All Around Us
Last Saturday, at a friend’s backyard party in Little Rock, I smoked three or four cigarettes, my first since starting a layoff that had by then lasted an interminable duration. I’d been drinking flavored vodka to avoid calories from any mixers. Once past the point of caring, I had switched to a bottle of neon premixed margaritas, the bottle viscous with frost, having been mined from deep within the freezer. All the while, I assured myself that my old habit was not now resurfacing. I knew I’d successfully rewired the nerves in my brain, those that had made smoking an involuntary instinct the past fifteen years of my life. Each of the cigarettes I smoked, an assortment of brands I bummed from available packs, tasted like soot and burned my throat uncomfortably. This is what smoking only on occasion would be like, I thought, a display of discipline that had seemed inconceivable to me a year ago. Perhaps I could manage that now. I quickly banished the thought from my mind, hearing a kind of concession in it that reminded me of my former self. Still, I knew I wouldn’t rush from the party to a convenience store in search of a pack, nor would I crave a loosie in the morning, nor was I already anticipating the next time I’d grant myself an allowance of nicotine.
The following day, I remembered having smoked, but I felt no desire to do so again. I was different now, I knew. I’d even developed a taste for water, a seeming impossibility, by forgoing the soda and juices that had previously been a constant throughout my life. And so I didn’t fear any imminent regressions. Rather, a more nebulous unease arose, not about smoking particularly, but about whether I would ever be able to consider myself healthy, whether I’d ever manage to discipline my body enough to expect it to respond at my command. I wondered whether I would ever gain that kind of mastery over my body, the kind that meant I would be able to enjoy it without fear of descending back into a place of near abject need. I’d imagined I was due a kind of letting up by attending the party and indulging my old vices so liberally, which meant I’d begun to feel a kind of safety in my new, healthier lifestyle. The next day, I lay in bed, unsure of whether such safety would ever be attainable.
I’d known a reckoning was coming; I’d been thinking about those cigarettes for some time, my first reencounters with my old habits. For months, I’d been working to put some distance between myself and those dependencies, enough that I would no longer feel like I was simply biding my time until they overtook me again. I took up running, and then more exercise, to forge new patterns in my constitution, beginning in the privacy of a park near my parents’ home. That first day, I arrived to find a football team from a local black college running practice drills in the field at the center of the track. I managed just two laps, huffing and embarrassed, and determined that I would return the following day at a time when morning practice would likely be over.
I returned the following afternoon, then I stayed with the daily undertaking so regularly that my confidence outgrew the park and began compelling me to roam further. I visited a track I’d confronted throughout my childhood, one that sat outside a local elementary school and was available for after-hours public use. Many of my previous attempts at getting into shape, including a stint with my junior high school track team that lasted two weeks, had begun and failed there, its quarter-mile loop having long served as my measure for long distances. I’d forever considered the four laps along its surface—a mile—an impossible feat. Completing two miles that first visit, then later three, became a mark of my progress. I was consciously conquering trials from my personal history, reforming established truths I’d carried for years about my body’s capabilities. I’d begun to think that my aging body was incapable of such discoveries. I had been resigned that the fault lines of my life would remain with me resolutely. And yet.
I took a new kind of possession of my body, one I had never gained from my youthful participation in athletics. This self-possession felt so cherishable, I developed an attendant fear, that any cessation in this activity would impede my momentum, and I would thus squander any progress I felt I’d made. I showed up at the gym compulsively, sometimes lying to gym staff about having taken days off; they were concerned that I was overtraining. I just didn’t want to stop moving.
A trainer approached me about joining him for a half-marathon. I told him he was crazy. Another trainer offered to give me her spot in the same race as it approached while she rehabbed an injury. I politely turned her down. She persisted, until I relented, accepting the inevitable damage such a race would deal my lungs, my feet, my ego. I feared most fervently that a bad performance would derail the enthusiasm I’d developed for working out. On nothing more than a week’s worth of foreknowledge, a pair of borrowed shoes, and encouragement from trainers at my gym, I lined up to run my city’s half-marathon.
In the race’s holding area, I saw exactly what I had suspected: marathons were pageants of whiteness. I gaped at the revelry the runners took in exposing themselves to nature—a place I’d also come to identify as white—and the way they construed this as ennobling. The other runners seemed unbothered by the brisk early morning temperature, the pale pallor their exposed skin took on against the brilliant hues of their unsubstantial running clothes. I chuckled at them, but mostly because I was frightened. Still, I stayed. I ran. And I completed the race.
Doing so brought me into the confidences of distance runners. One of the friends I gained encouraged me to try running half-marathons in unfamiliar cities. That way, she said, I would constantly be surprised by the foreignness of the passing landscape. It was the first congratulation I received that got anywhere close to describing the sensations I felt during and after the race in Little Rock. Never had I covered so much of my hometown from that perspective—by foot, out in it, rather than whizzing by from the confines of a car. It was a wholly different kind of command to take of my city, acquired through my feet, inscribed into my body by vigorous activity. Bursts of elation made me delirious with love for this place I’d always known and most times resented.
I later struggled to validate the feelings the race had summoned in me while running, my body taxed to such an extent that it had been unable to put up any resistance; it had just received whatever insight entered my brain. And yet the invigoration I’d felt running past my elementary school, retraversing a path I’d once taken every day before being rerouted abruptly by the passage of time and my matriculation, had filled my chest to bursting. I was the nearest I’d ever come to being all that I’d ever been in that moment, the boy I’d been once, the man I am now, reconciling all that I’d ever contained, the fears, the shames, the desires, the accomplishments.
