A person's legs running, wearing sneakers.

Escape Velocity


I. Distance

I started running when I was in my mid-twenties. Up the inclines of Washington Heights, down the Hudson River, and back through Central Park, lapping couples with strollers and leashed Labradors around the reservoir. I ran through the swamp-asshole humidity of New York summers, over crunching leaves in the fall, and on ice that brought me skidding to my knees in winter. I worked my way from running two miles to three, then to four and five. Eventually I ran a half marathon.

I started running for a number of reasons. I ran, at the time, because I couldn’t afford a gym membership; I ran because I’d grown up active, dancing and performing at an array of studios and venues so extensive that I laid waste to my parents’ car mileage; I ran because it gave me time to think without being in the presence of a screen. I ran because my boyfriend of three years had just left me several thousand dollars deep in unpaid rent on our shared apartment in Washington Heights, and I’d received an eviction notice five days before I was supposed to testify in court as a “witness” in my own sexual assault trial. I ran because I really did not know what to do with these circumstances, and I suppose I needed the metaphor that running provided.

I could say I ran because I wanted to be thinner, and on some level that would be true, since I’d also mostly abandoned eating regularly. Between running, walking my dog, and hauling ass around New York City, I was traversing anywhere between eight and twelve miles a day, but I was consuming fewer calories than the average adult typically needs to stay alive in a vegetative state.

I could describe doing this in high school: keeping myself upright in six hours of dance classes and rehearsals on nothing but apples and air. I could set scenes with my mother’s comments about my body after puberty hit it like a freight train, of invented allergies and aversions, of the evolution of my calorie-counting compulsion, now an instinct as natural as breathing. I could describe the first time I ever thought about weight consciously, when I was nine years old and at the hair salon with my mother. Julianna Margulies was on the cover of the magazine my mother was flipping through. We watched her on E.R. together every Sunday, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I envied her glowing milk-white skin, her dense black curls, the rosy color of her lips—everything about her soft, almost angelic. But on the magazine’s cover she looked sharp and angular, almost unrecognizable in how much weight she’d lost. I asked my mother and the hairdresser: When did she get so skinny? and the hairdresser, without even looking up from the foils on my mother’s head, grinned and responded: Over the weekend.

I could say that the running all goes back to that, long before I was in my mid-twenties, if being thin wasn’t so vastly beside the point. Few things order the universe: numbers, limits, calculations, and constellations. I started running both to chase down some understanding of how someone I loved could abandon me so utterly, and so too, to escape the reality of its happening. My body was the only place to do the math, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.


II. Space

I am sitting at a bar in Brooklyn next to a man. He looks like every other man I end up sitting next to in Brooklyn bars in my mid-to-late twenties: a few years older than me, tall, a build that is aging from its boyhood leanness into a slender but increasingly soft form. He has a partial sleeve of tattoos on one arm, neat rows of upper-middle-class teeth, and the unearned confidence that goes with this physical description.

It is the third or fourth night we have spent together, but we have only ever sat at the bar, not at a table or booth. We have never sat across from one another, have never chosen eye contact over our leather-jacketed elbows grazing over the slick wood of the bar, the condensation glimmering with fragments of neon from the window signs facing the icy January sidewalk.

I have wandered, for the fifth time in a year, into the liminal space when a new romance becomes a regular Thing, maybe what some people would call “dating,” or in parlance that did not exist at the time, a “situationship.” The Thing is based dimly on companionship—enough of it to sustain a few cocktails’ worth of conversation—and mostly on sex. But the idea of a romantic relationship has not been rejected outright, so there remains a sort of thrill, a magic spell of potential still unbroken.

From these interactions, I am able to offer a basic summary of this man’s life. I know where he grew up, when he moved to the city, his dietary restrictions, which roommate he doesn’t like, his age when his parents divorced. I know of his strained relationship with his father and the foundations of the conflicts that arise at family gatherings during the holidays.

He, however, still cannot remember what I do for a living. When he stumbles—and I have to reassure him that it’s not a big deal—I consider offering a comprehensive explanation of my company’s work, how it’s relevant to what I do creatively. But he has not asked for details. He has asked what I do. So I offer a generic summary that conveys an image of me sitting at a desk during business hours, because this is as much as he cares to know.

