Distance: a definition

Alice Baumgartner

a. The fact or condition of being apart or far off in space; remoteness.

I have often been told that I look like my mother: pale-skinned, tight-lipped, small-breasted, with legs as long as the Mississippi. Our looks are unremarkable, except for our legs, so we put them to good use. We run—past the warehouses with the windows punched out, the cemetery with the wings of the stone angels above the walls, the man in the beatup car, don’t run here, white girl. I run ahead of my mother, alone in the floodlights on the track. My toenails go missing as often as socks from the dryer, and the muscle peels away from my shin bone like a layer of paint. I develop a stress fracture, my legs taped like a horse’s. I vomit, pass out, come to. But I keep running. I learn to distance myself from the pain, or to deny it altogether, by repeating the multiplication table, and this makes me fast and skilled at arithmetic, but very much alone.

b. Remoteness in intercourse, the opposite of intimacy or familiarity

My mother worked as a doctor—drawing blood, swabbing throats, stitching wounds. She spent hours at the office, pressing her fingers to the bone to find the break, to the wrist to find the pulse. She listened as the pressure cuff inflated, as the patients complained about the coldness of her hands.

She diagnosed her patients, but never her family. Two relatives killed themselves, but my mother thought their deaths too painful to have been suicides. Her aunt had not leapt from the seventh floor window. She had fallen, her arm extended towards a balloon, her fingers reaching for the string. Her cousin, a ballerina, had not thrown herself before a train. It had been an accident, the cousin’s arms lifted above her head, her toes in a demi-pointe, the horn like a note from the orchestra pit, the shriek of the wheels like the applause of an audience that had come to its feet.

While my mother was at work, I climbed to the roof, which was as delicate as a handful of papers, curving beneath the winter ice and my summer body, brown and narrow-waisted. Sometimes I lay there for the entire afternoon, frightened that the roof would catch the wind if I did not hold it down. But as I grew older, I came to the roof for different reasons: to see the planes make trails in the sky, to watch the birds joust for bones. I liked the dirt that the roof left on the small of my back, as it curved beneath my shoulders, my buttocks, my spine. I liked its closeness.

One night in winter, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I climbed from the window to the roof with a pair of binoculars to look at the stars. I lay there for hours, my jacket balled beneath my head, feeling the house shake as trains passed on the nearby track. I began to lose feeling in my toes, but I kept the binoculars pressed to my eyes. Hypothermia was an easy way to go.

The cold was so intense that it seemed to sharpen the light, and when I tried to focus the image in the lens, my fingers could no longer turn the knob. I put the binoculars on the roof. I looked at the girders and the beams that lifted the rails above the ground. I thought of the multiplication tables. My breath quickened, my eyes closed, I came in and out of sleep, like the figures in old films, who disappeared from the screen between frames, and I wondered if this, too, would be called an accident.

But I did not try to fall asleep on the roof by accident. I wanted my mother to know this, but I did not tell her—not as she ate breakfast with the newspaper, or as she chopped carrots in the kitchen, or as I stood beside her in line at the deli around the corner, looking at my reflection in the display case: at the hair that was almost white, the turtleneck that came almost to my knees, the skin that seemed to fade into the lunch meat behind the glass. One afternoon, on the drive home from school, I told her that I had climbed from the window to the roof without a coat. I looked straight out the windshield, but she did not understand. She told me I was fine.

Yes, she said, putting the key in the ignition. You are fine.

c. trans. To outstrip or leave behind in a race, or (fig.) in any competition.

Before the sectional track meet, I looked at the tiles on the floor of the high school locker room, knotting my laces. Then I rubbed my calf muscles. They were sore. During track season, I ran hills, fartleks, repeats. I ran to win, to be faster by a tenth of a second, a quarter of a yard.

I left the locker room and sprinted across the infield in my sweatpants. The geese at the end of the grass took flight, shuffling, fluttering, honking. I stopped to remove their droppings from my shoes, digging a stick between the treads. It was late in the day. I looked at the other runners on my team, standing in a circle by the baseball diamonds, their hips to one side and their hair in ponytails. Hurdler stretch, the captain repeated. The group sat down, bent its right knee, moved its chest toward the ground. I did not warm up with the team. I did not want to be distracted.

The official called the 800-meter race, and I ran to the line, pulling off my sweatshirt, stripping to my uniform. My mother stood in the infield with a clipboard and a watch. The official gave the command. I bent my knee. After the gun went off, I did not hear the crowds in the bleachers or the announcer on the loudspeaker. I did not notice that the sun had set, or how the lights above the track blinked delicately before they switched on. I did not feel my breath go shallow or my legs go numb. There was nothing but the inside lane.

I stayed with another girl on the first lap, and when I checked the split on my watch, I knew it was too fast. But I kept on her shoulder. I moved forward. I repeated the multiplication table. The wind picked up, and the hair on my arms rose. We came to the end of the straightaway, and she held me out on the curve. We hit the last stretch, stumbling, tripping, windmilling. She edged forward, but I thrust my elbows back, my shoulders down, my chest forward, and I burst past the finish. Parents were cheering, coaches yelling splits to their athletes. My mother threw her clipboard onto the grass.

Jesus shit, she yelled.

I had won.

d. An interval. Obs.

My mother did not diagnose me. I was not tested or monitored or plied with intravenous fluids. She told me that I was sensitive and theatrical but not in ill health. When I came to her office, I did not walk through the hallways to the examining room. I did not remove my clothing and leave it folded on the floor. I did not press my fingers to my bones, or listen for my heartbeat with the stethoscope, the metal cold against my chest. I learned to enjoy the company of others. I stopped going to the roof.

e. trans. To place at a distance; to separate by a space; to eloign. Also fig.

