written by: Thomas Maurstad
He was running. He hated running. Back in his younger days, better days, one of his go-to lines had been “I don’t run unless someone’s chasing me.” Always got a laugh.
Funny thing about that quip, now that he was thinking about it as a way to float above his feet slapping down on the track, pressing his pace without pressing too much, this was just a warm-up, keep some gas in the tank for this afternoon. Yeah. Funny thing.
Up popped another of his go-to lines, a maxim he always credited to Shakespeare whenever he dropped it in conversation, but who the fuck knew? “Many a truth is told in jest.” Except this jest wasn’t true, because back in those younger-better days, when it felt like the whole world was chasing him, or about to start, he never ran. He wanted to get caught.
Now, in his older days, lesser days, no one was chasing him. And here he was running. So, in point of fact, the opposite of his go-to line was true. Another lesson learned; add it to the list.
“I don’t run unless I’m chasing someone.”
There would be no laughs at this quip. Turns out “Many a truth is told in self-pitying desperation” doesn’t generate much of a punchline.
Bap-bap-bap. Now he did focus on the sound of his feet as he tried to ignore the heave and jounce of his gut. It was almost worse since he’d shed the pounds toward hitting his target; everything felt looser, flappier -- yet another fuck-you reward for all his hard work. Two more laps, the morning heat was creeping up, going to be another scorcher. And here came that woman again. This would be their fifth pass since she started. On their first, he thought he’d glimpsed recognition flare in her eyes, so on their second, he’d given her a quick flick of his head and a grin-grimace. It was a gesture he’d worked on and perfected, designed to wordlessly convey both confirmation and caution, as in “yes, I am, but please respect my privacy.” On subsequent passes, he had pointedly looked away as she went by. Make her wonder, wait, work for it. This time would be different.
Bap-bap-bap. Here she came. She was, what? Early-30s? Mids, maybe? Her coppery-brown hair pulled back in a foot-long ponytail that wagged as she jogged – he liked that. He liked everything he had noted while pretending not to. Here she came. They were a dozen strides from each other. Wait. Almost there. Two-three-and-now. He looked over. Her eyes didn’t meet his, but then they did, and he gave her another gesture he’d worked on and perfected, the soft nod and warm, fluid grin, confirmation still there but caution gone and in its place invitation, as in “yes, I am and yes, you may.”
He’d already played through what her reaction would be and what might follow:
The open-mouthed smile followed by the embarrassed titter. She’d stop; he’d stop. She’d smile again; he’d shrug. She’d say, “I thought that was you, but, you know, I wasn’t…” He’d come back with, “It’s me. You got me.” Then she would jump in, “I loved … I must’ve watched… I don’t even know how many times. You’re so good in it, funny, but not just funny, serious too, real, kind of mysterious, you know, oh-hah, listen to me going on, I sound like a teenager, sorry…” and right about here is where he’d give her another of the grins from his arsenal, look at the ground for a moment, and then slowly bring his gaze up to draw her in and say…
Her glare punctured his reverie like a bulls-eye dart; everything came crashing down in real time. Her eyes squinched, her lip curled, her hand made a short, sharp, swiping motion. This burst concluded with her head jerking away from him, the whip-snap of her ponytail delivering a final lash. His reaction was a master performance in restraint and discipline, a less-is-more approach that would have been beyond his younger self’s grasp, an acting coach’s voice in his ear: “when a moment is overwhelming, go blank, let the audience project whatever it’s feeling on to you.” He stayed in his blinkless blankness for a few more steps – bap, bap, bap – and stopped. Hands on hips, he leaned over as if contorting from a stitch in his side; as he did, he looked back and saw that the upside-down woman had not only continued on but moved to the outermost ring of the track to avoid any further interactions. He straightened with a grunt. No one else was around, but if there had been, all they would have seen was a man look up at the hazy, heat-streaked sky, clap his hands together once, and then walk slowly off the track and toward the parking lot.
“You seem agitated today. What’s going on?”
Bud didn’t even wait for him to get settled on the couch before firing his opening combination. They had talked about this approach, here and there, over the past few weeks, since Jim started seeing him -- the parallels between boxing and therapy. Jim had suggested it and Bud went along, with some stipulations.
“Sparring sessions maybe. You and I are collaborators, not adversaries. But, sure, if it helps to put it in those terms. I’m your trainer and, like a boxing trainer, in our sessions, I’m trying to break you down and build you back up.”
Jim knew Bud was humoring him, establishing connections, bridges of trust and so on. But he also knew that Bud was wrong and he was right. This wasn’t like boxing; it was boxing. He came out of these sessions with Bud feeling battered and shaky -- observations were jabs, questions were hooks. Jim put up his dukes. He didn’t bother with any deflections or feints. He’d learned: in this ring, they didn’t work. Bud ploughed right through them.
