I ran to escape the thoughts that plagued me. I just wanted to forget who I was and focus on who I was going to be. Looking back drained me of valuable energy and time, but once in a while memories tried catching up with me.
Short, short, long. Inhale, inhale, exhale.
I made the noise in and out through my mouth as my mind said the words. I concentrated on coordinating foot strikes with the beginning of every exhalation. Complete focus. My feet hit the pavement only as hard as necessary before springing me forward again. I didn’t want to look like a galumphing elephant as I made my way around the park. Rhythmic breathing, correct form, and efficient movement led to the most effective workout.
Once I was in the zone, nothing else mattered. I was entirely focused on the flow of my breathing, on the rhythm of my heart. The runner’s high. Of course, I also ran to keep my cardio health optimal. Lots of bodybuilders and fitness models focused only on their muscles, but I knew this was shortsighted.
I made my way around the Queens Park three more times—my mind clear as a bell. I slowed as I reached the wooden bench that signalled the point when I started to walk one lap. A proper cooldown.
Man, it’s hot! Hardly a breeze and only seven in the morning, I could tell it was going to be a blistering day. September in Toronto was no stranger to heat waves, and the humidity off the lakes only added to the feeling of melting. Good thing I’d spend the rest of the day in the gym. Air conditioning was a godsend on days and weeks like this.
I stopped abruptly as a little boy raced across my path, following a little dog that had gotten away from him. “Excuse me!” I snapped.
“Oh! Sorry,” a frazzled looking woman said as she too cut me off. I smiled stiffly at her as she streaked past.
After my cooldown lap, I came to rest at my favourite bench, where I did some stretching. My calves were particularly tight, and I leaned into a good, wide-leg lunge on each side, sighing at the feeling of my muscles relaxing into it. Endorphins now fully surging through my body, I embraced the feelings that they brought.
Accomplished. Strong. Focused.
Andrew could never understand why I did this kind of stuff to myself. Maybe that’s where things started to fall apart. He was one of those naturally athletic guys who could pick up any sport he tried, but preferred to sit and watch TV and eat chips. And not gain a single goddamn pound. He could never understand why I set so many personals goals. He obviously didn’t react—physically or chemically—the same way I did to conquering a target.
“Excuse me?” I heard a small female voice behind me say. I closed my eyes for a second, willing myself to not get angry with this person. I hated nothing more than being reefed out of my zone, and this was the second time in less than five minutes. Good thing for her I was almost done. I slowly turned around and saw a tiny, hunched-over old woman standing—well, curled over—behind me, leaning heavily on a cane. Her body was practically the shape of an upside-down question mark. This is exactly why I take such good care of myself.
“Yes?” I asked, trying to curb the impatience in my voice.
“Would you be a dear and help me fix my cane?” She nodded toward a little black piece of rubber that lay on the sidewalk about three feet behind her.
I took a deep breath and felt myself soften. I’d had a little old granny, not unlike this woman, whom I loved dearly. She died when I was only fifteen, and I would have given anything to see her again. I often wondered if things would have worked out better for me after high school if I’d had her to turn to after my parents decided I didn’t exist anymore.
My throat clenched, surprising me. “Um, yeah. Of course.” I took a couple of steps over, picked up the little boot, and brought it back. “Let’s sit here and I’ll see if I can get it back on.” I automatically took her elbow and guided her toward the bench.
“Oh, you are just a dear!” she croaked.
You have no idea what you are talking about, lady.
I sat next to her and lifted the cane up, its black paint badly scratched. The little rubber boot had a crack in it, and obviously would not stay in place long. “You need a new cane. Or end cover, at least.” I pushed it on as best I could.
“Oh, well, they are a bit expensive.” She smiled at me, but I could see the “eleven” deepen between her sparse eyebrows.
“Well, they can’t be more than fifty bucks or something?”
“I’m sure I can make this one work for a while longer. Don’t they say duct tape fixes everything?” She looked up to me, her face heavily lined. Her hair was still pretty black. It was hard to say how old she was, but surely she had old age pension? RRSPs? Savings?
“Well, yes, you could tape it back on, but it would be pretty ugly.”
“Oh, dear!” She touched my hand softly. “I long ago stopped caring for the looks of things. It’s more about functionality. I wish I had learned that lesson sooner though. I should have taken better care of myself, like you obviously do.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Here I was, fifty years old, and could bench press circles around most women younger than me. I had created a plan, implemented it, and seen it through.
Had I been so focused, though, that I drove Andrew into the arms of another woman? And moreover, did I care? I was perfectly happy doing everything by myself.
“Dear?” the woman's voice brought me back.
