Fitness, Living in the Moment

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
It’s my last chance.
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
It’s a draw.
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”

Growing Up, People Watching

Ready or Not

The net is tight across her middle. You can’t say belly. She has none. Copper helmet, slick to the scalp. Eyes rimmed in kohl shift to window glass, black flashing with staccato light. Does she want to go back?
Do I?
Into the cavern. A wheezing pause stories below light. The smell of popcorn steps in first. Hiding under its cloak, something else creeps aboard. Like sugar on the rancid spill. A not-right presence. No one looks straight at anyone else.
Everything is hidden here, even the sock puppets we pull out and put on in plain view. My hands speak! Listen, look! Yet another voice narrates the scene. Back there, under the chatter, another telling. The strings are never invisible, not completely. We are not alone. The sense of what can’t quite be seen lifts the hairs at the back of the neck.
Is there a chill in here?
Bike grease streaked in the shape of a chain splits the canvas of her calf. It was not an accident. No one would question it there. Anyway, he fumed out an apology. He called himself a jerk. He called her worse. The thread dripping from her ears should be filigree. Should be wisteria. Should be a path back to the hanging gardens of Babylon.
It is only a pipe for mainlining her tin of music. Whatever sound floods out thought, it lacks beat enough to tap hers. She looks all around. Darting. She looks at her hands. Folding. Is it daylight still out there? Who can tell?
One day, she will be his child again. It will be the first time she rides the train alone again. The bright beginning, the first step over the gap. She will be someone’s future. Like all of us, she was fetal once.
In her plastic seat, she sits erect but folds herself just enough to appear reluctant to be born.

Love, Music, Poetry

4:50 pm, Pink Floyd

Tulips bend to paint a corner of Washington
Circle with candy tongues
tied, twisted police tape slaps at a strutting
breeze, a whir of wheels, skin and spandex sheathing
viscera pulsing femur tibia and tucked wing of
earthbound flight. A checkered cap tops
the pile on a table by an escalator
ringing like a miscalibrated telephone, unheeded
warning every third or fifth body rushing
up to open air, no one turning. Back
after back in suit jacket, wilting and shedding
finally revealing damp shoulder, furred forearm
freed from cuff. Lime-green
chrome and finned convertible
on oversized whitewalls takes the corner,
watering eyes and turning heads.

Delayed train, detour, an extra mile
on foot west, sundog flares against the curved city
bus merging with a hiss. I thought I knew
the way, thought I’d thought of every
contingency but I never imagined him
in the everything
grazing the tips of my fingers, him
in the everything holding me fast

To these teeming streets. Nothing to compare
to this belay. No metaphor, no halo
of light, no vapor trail threading sky
is anything like the music
making me skate an inch
at least above the skin of the planet
and so it should come as no surprise
(except that’s exactly what it does) to find
I learn to fly
the instant I give up

Adventure, Friends, Happy Days, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 24

