I am a runner.
Not a good runner. Or a fast runner. But a runner.
I run for miles and miles. Often going nowhere at all.
I started running when I was fourteen. When I ran 160 miles from my shithole hometown to the boarding school that would be my escape.
Of course, the irony of my running is not lost on me.
Every day, every damn day of elementary school, every single time we had to start our recess with a run around the track, every single ‘mini-race’ I finished dead last.
Dead fucking last.
Huffing and puffing and sweating and red-faced and not that far from vomiting. With all the other kids laughing. Not just the kids either. The coach. The teachers. Fat and slow and last.
Eventually, Otis took pity on me.
Otis’s mom cleaned my dad’s office. There wasn’t a reason in the world he should have taken pity on me. Otis and his mom were ‘not our kind of people’, in my dad’s words. I never really knew if their offense was being black or being poor.
Probably being poor.
Anyway, Otis took pity on me. He was fast. He was ridiculously fast. He finished first every time. Sometimes some of the meaner boys would trip him up so he had to scramble a bit, regroup, recover, but, still, Otis was there, covered in dirt, slowly pulling up on them, quietly nipping their heels, passing well to the outside, and cruising on home for an easy finish.
At some point, Otis decided that he wouldn’t stop there, he’d go for a second lap, catching me easily, slowing his pace, wordlessly partnering me, then, at the last strides, pulling back, letting me cross first, handing me a short, sharp sense of victory.
Well, not of victory, but at least a sense of not being last.
Then, he’d disappear with his class; everyone would scatter; I’d be left standing in the heat, sweat trickling down my back, stinking of childish pride and humiliation.
In fifth grade, Otis sat in front of me in homeroom – because of the alphabet.
Week six, I worked up the nerve to greet him on my way to my desk.
Those were the first words we ever spoken to each other, and the only words we’d use for another six weeks.
He kept his head down most of the time. As did I.
He was fast, a runner, but not much of an athlete otherwise. And in a town where there’s only one sport and that sport is football, no one saw much use for a black boy who couldn’t tackle.
I was smart, but not likeable. And my parents were snobs. This was back when my parents actually believed in such a thing as ‘upward mobility’ and they were pinning their hopes on me. Sadly, for my dad especially, there was no boy to really lift them up the ladder, so I would have to do. I hated myself for what that pressure turned me into, but nowhere near as much as the other kids hated me for it.
I didn’t look up because my assumption – based on months of evidence – was that the salutation was directed at someone else, usually uttered just close enough to me that I would look up hopefully as I returned greeting. It was a great laugh generator. Enjoyed by kids of all ages.
“Oh. Oh. Hey. I didn’t know you were talking to me.”
“It’s okay. Can I sit here?”
“Yeah. Sit anywhere you want.”
“How come you always eat alone?”
Now, how in the hell was I supposed to answer that? Because no one wants to eat with me? Because once I asked if I could join and they said no? Because once I sat too near to them and they got up and moved? Because I do everything alone? Because you, Otis, are the only person in this entire school who has ever uttered a word to me that doesn’t directly relate to schoolwork and that word is ‘hey’?
That was the beginning, though.
I didn’t know what it meant to have a friend, and I don’t think Otis did either, but we did what we could. We suffered through. We made it up as we went along.
We ate lunch together. When we had our breaks at the same time, we would sit together. We said ‘hey’ when we passed each other in the hallway.
As invisible as we felt, though, it couldn’t go on before someone noticed. I can just imagine the conversation with my mother. . . .
“I just felt like you should know,” from an ‘overly concerned’ (that is to say, racist) teacher at the school, probably after Sunday school at the First Methodist Church where it seemed we spent any free time we might have had. (The First Methodist Church being the most up-market my sad little town had to offer, disappointing my father no end, as he believed Episcopalian or, possibly in a pinch Presbyterian, was really the only way to get into the good seats in Heaven.) “You know, I know you want the best for her and they just seem to be spending a lot of time together and, well, it’s really just not appropriate is it?”
So my mother and my father sat me down and had the talk about the people I associated with and how our associates mark us in society and we want to ensure that we surround ourselves with only the best and the brightest, that we can’t allow others to drag us to their level when indeed our aim is to soar.
I didn’t do anything. I don’t think Otis did anything. But, slowly, there was less time together. His lunch period got changed to the one before mine. We didn’t have the same break periods anymore. We saw each other in the hallway, but it wasn’t the same.
When I started ninth grade, my mother let me walk home from school by myself. That time was a rare treat. I’m a daydreamer by nature and those few minutes between the school and the back door of my house were pure escape. I wouldn’t have noticed if the marching band had been practicing their half-time show right behind me, so it took me a while to realise that there was someone walking completely in step with me and that that someone was talking to me and that that someone was Otis.
It’s such a cliché that it’s embarrassing, but all the black kids lived on the ‘other’ side of the train tracks. The school was on Third Street, the tracks on Railroad Avenue, and our house was on Park Avenue, three blocks north of the tracks. So we all started on the same route. Including Otis.
I didn’t know the feeling then, but I know the feeling now, that feeling of being separated from a friend or a lover or a partner, of managing to exist without, but then of sinking back into the warmth and comfort and happiness of companionship on their return. Sometimes, even, it feels as if there’s never been a separation, so close is the bond.
That’s how it was with Otis.
