The Dare

Frank and Ellen met when both were on the rebound. Ellen didn’t want to be involved with anyone for a while and told Frank so, right away, even though they’d just met. It was a heady way to start out, but Ellen preferred all the signals to be plain from the first. She wanted Frank to know, in no uncertain terms, that she needed space like she needed food and air and water. The underlying message was don’t push, don’t tread on me. Frank read it loud and clear.

Whereas Ellen was feeling invigorated, uplifted, from the change she’d made, Frank was feeling vulnerable. He wasn’t the type of man who was afraid to admit such things, so he admitted it to Ellen, partly because he needed to tell someone and partly because he felt it would set her mind at ease. He was in fact relieved her ego wasn’t seeking in him a barometer of her appeal. Frank had just come through a divorce. His nerves were raw, his emotions steamrollered, and, not incidentally, he was impoverished and expected to be for some time. As his marriage to Rita had begun to falter, Frank had taken up running, and the rockier his marriage got, the harder and faster he ran. It was a good way of discharging anger. Once the marriage had expired, it was a good way of doing something alone. And it didn’t cost anything. Running had become for Frank the metaphor that characterized his life: a frenetic loop that never got him anywhere.

Frank and Ellen had been set up by a mutual friend who liked to make matches. They both agreed with some trepidation: each had reservations about meeting a blind date at all. But for different reasons — Frank needed the contact, Ellen was simply feeling brave — each decided to go through with it.

Neither was sorry. Frank found Ellen’s forthrightness a refreshing change from Rita’s circumnavigations, and her self-confidence was inspirational at a time when Frank needed desperately to have hope. Ellen welcomed Frank’s openness; and he was funny, sometimes at his own expense. Ellen had planned to have only a drink or two, then make her move to leave. Yet the time slipped away unnoticed. At the end of the evening — and it really had become an evening — the pair shook hands in the parking lot before going their separate ways, agreeing to make contact again soon in the way people often do who have no intention of following through. Nevertheless, Ellen decided, on her way home, that she liked Frank and hoped he’d call. Frank, on a late-night run, concluded the same about Ellen and wondered where he’d get the nerve.

About a week later after several false starts, Frank called Ellen with a last-minute dinner invitation. Ellen, already halfway through her chicken niçoise, had to decline but, to be sure Frank didn’t misunderstand, suggested the following night. Frank couldn’t the following night, and the disappointment in his voice was evident when he said so. After a pause, Frank asked Ellen if she ever ran. Ellen, taken aback by the non sequitur, said no, she did aerobics for exercise. Frank asked Ellen if she’d consider running. Ellen said that she might. Frank, garnering all his courage, asked Ellen if she’d like to run with him sometime, maybe early on a weekend morning or at sunset; those were the most pleasing times to run, in his experience. Ellen began feeling cornered. But fearing to reject Frank twice in one phone call and not wanting to reject him at all, she agreed. Frank felt strangely jubilant; he had tried, late in his marriage, to interest Rita in joining him, and her rebuff still stung. Frank and Ellen agreed to meet downtown at the start of the bike path at eight on Saturday morning for a one-mile run. Nothing ever was resolved about dinner.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saturday started out misty. The sun would delay its appearance that morning which Ellen, putting on her sweats, wished she could have: she was normally in bed at this hour on weekends. Driving downtown, Ellen saw people running. The runners seemed ethereal, maybe because of the mist, and lost to another world. Approaching the meeting point, Ellen noticed quite a few people, even children, running on the bike path. She pulled over and waited in the warm car for Frank to show up. Her mind wandered. She watched runners go by: a father and son, a family in matching outfits, three chattering teenage girls, even an elderly man and his elderly dog. A man in royal blue sweats and bright yellow hat who seemed to be looking for something. Ellen realized it was Frank — she hadn’t expected him to run to the meeting point — and stepped out of the car just as he would’ve sped past. He smiled when he recognized her, admitting he couldn’t remember what her car looked like. He was panting. Ellen offered to reschedule if Frank had already had enough. But he shook his head and said he could run for miles.