He’s also forgotten where I’m from, or more likely, he’s never asked. When I tell him, I can see that he barely registers my words before he changes the subject to his recent trip to Thailand.

I make sounds of affirmation and interest as I trace my initials in the condensation from my glass and consider inventing a new background for myself, knowing it won’t matter. That is the comfort of being in the liminal space with self-involved, emotionally unavailable people: You can, if you want to, disappear.

III. Gravity

By my late twenties, I was running almost every day. I ran after I had worked ten-hour shifts; I ran in the middle of the night; I ran when I had a 102-degree fever; I ran on sprained ankles and heel spurs; I ran when I went on vacation; I ran almost every day while I had a full time job and was getting a Master’s degree and commuting two hours a day. If I ran less than four miles it didn’t even count as running. I canceled plans if I had no other time to run.

And if I didn’t run, I was unsettled, moody, driven to pacing and fidgeting with anxiety. I wouldn’t eat, and I slept even less than I normally did—which was typically less than six hours per night. I knew the switch flip of a high as well as I knew that I was going into withdrawal from not running. When I was raw and empty and on full speed, I was euphoric. High on nothing at all.

By then I had also become accustomed to how running and starving had altered my body. I had never identified as a gender other than female, but I also never wanted any of the physical attributes commonly considered as such. From the age of twelve onward, men never let me forget that I had an ass; throughout puberty I popped out of bras before I could understand that I needed a larger cup size. I was constantly mistaken for several years older than I was, even by my face alone: a headshot of me taken at fourteen, propped on my father’s desk at his office, garnered comments about his beautiful wife.

I was never aware of these changes as they were happening. The girl of my brain could not keep up with the woman of my body, and I resented having no choice in the matter or control over its pace. By the time I was sixteen—and only just starting to return the interest of boys—I wanted to get rid of as much of my body as possible. I did not see myself as fat, but as excessively female in a way that didn’t compute with how I felt. So I lost fifteen pounds’ worth of skipped meals and never gained them back.

By my mid-twenties, running depleted the rest of the femininity I had never wanted. I liked my narrower hips and the space between my thighs. I loved my smaller tits and being able to abandon bras. If I wore the shirts of the men I slept with, multiple sizes too large for me, I could erase my form, disappear. And on the streets of New York City, I thought I could at least put distance between myself and the attention of strange men if I wasn’t all walking, talking tits and ass. I did not want to lose the safety and comfort of this new body: the body of a woman in the body of a girl in the body of a woman.

Maybe I wanted to outrun the body I had been raped in, or maybe I wanted to escape gender and its vulnerabilities entirely. My period had been erratic for my whole adolescence, coming and going in time frames ranging from five weeks to eight to twelve, then mostly disappeared when I started taking birth control pills at nineteen, and ceased altogether when I got a hormonal IUD at twenty-one. Until I decide to go without birth control, I’ll never know if I have a normal menstrual cycle or fertility capabilities. Not that I had ever wanted them; when I was offered emergency contraception by a nurse after I was assaulted, it occurred to me that pregnancy was the ultimate dominion of a cisgender man over my body.

How else could I make my body what I wanted, and not make it the woman the world wanted it to be? I wanted to be pure animal. I wanted the emptiness. Hunger is, after all, what keeps an animal alive. What keeps it hunting. Keeps it running. Keeps it from being eaten first.


IV. Orbit

Now it’s the seventh or eighth night we’ve spent together.

Every bedroom of every man I have dated looks the same, just as the men themselves do. Less than ten by ten feet, on the far end of a railroad-style Brooklyn apartment, always on the side with the bathroom, just past the kitchen. The bed is in the corner opposite the door, and the other furniture fixtures—including a desk just large enough to accommodate a laptop and a television intended for a larger space—are within arm’s reach of the bed. The duvet cover and sheets are always navy blue or charcoal gray. The linens are always high quality, if not always clean.

There is always at least one large bookshelf, usually across from the foot of the bed, and sometimes there are more installed on the walls around the perimeter of the room since space lacks for another standing shelf. I have abandoned so many books along my way, having lived in sixteen or so apartments in my adult life, having to discard as much dead weight as possible to keep moving. In running my fingers along their spines, I feel—briefly—home again.

