We had gone running early that morning but cut it short, stopping after three and half miles.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Cortney said, and started to walk.
“Big potty?” I asked, trying to be delicate, speaking her third-grade-teacher lingo.
“Yes.” Her cheeks reddened under the lamps that lit the trail.
“You can poop in my hat,” I said.
“No. I wish I had brought some toilet paper. I’d go in the bushes.” We were on the Virginia Corridor Trailway, a two-lane paved path that replaced a dormant set of train tracks and bisected neighborhoods to the west and east. I pictured the doggie pick-up bags in dispensers and shuddered at the thought of cleaning up after her. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully, she didn’t want to crap in my favorite fitted running beanie.
I had to go, too, but I was more used to running through the urge.
Ten minutes later, back at her apartment, Cortney rushed to the bathroom. I started making a smoothie and heard the shower. Since there is only one bathroom in her apartment, I held it and got her lunch ready. The relationship was pretty new in those ways.
Cortney was running late for work. She had already left the apartment and walked down the stairs to her car but rushed back in. “Have you seen my cell phone?” The force of her words pushed the door open as much as her hands.
I popped my head out from the kitchen at a 45-degree angle, shaking my hands toward the sink. “No, I don’t think so. Is it by the b—”
She reached between the cushion and the arm of her reading chair. “Oh, here it is. Okay, gotta go. Quick kiss.” She walked and puckered as I met her in the living room.
In unison, we exaggerated, “Muah!”
“I’ll walk you out to your car,” I said.
She sped through the door and hurtled down the stairs. “Don’t lock yourself out.”
“I won’t,” I said, closing the door behind me and rushing to catch up. Suddenly it felt like we were working out again, running down bleachers at the track, head and eyes down, intent on each step, a mixture of concentration, caution, and exertion. At the bottom and on flat ground, we jogged the twenty yards to her car.
“Okayhaveagreatday,” she said.
“You, too. See you this afternoon.”
I stood in the mini parking lot like I was waiting for her plane to take off, not wanting to turn around until her car had disappeared from my sight. I watched her pull out in reverse. The gravel in the alley crunched under her tires. She drove away after we gave our final waves, metronomes from elbows to fingertips, and blew our final kisses.
Floating back upstairs, belly full of butterflies, I glowed with the thought that I was an attentive, exciting boyfriend.
The front door was locked. I gripped the cold, gold handle and shook it like I was trying to tear it off, as if I would somehow overpower the locking mechanism with brute force. The windows rattled.
“What the fuck?” I said out loud, knowing Cortney was already down the street, out of sight, zooming to work fourteen miles away and two towns over. Knowing I didn’t have my own cell phone on me. Knowing I didn’t know her phone number anyway.
I walked around the wrap-around balcony to each hand-crank window, hoping that one had been left cracked open, digging my fingers into the gaps on the sides to pry loose the old, rusted frames.
What the hell am I going to do? I had rented out my house when I went on sabbatical and was crashing at Cortney’s before I went traveling again. Everything I needed was locked inside of her place.
I started to get cold in my running tights, running shoes, and form-fitting, long-sleeved running shirt.
Now I was stuck outside without a key to my car, a phone, money, anything. The morning air added an extra chill to my smoothied bones. And, still having to go big potty, it felt like I was going to mess myself.
I thought, Maybe Paul is awake and I can borrow one of his cars. I walked the five blocks to my friend’s house, reliving the scene in Up in Smoke when Cheech coaches himself: “Cheeks stay together.”
Paul was already gone, so I returned to Cortney’s porch, shaking the same door handle, pulling at the same windows. I looked across the street to my college. It was still before 7 a.m. on a Friday, a non-teaching day. I could wait until the secretaries arrived and call my mom’s house. But what I wore left very little to the imagination. One glance at my crotch gave a clear outline of everything.
Plus, having just spent too many weeks on the road eating crappy food, I looked like I was pregnant and just starting to show. My pecs, too, seemed more like points since I hadn’t done a push-up in weeks. I felt like Mr. Fatness more than Mr. Fitness. This was fine for running in the dark before most of the world awoke but not walking around in broad daylight at my place of employment. Still, the specter of squatting outside to relieve myself overtook all ego.
