We stood on the shoulder of the road, me in my jogging shorts, he in a tattered pair of slacks. He raised his eyebrows. “You ready?”
“Can you jog down to the grapes, the fountain?”
I nodded again.
“All the way, without stopping? One-hundred percent?”
“Yes, Phoenix. Unless you go too fast for me.”
He grinned in a certain way, and I felt a twinge of dread.
Then his smile faded. “And you’ll still have enough energy to go on a bike ride with your husband this weekend? Promise?”
“Yes. Pinky swear.”
I wrapped my pinky around his. Then that intimidating grin spread across his face again.
He was off like a dart, sprinting down the road on his long, skinny legs.I tore after him as best I could, and he looked back over his shoulder.
“Come on, Liz! This is, like, three miles an hour. I could walk faster than this.” He quit running and loped along.
“Oh, shut up. Your legs are, like, twice as long as mine.”
He started jogging again, looking down at my legs, then at his. “Do you like to talk when you jog?”
“My mom says it’s like working out twice, when you talk, but I don’t see how that’s true, because you can only do one thing at a time.”
He was pulling ahead again, still talking, and I pushed myself harder. A car full of high school kids drove by, and they rolled down their windows. “Way to go Phoenix!”
He watched after them bemusedly, waving, and I cringed inwardly.
By the time we’d reached the junction with 41, a quiet highway that wove west through the vineyards, I was already out of breath. I was glad when he stopped.
“Wanna go this way?” he said. “Let’s go this way.”
He took off again, the loose soles of his sneakers flapping, and I followed, sighing deeply.
He shot me an appraising look. “Don’t give up, Liz. I’m not gonna let you give up.”
“I’m not giving up,” I panted.
Another car passed, and I recognized a man from church. He swerved over the center line as he watched me over his shoulder, smirking.
I winced. I could see myself through his eyes, vividly: an old married woman, quickly drying up, hair dyed bright purple, spending way too much time with the 22-year-old schizophrenic kid. It was something that kept me curled up in a tight ball of shame at night, questioning my own motives.
But when I was with him, all my doubts disappeared. Everything clicked into place, pure and simple. I felt like a ten-year-old kid on summer vacation, out playing with her best friends-forever friend, and all the worries in the world flitted away, leaving me completely at peace.
Except for right now, when my lungs were screaming for oxygen. Phoenix was getting ahead of me again, and kept sending me nervous glances. I knew he didn’t like having people behind him. So I closed my eyes, told my lungs that it was all a state of mind, and pushed myself faster.
The next day, I sat at the park, trying to see the story I was writing past my own reflection in the laptop screen. This was my new process: finish my chores then come down to the park to write, where I could be out in the fresh air and surrounded by the interesting characters in the Shandon Park Crowd. It would give me a fresh perspective, stop me obsessing and getting overly-angsty, keep me in the real world.
This is what I told myself, and for the most part it was true: I’d sat with some of the career drunks, swapping cigarettes for stories. I’d spent entire afternoons shooting the shit with my new friend Mari, pushing her kids on the swings. All this was good stuff, stuff that I hadn’t done in the sixteen months I’d been mired in my books. But in the quiet of my mind, I knew the real reason I was here.
Every time I heard footsteps, I looked up, my heart sinking when it wasn’t him. But then I saw him coming down the street from his house.
I smiled, but then it faded. I could tell something was wrong.
He didn’t come over, stopping by the tennis courts, staring at his feet. They were shoeless, clad in mismatched socks. I got up and approached him hesitantly.
He glanced up. “Hey, how are you?”
“I’m okay, how are you?”
He muttered something.
“What?” I said, stepping closer.
“I’m having a bad morning. I had such a good night, and now it’s bad. I feel like I’ve died, like literally died.”
“What do you mean?”
He twisted his long fingers into the folds of his pajama pants and mumbled. I stepped closer. “I can’t hear you,” I said.
He glanced up, jumping away from me. “No, nothing,” he said. Then he walked off, saying, “It was nice talking to you,” as if I were some distant acquaintance he’d run into on accident and couldn’t wait to escape.
He didn’t stop or look around, but just kept going. I watched him go, a lump growing in my throat.
I went back and threw myself down in front of my laptop, my head in my hands. Why did I feel like this? Why did I care? There was nothing romantic about this relationship, but I couldn’t deny that I was seriously emotionally involved with this kid.
It didn’t make sense, but I couldn’t help it. I sighed and closed my computer, shoving it into my backpack.
I found him sitting in the tall weeds in front of his house. He watched me approach, tugging at the bracelet I’d given him.
“Phoenix, I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, no, not at all.”
“Sometimes I piss you off and I don’t even know why.”
“It’s not you. It’s never you. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk at people, or breathe on them.”
I nodded sadly. “Okay,” I said.
I turned and walked back to the park, leaving him there in the weeds.
I smiled, happiness spreading through me. “Hey.”
“I’m sorry about yesterday.”
“It’s alright.” Shiva crept around me in a wide circle before settling down and letting me pet her, in true Aussie fashion.
He twisted his bracelet. “I really like this bracelet. It makes me feel calm and peaceful, and really helps me.”
His brow furrowed. “Do you think that, ever feel like people can affect each other even when, even before they know each other very well? Like, you know, synergy and interconnectedness, vibrations in the darkness?”
“Yes,” I said, my heart galloping. “I believe that, but I can’t know for sure that it’s true.”
He frowned at me. “Why not?”
“It’s intangible. You can’t prove it. You can believe it all you want, you can feel like God is telling or compelling you to do something or whatever, even if you don’t know why…but you can’t know for sure. It’s untestable. It’s not science.”
He smiled faintly. “Your faith isn’t strong enough.”
“No, I guess not. All sorts of people have done horrible things, thinking that God was telling them to.”
He grinned. “Like Hitler.”
I threw a handful of grass at him. “Are you calling me Hitler?”
He ducked, giggling. “Liz is a fascist Nazi. She rigged the Super Bowl.”
He sprang to his feet. “Let’s go on a walk. We can walk, maybe, up the river bed to Truesdale.”
I shouldered my backpack and trotted after him. For this moment, at least, all was right with the world.