Slick gray yoga pants with black tiger streaks. Like the stretch marks years of weight fluctuation etched into my legs, arms, belly. They aren’t the kind of pants someone who looks like I should wear in public in the daytime.
A red, oversized shirt with RED CROSS stitched onto the left breast. I try to keep the sleeves folded up evenly, a trick someone once told me that would make me look less boxy. I used to fold up all my sleeves when I was in high school in an effort to appear less boxy. People looked at me a lot more in high school, so things like that were more important. The best thing about the red shirt is it covers up the top part of the pants, flowing almost halfway down to my knees. Some girls could probably wear this as a dress, maybe with a belt to cinch it right under the boobs, but I wear the shirt as is: bulky, bright, and cumbersome. Most nights I forget to fold up the sleeves.
Any socks I can find, usually mismatched. I like thinner socks. I like knowing my feet and my shoes are so close together. It feels less lonely, somehow.
Worn-out sneakers I bought for full retail price four years ago before they looked so ragged. Someone in the store measured my feet and brought me the perfect pair from the back. “Hold on, I know exactly which sneakers would be FANTASTIC for you!” she said. She wore bright pink mini-shorts and a plain white tee with a baby blue jacket tied round her waist. She seemed like someone who knew a lot about walking shoes, so I trusted her judgment.
I walked around inside the store wearing the new shoes for at least two minutes, making thinking noises out loud like Hmmmmm and “Let’s see here.” She watched my feet for the full two minutes, smiling to herself like my toes were telling jokes that were somewhat amusing but weren’t laugh-out-loud. I don’t know if that’s the kind of attention that makes me uncomfortable or not, and I don’t remember how I felt four years ago when it happened. I’d like to think I smiled at her and said “Thank you for paying attention to my feet today.” The shoes have needed new laces for three years, maybe more.
I don’t wear those exact pants and shirt every night because sometimes they need to be washed. I don’t like when I have to wear different clothes. On those Different Clothes Nights, I lose entire minutes of my walks to tugging at my shirt and adjusting my shorts or pants or whatever I can find to wear. Other clothes are too tight or too baggy. My gray pants and red shirt are perfect because they make me look like I have no shape whatsoever, I’m just a blob walking through the neighborhoods, making disapproving noises at any car that shines its headlights directly into my eyes.
Every night, I sit on my mother’s red couch to put my shoes on. The couch isn’t red like my RED CROSS shirt is red, it’s a deeper, wine red. That type of red looks like the wine your parents drink during your childhood Christmases, and after letting you have your disgusting first sip they assure you “It’s an acquired taste.” I’m twenty-six, I still haven’t acquired that taste. Maybe you have to be older than thirty. And the parent of at least two children. I will still drink any alcohol that’s placed in front of me. Even if it tastes like trash. My mother's couch is the color of trash wine.
I pull my shoelaces tight. Sometimes they hinder the circulation between my feet and my legs, and I have to stop mid-walk to adjust them. I wonder if my feet would fall off if I didn’t adjust the laces and just let them remain too tight. I don’t know if these shoes are still good or if I need new ones, I tend to put the weight of my body onto the outsides of my feet when I’m walking. It makes me look like I have bowlegs or like I’m constantly trying to adjust a wedgie. Maybe I just have bowlegs.
I always put my earbuds in before I go out the front door, just in case anyone outside wants to stop to talk to me. Earbuds tell the world “Please do not approach me. Even if you’re on fire.” Earbuds say things I’m not brave enough to say. I don’t like people. I used to want to live in a big city and I still do, but I realize now how silly of an idea it is since I don’t like people.
Another way I avoid people is by making sure it's always well past sunset during my walks. If the sun is still out I won’t go outside. My mom thinks this is dangerous for a few different reasons. Killers, murderers, kidnappers come out at night. People driving cars can’t see you as well. So they’re more likely to run you over or hit you and drive away. My mom doesn’t seem to understand that not being seen by people is my goal. I guess being hit by a car would hurt and someone murdering me might also be painful.
Sometimes I don’t think those things would be that bad, though, not entirely. I’m not going to go out of my way to find ways to end my life, but if it happens, it happens. Plus it’s not like I really have anything going for me at the moment. I wouldn’t like upsetting my mom like that, I guess, but she’s been through worse. My cats would also be sad, probably. The girl who sold me my sneakers might learn of my death on the news and think “Hey, I recognize her feet.”
In movies, people who think about their lives ending are always so sad, but I’m not sad about any of this. The afterlife is probably just an endless blank word processing document. At least, that’s what happened after I entered the afterlife in my dream last night. I kept yelling at someone to save the document like it mattered, but it didn’t because nothing was written in the document; it was blank, white, both never-ending and never-beginning. The document was empty except for me.
