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Running Buddy

There’s an intimacy in running side-by-side, stride and breath synced for hours at a time when you’d rather be sleeping, but I didn’t think of him in that way.

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There’s an intimacy in running side-by-side, stride and breath synced for hours at a time when you’d rather be sleeping, but I didn’t think of him in that way. He’d be outside on my doorstep at 9 am wearing black running gear and the latest tech gadget to track our mileage. We had fun together, and I could be myself around him, and he always seemed to take pause with a slight smile and a lingering glance when I said something he was amused by. It didn’t matter what he was up to the night before, be it an EDM concert that let out at 3 am, or something else, he was there at 9 am sharp on Sundays, and I appreciated being able to count on him to show up. If it was raining, I’d lead us in yoga in my living room, followed by an extended version of what usually comprised our post-running stretches, if we didn’t feel like braving the elements. He seemed open but a bit nervous, the first time we did yoga, letting me know he wasn’t “that flexible,” as I assured, “most men aren’t, but this is how you become moreso.” 

When I was immersed in a market research project and needed runners, he took a half-day in order to participate. When I booked a speaker for the first speaker series I led, and he could no longer make it, he jumped in as my speaker. 

One particularly sunny day, we ran to the Botanical Gardens and I noticed how awestruck he was as we jogged into the different sections of plants from all over the world, Africa, Europe, Asia… and I couldn’t help but admire how childlike he seemed, truly appreciating and absorbing the beauty of new surroundings. After the jog, we strolled around my neighborhood and bought a piece of cheesecake at a bakery and chowed down with 2 forks, and I remembered how the last time I ate like this with someone I was dating. After that, he accompanied me to pick up my latest library book, and we spent some time scrolling through and reading aloud pages from childhood development books. After the library, he is fidgety and takes a deep breath before saying my name.

“Stephanie…” and he looks at me then looks away.

“I really value our time together. Whenever I see you it’s always so fun and I’m just so happy to spend time with you. There’s a sort of magic…and it’s easy to be myself.” He pauses and looks at me, eyes wide. I feel speechless. I don’t want to compliment him for the sake of reciprocity. It’s apparent he’s thought a lot about this and I’m not sure how I feel at this moment. Sure, we have fun together, but why would I ruin this friendship by dating him? Also, he hasn’t exactly asked me out.

“I’m flattered,” I say with a smile, feeling detached from my own words. “I enjoy spending time with you too, and look forward to our jogs.” And I watch him deflate. What did he expect me to say?

After that, he leaves after some small talk, and a few days later, our mutual friend Lisa messages me. “You know Amir has a crush on you, right?”

“Yeah,” I reply, “but he hasn’t asked me out.”

“Would you say yes?”

“I’d consider it.”

(I would.)

And after that, he’s injured and then sick and we don’t jog for a while. A few months later, I learn he has a girlfriend, and assume that’s why I haven’t seen much of him. I have enough going on with work and other potential dates. I end up seeing him every-so-often at events his company is tabling at, or speaking at, and it’s always nice to see him, a warm presence that’s familiar in a way that’s fading. I know he notices when other men at these events show interest and inquire about my availability for a drink or dinner, and I wonder why he never asked me himself. He could still have a girlfriend for all I know, but I don’t ask. That would be too forward. Then I notice his Facebook status- he’s run a marathon, and I feel so proud! We’d chat about that as one of his life goals. Then I realize I wasn’t invited to train with him and my stomach sinks a little amidst the happy feeling.

Several months later, I reach out to ask him, “hey, want to go on another jog?”

“Hey, it’s been a while 🙂 Yes, when?”

“This weekend. How about Sunday?”

“Sure.”

“11am?”

“Let’s do it.”

