By Jill Rosenburg
After our parents left for Vermont, Ruby and I spent most of our time waiting for the Olympics. The world is coming to Los Angeles! the commercials told us, and the announcer’s tone was so excited and serious it seemed to imply that every American should prepare.
That summer was going to be a turning point for our family. We were in the final stages of a move to rural Vermont, where my parents were rebuilding a house they planned to have ready by the start of the school year. Once the house was inhabitable, even barely so, we’d all move in and complete the finishing touches as a family. We’d already chosen the stencils we’d use on the walls in each of our bedrooms. Mine was going to be silver, turquoise, and black.
In the meantime, my job—mine and Ruby’s—was to have the fun summer that my mother said we’d earned. We could contribute to the house by holding down our current fort, a converted garage in the Philadelphia suburbs. The beauty of the garage apartment was that it looked like a mini-version of the other houses in the neighborhood. My mother liked to point out that you could look at a picture of the garage and a picture of a real house, and you couldn’t necessarily tell which one was which.
But Philadelphia’s Main Line was only a stepping-stone in our journey. The goal was to educate ourselves in multiple ways, and the four years of high-class learning we’d done in the suburbs—in one of the best school districts in the country—was coming to an end. It was time for us to learn from the land, to shed our unscuffed shoes and make ourselves interesting.
My mother was the architect of our journey. People in my life have often argued that the choices she made on behalf of our family were unsettling or even unhinged, and I can’t fully deny that. All I can say is that her conviction and spunk were so impressive to me that I find it hard, even now, to fault her for anything she’s done or failed to do. The parts of myself I treasure the most I inherited from my mother. At my best, I can feel those segments of my DNA light up and sparkle.
* * *
The morning of the Opening Ceremony, Ruby and I painted our nails with red, white, and blue polish. We rearranged the living room to make space for the beanbags we pulled from our bedroom and placed in front of the television. We hung blankets over the windows and turned on only the twinkle lights that zig- zagged across our living room ceiling, our own stars and sky inside with us. It felt like we were in the stands that way, our beanbags pulled curbside.
Seconds into the ceremony, the cameras panned the stadium, and before we could absorb the grandeur of the crowd and the perfectly placed members of the marching band, we heard a rocket blast off and saw a man, strapped to a jetpack, launch himself from the stands up into the sky and land at the center of the stadium.
There, on TVs across the globe, was proof that ours was the greatest country in the world. The grass in our stadiums was greener, the energy in our oxygen was greater, and Ruby and I were part of it because we were American and gilded at our core.
I had just turned fifteen, and for the first time in my life, I was an optimist and a patriot. I felt in my bones what my mother had always said: I could create any life I wanted for myself if I was just willing to grab it.
Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, even Ronald Reagan—they started with the same raw materials I had: a brain, a body, and an ironclad American will to win. For the time being at least, I had no choice but to dedicate myself to what I could only call greatness.
There was speed mounting in me already. I could run through our neighborhood and emerge somewhere else entirely. What I had in mind wasn’t a specific place, but a vast expanse of blue and green with shining spots of gold, a massive canopy of twinkle lights.
Beyond the manicured hedges and mansion rooftops that lined our neighbor- hood, I could forge a magnificent life for myself. My own body was the vehicle to get me there.
* * *
The next morning, I began training.
I knew that physical activities requiring skill were not my forte. I didn’t have great balance or coordination, but I’d discovered that I could outrun most of my peers, as long as the distance of the run was great enough to bewilder the typical adolescent, most of whom were interested in quick success rather than hard- earned triumph. I enjoyed the sting in my limbs and the weight in my chest that came with prolonged effort. That pain was proof of my fortitude—my delight in it was the greatest asset Ruby and I would tap during my training.
I stood in the middle of our living room, held out my arms and swung them around me, a quick succession of almost violent self-hugs. Then I raised my hands above my head, lifted one leg at a time and touched my toes with my fingertips. I learned these moves from the Jane Fonda workout my mother had on video. Ruby must have recognized the specific workout I was doing because she started to hum the song that played in that video. It was terrible to realize she knew that song well enough to sing it.