The music I listen to on my walks was downloaded onto an old cell phone by my ex-boyfriend and I haven’t gotten around to changing out the playlists yet. I have a few iPods full of excellent songs somewhere that I should find, but that would require buying a cord or something. I put the music app on shuffle at the beginning of my walks and basically skip every song. There are maybe two-hundred songs on the phone and I listen to fewer than twenty of them on my walks. People used to know me as The Girl Who Knows Everything About Music, but that was long ago. Now I’m the girl who knows twenty songs at most, and mouths the lyrics into the darkness as I huff and puff down Highland Drive.
I walk the same route I used to jog for exercise when I was in high school because It’s a good route. If I’m feeling poorly or having trouble breathing sometimes I’ll modify my route to include fewer hills.
I’ve known the hills and streets in these neighborhoods since I was seven years old. Maybe I was nine, but I think I was seven. My parents were divorced long before then, but they both moved here, close enough that my brothers and I could meander easily between homes. This was especially important in elementary school, when I needed my mom’s help making my thick brown hair not look like a rat's nest.
During the weeks I stayed at my dad’s house, I would wake up at 5am, pet the dog, eat cereal, and walk down to my mom’s house for hair help before walking to school. That dog's probably dead now, but I don’t really know. When my dad and stepmom had a new daughter, they got rid of the dog. I miss him, but I understand their decision. My brothers and I didn’t take very good care of the dog. He was a basset hound named Felix, and he was one of the best friends I ever had.
I loved walking to school, sometimes I would use a bicycle, a scooter, or roller blades to get around, but what I loved was walking. I didn’t hate people so much back then; eye contact didn’t scare me yet. I’d stop and ring my friends’ doorbells so we could walk to school together. Because back then everyone lived in these neighborhoods. Everyone I loved was just a short walk away from me at all times. But nobody lives here anymore. My dad, stepmom, their new daughter, don’t even live near here anymore. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even live here anymore.
Walking home from school was even better. We could joke around, sing songs, and smack each other on the face for fun. I wanted to prove to Jake that I was cool, so I drank the hose water even though I really would’ve preferred a glass. I don’t know where Jake is now. I wrote him a love letter on my eleventh birthday and he told me he was too busy with other activities to have a girlfriend. He started dating a girl from a different class the next week; he looked kind of like a fish so I told myself we wouldn’t have been good together anyway because I don’t really like fish very much.
The memories that pop up during my walks now are different every night. Like the one about Anna, Jake, and the hose. There are two decades of memories swimming around in my brain, waiting for their spotlight, they all fist fight for my attention. Sometimes I’m eight years old and sometimes I’m twenty; there are several factors determining which particular memories will smash themselves into me: the weather, what types of cars pass me, who else is out walking, which song I’m listening to, what mood I was in pre-walk, what smell is in the air. I haven’t written most of them down, but I would say I’ve remembered thousands of things since I moved back in with my mom three months ago.
My friend Sam said “Any one of these memories would make a good short story,” or something like that. “You just have to find a way to say what’s in your head. I know you can do it. You have a lot to say, so write it.” What he doesn’t seem to realize is that the more words there are in my head, the fewer words I can put out into the world. What I mean by that is, I’m not the kind of person who can write my way through pain. Not anymore, at least. I suffer. I cry. I scream. I’m a girl who drinks out of a hose to impress boys and prefers walking over riding a scooter, whatever that means. I don’t know what anything means, I just know I write dozens of poems every night in my mind when I walk, and they disappear the second I sit down later to write them out.
The thing about people like Sam is they can experience things and write them down, no matter what nonsense is going on in their heads or in their lives. They can take a memory and turn it into a piece of art that, in turn, reminds other people of similar experiences. Sam’s a person who understands how to make eye contact, so maybe it has something to do with that. Maybe being able to write out your feelings is “an acquired taste.” I’m twenty-six and I still haven’t acquired that taste. Sam is twenty-six, too, though. So maybe it’s just one of those things you’re born with, like eye color. Maybe people like Sam are born with different eyes than people like me. The world looks different to him than it looks to me, I guess. Which is incredibly frustrating when it comes to the desire to create. And I can assure you that he doesn’t look boxy, no matter how he wears his sleeves. It wouldn't surprise if he moved to New York City to become a model who wishes me happy birthday on Facebook with a smiley face emoji.
On the route I usually walk there are huge houses and there are small houses. I like the bigger houses because more people tend to live in them. What this means is they do laundry more frequently and I can smell the fabric softener wafting from the laundry rooms when I walk by them. Sometimes the smell makes me cry, but sometimes it doesn’t.