Train platform, new friends (hello! hello!), young boys not much older than my son approach me to shake my hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” I am so stunned I almost forget how to respond. Metro cards, turnstiles, find a car. Kids spin around the metal poles, “Sit down! Sit still!” It does not work, they are all maps and windows and new new new. The littlest ones cry, both wanting the window seat and the seat next to daddy. Once we are zipping along, tears dry and the traffic, tracks, sky, tunnel mesmerize.
Then, up onto city streets. Dusk. Lights, crosswalks, thousands of cars. “Stay close! Stop at the curb! Don’t run ahead!” The boys slam into each other, their bodies pin-balls pinging between Pennsylvania Avenue office buildings. The caravan growths thin as it stretches down a city block. Two boys race ahead and we lose sight of them between the looming wall of strangers. The dad carries his young son far back, his daughter in the bubble-gum pink coat bringing up the rear.
Then, it is giant tree. White House in a golden glow. Crowds, bustle, tiny trains, throwing coins into open freight cars. We lose one another, gain an additional mother and daughter, lose her, re-group. The little ones and the big ones all press into the fence, sharing snacks, all learning and then forgetting names. The girls ask their mother for pennies. Another round of coins until we all stop digging into our wallets. The kids throw clumps of grass. The state trees arc behind us and we find the ones we know. Rhode Island, where one went to culinary school. Texas, where one will spend Christmas. Then we see Virginia and we all crowd around for a moment, squeezing our way in.
We break free of the crowd’s tight grip and weave our way down the streets again. Up the stairs and onto Freedom Plaza’s deep breath of open space. Up past the marquee lights of National Theater. No one remembers what is here anymore, no one spends time in the city. Where will we eat? All around us, hotels, glimmering brass. The Willard. The Washington Marriott. Lights, doormen, black hired cars. We gamble on distant memory and hoof up 14th street. The Shops at National Place offer up a bakery with a kids’ menu. Sandwiches, fruit cups, chocolate milk. Slump, hydrate, chat, color, wait wait wait and then eat.
Back out into the night. The metro again, the front car now, kids take turns peering through the dark glass at the curving tunnel ahead. We peek our heads out at the station stops and wave at the conductor who grins and winks. Girls pour their tiny toy animals onto the vinyl seats. Boys wrestle. “Stop that! Gentle hands!” The parents talk more. Who is in school, who lived where, whose kids like which sports, instruments, books. Have you decorated yet? Where will they be for the holidays? With dad? With you? Half weeks, split Christmas, alternating years.
At the final stop, we all wait at the turnstile. No one in this crowd is left behind. We only just met, and already we are each other’s fierce protectors. For one sparkling night, we barely-friends are one tribe.


Happy 100 Days: 42

People kept telling me I would walk into a place and say, “Yes. This is it. This is where I live.” They told me to envision it, to let myself want it. It sounded like a bunch of mystical hoo-hah to me. I’m a practical girl, and my job was to weigh the various pros and cons of each property. This was not supposed to be a gut-level decision. It was rational. I was to consider commute time, neighborhood safety, condo involvement, how much rehab I could manage, and what I could make work on my meager budget.
Today, I saw the light. I stepped over the threshold and felt my knees go weak.
After a couple of months and a couple dozen places, I know now what they meant. I have never before had such a rush of rightness. Even the townhouse in faraway land whose sweet opportunity I chose to pull a few weeks back because of the distance was still just a shrug-your-shoulders “Nice.” I kinda liked it. I could have made it a homey place. I had a warm feeling about it, sort of like having a pleasant conversation with a stranger at a bar and maybe being happy to see him there again next time, but never really wanting to give him your number.
This? Oh, man. This is love.
This condo complex less than a quarter mile from Tee’s house. Bug and I could walk over to his daddy’s on any given day. It is in his current school district, only 2 miles walking/biking/busing distance from the metro, a hop over to I-66, and a block away from a park. The front door entry is on the first floor but because of the construction on a slight hill, the balcony is up a level. I won’t have to schlep groceries up stairs yet my deck stuff is also safe.
Inside, is everything and more. Spacious kitchen with new appliances and cabinets, bamboo floors, huge dining area, nooks for an office and a den, a fireplace, two bedrooms, a view of the complex’s picnic area. . .
All of this is at a price I can just about afford.
My realtor and I jumped on the freeway and roared back to her office to subject ourselves to the torture of contract writing. We decided that getting in the night before Thanksgiving would give me a leg up on the competition (those slackers, all so busy stuffing turkeys and missing their chance!) The property is a short sale requiring twice as many documents and three times as many decisions, so we were working well past closing time. After several liters of ink, all the papers were printed and signed, and I had made my offer!
We headed out into the dark evening, both of us a little dizzy from the afternoon’s turn of events.
Events could go any number of ways, of course. The seller could reject the offer, her bank could require more for the short sale, my bank could appraise lower, the inspection could reveal martians living in the ductwork. I know all of the maybes here.
What I also know is that it is possible to find exactly what I want.
All my friends said it might exist. I thought they were Pollyannas. I am so glad they encouraged me to let go of my scarcity mindset and hold out for abundance. I don’t have to go home with the fella just because he’s nice enough. I can keep my heart open for the real deal.
What a joyous Thanksgiving. I hope the seller (a mom-to-be, I hear) is as thankful to discover this offer in her inbox in the morning as I am to send it her way.
Maybe next year, I’ll be stuffing a turkey my own self in my very own home.
Imagine that!