“I just… it’s stupid…really. No big… fuck it. I was jogging earlier, there was this girl, I thought there was something… I thought she recognized me, was, you know… but she didn’t, she wasn’t. No… she was… it was… fuck. I just felt so stupid.”
“What you’re describing is embarrassment. But that’s not what I’m feeling from you. I feel anger. Are you angry?”
Jim didn’t hesitate. He should have, but he didn’t. He leaned toward Bud as he threw his hands in the air.
“Yes, I’m angry. What the fuck? Of course, I’m angry.”
Bud jotted something on the electronic notepad he kept in his lap during sessions, a little flurry of scribbles that, as they always did, concluded with an audible tap.
“Are you angry at this woman? Angry at her for not responding the way you wanted her to?” Now it was Bud who leaned toward Jim. “Talk about your anger.”
“No, I’m not angry at her. Fuck her. What do I care? It’s just the way, just the way she… fuck. That was my whole goddam life in a nutshell right there.”
Jim glared at Bud and started speaking in a clipped and brittle cadence as if giving dictation to an unreliable transcriber.
“I am angry because I have been cursed by the gods and fucked by fate. She… that… was just a reminder I really didn’t need.
Bud’s plastic pen jittered for a moment, tap, and then he looked back at Jim.
“So you feel ‘cursed.’ Tell me about being cursed, because sitting here with you, getting to know you, your experiences, I have to tell you, I don’t see it. I’ve worked with a lot of hard-luck cases, people who really have had the shit kicked out of them by life. You, on the other hand, have had a remarkable run of good fortune. If anything, the gods seem to have heaped blessings on you.
“But you feel ‘cursed.’ Help me to understand why.”
At this, Jim rocked back and forth on the couch so violently he appeared about to launch himself across Bud’s parlor-like office. His hands shot up, splayed fingertips pointing to the ceiling.
“Blessings? Blessings! So I should feel blessed that I’m 36-years old and living with my mom? That my career is dead just as it was getting started? That the movie I made with my friends, which was my idea, by the way, and which I mostly wrote even though that’s not what anybody says now, and which, by the way, everybody then was saying I was the best part of, but now… Fuck.
“So, flash-forward ten years. That movie that I made with my friends… now they’re rich and famous and I can’t even… Fuck! John’s Hollywood’s favorite leading man, probably going to be the next James Bond or some shit. Jane’s the indie art house queen traipsing down red carpets at Cannes. Nick is the genius director critics can’t wait to cream over… and meanwhile, my career’s dribbled down to nothing and I have to move back to Dallas because I can’t even… Fuck!
He scooted to the edge of the cushion as he leaned over his knees and stuck a fist out to accompany his list of grievances with a finger tally, starting with a thumb he pointed toward Bud.
“I’m living at home. With my mother. I’m driving her 20-year-old Cadillac that she was going to give to her fucking housekeeper. I don’t have an agent. I don’t have any money. I don’t have … Fuck! What the fuck izz you talking about? I am cursed. I should be… that should have… I…”
He ran out of steam just as he ran out of fingers.
Jim threw himself back against the sofa, his geyser of outrage spent. He interlocked his fingers over his head and brought them down to press his knuckles against the top of his skull as he closed his eyes. Deep, slow breaths punctuated by low grunts. Bud sat silently, waiting for Jim’s eyes to open. A few more breaths, a couple more grunts, and they did. Bud waited for Jim’s gaze to meet his and then spoke, his voice low and deliberate, his words soft-edged and curved by the vestigial drawl of a Louisiana childhood.
“It sounds to me like you feel you’ve been cheated out of something you’re owed. You feel cheated that you aren’t as rich and famous as these friends you made a movie with. You feel you deserve at least as much success as they’re enjoying, maybe more. And you are angry about not getting what you feel you deserve.”
Bud paused, never breaking eye contact with Jim, a gesture Jim felt obligated to match.
“Have I got that right?”
Jim started to respond -- “It’s not that…” -- but this time he did hesitate. He tried again. “I just think… I really… “ He stopped again, breaking off his gaze down with Bud to stare at his shoes, battered Oxfords, souvenirs from flusher days. He imagined there was a balloon in his chest, about to burst, as he slowly released his breath through pursed lips to deflate it. He looked back up to find Bud’s gaze waiting for him.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds about right.”
“Okay. Good. Here’s my next question, and I want you to take a moment and feel your way to the answer. Try to cut through all the noise. Anger is noisy. It can make it hard to hear what you’re really trying to tell yourself. So just try to get quiet and really listen. Can you do that?”