Frank showed Ellen some standard runner’s warm-ups. As it turned out, Ellen was familiar with most of those from aerobics class. They were easy for her, which gave her needed confidence at the outset. Frank, who’d had second thoughts about inviting Ellen as he was running to the meeting point, was encouraged at this auspicious beginning. After the preliminaries, Frank sketched their proposed route with a stick in the dirt beside the bike path so Ellen would know the turnoffs in advance and so, if she had reservations, she could veto or modify the route. She just said it looked fine, and they started off.

Ellen expected Frank to coach her periodically as they ran, but he surprised her by saying nothing. Once past this expectation, past the initial exertion, the anticipation of fatigue and discomfort that psychologically handicaps any novice, she found herself, like the runners she’d seen on the drive downtown, in another world. Though the morning was still misty, the colors around her intensified. She noticed the interplay of light and shadow; realized someone not running might have said there were no shadows. But Ellen could see, or sense, the contrasts. She became acutely aware of sounds which, like the colors, were enriched; could hear the din of hundreds of leaves falling, the roar of her pulse, the thud of her step. She had noticed these sounds before of course, but now felt she had never really heard them. The barrage of sounds, the light show, the heightened colors, invoked a dance whose rhythms set Ellen’s pace and banished ordinary life.

As the sun at last began burning holes in the mist, without breaking pace Ellen removed her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist. The cool air rushing over bare arms and through t-shirt mesh made her gasp, which broke the spell. Pain shot up the fronts of her shins, into her groin, through her solar plexus. Frank reassured her they were almost at the end of the loop. She nodded, both sorry and relieved.

◊ ◊ ◊

Frank and Ellen, after cooling down and again stretching, got into Ellen’s car and drove to a small downtown café renowned for its hearty breakfasts. Frank saw this as a substitute for the overlooked dinner. Ellen, feeling righteous, saw it as a reward. At the café, Frank — forgetting to be nervous — asked Ellen how she’d like the run. Ellen told him she’d been pleasantly surprised. The truth was, she wanted to describe the sensations she’d experienced but wasn’t sure how Frank would react. Inadvertently, Frank removed that obstacle himself: he talked of the euphoria of running, the so-called runner’s high. Ellen smiled, grateful for the opening, and admitted she assumed you would’ve had to be an expert runner to experience that. Frank asserted that no one would stick with running if you’d have to wait that long. Emboldened, Ellen talked about the run as a dance, about the pleasure of the pair of them moving in sync. A funny look crossed Frank’s face and he blushed. Ellen asked what she’d said to embarrass him, but he wouldn’t answer. Ellen held Frank’s gaze as the waitress brought his tea and her coffee and cream. Then Frank confessed that when he’d characterized running to Rita in much the same terms as Ellen had just used, Rita’d quipped that running sounded like an impotent man’s lovemaking.

The confession opened a gate that unleashed a flood. In between bites of eggs benedict, an unaccustomed splurge, Frank said he believed two people who wanted to communicate could, if they worked at it, communicate anything. It was a matter of intent. That he and Rita had communicated in the beginning, when the blush was on the rose. But as the rose passed its peak, faded, withered, its petals falling one by one, the intent too seemed to fade and die.

Rita, not the introspective type like Frank, grew impatient. She shifted her energies elsewhere. First she spent more time with her women friends, which Frank noticed fed the fires of her dissatisfaction. Rita was touchier than usual and argumentative after an evening out with the women. Later her attention wandered in more dangerous directions; she became evasive about her whereabouts and with whom she spent her time. She grew sullen, sarcastic, volatile. The harder Frank tried to reach her, the more she withdrew. That’s when Frank started running.

