Summers were brutal in the Piedmont when I was a girl; I suspect they still are. Because my family spent the months of May through to the end of August in the mountains, the half a summer I spent in Chapel Hill when I was twenty was atypical. I remember the sky that summer as a fierce white glare, visible heat waves radiating off asphalt, and the air clinging to me like a sodden blanket. Every day around four thirty in the afternoon, I’d sit on out on the veranda, eviscerated by heat, and watch as towering storm clouds began to build over Durham to the west and begin their slow slouch towards Chapel Hill, looking for all the world like Armageddon on the move. A half an hour later, a clattering rain and the heat would snap in two like a twig, followed by twenty minutes of blessed relief before the whole enervating cycle began all over again. Most places were air-conditioned to meat locker level; our house was not. We did not spend summers in town, after all, and the house was a big one and drafty. What we did have was an attic fan, which sucked the hot air in, chopped it up and then recirculated it in soggy chunks. This was not as helpful as might be imagined. Sleeping was difficult; cooking was impossible; and digestion was complicated. Which makes it hard for me to remember why I thought that that summer in Chapel Hill was a good time to take up running.
Let me state right off the top that the Universe did not design me for running. I am a pear. When I was young, I was a small pear. Now, having gained in age and wisdom, I am a medium sized pear. Moreover, I’m a pear with flat feet and turnout. I run, to put it bluntly, like a duck.
Nevertheless, being resolved to get in shape, I donned baggy, paint stained running shorts and a roomy men’s t-shirt and plodded forth. I will not dignify what I was doing by labeling it “running,” or even “jogging.” It was plodding, plain and simple. One flat foot after the other. As for the time of day I set aside for this self-improvement program, it was the noon hour. Why didn’t I plod in the morning or the evening, you ask, when it was arguably, if not actually cooler? To which I would reply that I was in class all morning and by late afternoon I was a puddle, incapable of doing anything more physical than languish. Noon seemed like a good idea at the time.
One blisteringly hot day, when I was on the home stretch and Tenney Circle within sight, a battered white sedan pulled up next to me and stopped. I plodded by. It pulled ahead and stopped again. Again I plodded by. Again the car pulled ahead, then lurched to a stop. Do I know this person, I wondered, and glanced in the car to see the nether regions of a man wearing no pants and masturbating. I hauled off and kicked the car hard on the passenger side door. It sped away, but not before I memorized the license plate number. When I got home, I called the police. Twenty minutes later the police called me. They had caught my flasher, apparently still pant free. Did I wish to press charges? I did.
Shortly thereafter the flasher’s lawyer called me. The man had been an orderly at a hospital in Durham; he had been fired because of the indecency charge and his wife had left him, taking their two-year old son. Hadn’t the poor bastard paid a stiff enough price for his indiscretion, no innuendo intended? And speaking of discretion, was my own past so spotless that my sexual history (relatively unexciting as that was) might not be used against me in court? Might it not have been the case that my scanty attire (see above description of said attire) provoked this response in his client? I was twenty years old and clearly spineless. I dropped the charges. One for chauvinism; zero for feminism.
I did not, however, stop plodding.
Several weeks later found me laboriously plodding my way down North Street, not one miserable endorphin to my name, when I spotted a man walking towards me. It was, of course, the noon hour; the rest of the world sat huddled inside their refrigerated homes; the street was deserted. The man appeared to be doing something peculiar with his hands, just what I was too myopic to make out until . . . wouldn’t you know it? His fly was open and he was masturbating. I quickly recalculated, took a hard left up Boundary Street, then another left down Rosemary to Glenburnie, before making my way home in a state of considerable perplexity. It was noon, for Pete’s sake! Never mind Take Back the Night. How about Take Back the Noon?
My first flasher was white, my second black. I was, it seems, an equal opportunity victim. These two experiences, happening as they did within a couple of weeks of each other, flummoxed me. Were I and my two flashers like mad dogs and Englishmen – the only creatures crazy enough to come out in the noon day sun? Why were they trawling a deserted neighbourhood for lone plodding pears and not checking out the nearby college campus, awash in tasty coeds? Do many men spend their lunch hour this way? Does this happen all the time or was I just special?
At age 22 I made a commitment to regular exercise that I have kept for the last forty years, as both a fitness instructor and a participant. I never make a New Year’s resolution to exercise. I don’t need to. It’s the one thing . . . perhaps the only thing . . . that I really, truly have down. But plodding is not part of my regimen. And this is why.