What Breaks Never Heals
How far can you run on broken bones?
8:00 PM along the Hudson, and my feet fall one after the other, hushing against the ground, and my arms hang low at my sides as my father always told me, low enough for my fingers to dust against my shorts. I feel less a body and more a part of night, the darkness around me deep and in the process of ever-deepening, my back toward the bridge, which glows as the city glows ahead, a crown of light against the sky.
I read once that there is a reason a runner feels faster at night. Any runner will tell you about this feeling. That there is something about the night. How it makes you feel smoother, lighter, wispier. I read that it has to do with vision and the brain and the periphery. I read that it has to do with the dark. I read that there are fewer points of reference of use to the eye when gauging speed during the night, less objects visible in the distance, so the eye only uses what is close, what it can pick up through the darkness. If you’ve ever driven and watched some unnamed mountain loom forever in the distance while mileposts along the highway zip by in fractured blurs, you know: things closer appear to move more rapidly toward the eye than things farther off.
The New York City Marathon is a few more long weeks of running away, though running I know will not bring it any closer, only time. But it sits out there in the dark that none of us can perceive, even if we try to, through long daydreams or nights spent falling into visions, asleep in the glow of an open computer. It sits, and waits. It waits through 80 mile weeks, long runs out of the city and through towns where no one knows my name and I am only another hassling blur on the trail. When a friend asks me what I think of on those two-plus-hour runs, I say “nothing.” My friend has coached me to fall asleep while running, so I try. I keep my eyes half-closed and let my brain sit even further closed behind it, as if my legs are another’s legs and the heart that pumps my blood is just another thing beating and humming in the quiet that surrounds me.
I was never great at running. In high school, it took me almost four years to become a somewhat valued member of the team. Later in college, I walked on, just happy to be there, breathing heavy on runs that should’ve been easy, toiling in the back of the pack on long and fast workouts. But there’s something about the sport that captures the mind like some sort of abstract painting hanging in the back wall of a museum, the kind that most people walk past absent-mindedly each day, perhaps looking, perhaps scoffing, as that one kid, early on, and another, later, stand and stare fixedly at the thing in front of them, head-tilted, wondering why it is consuming them.
Go to any high school cross country invitational and you will understand what I mean. Visible to you: a congregation of boney kids trying to prove their worth and throw a wrench in the everlasting problem of self-doubt. See the stock-issued cotton shirts ordered in bulk each saying Our Sport Is Your Sport’s Punishment, see the goof-offs and goons, the never-meant-to-be-soccer-players, the kids too small to play football, and the kids too chubby to be offered any sort of membership on even a JV sports team except for the one that takes everyone. Watch the wimpy kids whose parents worry often about the dangers of physical punishment, the kids whose knees knock and chests bowl, the kids whose breasts are too small. Don’t laugh. These are kids who spit when they talk, kids with shitty haircuts, kids from broken homes, kids running always from (or into) their problems.
There’s room for everyone in a sport that simply requires, as Andrew Marvel wrote, “world enough and time.” But that still doesn’t stop the average high school kid to shrink with insecurity when they mention – at a party, to a new friend – that they run cross country. Because it’s hard to well-up with pride at the knowing that running cross country might teach you, years later. That is, how to ease out of the rough pain of life and into a run along a river to brush away the never-matters of a day and lace up shoes, to understand that all people suffer inexorably with something incurable inside them, and to empathize with such suffering through your own daily toil. My father and my faster-than-me brother taught me this early on. In those high school summers, my father bought tiny lead pipes from the hardware store and filled them with shotgun pellets, and had us hold them as we went out the door to run, teaching us how to relax our arms even with the weight of things. What he didn’t say that didn’t need to be said: even light weight gets heavier as you clutch it over time.
What I didn’t know during that night run along the Hudson is that two weeks later an MRI would discover a small crack in my femur, and running would become impossible for months. That night run, as I often did, I let my eyes only serve as simple guides, while the world folded away and became Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, the low hump of the bridge that signifies the halfway mark of the marathon, the dark and endlessly eerie silence of the Queensborough Bridge before the explosion of sound on First Avenue in Manhattan, my father and brother standing by mile 18, then the u-turn through the Bronx, and the renegade stretch of Fifth Avenue before the park, Harlem ceding to trees, and trees blanketing final hills, and finishing, finishing, finishing. Each run I visualized a different stretch of the marathon I ran the year before. I saw friends on sidewalks, fellow running buddies from college. I felt the beautifully unbelievable heft of gut that comes when you, a short kid who never did much good at the whole competitive-running-thing, gets to run right fucking down the middle of a New York City avenue. And run fast.