At the Chicago Marathon, a flat marathon, a fast marathon, my mother and I woke up at ten before six to seventy-seven degrees and eighty percent humidity. It was October. Two hours later, just before the start of the race, we pushed past the spectators to the starting corrals. I hurdled over the fence, my mother behind me. I took off my jersey and pinned my number to my sports bra. It was hot.

My mother and I waited for the set command and then the gun. I shook my arms to loosen the muscles. I had to run under three hours and forty minutes to qualify for the Boston Marathon, the marathon I had wanted to run since I started running. When the gun went off, the runners in the corral moved forward but slowly because there were people at our elbows and our shoulders. The timing chips tied to our shoes beeped as we passed the start line. The race had begun.

I ran beneath the buildings and the El tracks, glancing at the sun in the glass windows, the shadows on the black pavement. I ran beside the lake, the wind to my back. I poured water over my head. It dripped down my legs and into my shoes. Above the elastic of my shorts and on the inside of my legs, the skin was rubbed raw. I could not feel my toes.

A marathon is twenty-six miles, three-hundred-sixty-five yards. It is twenty-six miles, three-hundred-sixty-five yards of exhaustion and nothingness and pain. It is twenty-six miles, three-hundred-sixty-five yards of multiplication tables. I felt very tired. The aid stations had no Gatorade. The humidity was so high that the air felt like water. I began to fall apart. I could not repeat the multiplication table. I could not form words, as I passed the final mile marker. I had three-hundred-sixty-five yards to go. I could see the finish, runners leaning over, puking.

But I did not hear anything. I collapsed. I lifted myself onto my elbows. I had to stand. I had to finish. I pulled myself up, walked three steps. Collapsed. It became a pattern—stand, walk, collapse. I crossed the finish line. 4:04:04. I had not qualified for Boston. The volunteers tore off the timing chip from my shoe, and I lay on the ground until my mother found me, somehow, in the crowd. She forced me to sit up, her shoulder against my back, her hand opening a bag of ice.

I sucked on the cubes, and cried.

f. The extent of advance from a beginning

It was almost evening, but there were no cars on the highway, just a cat on a fence post, its tail flitting against the pricks of the barbed wire. It began to rain. The clouds were yellow. The highway started to flood, and cars pulled onto the shoulder to wait out the storm. I drove slowly.

I had offered to spend the weekend in Boston with my mother, helping my sister move into her apartment, and although I did not want to pull a mattress up the narrow flight of stairs or remove kitchenware from a cardboard box, I also did not want to stay in New Hampshire, where I had worked for three months on a field crew.

That summer, I spent the nights alone, listening to the sound of the mattress against the springs of the other employees’ beds. I had had a few boyfriends in college. They lied and cheated and looked away when we had sex: ohh, ahh, no eye contact. I liked them for this. I chose them for this, because I looked away, too. If we broke up, what did it matter? My mother had dated a basketball player in high school, and no one else until she met my father, when she was thirty-one and ready to have children, because you must not rely on anyone but yourself, and particularly not on men.

By the time I arrived in Boston, the rain had slowed. I took a wrong turn somewhere, a left instead of a right, and when I realized I was lost, I turned then signaled. I heard a horn, swerved from the lane, felt the other car crash into mine, my forehead against the steering wheel, tire marks on the pavement. I pulled over, took the key out of the ignition, shaking.

I got out of the car, the insurance card in my hand, and looked at the bumper. The man got out of his car. I asked for his insurance information. Fuck you. Cash in his hand. I stepped backwards. Fuck you. Another step. I got back into my car, locked the doors. A police car pulled onto the ramp, and I talked to the officer, the window rolled down. He filled out a report, and asked if I felt all right. I told him I was fine, but there was snot in my hair, on my hands. I brought my hands to the wheel, my head to my hands, shoulders heaving, body shaking, eyes shut.

I could not stop crying, not on the highway or on the staircase, not in the bathroom, as I brushed my teeth, toothpaste falling from my chin. Not in the bedroom, as my sister pulled back the sheets, not the next morning, or that night. I wanted to leave, but all I could do was sit in the living room, on the bare hardwood floor, as my mother and my sister carried the boxes up the narrow staircase, watching the light move up the walls as the sun moved down. Then it was dark, and I found myself alone, in the company of boxes.

That night my mother sat beside me, her hand between my shoulders, her fingers against my bones. I leaned against her, her body curving against mine, her arm around my hips, her chin against my neck, and she asked me if I wanted to see someone, as we lay on the floor, knees to knees, like parentheses.

g. To go to a distance. Obs.

That spring I drove back to Boston for the marathon, the marathon that John Kelley finished fifty-eight times, the marathon that allowed no female entrants until Roberta Gibbs jumped the fence at the start. I had qualified. So had my mother.

We ran—past blind runners, runners whose legs had been taped, runners with their shorts at their ankles, their buttocks bared. The salt from my sweat dried on my skin, and I repeated the names of the towns that I passed: Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley. My hands touched the hands of the children on the curbs, the businessmen on their way to work.

At the CITGO station, one mile from the finish, the spectators clapped and cheered and pumped their arms in the air. My socks had grown wet from the sweat, my skin like a prune, and I thought of the long runs that winter, the wind against the electric wires, the light against the railroad tracks that cut through the forest preserve. As the course angled downward, towards the finish, I thought of the snow on the branches, the deer through the trees, wary and still.

Later, after the race was over, I met my mother on the steps of a nearby hotel, the space blanket wrapped around her shoulders, her hair wet against her scalp. She put her arms around me, her cheek against my hair, and I thought, as we stood there on the sidewalk, that I had been right all along. I had been right to be afraid for the roof because gravity is not enough to hold us to the earth. There must be the weight of a lover, a sister, a mother.

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