Longfellow Bridge Loop
It’s still dark out. Rain smears my bedroom window and pours off the streetlamps into icy puddles below. Drops pelt the sidewalks, splashing furiously off sheets of water as if the world has been set to boil. It’s been several days since my last run and the extra weight I’m feeling is more than last night’s pepperoni pizza. I throw back the covers and tug on socks, windpants, and a jacket. I hear that shiftless part of me whisper, This is stupid; just go back to bed. The voice that had gotten me into trouble over the years—that assured me I had room for another drink, another party to crash, could see straight enough to drive—is still persuasive, especially when the mercury reads a raw 34 degrees.
For fifteen years, from the ages of fourteen to twenty-nine, I often found myself drunk or hung-over, usually both. In college, I earned the nickname “Asshole” and proudly answered. Drunkenness was my calling. I worked hard at it—at the bars, on the streets, behind the wheel. Pass me that after-shave, goddamn it. No one can black out like me. Needless to say, the only part of me that ran back then was my mouth, whether I was locked in a shouting match with a girlfriend, begging a couple of bucks for a shot, or pleading with a store clerk who’d caught me stuffing a bottle of wine down my pants. And those were the good years.
It’s been almost a decade since I last wiped Budweiser foam from my lips. I don’t wake up hung-over anymore, but I do sometimes wake up haunted—by who I used to be, by the people I’ve done wrong. On the days I don’t run, it’s worse. I’m filled with a different kind of thirst, a need to move between places—across bridges, over water, over city lines. The nastier the conditions, the better: lightning storms, ice-covered sidewalks, predawn country roads during hunting season. The hard work of the run fortifies my will. I move through this so I can move through that. One foot in front of the other. One run at a time.
By the time I reach the Charles River, my socks and gloves are sponges, my pants shining with water, my face a mask of rain. A lone minivan rolls down Memorial Drive, spastic wipers manically clearing the windshield. The river gulps at the banks. Even the Canada geese have taken shelter under the trees. Without my glasses, the downtown skyline is a gray smear. Office lights or stars, I can’t tell.
Over the years, I’d been sent to Alcoholics Anonymous by boarding school administrators and later the courts, but I was never able to connect with the religious-tinged language, the intense gratefulness, the slow, plodding work, the surrender. Everyone seemed older, more grizzled, more committed. I earned myself a thirty-day chip so my friends and parents couldn’t call my out-of-control behavior out-of-control. That little blue disk carved with the double As only became a license to party harder. Drinking remained the central fact in my life, its only rhythm.
But after I got sober for real, nine years later the anxieties and insecurities I’d tried to cover up with booze still remained. Only they’d morphed as if exposed to radiation. Shyness had become panic. Self-doubt was self-loathing. I didn’t know how to be friendly. I was impatient, but my mind was as nimble as a tree sloth. I didn’t get jokes, only perceived slights. I was forgetful, quick to tremble, a little unsteady on my feet. I’d grown so used to opening my eyes in terror, confusion, and shame over the years that I was sure I’d worn permanent grooves into my brain—nightmares still jetted from my brain’s limbic system to the screen behind my eyeballs, smooth bullets fitted into an even smoother chamber. I could taste the absence of vodka in my orange juice.
Harboring memories of disconnect, I chose not to return to the hard-eyed groups and those church basements and instead to gut it out alone. But as those first sober years passed, the details of my offenses, the faces and voices of those I hurt, started to dissolve. The guilt calcified. Over time, the past became a hard lump in my throat, a walnut I had trouble swallowing as I pushed a lawn mower across the grass of my first home, cheered my stepdaughter on the soccer field, made small talk with church-going parents at show-and-tell evenings at the elementary school. I was reserved, quiet, the last person they’d picture vomiting out a car window in a crowded city square, then cracking another beer and toasting the shocked faces.
But when I took up running, I found not only a new central pattern to my life, but a forum in which to confront myself. Have I avoided AA because I’m afraid to say, “I’m an alcoholic” in a roomful of strangers? Was it cowardly to write apology letters rather than look people in the eye? Can a drunk ever be truly happy again?
As I pound across the puddle-filled Longfellow Bridge toward Boston, Beacon Hill shrouded in mist, I grapple with the ghost of me and how it fits within my current form, the one clocking nine-minute miles in motion-control running shoes, with the wife and teenage stepdaughter, the mortgage and aging parents. At the span’s last stone bastion, I hop down the slick concrete steps that lead to the pedestrian walkway and wind back down to the river.
On the Esplanade, an empty sleeping bag hangs off a bench, a pair of drenched tennis shoes parked beneath, along with pieces of soggy cardboard, detritus of a homeless life. Often, when I run past the bottle-strewn camps on the riverbank, guys nursing bagged beers and staring at the water, nowhere to go, nowhere to be, I wonder about the fateful combination of decisions and life events that has separated them from the centrifugal forces that keep the rest of us pinned in place. I usually wave as I pass.
In the back of my mind, I harbor a similar wonder about my life. How does a shy, athletic child from a stable family turn into an obnoxious, chain-smoking drunk? I wish I could point to some horrific trauma—an abusive babysitter, a terrible car crash—that I’ve buried so deep it’s become somebody else’s problem in China. My parents weren’t big drinkers, though alcoholism had cast shadows on both sides of the family. There was no divorce, no abuse; we lived in safe neighborhoods. Had I taken my teenage itch to fit in too far? Maybe it had something to do with childhood bed-wetting, which burned me with shame and taught me to lie. Depression ran in my dad’s family.
Churning through the wet, empty darkness, past the Community Boating boathouse and the half dome of the Hatch Shell, I draw lessons from the road: The hard, cracked surface of the sidewalk reminds me of the facts in my life that have to be accepted—that I’ve cheated on girlfriends, abandoned friends, spewed cruel words. The lung-squeezing hills tell me about the pain that precedes reward. The weather—the rain, the snow, the ice—is the little stuff life throws at you. And sometimes it’s the little stuff, a broken shoelace, the finger from a pissed driver, a botched fact in one of your articles, that can cartwheel you back toward your dark places.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever fully calm the waters of my past, but the steady drumbeat of my feet on the ground and my arms sawing through the air helps. For an hour at a time, I am enduring, rebuilding. The harder I push and the farther I go, the more it hurts and the better it feels. Softened, I’m able to pry my body from the space it occupies, and in that cracked-open territory is a place where I can touch my various facsimiles: the scrawny sixth-grader stripping his piss-soaked bed for the fifth morning in a row, the shy thirteen-year-old eating lunch in the bathroom stall of a new school, the cocky seventeen-year-old drunk on his fifteen minutes of fame, the blurry-eyed twenty-three-year-old speeding down the highway on blind, angry tires. And it’s where I can try to forgive the thirty-eight-year-old with the shin splints and the sweat stinging his eyes.
Through the curtains of rain, I come across another runner by one of the stone footbridges. A middle-aged man with a slight paunch, drenched gray sweatshirt, and knit cap dripping with water. He has a mustache and thick eyebrows. I wonder what’s brought him out in this foul stew. We raise hands as we pass and look into the other’s eyes. Is he confronting something, too—a medical diagnosis? A divorce? A death? We recognize each other, that a particular kind of work is being done out here. Then he’s gone, footfalls smacking, receding. But he stays in my mind as I splash beneath the Boston University Bridge. Both of us alone out here, a community of two chasing things that will never be caught. No longer do I run from my demons, but run with them. We pace each other, the past and me. And some days, I go faster.