Sometimes when he ran he tried to think things out. But mostly he tried to escape, as if running could distance him from pain. Frank concluded that maybe he’d expected too much. Maybe no real state of togetherness ever exists, just the illusion of it. Downing the last bite of eggs and placing his knife and fork across his plate in an X, as if marking the spot where all had been lost, Frank told Ellen he’d prefer to live alone than alone together. The latter he considered a cruel cosmic joke.

Ellen now became the pensive one. She thought about Tony. Ellen had been longing for romance when she met Tony. Martin, a research chemist, had always brought logic into bed with them. Tony’d captivated her with the elements of whimsy and surprise. Once, he had flowers and pizza delivered at daybreak. Another time, at the beach, he’d pitched a huge tent, spreading rugs and pillows inside while playing Middle Eastern songs on his portable tape deck. Ellen loved the fun and games until the fun mysteriously disappeared and only the games were left. Tony waxed peevish, then critical; his remarks about her friends, her opinions, even the clothes she wore, grew so cutting Ellen felt sliced to the bone, a whittled-down version of a former self whose taste and judgment suddenly were suspect. He moved to condemning her social behavior — how she’d talked too long with so and so and hadn’t circulated enough, how she’d drunk too much and become raucous or insulting — although Ellen could never quite recall the picture Tony painted. Tony was busy remolding into his chosen image an Ellen who invariably fell short of the mark.

The waitress took Frank and Ellen’s plates. Frank asked Ellen if she wanted anything else, which jolted her into the present. Ellen said YES — she wanted to know why it was that men and women seemed like disparate species who, by happenstance or ironic design, had crash-landed on Planet Earth eons ago and had had the misfortune of being myopic enough to mistake one another for the same kind. Frank didn’t know what to say, so he paid the check. He did know, however, that this novel view of creation warranted serious consideration.

◊ ◊ ◊

Frank and Ellen continued seeing one another, each acting casual about it but feeling a mounting tension between fears that needed to assuaged and desires that needed to be fulfilled. They met occasionally for lunch or dinner, and they continued to run. They were falling into a pattern of running twice a week, but neither would acknowledge this — Frank because he was leery of the illusion of togetherness, Ellen because she was skittish about any man reconfiguring her life. Yet within Frank’s mind, the metaphor of running was undergoing transformation: he felt, despite the loop, that he was beginning to get somewhere. Ellen had to admit she liked the new shape to which she was conforming: she was pleasing herself, not Frank. Anyone standing outside the situation could plainly have seen that Frank and Ellen were skirting the edge of involvement, not with the attenuated strides and labored breathing of runners, but with the mincing steps and barely audible sighs of those falling in love.

◊ ◊ ◊

Over a glass of wine at Ellen’s after a Sunday sunset run, Frank told Ellen about an upcoming race he had entered, one in which runners of all abilities could participate because competition was restricted through three distance categories. The experienced — masochistic, Frank wisecracked — runners could complete the entire route, ten kilometers; the less ambitious could run five or two k. Frank had planned to run the five and thought Ellen might like to try the two.

Ellen just stared at Frank. Then she asked if his suggestion were a joke. Frank, surprised at her reaction, assured her it was in earnest. Ellen pointed out to Frank that a neophyte like her was in no shape to race over the hilly course he’d described, and that her interest was not in competition. The room seemed hot and stuffy to Frank. Ellen, chilled, drew in her knees. Retreating out of habit, Frank asked Ellen to just think about it. Ellen insisted she didn’t want to think about it: there was nothing to think about.

Frank and Ellen knew they were having their first fight. Although both felt terrible about it, neither saw how to avoid it. Frank instinctively recoiled from fighting; he had never won a fight with Rita, a skilled and vicious combatant. Ellen recalled how Tony relished fights because he relished making up. Watching the evening crumble around him, Frank put on his sweatshirt in a preamble to leaving. Ellen was about to apologize — she knew she’d overreacted — when Frank, feeling an unfamiliar urge and reminding himself, of all people, of Rita, dared Ellen to race. Ellen’s face darkened. She started to cry. Baffled by conflicting impulses and overwhelmed by his bafflement, Frank fled. When the phone in Frank’s bedroom rang near midnight, he hardly recognized the voice that blurted out I accept before the line went dead.

