By the time Shulman reached the starting line, the race was already seven minutes old. Not that it mattered. All the runners wore a microchip laced onto their shoes that wasn’t activated until they stepped on the red mat. So, theoretically, it was possible for someone to not finish first but still win if he covered the distance in less time than everyone else. But that didn’t matter either. Shulman’s decision to line up toward the back of the 32,000 participants in the New York City Marathon was less strategic than it was logical. Similar to the reason why cowboys, if given the choice, preferred to be behind the horses during a stampede. It just seemed less likely that he’d fall, be trampled by 64,000 muscular legs, and have his body pounded into domino-size cubes on the roadway’s steel grating if he hung back a little.
“Look where we are!” Maria shouted as they took their first running steps onto the Verrazano Bridge, which, as far as most New Yorkers knew, was named after the Italian explorer best known for having this bridge named after him.
“Can you believe it?” she added.
In fact, he couldn’t. Despite all the training and anticipation, there was no way he had truly ever envisioned himself doing something like this. But here he was. Shulman. A middle-aged
stationery-store owner who until a few months ago used gym shorts only as pajama bottoms was now running across a toll bridge, with a number pinned to his shirt, being swept along by the adrenaline flow of the moving throng around him.
“Remember what Coach Jeffrey said!” Maria shouted again.
Boy, is she beautiful, he said to himself. Even in this setting. Among the thousands of runners from hundreds of countries participating in this event, she still stood out.
“Remember? Don’t start too quickly!”
Boy, is she loud, he said to himself. Even in this setting. Among the thousands of runners from hundreds of countries also calling out to friends, hers was the voice that rang out above the rest.
But she was right. Coach Jeffrey always stressed the importance of having respect for the distance they were about to run. Twenty-six miles. Actually, 26.2 miles. So it was advisable to stick to the prescribed pace and resist all urges to speed things up. The key was to conserve for the long haul. All of which suited Shulman just fine. He was in no rush. His goal was simple. All he wanted to do was finish. Try to soak up all that he could along the way. And then, when the race was over, figure out how to completely change his life and decide what he was going to do for the next thirty or forty years. That’s all. Simple.
Last Memorial Day. At a family barbecue. Shulman was about to make his announcement.
Not that his plan would be of particular interest to anyone at this picnic table. Even at this advanced age, his older siblings did not take him seriously. At best, he was tolerated. Humored. They were doctors. Medical and PhDs. They called each other “Doc.” Shulman owned a stationery store. They hardly called him at all.
Still, it was imperative that he have his say. The deadline was tomorrow and Shulman knew from experience that only when an idea was actually translated into spoken words would it begin to exist in the world outside his head. That’s how it would be liberated. Given the freedom to live or die on its own accord in lieu of banishment to that sad limbo where stillborn ideas reside.
So it was in this setting, at this holiday outing, that Shulman, who had recently billowed out to a record-high 248 pounds, revealed that he was thinking of running a marathon. That it would be for charity. And that he’d have people sponsor him.
“The money will benefit AIDS research, with a portion of it going toward a training program that starts next Sunday, so I’ll be prepared for the big race in November,” he explained.
Reaction was swift and hailed from all schools ranging from the psychiatric (“You’re out of your fucking mind”), to the religious (“God, you’re out of your fucking mind”), to the scientific (“A mass that large, unless dropped from a tower 26.2 miles high or strapped to the top of one of those mercury boosters they send up at Canaveral, could never generate enough energy on its own to cover a distance like that”). However, the most dramatic take on Shulman’s declaration was turned in by his impossibly tan parents, who made the trip from Boca to his New Jersey doorstep in what had to be record time.
“Mom, Dad, what are you doing here?”
“What are we doing here? You have children. If one of them was dying, wouldn’t you get on a plane?”
“Dying? Who’s dying?”
“Stop with the jokes. You have AIDS. Now help your father with the bags.”
An hour later. With his wife, Paula, who knew better than to interfere, at his side, this discussion was still raging over coffee.
“So you were lying.”
“No, Mom, I wasn’t lying. I said it was a charity run to raise money for AIDS.”
“No you didn’t.”
“You weren’t even there when I told everyone.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Look, why would I say I have a terrible disease if I didn’t?”
“And why would your father and I drop everything and fly our asses up to Jersey unless you said that you did? We have very busy lives. I’m learning Spanish so I can understand the gardener, and your father’s going to take up golf after he gets his new hip. This cake is delicious. Henry, try the cake.”
“I’m too aggravated to eat.”
“Henry, the beauty just said he’s not dying.”
“Okay, maybe a small piece.”
“Why are you doing this?” Paula asked several hours later.
It was evening. Shulman and Paula were in bed. She was leafing through catalogues while Shulman was pretending not to mind that she was leafing through catalogues instead of noticing that he was very interested in having sexual relations with her. Her question was a fair one, however, because Shulman hated running. Always did. To him, the act of alternately placing one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible was never regarded as anything more than a slower form of transportation employed solely as a means to get to a faster form of transportation. You run to catch a bus. You run to make a plane. Mission accomplished, you take a seat. No more running.
But as much as he hated running, Shulman had even more disdain for runners because it seemed that all runners ever talked about (with the possible exception of mute runners) was running. How today’s run felt. How today’s run felt compared with yesterday’s run. How they felt a cramp around the seventh mile of their run but it started to loosen up around the fortieth mile of their run. In addition to their smug implications that because they wore shorts and owned watches that beeped intermittently they were now members of an elite segment of middle-class white people whose metabolism had magically turned Kenyan. That their hearts now beat only once or twice a year, that pasta now just slid through their bodies and out their asses looking exactly the way it did when it went in, and that someday they were all going to get together and have a huge electrolyte festival that the rest of us wouldn’t be attending because we’d all be dead because we weren’t runners.
