I am at my ugliest when I run, red with exertion and dripping with sweat. I have pulsing veins that appear on my forehead and sometimes, when I am very tired or very angry, tears leak from the corners of my eyes and trial behind me like an airplane’s vapor trail as my feet pound the pavement.
“Why do you bother?” my roommate, willowy and cat-eyed, asks from her perch on our lumpy brown couch. Her right hand, which flaunts a delicately painted marigold on each fingertip, dips in and out of a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch until she has exactly two dozen sugary squares laid out on the coffee table before her. Only then does she begin to eat. “You could come with me to Pilates or yoga. That would be so much fun!”
I have been to a Pilates reformer class with her before, and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that lined the studio made me feel sick. Everyone else in the class wore matching bras and leggings in sweet shades of pastel. They looked like pieces of old-fashioned stick candy. My body felt slow and clumsy, unable to straddle the unfamiliar machine with the sort of sensual grace that every other woman seemed to exude.
“Maybe another time,” I call over my shoulder as I walk out the door. “See you later.”
I sprint down the apartment stairs until I push through the front door, taking a breath of the humid, smoky air that drapes over the city like a shroud. As a child I was raised to say the rosary until my voice grew hoarse, to kneel on a layer of uncooked rice whenever I misbehaved. I can still recall the way that the grains pressed into my bony knees, how I would feel the phantom prick of them against my skin for days after my punishment.
That was how my mother punished my body; the way she punished hers was different. She was like my roommate, counting her saltine crackers twice to ensure that she didn’t receive more than she felt she deserved. Standing before the bathroom mirror, she would pinch the skin above the waistline of her boot cut jeans and frown.
How many times have I watched the women in my life perform this act of self-flagellation? There was my high school best friend who had a bag of Skittles and a Diet Coke for lunch every day, my college roommate who ran to the bathroom after every meal, my aunt who overcame her lifelong fear of needles in order to keep her face as smooth as a doll’s.
And here I am using running as a form of absolution, a way to tamp down the incendiary feelings that course through my unruly body. Bad thoughts transmute with each pressured exhalation. My hatred of my boss who calls me “sweetheart” transforms into a stitch in the side, as devastating as a knife slipped through the ribs. My annoyance at my roommate’s omnipresent boyfriend turns into an ache in the chest, a breath turned shallow to match the rhythm of the music blasting through my headphones.
Turning the corner, I see another straight line that disappears into the horizon. I barrel forward in the pursuit of release, my muscles taut and burning, my body becoming something new.
Teresa Pham-Carsillo lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been published in the Penn Review, St. Katherine Review, Wild River Review, and Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal.