Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Poem: My morning

I want so much
To tell you about my morning.

I woke up looking at you,
Feeling your breath rise and fall
Through the mattress.
And then I pried myself out of bed,
Laced up my running shoes,
And let my feet carry me as far away from you
As my heart didn’t want to go.

Meaning I got to the elevator.
No, the front door.
Then you let out this snore that meant
You’d still be there, asleep, when I got back,
So I let myself step out and onto the sidewalk.

Every other runner tries to dodge the waves
Lapping up on the path,
As if they’re trying to avoid a starving monster.
I like splashing through them.
They only want to come play, too.
So whatever clings to my sneakers and holds on,
I’m happy to take with me.

I went three miles before my lungs were on fire,
Then turned around.
Ran another and walked another.
And ended up at the beach.
Our beach.
The one with the small cafe that’s open for odd hours
And serves margaritas on the rocks without salt,
Just the way you like them.

From there I can see our house.
It’s not much, but it’s home.
Home, sweet home.
Mi casa es su casa.
Insert cliche here.

And I imagined you sleeping there,
Lungs expanding and contracting,
Not burning up like mine.
Skin cool and caressed by the linen,
Not gritty with salt and red with sweat like mine.
Brain preoccupied with dreams of her,
Not thoughts of you,
Like mine.

There was a butterfly buried in the sand,
A victim of the playful waves that just wanted to feel
What wings were like
And crushed them in their wake.
The same way I feared my love
Had crushed you.

Except it wasn’t sand that you buried yourself in.
It was a misery that you named after me
Then a woman you knew before me
And will know after me, too.

Because when I came back,
Gritty from salt,
Dusty from sand,
One hand cupped around a broken, buried butterfly
That I wanted to use to show you I finally understood,
And my other hand turning the doorknob,

You were gone.

Monarch butterfly partially buried in sand

Butterfly buried in sand, as found at Ohio Street Beach in Chicago on July 7.