From the author: A stressful job. Her only relief is running, wherever she is, on her time. When does the stress become unbearable and running the only escape?
Ellen walked down the hotel steps, adjusted her purple sports bra, and snapped the elastic hem of her matching spandex shorts. She jogged across the square to the Embarcadero’s paved promenade that fronted the San Francisco Bay, her blonde ponytail whipping the back of her head to the rhythm of her stride. She joined a line of runners moving north toward Fisherman’s Wharf. Just visible on the edge of the grey fog, webbed in wisps, a silver-haired man in red shorts and a bright yellow shirt ran directly ahead. San Francisco’s waterfront on a brisk Sunday morning was an invigorating run.
Ellen spent so much time on airplanes, in airports, in taxicabs, in hotel rooms, in sales meetings, that jogging became her only anchor to the part of her life she considered real, however seldom she experienced it. Her job paid well and allowed her to travel the world -- meeting business associates and exposing her to bits and pieces of foreign cultures -- but she often imagined herself as a Martian, or a programmed robot, now alien even when among old friends. Unless she exercised, ran, her body lost sensation and her mind closed around darkened, hopeless possibilities.
She owned a home -- a very nice house and a good investment -- in a suburb outside of Baltimore. When she visited it between business trips, it seemed like someone else’s home; the house of a lost friend or an estranged sister. Accustomed to living in the designed similarities of luxury hotels, Ellen couldn’t remember the last time she had cooked herself a meal.
The eerie songs of distant foghorns warned ships of shallows and sand bars, calling Ellen back into her run, back into a present consciousness. Along the waterfront, the fog retreated from the gathering heat of day. Sharp salty air refreshed her lungs while sunshine warmed her face, shoulders, arms and legs. An in-line skater whizzed in a curving arch past her and the silver-haired man ahead. Sunday morning on the Embarcadero wasn’t as hectic as during the work week. No early commuters, only those runners who lived in the condos and apartments of Telegraph Hill and a few travelers such as herself. Although she rarely noticed other people while running, the lack of a crowd to dodge through was a welcome change.
She jogged to blank her mind from the endless river of corporate business that cascaded through memos, e-mail, instant messages, teleconferences and meetings. Although her sales manager disapproved, she ran without her cell phone. She held firm to the single rule that jogging was on her time, not the company’s. He’d conceded to that one wish, since they both knew she lived the rest of her life always a few seconds away from corporate intrusion.
Ellen also jogged to think. Never business problem solving -- she did that while eating, or bathing, or in her sleep. She tried to figure out why she worked so hard and what she planned to do with all the money she earned. How to one day break the enforced patterns of her existence hurtling beyond her control like a runaway train. Would she ever have a relationship that lasted longer than a month? What was the anxiety that awoke her, heart pounding, at 3am, that she pushed back down inside either by strength of will or with a half a tablet of Xanax? Where had she been? What did she want? Where was she going?
She shook herself out of her thoughts. Frustrated by her incessant circular self-analysis, this morning she ran to run. The silver-haired man was still ahead of her. Something about him seemed familiar, but she dismissed the thought -- he was older than anyone she knew in San Francisco. To empty her mind, she fixed on his strong back. She ran comfortably at his set pace, so she melted into the run and let the slow tide of endorphins cleanse her spirit.
An hour later she hadn’t noticed when she had lost sight of the silver-haired man, but his route along the waterfront and through the empty Financial District streets had led back to the hotel. She went to her room to shower and prepare her Monday morning report.
In Edinburgh, Ellen jogged as best she could down the Royal Mile, dodging tourists and taxicabs, until she came to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. She turned south into Holyrood Park and the paths that meandered up to Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcanic crater, where the challenging uphill run led to a rewarding view of the city and the Firth of Forth to the north. Along the Salisbury Crags she found herself running about sixty feet behind a silver-haired man wearing red shorts and a yellow shirt. The coincidence of the man’s outfit reminded her of the jogger in San Francisco.
They ran the same pace, so on curves and rises she momentarily lost sight of him. Curiosity overcame her; she wanted to see this man’s face. She ran faster. Without looking over his shoulder the silver-haired man matched her stride for stride and kept the distance between them constant. She leaned into the hill and increased her effort. When she crested a rise at the top he was gone. The park pathways and the city streets stretched out in all directions below, but there was no sign of a man wearing red and yellow. She stopped, bent over, hands on her knees to catch her breath. She had pushed herself harder than usual.
Ellen squinted into the sun and walked around the summit where nestled among the harsh rocks pink heather blossoms rustled in the breeze. Without admiring the view, she rested, then jogged back to her hotel.
The best place to run in Tokyo was along the walkways of the Imperial Palace gardens, even though the grounds teemed with sightseers. The hotel recommended the gardens to visitors because the streets were worse, clogged with people and traffic until late into the night. Ellen never ran at night.