Jim focused on not blinking, on stretching back his eyelids to intensify his gaze and signal that he understood and was ready – commit to the moment, that’s what it’s all about. He concluded with a quick, fierce nod. Bud’s expression didn’t change. If they had been workshopping this scene, Jim would have told Bud his energy was a little flat.
“Who has cheated you? What are you owed? And why do you deserve it?”
Jim tried to stay in the moment as he prepared to make his choices. Go small. Get quiet and cold. Or. Go big. Get loud and hot. Strip it down. Pile it on. There are no wrong choices. Acting is reacting. Don’t think. Do. Be. Stay in the moment. Stay in the…
But then he had to think, think about Bud’s questions, think about his answers. And here came the noise and here came the anger, like a clock tower striking noon.
“You want to know what I hear when I cut through the noise? More noise. You know what’s behind my anger? More anger. Of course, John and Jane owe me. Nick too. None of them would be where they are if it wasn’t for me. I just don’t… I mean… We were all there, in the same place, the same time. But it was me. I was driving the bus. They were just riding it.
“I mean, Nick was… is… fine, fuck it. He was always going to be a director, that was his thing. But he jumped to the top of the pyramid thanks to our project.
“But John? Jane? Jesus! Jane was just fucking around. And John used to make me promise he could live in my guesthouse when I became a Hollywood bigshot. And now… I can’t even… I have to…”
His anger splintered; his noise dissolved into silence. He stared at the putty-colored carpet between flared knees, trying to catch his breath. He was out of the scene, out of the moment, way out. He looked up and there was Bud’s flat gaze waiting for him. Jim’s eyes suddenly pooled. He knew if he blinked, tears would spill, so he didn’t.
“I just don’t understand… what happened.” He paused. One. Two. It was safe to blink again, so he did, looking back down at the floor as he ended with a whimper. “What happened?”
Bud nodded as he jotted. Tap. This time he spoke without waiting for Jim’s gaze to rejoin him.
“Confusion.” Pause. “Fear.” Pause. “And sadness.” Pause. “That’s what’s behind your anger.” Another pause as Bud set his notepad on the floor beside his chair and leaned toward Jim. “This is the first time since we started that you’ve allowed yourself to go there. Be there.“ Another pause as he leaned back to retrieve his notepad. “And I can tell just by looking at you that you’re already pulling back, moving away from that place, the place you don’t want to be.”
Jim started to say something, to object, the sharp hiss of his inhalation like a lit fuse signaling an imminent explosion. Bud stopped and waited, his gaze calm and inviting, as if he were holding open a door for someone who had rushed up behind him. The courteousness of this gesture undid Jim; he suddenly felt foolish and exposed. He held up a hand, shook his head, and let out a sheepish grunt. Bud continued.
“But that’s where you need to go.” Pause. “And stay. Spend some time there.” Pause. “You’ve been using your anger like a door you slam shut to keep the wolves out.” Pause. “Anger keeps everything out there.” Bud swiped a hand over his lap as if shooing a bothersome fly. “If you want things to change, if you want to change, you’re going to have to let the wolves in.” Pause. “And that’s going to require willingness.” Another pause, longer, as his calm gaze seemed to bore through Jim. Jim swallowed what little spittle he could muster as he wondered, “Is he waiting for me to say something? Is that my cue?”
It wasn’t. Bud continued.
“Are you?” Pause. “Are you willing?”
Jim continued to sit and not speak, only now he wasn’t wondering if he should since he assumed Bud’s question was rhetorical and that he was about to continue. But no. Bud simply sat across from Jim, fixing him with that same steady gaze. And Jim realized that Bud wasn’t going to continue, that his question hadn’t been rhetorical, that he was waiting for Jim to answer, that this had been his cue and he had missed it. Flame on.
“What? Seriously? Jesus. I’m here, aren’t I? If I wasn’t willing, I wouldn’t be here, would I?” Jim snorted and then concluded with another “Jesus.”
“And now you’re using your anger to slam the door on me.” Bud again set down his notebook beside his chair and leaned toward Jim as he cupped his hands together in his lap. His gaze was still steady, but the calm had vanished and in its place was a blazing intensity. His voice remained low, but its background drawl now had a serrated edge.
“Things haven’t worked out exactly the way you wanted – I get that. Your friends got served bigger slices of cake than you and it’s not fair – check. And if you were a small child, we’d have one of those talks about how life’s not always fair and you don’t always get what you want, and then maybe I’d take you to get some ice cream.”
Jim felt his cheeks flush as his fight reflex flatlined and the impulse to flee kicked in. Bud bored on.