◊ ◊ ◊

The race was nearly three weeks off, which gave Frank and Ellen time to train. They set themselves a schedule, which they held to assiduously, and still met occasionally as before for a meal. But neither mentioned the fight or the dare. That they had had such a fight was significant new information for each to process privately. And as the gears whirled, the balance of fears and desires shifted. While they were training, Frank found himself drawn to the glow that developed in Ellen’s cheeks as she got her second wind. Ellen absently focused on the rivulets of sweat that snaked their way down Frank’s back. Not knowing what it meant, other people noticed the shift too. Rita, dropping by Frank’s place on divorce-related business, tried to get a rise out of Frank and failed. Tony, trying to remold Ellen by phone, was hung up on.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ellen awoke at four in the morning on the day of the race. Her stomach had butterflies, and her mouth was dry. She tried to go back to sleep, knowing she needed the rest but, failing, got up and made herself a cup of tea. This season of year it wouldn’t be light for some time. Nevertheless she sat at the kitchen table, scouring the dark to keep from thinking about anything — not the race, and especially not Frank. While Ellen drank tea and distracted herself, Frank dreamt that he and Ellen and Rita were swimming across a large lake. The women’s strokes seemed effortless, while his were labored, and the harder he swam, the farther behind he fell. Stopping to rest, treading water, and still a long distance from shore, Frank saw the women emerge from the lake in tandem and turn to see where he was. Then they laughed and walked off arm in arm. He marveled at how camaraderie like that could flourish between two women who were so different. Then he began swimming again, wondering whether he could ever reach a shore on which Ellen and Rita were buddies.

When the black of night began to gray, Ellen showered and dressed. She tried to eat but wasn’t hungry. She tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The clock couldn’t move too fast for her today. When gray modulated to slate, Frank’s alarm woke him. He felt stiff and fuzzy, as if he’d slept too long, and vaguely recalled a dream about swimming. He dozed off several times before forcing himself out of bed. Frank still wasn’t fully awake when Ellen dropped her weight onto the passenger seat, the abruptness of her movement alerting him she was nervous. He again questioned his wisdom in inviting her to race: he hadn’t meant to push, she could always have said no. Ellen angled toward the window, cleared condensation, pressed her nose to the streaky opening, slamming the door to interchange in one smooth move. Rita would’ve been talking a blue streak. The inadvertent comparison called up Frank’s dream — the three of them swimming, him falling hopelessly behind, the two women walking off together. No, he chuckled to himself, not likely: how bizarre dreams could be.

Frank slowed to check in with a man in a bright orange sweatshirt holding a clipboard, who motioned them up the course to the drop-off points. Frank was glad to see several contestants clustered for the two k; he had hoped Ellen would have company to stretch and talk with to work off pre-race jitters. He’d planned to give Ellen some last-minute pointers but decided against it. Instead, he simply extended his hand to wish her good luck. Looking disturbingly like the Ellen in Frank’s dream, she bypassed the hand and kissed him full on the lips. On the drive to his own drop-off, Frank wondered out loud if he would ever, should he live to be a thousand, understand women.

Ellen knew she’d have time to kill before the first of the longer distance runners crossed the two-k starting line. So she sat on the curb, sipping tea brought in a thermos, observing the other contestants. Slowly, other runners arrived. Some, like her, kept to themselves. Others, familiar with one another from other races, talked casually while warming up. Without meaning to, Ellen thought about Frank. She thought about Frank and running. She thought about Frank and Rita and running. When Rita withdrew from the marriage, Frank was so shattered he literally ran out the door and had been running ever since. At first, running was the analgesic that gave temporary relief. Then, running became a partner — making demands, seeking commitment — that Rita chose not to be. So where did Ellen fit in? Like a scientist analyzing data, Ellen computed and re-computed the sums of the givens. It didn’t all add up. But further analysis would have to be deferred, for around the bend in the road came the first of the longer distance runners. Lost in her reveries, Ellen had neglected to warm up.