Happy 100 Days: 89

In the car, we talk about the special things a kid can do when he turns six. “You can join little league and play baseball,” I tell him. “Or be in the big kid gymnastics.”
“What else?” He asks.
“Well, once you turn six, you have to use your own metro card.”
He gasps. “I can have my very own metro card? Can we go get it right now?”
“We’re on our way to school,” I laugh. “And besides. You’re not six until tomorrow.”
“Oh, yeah.”
Wheat Bug doesn’t know is that I have already bought him a SmarTrip card and that I am heading to Staples on my lunch break to find a sleeve and a retractable clip just like the one he is always trying to steal out of my purse.
“What else can I do when I’m six?”
“Well, there are probably new rides you can go on at the amusement park. And I think you can use some of the big-kid high ropes elements at camp.”
“When I’m six, can I drink mouthwash?”
“Can you what?
“I mean,” he says in that exaggerated don’t-be-a-doofus tone kids master far too early, “can I use mouthwash.”
“Do you know how to use it?” This whole conversation has taken an unexpected turn. Since so many of ours do, I suppose I should stop being surprised by these detours. On a recent commute, I found us in a very detailed conversation about breast cancer. I had to puzzle out how to explain cell mutation in response to my kid’s increasingly complex questions.
We are nearing school now. From the back seat, he says, “Yeah. To use mouthwash, you kind of swish it around and gargle it and then you spit it out.”
“That’s a pretty cool thing to do when you’re six, huh?”
“Yep,” he says.
“Okay. If you want to, you can start using mouthwash.”
His grin lights up the rearview mirror. “Yay, yay, yay!”
We turn into the Chicken School parking lot, and we are jostling backpacks and kissing goodbye and rushing off to the next thing.
Later that night, after we have made the brownies for school, put on jammies, and opened a couple of birthday-eve gifts (including a Nerf football and Lego mining truck that arrived special-delivery at bedtime by Giovanni), we head in to brush teeth. Bug is bouncing out of his skin, hopped up on brownie batter and anticipation. When we are all done, I pick up the blue bottle of mouthwash next to the sink.
“You ready to try it?”
Bug darkens and backs away. “No.” His expression is grim.
“I thought this was a special deal for six-year-olds,” I say.
“Yeah, but Mom, my birthday is not until tomorrow.”
“Ah.” I set the bottle back down. Bug relaxes. “No reason to rush things, huh?”
“Yeah,” he says. He is already out the door.
No reason to rush.
Right. We’ll keep trying to remember that one.


What Grows Here

Gray rain falls outside the half-window. Everyone is sick here. It was silly to come to work when I have leave in the bank, but I hoard it. For my son, perhaps, or just because. I want to be stronger than need. People have made it further on less. The office doors close and lock. Green plants drink the moisture from the air and spill out over the edges of their pots, oblivious to the lengthening night, the inevitable winter.

My head spins but my chair is soft. The floor is soft. I make a pillow when I cannot stay upright and lay myself on the closest thing to earth, five stories up. It, too, is soft enough. I stay hard because of these small, inanimate kindnesses. I refuse the offer of juice. I refuse the offer of a ride home. I have made it this far, and it is afternoon, and I will work my eight hours. The students who stop take the best of me because I offer nothing less. I stay until five o’clock. The projects are complete and better than mediocre. No one has helped, and the pride in this tastes like the flat, white paint on the walls. Like the drop ceiling tiles. Like nothing at all.

The metro grinds up slowly, dragged down lower on the tracks by its swollen belly. I push my way into its choked middle, get stuck in the craw. Not a spare seat, not a square of territory. The pole is claimed and what remains is clammy from before. Not even a cool square of metal on which to rest my palm. A lanky blonde in a red trench coat faces me, my forehead inches from her lips. I pull out a book. The American within slides headlong into a torment she calls love. She is in Côte d’Azur. She speaks erratic French.

Vouloir is to want.
Attendre is to wait.
Manquer is to miss.

