I am running with a purpose. I have a mission. The pavement is unforgiving under my heels. There is no comfortable roll in my stride, only a dull thud and a rebound. I ignore it. These shoes are not made for running. In fact, as I understand it, they are not made for many things beyond walking and fashionably lounging. These shoes were designed with limitations. I can't help but cringe at the word. Limitations. I hate the word. No, the concept. The idea of it. A limit. A boundary. An innate disadvantage.
I am sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. It seems to be the same spot every time. Light from the window strikes the floor just beyond my feet. I stare ahead at the opposite wall. It is familiar. Not too much so, though. I can almost see the exact spot I always start staring at. He sits at his desk, staring at the computer. A mix of work and personal indulgences litters his screens. There is constant white noise. The scrolling of the mouse. The steady clack of the keyboard. Mouse clicks. The creak of his chair. It is how most of our talks go, the few that we have. The only interaction between us is our voices. They--we--are similar. People mistake my voice for his on the phone all the time. I can hear the difference, though. His voice is tired. It is a grave voice. It carries on it more weight than it should. It is distant, almost entirely disconnected from what he says and how he says it. He doesn't speak much but when he does, people always listen. That is the main difference.My gaze wanders down, to the belt in my lap. It is a tangled mess, carelessly pulled off. I grab the end in my hand and rub my thumbs over the embroidery. My name, my full name stitched in yellow. Gabriel Alvarez. On the opposite end of the belt, a single gold stripe. The belt is worn, some of the edges have begun to fray. I drop it. The black cloth stands out against the white of my uniform. As I look down, my tunic falls open slightly. I trace the red band down my collar all the way to the bottom of the tunic. For the first time, I am disillusioned with it. For the first time, it is just a bunch of expensive fabric and cloth. I am disappointed. I look up again. Leaning against the opposite wall are the trophies I have just earned. Earned. My fingers curl as I think about it. I am disappointed. I am bitter."What happened?" He asks. I can hardly help myself, I am ready to fight. "You were there." I am curt and my voice is low. He doesn't move or react. He repeats his question. "What happened?" I pause for a moment to compose myself. "The judges were dirty. They wouldn't call anything against him. He kept kicking my back and below the belt." I rub my thigh slightly. The bruise is a reminder of how effective rules can be. "And?" He asks. "All of the judges and the other guy were from the San Marcos school. He was doing that shit right in front of them and they never called a single penalty against him."He leans back in his chair with a long creak. It seems like he's not paying attention to me at all. The more I think about it, the more upset I get. My hands snatch my belt up again, idly fiddling. He stares up at the ceiling, perhaps in thought. "And what did you do?" I think back.His leg is up, he is balanced on one foot. It is a popular tournament tactic. Poise for a kick and strike when the other gets near. He stares at me, waiting for me to move in. He knows I am upset. It takes nearly all of my focus to stop myself from kicking his knee out. I can see the judges in my peripheral vision. They are unsure what to do. I clench my fist. He thinks this is a good tactic. He thinks I'm going to make a mistake. He thinks this will be an easy point. He doesn't know me. I jump forward faster than he expects. There is no accident in my action. I get too close for him to kick and grab his leg. My foot hooks around his and I punch him in the chest as hard as I can. He falls flat on his back, stunned. He has to catch his breath. The side judges pull me away. I wink at the head judge. Two strikes for me. One more and I'm disqualified. We start the next round. His heel comes down on my thigh. It is a strike made with confidence and control. My stance weakens. The head judge meets my gaze. He will not call the penalty. I am disillusioned. I drop my hands and let my opponent hit me in the chest. His kick barely makes contact, most of the sound comes from the snap of his own uniform. I remove my mouth guard. "This is bullshit." The judges glance at each other."You lost your cool." He answers for me. "You lost your composure and you lost the match." "It's not that simple," I reply. "He was fighting dirty!" He looks at me. His eyes are stern. "So? Fight dirty. If he's not going to follow the rules, you shouldn't either. You should have beat the hell out of him." I motion to the red stripe on my uniform. "Yeah, I'm sort of obligated to always follow the rules. I'm an instructor." He stands up and begins to leave the room. "You should have taught him a lesson, then. Gabriel, follow your own rules. Those are the ones that actually mean something." He lingers for a moment in the doorway. He does not look back. "And remember, there is only one rule in fighting." "What's that?" I ask. "Win." He stomps down the stairs and I am left alone in the room. Slowly, I fold my belt and heft it in my hands.
