeing a Western with the Duke on tv. He recalled the nurse’s excitement at seeing this young child awake and out of harm’s way. He also recalled his father, mother and brother visiting him and the toy his twin brother handed to him; an Easter egg where you pushed the bottom, making the eggshell open and the sides spin to reveal a plastic yellow chick inside.

He smiled at the memory as he ran but his smile faded as he thought of his twin now dead and his father, the rock of the family just the same; gone in a flash, gone before the last quarter mile of life in the same fleeting moment the way the scenery flashed by  as he ran.

If there was anyone who should not have been here, it was him, he thought.  He had been shot at twice, a knife pulled on him, impaled with a sharp metal stick a childhood friend threw at him as a joke. He looked at the slight scar upon his chest and remembered standing there on the junk pile, aghast at the metal pipe sticking straight out of his chest and pulling the lance from his skin with a sickening sucking sound and the blood pouring forth from the wound and chasing his friend, he chuckled as he thought back upon it.

His mind also raced back to coming out of the World Trade Center and hearing a loud thump and finding out only much later that the very area he had been walking through twenty minutes before had been leveled by a terrorist’s truck bomb. He recalled the office workers wandering past him in a daze with smudges of soot around their noses and mouths and the strange sight of the Towers being half-darkened at night as a result of the attack. It was indeed a strange spectacle he remembered, but not as nightmarish as the Towers not actually being there eight years later.

It was typical of a runner like Conrad to reflect upon his life as life was a race and running put it all neatly behind him, in sort of a rear-view perspective where he literally placed enough distance between himself and his past to see things clearly now, giving him the unique acuity of hindsight as he jogged ahead.

Running also strengthened his lungs. It was the reason why he took up running in the first place. His asthma bothered him less and less when he ran and it kept him healthy and in decent shape, when most guys his age were not running or even in shape, but run down. Running also allowed him the stamina not only in life but in the bedroom and didn’t damage your balls the way cycling did, he knew. Constant jogging did have an effect on your knees though and there were mornings where he could do without it, as he could feel it now when he ran.

He likened the pain to age as much as repetition over thirty years, but he also knew that any pain he experienced would be diminished by the runner’s high as it was called, when the body’s endorphins kicked in and fill him with adrenalin. When that occurred, there was no turning back or even slowing down. When it hit, he would feel as though he could run forever.

Sprinting also allowed him freedom to jog outside of the endless nine-to-five treadmill around him. There were hardly any freedoms left in the world that weren’t regulated to death, save for sailing, he thought to himself, even though he’d never been able to afford a sailboat. It allowed him to get out in the world and meet new people, see new towns and faces he might have otherwise never seen. His obsession was not without its detractors. Too many times he had to jump back onto the side of the road or onto the grass when pinheaded drivers would shout at him to get out of the road, as if they owned it or just fuck with him, veer their vehicles right at him, as if just to prove there were pricks still left in the world.

As much as running permitted him to see the worst in people, it also allotted him the hindsight of seeing the best, as well. Many times people smiled or waved at him or called out hello and if there was a race on as there was one now, spectators were warm and gracious in their wishes and offered him water and ice as he jogged. Otherwise, he would try to focus on the race ahead of him.

He was well ahead of the others. There had been Bill Randall, winner of the Boston Marathon and the same sprinter who came in second only to Nuyuri Mumbai in New York City but he hadn’t seen Randall in a long while  and wondered if his old knee injury had flared up again and made him drop out. Jack Brown had trotted alongside him for the longest time and little by little he could hear him losing ground, until his breathing became fainter and then he trailed so far behind Conrad could no longer hear him. He had read about Brown in last year’s Runner’s Digest and had great respect for him and regarded him as his best opponent in the competition, as he knew Randall would burn them both and that Mumbai was not running today on account of a genocide in his village.

As he continued, he noticed that the crowds of spectators, usually four or five deep, had dwindled to a few dedicated onlookers. This was what runners called “no man’s land” as it was too far out from the starting line and not close enough to the finish to elicit the curious, only the devoted. Only those diehards would be out here, cheering Conrad and the others on. As he progressed, he noticed there was hardly anyone. He smiled and joked to himself that he had somehow gone off-course and then after a few minutes, the idea began to bother him.