These were rather strong feelings, so even Shulman was surprised how his curiosity was mysteriously aroused when he saw that poster in Ben & Jerry’s (of all places) claiming that in six months a person could be trained to complete a marathon.
“Well, it’s for a very good cause,” he offered up to Paula.
Her stare let him know he should keep talking. That there had to be more. Primarily because none of his previous charitable gestures had involved jogging around five metropolitan boroughs. “There’s also a part of me that’s intrigued by the challenge,” he continued.
“Yes,” he said, “the challenge.”
“I can’t remember you ever being intrigued by a challenge before.”
“Are you kidding? I’ve always been intrigued by a good challenge. I’ve just never done anything about it before.”
“So that’s the reason? The challenge?”
“That, plus I read somewhere that the greatest gift a man can give his family is to get in shape. You know, try to make the odds work in my favor so I won’t end up being one of those old men who watch their grandchildren’s Little League games hooked up to a generator in foul territory. So far, those are my reasons. Then again, maybe if you and I had some sexual intercourse about now, it could provide further clarity to this whole thing.”
“But aren’t you in training?” she asked while simultaneously picking up the phone and dialing an 800 number. “I thought that athletes in training were supposed to abstain because it sapped their strength.”
“No-o-o-o-o,” Shulman responded with what he hoped were enough o’s to imply that she shouldn’t be silly. “That’s just an old wives’ tale that’s been scientifically dispelled. In fact, all the current medical literature indicates that the more conjugal activity a man has prior to an athletic event, especially one that requires incredible endurance for, oh, let’s say a race through the streets of an East Coast city that never sleeps, the more it will actually enhance his performance. You see, sweetie, when seminal fluid accumulates, it tends to weigh a guy down. So it stands to reason—”
“Yes,” Paula said into the phone. “I’m interested in these hassocks you have on page ninety-seven of your catalogue.”
Her smile helped. Somewhat. Though slight and with a meaning vague enough to inspire lively debate, Shulman opted for an interpretation that said, Hey, I love you and isn’t it a kick that we can still make these little connections after all we’ve been through and, if not for the uncanny timing of this salesperson, I’d be all over your still remarkably attractive bones at this very moment. And while this take may indeed have borne little or no resemblance to her actual message, it was yet another shining example of the spin that had helped Shulman weather the pounding the human spirit took during its trek from one end of life to the other. It was a useful piece of artillery, serving as both weapon and shield in a line of defense that had helped him survive four childhoods (his own and those of his three children), the uneven terrain of a twenty-six-year marriage, and the slow deterioration of a business that he’d built from scratch.
His this-glass-is-not-only-full-it’s-full-of-champagne perspective came into existence early on when attempting to satisfy parents with stratospheric expectations. Was refined along the way to bridge any gaps between where he actually was and where he felt he should be at that point. And was honed to a near art form when it came to using his overinvolvement in his kids’ lives as noble justification for the underachievement of his own. But now, as their youngest child was college-bound and would soon have an address that was different from theirs, Shulman was left with few distractions. And even fewer places to hide. No high school baseball games to fill those weekday-afternoon voids. No all-nighters paraphrasing CliffsNotes in an attempt to camouflage the fact that someone hadn’t read Silas Marner. Conversely, there was no longer the need on the part of his children to heed the wisdom of a man desperate to get things right his second time around.
And this is where Shulman was stuck. Unprepared for the sudden absence of all of the activity that had made life so easy to deflect. Or to deny. With no choice but to return to himself and take a long look at the sum of all that had happened. Examine the residue of the choices made. Then devise his own redefinition now that “dad” would no longer be the verb he’d made it into.
Uncomfortable as he was with the expanding emptiness around him, Shulman, true to form, had recently started doing some serious expanding of his own. To his great dismay, the weight was back. Once again. The downbeat of a cycle that had begun at the conclusion of Shulman’s tenure as a skinny kid and continued to this very day, when people who saw old photos were prone to remark, “My God, it’s hard to believe you were such a skinny kid.”
The numbers were unofficial, but according to his calculations, Shulman had been losing and gaining the same thirty pounds since his bar mitzvah. And if you added up all that weight, it more or less equaled a whole person. Another Shulman. Whom he hated. And pinched. And tried to conceal by wearing oversize shirts while he dieted and did crunches in health clubs in an attempt to rid himself of the Shulman he didn’t want to be.
There were times when he just couldn’t shake the specter of that Other Shulman. Times when he would close his eyes and try to conjure up an image of this discarded person, the Shulman he chose to rid himself of in favor of the husband of this woman who was ordering furniture at one o’clock in the morning. In favor of the proprietor of a store that no one came into anymore. What would that guy’s life be like? he’d wonder. Were there parts of him that Shulman should have kept for himself? Should he, dear God, have kept all of him? Was it possible that Shulman, after all this time and effort, had indeed opted to be the wrong Shulman?
Such thoughts used to appear only occasionally. Haunt him for a while. And then move on. But lately they were occurring with enough overlapping regularity to constitute a general condition. A condition that now refused to pass. So, as an extremely uncomfortable Shulman resigned himself to still another night of pay-cable titillation and worries about a livelihood that was barely alive, he couldn’t help but wonder what the Other Shulman was doing at that very moment.