The Art of Running (Abridged)

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The cold air gripped her throat, scratching and leaving a feeling of burning where comfort usually sat. She ran faster, the clock ticking away the minutes in tune with her. Glancing down at her phone, she nearly lost hope as she rounded the corner, her deep, dark brown hair whipping across her face.
“Do you ever have nightmares?”
“Sometimes. Why?”
“I feel like I’m living mine.”

Peoples’ eyes trailed after her as she sped by bumping suits as they trotted down the sidewalk, sometimes causing the scalding coffee they were holding to spill on them. She hated mornings in downtown New York with a passion. It seemed like the streets were packed with people who were all going in the same direction, so that one person was headed in a different way, namely her on most mornings, was the reason for their morning grumpiness.
“Wait! Hold the bus!” she screeched, now sprinting down the pavement towards the bus that was momentarily perched on the corner as the last of its passengers boarded,
“Sonjai? How many times do I have to tell you that I can’t keep on holding up traffic for you?” huffed the bus driver, a black woman in her late forties with a puff of brown hair.
“Thanks, Tam, and sorry,” Sonjai breathed out, collapsing in the seat closest to the door.
“With speed like that, you should be on the track team,” she heard a voice say from next to her. Turning, she gazed into the green eyes of a boy that she shared a few classes with.
“I’m more of an artist.”
“Well, make running your art. It wouldn’t be that hard. With some motivation, of course.” Sonjai just stared back at him. She’d only spoken to this kid, Allen, once or twice before, and she never really had a desire to increase that. He smiled at her as she watched him, a cross between a smirk and a bemused twist of the mouth. His green eyes crinkled as his grin grew wider, a field of freckles dusting his nose.
“Really. Think about it,” he said, standing up and pulling his old, worn brown shoulder bag across his body and heading off the bus and down the street towards their school. Sonjai kept a few paces behind him, silently staring at his blond head, as he led her into the school.
“Sometimes, I wish that I had gone with my brother to the States. I mean, my parents were actually going to let me. That was- I was such an idiot for passing it up,” Sonjai sighed, shaking her head so that her long hair danced around her.
“What were you going to do in the States? Have gawk people at your accent?” Jared laughed, smiling at her from where he sat on the rock that overlooked the park that they visited daily.
“Very funny, I don’t exactly sound like you now do I? Mr. Cosmopolitan London native is too good for the hills of England?”
“No, American’s just find our accent very appealing. Even attractive in my case,” he smirked. Sonjai couldn’t help but to giggle at that one. She looked over at Jared, his mocha skin peeking out from beneath the rugby jacket that he wore everywhere. His brown eyes found hers and he smiled. “Now, why do you really want to go to the states? Tired of hanging out with your gay best friend, is that it? Because I promise you that we’re everywhere, even in the states.”
“I get tired of you every single day; you being gay has nothing to do with it. No. It’s my family. They don’t get it. They don’t get me. I am so sick of walking into a line of insults every time I go into my house, and hearing about how I am a disgrace to my family for not upholding their stupid traditions. I am 15 years old. How in the heavens am I supposed to know what to do?”
“What do they want this time?”
“My mother actually wants to set me up. For an ‘arranged date’ as she calls it, but she means marriage. I’m coming of age, after all.” Sonjai looked down at her small feet clad in grey flats with stars splattered all over them. “I hate it,” her voice cracked.

The more time she spent roaming the halls of the humongous school, the easier she found it was to get lost. Every day, she trailed past walls and walls filled with pictures of previous graduates and principals, or greatest sports achievement. If she was lucky, she might find a patch of wall that was neither covered with spirited memorabilia nor graffiti, but she never got her hopes up. As she continued her path through the halls and towards her locker, she saw a group of the hockey players and football players begin to shove each other and curse profusely. Rolling her eyes, she rounded the corner and jumped back as she nearly walked into someone.
“Sorry,” she began, until she realized who it was.
“Hey, long time, no see!” his smile returned.
“I am living my nightmare,” she scoffed. Pushing past him, she continued down the hall, towards her locker.
“Hey!” Allen called out, “given any more thought to the track team?”
~

The air’s chilling bite had warmed up a bit as Sonjai walked back to the apartment that she shared with her brother. She smiled as she came up to the old, run down building; she was finally home. Sonjai detested the cracked, puke green brick walls that surrounded the building, giving it that creepy exterior. She also hated the fact that the stairs creaked as if in pain every time someone so much as stepped on them. The apartment’s look itself wasn’t so bad, but the water took forever to get hot and the kitchen lights were always flickering whenever it rained. However, it was her favorite place in New York. It inspired her. Cobbwell Apartments sat in the center of the city, not too far away from Central Park and a nice two blocks from the major pizza and coffee places of the city. She witnessed a myriad of personalities from her 2nd floor apartment window. And she documented the adventures that she saw in various doodles, paintings, and quick sketches almost every day.