Everyone is talking there. Eating and kissing, sipping menthe and yellow citron pressé. A child bends to pet a white bird. The silence of compression dissolves into laughter and a mother calling, Francois, viens! I ignore the dizziness and lean an inch of my hip against the pole. No one speaks. I can smell the breath of the tall man to my left. He has had a drink today.

I do not ask for a seat. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. I am stronger than all the bacteria in this place. The pole is a petri dish. The train car is a tenement. We all share precious bits – cilia, lung, adenoid – but do not dare exchange a gaze. We copulate then flee. No one leaves a number. No one leaves a name.

Who among us is on the brink? Will I be the first to give way? What would happen if I just let go of the pole, if I just surrendered my weight to the rocking field of rain-flecked overcoats and creased brows? We are all so tired.

At the third stop, a seat appears behind me, and I stumble over feet and bags, sinking in. I have made it again, by my own volition, through turbulence to the next holding pattern. A mile walk in the evening haze awaits. I must gather strength. In Vence, the bells in the cathedral cleave the morning. Biciclettes whir along the streets, the women drink Veuve Clicquot. I glance up. Across the car, the blonde in the red coat has found a seat. She is staring right into my eyes. Hers are small and too close together. She oozes poison. I wonder at her for too long but she does not drop her glare. Where is her book? Her gadget, her paper, her daydream about the mouth of a man on her bare knees? I return to France where the American has seduced a young poet but she herself is the one who cries.

I glance again, and the blonde drips arsenic from her chin. Still, she glares at me. I fear she has knives in her sleeves. Her mouth is small and tight, a milkweed pod compressed by too much rain. It missed its chance to unfurl. Inside, everything decays.

The train wheezes to its final destination. Crackling commands sting our ears. Pings andlights command us all to our feet, force us to flee. No one is allowed to rest here. En masse, we trudge up and up, in rows and clumps, out. My head spins but my legs abide. Gravity is no match for me.

Near the exit, on mud-slick tiles, I hear her voice.

“What’s your problem?” She strides next to me. Vinegar churns through her throat and ears.

“Excuse me?”

She is taller now, the red coat slapping her shins. “Here I have an injury and need a seat, and you just take it from me.” That shriveled mouth tries to snarl, but nothing elastic is left. I wonder if she was beautiful once. She is a decade younger than me. I glance down to see a single black sock wrapped around one slender ankle. An injury? Down below the wool and satchels, stone jaws and bodies rocking, rocking, I was supposed to discern her pain?

“I had no idea. I would have been happy to give up my seat if I had known.”

She continues to limp along next to me through a stained corridor of glass, the choked animal of the interstate pulling itself inexorably forward below our feet, one jerking inch at a time. Now, the eyes do not venture towards mine. “I’ve got nothing else to say to you.”

“I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. I’m sure anyone would have been happy to get up if you had asked.”

She stares ahead. Limp, step. Limp, step. Her shoulders curl in. She is a stalk, pole beans dried to husk. “I am not speaking to you.”

“I hope you will ask next time,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

I want to gather her in my arms and tease the stiff cord from her neck. Such things are not done. I keep my distance but also keep pace. I do not let her flee. Too soon, we are out in the reluctant light. She turns away as do I, and she lurches over concrete and up the iron-tongued stairs.

Everything that matters is left unsaid. We are in this together, but she may never know. Can she hear me still next to her? I am whispering past her shoulder. I try to alight. She slaps me away. Over the groaning distance, I speak and speak. In silence, I force her to hear.

Yes, the day is a dark and lonely thing, if you paint it so. In our anonymous intimacy are the selfish, the wounded, those who serve only their own hungers. But also, you are in the company of those who are made to give. You may not know it, but you brush up against the tender and the naked; every day, they reach to meet you.

Do not be fooled into believing you are owed this generous thing. The earth is capricious in her offerings. Care may come. It may not. You may find yourself on your knees before a cenotaph, digging for the human heart that was never there at all. But this is the chance you have to take.

Bow your head. Let the plea awaken your tongue and the soft wet call pass your lips. You have to be as tender as that damp milkweed waiting inside its bristled fist. Dare to peel open, dare to loose the embryo of your longing to the fecund, tainted air.