from NER 40.4 (2019)
Hannah has read it’s a myth that sharks will die if they stop moving forward but chooses to believe in it anyway. If it was allowed, Hannah’s driver’s license would say: Clark, Hannah—Height: 5′5″, Hair: Blond, Eyes: Blue—A Shark.
HANNAH IS FASTER THAN YOU
This morning, every morning, Hannah wakes up at 5:50 to run. Through four municipalities, from the unsightly traffic of Medford, Massachusetts, along the Mystic River into north Cambridge, onto the bike path through Arlington to Lexington. Not up to usual pace today. No clear reason, except maybe an odd pain in the sole of the right foot. Hannah starts to feel something like resentment or anxiety, which brings up anxiety about talking to Mom later today, which settles into a general high, weird pall over the day’s run. Nothing for it but to keep running. Running works all these things out.
Around mile seven a man passes from behind, and the feeling hardens into hatred and points right at him. Hardly anyone passes Hannah anymore, but those who do are always men. Hannah hates his basketball shorts and his crew socks pulled all the way up, hates his earbuds and the phone he holds in his hand. Hannah wants to stop him and say, I just wanted you to know that you’ve done nothing to deserve your body and I’m actually faster than you. Hannah watches his shoes bobbing slowly away on the pavement ahead and wants to say, You piece of shit asshole motherfucker. Still running, Hannah wants to push him to the ground and spew abuse too vile for words onto his face, to vomit black acid from deep in the gut at him, acid to burn the skin.
What Hannah does instead is fuck up the day’s recovery run and kick up to a 5K pace, pounding foot to pavement until the man gets closer, closer, closer. The men who pass Hannah can almost always be caught and Hannah sails past this one, hoping this anonymous idiot learns a lesson in humility, and that this doesn’t hurt too much tomorrow.
It’s only several miles later, still running too fast, that Hannah notices the tendons of the right foot again: a light tension under the skin that winches a little tighter with each footfall.
WE ARE EXPERIENCING CONNECTION ISSUES
The image of Hannah’s mother in the Skype window is bright and overexposed. Between the broken overhead light and the tiny north-facing window the screen emits most of the light in Hannah’s room. Hannah sits patiently as the picture jerks and freezes and fragments. This is what you get for using the WiFi from the Dunkin’ Donuts next door.
Hannah’s mother says from the screen, “—package arrive in time?”
“Yes,” Hannah says. The box was left on the porch yesterday, a day early for Hannah’s twenty-sixth birthday: six pairs of running socks and a fluorescent vest with blinking lights all over it. “Thank you. I’ll definitely use those.”
“I just worry about you out there running at night. Cars aren’t looking for you.”
“I know. I’m careful. And now I’ll be super visible.” Hannah smiles. That vest is going to stay in its box forever. The socks are useful—Hannah works at a running gear store and could theoretically buy socks at an employee discount any time, but in reality just uses the same ones for days in a row. That’s all beside the point right now, though. “I actually, um, I actually wanted to talk to you about something.”
“To—what? You cut out.”
“To talk to you about something. To tell you something.” When Hannah’s mother appears to be present and listening Hannah says, “So I wanted to tell you that I’m non-binary.”
After a long pause Hannah says, “It means I don’t identify with either—”
“I know what it means. I’ve heard of it.” Hannah’s mother remains frozen with a furrowed brow and it’s unclear if the issue is emotional or technological. Eventually she says, “You know that women can be anything they want to be, right? You don’t need to have a label for yourself. It’s okay to just be different.”
“I know, it’s not that I feel like women can’t be—how I am. I just don’t feel like I’m a woman.” Hannah feels strange even saying the words: I’m a woman. Not upset exactly, but like they’re completely irrelevant to the fact of Hannah’s existence. Hannah’s not sure how to explain this to another person.
Hannah’s mother starts to say something and the computer chirps and freezes. She moves without sound for a second, then fades out as Skype traces dots across the screen and makes radar ping sounds: We are experiencing connection issues.
When Hannah’s mother comes back she’s saying, “—just worry about your safety.”
Hannah tries to think of what could have led up to this sentence and says, “Sorry, you cut out for a second—I already wear a reflective orange jacket when I run every day. I look like a safety cone.”
“No. No, not from cars, from people.”
Hannah’s girlfriend, Eddie, comes over with a backpack full of stuff for the weekend and her electric violin so she can practice tomorrow morning. When they started dating almost a year ago they incorporated each other into their practice/training routines almost immediately, a key factor in the success of the relationship. Eddie slaps her hands on Hannah’s neck in the doorway. “Feel how cold my hands are!”
Hannah says, “Eh,” even though Eddie’s hands really are freezing. This is a game they have.
“It’s colder than a witch’s teat!”
