When the phone rang, Erica was deep in a dream. She was on a train, or maybe it was a car. It changed back and forth, actually. In either case she was in France, and she and her dream friends kept asking each other how to say things in French. Except that Erica didn’t speak French, so the answers were always in Spanish, which even her dream-self thought was cheap and lazy. In the train or car they zoomed through traffic but also ordered snacks from the waiter. She assumed that in France the good trains had some kind of service, like an airplane. There was no such thing on Amtrak, which were the only actual trains Erica had ever been on. Amtrak did have a restaurant car, but even Erica at her hungriest balked at paying nine dollars for a poorly microwaved hamburger.
She was eating what was either escargot or a croque monsieur but was really a plate of French fries when the phone rang, announcing that she was at her stop or was being stopped by the police but really telling her that her phone was ringing, and judging from the sound she had left it on the kitchen counter, which meant its battery would be nearly dead by now.
Also, she had to run through the obstacle course of her room to get to the door and into the kitchen. The phone was at nine percent. “Hello?”
Silence on the other end. No, not quite silence. Slow breathing. But not in a scary way, like a serial killer trying to get into her head. More like somebody dialed and then forgot to talk.
“I’m mad at you,” the caller said in between annoyed sighs. It was Anthony.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know, I don’t care. I hope I woke you up. Did I?”
“Yes.” She checked the clock on the microwave. Five-forty-three.
“Good. I’m mad at you.”
“You were such a bitch to me in my dream.”
Not yet six. She never woke up this early on weekends, not even when she was a kid, not even at Christmas.
“What did I do?” she asked, surprised that she even cared.
He sighed heavily instead of answering. “I don’t even want to talk about it,” he finally mumbled out. She couldn’t see him, obviously, but could tell that he was holding the phone as loosely as he could, just enough that it didn’t fall away but loosely enough that it almost did. This was some kind of phone-punishment that was presumably quite damning in his own mind.
“Anthony,” she whined, and then hesitated. He could be prickly, and it was too early to fight with him, or really do anything except roll over and go back to sleep.
So they sat in sleep-deprived discomfort for a few more moments. Erica wasn’t sure but she might have dozed off for a moment or two.
“So what do want me to do?” she finally asked, because he could stonewall her all day. She’d seem him do it, just sit there, using his phone to test the limits of gravity, all day. So she had to give in even though she didn’t want to.
“Come run with me today.”
“What?” Anthony didn’t run. Anthony barely walked. “You don’t run.”
“Shut up. I have to start. I’m getting fat.” Anthony was the fittest lazy person Erica knew. Although he didn’t walk anywhere if he could help it, he had a naturally high metabolism and gym in his building, genuinely liked stationary bikes and loved swimming. (The bike because he could easily watch the men working out, and the swimming because those same men could look at him. Erica reflected on that, not for the first time.)
“Do you know how much you have to run to burn a hundred calories?” she said as she yawned.
“Like, three miles or something stupid like that.”
“Fuck you, it’s not like that. Whatever, you owe me, for what you did in my dream.”
“I don’t even know what I did in my dream.”
“It doesn’t matter, stop being a bitch in real life, too. Meet me at Chelsea Piers at like, I don’t know, nine.”
“Fuck you!” Erica spat out. “Nine in the morning? Anthony, I’m going back to bed as soon as I hang up.”
He ignored her. “Do you even have running shoes? Are you going to need a special bra? Can you borrow one?”
He squeezed in a few words in a rush before she could hang up: “Nine, near that park with the fountain where that kid’s asshole exploded!” And she hung up and went back to sleep. Back into a blissful sleep, although one devoid of Spanish French and ambiguous modes of transport. In this dream she was being assessed again, only this time the raters were all amazed by her, panting and sweating as she did a slow turn for them. If Anthony hadn’t called her then the phone wouldn’t have rung in the kitchen and woken Becky, but he had, so it did, and Becky woke and went into the living room and turned the TV on too loud, which woke Erica, which was a shame because she was pretty that there was about to be some hot four-way action in her dream, but, alas, it was not to be.