For a while we weren’t and then we were and it was if nothing had ever changed.
I wasn’t alone anymore. And neither was he.
It was early spring when I told him I was leaving for boarding school. I don’t know what I expected his reaction to be. I suppose in my naïveté, I believed things might somehow be the same. I know that in my hideous ignorance I even suggested that maybe he could come too – he was smart, smarter than me truth be told, and there were scholarships, and, and, and. . . .
“Girl, are you mad?
“Do you know what my life is like? You have got no idea. My mama was 15 years old when I was born, my mama barely finished the eighth grade, she works four jobs, she’s gone before I get up and doesn’t get home ‘til after I’m asleep. I have got two brothers and two sisters I have to fix dinner for when I get home tonight. I don’t even know where my daddy is. Boys like me do not go to fancy schools. Boys like me do not go to college unless it’s so some fat rich white man can yell ‘look at that monkey run’ while they race down the football field.
“You know what I get to hope for? I get to hope that I might, might get a job as a mechanic at the Gulf Oil station where I can say ‘yes, sir’, ‘no, ma’am’, ‘would you like me to wash that windscreen for you, sir?’.
“Or, I guess, I could join the Army. Join up and get shot for some dumb ass rich white man’s war. Be a patriot. Which if you’re black actually means be willing to get blown to bits so white people get to talk about ‘this great nation’ and I get to waste away down at the VA.
“My goal – my best hope – is to keep my head down and not get anybody pregnant and get over to the technical college and maybe, maybe, maybe get my ass up to Montgomery and get some sort of job that will maybe – and this is a big maybe – get me enough money that some other rich fat white man will agree to loan me enough money to buy some shitty little tract house that at least, that at the very, very least, I can call my own.
“I like you. I really do. I care about you. You are the closest thing I’ve ever had to a friend, and I wish you well. I really, really do. But you aren’t like me. You won’t ever know what it’s like to be me. So get your ass up to your fancy school and you go to your fancy college and all the best to you.
“Run, girl. Run. Run as fast as you can and as far as you can and don’t you ever look back.”
I’d never heard Otis say so much all at once.
And, it’s the last I would hear him say.
We walked home separately after that.
And it went.
I’d like to say that I actually heard what Otis was telling me. I’d like to say that was my eureka moment. I’d like to say that even though I had exhausted his patience, even though that was the day he lost all hope in me, even though that was the day I lost my first friend, that something in me awakened.
I can’t say that, though.
Instead, I went to my fancy school, believing that I was working hard to make life better for the next generation and that Otis would be stuck where he was because he just wouldn’t dream big enough.
Later, when I realised what a real and true privileged racist I had been, I would try to make amends, but the fact is the stench of my shame will never wash away.
Then, though, I was a child. I was clueless. I was able to process only so much of what I was exposed to and I made a choice, however guilelessly, to process not the truth in front of me, but the myth I desperately wanted to believe.
It seems only fair that boarding school was more hellish than I ever could have imagined. That the liberal utopia outlined in the shiny brochure existed only for those whose parents had the background to ensure it. I could never begin to pretend I had a moment of experiencing what Otis had to fight his whole life, but for those last three years of high school, I learned what it was like to try to participate in an environment that was never going to accept me. I learned that upward mobility is a lie. I learned that ability matters a lot less than connections.
I learned that if I was going to survive I was going to have to keep running.
So, I took Otis’s advice, and I didn’t look back, and I ran and I ran and I ran. I ran to another state, then to another country. I ran across an ocean. I ran to another nationality.
And only once or twice did I ever glance back over my shoulder.
Years later, I did ask about Otis.
Otis is dead.
The news was delivered to me with just about that much compassion. Oh, of course there were euphemisms about ‘tragedy’ and the great shame of what happens to ‘these boys’ and ‘you do what you can but there’s only so much you can do’. But the fact was concern about yet another black boy’s death was absent.
The consideration for his death equalled the consideration given to his life.
(I did look into Otis’s death. I couldn’t not. This is what happened: Otis did manage to leave our shithole hometown. After high school, he worked for three years to save enough money to get an apartment in Montgomery so he could start work there to support himself through Alabama State. One night, he went for a run. Two police officers out on a call saw a black man running, assumed he must be guilty of something, and Otis was shot in the back. He was wearing basketball shorts, a white tee, Nikes, and had on him three dollars, his driver’s license, and the key to his apartment.)
People wax lyrical about their idyllic childhoods – about how things were better, simpler, nicer, kinder ‘back then’.
When people ask me about my childhood, I don’t destroy their illusions.
The truth is, though, I hated my childhood. It was ugly. And it was mean. And it was full of hate and bitterness. It almost broke me.
But if not for that childhood, I wouldn’t have had Otis.
And if not for Otis, I wouldn’t have learned how to run. I wouldn’t have learned how to survive. I wouldn’t have learned that I (probably) cannot change the world, but I might be able to change one person’s existence. I wouldn’t have learned that my privilege, minor as it may seem, comes at another’s handicap. If not for Otis, I wouldn’t know I can do better.
5ks. 10ks. Half marathons. Marathons. States. Nations. Oceans. Continents.
Now, every time I shuffle toward the finish, alongside all the other slow and exhausted ‘racers’, I pull back and let some other person feel a moment of victory as they cross the line first.