I hated Jane Fonda. I hated her ridiculous leg warmers, her hoity-toity life- style, and that fluffy, flaxen hair of hers. But more than that, I hated myself for hating her. My mother moved us to the Main Line so we wouldn’t be fazed by highbrows like Jane Fonda, but I was fazed. Every time she’d say, Push it! You can do it!, I felt worthless. Her particular mix of strength and girliness sickened me. I wanted to strip her of her pink leotard and strangle her with it.
But those first moves I did on the first official day of the 1984 Olympics came straight from her video, and the anger I felt for Jane Fonda was part of what fueled me that summer. I wanted to dig my knuckles into my chest, wrap my fist around that feeling and squash it.
I did the rest of my training that day in front of the television.
What was I training for? We didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. The only thing I knew was that I was determined to build a life for myself with my newfound desire to win.
I cycled with the cyclists—lying on my back, hips propped, legs pedaling the air. During the women’s swimming medley, I lay with my stomach on our small coffee table, perfecting my strokes. My father built that table from scraps he col- lected at his first demolition job on the Main Line. I pictured myself pulling his energy from that table and funneling it back to my parents in Vermont.
Unfortunately, the more ridiculous I felt trying to move my body the way the Olympians moved theirs, the more difficult it became to do so. I felt my hands and feet getting heavier and heavier until I was panting, my limbs hanging from the sides of the table like the tentacles of a swollen, dead octopus, my torso a bloated blob on the table.
Ruby saw me this way and suggested I take a break, like it was her idea rather than my own failure to endure. “I’ll do more tomorrow,” I told her. Then I ad- mitted that I didn’t actually think I would. “I’m tired,” I said. “I might be tired for the rest of my life.”
“Stand up,” Ruby said then, like she knew exactly how to fix me and getting off that table was the first step.
I was born eleven months before Ruby—for a time that meant I knew a lot more than she did, but we were getting to an age where eleven months didn’t mean much in terms of wisdom or even knowledge.
She grabbed my shoulders. Her cheeks looked tan and chubby. “Repeat after me,” she said: “My hustle and heart set me apart.”
I repeated her.
“I win with my will, not with my skill,” she said, almost chanting. “I’m gonna kick it where it counts.”
I repeated each one, but she ran out of slogans after that, so she said, “To the floor!” and told me to do eleven pushups. She knew that was the most I could do without stopping to rest.
When I finished and stood up in front of her, I felt taller and more powerful. “Rosie,” she said, “Your only job for today is to rest for tomorrow.” I could see M&Ms smashed into the grooves of her bottom teeth, tiny pools of brown speckled with bits of yellow, red, and green, and it struck me how deeply I loved her.
For the remainder of that day and through the evening, Ruby and I lay on our beanbags eating M&Ms and Ritz Crackers with spray cheese.
“You realize we could be doing anything,” Ruby said at one point, and I think we both got the same feeling, that we wanted to do something bigger, but not yet. I was pretty sure that’s what she was feeling too because after she said it we both settled deeper into our beanbags.
Every night since our parents left we’d slept in their bed, but that night we camped in the living room, the TV broadcasting long after we’d fallen asleep, the voices of the announcers infiltrating our dreams, beginning to narrate them, the roar of the crowd waking us periodically and filling the whole apartment with the spirit of the games.
* * *
The next morning, we took my training outside. Ruby stood at the bottom of the driveway with a clipboard and stopwatch, and I ran around the block as fast as I could.
A powerful beat pulsed inside me, a rhythm that belonged to no song in particular, but to my brain and my body—the rhythm of me at my best. But I was sluggish at first. My skin was buzzing with that groove, but I couldn’t get the rest of me in sync.
Ruby suggested I set a goal for myself. “If you say it aloud,” she explained, “you’re like sixty times more likely to achieve it.”
That morning my mother had called to say their plumbing problem was worse than they thought. My father had taken on handyman work in the area, partially to pay for a professional plumber, and partially because people had seen the work he’d done on our house and, according to my mother, were so impressed they insisted on hiring him, but regardless, it had slowed things down considerably. The upside, she said, was that it gave her more time to choose tiles for the bathroom. She promised we were still on track to move in September, but Ruby and I would probably miss the first week of school.
