It started with one of those crises of fitness that relatively young men who drink and smoke too much tend to have. These instances always seem to manifest themselves during the week, after a weekend with a fifth of something strong and a pack of something deadly. You wake up some Monday or Tuesday afternoon feeling like a brittle, heavy stone and wonder how it ever got that way. You’re not sick and you’re not hung-over, just out of shape.
That was some Tuesday afternoon for me. I woke up and avalanched out of bed. My alarm clock read 1:35 PM, half of the day was gone and it was never coming back, it felt good. I put on a shirt and dragged myself over to the bathroom to take a piss, I felt groggier than usual. The toilet flushed, I washed my hands and washed my face in the sink. My five day beard jabbed the palms of my hand as I washed my face. I considered shaving but was soon reminded that the cabinet above the sink was still missing the mirror all those cabinets come with, somebody had broken it during a party or something. The reason I hadn’t shaved was because I didn’t have a bathroom mirror. People take that excuse as a real joke, but it’s a serious issue that I’m sure plagues most modern households, people would be so well kept if they just had bathroom mirrors.
I brushed my teeth, without a mirror, because it’s impossible to cut your throat open while brushing your teeth without looking. And it’s ok if you miss a spot when you brush your teeth, but you look like a fool if you miss a spot when you shave. I finished up and walked out into the hall, the hall that led to another bedroom and the living-room/dining-room/kitchen area. My brother was at work so I was the only one in the apartment. I hated that quiet and motionless atmosphere that empty rooms have, you could feel time when it was quiet, you could feel it like humid weather. I went back into my room to put on some jeans and grab my little camels. Little camels are what I called my unfiltered camel cigarettes. So I got out to the three-by-five balcony that this crappy apartment had and I let the noise settle in. The cars and trucks roared down the nearby freeway, Mexican music played from somewhere down the line of apartments, sirens somewhere in the distances got closer and louder, a mother screamed at her children for something they both probably did wrong. Now I could deal with time, with reality, it’s so much easier when you know something is going on and you can hear it and smell it and be that bastard witness. I took out one of my crocked little camels and struck a red-headed match.
That first inhale wasn’t ideal, the taste of burnt tobacco seemed more bitter than usual, a metallic type of bitter. The second and third drags were just as bitter but got increasingly harsher on my throat as the smoke tumbled and scrapped all the way to my lungs. I exhaled out of my nose, that part wasn’t bad, just normal. The fourth drag is the one that took me out like a good left hook. It was a long drag, excessive, the fiery end couldn’t keep up in producing enough smoke for me to take in. The taste was still bitter, though a bit less metallic, the harshness was no stronger than the previous drags. I was about to exhale when something came over me, out of nowhere I felt like I was chocking, I hunched over and began coughing violently. With every cough that I barked out, I would puff out a little smoke cloud. It must’ve looked like the death of one of those old steam trains as they try to chug along but can’t and just stop and go while little puffs come out its smokestack. The clouds of smoke got smaller and smaller, my coughing got quieter and quieter, till it was all over and I felt like hell.
From somewhere down below I heard “Hey! Are you alright up there?” It seemed of genuine concern.
“Yeah, I’m alright,” I said, “just a bad cigarette.”
The person didn’t reply after that, whoever cared didn’t care anymore. I took a seat on a small stool we kept out there in the balcony and took some deep breaths. My eyes felt red, like with the feeling of having just been woken up in the middle of the night. I raised my right hand to rub my red eyes and noticed that I hadn’t dropped the cigarette throughout the whole ordeal, I had grown so accustomed to holding it that it just seemed natural and unnoticeable. It wasn’t even half way done, the ember tip was practically nonexistent, a little, thin line of smoke struggled upwards and disappeared. I smashed the cigarette against the railing of the balcony and thought – I don’t know what shape I’m in, but it can’t be any good.