It was impossible, he thought, as he had run a straight track with a curve here or a dip there and an occasional bend in the road, but nothing that would divert him. Besides, he had raced this exact same course a few years earlier with similar effect. At one point he felt irretrievably lost and one way or another in a strange place but then he regained his bearings and finished with no problem. That was the year they discovered the blockage near his heart and had fixed it with stints. That was his first heart attack. His age was catching up with him. He knew that was one race he couldn’t win.

Of late, his euphoria was replaced by a confusion and disorientation when running but he chalked this up to his age. In his mind, he charted the course correctly, knowing full well if he turned back he could be disqualified so he continued his momentum. The rain had stopped and the sun began to peek through the battleship gray clouds that clung co-dependently to the baby blue sky.

He groaned as the sun was often the runner’s worst enemy. While it dried the precipitation beneath his feet, making his footsteps more assured, it also heated the black asphalt and his core as he ran and weakened him in the long run. An athlete sweats more to keep his body temperature regulated and cool, thereby using more energy than if it was raining and tire him out quicker. His muscles would contract more doggedly to the change and tend to become more rigid, giving the runner a pulled ligament or worse, shin splints. When the winter arrived, the effect was the opposite as the body desperately tried to stave off the cold by burning more calories and a runner was at greater risk for physical exhaustion than if it had been pleasant weather. All of this factored on whether the athlete took care of themselves and stayed in shape. In many cases, the runner’s worst enemy was not only the elements, but often himself.

One of the psychological downfalls to a runner like Conrad was the abject loneliness and isolation of the sport. He could think of no other activity wherein the athlete competed in such a solitary manner. Conrad called this “The Loneliest Mile”. In all other sports, one faced their opponent but in long-distance running, the competitors started together but soon dispersed and ran it alone on the measure of their ability as an athlete. Surely, there were times when the athletes were neck and neck, but those instances were far and few between as had been the case with Randall and Brown, but for the most part, the runner had to concentrate on the end result and keep the focus from the mind-numbing boredom in-between.

Conrad’s mind drifted back to a memory that had taken place over twenty years before. He smiled at the vagarity of memory and knew that the mind sometimes took you to strange, forgotten ruins, but usually with a purpose rather than being an inadvertent tourist.

He met her during his first year at Boston U. She was in his communications class. As he ran, he struggled to remember her name, Dana? Dianne? Dora? Delilah?, he wondered and chuckled. It may as well have been Delilah for the way things turned out, he mused, but he was no Samson of hers, no that honor went to the football player she married; some guy with a mullet who ended up divorcing Donna after cheating on her. Donna! That was her name.

A forgotten smile slowly crept across his lips as he remembered the copper-kettle red of her hair, the same as the setting sun and the gentle freckling of cinnamon upon her pretty face, neck, shoulders, breasts, arms, stomach, hips and thighs, all the loveliness that made her a beautiful young woman besides her essence.

He had loved her then, the same way he had loved his first wife and they ended quite the same; heartbreakingly, although the latter proved more expensive in the end.

Donna was a shy and insecure girl but nevertheless, one that would mark him forever for all those who came after. He loved her most and like no other even if she loved him for awhile and then, not as much.

He winced at the painful remembrance and the adolescent stupidity of first love and for a moment, thought he felt his face flush. He wasn’t certain if this was due to the memory or over-exertion while running. He shook his head with a remorseful smile as he remembered one incident in particular.

In his twenty-first year, exactly three years to the day that they had been dating, he decided to surprise Donna. During summer break she had gotten a job as a waitress at one of the venerable old hotels on Cape Cod.

Things had been rocky between the young couple at the time and the last time he had called her, she had hung up on him; something she had never done before. He didn’t think twice about it, as he was giving her a hard time about taking the job when they hardly saw each other any more and he was a little drunk, he smirked.

He recalled his foolish decision to ride his new cross-country Bianchi-Volpe with steel frame and Shimano cantilever brakes with Poise suspension just to see her. He knew she would be impressed by such a feat. He begged his parents to buy him this bike so he could take it all the way to see her, as if to prove his worth to her by bicycling all the way from his parent’s Dobb’s Ferry house in Upstate New York to the Cape.

His parents thought it was ludicrous for him to act so irrationally over a girl and even offered to drive the determined and lovelorn young man or in the least, pay for his train fare, but their impassioned son wouldn’t hear of it. So, he took off from their house in a light morning mist that would later turn into a torrential downpour.