I didn’t tell Ruby about the plumbing problem, and I didn’t tell my mother that our landlord had called five times looking for her. I didn’t want her to send money for rent that she could be spending on the new house. Mr. Federman didn’t need our money. He owned tons of properties, all more expensive than ours. It wouldn’t make a difference to him if we paid every penny we owed. My mother knew this better than anyone, but I worried she’d think I was too meek to handle the situation myself.
“What’s your goal?” Ruby asked me.
“I’m going to run harder and faster,” I said. I wanted a goal I could definitely achieve.
I pictured Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses, the thick muscles in their thighs and the beautiful darkness of their skin. I felt each stride I took stripping Ruby’s future of pink leotards and girly aerobics routines. I pictured my family outside of our new house in Vermont: strong, proud, and American.
When I turned the corner of my final lap, Ruby was there jumping and cheer- ing. “That was way faster!” she said, and I chose to believe her.
“I will now run a mile in less than seven minutes,” I announced.
There must have been people on the street as I ran, but I didn’t see anyone. I could feel the folds of my brain wrap around the muscle in my calves and propel me. I was pumping my own heart, inflating my lungs with my thoughts, generat- ing my own electric speed.
To cover one mile, I had to run a loop four-by-three blocks long. I did it in six minutes and fifty-eight seconds. It was the first specific goal I’d set and achieved, and it was thrilling.
* * *
That afternoon we got our weekly care package from our mother. She’d send coupons for free pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, treats made from real Vermont maple syrup, and thirty dollars for food and supplies. She also sent Polaroids of the house in every package: a brick wall my father had reconstructed and she had painted; a series of mismatched but coordinated tiles she planned to use in the kitchen; the corner of a room that was going to be Ruby’s, where she could fit a drum set and play as loud as she liked. Sometimes we’d find a picture of my dad in the package, making a funny face at the camera. Every box was plastered with stickers advertising Vermont, most of them chosen by my father and featuring a cartoon bear or moose. There was something comforting about the infantile nature of those packages.
It was hot and humid as we walked to Wawa that afternoon. The trees on either side of the street drooped over us, as if weighted by the heat. We could smell freshly cut grass and smoking barbecue coals. As we walked, we ran our fingertips along the dense, carefully shorn bushes that separated the front lawn of each house from the sidewalk.
I liked our neighborhood best in July and August, when most of the kids were away at camp or touring Europe. I was able to appreciate the architecture when I didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone from school. I did have friends there; I just didn’t have any friends I wanted to see or talk to.
The diversity of houses in the neighborhood was what my family enjoyed most. We treated the collection like a catalogue of possibilities for our own home. Ruby and I pointed to features we liked and disliked. It was something we always did with our mother—doing it without her made us feel both closer to her and farther away.
Halfway to Wawa, Ruby and I pulled off our T-shirts and walked the streets in just our bikini tops and cutoffs. We were garage-dwellers, soon-to-be daring rural Vermontians—we didn’t care what anyone thought, and the breeze on our stomachs felt like its own victory.
I let Ruby convince me to go into the store shirtless. “It’s part of your training,” she said. “You have to bare yourself. Show Wawa what you’re made of.” We were molding our new Vermont–selves, and the freedom we felt was thrilling. No one on the Main Line mattered anymore because we no longer had to appeal to them.
I met Gabriel for the first time standing in front of the ice cream cooler that day. He was wearing a Blondie T-shirt and pushing a stroller. He walked over with a smile on his face like he was happy to see us.
“You’re the runner!” he said to me. Then he held out his hand. I figured he’d seen me training and I’d impressed him. I gripped his hand tightly, and he squeezed mine back in response, nodding and smiling, like it was the strength he’d expected from me.
Then he moved his eyes to Ruby, and his smile changed slightly. He looked almost amused. “Hello, Ruby,” he said, and it was like he’d said, Hold ’em up, or You’re under arrest—that’s the effect it had on me, the fact that he knew my sister’s name.