“But you’re not. You’re a grown man. So, I’ll ask again.”
Bud leaned back and resettled himself against the chestnut leather of his club chair.
“Are you willing to do what you so far have been unwilling to do?”
Jim honked his impatience at the black Range Rover that had been idling in its parking space with its reverse lights on for maybe a minute, his pique exacerbated by watching its driver plink away on a cell phone. The driver, oblivious in his bathyspheric immersion, continued pecking. Jim was about to reiterate his impatience with a second, more emphatic blast when a Lexus sedan a few spots farther on backed out and grumbled off, allowing him to chug up and barrel in. He leaned across the caddie’s cracked and faded console, grabbed the corded handles of a bright red nylon bag (swag from a long-ago awards-show gift tent) containing his cell phone, wallet, a couple of t-shirts, spare set of running socks, and bolted out of the car.
He was a little late and as he quick-stepped through the health center’s lobby, he congratulated himself on the decision to arrive already in his workout gear. He’d done this because he didn’t want to spend a lot of before-and-after time in the locker room. He just wanted to get in, do what needed to be done, and get out. But now there was the added benefit of making a beeline to the indoor track to meet Josh (John’s trainer in Dallas) and… Jim raced through his evolving answer to the question he had been asking himself all day: Will John be here? He didn’t think so; as far he knew, John was still in whereverthefuck-istan shooting a few location scenes that would be mixed in to conjure the gritty authenticity for a film shot mostly around Barstow. John was playing a lone-wolf terrorist hunter in his first action-movie lead, which was its own unique brand of lunacy, to begin with. But this was – what? – John’s third project in a row that just didn’t have any roles big, small or otherwise quite right for Jim. Fine. Fuck it. He was done with acting anyway and he’d told John this so there wouldn’t be any confusion about what he was asking for. “I’m focused on writing now.” That had been a month ago, the last time he’d actually talked to John. Since then nothing from the man himself but a few oblique text messages, with all other responses coming from John’s personal assistant, a human shar-pei with the pseudo-exotic, utter-bullshit, so-so-so L.A. name of Dahveel.
But you never knew with John and deep down in a way, he refused to directly acknowledge Jim wondering if John might be here today as a brothers-in-arms show of solidarity. It was this furtive hope that sharpened and deepened the jolt when Jim charged through the double-doors into the state-of-the-art indoor-track chamber -- eco-friendly LED lights recessed in the ceiling to preclude any glare and dampen any buzz; the carefully calibrated air-flow system to maintain optimal performance temperature and humidity – and there, standing next to Josh, was… Dahveel. Jim swallowed back the hammer-drop impulse to wheel around and storm out, along with the ball of bile that rose from his gut to lodge at the back of his throat. He didn’t even break stride. And in the few unhurried paces it took to join them, he assembled his reaction. He stopped and stood squarely before Josh without so much as a sidelong glance at Dahveel and spoke as if to a company of one.
“Hey, Josh. Sorry. Fucking traffic.”
“No sweat. Looks like you’re ready to go.”
“Absolutely. How do you want to do this?”
It was here that the un-disappeared Dahveel asserted his presence.
“That’s why I’m here. To make sure this is handled properly.”
That voice: every utterance delivered with a surfeit of breath as if stifling an endless yawn, every word ending with a droop as if to endure the crushing tediousness of whomever he was addressing. Jim endeavored to throttle another impulse rather than its object as he turned to face his pest-tormentor.
“Oh, hello Dave.” He leaned on his mispronunciation and enjoyed watching Dahveel’s eyebrows knot in irritation, then he slowly moved his gaze up and down to make a show of taking in Dahveel’s ensem – elaborately patterned pants that in fit and fabric appeared to be re-purposed pajama bottoms; red-stitched, white-toed, black-leather cowboy boots; a gauzy tunic made from, judging by its antediluvian dye scheme, the Shroud of Turin; at least one ring on every finger and two wide cuffs of mismatched bracelets. Jim concluded with a nod of appreciation.
“I see you’re joining me on my time trial.”
Josh jumped in.
“Careful what you wish. Dahveel’s a sub-three marathoner. You don’t want to be outpaced by a guy in cowboy boots.”
Now it was Dahveel’s turn to talk past Jim, a slight he sharpened by turning away from both of them while tapping out a text on his phone as he spoke, to Josh, about Jim.