Frank was absent from the early pack, and Ellen reluctantly took off without him. Surrounded by runners but lacking Frank, she felt oddly alone, out of sync, in a dance she didn’t know. It was strange to set her pace irrespective of him. She forced herself to concentrate — to engage first not the body but the mind — to visualize the process: lungs sucking in vital ethers; heart pumping full on, flooding the system with big red; arms and legs, the rotors, the thrusters, propelling matter and energy forward. When the scenery brightened, light and color and sound intensified, running started at last to feel right. Exhilarated, Ellen quickened her pace, her body gaining a will of its own, her mind cut free.

The runners left the flatlands behind and headed into the hills. Ellen knew this would test her mettle. She and Frank had done some trials there which had left her gasping and discouraged; but Frank assured her that during a race adrenaline would take over. Ellen was counting on it. The first inclines — long low rises that a driver of a car would barely notice — made Ellen’s shins ache, but she altered her breathing to keep pace. The downsides, as Frank promised, gave exquisite relief; Ellen could recoup there by slowing her speed enough to nearly catch her breath. It cost her time, but she was determined above all to finish. Other contestants occasionally overtook her, and the gap between her and the front runners continued to widen. But she knew she was far from last, and she was at once perversely pleased and mystified at being ahead of Frank.

When Bailey Hill appeared, Ellen lurched involuntarily. Most of the other hills hadn’t even looked like hills, but Bailey was another story. It began gently enough; then the grade sharpened around a turn carved deep into rock. Once past the turn, the steepness mitigated to a domelike top. As Frank had instructed her, Ellen set her sights on the fluttering ribbon. She pressed forward, her body straining against gravity. Every movement now was designed to conserve energy: her arms hugged her sides; she shortened her stride. Looking toward the dome, Ellen wished that Frank were there to cheer her in. She’d envisioned that he would be. Where the hell was her partner anyway? Nothing, not even a race, met expectations. Was it all just illusion, as Frank had cynically proposed? Her thoughts a tangle, Ellen crossed the finish line without even noticing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ellen felt sheepish once she finally determined Frank’s whereabouts. Less than a kilometer into the race, he had suffered a freak accident, twisting an ankle under full weight, tearing a ligament in his knee. By the time Ellen walked into the hospital emergency room to retrieve him, Frank was in a full-leg cast, woozy from pain and drugs. He was miserable. Ellen sat down next to Frank. She smiled shyly and, looking him straight in the eye, said she’d dropped out of the race part way up Bailey Hill. Frank saw she was lying but let the lie stand. He remarked instead, philosophically, that nothing quite turns out as expected. Ellen thought she would die laughing.

Ellen took Frank to her place, ensconcing him on the living room couch like a Roman emperor on a divan. She made a fire in the fireplace. They picnicked in the living room, in front of the fire, on account of Frank’s leg. Both knew that Frank wouldn’t be able to run for some time, but the subject was ignored. Frank and Ellen both were worn out, and neither had much to say. In fact, staring at the flames, each was preoccupied. Frank was thinking how Rita, never empathetic, would’ve complained about having to cater to his injury. Ellen was thinking how Martin would’ve had to explain the injury anatomically, how Tony would’ve indulged in playing wounded soldier.

When the fire started burning low, Ellen made a bed of blankets and pillows on the rug near the fireplace, helping Frank maneuver and curling up beside him. Frank told Ellen he didn’t think he’d miss running. Ellen told Frank she wasn’t surprised. Then she admitted she’d finished the race. Frank mumbled never mind.

Frank and Ellen both saw new possibilities. They slept sweetly.

copyright 2011 Carol Rosenblum Perry

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