They trudge up the two flights of stairs to Hannah’s room and Eddie sheds the backpack and rummages in it. “Wait wait wait.” She takes out a book-shaped package wrapped in Christmas paper. “Happy birthday!” Hannah unwraps it: Edge: A History of Performance Enhancing Drugs in Athletics. Hannah laughs.
“We had that conversation about testosterone a couple weeks ago and then literally the next day I saw this at a bookstore,” Eddie says. “I flipped through to see if it was any good and read like fifty pages. It’s actually really interesting.”
“Maybe I’ll decide I want to take hormones after all,” Hannah says, looking at the table of contents. Because that was the conversation they’d had: Eddie asked if Hannah was interested in taking testosterone, and Hannah had not understood what she meant and said of course not, that was cheating.
“I don’t think those are the right reasons to make a decision like that.”
Hannah puts the book down to slide closer to Eddie and kiss her. “I like my body how it is.”
Eddie kisses back. “I like your body too.”
After a minute of making out Eddie stops and says, “But I would also be fine with it if you wanted to change it.”
Hannah laughs and turns away for a second. “Eddie, like—you don’t need to be supportive all the time.”
It is thirty-four degrees and raining. Hannah goes for a twenty-mile run. It’s Hannah’s day off work and therefore long run day and therefore sacred. They run out to the suburbs where rich people build horse farms and nature preserves. There are no horses outside today. They’ve all gone wherever they go to get out of the rain. Hannah runs. Foot, foot, foot, foot, foot, foot. Moving forward at a pace impossibly slow.
Hannah mentally tries out pronouns, in rhythm with the footsteps. They, them, they, them, they, them. Hannah uses it in a sentence: Hannah is doing their long run today. They are running the Boston Marathon in two months. The rain is making them wet and cold. It’s awkward, but there’s something appealing about it. The suggestion of containing multitudes.
As Hannah is feeling this idea out in the bones and tendons of their feet, by the condos and sports fields of east Arlington, the pain under the sole of the right foot comes back. It seems worse than yesterday. These are fresh shoes, it’s the same surface Hannah runs on every day. Nine miles from home with numb toes and ice water running into their eye sockets, there’s nothing Hannah can do about it but keep running. It will probably go away on its own.
Another runner in wet fluorescents approaches from the opposite direction, blurry in the rain. Hannah has not seen another person for miles. They labor towards each other. He’s in the category that may or may not be faster than Hannah. When they are close enough, he smiles and gives a casual salute.
“Nice weather,” he calls.
“Gotta love New England.”
“Have a nice run.”
They pass by each other. Hannah continues smiling for a couple hundred yards. Hannah can sometimes forget in the moment that they don’t actually hate their competitors, that they don’t know the personalities or motivations or gender identities of the male-looking people who can pass them. It’s easy to forget that other runners are people, usually nice ones. It’s easy for Hannah to forget while running that they, Hannah, are a person. A person with a worsening pain in their foot.
At home Hannah trudges up both flights of stairs to their bedroom and sits on the bed, clammy. They start the process of looking at the bottom of their foot. Hannah has extremely tight hamstrings and it takes some rocking and leveraging, but Hannah is patient. Eventually they can see it: something in the arch of Hannah’s foot, stretched from ball to heel like a guitar string under the skin.
No one wants running gear in February, so the staff at Atalanta Sports Supply hang around the register and chat or play with their phones in the backroom. Brandon, who’s also running Boston, puts different technical caps on Pierre the Mannequin and takes opinions on which ones suit him best. Lindsay, whose tricky IT band keeps her from running races longer than 10Ks, changes over the sign counting down the weeks to the marathon.
“Eight weeks,” she says, and waggles her eyebrows. “Are you ready?”
“No,” Brandon says. “Oh God no. I’m still like three weeks behind on my training plan from when I got bronchitis. I’m completely fucked. Hannah’s going to have to find me and rescue me when I’m puking in the bushes at mile, like, twelve.”
Lindsay puts on a mock-snotty voice. “Um, actually, Brandon, Hannah’s starting at the very front of the pack with the women’s elites. She’s going to be crossing the finish line on TV by then.”
“Sorry. I guess you’ll be puking alone,” Hannah says. They never know what to say when anyone brings up that they are the best runner on staff. This is a good opportunity to bring up what they do want to talk about, though. “But for real, my training’s not going that great either. I’ve got this weird foot thing. Like this sharp, tight pain across the bottom of my right foot. I’ve never had anything like it and it’s throwing me off.” Lindsay is studying to be a physical therapist and resents her coworkers pumping her for free advice. She’ll only ever give it if they don’t sound like they’re asking for it.
Lindsay doesn’t look up. “You should probably go see a doctor about it then.”
Hannah looks to Brandon, who makes a someone’s-in-a-bad-mood face.