Where do the homeless go to the bathroom? I wondered.
The science building, otherwise foreign to me, sat close to the road. I slipped into a bathroom with an outside entrance. Warmth, gratitude, and relief consumed me so much that I considered staying until Cortney got home at 4 p.m. But picturing myself pacing back and forth in a bathroom or sitting all day in a stall, hiding and hoping no one would walk in, motivated me to think of other options, like running to my mom’s house three and a half miles away.
The run would keep me warm, allow time for my mom and stepdad to wake up, give me access to a car, and provide the option of putting on some less–revealing clothes. An added bonus, which I didn’t anticipate, was that the run would give me time and insight to work through my tendency to blame others for anything bad that happens to me.
I knew that Cortney locked the door as she walked out, an unconscious movement from the two years she had spent living alone in that apartment. I noticed her doing it a week before when she almost locked me out, and I had thought several times that I should get an extra key made to stash outside. But I didn’t. And now I wanted it to be her fault that I was stuck outside, stranded, resourceless, and practically naked.
Deep down, I knew better. But it took this extra run through Modesto to figure it out.
My mom opened the front door, her face pixilated through the security screen. “What are you doing here?” she said.
“I’m locked out. I need your car.”
“What? Where’s Cortney? Is she already at work?”
“Yeah, I walked her out to her car and didn’t realize that she locked the door out of habit.”
“Do you have your license with you? You can’t drive my car without your license.”
“Mom, are you serious? Look at me. I don’t have anything. All I have is what I wore to go running. I’m not going to get pulled over.”
She chuckled in that nervous way that conveyed she meant what she said but wasn’t comfortable being challenged about it. “Yeah, I’m serious.”
Dan, my stepdad, still facing the too-loud TV, said, “I’ll take him.”
“Okay, thanks, Dan. But Mom, do you have some sweats I could wear over my running gear? I can’t walk into Cortney’s school looking like this.” I would have asked Dan, but he outweighs me by at least 100 pounds.
She soon displayed a series of matching sweatsuits in pastels and kitten-soft material not meant to go past the front door.
“No, Mom, what about that matching blue Adidas track suit you wear all the time? Can I wear that?”
“Oh, yeah. Let me see.”
Meanwhile, I said to Dan, “If I’m not being too needy, can I borrow one of your baseball caps? My hair is a mess.”
“You bet.” He followed my mom down the hall but turned left to the spare room cum storage closet.
My mom returned with another wrong set of sweats. “This?” she asked. I began to get flashbacks of being in the third grade, shopping for school clothes at Mervyn’s with my mom. She had seemed intent on ensuring that everybody I ever encountered would not only dislike me but also openly ridicule me.
“No, you know, the track suit with that material that makes that swishy sound when you walk and it rubs together? Swish, swish, swish,” I said, embarrassed that I tried to mimic the sound certain clothes make.
“Oh, okay. I think I know what you’re talking about.”
“See if this fits,” Dan said, walking past my mom. “If it does, you can have it. I didn’t realize it didn’t adjust when I bought it, and my head is so big you could put a wine barrel on it and it’d still be tight. That thing’s not even close.”
I squeezed it on, getting an instant headache, but I just wanted this kitchen fashion show to be over. “It’s perfect,” I said. “Thanks.” Meanwhile, I wondered who I could give it to after it served its purpose.
My mom walked into the room holding another set of warm-ups like she was carrying a baby at a distance, one hand on the hanger-hook, and one hand under the legs of the pants. “This one?”
“Yep, those are the ones.”
I heel-pushed out of my running shoes and pulled the pants on over my running tights, then the jacket over my running shirt. My mom’s waist and torso are bigger than mine, so I looked like a kid who wore his big brother’s sweats and his little brother’s hat. To top it all off, the legs came up a little short to show my bare ankles, what kids called “high waters” back in the day.