Dark clouds had formed in the sky and cold rain began to pelt down on innocent bystanders as they sprinted into nearby shops and cars to get out of range. Sonjai sat in the back of a small art studio attached to her school, finishing up the last of her painting. She had been working on an assignment for the past few days. The topic: fear. Hearing footsteps clap on the hardwood floor as someone approached her, Sonjai hesitated with the brush in her hand.
“So, this is what you’re afraid of.” Keeping silent, she stared at the two dark, Indian hands in front of her; clasped together, golden rings adorning each of the fourth fingers of their left hands.
“I- I’m more afraid of what it does to a person. Of what it will do to me.”
“Then say that.”
“I can’t.”
“Because you’re a coward.” She knew he was right, even then. Jared had known her for too long to not know how afraid she was of telling her parents the truth. Sonjai had grown up in a home where the traditions of her “people” were to be upheld at all costs. It was a suffocating job, and at times there seemed like no escape.

The sound of the apartment’s metal door creaking open snapped Sonjai back to attention. She watched as her brother, tallest man in her family, came into the kitchen and set his briefcase on the counter behind her.
“Hey,” he said, pouring himself a cup of the coffee that she’d subconsciously made for herself and never got around to actually drinking. “How was school?”
“Uneventful. Well, some kid asked me to join the track team.”
“Track team? Sounds…exciting. You should join.”
“Yeah, that’ll happen.”
“Sonjai,” Kole sighed, “it’s not like showing some school spirit or doing anything productive is giving in to them. Mom and Dad aren’t here with you, I am. And frankly, I’m tired of watching you mope around all day while I work to feed you and send you to school.”
“I go to a public school. So, obviously, you really don’t do too much.” She knew she hit a nerve the moment the words left her lips. She watched as her brother brought his coffee cup to his lips and took a long sip. Sitting the cup on the counter, he let out a long sigh and shook his head, staring down at the floor.
“Yeah, well at least I’m not abandoning you. I’ll make dinner; go to your room and finish your homework.” Not wanting to hit another nerve and set her brother off until she knew that he was calm, Sonjai gathered her things and started for her bedroom. “Oh, and Sone, do me a favor and don’t stalk the people that walk outside of the building today. I think that they’re starting to notice,” he said, a playful smirk playing at his lips. Glaring at her brother, Sonjai continued to walk towards her room, flipping him off on her way, their general answer to whatever was left unsaid.

She lay awake in bed that night, thinking about what her brother had said. She knew that he hadn’t meant it so harshly, but he was right. At least I didn’t abandon you. Turning herself over so that she was lying on her stomach, Sonjai stared at the wall in front of her. In her guilt, she spent most of her time sketching memories that she had with Jared back home in the UK. Many of them involved their favorite park in some way, but some held special moments from around the town. Nothing was ordered time wise, just how they came to memory for her. Feeling the sting of tears in her eyes, she reached out and gently ran her hand over the smooth surface of the painting the acrylic had given which held the two of them playing soccer in their younger years as mere children; when the worst thing that they did was sneak an extra few cookies out of the local bakery. She felt the hot, salty tears begin to glide down her cheeks. No, she ordered them. Not anymore. She promised herself that she was done crying. She was going to do what she did with every bad memory or moment, lock it away until she forgot about it.