Eddie sits at the kitchen table while Hannah boils water for coffee in a saucepan. Hannah lives in a four-bedroom apartment with three graduate students named Dave, David, and Joe. No one knows when the apartment was last fully vacated or who brought in most of the furnishings. There are two electric kettles that don’t work, three microwaves, a towering stack of paper bags that no one ever recycles, and a dull tacky film on every surface. Hannah spoons instant coffee into mismatched mugs. Eddie says, “Have you told anyone at work?”
“No. I think I’m going to wait until after the marathon. I don’t think anyone would even remember if I said anything now. But I still want to invite Brandon to our after-race thing and then he’d find out before everyone else. Ugh. I hate this.”
“That’s fine. It’s okay to start with the people you’re most comfortable with.”
“But then it becomes a thing,” Hannah says. “And he’ll be like, ‘when are you telling people, Hannah?’ I hate it when some people know and some people don’t. I feel like I’m being dishonest.”
Dave, the roommate Hannah is friendliest with, shuffles into the kitchen in his sweatpants and looks in the fridge. He says, “Me, I’m one of the people who doesn’t know.”
Eddie laughs. “What do you even think we’re talking about?”
“Whatever it is, I don’t know it.”
This is exactly the kind of situation Hannah doesn’t like. Not telling Dave now would feel like keeping a secret from him, so Hannah says, “Fine: I’m non-binary.”
Dave finds the jar of homemade kombucha he was looking for and stands up. “Like for gender?”
“Okay. Cool.” He looks between Hannah and Eddie, seems like he’s about to say more, but then instead starts shuffling back out of the kitchen. He taps his head. “Duly noted.”
GREEN AND PURPLE
It comes back a little worse every day. It starts earlier with each run and then it hurts when Hannah isn’t running, a dull tightness that comes and goes. Hannah understands pain. Hannah’s legs and feet are in pain almost constantly; it’s normal and unconcerning for things like bending over and going down stairs to hurt. There are different kinds of pain, though. There’s the rich deep-muscle pain of getting stronger and the superficial pain of blisters and bruised toenails that can just be ignored, and there’s this: a pain that slides in and grows and destroys with its own will. This is an evil pain. It’s accomplishing nothing. It’s not getting better.
Hannah gets up at 5:50 and starts a tempo workout. Twenty-minute intervals at the maximum pace at which the lungs and heart can process oxygen. Hannah feels like their lungs are literally burning, like a steam engine, but at the beginning of the second interval the foot starts to tighten. Ten minutes in, the force of slamming it into the ground again and again is bringing tears to Hannah’s eyes, and at fifteen minutes the pain is so sharp it makes Hannah trip and stumble. They stop. They put their hands on their hips and stand there on the path, looking into someone’s backyard in the dark, breathing hard, getting cold in their flimsy windbreaker. They remember the twenty-minute timer still going on their watch and turn it off. They are six miles from home. They clench their teeth and bounce on their toes and start back, each step like a steel cable cutting into flesh and bone.
When they get home Hannah lies on their bed and groans. It’s still dark. They see the notification light blinking on their phone and flop across the bed to look at it. There’s a text from last night from Hannah’s mom:
Hi Sweetie. I was thinking about our conversation the other day and I just wanted to say it makes me so sad to think of you being unhappy. You are such a unique, independent person and I hate to think of you getting caught up in all the fads going around these days. No one gets to tell you you aren’t a real woman. Love to you and give my love to Eddie —Mom
Hannah puts their face down on the bed and goes limp. They breathe into the blankets. They shouldn’t be reading this right now because they shouldn’t even be home; they should be somewhere out in Lexington, moving. Hannah’s phone slides out of their limp hand and clatters loudly on the wood floor.
They slide off the bed and scoot over to look at it. The screen lights up in bands of green and purple, the surface cracked into irregular panes. They put the phone back down on the floor. They reach down for their foot and feel it, gently, exploring the hard things under the skin.
Hannah meets Eddie as she’s finishing her shift at the neighborhood hipster café. Eddie looks the same as always—with her edgy haircut and sleeve tattoos and septum piercing—but seeing her through the window Hannah feels acutely aware of their coolness differential. Hannah usually walks around in their least favorite running tights and an oversize U Mass Boston sweatshirt and gives themself a quarterly buzz cut with Dave’s beard trimmer. But when Eddie sees them she waves goofily and does an awkward little run out the door and gets her arm stuck in her coat. She says, “Sorry that was so confusing to coordinate. It’s weird to be reminded how dependent we are on our phones.”
“I had to pick up all these paper bus schedules,” Hannah says. “I didn’t even know they printed those anymore.”
Hannah has no idea who their primary care provider is supposed to be and made an appointment at a random clinic in East Cambridge that could fit them in quickly. They take a bus to a train to a station and then another bus. They walk into the waiting room and look around stupidly for a minute before Eddie points out the check-in desk. They provide their name and ID and date of birth. They go sit with Eddie in the green vinyl chairs of the waiting room. There’s a tube TV bolted up in the corner playing Dr. Phil with closed captions.
