Halimah Marcus: “Running Alone” from One Story #176, 3/14/13

"Outside Yourself" by BiyoArt

“Outside Yourself” by BiyoArt

In the cafeteria, at a table full of people, Hunter feels as if he is sitting alone. Perhaps this loneliness is a condition he has acquired from being nearly twice as fast as the second-best runner at his school; he is in a class unto himself; he must be comfortable getting out in front. Yet his talents have earned him no notoriety. His classmates do not care about middle distance running.

When I was in high school, I somehow read a lot of fiction about running. I’m not sure why; I never ran unless a gym teacher made me (still don’t, and I’m thankful there are far fewer gym teachers in my life now). As I read this story, I remembered my intrigue. I still don’t know where it comes from, but whereas fly fishing – so popular in fiction – leaves me cold, I can somehow identify with the demands racers put on themselves, and the psychological and emotional factors involved in winning a race. And I just happen to be finishing up a calculus course right now, so I was thrilled to encounter a few terms that were somewhat familiar.

But this story isn’t about running, or about math. They provide the setting for the story, and are expertly used (at least it seems so to me, a non-expert), but it’s a story about a family of isolated people trying to connect. It’s about using talent and motivation to isolate. To protect. Or to connect.

The three members of this family – runner Hunter; father, mathematician, coach Albert; mother Irene – live in isolations of different origins. Hunter is “on the spectrum,” to begin with. His talent, and his drive, have further isolated him. I recall something from an old Educational Theory class: achievement/affiliation conflict. Altering his running style, or his interests, to fit in, is not on Hunter’s radar.

Dad has a similar fixation with mathematics; he’s probably “on the spectrum” himself, but in his case, he parlayed his obsession into academic success and a lucrative high-tech career, until cutbacks convinced him to teach high school. Here he discovered the connection between running and math: if you accelerate correctly, if your curve works right, you win the race. He teaches Hunter to train his body to follow that curve. This is where their curves intersect.

Mom is alone in her normality, perhaps. Hunter was a runner from the time he was very small, and this has served as a source of pain and guilt to Mom: ” She couldn’t help but feel rejected when Hunter didn’t want to read a book in her arms, couldn’t help but wonder what she had done to cause him to run from her.” But that pattern – someone close obsessed to the point of shutting her out – isn’t new to her; she encountered it when she was dating Dad:

The thesis was the product of such profound isolation that Albert was nearly lost entirely. It was an experience not unlike popular depictions of dying, in which a comatose patient must choose between the voices at his bedside and the distant, beckoning light. The truth was, while working on his thesis, he almost lost her. She arrived before he was ready, and Albert could barely look up from his calculations long enough to keep her. Foolishly, he risked making her wait. But along with his foolish actions came a fool’s luck. She remained patient…

And one more isolating factor: Mom’s just found out she has breast cancer.

Now, that’s kind of a deal-breaker for a lot of readers who are tired of cancer stories, but the narrative style of this story saves it. It’s a bit on the cold, clinical side, actually, but it rescues the story from any hints of sentimentalism while letting the reader still experience the loneliness, pain, and fear of the three characters. An excellent match, this particular style and this particular story.

A shining example of this can be found in a scene where Dad, unable to figure out how to help his wife, instead does what he does best: he works out the complex equation that earned him his doctoral thesis. He starts writing on the school chalkboard, and when he runs out of space, he finds a roll of oaktag used for a children’s class, lays that out on the floor, and continues there.

He uncaps a marker and tries to think of a problem, the conventional kind: difficult yet familiar. Something that will fill up the board with squeaks and blue marks, functions of x, limits approaching zero, series that never end, paradoxes with theoretical solutions. He wants a problem that will fill his mind with satisfying frustration, a problem he can attack at a steady pace, an equation he can systematically untangle for hours until he is left with one lonely and self-satisfied integer…
He is kneeling on the floor in what has become the evening dark, discovering the very thing he invented, and entire scroll in front of him, ready to record for as long as it takes.

So many religious references in that sentence: kneeling in the dark, the scroll, eternity. Some people in his situation would pray. He is praying, in his own way. And putting off picking up his wife after her chemo treatment. I truly believe most people, annoying and unreliable as they can be, do the best they can, and for him, this is the best he can do.

The intricate connections between these three characters is multidimensional, difficult to capture in a summary. Mom seems almost incomplete, but she is complete in that incompleteness, I think. She is the plane, the field on which the runner and the mathematician intersect. In that, the possibility of her loss is to them, quite literally, unthinkable.

In her One Story Q&A, Marcus describes the origins of the story and provides more insight into the depth of the running scenes. I still find it fascinating that there’s an entire philosophy behind running – several different philosophies, in fact. And it added to my understanding of the story to realize the shift involved in the story’s ending, the shift from father to mother.

I’ve seen a lot of very positive tweets about this story over the past few weeks, so I was surprised to see no one had commented on the One Story blog. I guess tweets are superseding blogs. I couldn’t do a story like this justice in 140 characters. Then again, I can seldom do anything in 140 characters.

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