“Hi there,” Ruby said. She crossed her forearms at her stomach and lifted her fingers up and down in a tiny wave. “This is Gabriel,” she said to me. Then she said, “Gabriel, Rose, Rose, Gabriel,” and bounced her head back and forth between us.
“Pleased to meet you,” Gabriel said. It seemed like we should shake hands at that point, but we already had. The air conditioning in the store was powerful, and I felt goosebumps spreading across my shoulders. “I hear you’re training pretty hard,” he said. Then he shuffled a little and cleared his throat. “Alexis and I met your timekeeper here on one of our walks. Lexi likes to keep moving too.”
I nodded, and Ruby squatted in front of the carriage. She put her fingers on the baby’s bare toes. “Hello, little Lexi,” she said, using a baby voice I’d never heard her use before. The straps of her bikini were twisted where they wrapped around her back.
“She’s so cute,” I said. Then I realized all I could see from where I was stand- ing was the top of the carriage and the baby’s feet. I tried to remind myself that I was a new person, defined by my competence and strength. I stood there clench- ing every muscle I could. “We should go,” I said to Ruby.
During our walk home, Ruby talked about babies and how she wished we had a baby of our own. “Isn’t Lexi the cutest?” she asked me.
A few minutes later she pointed down a side street and said, “That’s where Gabriel lives.” As we crossed his street, she linked her arm with mine.
* * *
Over the next few days, my parents reported significant progress on the house, and I shaved five seconds from my mile every time I ran it.
After each run, I’d strip off my clothes and add them to my salty heap in the corner of the bathroom. I’d sweat and sweat until an item was soaked, then toss it on top of the rest. When I had nothing left to wear, I’d wash my heap and start over, like I was building a tower of sweat and rebuilding it again and again. Every night, I stood in front of the mirror and took stock of myself. My muscles were tightening, pushing to the surface to showcase their strength. All I had to do was admire a particular curve or angle of my body and it became more pronounced, more impressive.
To be capable, all I had to do was feel capable—drop five seconds and five more—whatever I told myself to do.
* * *
By the day of the women’s gymnastics final, I was running a mile in less than six minutes. I finished my training early that day so that Ruby and I could dedicate the night to the first American gymnasts who had even a chance at beating the Romanians.
All summer we made sandwiches with Philadelphia soft pretzels sawed in two lengthwise. That night we ate them with American cheese, apple slices, and spicy pepperoni. Our choice of ingredients was limited by what was in stock at Wawa, but this restriction only enhanced our culinary imagination.
We had our food ready on our trays for the rebroadcast of an interview with Mary Lou Retton that aired just before the event. We’d seen it twice already, but they’d promised extra footage of her first workout after the knee surgery she’d had just weeks before. The fact that she’d be competing on a damaged knee sent a spiraling thrill down my spine.
We liked Mary Lou because she was ugly, damaged, and strong. She was America’s squat, boy-haired warrior, prepared to launch our country into the gymnastics spotlight. I didn’t like her perkiness, but I admired the iron-like force palpable in the thud of her landings. Her love for the games wasn’t actually girly at all, but domineering and even violent. We had the same fire inside of us, Mary Lou and I. We were graceless and eager to suffer, pounders of the earth, not tiptoers.
I was determined to be a kind of savior once we got to Vermont. I pictured the Russians attacking our new school, all the young Vermontians dressed in brightly colored patchwork, smelling like patchouli, scrambling to me to be saved because I was faster on my feet than anyone for miles around.
They’d strap on roller skates, and I’d be their leader, up front with no skates at all, just my old sneakers and a long rope attached at one end to my waist. I wouldn’t have to say a word; they’d grab that rope and I’d pull them to safety— over hills, through rivers and bouncing over rocky creeks, weaving through snow- covered pine trees. I’d liberate the rural lot of us, not just from the Russians, but from everything holding us back. I’d lead my people with the sheer strength of my stride.
By the time Mary Lou flipped her second perfect ten on the vault and jumped into the arms of her coach, fists lifted in victory, Ruby and I were practically in tears we were so proud. It was our perfect ten too. It was America’s perfect ten. And when we got to Vermont, we’d make our lives a perfect ten.