“This one’s about a guy who got catfished and refuses to believe she isn’t real,” Eddie says. “I think we as a society invented online dating just to torture ourselves.”
“It’s like social media where everyone does it but everyone hates it.”
“If only I’d known when I was wasting all that time on OKCupid that really I just needed to be getting into minor traffic accidents.”
“Thanks, horrible SUV man!” Hannah says, because that is how they met: a man in an SUV clipped Eddie on her bike, and Hannah stopped (mid-run) to make sure she was okay.
After a while Hannah says, “Thank you for coming. You really didn’t have to.”
“Pssh,” Eddie says. “Doctors are scary.”
Eddie dislikes doctors, she’s told Hannah before now, because when she was thirteen she was hospitalized with a ruptured ovarian cyst that several doctors insisted was just gas pain. Hannah isn’t actually that bothered by doctors—the only reason they don’t go is that nothing is ever wrong with them—but Eddie insisted on coming along as moral support.
Eventually a guy in scrubs comes out and says Hannah’s name. Hannah jumps up, ready to perform. He takes them through some hallways with mysterious and unattractive metal equipment parked along the sides. They see glimpses of other people in exam rooms, bored, waiting to explain the problems with their bodies. The man in scrubs weighs and measures Hannah, takes their temperature and blood pressure and pulse, looks at the readout on the machine, and takes their pulse again. He leaves. Hannah sits. They have no phone and didn’t think to bring a book. There’s no TV in here. They look around the room at the cabinets and the sharps disposal box. They try to figure out Portuguese words from a trilingual poster about preventing the spread of the flu.
The doctor comes in. He’s a guy in his mid-fifties with a hawk face. He looks at Hannah’s information on the computer, then at Hannah, then back at the computer. He says, “Runner?”
He nods. “They thought your resting heart rate was too low to be right. That explains it.”
Hannah feels irrational pride at the slowness of their heart.
The doctor says, “So what’s the trouble?”
Hannah explains about the guitar string. The doctor has them take off their shoe and examines the foot with his warm fingers, like it was a thing not connected with Hannah. He says, “And how much do you run?”
“About a hundred miles a week.” When his eyebrows go up they add, “Not all the time. Right now I’m getting ready for the Boston Marathon. Usually I’m doing, like . . . sixty to eighty? It depends.”
The doctor leans back in his chair. Hannah doesn’t like the look on his face, smug and authoritative. “What you’ve got is plantar fasciitis. Inflammation of the fascia—the tendons—in your foot. It’s rare to see it in female athletes but in your case I’d say running a hundred miles a week could do it.”
“Plantar fasciitis?” Plantar fasciitis was something that freshman boys on their high school cross-country team got from running in bad shoes. Now that they think of it they have only ever heard of men getting it. Hannah should not be getting men’s athletic injuries without getting men’s times, they think, and then remind themself about the difference between sex and gender, and then still feel like it’s unfair. What they say is, “I’ve been running this volume for years. Why would I get that now?”
The doctor says, “Sometimes the body reaches a breaking point. It could be the cumulative years of running, it could just be getting older. It’s definitely a spasm of the plantar fascia. You can see it right there, it’s clearly visible on the bottom of your foot.”
“I know. I told you it was.”
The doctor rolls back to his computer and clicks around, printing something out. “You’ll need to keep off the foot. Completely. Try to avoid walking or standing for too long. Definitely no running.”
Hannah is too angry to be disappointed. “For how long?”
“It should start clearing up in two to four weeks. With rest.”
The race is in six weeks. Hannah does not have two to four weeks. Saying anything about that would probably just make the doctor even less agreeable, so they say, “I work in retail. I have to be on my feet all day. Isn’t there physical therapy or something I can do for this?”
“A physical therapist would tell you the same thing. You’ll need to talk to your manager about getting duties that let you sit down. There’s really nothing you can do to make tendons heal faster. I know it’s not the answer you want, but rest is the only thing for it.”
He gives Hannah a print-out: What is Plantar Fasciitis? It’s all Hannah can do not to ball it up and stuff it in his mouth.
At home that night, when Hannah has been mostly silent all evening, Eddie says, “What an absolute asshole that doctor was.”
“Do you want me to Google it and see if I can find more information?”
“No,” Hannah says. “Please don’t.”
After another few minutes Eddie says, “Do you want to hear what I’ve been working on?”
“Yeah. Yeah, play me what you’ve been working on.”
