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Dayrunner

by Eireen Manow

     The music stops. A strange silence settles. In it, I hear the rhythmic pounding of my shoes against the pavement and my breath, hard, fast, almost gasping. I can almost see vapors in front of me wafting up into the bare red trees. Lake Michigan glares out at me, deep bright blue, reflecting the sun into my eyes. Sweat, hot and salty, trickles down my face. Warmth fills me and bursts through my pores.

     This was my first time outside in two days. I had spent those days pinned under the weight of my blankets, abdomen aching, the mere thought of moving propelling me to my knees in front of the toilet for a bitter revisit of last nightís meal. On the way back to bed, Iíd grabbed the phone, dialing as I folded the blankets over me as a shield, perhaps to protect me from yet another unpleasant conversation with my boss.

     "I canít come in today. Iím . . . sick."

      "Fine." No effort was made to hide his annoyance.

     I imagined my boss knowingly telling the others, "She sure gets sick a lot."

     He didnít understand. How could he understand an illness that had no biological form - a bacteria born from a job that technically required forty hours of my life a week but in reality only took five hours? The bacteria reproduced becoming feelings of despair as I realized that my days had become like a childís toy, moments tossed aside, wasting, waiting underneath the kitchen table.

     After two sedentary days, I managed to pull myself out of bed, pull on my ratty gym shoes, and push myself out of the door. As soon as I stepped outside, my body felt better. I breathed deep the crisp September air and exhaled all the stale air of my cramped apartment. I ran the three blocks to the lakeshore path and the other runners, merging as a car does into traffic.

     As I ran, my mind wandered to thoughts of two decades spent on Chicagoís lakefront bike-trail, a route that arcs about eight miles, holding the cityís landmarks and skyscrapers at bay from spilling out into the cerulean water. In the winter, when the starkly black branches of willows and elms cut through the blue sky, some of the more determined brave the subzero temperatures to go for a run; others opt for a swim in the gray nearly frozen lake. At the first signs of spring, those who hibernated during the winter are drawn once again from their safe winter shelters. There is a burst of activity on the first warm day as even cubicle dwellers make their way outdoors to enjoy their lunches on a bench. The food vendors open their trucks, releasing fragrant scents of juicy, all-beef hot dogs buried beneath mustard, relish, fresh onions, tomatoes and hot sport peppers. In the summer, the path is nearly bursting with runners, cyclists, and picnicking families, children dashing around parents struggling to keep from burning them with greasy metal spatulas. Fall, the path is only slightly less busy. Some have already retreated inside, threatened by the coming frost. Many others, though, enjoy a stroll under red, pink, yellow, and green leafy trees.

     On this brisk, sunny September morning, the silence was broken by a sharp techno beat, and a voice that said, "This is how Iím supposed to feel." I listened more to the words on this day than I ever had before. I recalled the last two days, recalled the wasted time and I thought; This IS how Iím supposed to feel.

      Two hours out of twenty-four in a day, I felt alive. My mind was hurtling as I continued to run. The Armitage Street Bridge was overhead, its thick stone arc throwing a large shadow onto the path. As I came out from under the bridge, I saw the lake at my right. The sunís glare on the water was almost blinding. Just at the edge of the gleam, I saw a man with his golden retriever. The dog was running toward the water as if he were going to jump in, but at the last minute he seemed to change his mind.

     I was that dog. My mind was running toward the water, still not sure if it would jump in or if, at the last minute it would retreat, tail between its legs. My job came with a 401k, two weeks paid vacation, sick days, paid holidays, and a steady salary. It was safe, banal, boring, mind numbing, and life draining. It clung to the back of my shirt as I stood at the edge of the rocks peering into the deep blue unknown waters.

     When I got home that afternoon, I called my friend Todd.

     "Itís hot. Itís raining," he said, his voice straining with irritation. "Itís hot rain."

     "Youíre in Louisiana, in the south. Itís hot."

