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The Loneliness of the Long Haul Runner

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She’d started to run as a teenager and she’d never stopped.

One drizzling autumn morning, stood shivering and recalcitrant in the schoolyard, Neela Rasgotra had suddenly seen how to escape it all. Her parents’ proud and determined expectations, her friends’ talk of boys and kissing, her enemies’ sniping at her inadequacies. Bookish Neela. Neela the exemplary student. Neela the Nerd. She’d started to run.

Cross-country was her favourite. Leaving behind the giggling clique who would be sneaking off as soon as they could to smoke cigarettes and compare love bites, then slowly, doggedly, over-taking the girls who used up all their energy in the first mile until she was out in front. Running steadily, focussing on nothing but being ahead of the pack. It was the only time she was free.

She ran along the shore of Lake Michigan now, the warm mists of the Midlands swapped for the sharp Illonois wind biting at her skin. It was early, the sky had a crisp blueness that hinted of a cold autumn morning, and she wasn’t thinking about anything.

Once, she had tried to explain why she loved running. How it was the closest she came to meditation. How it took away all the complications. No wondering about what she was doing with her life, or what her parents would say, or if Ray had bothered to restock the fridge. Everything became a simple reflexive motion. No decisions, no right or wrong choices, no doubts. Just a forward motion, leaving everything behind. Michael had nodded and smiled, but some part of her wondered if he really understood.

The last three blocks of her favourite route, from beneath the El to the apartment, were when she had to start thinking about the day ahead. She’d have to start making decisions, organising, thinking, making choices.

Taking the stairs two at a time, despite her small gait, she guessed her first decision would be what to do about the screaming argument coming from the apartment. She’d left early, still sluggish, to get her run in before her shift but she’d set the coffee filter brewing before she went and had noted the crumpled skirt that wasn’t hers on the floor of the lounge. Taking the last turn of the stairs, she saw the skirt had been reclaimed by its owner.

‘-really think I believe that?’ the woman was yelling.

‘Well, it’s the truth.’

Ray had one arm folded over his stomach, the other stretching up to tug at his unruly hair. Neela recognised yesterday’s crumpled t-shirt over jeans hastily pulled on but not yet zipped up. The girl was short and a brunette, which was new, and pissed off, which wasn’t.

‘You told me you were unattached but there’s coffee brewing in the kitchen and a red silk bra in the bathroom.’

Crap, Neela cringed. That was where that had got to.

‘Babe, I told you: that’s my roomie’s,’ Ray looked up and saw Neela waiting behind the girlfriend of the week. He grinned. The idiot. ‘Morning roomie.’

Girlfriend of the week spun around and gave Neela the green-eyed once over. Neela was sweating from the run and scowling from the annoyance of getting tangled up in Ray’s love life. Sex life. Whatever. Neela made her first decision of the day.
‘Morning, Ray. Can I get by, please? I’m on in an hour and I’d like a shower first.’

Darting past, Neela grabbed her bra from the other woman’s hands and squeezed through the gap Ray left in the doorway.

 

By the time she was out of the shower and wrapped in her robe, the front door had been slammed and Ray was leaning back against the kitchen counter with a mug of coffee in one hand and a towel in the other.

‘Nice way to start the day,’ Neela remarked.

Ray handed her the coffee and headed for the bathroom. As he brushed past, she smelt cigarettes, stale beer and sex. Her nose crinkled in automatic disgust. ‘Yeah, well,’ he offered as he vanished, ‘I was getting tired of her anyway.’

Neela walked back to her room to dress, fingering the red bra in her robe pocket. She knew she’d not left it lying around in the bathroom. It would have been like a red rag to a bull, leaving it where Ray might find it. Red silk underwiring to a bullish pig, perhaps. Now she had to decide whether or not to call Ray on having gone through her stuff to find something to plant just because he didn’t have the guts to break up with whatever her name was properly.

It ended up being one of Those days. The kind where she felt skittish and uncertain about diagnoses, and fumbled with the charts, and said something – and god knew what – to piss off Pratt, and had snapped at Jane for asking a perfectly sensible question. Ray had been unusually industrious, and quick to vanish any time she was free so she knew he was dodging her.

Riding the El home, Neela thought about running some more. She'd run from England to Yale, which was pretty much putting on as much of a lead as she could from her life. Then when Yale had got too full of decisions, she’d run to Chicago. And when County got too complex, she’d run all the way over the road to the Jumbomart. And now she was contracted and couldn’t outrun anything any more. Oh, sure, some residents seemed to regard contracts as something to throw at the Weaver Witch whilst they raced off to save kiddies, or do whatever the hell it was Carter and Kovac had been up to in Africa, but R2s were stuck. And now she would walk from the El to the apartment and have to fight with Ray and be the sensible one. Neela the bookworm, laughed at for her seriousness. She just wanted to run again.

Hopping off the train, she clattered down the stairs and started running. Her bag bounced against her shoulder, pulling at her neck muscles, but her feet knew the route and were already finding their rhythm. Turning the corner, she saw Ray was on the front steps of the apartment block, struggling with a grocery bag. He turned at the sound of running, and grinned his most rakish grin.

Neela’s heart skipped. Just for a moment, she was running towards something instead of away and she felt like she was still free.

She came to a stop, surprised to be panting, at the steps, and leaned over to take deep breaths. Ray had the door open to the stairwell and was gallantly waiting to let her go first. As she went to pass him, she paused and grinned up at him.

‘Just felt like running, you know?’ she said.

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I know. All gets too much sometimes and you just want to drown everything out. I zone out to music and you zone out running. I get it. I like it.’

He understood what she meant. He actually understood why she loved to run. She looked up at him, standing so close, and gave him a real smile, small and heartfelt.

‘Also,’ he remarked, leaning down to whisper in her ear, ‘when you run like that, everything jiggles.’