Running with ghosts


Dear Karen,

I thought about you the other day.  I went for a run and the air was cold and fresh and stained my cheeks bright red, the way yours used to get all the time, not just when we ran, but also when you were agitated.  We liked each other right away but became friends when, after a meeting in which the telltale red crept across your cheeks, I said to you “You want to know a trick that can stop you from blushing like a girl at the prom when you disagree with someone?”  We laughed so hard you had to pee, and we whisper-scream laughed in your office while around us all the eager beaver MBA Gen Xers were busy making all the thousands of little decisions that go into bringing a product to market, none of us aware you’d be the first among us to leave this earth. Your death was a decade in the future then, more than a decade in my past now, and it still doesn’t seem possible you’re really gone. You were too alive, your Aegean eyes too clear, though I know, had I seen you near the end, I wouldn’t feel this way. I know because Susan visited you and we cried on the phone about your broomstick legs and your fragile, painful optimism. I know you forgave your ex, and didn’t carry the burden of his perfidy with you to whatever came next and I’m glad, but I still seethe with a quiet rage he’d understand perfectly.

There is a song, the girl who wrote it is like a wren, small and brown-haired, singing “like a marathon runner and my ankles are sprained“. Of course this is the real reason I am thinking of you, because of this song, this girl, these words. When I heard them I saw you more clearly, missed you more dearly than I have in years.

and somebody’s listening at night
with the ghost of my friends when I pray
asking why did you let them leave
and then make me stay?  ~Rejoice

The girl looks nothing like you, with your Norse good looks: blonde hair, the blue of your eyes something I still occasionally remember, always suddenly and apropos of nothing, and always with perfect clarity.  But her words make me think she knows you, and though she’s half our age and only one of us is here to hear her, I think she does.

I was not the only one entranced by the weird crystal blueness of your eyes. After a strange series of meetings with the procurement and software divisions, you helped clear up the source of the invisible but unmistakable tension in the room: just before the meeting, one of the lead engineers had abruptly declared his love for you. “We were just talking about PCMCIA cards one minute and the next, he’s taking a letter out of his pocket and reading it aloud to me.”  I could picture it clearly, you earnestly talking, those blue eyes like a fjord you could wade into, shivering with delight, him making that bravest of all decisions of the heart, to declare one’s love, against all odds.  Your face flamed scarlet as you told me (which just made your eyes seem even more crystal blue), but your laughter was not at him – you would never be that unkind – but at yourself, at the awkwardness that no one knew the source of except him, you, and now me (R, if you’re reading this, I never told anyone).

You were a born runner, and not just because you were fast; anyone could see how it lifted you and gave you joy. You were always so surprised when you won, but I could see the talent, fallow and straining, from our very first run together. We bonded over running, me waking every morning at 5:30a and driving to your place through the quiet streets of the northwest suburbs of Houston. Often I’d spot deer lying together in groups,  lifting their heads and watching me with mild eyes.  You would slip out of the house as I pulled up, and we’d start off in silence – you were always worried your husband would wake, come out and find a way to stop us.

“He says the human body isn’t built to run marathons,” you informed me, and I, already the veteran of thirty marathons, snorted laughter. I knew right away you’d be running a marathon sooner or  later – you were effortlessly quick, and I had to work to keep your pace.  I was with you as you went on the inaugural long runs of your life – first a ten mile training run at Houston Memorial Park (Bos-ton, Bos-ton you chanted in tune with our footfalls until I asked you to please f#cking stop); then a series of races we signed up for – a half marathon, a 25k, a 30k, then the full marathon distance.  Each race was the same: I’d pick you up in the wee hours, turning my headlights off and creeping up to the curb and definitely no horn blipping – your husband never stopped being a d#ck about his opinion on marathons not being a suitable pastime. He was your sprained ankle; I think he was jealous. He was certainly not right – you qualified for Boston in your first marathon. I would have to try a dozen more times before I got serious enough to get fast enough to finally do it at age 42. It was years after your death, but you were the first person I thought of as I crossed the finish line – my time wasn’t as fast as yours, but I know you would have been impressed by how pain-free I was.

When you qualified, you invited me to accompany you to Boston, and I wanted to, but can no longer remember specifically why I didn’t – something to do with travel for work. I do remember listening to your invitation, delivered on voice mail, from a hotel room in Japan. It was the middle of the night for you, so I didn’t call you back right away but I did go for a run through the streets of Tokyo, and how easy it was to imagine the way everyone would have stared at your shining blonde helmet, your tan legs flashing down the street.

We – my h and me, your h and you – became couple friends but mostly because my h was driving us to races and hated how your h was trying to stop you from doing something you were so obviously born to do.  I never warmed up to your h; I felt a kind of distance in him, and my own cheeks flamed at his lack of respect toward you, which he seldom bothered to mask. His soap opera-level villainy has remained largely unknown. But he knows I know. My friendship didn’t save you from him but I freed you to go faster and further than he wanted you to know you could, and I don’t have to ask if it made you happy,  I know it did, it was clear in the way you waited for me at each finish line that you crossed well before me, always ready with water, a banana , your face red as a barn door with embarrassment at how freaking good you were.

You’d like it out here in Northern California, where it’s always perfect running weather. You’d be delighted at running real hills instead of getting our hill work in at a seven story parking garage, breathing the exhaust of the cars of the third shift workers departing and the first shift workers arriving.  I can easily picture you on the trails of the Marin headlands just across the bridge, running along the ridgeline with the mild hand of the wind at your back, the ocean glittering in the distance. Or in the early hours, your slim blonde figure knifing quietly through the morning mist, maybe thinking about the friend who helped you speed away into a new life but more probably just running, the quiet sound of your footsteps and your breathing heard only by the coyotes and the bobcats, the hawks and the rabbits, the quail and the wind.


One response to “Running with ghosts

  1. There’s too much beauty compacted in this for me to compose a worthy comment. This is amazing writing. It’s such a moving tribute to your friend, her life, her gifts, her challenges, and all she overcame. Such a bouquet of fragrances that only true friendship can render and only one who has had such a friend can fully understand.

    The loveliness of them staying with us—always—is something you captured in this piece as few others I’ve read ever manage to do.

    At the memorial for my best friend who drowned just out of high school I read a poem I wrote for him. It ended with the words, “For what friends share lasts for ever. And the winds of time cannot touch.” Your piece here made me feel that feeling existing between the two of you.

    Thank you for sharing this, Sandra. It’s alive with beauty and love and all the best things that a remembrance of someone cherished could hope to have.

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