It was not quite seven-thirty on a Saturday morning. Fall was approaching and Erica could see a hint of chill in the air through the window. She sat down next to Becky, who was watching a reality TV rerun and supplying better dialogue. This continued for a while, interrupted by bathroom breaks, tooth brushing, and eating Corn Pops out of the box.
For a moment Erica’s mind went back to her dream–the second one, the almost steamy one–and from there she free-associated. The extraordinarily handsome male rater and the two women who were a one and a one-and-a-half; and then Mr. Hot Pants rattling off everything that is wrong with her; all those exercise clothes; Anthony, who worked out but probably didn’t rate better than a three; the dream where the sexy civil servants strode over to, preparing to ravish her right there on the office desk; and then the realization that if she hurried she could be at the park in time.
A quick shower, then, more to wake up than get clean because she was about to get sweaty anyway. There was nothing resembling anything even close to healthy in the refrigerator, so she decided to get a bran muffin or something similar on the way to the park. Erica changed quickly, and then waited by her closed bedroom door until she heard Becky get up and go to the bathroom. This, Erica figured, was hard enough without Becky’s commentary.
She left a note saying she’d be back in a little bit and stepped out of the apartment.
It was chillier than she expected, but everybody else on the street–there were a few people, not many–seemed fine with it. Because she couldn’t think of anyplace else to go she went to the Health-Eez and paid seven dollars for a cup of muesli-topped yogurt, and it tasted like milk with dirt but she forced it down while she walked and tossed the empty plastic cup and spoon into a trash can a block away. Healthy food sucks, she thought to herself.
In the summer there were a pair of portapotties next to the park, since the place was crawling with kids and the permanent bathrooms were all across the highway, which Erica guessed would be a nightmare for parents with multiple children at the park. One of the potties was open, and Erica and Anthony had a brief glimpse of a chubby kid about six years old, completely naked with the silliest grin on his face. He was pasty white, which made it easier to see the poop all over his ass, back, legs, and even neck, and also all over the toilet and up the walls and out into the sidewalk. A horrified mother was screaming into a phone while trying to put the kid’s clothes into a plastic bag without touching anything. Erica nearly threw up, but Anthony doubled over laughing.
“How did that even happen? His asshole must have exploded!”
And thus the park, which was a minor landmark in their lives because it was near his apartment and had lovely views, became the park where the kid’s asshole exploded. Five months later it was still funny to him.
“Oh good, you made it, I knew you would,” he said when she found him. He was doing some overly elaborate stretches in trendier-than-necessary clothes. Suddenly Erica’s expensive new running outfit looked frumpy and stupid. “Is this new? It’s cute.”
“I hope whatever I did in your dream was worth it.”
“Oh you definitely owe me for that.”
He stretched a lot. Erica wondered how many of his moves were proper stretching techniques and how much of it was him being a jackass and twisting his body around in public for show. She made an attempt to stretch her hamstring and left it at that.
“So the key,” he said while stretching his arms behind his head, “is to commit before you start running to how far you’re going to go, and don’t let yourself quit until it’s done. Don’t be like, ‘This is enough,’ right? Be like, ‘You stupid ugly whore, if you quit now I’ll burn your records!'”
“I don’t think that’s–“
“No, seriously.” He was doing some maneuver that involved his arms over his head and his legs splayed out. “The whole time you’re running, your body wants you to stop. It feels horrible. Apparently marathon runners spend the whole twenty-six miles telling themselves how much they hate themselves and want to die. And sometimes they shit their pants. Your body eventually gets pissed and tries to make you stop. It’s true.”
Erica had never guessed that Anthony would be such a horrible fitness buddy. Was he like this at the gym? What did he have to say about exercise bikes?
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“It is. Running hurts and is stupid. But when it’s over there’s this feeling of euphoria…” He demonstrated it by standing on one leg and folding his hands in front of his chest. Erica recognized it as a “djoga” move, or at least something similar. “And your body feels great and your mind feels like you’ve floated up to heaven, and you feel so good about yourself for, like, the rest of the day.” He got out of the pose and looked dead at her with his serious face. “Unless you quit early. Then your body hurts and you feel like failure. So whatever you do, once you decide how far you’re going to run, don’t stop until you get there, and don’t trust your body until it’s over, your body’s just a dumb bitch. So just call it that while you’re running. Say, ‘Shut up and keep running, you dumb bitch.'”
