If you go by the calendar, it’s already spring. Yet winter hovers over us in a perpetual chill. They say it was the coldest winter in years. To be honest I don’t remember much of it. The season went by in a haze of pills and numbness.
I’m afraid to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t stumbled across my running shoes packed away in a shoebox in the back shelf of my closet. They reminded me that I’m better than this; that I’m a survivor. I put them on and went running for the first time in months. I’ve jogged every day since.
Even this morning I run, though it’s drizzling and I’m exhausted. Running is the only way I know to ease the dread that has gnawed at me ever since Matt and I argued last night. It was a vicious, barb-filled fight that made me feel our marriage was teetering on the edge of a precipice. When I finally fell asleep my dreams were strange and unsettling, permeated by lashing wind and rain crackling on the slate driveway. I woke feeling bereft.
The morning routine began the moment I opened my eyes. It was typically frantic. Alice threw a minor tantrum because we were out of her favourite cereal. Matt hastily cooked scrambled eggs with toast to placate her. I plaited her dark hair while she wriggled restlessly in front of the hall mirror. We both ransacked the house looking for the seashell Alice insisted on taking to show-and-tell. Despite the chaos, the atmosphere was icy. Matt and I didn’t exchange a single word.
When I finally got Alice in the car to drive her to school, the storm from overnight returned. Rain flicked onto the windshield in an endless stream, taunting me as I drove the familiar route, past our local shopping strip lined with cafes and stores selling useless designer novelties. I watched our plastic toy-land town pass by through the whir of windshield wipers and thought to myself: if only the blemishes in my life could be erased so easily. I turned on the radio. The music didn’t help. I couldn’t stop thinking about last night’s argument.
It began over dinner. Matt told me over the main course, in the same expressionless tone he uses when he asks me to pass the salt, that I’m not invited to Laura’s memorial dinner. He tried to let me off gently by making it sound as if he was doing me a favour. How boring it would be to sit through all those longwinded speeches. How the evening would run late, and how my medication would make me drowsy. And then he pulled the Alice card. ‘Darling,’ he said. ‘Someone needs to stay with Alice. She isn’t comfortable yet with the new babysitter.’
I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. Does he have so little regard for my intelligence that he thinks I don’t know why I’m banished? Oh, I know alright. Matt can hardly play the grieving widower when I’m sitting next to him at the head table, clapping politely as scholarships are awarded in honour of his first wife. Dear Laura, who was in his bed and in his heart first. And there she will remain for eternity. Laura will never age, never get fat, never grow wrinkles, never disappoint him in the ways that I have done. They talk about her in superlatives, even after all these years. Me, they barely notice.
‘That’s just great, Matt,’ I said, trying to make a joke of it. ‘I never realised that I was your skeleton in a closet. The inconvenient second wife. Hidden from public view.’
‘Don’t be crass, Julie,’ he fired back. ‘You hate these functions. If I’d asked you to come then you’d have made up an excuse to get out of it. Isn’t that how it works with you, Julie? One excuse after the next.’
‘You could have asked me before you made a decision on my behalf. I have the right to make a choice.’ I ran upstairs and buried my tears in the quilt covering our bed. Deep down I knew that Matt was right. I wouldn’t have gone. I rarely socialise these days.
They say running is a loner’s sport. I’m a natural long-distance runner in both build and temperament. I’m at my happiest when I’m running alone into wind that roars into my ears and drowns out everything.
Of all the routes I take, Kellers Way is my favourite, with its steep hills and deep silences. I don’t care what anyone says, no gym equipment can replicate the sense of freedom you get from running through a forest. Not even the top-of-the-range treadmill that Matt gave me two birthdays ago. It sits in the downstairs spare room collecting dust. I’ve only used the treadmill twice, both times when blizzards hit and we were housebound.
Matt doesn’t like me running on the streets. He doesn’t say why, but I know well enough. We live in the shadow of Laura’s tragedy. He wants me to exercise at home, or to use the platinum membership he bought me at the fitness club.
Why can’t he see that it’s all fake? The effervescent step instructor who can’t possibly be that happy; the personal trainer flirting shamelessly with his clients for bigger tips; the stay-at-home moms surreptitiously measuring thigh gap while they exercise. Those women judge and covet at the same time.
After class, they sip vegetable juice through clear straws at the health-club bar with the giggly excitement of schoolgirls getting drunk on homemade cocktails. I can’t believe I used to join them, drinking my own vitamin shake like some pathetic sorority pledge desperately trying to fit in. And failing miserably.
These days, I prefer running alone, with the cold air slapping my cheeks until they sting and rain hitting me until I’m soaked through. Today the morning air is so frosty that my breath leaves loops of mist hanging before me like strange apparitions. They shatter as I run through them. I peel off the main road and descend into Kellers Way. The rain has eased to a light drizzle. I run until a deafening hum blocks out everything, even the excruciating pain that runs through me. I hear nothing for the longest time until loud gasps rip through the daze that has enveloped me. It takes a moment for me to realise the wheezing is coming from me. I’m struggling to breathe. I clumsily remove my asthma spray from my pocket and inhale until the tightness in my chest recedes.
Behind me, twigs snap sharply. I whirl around. I am surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see, most still stripped of leaves. Then I see it. The soft eyes of a deer stare into mine until a flash of terror passes across them. The doe looks at me almost accusingly before running off.
When I get to the university, Matt’s lecture is in full swing. Everyone listens with rapt attention. I’ve always admired the way Matt effortlessly controls a room. The navy shirt he wears with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and the hint of dark stubble on his jaw, makes him look more like a revolutionary plotting insurrection than a psychology professor.
I sit anonymously in the shadows and watch his fangirl students cross and uncross their legs as they move restlessly in their seats, listening to the rich tones of his voice. I see the hunger in their mascaraed eyes.
I’ve read comments about Matt on online college forums that made me blush. The things these girls have said and thought about my husband. He pretends not to notice the array of pastel panties that tease him from under their skirts.
‘Impulse.’ Matt writes the word on the whiteboard with a red marker pen. He underlines it twice.
‘We all have urges. Some urges we share with other animals. Hunger, for example. One of our most primitive urges. Other urges are more sophisticated. They reflect the human condition. The urge for power. The urge for ownership, or success. Or for recognition.’ He pauses.
‘If everyone in this room were to give in to their urges right now there would be chaos. Mayhem.’ He pauses until the uncomfortable laughter subsides. ‘Resisting urges, resisting desires is what sets us apart from our primate cousins. It’s what makes us human. It’s what, in fact, makes us civilised.’ Matt waits with his arms crossed until the crackle of anticipation is the only sound in the auditorium. His students strain to hear his next sentence.
‘The ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward and instead wait for a better reward later has been shown to result in greater success. Higher SAT scores. Better professions. Higher income. The question is why people who are able to delay gratifying their urges are more successful. Anyone?’
Someone sitting near the back puts up his hand. ‘It’s a sign of self-control,’ he says.
‘That’s right. Self-control. We exercise it all the time.’ Matt pauses. ‘We resist desires every waking hour of our lives. Chocolate, cigarettes, coffee.’ He pauses. ‘Sex.’
He lingers on the word as he looks directly at a girl with long black hair swept behind her shoulders. I inhale sharply. The resemblance is uncanny. No wonder Matt can’t keep his eyes off her. Of all the students he’s decided to fuck this term, it has to be the one who looks like Laura.