The sun licked her eyelids the next morning, waking her up with the familiar warmth that she felt as a child. Her eyes opened to a sea of vibrant colors: the paints and pastels that adorned her four walls. Slowly walking over to the farthest wall, she looked out of the window that sat in its center. A sea of people rushed by below her; their colorful clothes and hair reminding her of the paints that she mixed together almost every day. Turning back towards her bed, she sighed. The paintings that seemed to be haunting her last night were mocking her now. The look of the eyes and the warmth of the smiles in almost every scene seemed unfamiliar and distant to her now.
“So, you’re just going to leave. That’s it? You’re not even going to try and help?”
“It’s not my job to always look out for you. You’re a big boy, take care of yourself.”
“We’re best friends. I’m always there for you. Would it kill you to just think of someone else for once?”
“I didn’t choose for you to be gay when I met you, Jared! If I had’ve known that it would cause so much damage, I wouldn’t have been your friend in the first place.” The words were like icy fire, stinging the deepest wounds that she knew her wire tongue had caused. His face was a mixture of shock and anger, his brown eyes filled with more hurt than she could ever imagine and his black, bushy eyebrows bunched together in two equal lines of confusion.
“Well, then I guess I won’t burden you anymore. Have a nice life in the States.” Now his words, ever so quiet, hurt like she had been stabbed with a force never before felt. The finality with which he said them scared her. Once again, she’d hurt someone that she cared about. And once again, she was the one who ended up being hurt the most.
“So, why are you afraid of marriage?” The ink that she was writing with suddenly went off track and trailed over the page. Looking up, she glared into the green orbs she had unfortunately y come to know well. He smiled that annoyingly smug and contempt smile as he watched her squirm in confusion. Running her hand through her dark, brown locks. Sonjai finally sighed and opened her mouth to answer. “How did I know about that? Oh, it was easy to find out. I googled you. Apparently, you’re very googlable. With all of those awards that you won for your art in all. I must say, I’m impressed.”
“Are you really that lonely in the world that you’ve resorted to stalking someone that you don’t know?” she asked, her accent and attitude causing her to almost overly stress every syllable. Subconsciously, she had a smile on her lips. This kid, as strange as he was, had chops. Normally, she’d be able to talk someone down who pestered her to no end. But his determination impressed her.
“So, aren’t you going to thank me for the compliment?”
“Thanks,” she said, picking up her books and moving out of the empty school library which now was overly crowded.
“Why can’t we be friends?”
“I already have friends. Back home.”
“What’s wrong with having some here?”
“I have associates,” she explained. She refused to call anyone here an actual friend; she trusted them even less than she trusted herself.
“Associates? Wow, you are really messed up.”
“Okay, do you want to know the real reason why?”
“The truth? Yes, that would be nice.”
“You remind me of my friend.”
“Oh, now I understand!” he shouted, dramatically. They were now standing in the hallway where they had last had their bumping into of one another. “You were in love with him and he didn’t feel the same way. Well, you obviously don’t even like me so we don’t have to worry about that,” he smiled.
“He’s gay,” she scoffed, walking faster in an attempt to get away from in. It unsurprisingly proved in vain as he proceeded to speed walk right next to her and bombard her with questions.
“Then, why would it bother you that I remind you of him?”
“Because we’re not exactly on the best of terms right now, okay?”
“But-“
“Look!” she screeched, this time fed up with both his questioning and the chance of having to face the truth. “It’s none of your business. So we’re done here. Goodbye.” She walked away as fast as she could, this time she did not hear his Nike’s screeching behind her down the hallway.

The next few days Allen seemed to be on eggshells around her. He never stopped pestering her, but he did it to a less extent. She eventually grew accustomed to his presence and began to mind it less and less as the days wore on. Every day, however, he asked her the same question which always annoyed her.
“Are you going to join the track team?” his New York accent had become more noticeable the more that she spoke to him.
“Go jump off of a building, please. There are plenty. Take your pick.” He smirked at her, and chuckled to himself, rolling his eyes. She talked to him a bit more freely now; he didn’t have to pull answers from her as often as before. However, she still kept her secrets. Never letting him in past a few stories about her past in England; she always stopped herself before she reached the full story. He had grown used to it, but his questions still came; and she noticed his green eyes lingering on her small frame more than one time when she abruptly cut herself off and occupied herself with a task that had suddenly come to mind.
~
The sound was so familiar to her ears, yet it seemed like a distant memory that was just being pulled out for the first time in years. It was a simple symphony, one that she knew he liked and that would clearly identify him like no other whenever he called. Reaching into her black, fading rugby jacket, Sonjai pulled out her sleek, blue swirl covered cell phone. The name “Jared” blared at her in big bubbly letters. Sucking in her breath, she debated on what to do next. If she answered, she risked losing the composure that she had worked so hard to fake; but if she refused the call, she would lose so much more. Closing her eyes and praying for a miracle, she pressed the talk button and brought the phone to her ear.
“Hello?” she whispered into the mouth piece.