He said this loud enough that everyone stopped to stare, especially the growing number of children in the playground. Anthony didn’t notice, or at least pretended not to. He kept stretching.
“I’m not going to say that to my body,” Erica said, trying to shield her face from the judgmental parents nearby.
“Well, you should. I like how you aren’t stretching. I read that to avoid injury, you should either do a full stretching routine, or you should just start cold. Anything in between will tear your muscles.”
“Where have you been reading?”
“I Googled it at breakfast on my way here. Anyway, let’s run down to Battery Park and back. Then we can go to my place, shower up, and go to that organic yogurt place for lunch.”
“What?” Battery Park? She couldn’t remember the last time she’d run more than half a block. Battery Park must be two, maybe three miles–and then back?
Erica did quick mental math. When she was in high school she ran the mile in about eight minutes. She was probably in worse shape than that now, so figure twelve minutes. She could probably cover a block in thirty seconds, so a mile could be about twenty-four blocks. She was more-or-less at Twenty-Third Street, so she could get down to Houston–there’s a big pier or something there, isn’t there?–and then back. Twenty minutes, twenty-five minutes, something like that. Reasonable? Forget Anthony. She could run to Houston and back. Wait for him at his apartment unless he lapped her on the way back.
And he was off. “Remember, ignore the dumb bitch!” He was probably just enjoying saying that in public.
Anthony took off at a full run, and before Erica had even gotten started he was too far for her to catch up. After a block she couldn’t really see him anymore.
By then, of course, she couldn’t really see anything anymore. Her whole body screamed at her to stop running. She imagined the reports in the news bureau of her brain shouting “Stop the presses!” A black-and-white movie shot of a spinning newspaper, then the headline: “PANIC AS ERICA RUNS!”
Her knees hit the ground harder than she expected–what exactly were these shoes supposed to do? And her breath was like sucking on a cigar or something. She heard her blood pounding in her ears for a few seconds, and then all she could hear was her own miserable breathing.
And she wasn’t even going fast. Some guy was walking–walking!–at just about her speed.
“Stop running,” her mind said. “If you stop now we can shower up and get ice cream before going to Anthony’s.”
She had gone two blocks.
And then she realized: this is what Anthony had said would happen! Her brain was telling her to stop! It was going so far as to try to bribe her! It reminded her that there was a diner nearby with really great waffles; that she could be watching TV in her pajamas right now, with Boobs curled on her lap, overheating her thighs and eating whatever crumbs fell on the couch.
It was a real full-court press! Her traitorous lazy mind!
More than hurting, Erica was offended. Like she was being betrayed by herself, had no faith in herself.
“Shut up,” she said to herself. “You dumb bitch.”
Spinning newspapers reported this, and protests broke out all over her body, with reports of rioting in her knees and lungs. Pacifists in her stomach held a candlelight vigil and prayed that the running would stop. Undaunted, Erica continued.
Out of spite.
It took way more than twenty minutes to reach Houston Street, but without stopping she ran around a light post and headed back up.
There was no joy in this at all. Everything on her was slicked in sweat, except for the parts that were totally soaked.
She kept waiting for Anthony to pass her. He’d probably turn and run backwards for a bit so he could wave at her. The thought of it made her run faster. Also, she realized that her running pace was now even slower than some other people’s walking pace. She picked a young-ish lady walking ahead of her and matched her pace for two blocks, and then dug into herself for strength and then caught up and even passed her.
By now the protesters were exhausted, their candles burned out, their signs resting on the ground. “GIVE STANDING STILL A CHANCE” “SIT NOT RUN”
And then, up ahead, she could see the sign that read “Chelsea Piers,” and she was almost done. The protesters immediately stood up, sensing victory. Her destination was far ahead, but close enough that she could stop now, right? Hadn’t she proven her point?