As he jogged he remembered the purity and compulsion of his heart as he cycled in the North Eastern rain those many years ago. He rode through the bad weather, mud, slop and drivers honking at him and determined to drive him off the road, much in the same way they did still as he ran and he recalled pulling off to the side of some rest stop along the Connecticut Turnpike and waking to find his sneakers stolen, but curiously not his expensive bike. He could never quite figure out why someone would steal sneakers off of his feet and leave his bike there, but life was full of peculiar mysteries, he was well aware. Like the time someone bashed in his father’s truck window, only to steal two dollar sunglasses, but not the gold watch next to them. He shrugged as he abandoned his socks after they were made threadbare from the pedals and rode south to the I-95 in the searing sunshine towards Stamford. He remembered from some bygone history class about how this had once been the Old Post Road that the colonists used to get from New York to Boston and smiled as he saw that he was leaving Fairfield County. He would stop and rest again when he hit New Haven. When he entered Mystic, he knew he would be more than halfway there.

Plagued by wind, rain, sun, insects flying into his eyes and mouth, he strove on and was even attacked for lack of better terminology by a group of punks throwing rocks. As he rode triumphantly towards the halfway point of Mystic, a homeless guy saw fit to mark the occasion by pissing off a one lane bridge onto him. Such was the gratitude bestowed of a modern day Romeo, he growled.

When he made it into Boston Proper on his third day, he was met by an early morning snarl of traffic that seemed to make mincemeat of his asthmatic lungs and once or twice the thought of stopping tempted him. He narrowly escaped being beat up by a group of neighborhood thugs in New Bedford who stopped him and demanded his bike, but the nearby siren of a police car sent the would-be toughs scattering and he quickly rode off, but not before one of them picked up a piece of dog shit and hurled it at him, hitting him in the shoulder with it. At least, he hoped it was dog shit, he said to himself. What was the difference, he later griped, shit was shit, either way.

After that, Massachusetts opened up to him as he rode through the lovely rocky coastline and he breathed in the clean sea air as he stopped to embrace the beautiful scenery for a brief respite.

Having secured the exact address from Donna’s sister during an intense and desperate phone call where he all but agreed to fix his friend up with Donna’s overweight sister, he rode upon the sloping drive of the grand old hotel on the Cape, The Duchess. The Duchess was a charming old lady, the kind they just didn’t build anymore and was a Victorian holdover from that bygone era of lush seaside resort hotels. One could easily imagine the rich strolling these very grounds in full evening attire, gloves, top hats and coats. The evening attire was long gone, but the rich remained and came just the same as they had for over one hundred years. With a sense of relief, Conrad rolled the last few feet past the rich guests in elated triumph and victoriously dismounted his weary body from the aluminum frame.

He was a decided outcast in his grimy sweat shirt, mud-caked gym shorts and legs, along with three-day growth of stubble, but this had nothing on the effect that the young man created when he wandered in his dirty bare feet off the soft and summer-sticky asphalt into the posh, red-carpeted lobby inside. Brad ambled up to the front desk where, like a madman, he demanded to be waited on and alarmed by the disheveled, wild-eyed intruder who was neither a guest nor a potential guest, the front desk girl summoned security. As the frightened girl waited, he refused to leave unless he spoke to a hotel employee named Donna Patterson.

Finally exhibiting a semblance of rationale and proving by student I.D. that he was more of a lovelorn suitor than a home-grown nut, the angry guards allowed him to stay on hotel grounds in an off-the-way courtyard where he was less likely to draw stares from their elegant clientele while Donna was summoned.

“Great, she’s here!” He said proudly as he saw her walking quickly down the lighted path of the garden in front of him. He knew her well, he smiled. “All she has to do is take one look at me and she’ll fall over laughing.” He said to himself as he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window. He saw how she was hurrying towards him. She probably couldn’t wait to see him. It had been such a long time; too long. He knew that all he’d have to do is grab a quick shower and shave and maybe a change of clothes and she’d be all over him like old times.  She had always told him he cleaned up well, he beamed. Just you wait, he said to his reflection.

“What the hell are you doing here?” A voice snapped behind him. “Who in the hell are you talking to?”

“Huh?”

“Brad, what the hell? Are you trying to get me fired?”

“Donna, I…”

“Are you trying to embarrass me? You can’t just come up here like this! We have rules against having guests just showing up. We have to get it approved by our boss, Mrs. Lincoln and then security has to do a background check. Did you know you were almost arrested for trespassing?”

