Ever since Ben was on his high school’s cross country team twenty years ago, he loved running. It had always been his preferred workout, and he could run for an hour or more without difficulty but with that perfect blend of challenge and achievement that made exercise so satisfying. The year he turned thirty, he ran a marathon, and while he was happy with his time, the raucous crowds that lined the routes and cheered the runners made him miss the solitude of distance running that he so enjoyed.
Now in his forties, he would leave the house early, before the midday heat, and be predictably gone for an hour or two, running through streets, wooded areas, open fields, sometimes even losing his way and simply running until he recognized some landmark that reoriented him so he could find his way home. He stayed remarkably fit, and when he ran, he felt weightless, as if on the magic carpet of his sneakers, powering through the air toward the horizon and into the future.
This morning, a Sunday, he left the house without saying goodbye to his wife Sharon because of an unpleasant argument they had over breakfast about one of the million little annoyances that plague marriages. The things that needed fixing around the house. Their teenage son Nathan’s drinking and poor choice of friends. The difficulty Sharon was having finding child care for their three-year-old Beth, and Ben’s resentment that all the daycare slots were gone because Sharon had procrastinated. And of course, money. Ben didn’t get the promotion and pay raise he was expecting because his company lost a major bid to a competitor, which necessitated layoffs. Ben felt lucky just to be able to keep his job. They had recently purchased a new car for Sharon and a new living room set they had been talking about for the better part of a year, and their accumulated credit card debt had now become alarming.
The aggravation Ben felt about the argument gave some extra power to his running, and he took off at a sprint. After three blocks, he knew he had to pace himself if he was going to get in his usual distance so he slowed his gait and let his breathing return to a comfortable level. He turned onto the main boulevard through the town center, across from the ball fields where he saw teams of Little Leaguers practicing, then up the hill and into the state park that covered hundreds of acres. He smiled to himself and thought, “I’m not a dirt track runner, I’m a cross country runner,” remembering how much more he preferred the wooded, overland routes to the boring tracks or roads. He saw a trail marker that said, “Scenic vista, 10.2 miles” and decided to run uphill.
As he ran, he became angry and self-pitying about how lonely he felt in his marriage, how Sharon never took anything seriously, which meant he had to make all the important decisions himself. “Oh, honey,” she would say, “everything’s going to work out,” this being her idea of problem solving. She was in total denial about Nathan’s drinking, and chalked it all up to “boys will be boys.” Ben had a serious drinking problem before he met Sharon that he had never talked to her about. It was in the ’80s, so of course there were routinely mounds of cocaine around. One night, after a stupid stunt that left him with eight stitches in his left shoulder, he went cold turkey for about two years before he settled into mild social drinking and absolutely no drugs. He’d been lucky. He knew all too well about the slippery slope of substance abuse, and he was convinced that Sharon had no idea. There is nothing worse, he thought, than feeling alone in a marriage. It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared enterprise, that’s what makes it all worth it.
He realized he was on the downhill side of the trail, having missed the scenic vista, and was back below tree line. He turned left, off the marked trail and into the woods, hoping to challenge himself a bit by having to dodge the tree roots and boulders. After about twenty minutes, he came out of the woods onto Route 109, a small two-lane road that went under the interstate and into the next county. He looked at his watch and saw that he had been gone for almost two hours. He didn’t feel nearly as tired as he would have expected, and kept running.
He took a few random turns onto random streets, half-hoping to get lost. He thought, “What if I just keep running, end up in some motel three counties over, call my friend Sal to come get my key, sneak into the house when no one is home, bring me my wallet and a few things so I can just keep running. Away from the debt and the house and the new car and the kids and the wife and the job and the living room set, away from all of it. Start over somewhere, anywhere, even change my name or fake my death and just be someone else.”
He felt stronger as he ran, and this idea felt increasingly compelling. There was no downside. He pumped his legs a little harder and felt himself reaching escape velocity.
Without consciously meaning to, he saw that he was running back through town, then onto his street and up his driveway. He looked at his watch, he’d been gone for four and a half hours. He stopped at his side door, stretched his calves, and stepped inside. He forced himself not to say, “Hi honey, I’m home.”