Here in the second month of liminal space, we skip the artifice of the bar and I come straight here, to his place, on his schedule. We never go to my neighborhood, to my apartment: he never offers and I stop asking. We never advance to dinner, nor do we make each other breakfast in the morning. When he asks me if I want anything in his food delivery order, I always decline, saying that I’m not hungry or that I ate earlier.

I don’t say that the sex is all my appetite needs, that it is filling the emptiness, or maybe strangling it into silence. That if I started eating from a plastic container of pad thai, I might discover that my well of need was bottomless.

In any case, he never questions me. Even after hundreds of collective hours spent together, he will have never seen me eat.

But I have gotten warmer, cozier, in my spot in his bed. The comfort I have found in withholding information about my background is the same that he has found in an unhindered path to indulgent self-discussion. So now this man—who still cannot recall what I do on a day-to-day basis or where I am from—wants to tell me more. More about his problems. More about the women who have broken his heart. More about his childhood trauma. More about his fear of failure and—above all—getting older.

I sit and I listen, gradually becoming an amalgam of sex toy and therapist and mother (sometimes with a manic pixie dream girl element, for the more fancifully inclined). This is because I like sex and I like listening and I like imagining that whatever these Lost Boys are looking for might be me. Curled into this man’s chest after a second round of sex and a shared joint, when his vulnerability is unspooling like unattended fishing line, I think, If I go in there and I can find it, I’m keeping it. I never make it this far into the liminal territory with the women I date. Where men impose their own reflection, women see empty space; they listen to my silence, and hear the echoes of their own secrets in it.

By the time we enter month three, the man does ask me, occasionally, about something Real. He asks me why I hate it when he touches my neck, why I refuse to go to a certain neighborhood, why I don’t talk to certain people.

But he’s softballing, and the questions are as easy to deflect as the food. We both know that he is asking more out of courtesy than interest. (What else could he need to know about you, really? You ask nothing of him. You let him fuck you, let him feel strong and masculine when you give over your body, which is half the size of his. You don’t sleep over because you have to work your nine to five. You ate already. You’re late. You need to go).

In the liminal space of an unlabeled intimate relationship, you are in control of the narrative. You can bend time and space, rewrite your history to tailor it to whom you are with. The more of yourself you keep hidden, the more they can project what they want you to be onto you—filling you out. Making you whole.

A kitchen with a stove and a doorway looking into a bedroom.


V. Direction

My late twenties are riddled with minor, seemingly unrelated health problems: vitamin deficiencies, anemia, my digestive system coming to a slow halt, drops in blood sugar, dizziness and sharp headaches when standing up too quickly. Fatigue, too, although I’ve had insomnia since I was about seven years old, so I have no barometer for what my energy level should be. When I get up to ten mile runs in my half-marathon training, I crash with depressive episodes for the rest of the day, unable to do much other than sit in the bathtub and stare at my pruning toes until I realize that the water is cold.

It never occurs to me that my health issues have anything to do with my diet or exercise routines. I’ve normalized them for so long—approximately half of my life—that they are a default. My weight loss reaches a stasis at a number that’s still clinically healthy, and the other issues are never severe enough to be addressed more than once, or even made note of in routine physicals.

But by the time I enter my thirties, a new doctor says my heart rate is extremely slow. She asks if I exercise a lot. A normal resting heart rate is between sixty and one hundred beats per minute; trained athletes sometimes have a lower heart rate, one in the forties or fifties, on account of their training making their heart work more efficiently. Still, anything below sixty is clinically abnormal, the defining standard of bradycardia. My resting heart rate is fifty-six beats per minute. Am I an athlete? I don’t really know. But I tell her yes, I run a lot, and she moves on.

In conjunction with undereating, bradycardia can also indicate a slowing of metabolism as the body attempts to conserve energy. I find this on an eating disorder clinic’s website: “Bradycardia, or low heart rate…the body protects itself from further loss by slowing the metabolism…The long-term implications of reduced heart rate are the potential for arrhythmias and the prolonging of the heart’s electrical conduction with possible sudden death.”