Back inside, I got myself a glass of water and went back into my room. I turned on my computer and put on some music while I applied for some jobs and checked my email. My eyes still felt red, though less so. I closed the web browser and kept the music playing, I already felt tired, and when you feel tired after you just wake up, you feel old. Or at least older than you really are. I didn’t feel like I had been decaying for 23 years, it felt like I imagined 30 would feel like. Seven years wasn’t so bad, though I wish I felt like I did back in my high school cross-country days, before the whiskey and little camels. I could run for miles then and still have enough juice to stay up all night talking to broads and doing homework. You can’t do that anymore after a while, it all catches up and you start breaking even if you’re lucky. No sir, it’s never like it used to be. But people always suspect that it could be like it used to be. And that’s how I felt after my coughing concert.
I put on some shorts and a pair of old running shoes I hadn’t used for over a year. I hadn’t gone running in over two years. All the odds were against me. But I mustered up the will to go along with it as I stretched. The only things I took with me were the keys to the front door and gate. There was a park two blocks away, the weather was warm, somewhere in the seventies. I remember measuring a lap around the park once, it was a little over a mile, I decided to run two laps. I still had a chance if I could still run two miles, a chance to fight those extra seven years I had on me, and maybe even reverse it. I just wanted a chance, some people don’t even make it to that, this was going to be tough.
The park was an oddly shaped mess that more-or-less resembled a rectangle. It technically had five sides but one of them was too short to matter. I started running, long forgotten muscles were waking up. My breathing started to get heavy half way through my first mile. I could feel the strain on my calf muscles on the last side of the park. A sense of relief came over me as I finished the first mile, even though I had several significant doubts that I could finish the second mile.
I slowed my pace at the beginning of the second mile, my calves seemed on the brink of snapping and cramping up, my thighs weren’t doing so hot either, it felt like a knife was jabbing them with every step I took. I was making the turn from the first side to the second when I noticed someone pass me by on my left hand side, it wasn’t in a flash or a creeping pace, but more of a steady fluid stride. It was a girl, I was keeping my slow-and-steady pace, so she passed me in no time and kept getting farther with those strides. She was thin, wearing a white tank-top and those black tights that hug the ass in a glued-on sort of way. And damn did they hug her ass in all the right ways, or maybe it was her ass that was doing all the work, who knows. I’ve never really been an ass-man, but every now-and-then you come across one that you can’t help but admire and practically sweat over. That’s what her ass was doing, calling for unconditional admiration like some miracle, some act of divinity. And with those steady strides she was running with, oh man, I nearly lost my mind and stopped chugging along. But I held on to my concentration and pain of fatigue because I had already wasted a mile on it and I wasn’t about to give in now. Besides, in no more than two minutes she was too far away to be worth paying attention to.
My legs seemed to be getting more and more tired, but I didn’t slow down, maybe I had finally gotten used to the tiring pain in my legs. I finished the second side and started on the third. And then I found myself catching up to the girl, I didn’t know if I was running faster than before or if she was running slower. I considered bringing my pace down to enjoy the view, but I didn’t see a reason for it, my concentration on the run outweighed my desire for eye-candy, call me jaded. So I kept my pace, I passed that good ass, and I kept going.
For some reason I was glad that I had passed the broad, it felt like a sort of victory. That’s the way people get when they pass someone, be it on the freeway or just getting the last spot on a full elevator and seeing the other people wait as the doors close. Little, meaningless victories. It’s these little victories that keep us from going insane with depression and hysteria, passing a guy on the freeway makes the bills a little more bearable, makes solitude a little less lonely, and makes dealing with people less awkward. Little victories keep us moving forward in life. It’s easy to dismiss the little failures, so it’s not like the little victory someone takes over someone pushes them over the edge. In fact, most people don’t even notice when someone takes a little victory over them, or maybe they just don’t care because they know they’re going to get theirs later anyway. I got my little victory and it got me forward, my legs were feeling better and lighter, I sped up and finished my second mile. Now I had a chance.
I stopped running and began walking back towards the apartment, I looked back to see if the broad was there, she wasn’t. The two miles were starting to feel like daggers on my legs as I walked up the stairs to the apartment. I took a shower, considered shaving without a mirror, decided not to. I had my little victory for the day and walked on out to the balcony. Different music was playing somewhere down below, the rush-hour cars on the nearby freeway screamed with their horns as they crawled home, kids were playing and screaming somewhere. I lit another little camel. It was good this time.