God, you haven’t even been out five minutes and you can already feel the sun burning your shoulders. That’s got to be cause for concern. Six miles of this kind of exposure and you’re probably looking at some serious, lasting damage. Really, what good is running if, in the end, you’ve got melanoma. There’s not a single cloud in the sky, and your mom’s SPF 200-something is apparently worthless. Look at it washing away with your sweat, like water off a dirty paintbrush. There’s no question it’s going to make you break out. You probably should’ve just worn a shirt. Nobody wants to see your sickly boney body anyway. Guys really aren’t supposed to have such angular elbow joints, such sunken rib cages. Here’s what you’ll do: Turn around, throw on a T-shirt—get a new CD because this mix you made is actually kind of a downer—and you’ll be out running again, cancer-free, in no time. You can grab that XL khaki Croft and Barrow ribbed-tee your aunt gave you for Christmas. That way you won’t have to lie when she asks you if you’ve ever really worn it. No, no, no, that thing is huge. It will probably just make you sweat more. It’s too hot for a shirt today. And way too damn humid. If you went back to the house, if you felt that air conditioning and saw that frozen yogurt in the freezer, face it, this run would be over.
OK, seriously, knock it off. This is ridiculous. Your dad ran six miles, minimum, before you even woke up this morning, and now he’s push-mowing the yard. Why can’t you be more like him? He’s shirtless too, and he’s not whining about it. You’re a young, capable, college graduate; you should be able to outrun your fifty-three-year-old dad. Suck it up, man. You always want to quit right out of the gate and it’s time to get over that. Let yourself get lost in it. Let your mind wander. It’s good to get out of the house every now and then. When you’re back here, your parents pamper you too much, anyway. You get comfortable and lazy. You lose sight of all your goals, your whole future. Look around, it’s summer and you’ve got the entire afternoon ahead of you. School’s over for good and, luckily, the wedding you were supposed to shoot today was canceled. Up ahead, look, you can even see the intersection, the end of the neighborhood. Smooth sailing from there on out. Look at the butterflies and the bees and the people fertilizing their lawns. Look at all this life. You’re alive and it’s a beautiful day. Just a little humid, is all.
You should take a right up here on Stevens, go your usual route. Turn past the neighborhood sign, which looks like it’s been broken again. Half the painted letters are missing and you can see how the sun faded the wood around where they used to be. It’s got to give the people driving by a warped impression of this place, like it’s some forgotten farm town or something. Some small, hillbilly community. But those types of places are still a few miles away. Iowa City was sort of similar. People always imagine that university secluded and surrounded by corn. Nobody ever seems to understand why you decided to go there, its campus set so deeply in the middle of the country. And it just gets worse when you tell them that you majored in film making. Your boss seemed especially confused when you told him that, suddenly all skeptical that you could shoot a decent Catholic ceremony even though you clearly knew the camera equipment better than he did. Most of them just assume that you’re following your brother’s lead, just coasting down the path he paved for himself. And maybe they have a point. You tell people it’s because of alumni like Kurt Vonnegut and Gene Wilder, that the school’s got a great creative community and Playboy Magazine’s #1 dorm to get laid in (not that you contributed to that statistic), but maybe it really is because your brother went there, and because you knew that he would still be there during that first, frightening year. Maybe that’s the real reason. You know that you can’t function well when you are all by yourself. You know you doubt yourself too much to make your own decisions, that when you are alone, you are completely incapacitated. Running might be the only thing you do well on your own.
Now, your shorts are completely soaked with sweat. It’s just disgusting, that dark ring slowly dipping lower and lower down your ass. But your feet aren’t feeling heavy anymore. You actually seem to have settled into a pretty nice pace and those last three miles went by almost unconsciously. You might even want to pick it up a bit as you pass by the house of that kid who used to ride your bus in jr. high, the one who would call you a “pussy” and then publicly mock you for not knowing what it meant. Veer swiftly onto this empty, unmarked straightaway just ahead. Take in the breeze that sweeps across these open areas and let it bolster this little boost all the way to Route 47.
