In the woods we run two miles to warm up, to stretch our muscles and tendons and joints one step at a time. We follow the dirt trail without looking down, two abreast at conversation pace wearing as many layers of clothing as possible so that our limbs get warm and slick as birth and we feel like we could leap over the pines and through the clouds and never come back.
In the woods we are together every day, except Sundays, rest days, which don’t feel like days, or when we have an away meet and ride a bus to another school, another town to race five kilometers against boys who are just like us and we hate. We win. We tell ourselves we win because we care about each other more than they do and can take more pain. We don’t know what to tell ourselves when we lose.
In the woods we are too old to use first names. We are Webber. We are Anderson. We are Pezone and Chin and Perry and Grandstaff. We just turned fourteen. We are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.
In the woods, at first we feel like babies carried on our mothers’ backs. We run at the end of the pack with our heads shaved bald as a symbol of our newness. We pant and stumble forward to stay close enough to hear a new language, blessed and terrible swears we will never forget. We hear, “I actually like eating pussy. Like licking the end of a battery.” We remember sucking pennies when we were boys, the taste of our own blood.
In the woods we fall in love the way boys fall in love. We fall in love with our own bodies, with our thin hardness and wild power, and with each other, a love natural as sin. For the first time we realize another as the same. We talk the same and dream the same and lie the same. We picture that scene in Tom and Huck when the two boys slice the pads of their fingers and press them together, one’s blood as red as the other’s sliding between skin.
In the woods we don’t miss our fathers. They drive trucks. They play jazz bass, drink, and don’t send child support. They manage a hospital and will be there when we get home.
In the woods years pass, but it’s always fall.
In the woods we call our sneakers trainers. Their rubber bottoms splash through puddles and bound off boulders and are worn smooth by gravel. Their mesh darkens and darkens like summer nights. Our toes rip through the cloth.
In the woods we call our racing shoes racers or spikes, light as ballet slippers with rubber barbs on the bottoms. Loose piles of dirt, sun warmed, sink under our weight. Right-angled rocks press into arches. We run too fast to whisper and we hear our hearts, strangers pounding at the door, as we lengthen our strides downhill, a stampede at our heels. We are tunneling toward the center of the earth. We aim our feet for pockets of dirt between the roots as we try to steady the breaths being pulled from our lungs in sobs.
In the woods the birch is our favorite tree. We stop to piss, peel off sheets of white bark, wait for the wind to sweep them from our open palms.
In the woods we compare our girlfriends. They make us hemp necklaces. They ask us if we believe in heaven. They are Jess and Emily and BT and Jo, and they say don’t tell anyone about their bodies and our bodies and friction and taste. We bring them to the woods on off days because we want them to feel it, too, the blanket of branches overhead, the layer of dust kicked up and sweat to skin. They lead us deeper into the fern and brush, near the swamp, and we kiss the strawberry lip-gloss off their mouths and they unbutton their shirts and we unclasp their bras and they help and pull down our jeans, and we hear a dog barking, behind us, on the trail, sneakers spitting pebbles, steps closer, closer, patter, patter and we want to run, but they grab our hands, clothing flowing from their limbs in the green light, the pine needles and leaves and our fingers, everything shaking except for their eyes, as if they’re sorry, as if they see inside us.
In the woods we wear nylon shorts, like plastic grocery bags. We sweat our shirts transparent and wrap them as turbans or twist them into belts or throw them to the side to be picked up later or tomorrow or never.
In the woods we wear hoodies with our names on the sleeves.
In the woods we wear black spandex under our shorts, under our shirts. We wear cotton gloves and wool caps we rip off a mile in, and steam pours from our heads as if they’ve just exploded.
In the woods we decide we will be good men when we get older because we are young and strong and we are not our fathers, we are not our brothers. We will change. We will learn to stay with one girl, to care for her as if she is our only child. “We will,” we say, and almost believe it.
In the woods our jerseys tighten against our broadened chests, shoulders. We no longer need to safety pin the straps in back to keep them from slipping, but we do it anyway because we miss feeling small, bone thin, near weightless.
In the woods Coach calls us son, says, “I love you.”
In the woods, where the branches overtake the sky and the only thing we hear is the stutter of croak and scamper and breeze, we picture our exes because we believe the pain will make us run faster. We can’t feel the emotion, any emotion, our insides hardened by too many miles, too many changes. We slow. Green surrounds us, turns in the sun, a mirage of green. The smell of standing water. No opponents in sight, sweat crawls, saturates our skin. We realize this whole time we’ve been racing ourselves.
In the woods we cry.
In the woods we feel. We feel the sharp sour of rotting leaves inside our skulls, fists of lactic acid in our calves, fingers digging into our ribs with each breath, the pulse of each other’s footfalls. We feel like shit together, and we know it, we hear it and see it and say it and taste it on our tongues flapping in the hot light. We are strays searching for scraps. We are Columbus crossing his heart in the dead of night, full speed ahead.
In the woods Coach waves us toward the finish line. His tuft of hair rolls in the shifting gusts. He’s up on his toes, screaming. We stare at his neck, a twisted vein. We want to know what he’s trying to tell us, but we can’t hear him over all the noise, the parents, the girlfriends, the wind. We can’t stop and ask him. The noise is a hand on our backs. We have to keep running.
In the woods we don’t want to let go.
We camp after the season is over, piled into a tent in the clearing, the only one away from the trail, where burnouts smash bottles and carve The Birdz and 4/20 into birch skin. We tell ourselves not to be scared. They won’t come back. We sit on logs and chant made-up songs into the night and gorge on Twizzlers and Little Debbie and Jones Soda. It’s too dark to see anything and bugs snap off the swamp, gnaw at our skin, so we crawl into the tent and claim pillows even though we aren’t tired. We feel rock, uneven land under our backs. We say how much we are going to miss this.
“What?” we say.
“All of this.”
We punch each other in the meat of our legs for taking up too much space. We ask if we remember when we were freshman. “Remember when we were sitting in the locker room and Sullivan put his dick on your shoulder?”
“Remember when we saw him at Burger King last year and how fat he got?”
“Remember when he got so drunk he thought he was dying, so he drove home and woke up his mom because he wanted to tell her he loved her before he died?”
Our eyes adjust to the shadows and we think about death and how people disappear and turn into different people. We hear footsteps, weight snapping twigs.
“Wind,” we say.
We hear boots blasting leaves, voices.
“Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they won’t see us.”
A flashlight splashes through the tent.
We say, “Closer.”
Rumpus original art by Brandon Hicks.