This essay, written in 2012, dates back to my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
Under the dull, relentless stress of Peace Corps service, and the constant visibility that being the only foreigner in a tiny rural town brings, I discovered running as a much needed outlet for all the stresses and limitations of my life.
Since then, running has become something I love in its own right-- and, contrary to this essay's angle, I've discovered the unique joy of hiking up mountains specifically to see what's on the summit. People change, but some things stay the same, and the blissed-out, delicious afterglow of a good run is something I'm hooked on for good.
After I teach business class, I change clothes quick as I can. The late afternoon sun is cutting through my blinds in dusty golden streaks, and I lace up my sneakers and lock the door and hide my key behind the glass bottle of honey sitting on my outside sill. My neighbor Julia is burning a pile of leaves on the gravel in front of her house, and the smoke comes off it in a slow tongue, spiraling up through the royal palms and mango trees. Cunina’s dog paces in circles at the end of his chain like a panther at the zoo, panting and looping back over the same dusty track again and again.
Every evening is the same. I teach class from five to six, me and a few smiling, semi-literate 8th graders learning about entrepreneurship and businesses. On the best days we drink soda and do art projects, and on the less successful ones we do math. Class ends, and before I can convince myself otherwise, I change clothes and I leave. At the main road I turn right, weaving between the gutter and the dirt road; motorcycles roar past, faces snap back to stare at me as they disappear into clouds of dust.
The late afternoon sun colors everything yellow and cranks up the contrast, silhouetting animals against the sky and turning every smile and sideways glance into a photograph. I’m heading for the baseball field, the pley, a wide swath of green just past the community center, a few hundred yards from my house. On the hill above the baseball field is barrio Vietnam, a long row of company houses and barracks, close enough that people can shout my name from their back porches, but far enough that I can’t ever make out a face. At this hour, they’re backlit by the sun anyways. Articulated black outlines, arms waving back and forth, smiles erased by shadow.
I don’t put in my headphones until I’ve walked to the far side of the baseball field— past the real athletes, who come here every day to practice for races, and dreams of scholarships and playing in the Major Leagues. I pass dozens of teenage boys in hand-me-down baseball cleats and Yankees jerseys, the younger ones greeting me shyly and the older ones leering and posturing like fighting cocks. I know their trainer, a friend of Maria’s— his name is Mogel, and he took me to ride horses once. He smiles his crystalline smile and I wave, half-smile back. The runners are there too, one man with arms like tree roots, the muscles wrapped tight around each other under his slick, dark skin; my cousin Yolanda, too, stretching out against a rail-tie-turned-fence-post, her little boy riding a tiny bike with training wheels along the dusty track.
I turn past two girls in braids running sprint ladders along a row of orange cones, and in deep right field I slip in my headphones. The baseball field is a kind of all-purpose gymnasium slash animal pasture; on my first walk around, I pass a herd of brown-and-white goats, headbutting and fussing each other, and two gray horses with a fuzzy brown colt. I round the farthest corner of the field, where three black dogs play ferociously in a long stripe of shade, chasing circles up and down the grass. They collapse to the ground and roll over and tackle each other, delirious with their dog-ness, their mouths hanging open, fangs flashing against pink gums, growling and laughing and pouncing at shadows. I finish my first lap and break into a run.
I have never been a runner. I hate getting places quickly, can’t bring myself to care about achieving goals like distance covered or mountains climbed. Once, in Guatemala, I climbed a volcano and decided that summits mean nothing to me. I would rather walk two miles through someplace beautiful and end the same place I came from— better that than to walk two miles straight up just to say I reached some peak. I love mountains, but that doesn’t mean I need to see the tops of them. I love motion, it doesn’t mean I need to do it fast.
But life here stresses me in ways I didn’t know were possible, and sometimes the energy I swallow is just too much; my body runs out of space for all the anxiety, the frustration, the suppressed commentaries and desires. I run so my energy goes somewhere. I can feel the want drain out of me as I pound my way around the track. Slow, my shoulders slick with sweat, the music driving me from one loop to the next.
The whole time, people watch me. Maria and the rest of my friends have forbidden me from running anyplace other than the baseball field-– a woman alone in these sugarcane fields isn’t safe, and I have volunteer friends with terrifying stories to prove it. So I go to the pley and run circles, eyes tracking me from one side of the field to the next. The tigueres, shady young men from other towns who come to El Valle for baseball practice, shout catcalls that float to my ears in the silences between songs, but even without their voices I can feel their eyes. I practice staring straight ahead: eyelids half-lowered, vision trained on the dirt track in front of me, run nine minutes walk one and then run again, don’t forget to breathe. Everyone has an opinion about me. Everyone watches my every move.
I run and my face burns, brilliant shades of crimson and magenta, the colors fierce and cloudy behind my freckles; once or twice I’ve seen people point and gawk. If I want to run, I have to swallow my shame. I am a spectacle, it is a part of the role I play in this steamy valley town. If I want to do something with my nervous energy other than slam my fists against my cinder block walls (and I have), I have to look straight ahead and not think. I have to run.
At seven everyone goes home except the kids who play by the irrigation ditch, and I keep running circles. A boy with no shirt throws stones at a mango tree. Two girls play hand clap games near third base. Chichi, a boy who used to come to my English class, is practicing wild gymnastic handsprings in the outfield, his movements tight and controlled. My breath cuts hard on my throat, the back of my neck is wet with sweat. I focus on my knees, try to lift my legs a little higher, try not to stumble. A few more minutes.
Up on the hill by the barracks the sun is setting. The clouds are tall and billowing, deep layered grays and blues, and the sun is as strong as it can be at dusk, the light so bright it leaves a hot trail in my vision when I look away. Opaque and motionless against the sun is a single cow— staked out in the grass by the houses, head turned away, frozen as if photographed. This circle and the next circle, this dusk and the one after that, the same cow will be there. Standing still against the sunset.
On the walk home, people greet me and talk, “Oh, but you’ve been practicando,” they say, and smile, comment on my flushed cheeks and my sweat-streaked shoulders. My blood is hot with the sweet, blissful afterburn of my run, and I smile wide and crack jokes and feel no pain; this is the feeling I have been gunning for, this and the impossibly smooth caress of a cool evening breeze on my body, the air sucking away the moisture from my wet skin and making me feel almost cold for the first time all day.
My neighbor Juana, a grandmother who’s grown thick around the middle, who calls me sister, hermana, and sometimes gifts me thick yellow wedges of sweet cornbread, cackles from across her cactus fence— “Running? I can run faster than you. I was a quick one, when I was young,” she pumps her arms back and forth, running in place. Someday, we will have a race from here to Garabito, she says. It’s one of those jokes we play over and over, every time she sees me exercising, every time I pass her house on the way home. I still smile, we still laugh. Every moment is its own kind of routine, driving me along in circles.
I use my shirt to wipe the sweat off my face and I squint at the last haze of sunlight catching in the branches of the cereza tree as I turn the corner home. My house is as I left it— dark, quiet, stuffy with the accumulated heat of the day. All around me are the sounds of nightfall— my little neighbors giggling and shouting at play, the goats bleating their child-like mews from nighttime pens, a few radios playing evangelical sermons and loud, lewd bachata. I unlace my sneakers, kick them off, drink water, watch the sun set.
Tomorrow I will do it all over again. Tomorrow, and the day after that.