It’s never a question of if, but more simply a question of how far? As soon as the alarm goes off, or on very lucky days a minute or so just before, which saves her husband the startling inconvenience of a 4:00 wake-up, before her feet hit the floor, before the last of the wake-up adrenaline has exited her system, well before the sternest and timeliest cock crows even once, Jan’s plotting and planning her route. Call it conditioned response. Borderline lasciviousness. She has three hours to herself starting NOW and she intends to use them.
Sunday was a long run day, twenty-eight trail miles with Lucy, her training partner, her fait accompli. Lucy’s as bad as Jan is. Lucy may well be the only person in this town who truly understands Jan. Running with Lucy is like gliding along beside her own alter ego, a younger, one might correctly say more polished, more “together” version of herself. Lucy’s 23 and she’s got it going on. Jan’s 43 and beginning to wonder where it all went.
Lucy’s everything Jan wishes she could have been at that age. Lucy knows who she is and what she wants. Lucy’s an orphan, which may have hurried the process along. Jan at 23 was still butting up against the unmovable wall of her mother’s iron will. Jan’s mother had been a first wave feminist, a career go-getter from the get-go. Jan’s mom had real obstacles to overcome and came out shining. Jan had nothing but imaginary obstacles, constructed whole cloth from her own addled and perhaps misguided head, and she’s still reeling.
But all that’s neither here nor there at the moment. Jan is planning a run. The whole world can take one giant step back. Mother may I? Yes, you may! Monday was an off day. Jan tries and often fails to take at least one day a week off from running. It’s good for the tendons, she’s told. The delicate muscle bellies, the micro pulls and tears. Whatever. Monday was yesterday and she had two houses to clean and she was tired. She did the smart thing.
Today is Tuesday, conceivably a speed day. Speed work is a new addition to Jan’s bag of tricks. She does it only because suddenly, inexplicably, she enjoys it. It’s fun! Running as fast as she can for relatively short bursts makes her feel young again. Not young like Lucy, but young like her kids. Really young, like ten or eleven. She kicks her feet out behind her, steadies her head and bolts from the hip like a missile sprung from a desert silo. Her hair flies behind her, wind in her face. Never mind that she can’t breathe. She’s okay. She feels great. Stay in the moment; be here now. You don’t need to breathe all the freaking time. Take a break. Forget about it and RUN!
Sometimes she does these speed workouts on the track around the high school football field. Other times she slips them into her everyday runs: one-minute pickups, four minutes rest, GO! This morning, however, as she swings her legs over the side of the bed, a lucky morning – she beat the alarm by 53 seconds – she has a different idea. Today, instead of flat out speed, she’ll run hills. She can feel it in her bones. It makes perfect sense. She hasn’t done a hill workout in a long time. Hills, after all, are speed work in disguise. Strength coupled with one hell of a cardiovascular workout. A middle-aged person’s run. Let’s face it; what is Jan if not middle-aged?
Jan drinks coffee (or doesn't....)
Jan goes back and forth on the coffee issue. Right now she’s off. It feels like a forever decision but who knows? Everything always feels like a forever decision. Like so many things in Jan’s life, the caffeine thing turns out to be a cycle, though she can only see it retrospect. It always starts with decaf. For a while the decaf gives her a little lift in the morning. Nothing jolting or abrupt, just enough to get her eyes open and the ideas flowing. Before she runs she draws, every morning without fail. She once assumed she’d make a living as an artist, but now she’s 43 and that never happened. So it’s a hobby. She’s resigned. It gets the day started and she enjoys it. The tiny caffeine boost from the decaf sharpens her focus, keeps her in the swim so to speak, until it’s time to run. She can only draw in the mornings, super early, well beyond the hope of any interruption.
Of course one thing leads to another. Tiny fractions of regular caffeinated coffee, the kind most humans drink without ill effect but which makes Jan a little nuts, start to seep into the morning mix. 1 7/8 scoops decaf, 1/8 scoop regular. Her focus sharpens further. It’s good! And if a little caffeine is good, more must be … better! And it is. It IS! 1 ¾ scoops decaf, ¼ scoop regular. Her eyes open a little wider; her brain clicks along like a stopwatch. Yuh, baby. Let’s go! The ideas come fast and furious. Her drawing hand cannot keep up and her piece changes. It’s less contemplative on the caffeine, more plainly manic. She isn’t sure she likes it, but she can’t stop. The ink from her pen runs dry. Weeks are passing. She moves on. Half decaf, half regular, one scoop of each. What harm could it do? Ride that high! Ignore the afternoon jitters, the horrible feeling of doom that sets in at dusk, the galumphing heartbeats, the no no no sleep. She’s on a wild ride here. Full caf! Go in whole bore. By now she’s convinced herself that her body craves the stuff. It gets her up and keeps her going. A real cuppa joe. Everybody does it, jesus christ what’s the big deal?
Until she finds herself night after night lying awake, vaguely headachy, kind of dizzy, entertaining an artillery squad of explosive thinking, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. Her heart no longer sits still in her chest. There’s something in there rumbling around like a tennis ball in the dryer. She can feel each chamber distinctly fire, kalomph, kalomph. Once the panic attacks start, the out of nowhere grip that zooms her away from her life at alarming speed, she knows the ride is over. And then she goes off the stuff. Cold turkey. Presumably never to return again. She can’t look at the French press without feeling strangely punchy. The smell of coffee makes her sick. She’s never going back.
So for now it’s all Yogi Ginger and Tazo Calm. Herbal tea from here on out. No need to go down that road again.
This morning she’s having ginger tea with honey. This will soothe her stomach before the hill workout to come. No need to go crazy. It’s 4:15 and she’s in her studio, which is really just a corner of the attic next to a south-facing dormer. All of her art supplies are strewn around like pickup sticks. The kids are not allowed up here. She needs a corner of her own. She knows where everything is.
She’s working on a drawing of a kitchen just before breakfast. This is what she does, interiors. Her house cleaning work is the perfect inspiration. One job feeds the other. As she moves from room to room when she’s cleaning she imagines the lives that play out in these spaces. Her drawings are like this. The people are absent but you can imagine them. The details imply habitation, a life lived. She loves the details. Once in a while as she’s cleaning something will catch her fancy, the angle of a tee shirt hanging out of a drawer, a toy on the staircase, the heartbreaking loneliness of an unmade bed. She insists the houses be empty of people when she’s cleaning. The infiltration of reality ruins the effect.
She doesn’t sketch on the job, doesn’t take snapshots even. She simply absorbs the details, however imperfectly remembered, and draws them in the early morning light. She can honestly say that losing herself in these stylized, half-remembered rooms gives her peace. Why else get up at such an ungodly hour of the morning?