Walking onto the playground in elementary school was always terrifying. Actually, junior high and high school were no different. It was like playing “Marco Polo” but on dry ground. I just knew someone was going to yell “fish outta water!” and identify me as an outcast, an oddball, the one who wore his big brothers’ hand-me-downs, the one who still wore Toughskins while everyone else had graduated to Levi’s, the one who wore Kinney shoes while K-Swiss ruled. It didn’t even matter that I was generally pretty popular. I didn’t feel like I fit in.
Thirty-five years later, I thought I had grown out of that, but the perfect confluence of mishaps brought it all back.
I swished into the elementary school office wishing that I had shaved in the last three days, that I wasn’t sporting my stepdad’s too-tight baseball cap, and that I wasn’t wearing my mother’s clothes. But I was desperate.
“Oh, you’re Op,” the secretary said. “Nice to finally meet you. Just sign in right there and you can walk to Cortney’s classroom. Do you know where it is?”
“I think so. That way, right?” I pointed in a direction I hoped was south.
“You got it.”
Exiting the back door of the office, I saw miniature people, maybe kindergartners, lining up outside. One of them appeared to ask his friend, “Who is that strange, scary man walking with his head down?”
I sped up my pace, which only made me look more creepy and suspicious, I’m sure.
When I approached Cortney’s third-grade classroom, I heard her voice and suddenly realized I hadn’t considered what I would say. I just stood in the doorway, watching her read to her students in “Library Corner.” The light from behind me made me a silhouette.
She looked up, and her brow tightened over her eyes, defensive and alarmed. “Can I help you?” Twenty-seven tiny faces turned my way.
“I’m locked out.”
She registered my voice and unclenched her jaw. “Oh, no. Come in, come in.” Then her teacher voice returned, a few decibels higher than normal conversation. “We-were-just-read-ing-a-stor-y. Let-me-in-tro-duce-you-to-ev-er-y-bod-y. Class, this-is-my-boy-friend, Op. Op, this-is-Kay-la, Lu-is, A-lex-is, O-mar–”
“Baby, I’m sorry, but Dan is waiting outside. Can I meet everybody at a better time, when I’m not wearing my mom’s clothes?” The kids all giggled, either titillated that I had called their teacher “baby” or looking closer at my get-up.
While Cortney retrieved her keys, the kids still stared at me, so I addressed them like a robot speaking to a group of semi-deaf, developmentally-delayed children. “I-look-for-ward-to-meet-ing-ev-er-y-one-of-you-real-ly-soon. Good-bye-now,” and waved like Ronald McDonald.
As I did this, I kept thinking, Is this how I’m supposed to communicate with third graders? This can’t be right. I was used to teaching adults at the local junior college.
In a chorus, Cortney’s students said, “Goodbye,” unaffected by my self-consciousness, my attire, my mannerisms, or my syncopated speech.
Now, with the key to Cortney’s apartment securely zipped in my pocket, I strode back over hopscotch outlines and basketball courts while two bottles of post-run water pushed for release. I wondered if it’d be okay to slip into the little kiddos’ john to pee. But just then, a waist-high poster boy for cuteness stepped out of the bathroom entrance while still buttoning his pants, and I got a clue. No way was I going in there, especially looking like a forty-something stalker-predator who still lived with his mom.
I didn’t want to add another challenge to my morning of playing Survivor: Central Valley, so I held it again, trying to find the lesson in all this. Like before, what I desired remained just out of reach — a bathroom, my living space, a vehicle, an inconspicuous set of clothes. But really, these were all temporary, and it wasn’t like I was actually homeless. My so-called problems were small in comparison.
I also had to look at my fault-finding. Since I was no longer a kid, I couldn’t just blame others for whatever predicaments I got myself into. Still, I didn’t shit or piss my pants or die from colon blockage, kidney failure, hypothermia, running too many miles, or embarrassment from wearing goofy clothes. Yes, I did have to relive all the anxiety I felt as a kid about what I wore and how others perceived me. But just like when I was in the third grade, I didn’t get laughed off the playground. I lived to learn another day.
Optimism One‘s essays have been published by In Fact Books and The Normal School, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide. His blood type is B+ (be positive).