     "Nooooo, you donít understand. The rain, itís hot. Itís rain, itís not supposed to be hot, itís supposed to be cool and refreshing." After only four months in Louisiana, his Midwestern skin had not yet become acclimatized to the hot, moist air typical of the southern swampy climate.

     "Um . . . okay. Um . . . so . . . how would you feel about a temporary long-term guest?"

     "Huh?"

     "Well, I was thinking I want to go back to school, but I donít think I can do it if I stay here and work. So I was thinking of moving to Louisiana and going to school, and if you maybe wanted to let me stay in your extra bedroom, until I got myself together."

     He chuckled, and I could picture his large deep brown eyes and perfect straight white teeth.

      "Of course you can stay."

     I spent the next week sifting through websites, sifting through myself, trying to figure out what I was going to do and where. The nearest university was thirty-five miles away from my friendís house, over rural roadways that meandered through swampland. It offered several degree programs, but at twenty-five I was concerned with knocking over the building blocks of what little career I had, to start over.

     My trepidation unrelentingly battered at my resolve. I considered what directions my life could take. I continued lying under the table waiting, wasting.

     While waiting, a friend asked me to join him on a tour of the Le Cordon Blue Culinary Institute of Chicago. We took the train to the small campus near downtown Chicago. They herded us into a room with about twenty other people. The chef stood at the center of the room. He was pale, tall, confident, happy. His blond hair shook under the weight of his excitement.

     "Anyone can be a chef, can learn to cook, can run their own restaurant. If you want it there is no reason you canít have it. All you have to do is try."

     His speech was a clichť, filled with motivational dribble, but I found some truth in it. I enjoyed the sound of onions sizzling in a pot of oil, the feel of sticky dough on fingers as I folded it over savory fillings, pressing it closed with a fork. I loved the laughter of friends as they conversed between mouths full of meat and cheese and pasta, sauces occasionally running down their chins. I recollected these moments of happiness.

     Why couldnít I do this?

     The school in Louisiana had a Culinary Arts program. I called. I applied. I waited.

     On December 7th, 2005, I left my job of five years.

     Several days later, I watched my friend Matt, his muscles straining from beneath his shirt, as he carried my bed down two flights of stairs. "You can use it when you come back to visit," he gasped between breaths.

     Two days later I was sitting in the passenger seat of a non-descript Chevy van, bags of clothing creeping into the cab from the back seat. My gray cat slumped at my feet, staring at me with disdain, and, as he had been every two minutes for the past 18 hours, let out a high pitched if slightly raspy, "Meeeooooowwwww."

     "Itíll be okay," I whispered. "Youíll like Louisiana." Those yellow eyes stared up at me disbelieving. Suddenly, I felt as if all the moisture had been drawn from my mouth, and my hands were slippery with sweat. I was five miles from the Louisiana border, surrounded by miles and miles of barren landscape. My mind was shouting, Turn around; go back home; this is not safe. I reached down to lift my cat into my lap. Instinctively, I folded my legs under me and sank into the seat, stroking Shadow, trying to calm his nerves.

     "You okay?" Todd solemnly inquired from the driverís seat.

     "Yeah." I glanced over at him and saw that I had no more convinced him than I had myself. For the next twenty miles I sat staring at the racing landscape, trying to slow my thoughts and calm my nerves.

     "Weíre about five miles out of New Orleans."

     My head crept up slowly as I glanced out the window. We were heading down a long wide bridge. Tall yellow grass, tree stumps, moss, and deep green lily-pads were peaking up through the wide expanse of murky brown water. Without realizing I set my cat down and rolled down the window. The damp cool air caressed my skin, and face. I felt a rapid thump, thump in my chest.

      This is how Iím supposed to feel.

      I saw myself sprint to the edge of the bridge and leap, arms and legs spread wide. I shivered with excitement, glanced over at Todd and smiled, knowing I was better than okay. I had crawled out from underneath the table, and was no longer waiting.


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