What I hate more than people looking at me is running. Which is why I walk instead of run. Even when I was at my thinnest, I never enjoyed running. Running makes my lungs feel weird and cold; if you walk a bit more than most people do you can end up burning the same number of calories as you would if you ran. According to the internet search I do at least thrice weekly to make sure the facts about calories haven’t changed. I would rather spend two hours walking than one hour running.
You wouldn’t think by looking at me that I care about things like calories. I’m not sure if my folded up sleeves are glaring I CARE WHAT YOU THINK to the world, so I’m always thankful for the relative invisibility the darkness of night provides me. That girl who’s a model in New York City saw me drinking a can of Diet Coke eleven years ago which made her laugh a gentle fabric softener laugh and say “I didn’t think girls like you cared about things like diet soda.”
I tried for years to prove her right. I didn’t want to a girl who knows the calories of everything she puts in her body and still hates her arms anyway, who cares that people see her walking at a normal pace and probably think “What a fatso, she definitely should be running instead.” I’ve always wanted to be confident. “Confidence is sexy,” people say. I don’t know that I wanted to be sexy when I was in elementary school, but I do wonder if Jake would’ve kissed me on my eleventh birthday if I hadn’t waited until high school to try to look less boxy. I do wonder if maybe he could somehow see into the future so he knew that I would ruin my life at age twenty-six and have to move back in with my mom. I wouldn’t have kissed someone like that, either.
I keep referring to neighborhoods rather than a singular neighborhood because this side of town consists of several subdivisions squashed together for no real reason other than the developers must’ve gotten lazy and the farmers on the other side of town didn’t want to sell their land at the time without a fight. My childhood friend Julia’s mom showed me a picture of my mom’s house taken in 1973 when she lived there. I guess she wanted to make sure I knew how old the house was. I already knew the house was pretty old though because the landlord named Steve would relate little historical anecdotes when he’d come over to hammer nails into the wall or whatever his job was. My mom eventually bought the house from Steve so he wasn’t around to tell me stories anymore. I tried to start telling myself stories but they were always boring and never historically anecdotal.
Whenever I pass other people who are also walking, I smile at the ground and fiddle around with my earbuds so that I appear too busy to say “Hello.” It’s a trick I learned in college. Whenever I pass by people who are running or jogging, however, I make sure to look over my shoulder after they pass me so I can glare at them.
Nobody I pass on my walks looks like me. Everyone is gorgeous and skinny, and they occupy the sidewalk space as if they deserve to be there more than anyone has ever deserved to be anywhere. I don’t know what I deserve, but I certainly don’t deserve as much as those people. They don’t even need long shirts to cover up their yoga pants, and I can always see the disgust boiling from behind their eyes when they look me up and down. I can imagine them telling their beautiful spouses when they return home from their high impact work outs. “And I think she was listening to the soundtrack from Rent.”
Sometimes I turn a corner on my route and someone's walking or running in the same direction as I. This is another reason I prefer my body to appear formless; no creepy man is going to want to steal or hurt a girl who looks like a giant red box. I’m only as safe as my ability to look shapeless. Sometimes the person moving in the same direction as I will try to begin a light conversation. To make the situation less awkward, but it always makes things worse. “How are you doing tonight?” a middle-aged man asked me last week as he struggled to maintain control of his three giant dogs that looked nothing like Felix—as far as I could remember, anyway. I smiled and mumbled “Nothing much, how about yourself?”
Sometimes the weather's too harsh or I’m too sick to go on my night-walks and those evenings are the worst. I wonder if the people in the houses which line my route ask each other where I am those nights. “That girl or whatever who usually walks past the bay window this time of night. Where is she? Do you think she’s okay?” I can imagine them finding out, somehow, that I’ve been hospitalized. The middle-aged man with all the dogs takes a GET WELL SOON card door to door and asks everyone to sign it. “Who's this card for?” a skinny jogger asks. “The boxy girl. You know, the one whose eyes don’t see the world through some poetic filter, so she’s stuck being unable to express herself adequately.”
My least favorite part of the walks is the end, when I have to wrap up my earbuds, turn off my music, and once again look at my childhood home, which I’ve somehow had to return to in my late twenties. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be anywhere near here. But I force myself to open the front door, go inside, and exist for another day until I’m able to walk again.
Rachel Tanner thinks she's funny on Twitter (@rickit). Her work can be found in various places like Apocrypha and Abstractions, Transition, Cheap Pop, the Atticus Review, Pentimento, Empty Sink Publishing, etc. She's not afraid to cuddle all your pets and "like" all your profile pictures.