Not everything works out as planned. A week after that run, my right leg radiated pain with each step I took. I popped handfuls of Advil before runs, found a masseuse, bought a small electric stimulation machine, watched my thighs jiggle as I cranked up the voltage under my sheets at night before sleep. None of it worked, but I still went out for my night runs, coming back worse than before, in shorter intervals. My roommate said I was being an asshole to myself. I couldn’t deal with the negation of the cliché I had abided by since high school, the whole what you get out is what you put in sort of shtick. Running had always been the only place where that existed. Each step put in during training yielded a faster, quicker one on race day. A slow and steady buildup of mileage over four months, from 50 miles a week to 80 miles or more, would guarantee a feeling of flying along New York City’s avenues.
So, a week of that shit. And then the giving-up. And the MRI. A small faint etch of a fracture. Like the thin metal edge of a dime. And a doctor who said if I ran the marathon, my femur would break pretty cleanly. I understood that fairly clear.
Imagine a bone. Now imagine a pile of bricks next to it. Imagine taking bricks, one-by-one, and stacking them atop the bone. Sooner, or later, but definitely somewhere and sometime in the midst of all that stacking, one brick will pressure the bone into breaking. It might be a faint line. It might shatter. It depends on the bricks, and the bone. But even light weight gets heavier over time.
Now think of the word break. How break can be both a fault line in the body and the time it takes for it to close. How break means space, and how space can hurt and how space can heal. How break bears witness to distance where there once was not. Breaking is contingent on there being a once-was-there, a once-was-close, a once-was-touching. Think bodies in the night. Think the light of morning breaking over the horizon. Think of waking as a sort of breakage. Of rising out of bed to put your clothes on. Sometimes, when I tell my roommate’s pup to heel, she stops, maybe hearing heal, as if I had conjured up some image out of her past that stings her soul with sorrow, makes her drop belly-down on the sidewalk in the middle of the night, to wonder.
A few months before the fracture, my girlfriend of an off-and-on-but-for-a-long-while-on-time broke up with me. You see what I mean about all this breaking? I used running as a sort of escape, snuck out into the morning to break the wind along the water. I didn’t like losing control, the whole having-not-made-a-decision thing, so I asserted myself through running. One step after another. They were my steps. Over the course of a long run, you can control so much. Your breathing. How your foot falls to pavement. The carriage of your arms. Your mind. The droop of your eyelids. The curl of your lips. You can control stopping. You can control carrying on. You can control so much distance and so much time. There’s a Seamus Heaney poem, Casualty, where he writes,
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile
Into your proper haunt…
I found that poem while in Ireland with the girl from the now-fractured relationship. I brought a copy of Heaney’s poems, and, while we stayed for a few days on the Aran Islands, these mystical craggy fog-shrouded beauties of nature, I would read that poem and hop off each morning for a long run. It was too perfect. I listened to Sufjan’s Carrie and Lowell on repeat, found the finger-picked melancholy soothing and ripe for soft footfall. I’d pass cows. The wind blew wildly. I’d return, find her in this room we rented, kiss her, and feel like nothing could ever come to an end. But it does and it did. And I sit now, still nursing a fault line in my femur, knowing it will heal, wondering why some breaks return to the place of their fracture, and why others widen. Think cliffs. Think a river cutting through a canyon. Think me and her, huddling by the Galway Bay, the mainland in the distance, the only thing between us our separate hairs, stranded and wayward in the wind, touching.
With running out of the question for a long while now, I think back to my father. When I was growing up, my father never missed a race. When I left him to come to New York for college, he made the trek up the dirty, far-from scenic, sometimes smelly I-95 corridor from DC nearly every Saturday to watch me run. I wasn’t good. It wasn’t like watching someone who was good at something. I wasn’t good. I was middle-of-the-pack. I was a familiar face to him in the middle of a crowd of familiar faces to other people. I don’t know what he got from it. I still don’t.
But I do know this. When I was 11, my mother left him. It was just the three of us. Father, brother, me. There was a lot of KFC and taquitos from 7-Eleven for dinner. There were silent nights spent at a chili parlor, sipping Cokes. And there were the afternoons my father took my brother and me to the local track so he could do his workout. We would sit in the field or play catch or just pick at grass while he labored through laps. He never ran anywhere else but that track. The same lap, the same direction, day after day. He wore a sweat suit and his legs, still wiry and lean, pecked away at the rubber, carrying his growing gut through the miles. It looked hard, the way he ran. It never looked comfortable. He sweated and huffed. He struggled. But I think now of how much of a privilege it is to be the son of a father who let me watch him suffer everyday. He never put on a front, feigned anything more or less than he was. Every afternoon, he was a man in a nylon tracksuit sweating under the slowly descending sun, the evening cutting into the day. He never talked about the break, never hinted at what words were passed from husband to wife and back again. As such, I grew up believing – I think I still believe – that what breaks never heals. That a fault line closing up along a bone doesn’t mean the bone is the same as before, or better, even if it’s stronger, or weaker. That what happens between two bodies or more in dark or light, that what closes up or opens up between them, that what forms or empties out or leaves a hole big enough to crawl inside, that all of this never heals, will continue to cause me and you and us to stop under starlight, look up, crawl to our bellies, and stay somewhere for a long time, too scared to move, for fear of breaking something else.