An EKG at a physical a year later indicates bradycardia along with an arrhythmia.

And still I want my boy-girl body. My Peter-Pan shadow-girl and all the darkness she carries, the seam between self-hatred and self-love connecting at the soles of our feet.

VI. Speed

Usually, it’s in the fourth month of liminal space that some kind of invitation comes, one that is formal or more serious in its implications. Traveling, meeting friends or family, otherwise appearing publicly; to make the motions of entering a new phase, the moon waxing from crescent to half.

This man wants to take me as a date to a wedding. One that some of his family will be at, even. I am inwardly delighted, flushed, until the conversation forces the obvious question of commitment from me: So what would that mean for us? What will you introduce me as? Your girlfriend?

He stumbles, of course, because this thought somehow hasn’t occurred to him at all. I don’t know. I didn’t really think about—I didn’t mean like that.

Okay then, I say. Whatever. Maybe. “Whatever” is the warning shot, but also a question: How are you going to fix this? It is followed by the standoff. From him, Come on, don’t be like that; and from me, the passive-aggressive Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.

But neither of us has said what does matter, or what we want, only what we do not want, and there in his defensive stammering, I can play my final card: You don’t know anything about me. And it is true, because I have made it so.

Often, after this point, the man at the bar stops answering texts or phone calls and dips for Never-Never Land, ceasing all contact with me without explanation. He repeats this pattern with some other small, people-pleasing woman who is also out to erase herself while wondering what he could have possibly done wrong.

Sometimes you’ll stay friends with the bar man for years, and you’ll think that you’re happy with these types of relationships, these halfway points where you never have to fully exist. Sometimes he’ll come back around in another couple of months, and you’ll start over with each other again, elbow to elbow at the bar, even though now you’ll argue with him a little more, make yourself a little more known—as you’ll learn that you can’t make yourself invisible forever. Sometimes you’ll repeat this cycle for a year, or even longer, since you’ve gotten so used to this being How It Works.

And sometimes, after two years of fucking and fighting, in one last argument, he’ll exert the entirety of his cocaine-fueled force against the back of your skull in the middle of the bar, throttling you by your hair until he’s left with a fistful of it. He’s a foot and a half taller than you, the weight of two of you, and he will say that you started it.


VII. Velocity

In my early thirties, after a long-term relationship ends, more men in more bars reveal the patterns of my mid-twenties. But the older I get, the more obvious my reticence becomes. Peter Pans have started to grow up, dragging the shadows clinging to the ends of their feet. They’ve either learned how to listen or—in most cases—some other Wendy has taught them a hard lesson about what it means to love someone.

This new man at the bar seems to want to get to know me in a real way. He is asking me what I’m writing about while we sip Manhattans. I have mentioned that I am editing a draft of a book that I wrote and he wants to know what the book is about. Is it a novel? No. It’s nonfiction. Then I don’t disclose any other details, regardless of how I’m pressed. He asks me more questions about my early twenties that I evade, changing the subject back to his life. He notices. First he teases me, but then he listens to the silence, considering it. He’ll come back to it later.

His demeanor returns me to a decade earlier, when I was twenty-one and in love for the first time, wide open, my overeager heart racing out of me until our relationship was interrupted by violence as swiftly and obliviously as a car changing lanes. I believed, at the time, that love and survival were linked: that if we had survived that, we could survive anything, and that some connections were sacred. But survival is limited to the physical, the body; instead of intensifying love’s gravitational pull, it can snap it like a rubber band, propelling it into the abyss.

But here on Earth, there are few ways to articulate that to another man in another bar; I have to wait as long as possible before I poison him with my tragedy. He doesn’t understand that once he gets in, he can’t get back out, that the inside of it all is a rabbit hole where I’ve seen men drown trying to love me. All that emptiness, starving for a sailor.

At night in his Brooklyn bedroom, the new man from the bar is falling asleep with his arm draped over my chest. After a moment, he says I have the slowest heartbeat he’s ever felt. I run a lot, I tell him. I wonder how long I can keep this up.




Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen

L.E. Marshall is a writer based in New York City. More from this author →