When she was in high school Erica misread her class syllabus–the teacher was doing an experiment on making the kids take responsibility–and learned the night before it was due that she was supposed to have read Beloved. She obviously couldn’t read the book in one night, but it occurred to her that if she read the first few chapters, she could be super-active during the beginning of the class discussion, enough that Mr. Klein would say, “Let’s give some other people a chance, okay?” and she could read the book over the weekend. So after dinner she started reading, and at the end of the first chapter she told herself that she could read one more and then be somewhat prepared; and then after that one she said she had it in her to read one more; and in this way she ended up reading the entire book in seven hours and going to school exhausted but prepared, which was great because instead of a class discussion Mr. Klein gave them an essay to write, and she scored a B-plus.
So she did the same thing now. She couldn’t run all the way to the splash park–the protesters weren’t kidding, she really was straining her body too much. But she could run to this street lamp. And to that lady with the chihuahua on a string. And that fire hydrant. And that group of pigeons pecking at vomit. And that “Men Working” sign.
And then she was on the right block, and the point where she started was ten, nine, eight, seven, no wait, eight, seven, six, five, four.
Seriously now, could she count to ten?
There wasn’t a bench to sit on but there was a patch of grass, and Erica let herself plop onto it.
The promised euphoria didn’t come.
And she had a really hard time breathing for a lot longer than was probably healthy.
And she was pretty sure that her sweat was turning the ground under her to mud.
She waited five minutes that were probably more like ten for Anthony to show up, but he never did, so she slowly dragged herself to her feet and walked with jelly-like grace to his apartment.
And realized after a block that she hadn’t brought clothes to change in so she’d have to go to her own instead.
Luckily her building had an elevator, because by the time she got home she could barely lift her feet off the ground. She knocked on the door and Becky eventually opened it.
“What the hell happened to you?”
She took Erica’s arm and dragged her inside. “Did they take anything? Did you call the police?” She looked out nervously before closing the door, then turned around in a near-panic. “Tell me everything, are you okay?”
Erica tried to explain but still couldn’t really breathe.
“Wait, where’d you get those clothes?”
“I ran,” Erica said again. “Along the river.”
“Like, on purpose?”
Erica couldn’t even answer, she just nodded.
“Can I get you anything? Water? Beer?” Becky asked.
Erica asked for her phone, and Becky, at a loss for what to do, brought it to her.
“Anthony,” she said when he answered, “sorry, I had to come back to my place to shower. Do you still want to go out for yogurt?”
“I already ate,” Anthony answered drolly. “What took you so long?”
“I ran as fast as I could. But hey, I didn’t stop.”
“All the way to Battery Park?”
“No, to Houston.”
“Seriously,” she managed a laugh. “How about you?”
“Oh, I quit after a block. Running isn’t for me. I had a big breakfast. Now I’m watching Netflix. Wanna come over?”
Erica was somehow standing now. “You quit?”
“Don’t be mad at me. This is hard. That’s why people don’t just do it. You should be supporting me.”
A big part of Erica wanted to hold the phone as gingerly as possible, to see how much she could tease gravity without dropping it. And then just sit there in silence until he apologized.
But she didn’t. Normally she would have. But not now. Because she was tired from the running, but also because it didn’t matter that Anthony didn’t run. It was better that way. When she thought he’d run to the Batter it made her feel like she’d only done half, but since he didn’t run at all, her run to Houston averaged out to a run to Brooklyn, maybe, over the bridge maybe, to Junior’s.
Holy crap, she realized. She didn’t feel euphoria but she did feel good. Really good.
“What did I do to piss you off in your dream?”
“I don’t remember anymore. Do you still want to come over?”
“Are you mad at me now?”
“Not at all,” she answered honestly. “But I’m glad that I did whatever I did in your dream. Bye, Antonio.” And she hung up.
She was starving, though, and her legs really were sore, but she was up and awake and alert and showered and it was only ten-thirty. Most Saturdays she was still debating whether or not to get out of bed. When she made it out of the apartment by noon it was always against her will.
What do young women do in New York City on Saturday mornings? Grimacing at the pain in her legs but happy nonetheless, Erica resolved to find out.