When we meet up in the winter, he has a sternness to him that feels cold and hardened. “I haven’t run in a while,” he explains, so I let him set the pace. I’m quiet and he sets the pace of the conversation as well. I’m curious about him, and learn that what’s most prevalent for him right now is his latest company. It’s clear he has time for little if anything else other than getting this company off the ground. “I may spend a quarter in Asia,” he says, and at the end of the jog, I feel like I no longer know him. It felt like meeting with a stranger. A few days later I notice an update on Twitter and it’s confirmed. He’ll be in Asia next quarter. Maybe one day we can connect again, and it’ll feel like it did. Now simply isn’t our time. Business takes priority. I understand and accept this. Maybe someday.

That time comes and goes, and I think of him less and less. It isn’t until I plan an event, and see his name pop up in the suggested guests, and hesitate, ultimately deciding to invite him, knowing he won’t come. A couple of days later, our mutual friend messages me. “Amir got into a serious car accident yesterday, and he’s in the hospital in a coma. They say he won’t make it. I’m visiting him at 7 pm. Will you join me?”

I feel nothing. I’m simply stunned. I have tickets to an event at 6 pm tonight that could have some solid networking. It’s currently noon. “I can’t believe this… I’ll have to get back to you and confirm later.”

I wonder if it makes sense to go if he’s not conscious. Aren’t these situations more for those who are living? Do I need this? Would it be traumatizing to see the state he is in? Would my last memory of him be better for us both? Is there even a slight chance he’ll live? And with those thoughts, a silent rush of tears begin to stream down my face. Without a sound, my body is numb and my face is hot, and my vision is too blurry to continue my work. I meditate for a few minutes and when I go back to work I get through a few more emails and look up whether people in comas can hear people who visit them and learn that yes, they often can until my vision is blurred again and I just need to sit down and breathe. “Hey, I’ll meet you there at 7,” I decide. 

I call a rideshare to the hospital, the same one I was at after my car accident eight months prior. This time I’m headed to the ICU. I open up the library book I’m reading when I first get picked up and read as I usually do, but then I start crying again. This time, it’s not only wet, it’s audible. I find myself forcing back tears, choking on my own saliva, and feel a thick mucus from my nostrils line my cupid’s bow. The others in the rideshare are trying not to look at me, but I know they can hear it all. “Can I please have a tissue?” I muster, when I see we’re getting close. “Sorry,” the driver whispers nervously, “I don’t have any.” Within the same moment, the woman seated next to me in a pink velour jumpsuit, averting eye contact, pulls the napkin from her takeout bag and hands it to me. “Thank you,” I say, covering my face before trying to capture all of the snot that’s accumulated on my face like a wailing infant. When we pull up to the hospital, the driver says, “I hope everything’s okay,” and I know it’s not and I sob more, feeling too weak to get out of the car but know that I need to. “Thanks,” I utter after lingering a moment too long. 

I feel calm now, and wander into the ICU with tears visible, but thank goodness, I’m no longer covered with snot. A doctor sees me and says people always get lost in this part, and takes me to an entirely different building. When I get there, I notice that the break hours are 7-8:30pm. I wait for my Lisa and another acquaintance Frank and realize we have some time on our hands. We stay there outside of the large doors making light conversation until 8 pm when someone exists and we’re able to sneak in to find his room a bit early.

They say he’s going to die, but I don’t believe it. I look at him and it’s not as bad as I had imagined. Sure, the right half of his head is shaved and he has tubes coming out of the left side of his skull, but he otherwise looks normal. I feel his hand and it’s cold and lifeless, but I see his chest moving. He’s breathing. His presence is here. And maybe he can hear me, so after Lisa says a few words, after Frank gives him a gift, I speak. We’re holding his hands. “Well, this is a first. I don’t think we’ve each held your hand at once! Lucky guy,” I say as Lisa and I smile at one another before I begin. I had been crying intermittently the entire afternoon. I don’t yet understand the depths of my emotions in this experience. Perhaps they were ones I never felt in real-time, and certainly never expressed.