“What?” He asked. “Donna, I…I wanted to see you.”

“And this is how you do it?” She snapped. “You look like crap. And you smell like it too, I hate to say, but you do. Come over here, away from the window, Brad.”

“Why, are you embarrassed to be seen with me or something?”

“Brad, you look like a homeless person. Are you doing drugs? You’ve been behaving very weird lately.”

“No, I’m not doing drugs! I’ve been weird? You’re the one who’s not returning my phone calls.”

“Look, you’re going to get me in trouble.” She fretted with a furrowed brow. “You’re going to have to leave.”

“Leave?” He scoffed. “I just got here. Donna, do you know what it took me to get here?”

“Not really.” She made a face. “Right now, I’m so pissed off that I don’t really care, either.”

“Pissed off?” Brad spat. “At what?”

“Look, you can’t just come up here unannounced.”

“Donna…” He moved towards her. She backed away.

“Brad, you smell like crap, literally.” She waved her hand at him. “I am not going to touch you.”

“Donna, don’t say that.” He motioned towards her as she backed away again. “Please.”

“Seriously, you stink.”

“Please, Donna. It’s a long story.” He began. “I rode my mountain bike all the way from Dobb’s Ferry.”

“Why on earth did you do that?” She balked. “I hope you didn’t do it just for me.” She said icily. “Why can’t you just take the train like normal people?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did my parents put you up to this? You know I hate being checked up on.”

Your parents? No, I came up here out of the goodness of my heart to see you.” He smiled.

“I’m not in a joking mood. Why do you always feel the necessity to prove yourself to me?”

“I…I don’t know.” He shook his head.

“Is that all you can stand there and say?” She wondered out loud. “Be a man for once. Say something at least.”

“I didn’t realize I was on trial!” He shouted.

“Lower your voice, Brad!” She said and then wailed in frustration. “Brad, you are not on trial! Would you please stop with this “poor me” scenario? Okay?”

“But I came all this way just to see you.”

“This is exactly what broke us up. This irrational behavior, this obsessive need to see me, 24/7 or call me all the time. You don’t have to tell me where you are every minute of the day or where you’re going and you don’t need to know where I am or where I’m going or who I’m with. It’s annoying. Do yourself a favor. Next girlfriend you get? Lie to her! Women love to be lied to. It keeps the mystery, get it?”

“We broke up?” He asked in a confused manner.

“Yes, oh-my-god, why do you think I stopped returning your phone calls?”

“I thought you just needed time to be by yourself.”

“Yes, to be away from you.” She said bluntly. “This is embarrassing, Brad, look, really embarrassing, even for you. I thought it was obvious. I can’t believe you.”

“But I came all this way.”

“Look, most girls would be flattered, really they would. But as you know by now, I’m not most girls. Believe me, there’s a girl out there for you. It’s just not me, anymore. But we can still be friends.” She offered.

“But I don’t want to be just friends. I cycled through rain, mud, drivers trying to run me off the road, I was almost mugged, I…”

“Brad, you’re not listening. Stop with the laundry list of accomplishments.”

“I came all this way, Donna.”

“Look, you’re not making this easy.”

“All this way to see you.”

“Brad…”

Hundreds of miles, Donna. Three whole days of riding, just to see you.”

“I never asked you to.” She said matter-of-factly to him.

“That’s cold, Donna, real cold.”

“Brad, I never asked you to come here to see me.” She repeated calmly.

“But I love you, Donna!” He swallowed and felt the dryness in his throat.

“God, don’t say that! That’s the last thing I want to hear right now.” She threw her hands up in the air and backed away. “I don’t love you, Brad.”

“Don’t say that. You know you do. You told me once at your parents.”

“I was drunk. I thought I did love you at one time, but I don’t anymore.”

“You’re saying you lied to me?”

“I just wanted to get some.”

“Don’t say it like that, Donna. You’re making it sound cheap.”

“Well, you were all shy and wouldn’t make a move on me and you were telling me you couldn’t. Imagine how awkward it was for me to practically beg you. I need a guy who will take charge.”

“I can take charge.”

“No you can’t.”

“Yes, I can.” Brad protested. “I can change. I came up all this way, didn’t I? The old Brad wouldn’t have done this.”

“Stop being a martyr. I never asked you to.”

“All this way, Donna.” He repeated as the realization and failure set in.

“And again, I never asked you to. Drop it.”