I keep my head down and continue running. My favorite stretch of sidewalk. The tree branches stretch low over the walkway and the concrete slabs are cracked and jagged from the tree roots. I sprint and leap across the broken panels. My legs are beginning to wear out. Yet, I run. I won't stop. I can't stop. It feels like I've been running my entire life. Running and trying desperately not to look back. At what? I don't have anything to run from, yet. If I'm feeling optimistic, I never will. Maybe. I leap over the textured panel in the sidewalk ramp. It is a graceful motion, or feels like one. I wipe the sweat from my brow and choose to imagine it was graceful. I am trying hard to be someone. Someone else? Someone I am not. Not yet, at least. Too hard, maybe. But I am not perfect. I can't be. No one can ever be perfect, infallible. But that won't stop me from trying. I can't be perfect but I can be better. Better than I am, now. And then I can be better than that. And better than that. I speed up and jump over two sidewalk panels.
It is late. Or early. It has been a long day and a longer night. It is not significantly different from any other day or night. I look out the front door. The door knob bothers me. It is new, modern. It does not belong there. It does not even cover the hole in the door where the keyhole used to be. I can still see the outline of the old door knob. I'm not sure why it bothers me so much. One of my feet is on the landing, the other is on the next step. Around us, people are milling about and speaking. I am herding cats. Drunk cats. The thought makes me more tired. She looks down at me through the staircase railing."What do you want to do?" She asks. Her voice trails off. Sleepy. I glance around, trying to keep tabs on the people I am supposed to escort. "I want to be Batman." It is an immediate and idle reply. She makes a hurt sound. I look up at her through the railing. She is holding onto the rails as if imprisoned by them. She looks genuinely hurt, injured. "No," she says, almost pleading. "No, be yourself. Just be Gabe. Please." I am surprised by the sincerity. Taken back, even. It is not the first time I've heard someone say that. It certainly will not be the last. But it strikes me. Lingers in my mind. Haunts me. "Okay?" She continues. "Just be Gabe." Maybe it will be the last. "Okay," I say.
I sprint across the street. I am not interested in waiting for the crosswalk. Be me. Be myself. I would much rather be someone else. Too many fictional characters to aspire to be. I have listed them before. A personality quiz once asked. I didn't have to think very hard. Different characters from different mediums and different eras. With a set of very similar characteristics. I imagine a Venn diagram with me in the middle of the massive overlap. I can't be me. I'm uncomfortable in my own skin. I can't bring myself to be content with me as I am. Because there's room for improvement. I can be better. So I don't want to be me. I want to be someone better. I'll never be anyone else, I know. But I can try. That's why I keep running.
She looks at me across the table. Her face is serious. I am used to that face. I see it a lot. Still, I brace myself. Defenses up. I try to hold back my smile. It is a struggle, but I manage. The sun penetrates the blinds and the table is totally illuminated. Magazines, laptops, papers, and plates. No one will ever make eggs like that. It is almost difficult to keep my eyes open. Her parakeet chirps in the next room. She is searching for words. The wheels are turning her head. It is a familiar lull in the conversation. I give up and smile. "What are you thinking about, baby babe?" I ask. I almost laugh. It never ceases to be an amusing pet name. I run through the list in my head: doggy dog, horsey horse, fishy fish, buggy bug. I jump out of my head and back into the conversation. It is always a difficult transition. "You," she says. My smile becomes forced. "Oh?" I ask. I am apprehensive for the rest of her answer. "You just make me sad sometimes." She says. My smile disappears entirely. "What?" I ask. I struggle for coherent words but my head is starting to spin. "That's not right. I don't want to make you sad." I kick myself as I drool fragments of thoughts onto the table. "I just feel like you're a martyr sometimes, you know?" She looks at me. I am not sure how to respond. "Are you saying we should have, like, a feast for me every year?""Don't be shitty." She says. Her eyes are soft. "I just feel like you do all these things--and you're so passionate about doing them--and you never... You do everything, all the time. You are always doing something--for other people. And it's... And whenever things don't work out for you--a lot of things don't work out but--when that happens it's not as important to you as making sure things happen for other people. It's not fair. You should be majoring in RTF, you actually have--you're actually creative. It's just not fair."I grab her hand. She is beginning to cry, I can tell because she won't look at me. "Hey." My voice is low. "Hey, look at me." She blinks. I reach out and touch her cheek. "Hey. Look at me." She meets my gaze. Her eyes are blue and green and brown all at the same time. "I'm not a martyr. I'm just me. Everything will work out eventually. Right? Everything ends up pretty okay. Right?" She nods. I pull her to her feet and we hug. She sniffles into my shoulder. Her parakeet is silent. "Okay then," I say. I glance down at the checkered floor. It is a comforting kitchen. "And if it's not pretty okay, well, who cares." I close my eyes.Her voice trembles. "I do."