I took a quick breath. “Yes. Sorry, I was lost in thought there.” Actually, now I was irritated that my runner’s high had been so quickly replaced by thoughts of my problems. I looked forward every day to the hour or two of inner silence that followed.
She reached over and patted my knee. “Don’t waste too much time there.”
“Lost in thought. Just do what makes you happy. It’s a short life.”
Her baby-pink blouse showed wear around the collar, and her brown slacks had a small stain on the right thigh. The sun suddenly popped out from behind the leaves of a nearby tree as a merciful breeze moved them. It was hot and bright, and I wished for sunglasses. I reached into my Nike runners pack, pulled out the two twenties I kept in there for emergencies, and pressed them into her small hand. “This should almost cover a new cane. It’s probably not safe for you to not have a proper one, especially come winter.”
“Oh, no. I can’t take this.” She started to push it back to me.
“Please. For my grandma.” My voice hitched.
“Oh, sweetie. Thank you. This will buy the loveliest cane I’ve ever had.”
I looked at her pale grey eyes for a long time, searching.
I sat in the Lexus for a long time thinking about the little old lady. “Could things have been different?” I asked myself. I had developed a strange habit of talking to myself since I had moved out of the big house and into my little two-bedroom rental two months ago.
“If I’d had my grandma to go to instead of losing everything I’d known, would things be different now?” Of course they would, you idiot! I scolded myself. But would things be better now? Certainly the kids wouldn’t have been born because I would have never married Andrew. I guess I could have had different kids, but would I have accepted myself for who I truly was instead of living a cover-up life?
“Here’s the conundrum. Is my life really a cover-up or is it the way it was all supposed to go?” I suddenly slammed both palms onto the steering wheel. “Who cares, anyway?” I screamed into the suddenly stifling air of the SUV, forcing every drop of air out of my lungs.
Why, at this point in my life, was I questioning everything? I had no option but to move forward. When Andrew told me, unapologetically, about his newfound love, I’d reacted with only a moment of rage before I realized he was giving me an easy out. Wasn’t this what I wanted? To finally be left alone? My gym was doing really well—I wasn’t the only person in Toronto obsessed with the way I looked—so I didn’t even need financial support from Andrew. After only a day of deliberating, I released him to his new love and moved out of the big house in Rosedale. In some small way, I knew he deserved it. I hadn't been the easiest person to live with, and Andrew really was a great guy. A little needy? Sure. But he had a good heart.
And me? I wasn’t sure my heart was so good after all, despite what cane granny thought.
I took a deep breath and started the car. I’d done what I did best. Moved on. Regret was useless, I reminded myself. I had made the choice to be here. I started every day purposefully. With intention. And every day ended with the satisfaction of knowing I had accomplished what I set out to do.
Every day was mine to create. “Come on, Keely. Get it together,” I told myself as I sat straighter and pulled away from the curb.
I never allowed myself to think about the future. Why would I, with nothing to see except more of the same? Who would want to daydream about that?
I clicked the burner off and gently lifted each perfectly cooked, still intact over-easy egg onto two buttered pieces of white toast. I set the plate on the table next to the cutlery and a large glass of apple juice and walked toward the bathroom. As always, I said a little prayer, asking for today to be one of his good days.
“Ray?” I tapped lightly on the door. “Your breakfast is ready.” I stepped back as the door opened. He looked at me for a second, no readable expression on his face, and then stepped past me.
Not great, but not terrible. I could live with that.
I sat down across from him with a cup of chamomile tea and waited. I was pretty good at the eggs now. It had been ten years, after all. But some days something didn’t work out: the egg was off, or the heat was wrong, and they would be overcooked. Sometimes he let it slide, but more often than not, he exploded.
Today he silently scrolled through some newsfeed on his phone, making faces and grunting. He never actually complimented me on my cooking ability; the best he could manage was to say nothing. He shovelled the food into his mouth. I exhaled lightly and sat back, taking another sip of my tea.
He chugged the whole glass of juice in one, long gulp. When we first met, I found his love of apple juice cute and charming—almost childlike. And then I made the mistake of telling him that and sported a lovely black eye for a week after.
Women really do run into walls, it seemed.
And yet I stayed, even after that night in the kitchen as the glass cut into my back. Stupidly or ignorantly or lovingly, I found ways to see past his rage. I chose to remember the times he brought me fresh-clipped wild daisies or surprised me with a random but heartfelt “I love you, Shell.”
I sighed again. The sunrise was particularly beautiful that morning. The orange glow it cast over the sixty-year-old kitchen was almost apocalyptic, and when I peeked outside, I saw the colours reflected back to me off several other houses’ windows, amplifying the eeriness.