The plane smelled like a mixture of cinnamon and old, heated plastic. The seats were soft and wide, but she was stuck in between two people that she had never met in her life. The man to her left was clad in a blue and white suit, clacking away on his Mac laptop, while the woman on her right repeatedly looked into her bag then glared suspiciously at Sonjai and raised a quizzical eyebrow at her clothing. Sonjai’s parents had insisted that she travel like a “good Indian-girl” and wear the traditional Indian clothing that she wore to every other family gathering that was far away. Knowing that she wouldn’t win the battle in any way, she’d agreed. Now, however, she felt more uncomfortable in the clothing than she did when people stared at her strangely when she ran to the market in the garments.
“You should not be afraid of your culture, Sonjai,” her mother would scold in her broken eastern accent. “India is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. Just because you have the accent an Englishman, doesn’t mean you should behave like one.” Closing her eyes, Sonjai leaned her head back against the seat, moving her arms so that they were no longer covering the purple and gold embroidered garments wrapped around her. She should be proud of something. Even if it was something that she was running away from. She’d noticed the looks that her parents had given her as she was packing after they’d announced to the boy that she was to be “set up with” that she was no longer eligible. She knew that she had hurt her mother and father, probably more by running away than by speaking with them, but it was a chance that she had to take.

Then, there was Jared. The best friend that she had wronged. He spoke with her before she left. Even forgave her for what she’d said, but the hurt was still there. She knew that what she did would never be forgotten. So she took her forgiveness and got on the plane, knowing that she wouldn’t have to look back on what had happened until the year was over and she was forced to return home.

It was dark out now, the stars lit up the sky like a thousand fireflies in the night air. Sitting down on a bench, Sonjai allowed her hands to go to work on the piece of paper in front of her. Then she heard those now familiar footsteps come up behind her.
“You’re late.”
“Well, I had to explain to my mom that I couldn’t stay and babysit because I had to meet someone that hates me.” At this Sonjai looked up. She could feel his eyes on her again. Turning to look at him, the gentle wind causing her hair to softly caress her face, her brown eyes now locked with his.
“Sit,” she commanded and begged. Running his hand through his bright hair, he slowly moved towards her and cautiously perched himself on the bench.
“You’re not going to try and like murder me now are you?” he grinned. She simply shook her head and went back to her drawing.
“You asked me why I won’t join the track team. I wanted to tell you why.”
“So we had to meet at 8 o’clock at night for you to tell me why you won’t join the track team? This better be good.”
“I hate running. Hate it.” She turned to gaze at him again, this time her brown eyes pleading for him to understand. “It’s all I do,” now her voice broke. “I run and run. Every time something gets too hard, I run. I leave all of the people that I care about behind. I am so screwed up and it’s the worst feeling. I closed you off because you reminded me of Jared. And the two of you know how to scratch at those things that I keep buried, and it scares me. I left him when he needed me, and he forgave me; but I never tried to help him afterwards. His mom just called to tell me that he’s in the hospital. He’s hurt. My so called ‘friends’ attacked him, because he’s gay. And it’s all my fault.” She was shaking, tears poured down her cheeks and her breathing became staggered. “My brother’s at work and I didn’t know who else to talk to. I just…I just didn’t want to be alone.” She felt strong arms wrap around her and hold her. For so long she had felt so alone, the only warmth came from what she painted in her pictures. Closing everybody out came with a price, one that she’d been paying for heavily lately. She never knew how long they sat there, wrapped up together while she cried, but Allen stayed with her until she had no strength left to scream or cry; until the pain had eased.

The metal door’s creak notified her that her brother was home. She listened as he walked into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee that she had purposefully made for him, and walked down the hall towards her room. Stopping in the doorway, he found her kneeling on the floor. She had on her favorite paint-splattered jeans and an old, worn Beatles t-shirt. A variety of acrylic surrounding her. She was painting a picture, but not one that he recognized. Two people sat before his eyes, wrapped together in a hug, surrounded by trees.
“What’s this one?”
“This one is that day that Sonjai grew up,” she turned and gave her brother a weak smile. “And when she stops being a brat and finally thanks her brother for all that he does for her.” Biting the inside of her cheek, she watched as her brother strode over to her.
“You have been bratty lately,” he laughed, leaning over and kissing the top of her head.
“You smell like pee. And medicine,” she smiled. Giving her a playful glare, he lifted his hand and flipped up his middle finger. Smiling, Sonjai turned back to her painting as her brother walked off towards the kitchen.





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