“But don’t you find it noble and romantic and all of that?”

“No, I find it psychotic and obsessive and self-indulgent that you thought you had to come up here like some white knight and sweep me off my feet. I find it rather insulting that you think such a cheap stunt would work.”

“You know what?” He started to pace. “Wow, I really see who you are at this moment. Really, thank you for this. Wow, you’re cold, Donna, really cold. You must have ice water running through your veins!”

“Whatever. No one ever asked you to come all the way up here on your bike.” She mocked. “Most guys would have driven a car. You still haven’t changed. You’re still a boy. I need a man, Brad, a man. Can you grasp that? This whole bike idea of yours and coming up here? You can’t blame me for it. You did this on your own. You know I hate surprises.”

“You’re not going to give me a second chance, are you?”

“Nope.” She shook her head in a way he once found cute, but was now incredibly cruel.

“Well, can I at least stay overnight? I’m exhausted.”

“Do you have a room?”

“No, I mean with you.”

“No, of course not! No way!” She refused. “You can’t stay with me!”

“Why? We used to do sleepovers with each other all the time!”

“That was then. I was younger. It’s different now.”

“Oh, please, it was last year.” He sneered. “How? How is it different now?”

“I don’t have to go into it. It’s personal.”

“Whaddya mean, it’s personal?” He asked. “How much more personal cane it be? I know you inside and out in many ways that your parents don’t want to know and you’re telling me it’s personal?”

“Don’t be gross.”

Me being gross? If your parents knew half the things you were into with me…”

“Stop bringing up my parents!”

“Why don’t you just say it? Why don’t you just tell me you’ve got another boyfriend?”

“That’s none of your business.” She turned away and then back again. “Look, I don’t have time for this, for you, for your childish games. I have to get back to work. Go home, Brad, go home. Grow up.”

“I can’t believe you’re cheating on me.”

“Cheating on you? There’s nothing to cheat on, we’re not together any more.” She sounded out each word.

“Can’t believe you’d do this, Donna, I thought we had something.” He mumbled.

“Can’t believe I’d do what? It’s over, Bradley. We don’t have anything. It’s over. Get on your bike and go home. No one asked you to try to be a hero and come all the way up here. This is another one of your guilt parties, but the difference is, you’re the only invited guest this time. Goodbye, Bradley.”

“Wow. That’s incredibly heartless.” He muttered as she stormed away. “Fine, go to your boyfriend. You’re such a whore. Can’t believe it. Not even a thank you or an apology, geez.”

“Cos I did nothing wrong. So long, loser.”

The experience still stung as he thought about it all these many years later. To this day, she managed to evoke anger in him unlike any other when he thought about how badly it had ended. It’s correct to think, even though plausibly one will deny it to the full extent, should anyone ask at all, that truth of the matter is this: One is never over their first, truest love. No matter how many times one denies it, thinks about it, tries not to think about it, how many years or experiences they endure. The first love is the most memorable and all who come after will be judged by its early merits and its inevitable abject failure. One can put entire continents between heartache and bad memories but the heart will always find its way back home no matter how many ways one does to admit otherwise. Love can be broken by another’s kiss or a lover’s lie. But as love ties together two it cannot be without tether as it is eternal. Not even death can end love. Brad wondered if it were she whom he had been running from all of these years.

His feet padded upon the road and he saw the finish line up ahead. He felt his blood boiling as he thought about her. Both of them would have still been together had she just listened, took a breath and thought about things, he found himself seething out loud. There would have been no future mistakes, no complications, no attorney’s fees, endless alimony or visitation rights to be fought over if she had not been so dense and full of herself, he grumbled.

As he ran he felt faint and his chest began to feel tight. He wondered if it was a side effect from the medication he had been taking or maybe the pneumonia. Whatever it was, he was fighting for breath and the air seemed to come in thick clumps at the back of his throat. His legs and arms ached from forward momentum and his torso began to ache. His hands reached slowly in front of him as if swimming under water and his chest cavity felt as if it would split open and he slowed his gate considerably, almost down to a stride. He wondered if he was having another heart attack.

The strangest thing was that there were no runners at the end of the race, no cheering crowds, not one photographer. It was eerily quiet. He collapsed as he crossed the finish line, thinking how this was the strangest race he had ever been in. He sighed, closed his eyes and opened them once again. A figure stood over him and introduced himself as Death. For Brad Conrad the race was finally over.

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