Eddie takes out her violin and plugs it into the tiny amp she keeps in her backpack and turns the volume on low. She starts a dreamy synthesizer and drumbeat going on her phone and sits up straight on the bed, cocks the violin. She starts making something, sweet and scratchy and hypnotic. Hannah listens. They weren’t particularly interested in music before meeting Eddie and it’s taken practice to pay attention to long instrumental pieces like the ones she makes. Hannah has gotten better at it. The trick was realizing there wasn’t a trick and there wasn’t anything Hannah was supposed to be doing. It was another way of just existing, sinking into a thing. It wasn’t so different from running.
Eddie stops. “Something like that. I don’t know how to end it yet. I could just stop abruptly but that’s what I always do. I want to branch out.” She makes branching fingers.
“That was great. I really liked that.” And then, “I wish I was able to say more about it.”
“You don’t have to say anything. You just kind of listen.” Eddie puts the violin down and rubs her forehead. “Tell me what to do that will help.”
“You don’t have to help,” Hannah says. “It’s not a helping thing.”
Hannah wakes up at 5:50 and looks out the window to see what the weather is like. They remember that it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, since they’re not running. They lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. They reach for their phone before remembering they don’t have one. They lie there, wide awake. They try to think of all the state capitals. They try to remember every object in their childhood room. They flex their toes under the blankets. It hurts. They try to think of reasons to move.
At work Hannah stands at the staff computer and looks at reviews of running shoes. They try to stand on the other foot. The music is insistent and annoying and their coworkers’ laughter abrasively loud. Hannah reads the same sentence about heel drop six times. It takes them a few seconds to register that Brandon is talking to them.
“Hey,” he says, “sorry, I was just wondering, since you did Boston last year—what are you doing about your stuff? The whole thing where you put it in the little bags and drop it off and pick it up seems . . . complicated.”
Hannah responds automatically. “My girlfriend’s meeting me with it at the finish. It’s way easier if you can just give it to someone and not have to deal with the weird bag system.”
“Your friends are coming to see you race?” He laughs. “You’ve got better friends than me.”
“Girl friend. I’ve only got the one.”
“Ah, yeah. Okay.” Brandon’s face goes through some different stages of processing the information and conveying that he’s cool. Hannah now realizes they’ve never had a conversation with Brandon that wasn’t about running. They talk to Brandon every day. They’d been planning on inviting him over to an after-race party. His marathon time is 2:35, ten minutes faster than Hannah’s, even though he’s not as good a runner. Hannah tries to remember that Brandon has done nothing wrong. That they like Brandon. He says, “Well, I don’t have one of those either. I guess I’ll just have to deal with the weird bags.”
“It’s not that bad. I did it last year,” Hannah says. They think about saying something else, something like, My girlfriend’s name is Eddie which is short for Edith and she makes weird electronic music. And also I’m from Freedom, New Hampshire, and all my best friends as a kid were dogs, and I’ve never known how I’m supposed to be or act or what gender is and so I decided I’m non-binary, what do you think about that? But Brandon sees a customer come in and goes to the door, so Hannah looks back down at the computer and the sentence about heel drop.
Hannah wakes up at 5:50. They trudge through a shift at work, in a thin, nervous exhaustion. They don’t think to ask if Eddie’s free to hang out until after the shift is over. By the time they get home and send an e-mail and Eddie can see it and respond it will be too late. They go home and get into bed and lie awake until 2:00. They wake up the next morning at 5:50.
They go to the YMCA down the street and get a day pass. Hannah has only ever gone there to use the treadmills as a last resort during major snow events. It’s an old brick building that might have always been a YMCA, since it has the feel of a nineteenth-century boarding house. Hannah gets confused on some dirty vinyl stairways before finding the main cardio room. Almost no one is there before seven on a Friday. There’s a continuous squeak and rattle from the old machines. The faulty boilers fill the room with a foot-smelling fug. Hannah gets on a stationary bike and pedals. They have told themself that they’re just doing this so they can sleep. It will also keep up their aerobic capacity so they can pick up their marathon training again without too much loss, and then they think about the marathon, and then try not to. They once read a book about Buddhism that said the key to happiness was non-attachment. Don’t mind the outcome. Don’t mind the suffering. Biking uses muscles just different enough from running to feel frustratingly difficult, and Hannah stares at the wall ahead of them and tries to feel non-attached about it. After what feels like an eternity spinning in place on flimsy metal, Hannah looks down at the display of the machine. They have been pedaling for four minutes. They try to non-attach harder.
GRAY PILLS AND GREEN POWDER
Hannah spends too much money on day passes at the Y but doesn’t want to commit to buying a membership. This is temporary. They spend five days waking up at six, pedaling their feet around and around on the stationary bike, waiting, avoiding conversation at work, lying awake. They dream of digital numbers that don’t move. They dream of opening the skin of their foot and feeling inside, a damp-basement feeling, and finding scraps of rusty metal; rotted ropes and cloth; spiny, tentacled insects.