From my elementary school, I ran past other familiar sites, places I’d yet dreamed about for some time, barely able to recall those places’ functions in my past. My lungs erupting inside my chest, I vaguely realized I was being given the chance to confront those sites where my heart had first been tenderized, before I ventured farther to New York, where it had finally been broken. Before moving home, I’d spent the last ten years raging against that fact, or denying that it had even happened. But here I was being nudged toward acknowledging that past. This proved difficult in the race’s aftermath. Some months after, a friend asked over the phone whether I’d been depressed in New York, and I balked at characterizing my time there that way, then admitted that my time in the city had been painful. In New York, I had come to know a debilitating loneliness that still pained me, never discovering in myself any real capacity for solitude, and never solving any proper formula for finding friends or lovers with whom to share my time. I didn’t want to admit defeat that way, or to consign the city to having been hazardous for me. But maybe it had been. My life since had seemed to offer proof of this. Besides, I’d glimpsed some manifestation of a new resolve I might attain while running. I’d never known physical exercise to heighten emotions, but the morning of the race there had been the glow of some forgiveness I wanted to bestow on Little Rock. It had felt unhinged, and nonessential, perhaps (deriving from such a disloyalist as myself). But in the moment, it had felt absolutely vital.
After the race, I learned something new about time, about not expecting immediate, visible results the way I had before. My hometown seemed to make allowance for growth that was incremental, fostered that kind of patience and diligence in me. I learned a new humility, in being just another person at the gym, submitting myself to the same rites as so many others, rather than sulkily decrying my predicament while sitting at home.
I gained a new appreciation for organization, for plans, for the deviation from plans. When I first started training, I’d had to do everything just so, for fear that I would ruin the whole enterprise and stop showing up. Now, I was willing to grant myself breaks, knowing I would pick up the slack later; this was the gift of finding a labor with an extended groove. I gained a new confidence in my body’s stamina and initiative, assured now that it was capable of motivating itself.
I allowed myself a new vanity, dressing for the gym a certain way. I rolled my shorts to feel my thighs exposed. I pulled up my socks in order to feel long and held in. I discovered a haircut that felt revelatory, that captured everything I wanted to say about myself now. It looked beautiful, and worked perfectly for my newly slimmed face. In New York, I’d fought my appearance. I didn’t take well to the way gay men treated beauty there, had thought of it as frivolous and not serious. This had been my way of compensating for my own poverty and inability to exact visible change in my physical health, protection against the insecurities I’d felt about my own body and beauty there and my ability to do anything about it. In Little Rock, somewhat estranged from gay community, I’d gained the emotional support that enabled me to consider my own appearance again. I’d forgotten what it was like to think myself beautiful in this way, to like looking at myself without feeling ashamed of the indulgence.
I learned patience, going slower at the gym, considering my time there as leisure. Sometimes I just sat around reading the paper. It normalized the place somehow, and made me less anxious about whether I’d return.
And I began to discover music, healing my aggrieved relationship to it, never having developed much of an appetite for the popular fare of my era. Where I’d previously felt indifferent to the art form, I discovered a way of forgiving the pop culture of my adolescence, encountering it through playlists as I worked out. I could even indulge in the filthiest and most violent rap lyrics Southern hip-hop has authored, odes to sexual prowess like “Real Hitta” by Plies or to drug production like the Migos’ “Stir Fry,” tracks that previously would have offended my sense of propriety or ambitions of upward mobility and community uplift. If too late to help me form a coherent identity, this proved useful at delivering me into the meditative state necessary to forget my haggard breathing and propel myself forward. Sweating there in the gym, I was sloughing off husks of respectability and chastity.
Of course, things came along to interrupt my states of reverie. A spate of shootings at the park where I began running, a place I still visited intermittently, became my neighborhood’s way of reasserting itself in opposition to this very bourgeois activity I’d begun enjoying. The men I’d waved to on my way down the block had disappeared, rumored to have been cleared out by the police. I carried this loss back to my gym, resenting how I had to leave my home turf and drive ten minutes to access a place safe enough to work out, one that had admittedly been very hospitable to me, and genuinely diverse. The place attracted a broad swath of people, but I still read its surrounding neighborhood as white, and quietly grumbled that I sometimes felt like an interloper. I side-eyed those gymgoers who showed up in shirts emblazoned with crests of the city’s private schools, seeing those allegiances as an affront to the truly heterogeneous spirit this city-run recreational facility had achieved.
Most of the time, though, I was more charitable to the space, and to myself, able to appreciate how hard my successes had been to seize. There was no time to denigrate my former self when I was actually engaged in some activity, getting better at it, and then recovering from it. A pretty nasty lingering impulse toward self-recrimination remained—one that impelled me to regret the years I’d treated my body callously, to fear the loss those years would someday exact from me. And that guilt softened me up for another anxiety lying in wait, the one I encountered just days ago, that none of my efforts would amount to any permanent change, that despite recent evidence, I lacked the force of will or ethic to sustain my strides. This played on a deeper, mortal fear of a fatal flaw: that I was unfit to sustain a healthy life, that I lacked self-control. I hadn’t discovered how to convert this particular anxiety, like so many of the others (over my mother’s health, of the stubborn plodding pace of my writing career) into punishment I could exact on my limbs. But still I stayed. And I ran.
“All Around Us” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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