I am jumping over every other sidewalk tile. It is less of a run at this point and more of a frenzied hurtle. It wears me out before I finish the block. It becomes an effort to clear the tiles. I clear half a tile and stop jumping. I can't help but shorten my stride, decrease my pace. How much longer until I get to their house? A mile. It is an arbitrary estimate. It is just a mile, I tell myself. I remember a story I once read about Bruce Lee. He and a friend are running, and Bruce Lee wants to run further. The friend is too tired to keep running beyond what they normally do. "If I run anymore," he says. "I'm liable to have a heart attack and die." Bruce responds, "Then die." The friend runs the entire rest of the way. When confronted about it later, Bruce tells him: "If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it'll spread over into the rest of your life. It'll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level." A man must constantly exceed his level. The phrase stays with me after I read the story. To be better, I must go past my limits. I refuse to accept that I have a limit. I refuse to define my personal shortcomings as a tangible mark. I have no limit, or at least no limit I've seen so far. Which means I can always keep going. I grit my teeth and jump a tile and a half.
Finally, I arrive at their house. It is a resting point for me. Briefly. I need water. It is difficult for me to speak, my throat is so dry. I drink too much, too quickly. The problem of a life without limits is a poor sense of self-control. In some regards, at least. I sit on the floor as I let my stomach settle.
It is the end of the first race I have ever run. It is only five miles, but I am not a runner. It is a lengthy marathon for my untrained body. My muscles burn and I cannot wipe the sweat from my brow fast enough. I can see the finish line ahead of me. Only two blocks to go. I try to push harder. There is not much left in me, I am at the end of my ability. The girl in front of me collapses to the pavement and vomits. I run around her to the final gate. A man stops me before I can cross the line. "Hold on," he says, pointing back at the girl. "Wait for her." I am confused. "Why?" He looks at me, his hand still beckoning me to stay. "She would have crossed the line first." I look back at her. She is sobbing and trembling. People are pulling her to her feet, out of the puddle of her vomit that is rapidly evaporating. I look back at the man. He watches as they escort the girl to the finish line. I cannot comprehend the logic behind this action. Possibly because there is none. Maybe she was faster than me, but then she fell down and threw up--something from which I managed to abstain. The rule is arbitrary. In my mind, I reject it. He releases me to walk across the finish line. As I cross, he hands me a patch. I examine it briefly. The race logo is on it. I toss it aside and stare at him. "Fuck off."
"You want me to what?" He asks. I repeat my request. He looks back at me, unsure. "That doesn't sound fun." "It's not supposed to be." I reply. "That sounds pretty masochistic." He says. He sprays water across a small section of the lawn. He is trying to maintain the health of his grass in small portions, to manage the water usage. The front lawn of the house is yellow grass save for several squares of green. "I know." I say. He turns off the hose and begins organizing his tool shelf in the garage. "I don't think you understand how hard I would have to work to get into drill sergeant mode, Gabe. I'd be working just as hard as--if not harder than--you. And you want to work out until exhaustion? Aren't you running home?" I shrug. "Yeah, it'll be great." I follow him back into the house. "I don't think so, Gabe." He says. "Did you even eat today?"
I am sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. It seems to be the same spot every time. The light from the moon is drown out by the lamp. I stare ahead at the opposite wall. He is leaning back in his chair, reading something on his computer. Downstairs, she is vacuuming. The ice in his glass jingles as he takes a sip. Cuba libre, with a lime. It is the first drink he ever taught me to make. Actually, it is the only drink he ever taught me to make. So far. "I never said you had to be cynical." He says. I glance at him. "Aren't you?" He thinks for a moment. "There is a difference between being cynical and being critical. I've always told you to be critical of everything." "Yeah, and to not trust people." "No," he says. "I never told you to mistrust everybody." He takes another sip. I take the opportunity to speak. "This world is awful. Being alive is suicide. I mean, have you seen how awful this place is? The people that are in charge of things are terrible. The people that tag along behind them are even worse. Look at our deviant, devolving culture. I've read about the many horrible things we do to each other. I've seen the atrocities people commit. On multiple scales. Yeah, maybe some of them are extremists. The extreme people do horrible things. They're horrible because they believe in something. The rest of us are horrible because we don't." He looks down at me. "Have a lot of world experience, do you?" He asks. He is tired. Of arguing and in general. I wonder if he will give up. "I'm not asking you to change who you are. Just be willing to give people a chance." "And be disappointed?" "Some of them might surprise you." "I kind of doubt that." He laughs. "Boy, you have a lot to learn." There is a pause as he takes another drink. He stands and walks over to me. "Learn to pick your fights, Gabriel. You can't fight everything." I look up at him. It is a challenge. "Watch me." He turns and walks out of the room. "Keep that up and you're going to have some hard lessons coming your way."