Did you seriously put “Canon In D” on this mix? What sort of dork follows Pixies with Pachelbel? And aren’t you sick of this song by now, anyway? Forced to listen to it every weekend, every other wedding? It seems so long ago that you were actually moved by it, those days when you’d hear it and picture yourself accomplishing great things. The tempo’s steady, though, and with just a slight adjustment, your steps can fall right in time with the harpsichord part. Go with it. This is good. The second violin begins chasing the melody of the first, and you don’t realize it but your feet are following suit, each one mimicking the movement of the other, rising and falling on the pavement in perfect harmony. Everything else fades at this point, the sun and its burn on your body, the hollow strain in your stomach; it’s all eclipsed by the song’s incessant chord progression. Endorphins invade your bloodstream. Your arms thrust forward and then back again with the violent bowing of the strings. You know that this feeling is so much bigger than some matrimonial formality, some phony institutional procedure used to glorify a girl in a white dress. Right now, you experience something that an entire world of blushing brides and best men never will. They don’t feel it moving inside of them. The song is literally a part of your body, priming lightning bolts that launch to the very ends of your limbs. Embrace it. Break out of the stagnant, summer holding pattern you’ve fallen into. Crawl up from the basement your boss runs his business out of. Fuck that job. Push back on the earth, skim across its surface towards the fork that splits off in two directions. You’ve always played it safe here, turning left out of habit and feeling a sense of relief afterwards, knowing that each step you take is one that’s carrying you closer to home. It’s the same direction your dad took this morning. But the song is still building, still urging you on, and pulling you along with it. If the other way twists and turns you around, taking you into unfamiliar territory, then so be it. You’ll just have to find your way back, force yourself to run longer. The music is quickly reaching a crest, and it won’t wait for your usual second-guessing. The notes hold for a moment in an unresolved dissonance, half-steps like tendons pulling towards the tonic. It’s time to decide. Right now, on your own, while this final chord forms as if out of a clearing fog. The strings finally settle and silence. The spoken word intro of “The Thong Song” takes their place, and you’re heading off down the unknown road.
This way’s not too bad, actually. That little sprint back there wasn’t the best idea, endurance-wise, but a change of scenery works great to take your mind off the numbness of your tiring muscles. You get caught up in the new landscape and, although you’ve exhausted your mix CD and it’s looped back to the beginning, the miles drift by surprisingly quickly. You wonder if you’ll be able to do this sort of thing when you move to Los Angeles in the fall. If you’ll even have time to go on these long runs while busy making important, big budget films; doing press junkets and dodging paparazzi. It seems so far off, though. You always envisioned the success you had in film school following you immediately to California. You didn’t factor in the four-month period between the two, where suddenly all this momentum would stall and you’d float aimlessly, in a midwestern waiting room, completely lost.
The last two left turns should’ve brought you back to your regular route, pointed you home, but none of this looks familiar. It’s just empty barns and broken down silos. This was only supposed to be a minor detour, something to wring a few more miles out of you, but now the batteries are dead in your CD player and the tightness in your shins has honed to a sharp, piercing pain. Your body is genuinely breaking down now, refusing to move the way you tell it to, and the road ahead is starting to curve off in the opposite direction of where you need to go. At least you think so. You’re not really sure anymore. The muggy air seems to have made it’s way upwards and formed some spotty clouds overhead. The sun slides behind them every now and then but the cooling temperatures don’t help the ache behind your kneecaps. You stumble past hay bales and parked cars with painted numbers on their windshields, looking for the silhouette of tall buildings or water towers off in the distance. You have an altercation with a red-winged blackbird, where for fifteen minutes you cower and flail your arms as it hovers and shrieks just above your head. You turn down arbitrary roads, hoping for better luck with random chance, pushing endlessly forward, exhausted and alone.
