THE LONG RUN BACK
by Michelle Terhune
I quietly shut the back door and reached down, laying my hands flat on the ground on either side of my feet, slowly stretching the restless night away. I straightened up and started to run, at first in the grass just at the edge of the long, winding driveway, not wanting the kutcha kutcha of my running shoes on the gravel to awaken our sleeping pair of dogs in the just-light pink of dawn.
I reached the end of the drive and turned left onto the asphalt, already sweating despite the cool spring morning. Starting to run faster, I settled into a familiar rhythm of legs and arms moving forward and back, alternating opposites, propelling me onward like they had hundreds of times before. My movements, speed, the length of my stride required no conscious contemplation. I gave in to the run and my thoughts as I headed toward the sunrise, every footfall an affirmation of me. Of life.
The air smelled like honeysuckle and lilacs, cattle, and turned earth, ready for seed. That smell of the soil always reminded me of hope, expectation, faith. It smelled like God. God, coupled with this serene morning routine, had been my salvation during the past few years. I’d remained married too long to a man who lied and cheated while asking me to be patient so he could figure out what he wanted to do. And I’d been complicit in the indecision, not wanting to fail a second marriage and needing time to figure out what I was going to do after every plan I’d made had been displaced. I ran in place, self-confidence supplanted by self-loathing and trepidation as I hung on to something no longer in my grasp without knowing what else to grab onto. It had taken a lot of miles to convince myself that I could not be diminished by someone else’s capricious choices, no matter how painful they had been for me. This humble morning ritual had prevented me from stopping completely when I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
The asphalt ended and I turned right, onto a gravel road that then turned to dust, waving at the neighbor who lived at the end of the pavement. I’m not sure when that paralysis-ceasing moment arrived. Perhaps it wasn’t a moment but a series of sundry spaces of time during which I started to regain confidence, reassert my independence, rediscover that woman who had vanished while she grieved, hiding behind rage and tears, incapable of finding joy in the rest of her life. She had been an abject stranger to me.
As I approached a long, steep hill, I started thinking about my breathing, in and out in that precise rhythm with my footfall, lengthening my stride for the climb. Experience had taught me how to avoid getting a side ache when the terrain changes. Experience had been a ruthless teacher, but the lessons learned became inexorably linked to my soul. At the top of the hill, I turned around, halfway through my five-mile run, heading back to the vacant house where a cold glass of water and a hot cup of coffee were waiting for me.
I waved again at my neighbor at the end of the road. Although we’d had few actual conversations over the years, I knew he looked out for me silently, making sure I came and went unharmed, like so many people in my life. I never had been nor ever will be truly isolated without my permission.
I veered left and back onto the asphalt, my feet started moving faster, striking the surface to the rhythm of an old Reba McEntire refrain “…Nothing feels as good as letting go….” I started singing the lyrics in my head, crescendoing as I raised up on my toes, heels kissing the ground, sprinting the last 50 yards to the end of the driveway before slowing to a walk, simultaneously exhausted and invigorated.
The dogs greeted me there, tails and rear ends wagging wildly, whimpering joyfully and licking the salty sweat off my legs as I petted them, smiling, using my voice for the first time that day. They darted in and out of the hayfield on each side of the drive as I walked toward the big empty house in the middle of the field. For a time, it had been both my refuge and my prison, but eventually it had become just another house I had moved into and would soon move out of. Long after I’ve left, it would continue to stand in that field but changed, bereft of my spirit, my strength, of the life I had given so willingly. I would fill another house somewhere with myself.
A month later, I quietly shut the back door of the house, put the key in the wood pile and closed the trunk of the car. I lingered there for a moment, observing the familiar hayfield, green waves in the quiet evening breeze. My dogs ran to me, anticipating something undefined but trusting me unconditionally. I patted them on their almost-matching heads and opened the door so they could jump into the back seat. I got in the front, started the car and began moving forward, down the long, winding drive, the windows open and the sound of the tires crunching gravel. I looked in the rearview mirror at the dogs and at the house fading away behind us. I reached the end of the drive, looked to the left for the last time, then turned right onto the asphalt, pushing the gas until the car settled into its familiar rhythm, wheels propelling us toward the sunset on the road it had traveled hundreds of times before.
As I looked in the mirror at the dogs again, noses out opposite windows, sniffing the summer air, I took a deep breath, exhaled, then smiled. Tomorrow, I’d start running a new route, still solitary but never alone.
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Michelle Terhune is a freelance writer, author, reader, traveler, and foodie. Her writing has appeared on hundreds of websites and dozens of digital and print publications without attribution. She did get credit for an essay published in Another Chicago Magazine and for reported features in COMO Magazine and Missouri Life Magazine.