In that moment, I really believed that both of us thought it was possible.
The next day Ruby wanted to take a different route home from Wawa. She said she was bored with our usual way of going and convinced me her alternate route had more hills to challenge my muscles.
I had forgotten about Gabriel until we bumped into him that night. This time he was bare-chested, pacing the sidewalk with Alexis over his shoulder.
He stopped pacing when he saw us. “Good evening, ladies,” he said.
Ruby tried to get a look at Lexi, who was hiding her face in Gabriel’s shoul- der. “Hi, little one,” she said, and Gabriel dipped the baby in his arms so we could see her face. She had chubby baby-cheeks that dimpled when she smiled. She didn’t seem particularly special.
“My daughter seems to love your sister,” Gabriel said to me.
“That’s good,” I said back. Gabriel had big teeth and an ingratiating smile. There was a thin strip of dark hair on his chest, down the center, and little circles of it surrounding his nipples, which somehow looked more like a woman’s than a man’s. I felt my pulse speeding up as I noticed these things about him.
“So, what’s up with you two tonight?” he asked.
“Nothing at all,” Ruby said. She had one foot turned out, that leg and hip pushed forward. It wasn’t the way she normally held herself.
“It’s a good night for nothing at all,” Gabriel said. He smiled, and then he looked confused. “Wait,” he said. “Which one of you is older?” He was looking back and forth between us, squinting. “You’re not twins, are you? I’m kind of obsessed with twins.”
I was a couple inches taller than Ruby at the time, but she was more devel- oped; I didn’t have much in the way of breasts, and she was already a B-cup. Everyone until Gabriel judged our ages by our heights.
“I’m older,” I said, and he made a face like that surprised him.
We had ice cream in our bags and I wanted to keep walking. For all I knew, Gabriel was friends with Mr. Federman. Even in a neighborhood like ours, it was important to be leery of others. It’s what my mother had taught us. It’s why she trusted us to live the way we were that summer.
“We’ve got to get home,” I said to Ruby. She had one hand on the baby’s leg; she held her other arm out from her body and moved it in tiny circles so that the plastic handles of her bag swung around her wrist. I worried that she might hit the baby with the bag, but I didn’t say anything.
“We have ice cream melting,” I explained to Gabriel.
“I’m trying to convince Ruby to babysit,” Gabriel said to me. Then he repositioned Alexis so her back was pressed to his chest and his chin was resting on her head. “Please,” he said to Ruby, like the baby was begging too.
I just stood there and said nothing.
* * *
“When did he ask you to babysit?” I asked once we’d turned off Gabriel’s street. “I don’t know,” Ruby said. “He asked a bunch of times.” She was walking with her shoulders back and her chin up. She had a smug expression on her face that made me angry every time I looked at her.
“Why would you want to babysit if you don’t have to?” I asked.
She stopped walking and looked at me. “Why are you upset about this?” “I’m not upset,” I told her.
“This isn’t a big deal,” she said. “Let’s just enjoy our night.” When she walked off, her ponytail swung the way ponytails swing on haughty cheerleaders on TV. “I’m not being uptight,” I said to her. “Anyone would worry about you working for that guy.” I didn’t mean to kick the rock at my feet so hard that it flew up into the air. “I don’t think you should babysit for him,” I said to her. “I wouldn’t be babysitting for him,” she said. “I’d be babysitting for Lexi.”
I kicked another rock. I was behind her, but I did it loud enough so she could hear. “You’ve never taken care of a baby,” I reminded her.
“I’ve babysat with Mom before,” she said. “Plus, Lexi loves me.”
I tried to calm down. Feeling like the only uptight one in my family only made me feel more uptight. “We’re leaving for Vermont in less than a month,” I said. “It’s not exactly a good time to get attached to some baby.”
She stopped walking and turned to face me. “I want this job,” she said. Then she walked ahead again, her red flip flops slapping her heels.
“We have to start packing soon,” I said. “I need your help at home.”