As she left the hotel lobby she paused to check her reflection in the glass door. She no longer recognized herself in the gaunt image -- attractive for its thin, chic elegance -- as tight as the stress on a wound spring. Her purple sports bra was a bit threadbare in places. A shopping trip to replace it would have to wait until she had time. She tried to smile, but her eyes, the Martian’s eyes, lacked any gleam of joy.
Out along the garden paths she dodged bystanders, paid attention to the mass of people, continually planned her route, looked for openings, stayed aware of movement in front of her, until suddenly a trail seemed to open up before her. At first Ellen thought the tall jogger cutting a path through the people ahead was just another Western traveler like herself, but then his silver hair, red shorts, and yellow shirt registered.
She stopped. The man continued on until he was out of sight, the crowd collapsing to fill his wake. Was he following her? Was it possible to stalk someone by running ahead of them? He never seemed to notice her. Who was he? How was it that he travelled to the same cities she did? A strange feeling tingled her spine. Maybe she had seen him in many cities before San Francisco.
Scolding herself for the silly paranoia, she started running back toward her hotel, picking her way around clumps of pedestrians. Rounding a corner, she looked up over the crowd. The silver-haired man ran ahead, matching her faltering pace. Ellen stopped again. The man ran on into the turmoil of Tokyo toward the neon of the Ginza District. She flagged down a taxi.
In New York she stayed locked in her room, wrapped in a hotel bathrobe, her new purple running clothes carefully laid out on the bedspread. She only half watched the television tuned to the local news. Sipping a scotch poured over ice, she glanced out the window toward Central Park. In the distance, behind a screen of trees, flashes of red and yellow moved down a paved running path, followed by flashes of purple.
Ellen shivered, closed the drapes, and turned her attention to the telecast. In a live report from Boston about a traffic accident involving a celebrity, a reporter stood in front of a barrier of yellow police tape. Her immaculate red dress, perfect makeup and hair, and her practiced diction were all a sharp contrast to the chaotic strobe of red and blue lights and the frenetic activity of people with medical gear. Ellen’s eyes widened when, in the background over the reporter’s shoulder, a silver-haired man in red shorts and a yellow shirt jogged away from the scene. She grabbed for the remote, spilling her scotch, and clicked off the television just as a blonde woman in purple ran into the frame.
She sat immobile. As night darkened the room like a deepening bruise, she ignored the periodic chirping of her cell phone and the LED flashes of its scrolling text, the ringing of the room’s telephone and its blinking red light, the polite knocks at the door. Messages neatly hand-written on crisp sheets of hotel note paper piled like intrusions of ghostly leaves blown in one by one through the glowing crack under the door. Around 3am she fell asleep, but didn’t rest.
Ellen’s sales manager insisted she take time off, use her vacation time before it expired. He couldn’t afford to have her burn out, he said. Her work was too important to the corporation. He didn’t want to lose her.
All day she paced between the shadows of her suburban house, the front window blinds closed to hide the street.
At twilight she dressed in her purple jogging clothes -- after snipping off the New York price tags -- tightly laced her comfortable running shoes, and strapped a full bottle of water at her waist. Keys and wallet in her fanny pack on the kitchen counter, she left her front door unlocked and slightly ajar. She ran away from her expensive house on an aimless path through the unfamiliar suburban streets. As the first stars winked into the sky, the silver-haired man’s red shorts and yellow shirt flashed like a beacon as he passed under a street light ahead. She fell in sixty feet behind.
They ran in line at a consistent pace. She found her second wind, the breath and stride of a marathon, and relaxed into the run. He led her out of the maze of suburban tract homes to long stretches of country roads. In the east the full moon slowly rose and in its cold light she followed the gleam of silver hair -- red and yellow now black and grey in the moonlight.
She inhaled the salty tang of the San Francisco Bay. Wet smacks of waves lapped along the Embarcadero piers. In the breeze the dusty aroma of Scottish heather mixed gently with the sweet scent of cherry blossoms. Honks of taxicabs amid the screeching of hungry sea gulls echoed out of the dark farm fields. Neon fireflies glowed and flashed beyond the corner of her vision. The polite murmur of foreign languages. Diesel exhaust and disinfected hotel rooms. The white-noise chirping of crickets and cell phones.
Once, her mind drifting, she glimpsed a movement, another runner, a woman, beyond the silver-haired man. She quickly dropped her gaze down to the moonlit road.
Ellen was unaware when the outward sights and sounds and smells blurred into a kaleidoscope of random memories. Focused inward, reality became the frost of her steady breath, the acrid scent of her own sweat, the sound and feel of her toes glancing off the blacktop. Blood pumped through her heart, along her arteries into capillaries, then through veins into her lungs where, charged deep scarlet with fresh oxygen, it coursed back into her strengthening heart. Almost weightless, she leaned into her forward motion toward the guiding gravity of the strong back of the runner ahead. Behind the silver-haired man she ran without a thought as to where she had been or where she was going.
She didn’t dare look behind.
This story originally appeared in Ghosts at the Coast, 2005.