He is on the phone in an argument with someone--his mother. I wait for a minute, stretching my legs before I start. I plan to take a longer route home. There is a map in my mind and I can visualize the path I will take. I hit play and begin running. One block. Two blocks. There is a sharp pain in my knee. It is familiar. Expected. There is no surprise. I grit my teeth and continue running. I am running with a purpose. I have a mission. And the mission isn't over. It's not for fun anymore. This is the serious part. The part where I push too hard--and harder, still. My mind shifts. I am focused, driven.
She is sitting on the bed, looking up at me. The sun is setting and the room is yellow. Golden, even. I lean against the door frame. It is difficult not to cross my arms as she talks. "Do you even care about anyone?" She asks. "Of course." I say. "I care about everyone." "Yeah," she says. "I know you care about everyone. You worry about everyone. But do you actually care about or worry about anyone?" "So is 'anyone' no longer included in 'everyone' now?" She glares at me. "It's different." I am not sure how to answer without exacerbating things. I am not looking for a fight. She continues. "You don't even care about yourself. You're a fucking contradiction in every aspect. Do you hate everything or love everything? I never know. I never know what to say to you because I don't--I just think--oh fuck." I am not looking at her, but I can see her turn away."I just feel like..." She chooses her words. "Sometimes I look at you and I don't know who you are. I don't understand you. I don't understand your rules, I don't know what you're thinking or why." Suddenly I am glad I am leaning against the door frame. I feel weak. Empty. Lost. I wonder if that is the worst thing anyone has ever said to me. "You know me better than anyone else." I try to argue but I am struggling to keep my balance. She shrugs her shoulders. "What does that say about you? I think--I honestly think--you aren't happy." I take a step forward, ready to challenge that. "That's not fucking true and you know it." She looks at me. "Yes it is. I think you're much happier when you are unhappy." "I'm happy with you," I say. I mean what I say but I know I'm losing the fight. "I don't think you are," she says. "And I can't make you happy. It's too much. You are too fixed. You're so cynical and pessimistic and I can't, I just can't. You are exhausting."I realize this is the worst thing anyone has ever said to me. I feel alone.
It is time for a challenge. I watch the cars drive by. It is a surprisingly busy street. They never seem to stop coming. I wipe the sweat off my sunglasses. My window of opportunity is coming. One car in my lane, several in the other. I try not to smile as I brace myself. The cars get closer. The window is closing. My muscles are tense. For a brief moment I know this is a bad idea. The thrill outweighs the risk. The car is close, almost too close. I push and start to run across the road. My foot slips in the gravel. For a second, the world freezes. For a second, all I can hear is the sound of my shoe sliding behind me. My hands claw at the pavement, my legs unable to propel myself forward. I hold my breath. My heart hangs for a moment. I am suddenly very aware that the small opportunity I have to cross this street is rapidly narrowing. Four lanes. I can see the cars in my peripheral vision. All of them. My leg is finally in a position to let me run. I feel the impulse run down the length through my toes into the pavement. It is a sharp pain in my knee, but very necessary. A car honks somewhere behind me as I clear the intersection. I keep running and refuse to look back.
"So, what's your deal?" She asks. I am uncomfortable enough, or believe myself to be. I glance back at the hallway. I want to run. I do not want to be here anymore. "What do you mean?" I ask. "I mean, what's your deal? You look tired." I laugh. "I always look tired." "Just look?" She is a nice woman, sincere. I let my guard down. "Well, I'm always tired. There's always lots of stuff to do." "Yeah, like what?" I think for a minute. "Just...stuff, I don't know." "Come on, tell me." "You know, just trying to balance everything. Work, school, friends, my own stuff." "Maybe you should stop trying to carry the weight of the world by yourself." I am surprised at how blunt she is. "What?" She waves me off. "Oh, please. I can see right through you. You're a good kid. You don't have to be a superhero. Just relax a little and be a normal person, worry about yourself a little." "But I can be better than a normal person." She shrugs. "Sure, but do you have to be? Is that something you really need?" I'm called to the other room. She nods at me as I stand. "Think about it."