“I think Lexi needs my help a little more than you do,” she said. Then she told me that Lexi’s mom was dead. She glared at me like it was my fault. Later I learned it wasn’t even true—Gabriel just planned to tell Alexis that her mother had died so she wouldn’t know she’d been abandoned. I’m pretty sure Ruby knew the truth even then.
“Do you know what most teenagers would be doing if they had the summer to themselves?” she asked. We’d had this conversation many times, but this time felt different, like she’d lost interest in me and didn’t want to say it.
“We just have to finish out the summer,” I said. “It’ll be better in Vermont.” Ruby stood in front of me the way she stood in front of Gabriel, one hip pushed forward and her foot turned out. This time she put her hand on her waist. She was wearing cutoffs with fringe that clung to her thighs. I wanted to tell her to go home and put on decent clothing, but I stopped myself. “Our ice cream is melting,” I said instead. For the first time that summer, Wawa was sell- ing Super Fudge Chunk. We’d used the last of our coupons to buy all five pints they had in stock. Who knew what my mother had to do to keep a steady stream of them headed our way.
When we got home, Ruby didn’t want to watch TV and eat ice cream like we’d planned. She went into our room and closed the door.
I wanted to go for a run, but my chest felt too tight. I ate two pints of Super Fudge Chunk instead and watched Carl Lewis take the gold in the 100 meters. After that I gathered all of the photos of the house my mother had sent and spread them on the floor. I tried to arrange them to get a sense of the whole place, but they were too disjointed.
When I called my mother to tell her what I was doing, she acted disappointed in herself for not thinking of it first. “That would have been so much fun for you girls!” she said. Then she complimented me on being so creative and thoughtful to come up with an idea like that. What she didn’t tell me was that some of the photos weren’t pictures of the house itself, but items she hoped to buy or finishes she’d come across elsewhere and planned to recreate. I was thoughtful enough to figure that out too.
My mother always said that our way of living was the opposite of the reli- gious way: we made our own rules; we weren’t suckers waiting for an afterlife to enjoy ourselves. We could choose to enjoy every moment rather than worry about the past or the future. In theory it’s a great way to live, but I found it hard not to worry that I should be worried.
* * *
Ruby spent most of the next six days at Gabriel’s. She’d come home in time to have dinner with me and watch an event or two, but it wasn’t the same.
She still helped me with my training in the mornings, timing me once or twice, and I’d think of it as my job to improve my speed while she was gone, so I’d have something to show her the next morning. I’d have dinner ready by the time she got home.
Then, on the third day, she came home late for the first time. She came home over an hour late, and she was wearing a dress that belonged to Lexi’s mom, an almost see-through dress with strings for straps and just two loose triangles of fabric covering her breasts. She said Gabriel let her wear it because Lexi spit up on her T-shirt and Gabriel was going to wash it for her, but the next day she came home wearing a different dress. According to Ruby, Gabriel’s ex left that stuff behind, and he figured someone might as well make use of it.
What made everything weirder was that Gabriel never went anywhere when Ruby was babysitting. Apparently, he wanted company more than a babysitter, which is what I said to Ruby, and she said Gabriel was stuck with the baby—he never wanted a kid and now he was a single father and worked from home and didn’t have any co-workers, so Ruby was his co-worker now, and finally Gabriel had someone to complain to. I wanted to ask her what about friends, didn’t Gabriel have any friends he could talk to, but I realized it was hypocritical of me to even think that.
“Gabriel likes my company,” she said. “Is that so hard to believe?” I pictured her modeling those outfits for Gabriel, stripping and dressing in front of him, though Ruby denied this and rolled her eyes at me when I mentioned it. All I knew was that she bought new underwear with the money he gave her, and the first time she went out shopping for them was the first time she came home in one of those slinky dresses.
I was also more and more convinced that Gabriel was in touch with Mr. Federman, who, one way or another, was beginning to realize that my parents weren’t around. The last time he called and asked for my mother his voice was sarcastic, like he knew there was no point in asking.
Meanwhile, my mother thought it was great that Ruby had gotten a job. When I told her about the dresses, she laughed and said that Ruby was a gorgeous girl and she’d have to learn how to deal with attention from men. She seemed proud more than anything.