“You’re such a person of integrity. I don’t think I ever told you what a good person I think you are. I remember how we would jog together… and you were always on time. Do you remember jogging around the botanical gardens… with all of the vibrant flowers and plants from all over the world? It was just fun to be with you…”

And then two women in full colorful teal and magenta garb walk in. They are his mother and sister. I stop talking and take my hand away. Perhaps I can think the rest of what I wanted to say. I glance at my fellow visitors and see we all feel like we should leave. I’m silent and thankfully Lisa takes the conversation over, saying something along the lines of “We’re his friends and wanted to show him support as he recovers,” and then we call out our collective “Goodbye, Amir, see you soon,” and I wonder if we’re lying, but it feels like the truth.

A week later, a Facebook notification reads, “Today is Amir’s 28th birthday.” It’s been one week since I saw him. Nine days since the accident. People probably think he’s reading the messages they’re sending. They obviously don’t know and this fills me with a droopy sadness. Maybe they never have to know. I consider he’ll re-emerge and thank everyone for the birthday wishes and explain how his life changed after the accident and share his story of rehabilitation and resilience.

Before I can think any more optimistically, a private message surfaces, confirming, “…his heart stopped beating today. Thank you for all of your support. Do not be in sorrow.” I slump into the backseat of the rideshare and ask my tear ducts, ‘please don’t cry, you’re almost home. You’re almost home, and then you can feel it all. Spare these people, and just feel it later,’ tears stream down my face as the car pulls up to my curb. I exit with a brief “thank you,” walk up the steps, unlock the front door, through the hallway, kitchen, livig room, and open the door into the backyard. 

The stars are shining. It’s piercingly silent with the exception of a subtle breeze on this summer night. It’s so late that it’s no longer his birthday. His death day. No lights are visible upstairs, and my neighbors are likely asleep. I sit in a black fold-out chair underneath the avocado tree and I breathe deeply through my nose, eyes closed, feeling, and thinking. Not following his brother’s instruction of not feeling sorrow. I feel that, and more. I feel grateful for his dedication to his work and justice and his word. How he expressed how he felt or tried to, but for some reason, it wasn’t enough.

I wanted to be asked on a proper date. A grand gesture. Why was going on runs not enough for me? Why did I insist on keeping him at a distance? I was afraid to lose him like I’ve lost every other male friend turned romantic partner. But I ended up losing him anyway. What if we dated and he wasn’t on the road at 3 am on that Tuesday? What if I had realized and shared how I felt when he had looked at me and told me how special he thought I was? What if I had asked a clarifying question, or had a sense of urgency when our friend had shared the fact that he had a crush on me? What if I had allowed myself to feel what I felt for him that I was only opening to right now, as it was alarmingly too late? 

Stale energy is surfacing since we hadn’t seen one another in over 6-months. 

There isn’t hope here, in the traditional sense. He had beautiful experiences since I met him, more than likely. I had as well, but I was saving him. I knew there was something there, but I wasn’t going to let either one of us experience it unless he really pushed for it, but that wasn’t in his nature. Why is it that I should reward those who push against another’s walls, instead of one who has begun to take theirs down, if only a little, for me? What’s done is done, I rationalize, as I ache. I wonder how this moment of realization, acceptance and grief will impact the rest of my life, however long that may be.

In the weeks to follow, I think back to people in my life whom I didn’t fully express myself with. The things I loved. The things that hurt. When I thought of myself as a truth-teller even-when-it’s-hard, at times, hid things. Usually, ironically, the things that shook me to my core. The big things. I began to write letters to fill in the gaps, of those moments when I felt unmistakable joy, shame, admiration or heartache, and didn’t give a voice to those feelings. I considered keeping them in my journal but knew I had to send them. I re-read them to ensure they came from a place of love, for myself and the reader, and reached out to get their addresses. As I send the letters, I let my truth and the feelings associated with them go, to have a chance to be known.

*Names have been changed.

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