This street has no end. At least none that you can see. It’s dividing two fields of some leafy crop, but you’ve yet to come across a single car even the smallest sign of some modestly-traveled avenue. You’ve been on it now for almost an hour, counting the trees that grow just alongside the curb. Now both directions, in front of you and behind, reach to the horizon. You’ve managed to find, literally, the middle of nowhere. And the image would almost be funny if not for that ominous low rumble you’ve been hearing now and again. Above you, the clouds that had crept so secretly across the sky are now boldly announcing their presence in billowing, black plumes. The thunder roars in like a marching band, louder still with the silence in your headphones. It seems to come from every direction, starting gently, but then quick to follow with a loud, groaning encore that shakes and settles in your chest. The wind is also picking up considerably, blowing through the leaves with a droning hiss like the sound of heavy rain that’s certain to come. You should get to the middle of the road immediately. Given the circumstances, that seems to be the safest option. People say that lightning tends to strike the tallest object, and in this open farmland the trees must be like target practice. And there it is. Closer than you expected. That jagged, streak crashing down from above. Flashing on, then off, and then on and off again in an instant, slipping into the earth and vaporizing a sizable section of some farmer’s harvest. You must run faster. Get the hell off this road. You can see the clouds already sparking up again from the inside, posturing before their next spectacular attack. Your heart is pounding doubly now out of fear and physical exhaustion. Two more bolts crack the sky and the first few raindrops spatter down on your dehydrated skin. Your tired body is blundering, graceless and heavy, as you suck the cold air into your chest through clenched, grimacing teeth. You can’t go out like this, skinny and awkward with only a handful of wedding videos to mark your legacy. You’ve got good things you want to say. You know this now. Too many movies to make. Too much left to learn. But now all you can do is run; even if you don’t know what direction you’re headed. Just go, with all you’ve got, until you are struck down dead, or this all blows over.
Up ahead, thank God, the road finally ends and the intersection gives way to a small, forgotten town. A sign marks the entrance. The sun’s faded the wood around where letters used to be but you don’t recognize the name. You’re barely moving, like a dream in slow motion, wondering if any of this is real. You haven’t sweated for miles and when you pinch your skin it holds it’s shape like hot tar. You’re leaning so far forward that each step simply keeps you from falling face first into the loose gravel. The houses look barren, but maybe you should stop at one of them. You could use their phone. You could get a glass of water. They’re probably nice, neighborly people, though their lawns are severely overgrown and full of rusty tractor blades. What about that bar with the flickering neon lights at the end of the block? It must’ve just opened. You can call home from there. It’s time you ended all this.
You’re a little embarrassed to sit at the end of the bar, under a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign, but the woman behind it just smiles sweetly, refills your glass of water, and draws herself another beer. She asks what happened, and you struggle to talk through quivering gasps and the occasional dry heave. The truth is, you can’t really explain it. You can’t tell her how the clock says you’ve been lost for four hours, but how you’ve really been lost for four months. You can’t tell her how you graduated at the top of your class and now you’re paid to shoot wedding videos for strangers, people your own age moving forward in life, making important and meaningful decisions. You can’t tell her how your parents also married right out of college and set this unattainable archetype in every aspect of their perfect lives, or how you know you’re being irrational, but still feel sedentary and inadequate in almost everything you do. So, instead, you tell her how you just went for a run, and she seems genuinely impressed when you finish the story. You should thank her for letting you use her phone. For giving your dad such detailed directions to this small, sleepy town. You should let her know that she probably saved your life. But you just sit, sipping your water while she goes in the back to put on some classic rock.
Your dad must’ve finished the mowing a while ago. His hair is dry, but obviously shampooed, and he’s put a clean shirt back on. You should say goodbye to this woman and get in the van; it doesn’t look like he’s in much of a mood to join you for happy hour. Walk slowly. And limp a little like you’ve been nursing some serious blisters. Slump your shoulders so he can see how exhausted and sunburned you are. Maybe if he’s more worried about the potential threat of skin cancer, he’ll feel sorry for you and forget how pissed he really is. Hang your head. Don’t make eye contact. Struggle a bit to open the door and give yourself a few failed attempts at climbing into the passenger seat. Don’t say a word. If he wants to talk about it, he’ll bring it up. Just let the drone of the engine and the fading rumble of thunder fill the silence. Maybe you should feel guilty. Maybe you were selfish and irresponsible, leaving your family to assume the worst the entire afternoon. Your dad is silent and stoic in the seat next to you, staring straight ahead while a few stray raindrops land on the windshield. It’s fourteen miles home, he finally says, and your eyes meet just for a moment before drifting back to the road. But there was something else you saw in that look. Something buried deep inside it, hidden underneath the worry and the relief. It was slight, for sure, but unmistakable. He’s not angry with you. Just jealous that you ran farther than him.