To me she said, “Don’t worry. Your time will come.” Then she told me what she always did, that my beauty was less traditional than Ruby’s, and it would take more time for people to recognize and appreciate it.
“Can’t we just come to Vermont now?” I asked her.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said to me. “I wish you could come this minute so I could give you a big hug.” But the house just wasn’t ready. She’d been doing little jobs at the motel where they were staying to get their room for almost nothing, but she didn’t think they could get a second room right away.
I let her go on and on about the house after that. I didn’t tell her that Gabriel had once paid Ruby an extra five dollars to rub a kink out of his neck, and I didn’t tell her that Mr. Federman was on to us. I didn’t want to hear the optimistic crap she’d say in response.
I loved my mother, so it felt terrible to hate her too.
* * *
When we hung up, I went outside to sit with Harmony, our neighbors’ cat, who was perched on one of our lawn chairs. Harmony wasn’t friendly, but I liked talking to her. Sometimes she’d rub against my leg if I held still, but there was an understanding between us that she’d bolt if I ever tried to touch her.
“I’m not beautiful,” I said to her as I sat down. She looked at me and then repositioned herself on the chair. “You know what?” I said. “You’re ugly too, and it’s not what’s important.” She jumped from her chair and rubbed her head against my ankle.
It occurred to me that we were both free to roam at will; either of us could take off right then and no one would notice. “Could I ever get you to follow me?” I said down to her.
She purred, like she actually wanted me to pet her, and something about that made me very mad. “Please just let me pet you!” I said. All I did was lower my hand, and she leapt back, hissed, and ran.
I pictured Ruby on the chair next to me or sitting on the kitchen counter as I made dinner. I got a lot of talking done that way, but it wasn’t satisfying. I knew Ruby better than anyone in the world, and all I could imagine her saying back to me were slogans or song lyrics.
* * *
The following Sunday was the first ever women’s Olympic marathon. Ruby promised she’d be home in time to see the event from its start, but she wasn’t.
That’s when I took to the streets. The marathon was my race, a test of conviction and fortitude rather than grace and skill. I kept the TV running and stopped by after each mile to check on American Joan Benoit, who continued to increase her lead. I planned to keep going until I came home to find Ruby there waiting for me.
Then, five rounds in, I bumped into Lauren Goldstein. I was used to running as if no one could see me, so I ran right toward Lauren without realizing it.
She wasn’t the worst person I could have seen. We had once been real friends, and though we weren’t anymore, she’d recently gained weight, and that seemed to make her nicer and more sensitive. She had her curly hair blown out straight and pulled into a tight ponytail, but there were little curlicues all around her hairline. “Rose! It’s wonderful to see you,” she said. She sounded very mature and exactly like her mother. She told me that she and her brother were home from camp because her grandmother was dying, but her tone implied I must have heard this already.
I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled and tried to look sad at the same time.
I was still out of breath. I could feel sweat pouring out of me everywhere.
The look on Lauren’s face was hard to interpret. It was almost loving. “Oh my god, Rosie,” she said. “You look so great.”
I thought maybe she was joking. I think I apologized. Then I said, “Running makes me really sweaty.”
Lauren turned her head and gave me a sideways glance. I wondered if this was the way she looked at boys—it was a little bit scary, but also attractive. Lauren had a reputation for giving handjobs to any boy who wanted one.
“Ethan saw you at Wawa yesterday,” she told me. Ethan was Lauren’s older brother. Even when Lauren and I were friends, he never said a word to me. Lauren took a step back and looked me up and down. Her smile couldn’t have been nicer. “He said you looked hot,” she said, but I figured she meant over- heated, sweaty.
“I’ve been running a lot,” I told her. I could feel sweat rolling down my neck.
The front of my shirt was wet and clinging to me.
“So I see,” Lauren said. She said all of this like she was announcing the results of a prize she was shocked but pleased to realize I’d won. “Well, honestly, Rose, you look really great.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t like the fact that I had no real friends, but more than that, I didn’t like being noticed.
I started to run in place out of nervousness. “I’m actually training right now,” I said. Then I said I had to go.