There are no evening runs after work. Hannah gets home and sits on the bed and picks up the book Eddie gave them, about performance-enhancing drugs. They start reading a story about Andreas, formerly Heidi, Krieger, an East German shot-putter from the nineties. Sixteen-year-old Heidi was sent to a prison-like training facility, was given gray pills and green powders, lost her period and grew a moustache, won Olympic medals, retired, then got surgery and became Andreas. Andreas says he’d always questioned his gender identity but felt the drugs he’d been given as a teenager forced his decision about it: “I wish I’d been able to decide for myself which sex I wanted to be.”
Hannah flips to other stories about East Germans. They follow a similar pattern. Teenagers taken from their homes into athletic compounds, physically and mentally warped into sport machines. Their bodies made into whatever shape would perform best. When they reached the ends of their athletic careers they were turned out into the world, spines and knees and shoulders held together with surgery and steroid shots, stripped of educations and interests and genders. Hannah puts the book down.
Hannah sits on their bed having weird feelings about bodies, about their body, about what it is and what it’s good for. They try to think of something to do. They end up watching YouTube videos of dogs on their laptop until too late, then lying sleepless in their bed for a long time after that.
After a week Hannah can’t take it anymore. They come home from work and suit up and go out to run. Just a few miles, to see how it feels.
The freedom of movement makes Hannah feel they could float off the ground. They push it a little faster than they should just for the feeling of moving through space. See, Hannah thinks, the doctor was stupid. I’m fine. After a mile or so the pain starts. It starts low and Hannah tries to ignore it. Well, yeah, it’s a little crunchy. It’s not anything to stop running for. It gets worse. Hannah stops. They see a glass bottle on the sidewalk, look to see if anyone’s around, then pick it up and hurl it into the gutter. It makes a satisfying, musical smash. They turn around and go home, at a jog and then a walk.
David and Dave are sitting in the living room drinking beer and watching Planet Earth. Hannah joins them, still in their running clothes.
“Is your foot better?” Dave says.
He goes to the fridge to get another beer.
While he’s up David says, “So Dave said you’re non-binary?”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry, I keep forgetting I only told him.”
“No, no it’s cool. I just want to get it right.”
“I appreciate that.”
Dave comes back and gives the beer to Hannah. The three of them sit on the couch and direct their attention to the TV. Halfway through the first beer Hannah’s saying, “I just—why can’t I be a sloth? Look at them. They just hang out in trees and grow algae on them and exist. I wish I knew how to be a sloth.”
Dave and David exchange a look. Dave says, “Were you drinking before you got here?”
“Have you eaten anything today?”
Hannah considers this. “No.”
“Hannah . . .”
“It’s my foot!” Hannah says. “I don’t get hungry when I’m not running. I don’t know how to feed myself. I don’t know how to sleep. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m just—I don’t know how to be a sloth.”
Hannah gets an e-mail from Eddie while they’re at work:
Hey, I’ve still got late shifts every night like a loser but wanted to check in. Between your mom being weird and your phone and the foot it’s been one shitty thing after another for you the last few weeks. Happy birthday :/ I was just thinking about it and just wanted to say that I know you’ll get through this. Even if you have to stop running for a while, I just know you’re going to, like, take up tai chi for recovery and then become the world’s greatest tai chi person because you are awesome. And it’s not because you’re an amazing runner, it’s because you dedicate yourself to being amazing.
They also get an e-mail from their mom:
Oh Sweetie, I’m so sorry to hear about your foot. You’ve always been so careful about injuries but they can happen to anyone. I know you’ll take the doctor’s orders just as seriously as you take your running and you’ll get through this. Maybe it’s good for you to take a break! This could be a good time to do some thinking and learning to be happy with yourself.
They close their e-mail. They feel both these messages have some kind of subtext. None of this helps.
DOING NOTHING DOES NOTHING
Hannah searches for a physical therapy office. It has been a week and a half since they went to the doctor and nothing appears to have changed. They refuse to believe the problem is really this bad. There has to be some stretch or exercise or something that will clear it up and get things back to normal, that will allow Hannah to think again. They look at the rates. They’re pretty sure their insurance won’t cover this without a referral. Eddie would tell them to go back to the doctor and try again for the referral. They have already lost so much time. Eddie doesn’t need to know about this.
They arrive for their appointment two days later, at 7 am. There’s no TV in the waiting area here, just a view of the therapy studio and the people in it. Hannah tries not to stare at them. There is a young man on a stationary bicycle holding a piece of doweling over his head like he’s being crucified. A middle-aged woman in deep concentration taking tiny steps sideways with a band around her feet. A girl shrugging up her shoulder and then swinging her arm precisely forward and backward and sideways, marching-drill style. Hannah looks down at their foot. They try to feel the inside of it. They can’t tell if it’s hurting right now or not.
