We ran on Route 279, a 4-lane highway artlessly laced through Newark’s bleak industrial parks. The road smelled like gasoline and cigarette smoke, and sometimes the ooze of roadkill. And everything around us, especially that winter, was the color gray—which in all possible ways expressed our dreary sensorium: 18-wheelers, Wawa gas stations, DuPont Agrochemical, and the occasional lifeless raccoon.
279 was my high school winter track team’s only running route. Our coach, an eternally frowning middle-aged bachelor, relished his unchallenged authority. His runners were to complete his daily routine with mechanical precision, or otherwise withstand group punishment (push-ups ad infinitum). Would our aching arms ever satisfy our dear Coach? No, but the sense of control would certainly quiet creeping feelings of impotence, a brutal affront to the masculinity he’d fashioned for himself. All told, he bred an elite stock of disciplined runners, and this was his joy.
Often, I recall one particular day out on 279. It begins and I’m thinking about how, when I run this route, the penetrating odor of diesel exhaust tunnels through my every pore, forcing its way in. I can scrub my arms and my legs and my face raw, but there’s no expelling the putrid oil simmering beneath my skin—this road leaves an indelible mark on you. And it’s not just the air that violates me. Shattered glass—279’s fertile topsoil—pricks my feet as I trudge through the muck accumulating on the road’s edge.
All this and it’s hard not to think miserable thoughts, especially at the Christina Parkway intersection. It’s here that I pass the crematorium, its banal, almost pleasant disguise betrayed only by a copper smoke-stack. Sometimes, I catch myself watching for smoke, but the sight and smell of it never perturb me for long. That’s the thing about running: all the strange “somethings” you can never quite articulate gain a certain transience, as landscapes fade behind you. And so I run and I run and I run, navigating the melancholia of Route 279—not quite with comfort, but certainly without the acute dysphoria I feel in the only other setting I share with teammates: the boy’s locker room.
At 2:30 pm, we descend on the tiny room, swelling with sweaty bodies and noise and layers of discarded clothing. This space is a hormonal cesspool where runners come to test their masculinity, their unswerving heterosexuality, the unchallenged potency of whiteness and maleness. The boys say Curtis’s dick is small. They say Rebecca is easy. They say, with mock certainty, that Chet’s gay. (He’s failed to keep his eyes glued to the wall, violating the locker room’s sacred unwritten social text.) My eyes bore a hole into the locker in front of me. I am afraid to share Chet’s ill fate, as I’m unprepared to don the scarlet letter “F.” F*g. I change quickly and abandon the scene of masculine bonding. This is their space. It was never mine.
Coach is mad about something. I can tell because his spiky crew cut is bristling. But the latest edition of his weekly monologue is the last of my concerns because something is different today. I can feel eyes on my back. They read me, penetrate my skin, glide through my veins, access my innermost secrets. Paranoia, swelling so great within me, extricates itself from my body, grips my shoulder, and snaps my neck around. I’m now returning the gaze of the boys behind me, who, caught looking, awkwardly feign interest in Coach’s god-awful soliloquy. Do they know? They must know. Coach is still saying something something about something, but the eyes are suffocating me now and I want nothing more than to run. I’ll happily throw myself into the hazy delirium of Route 279—I’ll slice my feet on shards of glass beer bottles, squish putrefied raccoons, swallow noxious fumes, fill my lungs with the incinerated remains of the dead. Anything to run and run and run.
When Coach finally releases his flock, I surge to the front of the pack. If I run fast enough, I can isolate myself from the indiscreet taunting of the boys behind me. If run fast enough, I won’t hear Brett’s holocaust denial theories, or Tom’s musings on the revolting intricacies of gay sex. If I run fast enough, I can immerse myself in thought: who told them? Why?
And if I run fast enough, maybe, just maybe, I can unmake myself the ***** gay Jew.
Evidently, I didn’t run fast enough, because it’s now the summer after my first year of college and I have a boyfriend. He’s handsome, tall, Brazilian—attractive features which almost hide the glaring impossibility of our relationship. I indulgently fill myself with the illusion that the thread connecting Delaware and Brazil is more substantial than just a few delicate heartstrings. I have to because he’s my boyfriend. Boyfriend. We’re not all that intimate with each other because, deep in me, something’s got a stranglehold on three words. Years ago, that same something kept me rigid, unmoving, and unsaying in the locker room.
The boyfriend and I part ways later in the summer and I’m home again, driving, when I’m sucked back into the miasma of Route 279. Slowly, familiar landmarks come into focus. The warehouses, the smokestack, the strip mall, the chemical plant. Out here, cigarette butts mend cracks in the road and souped-up pickup trucks eject tall, dark clouds into the wind.
It’s all gray out, hard to see anything clearly. But, through the haze, I can almost see myself running. Behind me, the boys and an angry storm of eyes and words keep pace. And there’s that undying, festering something. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped running. I don’t think I ever will.
Gabriel Roy will only be mildly disappointed to learn you’ve never met anyone from Delaware, or that you’ve only visited his state to exploit tax-free shopping (sadly, he’s heard it all before). He hopes to one day buy out the Yale University Art Gallery’s contemporary art collection, but is currently a little short on cash—pitch your latest get-rich-quick scheme to firstname.lastname@example.org.