1. Here, it’s red and gapes like a mouth.
“You must respect the track,” Coach told us freshman year, “or it will chew you up and spit you out.” I know she is right and I stay as far away as I can until it’s my turn.
I squat in the tallest row of bleachers. I watch the little runners skip and stride on the field below. Their windbreakers buffet around their bodies like flags: forest green and primary red, navy blue and gold. I shiver on the cold aluminum, pull my hood on.
There’s Amy: she discards her jacket, hugs herself. She spins like a little marionette in the wide green astroturf— high knees, leg swings, two hops for luck. The official leads them to the start line. Amy is the tallest by far, her limbs like popsicle sticks. She lines up third from the center. I see her prop her left elbow ahead of her just a smidge, ready to box out her competition. I smile.
“Runners, on your mark—” The words are fuzzy and far away through the speaker. My breath hitches in my throat.
Amy bolts, her blonde ponytail unfurling behind her like a streamer. One beat, then another, and she’s a stride ahead of the rest. They whip around the first bend. A shorter girl in a yellow uniform shadows Amy. Beth Rafferty from Langley. “She’s fast, one to watch,” says Coach. Beth nips at Amy’s heels. They careen into the final stretch and their uniforms criss-cross— black and yellow, yellow and black— creating the impression of a crazed hornet. I lean in, willing Amy to go now, now, now.
2. I like track best. Better than cross country, at least.
You always get the same thing: 400 meters, flat, measured lanes lines.
But still, every track is different.
This one is hard beneath my spikes, unforgiving. You can tell these things in spikes, feel every nub of the track against the contours of your feet. On hot days, it will burn right through the soles so you have to run fast.
“You may as well go fast,” Coach always says. “It’s gonna hurt no matter what.”
3. Round-faced freshmen drag the hurdles off the track. This is our cue, we are next.
As we’re led to the line, I feel that feeling. It’s like being sucked into a black hole somewhere deep within your body. The heaviness drops low into my jaw, hip bones, the tips of my fingers. It’s like when I woke up from wisdom teeth surgery, vacant and gaping, weeping soundlessly, some ancient grief unlocked in the anesthesia. My mom was so struck she took a picture. “It’s like you were gone,” she said, showing it to me later. “It was just your body and you were gone.”
4. In ten years, I will still dream about this feeling. Only then, I will slip from the start line, hurdle the fence and run away into the ether of my subconscious. I will run and run until my legs are pudding, until I wake up vacant and gaping.
5. “You caught my race?”
I’d asked him to— casually, carefully— but I didn’t think he’d come. I am still flushed, still breathing heavily. My lungs feel like they’ve been skinned to hide, scrubbed clean from the inside out.
He burrows his hands in his pockets. “Are you always that far ahead of the rest?”
“Oh,” I say, pushing down my pleasure. “It’s just a conference meet. Not much competition.”
“Hmm,” he hums. “I kind of felt bad for them.” He leans into me, pressing my body into the fence. We stay there until my heart rate lowers and watch the next race clamor by. I cheer them on and my wild howl reverberates from my body through his and back into mine.
6. I stand in the shower and watch the sweat and grit seep down the drain. I think of Aphrodite emerging naked from the ocean, her thighs and belly rimed in salt and foam. All the goddess in me has thundered out through my legs, absorbed by the track, and I am just a girl again.
7. Here, it is black and the lane numbers wink garishly in their harlequin paint. Amy braids my hair in the bleachers before I descend to the bullpen, somber as if to the gallows. This track is hot and hostile beneath my spikes. A sticker with the number 9 flutters against my thigh and I slap it back in place. I am little more than an animal at this point, blinders on, rearing at the gate.
I rock onto my toes, gaze blank and jaw set.
“On your mark—”
8. This is what you will miss years later when your dream-self collapses in its own gravity before the start: there’s an alchemy that happens here, catalyzed by the gun. The chaos will turn to quiet, your terror to nothingness. You will leap from the line, convinced you’ll be swallowed into the pit of the earth but then, you are caught.
Wind fills your ears. Coach dangles over the fence, waving her hat, screaming, but you don’t hear her. Your legs loosen and lengthen like taffy; you are expansive, infinite. Your spikes devour the ground beneath you with each step. You aren’t thinking, aren’t working. Your legs take over and you run and run and run.
Years later, in your nightmarish sleep, you will run to escape that feeling, that immense pressure building in you from the inside out. You will forget that it is what delivers you and makes you. But it is when you slip away that you are overcome. Dread and gravity magnify with each step and the magic eludes you. It is salt down the drain. You run and run, but you’ll never run like that again, weightless and embodied, guts and glory all used up, surrendered in the bell lap.
Emma Johnson Tarp is a writer from Virginia. Her work appears in Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and Right Hand Pointing. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two precocious cats.
image: MM Kaufman