A young woman greets Hannah and brings them through the studio to an exam room. There are anatomy charts on the walls and a plant that might be fake. The PT has Hannah sit and Hannah shows her their foot. The PT runs her fingers along both sides of the tendon and twists. She flexes Hannah’s toes back and curls them forward. She rotates the ankle and pulls it to either side. The pain is precise and immense. The PT lets go and stands back, frowning, and looks back up to Hannah’s face.
“I’d say your doctor was right about plantar fasciitis. What did he tell you to do about it?”
“Nothing. Just rest for two to four weeks. It’s been two weeks now though.”
The PT sighs. “I don’t know why PCPs keep saying that. Doing nothing never does anything for tendon inflammation. What’s happening is that all the muscles around the tendon have clenched down. You have to get them moving and stretching in the right ways for them to let go. If you don’t move them they’ll just stay that way.”
Hannah nods. This feels truer to what Hannah knows about their body. That it does not like to be static. That it is a machine of many moving parts, whirring and locking together in ways that are not always apparent but do always meet their own mechanical logic.
The PT says, “I don’t know where he got two to four weeks from. It’s hard to say what a realistic recovery timeline would be. Just on first look, I’d say at least a few months.”
“Okay,” Hannah says. They nod some more. “Okay. Okay.” There is nothing to say. They pick up the ruthless machine of their body and bring it into the therapy room to start the adjustments—minute movements of incredible difficulty, suffering over spans of inches.
When Hannah gets out of the therapy office what they want to do is get trashed, but it’s 8 am and they’re broke, so instead they go to the fancy doughnut place next door, get four doughnuts, and sit down in the shop to methodically eat them.
The guy who was behind them in line, in his fifties with a newsie cap, observes Hannah for a few seconds and says, “Are you going to eat those all yourself?”
Hannah just looks at him.
He chuckles. “Big appetite for such a little lady.”
And Hannah says, “Go fuck yourself.”
At some point in the last two weeks, unknown to Hannah, winter has started easing up. March promises nothing in Boston, but there’s a possibility of days like today, sunny and mild. There are customers waiting outside when Hannah unlocks the store and there are customers all morning. Hannah does shoe fittings, measuring the length and width and arch of people’s feet, crouching with their tight hamstrings and shit foot to watch the roll of the customers’ ankles as they walk up and down the store in socks. Hannah smiles and laughs and chats and recommends. All of these people coming in and out of the store are able to run.
There’s a traffic jam of staff in the backroom trying to find things. Brandon is digging through a stack of technical shirts and saying, “I’ve been getting these calf spasms lately though. I never used to get them and now it’s like—it’s every night when I’m about to fall asleep, which is annoying but whatever, but then I’ll also get them during runs and it completely throws me.”
Lindsay says, “It’s probably just all the mileage you’ve been adding. Are you doing dynamic stretching? You find something to stand on—like this—and . . .” Lindsay steps onto a footstool to demonstrate something. Hannah keeps their eyes on the shoeboxes they’re piling into their arms. Brandon, apparently, is worthy of free medical advice. Maybe that’s what the extra nine minutes he has on Hannah’s marathon time are good for.
Brandon sees Hannah and says, “Hey, can I ask you a question about how the corrals work when you have a second? Because it makes no sense to me.”
“Yeah,” Hannah says. And then, “Actually—actually I’m not running the marathon.”
It falls out of their mouth and they realize it’s true. No amount of wanting can change the reality of what their body can and can’t do.
Brandon looks confused, so Hannah says, “That thing with my foot ended up being plantar fasciitis. It’s impossible to run on it and it might take months to get better.”
Everyone erupts in sounds of sympathy. Brandon looks genuinely upset and says, “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no, that’s awful.” Lindsay steps morosely off the footstool. Hannah’s irritation vanishes. Everyone was rooting for them. Everyone wanted Hannah to succeed, to achieve this pointless, brutal thing for them all.
Hannah sends Eddie an e-mail that doesn’t mention the physical therapist but does say they’ve decided they can’t run the marathon. Eddie comes over that night with a case of Narragansett and a jalapeno-pineapple pizza, which Hannah likes and Eddie doesn’t. None of the roommates seem to be home, so they settle in on the living room couch.
Eddie says, “I’m sorry. This completely sucks. And you totally get to be bummed out about it, but—it will be okay. I bet you’ll be able to run a different marathon by fall. You don’t even like Boston much, right?”
“Yeah. Boston’s actually kind of a shitty marathon,” Hannah says. “There are bigger problems to have.”
Eddie says, “Your mom was weird again, too?”
“Oh, God. I don’t even know. She might have been like, ‘learn to be happy with yourself and stop being confusing,’ or she might have just been trying to be nice. I don’t know. I never know what people mean.”
Eddie sighs. “I told my parents and they didn’t bat an eye. They just said that was very nice and when were we both getting real jobs.”
