It’s an unusual training session that includes marathon pace work and then five 400m hill repeats. Where the hell am I going to find a 400m hill? I decide to run the marathon pace work on Duke track; my amped up anxiety and troubled sleep lately have made for some disappointing runs. I need a win, and putting myself on the track should make it easy to keep pace. I drive over, eyeing the topography. I don’t want to park in the trailhead lot; the last time I parked there I was meeting Kevin for our first date. It doesn’t look like I have a choice. I try not to think about it stalking out of the parking lot to begin my run. I am sullen and slow, my feet leaden with despair.
I make my way toward the track and lope around the far lane. When it’s time to run faster I cross into lane one and take off. Garmin nags me; I’m at 6:40. I burst out laughing and slow; my little trick worked. I peel my shirt over my head to feel the sun and wind against my skin. Every so often Garmin beeps to let me know I’m going too fast. Each time I laugh out loud; not a happy laugh, but a defiant one. When I’m done with that segment I run from the track, across the street and down the hill. When I’m even with that fucking parking lot I turn and storm up it probably too fast. Fatigue sets in before the repeat is over. Holy shit this is a long hill, but I finish it and turn around, running slow on the way down.
At the very end of the fourth repeat a black Jeep Commander comes toward me on the roadway; the same car my abuser drives. My breath catches. I begin to see spots, then my vision blurs and narrows to the tunnel of the vehicle I’m staring at warily. Something red hangs from the rearview; my hair stands on end. Garmin beeps the end of the repeat as the car comes even with me; my head swims and I stagger-turn in awkward suspended animation, eyes narrow. There’s a monogram in the back window; it isn’t him. My vision goes white. I shake my head a few times. I snort and hiss and throw a few upper cuts, resuming my run. As I make my way down the hill I impulsively pluck a leaf from a magnolia tree. Its surface is vital and strong. I tuck it between my breasts and feel the leaf cool and smooth against my pounding heart.
I turn for the last repeat and dig. I pant and drive up, glutes firing, heart continuing to pound. There’s a deep fluttering at my solar plexus and my pelvic floor. I watch the lampposts fly past and push all the way to the end of the repeat, then turn and run back down the hill. I’m grim and scowling as I cross the street to the Al Buehler Trail and run through the parking lot. I have a vision of him walking toward me from his car on that first date, his face charming and boyish as he smiled in greeting. I bite my lip and run faster into the woods, soggy from a recent rain. I bound through the center of an ankle-deep puddle and try to set down that memory. I know it hurts, I tell myself. I’m sorry, Laura. I’m sorry. I love you.
I run up a hill. I remember running here before I left my abuser; I’d carry a change of clothes in my car and add an easy run after I finished teaching for the day to put off going home a little longer. I ran here, circle after circle, the pieces of my confusion falling into place with terrifying certainty after a conversation with Anna. She looked in my eyes and told me the behavior I was describing to her was abusive and she was afraid for me. Her eyes haunted me; I was inured to my own fear–but I felt hers.
My pace stays steady. I remember how impressed I was with Kevin, how moved I felt during the conversation we had walking this stretch of trail. I wail in exasperation and then growl and remind myself how I probably peed behind one of these trees sometime.
I head toward the bigger hills, trying to ignore how I’m passing the golf course where we sat together and talked until dark. I cry out again in pain and frustration then set my jaw and push up the hill I’ve run repeats on in training. I remember with satisfaction how, running with a Marine friend shortly after leaving my abuser, I pulled ahead of him on this turn. I remember setting up a hammock between these trees once on a summer day. These are my fucking woods. I’m running very well today. I’m training for the Boston Marathon. I am enough.
Garmin makes the “workout complete” sound as I approach the little platform where we stood and talked that afternoon. I groan with resignation feeling magnetized to that spot. I untie my shirt from my waist and put it back on, holding myself as I walk down the boardwalk to the bird watching blind. Leaning against the rail, I can see him standing in front of me, eyes twinkling in the summer sun. I remember my own breathless impulse to be closer to him and the lush green of the trees around us. I hold my hand to my mouth and try not to cry standing in the decaying winter woods, surrounded by brown bare trees, gray muddy reeds and desolation.
I’m sorry Laura. I love you.
My chest is tight, remembering how he held me for the first time here. My head swims with grief. I step away from the rail, ball my fists and close my eyes, defiant against the wave of pain that swells up within me. I stand with my weight evenly between my feet. I drop my shoulders and take a deep breath. My therapist sometimes has me do a visualization where I allow all of my thoughts, feelings and body sensations to flow into a container. It used to be a small, pretty ceramic urn I would visualize. Now it’s a big 5-gallon bucket like I fill with rocks and carry up a mountain during Spartan Race.
“Is that because you needed it to hold more things?” she asked when I informed her of the change. I nodded gravely, tears in my eyes. I can get everything in that bucket but my unhappiness. The unhappiness stays like it’s permanently installed now; I can’t release it. I don’t know how.
I stand with my eyes closed and try to imagine the whole of that relationship; all my hope and love, all our beautiful memories together falling into that bucket. I release the month of needing and being unable to get through to him, my rage at feeling discarded, my sense of worthlessness. I stuff my bitterness and grief, the endless horrible pain of missing him, the nightmares and visions and the regret over trusting someone who didn’t love me after all. I weep with fear that there might not be a loving partnership possible to me in this lifetime. I will all of this to fall away, heavy like the rocks I carry up the mountain except I’ve borne this relentless load for months. Just for now, I let it all go. The unhappiness remains, deep and implacable. I stand there trembling with my eyes closed wishing I could relinquish it. I mentally push a lid onto the bucket and open my eyes.
“You stay here,” I offer sternly to the bucket of my suffering and my love for him–and then I walk away. There is a flash of memory–him reaching out to hold my hand. My jaw clenches and my head lights up with pain, deep aching tension behind my eyes. I turn my face away from where he stood, tears pouring down as I walk faster.