As I ran off, I could feel her behind me, and something about that felt sad. I didn’t want to end up like Harmony, too shy and weird to let anyone love me.
I ran as hard as I could. I pictured Ethan and Lauren chasing me; I felt Ethan’s eyes on my body, his arms reaching for me. Then I pictured Lauren giving her own brother a handjob.
“I can do whatever I want!” I called out to no one.
I ran faster and faster. In my mind I was stomping over Ethan and Mr. Federman, Jane Fonda, and my own sweaty ineptitude. But I could only go so fast. I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t very free or capable at all. I could never be powerful like Carl Lewis or even Ethan Goldstein because I’d always be a girl.
Mary Lou was perky and Jane Fonda wore those pink leotards for the same reason Lauren gave so many handjobs: it was the only option we had.
Another fact: I should have been thrilled that someone like Ethan Goldstein said something nice about me, but I wished he hadn’t. I wasn’t running to attract that kind of attention, and I hated that Lauren assumed I was.
In my mind I was explaining all of this to Ruby as I ran, but even in my own head I couldn’t get her to understand what I was trying to say.
* * *
When I got back to the garage, Mr. Federman was there waiting for me.
As soon as I stopped running I could hear my heart beating in my ears. It was hard to hear anything else. “You know your TV is on,” is I think what he said to me. He pointed through the window. I had sweat in my eyes. He looked like he was swaying in front of me.
“Sorry,” I said.
Mr. Federman was wearing a gray suit and shiny black shoes. He shook his head, but then he looked at me and smiled. “Good run?” he asked.
I couldn’t say anything because I was trying to catch my breath. I could feel my fingertips tingling.
He looked through the window again and then back at me. “Where’s your mother?” he asked.
I wanted to think of an answer that would save us. This was my moment to do it, but I was exhausted and it felt impossible. “Gone,” I told him.
Mr. Federman rubbed his palms together, like he was brushing off crumbs. He was either angry or he pitied me, and I couldn’t decide which would be worse.
“She’s coming home soon,” I said. I wanted it to be true. I wanted my mother to run up to us right then and tell him we didn’t need his pity or his stupid garage because she’d built us a beautiful home in Vermont. I wanted him to see how impressive she was.
“When exactly is she coming home?” he asked. Drops of sweat were falling from my face. “Are you okay?” he asked me.
For a second I felt like a small child, like it wasn’t sweat on my face but tears that I couldn’t hold in any longer. I felt like I was lost and he’d found me. Then everything felt very quiet and still. “I’ll have her call you tonight,” I said to him.
Mr. Federman smiled and put out his hand, but I wouldn’t take it. “I’m too sweaty,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said. He put his hand on my shoulder quickly, and then pulled back. “I’m sorry to have stopped by unannounced,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I managed to say. “I understand.”
He stood with his hands in his pockets, blocking my way to the door. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked me. “Ruby?” he said, thinking that was my name.
I didn’t know how to answer him, so I didn’t say anything. I clenched my teeth to keep myself from crying.
“I do need to hear from your mother tonight,” he said. He bent his knees a little, so he was closer to my height. He raised his eyebrows. “Tonight,” he said again. Then he said, “Goodbye, Ruby. Please take care of yourself.”
I watched him walk to his car and pictured Greg Louganis on the high-dive, in silence, his arms outstretched, all of his strength and hard work on display for the world. It’s what I thought I wanted—to stand valiant and victorious over everyone else. But there was something terrible about him up there like that, all alone.
“Wait!” I called out to Mr. Federman, but the wind was blowing and there was a truck passing on the street and he couldn’t hear me. “Wait,” I said again. I thought about running after him, wrapping my arms around him from behind and resting my hot face on his clean suit, letting my sweat soak into the fabric. I just wanted to hug him for a second, even though I hated him.
“Wait,” I said one more time, but by that point, he was already driving away.
Jill Rosenberg has a BA from Vassar College and an MFA from the University of Montana. Her short stories have been published in The Kenyon Review Online, Crazyhorse, and The Black Warrior Review. Rosenberg is currently writing a novel.