Now it had faded, and a hot fall day was upon Toronto. This was bound to piss Ray off. He worked for the city’s parks department and hated the heat.
“Are you going to be able to stay inside today?” I asked quietly as I watched him over the rim of my old chipped and orange-stained Home Depot mug.
He looked at me like I was the dumbest person on the planet. “Of course I am. It’s supposed to be thirty-three today.” He shook his head and went back to his phone.
Still okay. There had been much worse.
A memory from the day before flashed through my mind, and I couldn’t stop the smile that slipped onto my face. I quickly forced the memory and the smile away before Ray could see it. If he saw any spark of life in me at all, he’d beat it out of me before I could say another word. I knew I’d been very stupid. Not only because of the consequences I would face if Ray found out, but because of what I had let myself feel.
I’d stepped onto a proverbial slippery slope by finally having sex with Andrew two months earlier. He had been so patient and kind—even telling his wife about us before we made love. He’d wanted to give her the power of deciding what happened to their marriage. He told me repeatedly that he wasn’t a cheater and wouldn't act like one. What kind of man did that? None that I’d had the pleasure of knowing. It was practically knight-in-shining-armour gallant.
And I totally and completely fell for it.
I touched my temple where a couple of hairs had slipped out of the French braid. Andrew wouldn’t come in tonight, which was probably for the best. Even though we always stayed at least a foot apart in public, it was a miracle that we hadn't been caught yet.
I still marvelled that Andrew had noticed me at all. It started one night when he came into the bar with his friends. A few nights later, he came back alone. That was six months ago, and he had been in three or four times a week since then. He said his wife didn’t even wonder where he was.
The picture, or more a feeling, ripped through me from yesterday, refusing to be ignored. We’d only had one hour in the hotel room, all I could manage without attracting suspicion from Ray. But what an hour. Andrew had closed the door behind him and turned on me, his eagerness apparent. For a quick second, fear tore through me. I must have flinched, because Andrew smiled and put his hands on both sides of my face. Gentle yet tight enough to show me he wanted me more badly than I think I’ve ever been wanted.
Except, maybe, for Jonathan.
“What’s the matter with you?” Ray barked suddenly.
“What?” Shit! Had I said something?
“You just made a noise.” He frowned. “I thought you were choking or something.”
My heart raced, trying to retrace what I may have done or said to give myself away. “Oh. No. Nothing.”
Ray narrowed his eyes at me. “Where’s your earring?” he finally said.
I automatically touched both of my earlobes, feeling the right one bare. Oh no! “I… I don’t know. That’s really weird.”
“You’ve had the same earrings since I’ve known you and you lose one now? Only you could pull that off, Michelle.” He pushed his chair back and got up.
I could almost feel Andrew biting my ear again, and I shivered. The earrings were only simple gold hoops, but the clasp was flimsy, and he must have opened it with his teeth as my head pressed hard into the pillows.
Ray grabbed his keys by the door. He called over his shoulder as he left the house. “Do not leave me shepherd’s pie again for supper tonight. You’ve made it three times this month already. And I need some beer before you go to work.” He turned and left, slamming the door behind him.
I slumped against the hard back of the chair, letting out the same huge breath I did every time Ray left the house.
Some days didn't go as smoothly as this one. What set him off never made sense to me. Just two weeks ago I had gone to work with a red mark on my face because apparently his egg was more “fried” than “over easy.” I’d hoped that, in the dim light of the bar, the mark would not be noticeable. Like me.
I realized that some people went through their lives thinking they had choices. A nice idea, but for me—life just happened. No father, a mentally absent and emotionally abusive mother. From a very early age, I’d realized that bad things just happened to some people, and they had no control over them. I happened to be one of the lucky souls born into this kind of life. And then came the bad choices, which trapped me.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I scolded myself as I cleaned up Ray’s breakfast dishes. I had Cassie, and she was the one thing I had done completely right.
After Jonathan, I had tried to make it for several years on my own, but the debt and problems piled up. I met Ray when Cassie was eight, and he offered me a refuge. I knew he had a mean streak, but he had his good moments—in the beginning. And it wasn’t like I had a hundred other men beating down my door. So I settled. Honestly, I did it so Cassie could have more, maybe even a chance at a post-secondary education. I essentially made a deal with the devil. But I would never, even on my deathbed, tell Cassie that. I guess that’s two secrets between us. She still thought Jonathan had died in a car accident when she was two, that he had been a great guy.
I learned early on that it was just easier and hurt less to lie down and accept life. And thus the tone was set. So why, at the ripe old age of forty-six, had I allowed Andrew into the mix? I was scared and broken. Surely it was too late to be saved now? No one actually starts living life this late in the game, do they?