I stumble, but don't fall. It is getting difficult to lift my legs. But I can't stop. I have to keep running. Every step is painful. I am no longer limping. Both knees ache and buckle with each step. I start walking. It is an uneven shamble and it makes me laugh. It is impossible to have a bilateral limp. My throat is dry. Swallowing is nearly impossible. I am also unable to spit. I continue to walk. My body is ragged and tries to bend. I force myself to stand up straight, making it more difficult to catch my breath. I have walked four blocks. It is unacceptable. No limit. I have to be relentless. I cannot yield.
"A writer? A fucking writer? What the fuck are you going to write about?" She is furious. "Let me tell you, Gabriel. You want to be a writer? You're going to work a shit job, have no money, and never get published. What the fuck have you ever written?" It takes nearly all of my focus not to clench my fist. I keep my voice low, a casual speaking tone. "Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion." "Oh it's just my fucking opinion? You've got a real shitty attitude. You are twenty-one years old. You are supposed to be a fucking man. You know what you are?" I shrug slightly. I can almost feel the heat radiating from her boiling blood. "What's that?" "You are a spoiled little shit! Ungrateful! You are a selfish, immature brat! You only care about yourself and what makes you feel good. What the fuck do you do all day? You don't do shit around here. You are god damn lazy!" She stands in front of me, her hands on her hips. I keep my composure. "I mean, I'm sorry I'm not the son you wanted." She throws her hands up. "Yeah. You know what? You aren't the son I wanted. I am disappointed. You are a disappointment. What a waste this whole thing has been. You know what I should have done? I should have gotten a fucking dog instead." She is trying to hurt me, but I have stopped caring. I cannot even stop myself from laughing. "Well, there's always David." She scowls at me. "Oh, you think this is funny, do you?" "I mean, I can cry if you'd like. Learned that one in acting club." She shakes her head and walks away. "Fucking disappointment."
I am running. From something. From anything. From everything, and everyone. I am trying to burn every bridge I run across. It is a feeling I'll never be able to run from. I've accepted that. But it won't stop me from trying. Nothing will ever stop me. I am a fire burning my way across the world. My legs are in what seems to be an immeasurable amount of pain. My knees, my hips. It feels like the bones are all grinding against each other. I clench my fist and drive forward. If it kills me, it kills me. I whisper it to myself. Three blocks left. Two blocks. One block. Pain shoots through my legs with every step. I yell and growl to push myself on. My body refuses to respond to my demands. I sprint--or do my best approximation--into the parking lot. My legs are shaking, my breathing is frantic and jagged. I make my way to the pool. My legs give out from under me as I lower myself to the water's edge. I all but collapse into pool. The mission isn't over.
For the moment, I am Indiana Jones. I am lost in my own world. There is no pool, it is an underwater cave with a lost artifact. For a moment, I am really enjoying myself. "What are you trying to prove," she asks. "And to whom?" The pool is silent for a moment. Everybody looks at me from across the pool. I am hanging on the rock ledge. I am alone. The question is a laser beam that cuts through the foggy layers of imagination I've created. I struggle to jump out of my head and into the real world. My arm reaches up behind me, blindly grasping at the pool thermometer I've left on the ledge. "I need to get the artifact to a museum," I say. "Fair enough." As I swim back to the shallow end, I think. What am I trying to prove?
I have lost count of how many laps I've swum at this point. I am exhausted. My entire body is shaking. It takes me a couple tries to pull myself out of the water. Sprawled out on the textured poolside, I stare up at the sky. The sun is hidden behind clouds. My breaths come quickly. My throat feels like it might crack and split apart. My knees ache. I close my eyes. With no effort, I could fall asleep there. Any limit I had was certainly passed much earlier in the day. A man must constantly exceed his level. I smile. What am I trying to prove? There is no answer. Not one, at least. Everything. And to everyone. And nothing to nobody. Or anybody. I struggle to think coherently. The real question is why do I run. I run because I need to get away from who I was the year before. The month before. The day before. I run because I want to get away from the mistakes I've made, the shortcomings I perceive in myself. I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm not who I am. That I'm better. That is the mission.
And the mission is never over.