“I don’t want a real job. I like my job. I just wanted things to stay the way they were.”
“Talking to my parents also got me thinking about what I call you now. In relation to me. If it isn’t girlfriend.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I hadn’t really thought about that.” Hannah shrugs. “Personfriend? Booface?”
“People usually say ‘partner.’”
Hannah blinks a few times. Hannah thinks of “partner” as a thing people said before they could say “husband” or “wife.” They say, “Uh, yeah. That works too.”
“It kind of sounds more serious.”
“I—yeah. That’s fine though.”
“That was my first thought too, when I was thinking about it. ‘Partner’ like ‘domestic partner,’ like someone you live with.”
“Yeah,” Hannah says, and laughs. “That was the only reason I got confused there.”
“I mean, is there any reason we shouldn’t—both our leases finish in June . . .”
“Are you not—?”
“No, no I just wasn’t expecting—I’m just surprised.”
“Do you not want to?”
“I—we’ve only been dating for a year.”
“That’s a pretty long time,” Eddie says. “You don’t want to.”
“No, no I just—we haven’t talked about this.”
“So we’re talking about it now. You don’t want to. That’s fine.” Eddie finishes her beer, sets the empty can on the table, and goes to the refrigerator to get another, without looking at Hannah.
When she comes back Hannah says, “It’s not that I don’t want to. I just get this feeling like—for a while now, like you’ve been acting kind of extra-committed? To sort of show how okay with the gender thing you are? And you really don’t have to. I know you’re okay with it. I don’t feel any different about anything, I don’t feel, you know, insecure or anything.”
“I’m acting more committed because I want to be more committed,” Eddie snaps. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long fucking time actually. I only started with the partner bullshit because I was afraid to bring it up. Which was because I was afraid you’d react exactly like you’re reacting. But fine. You know, I think I’m actually just going to go home.” She sets her unopened beer on the coffee table and stands up again.
“What the fuck, Eddie?” Hannah says, following her to the door. “I didn’t say no. I just wanted to think about it a little.”
“Fine. Think about it.” And she leaves.
Hannah makes good progress on the case of Narragansett alone. Late that night they look at running forums to read about plantar fasciitis. They’ve hardly ever looked at running forums up to now. Forums are mostly just echo chambers of bragging and bad advice. They find they were right not to want to consult them about this before.
The disembodied voices of the forums all agree that plantar fasciitis never really goes away. They were all given recovery timelines by doctors and PTs and all those timelines were bullshit. It can sometimes be made manageable. It sometimes can’t. There’s no way to know. Either way, even if you stop running, your tendons will never forgive you for the ways you’ve used them. It will follow you to your grave.
THREE MILES IS NOTHING
Hannah has the next day off work. They wake up at 5:50. They lie there. They ought to feel hung over but don’t. Just miserable. They want to cry but can’t make themself. This is one of the things that always made Hannah feel un-female: the inability to cry.
They lie there a long time. They pick up their laptop from where it’s sitting next to the bed and turn it on. It takes a long time to boot up. Hannah’s had it since college. It’s only a matter of time until it too breaks and sets Hannah fully adrift in the world. They wait patiently. When it’s functional, they check their e-mail to see if Eddie wrote. She hasn’t, which makes sense since it’s 6:20 in the morning. Hannah composes an e-mail quickly saying they’re sorry and they do want to move in together. They’re not sure they really do. They hadn’t considered that Eddie might go anywhere, that anything between them might change, that Eddie might start wanting more from them. They think about what it would be like for Eddie to be there all the time, the expectations and over-closeness. They think of Eddie lugging her violin around and her cold hands and her laugh and then of all those things being gone. Either way there will be suffering. Events to this point have already put suffering in motion.
They look up local races. They find a small 5K happening later that morning in Somerville and get dressed in running clothes and leave the house to go. It starts raining, or maybe sleeting. They stand at the bus stop shivering and grinding their teeth. Three miles is the blink of an eye to Hannah. Three miles is nothing. Three miles can’t possibly hurt their foot more than it’s hurt, and they need to feel like they exist.
The race is at a little park on the Mystic. It was a small race to begin with and it seems like most of the runners have bailed because of the weather. There is a white tent on the grass, with a bib pick-up table and flats of Vitamin Water and bananas. There are some parents and some teenagers. There are people who look like they’ve never run a 5K before and people who look like they do these for fun sometimes and three guys who are clearly competitive, doing warm-up sprints. Hannah gets registered and does some strides on the grass. Their foot feels fine. The competitive guys stop what they’re doing for a minute to watch. Yes, motherfuckers, Hannah thinks, notice me, even though they are not a guy and not a 5K specialist, even though they will almost certainly not win this race, even though the tendons of their foot might come to furious life at any point. Hannah lines up at the starting line, choosing to believe for now that they are limitless.
from NER 40.4 (2019)