“Receipt of this, mmmm, this charitable contribution, this extortion, this pity fuck, this money down a rat hole, this last” -- here Dahveel drew in a grandiloquent breath as a hack Hamlet would before letting his “or not to be” crash down –“and final installment of whatever you want to call it…”
This was just his warm-up; his talons hadn’t even started tearing into flesh yet, but Jim lunged toward him, white-noise roar filling his ears, jaw clenched so tight his teeth felt about to burst into powder. Now he was pure impulse, no calculation. Josh’s grip on his arm stopped his charge, snapped him back. Dahveel turned just then, his eyes moving from Josh’s hand to Jim’s face, and smirked as he continued.
“…is contingent on fulfilling the agreed-upon conditions, namely, completion of a three-mile run in a time of less than 22 minutes and 30 seconds, thereby demonstrating the recipient’s commitment to the fit and positive lifestyle that success demands”
Dahveel had stepped over to Jim as he was speaking to stand so close that Jim could smell his peppermint-oil lip balm. He lowered his voice to an urgent whisper, another hack move. Jim’s workshop comments would have been scathing, a thought that stirred the flicker of a grin across his face, which then set off another twitch of irritation across Dahveel’s brow, but he was enjoying the moment too much to let this blip impinge on his pleasure.
“In other words, your days of a guilt-tripping a friend for his success and your failure are over. John’s too loyal, too kind to say it.” Another smirk. “But I’m not.”
Jim broke out another smile from his arsenal, his biggest, most garish, game-show-host grin, and smeared it on as he shook his arm free from Josh’s grip.
“Whatever you say, Dave.”
He took a couple of steps back, dropped his bag, and began performing an exaggerated series of stretches, huffing, and puffing, bending at the waist and reaching down to his toes, straightening and snapping a foot back to catch it in his palm and press his hips forward. And as he did, he looked at and spoke to Josh.
“Blah, blah, blah, blah. As if any of this matters. John and I have talked. He gets it. He fully supports what I’m doing. The money is an investment so I can finish this screenplay, and I’ve got three other pitches we’re going to shop around. He’ll take the lead in this first project and then we’ll see – maybe he’ll come in as a partner-producer going forward. We’re going to get together when he’s back in town and figure it out.”
By this time, Jim had run through his stretches and was standing on the track, propelling his arms in opposite directions. Josh busied himself with the stopwatch he had removed from the hip pocket of his warm-up pants. Dahveel looked down at his boots, shook his head, stepped over beside Josh, looked at Jim, shook his head again, and unfurled another smirk.
“John is back in town. We’ve been here a week. We leave for L.A. tomorrow. And no, just no to the rest of…” He raised a hand. Jim heard all those bracelets clink as they slid down his forearm. He whisked the air between them with his fingers and rings as if brushing lint from someone’s shoulder and softly exhaled his chuckled conclusion – “…all that.”
Confusion. Fear. Sadness. Bud’s roll call rang as Jim simultaneously catapulted back to exactly that place he didn’t want to be while struggling to maintain an easy, steady demeanor. It didn’t help that just then he flashed on an image of scooping up his spilled guts like groceries from a burst bag. Josh tried to lance the boiling silence by holding up the stopwatch to return attention to their reason for being there.
“Okay, Jim. You can do this. Remember. Go out easy. Like we’ve worked on. Save some gas in the tank to finish strong. I’ll call out your pace each lap so you know where you’re at.”
This helped. Jim pushed everything down, away. Went blank. He stepped up to the line, ready for Josh’s sign, but before that could happen, Dahveel dropped one final addendum.
“Less than. If you’re one second over, that’s it. Zip.” He brought his hands together, clenched them into fists, and gestured as if he were snapping a twig.
Jim was trying not to listen so it would be easier not to react, but some expression must have rippled across his face, or maybe Dahveel was so eager to see a reaction, it didn’t matter how blank Jim went. Either way, Dahveel kept digging.
“What? That’s the deal. That’s how these things work.” Another smirk. “If the dancing bear doesn’t do his trick, he doesn’t get his treat.”
What happened next, precisely, would remain glitchy and incomplete. The one thing Jim was certain of was that he would have beaten that time. Not by much. But he would have. Sitting in his car, door still ajar, staring at his already purpling knuckles, watching blood ooze from the jagged puncture between his index and middle finger, Jim knew that much.
His hand was really throbbing now. Did he punch Dahveel more than once? He couldn’t remember. But he could still see the flash of surprise in Dahveel’s eyes as he drove his fist into that smirk. Yes. Sweet. He remembered that much. And now he remembered Josh’s voice from somewhere behind -- a short, sharp sound. And then he was running, down the track, out the double doors, through the lobby. And now he was here, in his car, door still hanging open, staring at his already puffy hand, waiting.
And as he waited, the wails of approaching sirens filled his ears. He closed his eyes as he pretended they were the howls of wolves.