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In… two, three, four. Out… two, three, four. In… two, three, four. Out… Steady breaths, in time with my feet, escape from my lungs and form little puffs of condensation in the chilly October air. My legs reach over roots and my arms brush away low hanging branches. I feel like a runaway chased by her pursuers. My lungs ache and my calves feel like someone has switched my muscles in for cattle brands. In reality, my only pursuer is the watch on my wrist, ticking away the last few minutes of my run. The wind picks up behind me, as if willing my feet to scramble faster and faster over the vibrant carpet of freshly fallen leaves. With nature cheering me on, I make it to my personal finish line – the small oak tree that marks 10 miles into the running trail. Just beyond that, lines of cars whiz by each other, horns blaring and car radios pounding, completely unaware of me. Still sheltered by the canopy of trees on the running path, it amazes me how noisy something hidden from view can be.
I slowly wander the rest of the path, enjoying the burn in my lungs as I breathe in the crisp smells of damp leaves and prematurely rotting pumpkins. My heart slowly returns to a normal rhythm, like a toy soldier winding down. I reach the mouth of the path and blink as my eyes adjust to the bright autumn sun reflecting off shiny car bumpers and store windows. The streets of Baltimore are vibrant and lively this Sunday morning as families and couples wander down the street, popping in and out of boutiques and cafes. In the distance a church bell tolls nine times marking the hour. From several blocks away, its clear peals break through the dull roar of life.
I take a right down Harford Street. My feet pitter-patter against the pavement, carelessly making their way to the red, barnlike structure labeled “The Red Canoe – Café and Bookstore.” I push against the door and it creeks open. What seems like thousands of books line the walls in tall mahogany cases. Their spines are well worn from visitors picking them up and putting them back again, like indecisive children in a candy shop. It’s the perfect spot to grab a tale and take a break from the day’s cramped hours. Twenty-four just isn’t enough to get everything done that I need to do. Between classes at Hopkins, training, and working at the JHMC, I can barely find enough time to eat, sleep and breathe. That’s why I love Sundays. While others worship in church, I find inner peace in the steady rhythm of a run and the sweet taste of blueberry muffins over a brand new book. This week’s is J.K. Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy.” In the midst of a death in a small English town, I forget about my paper on the methods of genetic testing, and the thoughts of the residency rounds I have to complete flee my mind as the story of Barry Fairbrother chases them away.
I smile at Jerome, the clerk behind the counter. My usual order awaits me on the countertop.
“Anything else?” he jokes. Already knowing my answer, he winks, causing me to blush. I desperately hope my face is still flushed from my jog. I grab my order and traipse outside to my familiar table.
My plate clangs against the black metal and steam rises off the freshly baked pastry. I take a sip of coffee and open the story. Its cover page is worn and stained with little brown specks marking all the others who have enjoyed the same words that I am about to.
Across the street lies a park that sits placidly, waiting for a young mother pushing her stroller or two gooey-eyed teenagers, promising deep declarations of love to wander by and stop to reminisce over the childhood they left behind only a year or two ago. The park is usually lonely, as few doe-eyed teens wander into the college part of town, and most mothers congregate over at Carroll, the park by the elementary school. But today there’s a young girl, no more than fifteen or sixteen years old. She stands by the swings with her hands on her knees and breathes laboriously, her cheeks an astounding red against her porcelain face. Her once bright sneakers have barely any sole left and are laced so tightly I can almost feel her constricted feet turning blue. Her legs look like twigs and her eyes are saucers on her face. Her hair is drawn up in a ponytail and beads of sweat mingle on her forehead. Her hair would be beautiful, lush and long, but I can see how it has thinned and become brittle, almost serving as a metaphor for the rest of her. She drowned herself in a giant black sweatshirt and running pants. I know that she has just done the same route as me, except she listened to music. Thin wires hang loosely around her neck as her ET fingers fidget with the ear buds, pushing them deeper into her ears as she tries to quiet the voices in her head.
She stands, shoulders hunched over, as if her neck can’t quite hold the weight of her head. It has grown too heavy with harsh judgments and numbers that determine her self worth. Keeping track of all these numbers, miles run, calories consumed, grades on tests, minutes practicing music and of course, weight gained or lost has exhausted her to the point where she can no longer think of anything else. That voice tells her anything else is unimportant. It tells her nothing else matters but counting the number of ribs that xylophone across her skin that has stretched so tight she no longer looks like a human being. She reminds me of butterfly with broken wings. Tiny, fragile, elegant, and full of so much pain.
Her monsters are rooted in her stomach, constantly growling and growing, taking up the room that yesterday’s breakfast would have. I glance down at my blueberry muffin. I know that she would never allow herself even a sniff of its sugar-crusted crown. Conflict rumbles in my tummy. I know with a few quick steps, I can toss my plate into the trash and do another ten. I know I can stay up hours into the night, studying the history and formulas of every medical profession until my eyes are red and raw and my head is spinning. I can sleep through breakfast; I only need coffee anyway, right? I can loose myself to the same voices of this girl until we’re twin insects, hopping from place to place on eggshell-thin legs, balancing books in waiflike arms, filling ourselves with words and phrases while the rest of us wastes away.
My stomach growls again, but this time it’s a roar of to remind me that even though I can look at the girl at the park, becoming her would mean sacrificing who I have become. I want to run miles and miles and not know how many, I want to go out with friends and dance and laugh and enjoy the taste of food and drink. I want to dress up in jeans that fit and tops that flatter and feel beautiful as I munch a blueberry muffin and sip a coffee.
Just one bite. That’s all a butterfly would take. I tear off the top of the muffin and steam rises up like ghosts on Halloween night. Yellow crumb snowflakes spill onto my plate as I lift the morsel to my mouth. I could stop there. I can stand up, my chair would scream in protest against the pavement. I could clear my plate and not look back. I could run until my knees explode and not think about food until it drives me crazy... or, I could take another bite.
A blueberry bursts in my mouth and spongy cake makes my taste buds dance. The bell above the door tinkles as it opens and Jerome steps out.
“Care for some company?” he teases. Not bothering to wait for an answer he pulls the chair across the sidewalk. Jerome plops into the black metal and begins to tell me stories. We have classes together at school, but other than a glance over the Bunsen burner, we have about as much interaction as my laundry and me. I shoot a glance over at the girl by the swings, and I see her sprint off again, running away like a horse spooked by a snake. Jerome reaches for my plate and I playfully swat his hand away. He tells me about his morning at work, and in exchange I tell him about my run. We simultaneously groan over Professor Darcy’s horrible coffee breathe and cringe at the thought of our semester reports lying untouched on our laptops with just the titles written. He offers to come over later to help me with mine, and by accepting I know I will have butterflies summersaulting in my stomach for the rest of the day, so obviously I tell him to come over around six and I’ll make us something better than cafeteria food for dinner. He and I exchange conversation until my plate runs out of muffin, and he offers me another, on the house. The girl in black would have run away as fast as her worn out sneakers could take her, but the girl in my shoes says, “Make it chocolate chip.”